Thursday, 30 December 2010

Records of the Year

From the huge amount of music released this year, only the tiniest fraction of which I actually heard, here are my favourites, in no particular order:

Field Music Measure
The Besnard Lakes ...Are the Roaring Night
Soundcarriers Celeste
Asaf Sirkis Trio Letting Go
Jane Weaver and Septieme Soeur The Fallen By Watch Bird
The Fall Your Future Our Clutter

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Ghost story at Christmas

Note to those at the BBC who made' Whistle and I'll come to you', starring John Hurt and shown last night on Christmas Eve. If you're basing a drama on a very well-known short story ('Oh whistle and I'll come to you my lad') by one of the masters of the genre M R James, it's probably best to use the most effective elements of that tale: namely the relentless pursuit over the groynes of the beach by a mysterious figure and the final terrifying manifestation inside the bedsheets. If the film bears very little relation to the story you might have considered giving it an alternative title and then made a decent version of the original. Given that the ancient whistle found on the site of a Templar preceptory plays a major part in the story (and the title) it might have been a good idea to include it, especially as it apparently helps to 'whistle up' the wind and the apparition.

As a modern day story about the relationship of an elderly couple and the perils of Alzheimer's and loneliness it was pretty standard ghostly fare, but it could have been so much more - changing his profession from an academic to an astronomer added nothing apart from a joke about that old confusion with astrology and detracted considerably from the antiquarian bent of James's best stories. When he was booked into a double bed I pretty much gave up hope of even a vaguely faithful retelling of one of my favourite ghost stories. Despite some atmospheric moments (taken from the film The Haunting), a great disappointment. I never thought I would say this, but I much preferred the Jonathan Miller black and white interpretation with Michael Hordern.

Addendum 30 December: see also 'Who is this who is coming?' on the feuilleton blog from the list opposite

Tonight on Yesterday they are showing an entire evening of Nazi Collaborators, including a documentary on someone who ran an extermination camp in Lithuania - Merry Christmas.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

New Year Rising

Once I am, hopefully, free of the midwinter torpor, I shall be able to make some plans for next year. The next event will be a talk for the Chelsea Society on Monday 10th January, snow and Southeastern trains permitting. A further underground-themed event may take place later in the year and perhaps one of my unpublished projects may finally see the light.

Friday, 17 December 2010


An interesting article by Stewart Lee - seen him at Fall concerts but never spoken to him - on the accumulation of archives of books, records and cds. I know the problem, I'm currently debating whether to buy yet another Billy bookcase or cull my books so that I don't need to. One of the most thought-provoking art installations I ever visited was the one in an empty C&A in Oxford street where the artist Michael Landy systematically destroyed all his possessions - I went 3 times, including the final evening when the very last things got the chop. It's only comparatively recently that I've acquired a large number of cultural artefacts, many of the cds have been given to me - I would find it difficult to lose them, but not impossible, I would like to think.

Lee also makes the point that all these media can be held on a small portable device these days, if most young men even want books any more and that he feels impossibly old fashioned; I get this feeling increasingly these days. There will be a dying race insulated behind their stacks of books and records; who will bother acquiring them when they're gone? It also means that those, like me, who like to determine a stranger's tastes and personality by scanning their book and record shelves will have an increasingly frustrating time (Facebook 'favourites' are no substitute).

Bad Writing

At this dark and gloomy time of the year I need something to cheer me up. I always derive schadenfreude from bad reviews (not of my own works of course, fortunately these are few - on the rare occasions when my books are reviewed). The new Christina Aguilera vehicle Burlesque seems to be this year's Christmas Turkey in the cinema (I watched Showgirls on telly a couple of years ago and it didn't seem as awful as I had been led to expect. although there were some choice scenes, mostly involving Kyle Maclachlan).

Probably my favourite book review is this one by Philip Henscher, makes me laugh every time; the book in question was heavily hyped in advance of publication and then disappeared rapidly. So intrigued was I that I went to a bookshop and leafed through it and indeed it was difficult to find a well written sentence anywhere within it.

I strive to ensure that my books are clearly written and I spend hours rewriting and proof reading, but errors always creep in, not always of my doing. Clearly I'm not alone in finding Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code the worst written bestseller I've ever read. Even the title really annoys me - art historians have always called him Leonardo and I've never heard of a 'symbologist'. The book is littered with incorrectly used words, poor grammar and the kind of sentences that would be rejected immediately in an evening class for aspiring writers. Mind you, he's done very well from it.

The bits that still stick in my mind are the occasion when someone at Scotland Yard picks up the phone and says, 'Hello, this is the London police' and the journey south from Biggin Hill airfield to London; it also seems to have been one of the first novels where the 'research' was pasted in from Wikipedia - see the description of the Louvre for example and don't get me started on the whole Templars, Holy Grail mish mash that overturned years of careful scholarship painstakingly debunking The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail construct. He also repeated the fallacy of millions of witches being executed in Europe in the middle ages which had been refuted by numerous academic works in the last 30 years.

Another writer who really irritated me when I read one of his novels was Colin Dexter: was it the use of 'hebdomodal' instead of 'weekly', or the sickening middle brow smugness of Inspector Morse as his eye roves his bookshelves and notes the intellectual tomes on display? I am not alone, as I've found on a site dedicated to poor penmanship. A contributor offers this from The Secret of Annexe 3:

"Soon the two friends were seated facing each other in the lounge bar, the surgeon resting his heavy-looking dolichocephalic skull upon his left hand.

But these minor worries could hardly compare with the consternation caused on the Monopoly front by a swift-fingered checker-out from a Bedford supermarket whose palm was so extraordinarily speedy in the recovery of the two dice thrown from the cylindrical cup that her opponents had little option but to accept, without ever seeing the slightest evidence, her instantaneously enunciated score, and then to watch helplessly as this sharp-faced woman moved her little counter along the board to whichever square seemed of the greatest potential profit to her entrepeneurial designs.

She could recall, quite certainly, clearing away after the soup course; picking up the supernumary spoons and forks that marked the place of that pusillanimous spirit from Solihull, Doris Arkwright; standing by in the kitchen as a Pork Normandy had slithered off its plate to the floor, to be replaced thither after a perfunctory wipe; drinking a third cocktail; dancing with the Lord High Executioner; eating two helpings of the gateau in the kitchen; dancing, in the dim light of the ballroom, a sort of chiaroscuro cha-cha-cha with the mysterious 'Rastafarian' - the latter having been adjudged the winner of the men's fancy-dress prize; telling Binyon not to be so silly when he'd broached the proposition of a brief dive beneath the duvet in her temporary quarters; drinking a fourth cocktail, the colour of which she could no longer recall; feeling slightly sick; walking up the stairs to her bedroom before the singing of 'Auld Lang Syne'; feeling very sick; and finally finding herself in bed."

That sentence would put Henry James to shame. More laughs can be had by reading Dexter's author blurb; it's because of that blurb that I keep my own short. I use it as a warning against pomposity.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Santa Con

I got caught up in the Santa Con 'celebrations' in central London yesterday evening around Leicester Square. This relatively new phenomenon is yet another American import which involves hundreds of people, mainly young, dressing up as Father Christmas, getting very drunk and shouting and singing in large groups in public places. It gets a mention in my Folklore of London book in Scott Wood's epilogue - I've personally witnessed it three times now, I admire the spirit of anarchism but with the recent events in central London I wonder whether the police took a stronger stance with the revellers this year.


I read quite a bit of science fiction earlier this year. My favourites were Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds and Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatskii, the latter of course was filmed in 1979 as Stalker by Tarkovsky. Got it out from the library after reading the book and was very impressed - ok it was slow, but some of the images were stunning - especially the slow tracking shot over the water-covered floor towards the end. A moving documentary in the extras revealed that almost everyone involved with the film is dead. Thought the whole basic idea of Roadside Picnic was great - what if a vastly powerful intergalactic race just stopped off here for a quick break but left behind a contaminated area containing a collection of stunning technological wonders and deadly traps?

Obviously a lot of Ballard was devoured as well this year. For this reader much 'classic; science fiction seems very dated now or is so badly written that I just can't get into it - I wish it could be better. Apart from JGB the only other great writer I can think of in this genre is William Gibson or Burroughs if you count some of his stuff as SF - M John Harrison can also be included and mustn't forget Christopher Priest (another Hastings resident). Philip K Dick's ideas and outlook are fascinating, but I've found some of his books hard going - A Scanner Darkly is great, I thought The Man in the High Castle overrated. In some ways H G Wells has never been surpassed.

Worst book for me was one that has been voted best SF novel of all time in some places - Enders Game by Orson Scott Card - I think I'm probably 30 years too old for its thinly disguised right wing politics and queasy pseudo-mysticism that reminded me too much of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Winding down for 2010

Woke up last Wednesday to the thickest snow I have ever seen in Hastings (or the south east of England for that matter) - a foot high on the wall outside my study. Photo above taken from our front window. After a frustrating train trip (5 trains in 4 hours) last Friday I got to London for work. On my return on Saturday evening (3 trains in 4 hours) the snow had been washed away by heavy rain. The Wealds of Kent and Sussex received the worst weather.

In 2011 I intend to start up a further blog devoted to one topic and I'll try to get a few event ideas under way for the spring and summer. Any new writing will either go into the blogs or may end up in small one-off projects, given that I don't have the amount of concentrated writing time I once enjoyed.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Crossrail on Display

There is an exhibition on at the Building Centre Store Street, off Tottentham Court Road showing the designs for the Crossrail stations, plus a very large and snazzy model of London outlining the route and stations. I went yesterday, but if you can't get there have a look at the London Reconnections site where many of the pictures are on display. There is much talk in the exhibition of 'regeneration' and 'urban quarters' around many stations but a fair amount of demolition has also been involved. Nevertheless some of the designs, especially Canary Wharf, look impressive.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Patrick Keiller

To the BFI Southbank (I hadn't realised it had changed its name from the NFT, but I haven't been for some years) to see Robinson in Ruins followed by a panel discussion. This article in yesterday's Guardian explains the background much more eloquently than I can. I managed to book the very last ticket online on Friday and the film started just after I finished work.

I liked it, but I preferred the previous two films. I must say I loved Paul Schofield's narration and found Vanessa Redgrave's less engaging, also on this occasion I felt that the camera lingered just that little too long on the locations, especially in the agricultural scenes - the lack of people was very noticeable and I'm sure deliberate, making a point about the industrialised countryside. In most locations, together with birdsong and sounds of rustling undergrowth, there was the almost omnipresent noise of aircraft or traffic.

As usual there was a great deal of useful if often depressing information and statistics about defence establishments, the amount of cereals used as animal feed, evidence for global warming and species extinction, but the kind of arcane connections made in the first two films were less in evidence here. The panel discussion at the end never really got a chance to get going as there were too many participants (including Doreen Massey and Patrick Wright) who would have been good value on their own and too little time. Apparently a book based on the film's 'research project' is on the way, written by members of the panel.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

London Jazz Festival

To The Forge in Camden last night to see Troyka, part of the London Jazz Festival, described by Time Out as, ‘King Crimson for the iPod generation’, a tag I imagine the band feel a little uncomfortable about. The three-piece look very young, especially the drummer, but they play with considerable skill and imagination. The prog rock comparisons are clear from the tricksy, constantly shifting time signatures and spinning-on-the-heel changes of mood and tempo.

There are definite echoes of Robert Fripp’s accelerated arpeggios in some of Chris Montague’s constantly inventive guitar playing but the guitarists he cites as influences - Wayne Krantz and Marc Ducret - I’m not familiar with; I heard Marc Ducret on the radio recently, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard Krantz. Kit Downes provides an unusual backing on organ, only rarely soloing, on occasions Mike Ratledge seems to stand at his shoulder. It got ‘rockier’ as the evening progressed and they did a cover of Nirvana’s Heart Shaped Box; I’d go to see them again. A waiter (the manager?) said to me afterwards that the usual gigs there are not as 'hardcore', more supper jazz - give me the hardcore.

Often grouped together with the Portico Quartet and Troyka by critics, Polar Bear played at Westminster Reference Library last Saturday and I got to see their first set before having to get the train home – the second set was a collaboration with a rapper. Still interesting stuff, although I prefer seeing them live to listening to their records, there are long improvised sections where they can get pretty ‘far out’.

More music next week: Gilad Atzmon in Hastings on Monday and The Fall in Bexhill on Wednesday.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Talks, Talks

Thursday night's talk for the South East London Folklore Society in the Old King's Head near London Bridge station went pretty well - I was on in the first half talking about stuff in the new book and Scott Wood went on after a short break to speak about urban legends and a bit about ghosts. Again, a very good turnout of around 60 people, only 2 books bought, but luckily that was all I had with me.

Another talk request has been received which I have agreed to do: the Chelsea Society in the Small Hall of Chelsea Old Town Hall on Monday 10th January 2011 kicking off at 18.30. The venue looks beautiful and large, if the usual numbers turn up it should be able to accommodate them.

On Wednesday heard Prof Ronald Hutton deliver the talk 'How Pagan were English Medieval Peasants?' at the Warburg Institute. The answer was 'scarcely at all' according to all the evidence thus far available, the cult of saints making up for the panoply of pagan gods until the Reformation. He is a great speaker and indomitable question taker, his books on calendar customs and his peerless history of modern witchcraft The Triumph of the Moon are invaluable for anyone with an interest in these areas. He kindly signed my copies before his talk.

Monday, 8 November 2010

L T C Rolt

Interesting programme this morning on Radio 4 about the writer L T C Rolt, whose works I've consulted for background information on the history of engineering for Subterranean City - lucid and entertaining, they are a great introduction for non-experts like myself. He also helped revive Britain's waterways, wrote the classic book on train crashes Red for Danger and one of my favourite ghost stories The Bosworth Summit Pound.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Battle Bonfire

To Battle last night to witness the Battle bonfire parade. Every teenager in Sussex seemed to be there, in various states of inebriation. We stood outside the Yesterday's World museum and got a pretty good view of proceedings. Our previous experience of the Sussex bonfire societies has been at Hastings and Rye and I hadn't realised that these are relatively sedate and peaceful compared with Battle, which I imagine is very similar to the famous Lewes event on November 5th - I've never had a chance to get to that one - not sure I want to now (someone was seriously injured there on Friday night).

I'm no fan of loud bangs and there were enough deafening explosions during the parade last night to give me a powerful impression of the Blitz in London - you could actually feel the percussive effect on your body, fortunately I had some earplugs - amazingly our son slept through the whole thing. The usually sedate town is an excellent place to see the parade as the streets are wide and there are plenty of places to get a good vantage point - the centre with the 'token' bonfire with a guy was a mob scene. Hastings Old Town is a bit too narrow and confined to get the full effect, I noticed this year that there were a lot fewer flaming brands than in previous years, not the case at Battle where they made an impressive display. The atmosphere of potential anarchy was exciting, but we went to the Senlac Inn by the station when the parade entered the battlefield (site of the 1066 encounter) as we had had enough explosions for one year - the display itself was remarkably muted. We made our way back past the cars abandoned by their owners when they realised that the road through Battle was closed for the night.

Lost Steps

My friend Phil Baker was interviewed for the excellent Resonance FM programme Lost Steps last week - the results can be found here - he mainly talks about Austin Osman Spare, artist and occultist - I own a work by him - there is an exhibition of his work at the Cuming Museum for a few more days, which I don't think I'm going to be able to get to. it was featured in this recent Culture Show profile featuring the great Alan Moore. Phil's books on absinthe, Dennis Wheatley and William Burroughs are also recommended.

I was featured earlier this year on Lost Steps and the interview may still be up on the site, many of the other interviews are well worth hearing. I have not been particularly impressed by my interviews (my performance, not the interviewer's), but this is one of the better ones despite my repetitive inarticulacy.

Friday, 5 November 2010

The Social Network

We made our annual trip to the Hastings Odeon this week to see The Social Network, which I thought was great - witty, sharp script, good perfomances, especially from Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg and even from Justin Timberlake as Napster founder Sean Parker. I probably need to see it again on dvd to catch some of the rapid-fire dialogue that I missed in the cinema. The obvious central irony of the film is that the man who invented the world's most popular social networking site offering the possibility of making hundreds of 'friends' has few of his own and those he had are taking him to court for a part of his multi-billion dollar empire. And nobody pulls out a gun during the entire two hours - very unusual these days in a Hollywood film.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Hadrian's Wall

Just returned from a jaunt to Northumbria and Hadrian’s Wall. Weather was pretty much lovely throughout, which was a surprise – the owner of the caravan site where we stayed said it gets down to -20C in the winter and they often get snowed in for weeks at a time. The site, Fallowfield Dene (thoroughly recommended and cheap), used to be a lead mine and our caravan stood next to a large spoil heap – today covered in trees and vegetation and looking very pretty.

The main point of the break was to see Hadrian’s Wall and we explored a variety of sections and their Roman remains: Corbridge, Chesters, Birdoswald and the most spectacularly situated Housesteads – half a mile from the car park along a pretty steep track it should be noted. The walk from Housesteads westwards along one of the best preserved sections, where it snakes along the contours of the ridges, is probably one of the finest in England, although we could only manage a couple of miles having to carry our two-year-old son – the light rain produced rainbows in the sunshine and the whole scene was impossibly beautiful.

I thought the best Roman site that we visited was not one of the English Heritage places but Vindolanda, a short distance from the wall, sited on the earlier Stanegate. It is the most heavily excavated with really impressive ruins of a fort and associated buildings; the magical dell with recreated temple at the far end was a pleasant surprise. The museum, while old-fashioned in layout, had many interesting and unusual artefacts, particularly the well-preserved leather and textiles which I’ve never before seen in such quantities. The world-famous Vindolanda Tablets are kept at the British Museum and none could be seen here, which was a pity, although there was an extensive display about their discovery and contents. Just down the lane outside stands the only Roman milestone in its original position.

We also had a day in Newcastle: first we went to the Laing Art Gallery, where strangely there was a display of work by David Jones, a poet and artist I had been reading about recently and wondering where I could see some of his work – most of it was on loan from the Tate. There are also two classic Burne-Jones paintings and Holman Hunt’s Isabella and the Pot of Basil.

The Hancock Museum nearby houses the contents of the former Museum of Antiquities, mainly from the Wall. The best section for me was the recreated Mithraeum from Carrawburgh, which we had visited a couple of days previously – the carving of Mithras being born from the Cosmic Egg with some of the earliest depictions of the astrological signs was fascinating. I have visited Mithraea in many parts of the Western Empire – if only the sad remains in London could be re-housed more sensitively and with a suitably numinous atmosphere. The whole trip made me realise that Hadrian’s Wall and its associated forts probably provide the most important group of Roman remains in Britain.

Cocteau and Hallogallo

Last Monday’s screening of Blood of a Poet by Jean Cocteau at St Mary’s in the Castle Hastings was a great success in my opinion. The screen was as large as a full-size cinema and the projection quality and sound were great. About 50 people were there, more than I had expected; apparently only 8 tickets were sold in advance, one to me. Steven Severin provided a ‘live’ soundtrack with his Powerbook which, despite my initial reservations, fitted well with the bizarre images. I had not seen this film before and it still impresses after all these years: the image of the talking mouth superimposed on a hand is famous and I finally realised the origin of the still used on the sleeve of a Rip Rig and Panic single I once owned. Lee Miller, Surrealist muse, major photographer and wife of Roland Penrose puts in an appearance – they lived near the Downs in Sussex and I believe their house is sometimes open to visitors – I must investigate. Met Severin briefly outside afterwards when he was having a smoke – he signed a cd I bought of the soundtrack – told him how much I loved The Scream; it’s great that events like this are taking place in Hastings.

On Thursday night I hurried along to the Barbican after work to catch Hallogallo 2010, a trio consisting of Michael Rother on guitar and electronics, Steve Shelley (drummer in Sonic Youth who I used to see very often in the 1980s) and Aaron Mullen on bass. It was billed as ‘Michael Rother and friends present the music of Neu’, although I only fully recognised one Neu song (Hallogallo itself) - I read later that they also played Fur Immer and Negativland, I believe some Harmonia music was in there as well. Nevertheless the Neu incessant motorik beat was ubiquitous throughout and it was exciting to hear this music played live and at a reasonably loud volume – someone kept shouting out to turn the guitar up, which Rother obligingly did.

Rother looks in remarkably good nick for a 60-year-old – I can’t imagine they (original drummer Klaus Dinger died in 2008) played live much over here in the 1970s, if at all, but their music has gradually become very influential on a number of rock groups. In my naivety I assumed, when I used to go to early Stereolab concerts, that the monotonous driving two chord sound was all their own – imagine my surprise when I heard the first Neu lp some years later. Neu’s music is timeless - my own favourite is probably the second lp even though most of the second side consists of slowed down and speeded up versions of the pieces on the first side – the second song seems to have invented the Jesus and Mary Chain 10 years early. Last week Rother introduced a number of ambient sections, but the drums soon re-entered, Shelley doing sterling work at bashing away relentlessly. The guitar was much more ‘rocky’ and overdriven than on the records - one of the interesting features of the originals is the relatively self-effacing guitar sound and I imagine some members of the audience might have had problems with that; I did, but I got used to it fairly quickly. This was after all a modern interpretation of the music and these days Rother seems to favour a heavier approach.

Support was from Seefeel, although I suppose Stereolab would have been the (too) obvious choice – only caught 15 minutes of their set – the live sampled guitar seemed a bit old hat now. I used to love their cd Quique in the early 90s but never got to see them live.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

The Rings of Saturn

I recently finished reading The Rings of Saturn by the late W G Sebald, a book I had seen referred to on many occasions, but which I've only just got around to looking at. It's a wonderful read, not as heavy-going as I had expected, dealing with weighty and often depressing topics in a detached and quizzical way: it's basically a travel diary around the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts, with disquisitions on numerous topics, some of which I am already interested in such as Swinburne's life and other which I was introduced to, such as the history of silk cultivation and aspects of Chinese history. Many of the places mentioned we have visited over the last few years - he made Lowestoft sound as dismal as we found it - also the magic of Dunwich which has largely disappeared into the sea. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Robinson in Ruins

I notice from the BFI London Film Festival brochure that Patrick Keiller has made a third film featuring his character 'Robinson' - Robinson in Ruins. His other films London and Robinson in Space are essential viewing for anyone interested in the politcal, economic and aesthetic landscape of Britain in the last thirty years or so. This new film apparently follows its predecessors in fixing the camera's gaze for a number of minutes at one scene, while the witty and erudite narrator puts it into context. As the previous narrator Paul Scofield is no longer with us, Vanessa Redgrave has taken his place. I won't be able to get to the screenings at the festival but I hope I can catch the film somewhere when it emerges briefly into cinemas.

In a similar vein, the latest book by Owen Hatherley A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain looks like it will have to be added to my reading list for the next month - his entertaining blog is amongst the list opposite.

Subterranean City Talks

A busy couple of days, with a talk for the Camden Local History Society at Burgh House Hampstead on Thursday night and another for the Stuart Low Trust in Upper Street Islington on Friday night. The last date of this tour will be on Thursday 11th November at the South East London Folklore Society. I shall not be delivering the same talk that I have at previous events as I'm also speaking with Scott Wood, who wrote the final section of the Folklore of London book; I would imagine the talk will centre around the folklore of underground London.

Over 60 people turned up on Thursday at what is probably my favourite venue for a talk: a lovely room, fully operational equipment, no microphone required and a lectern with a light - luxury. Friday was quite a contrast, although very well organised, around 50 people I would say; afterwards amidst the barrage of questions I briefly met some interesting people: one had worked on the demolition of the Took's Court entrance to 'Kingsway' and another, by strange coincidence, worked in the office block that was built in its place. Another elderly man had worked on the underground and had visited such ghost stations as York Road.

Incidentally, another man was rather annoyed that I hadn't mentioned the fact that York Road abandoned tube station was an air raid shelter during the war and had received a bomb down the lift shaft - I said I knew nothing about this and was he sure he had the correct station, to which he replied emphatically 'yes'. I checked today and there is no record of any such incident occurring, in fact York Road is probably the only abandoned station that wasn't used as a shelter. I've found at these type of events, when you can be put on the spot, that the questioners are often not as well apprised of the facts as they think they are, but it's difficult to know for sure in some cases unless you check it out later, so you sometimes end up looking as if you don't know what you're talking about; fortunately this doesn't happen too often.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Hastings Jazz

For a few years now a jazz club has been running on the first Monday of the month at the Hastings and St Leonards Angling Association on the seafront. Although I own a few jazz records and cds I've never been a huge fan and hadn't gone to many jazz concerts. What's good about the UK jazz scene is that it's still a minority interest - most musicians, even quite well known names, have to play in small clubs.

The Hastings club is a good size, most times you can get a seat with a table and the drinks are cheap - entrance was £5.00 but recently went up to £7.00. I've seen quite a few shows here: John Etheridge, Don Weller, Greg Abate, Jamie Cullum's band (without their leader), Steve Grossman (one of the many Miles Davis sidemen), Gwilym Simcock, Liam Noble, Byron Wallen, the late Bheki Mseleku and many more.

The best for me have been: a riproaring gig with Alan Barnes and Guy Barker, the adventurous Robert Mitchell trio, Gilad Atzmon and Polar Bear who were one of the few bands to use electronics and live sampling. A lot of the crowd is pretty elderly and traditional in their tastes, so the most packed houses are for bebop and post-bop musicians playing standards.

The gig on Monday by the Asaf Sirkis Trio was excellent, but not as well-attended as most of the shows there, probably because the music was much more rock influenced. Guitarist Tassos Spiliotopoulos was very impressive, coming up with some imaginative solos that would switch effortlessly from jazz runs to out and out rock playing. His plangent arpeggios hanging in the air, with much use of a chorus pedal and volume control, were not that far removed from Robin Guthrie's guitar sound in the Cocteau Twins. Asaf Sirkis is an amazing drummer - Bill Bruford has sung his praises - he can provide a subtle backing with brushes or pound away on the kit like Keith Moon - he also writes all the songs. Standout songs for me were 'Life itself' with a mesmerising circular bass line and 'Letting go' the title song of the new cd.

End of the Pier

It was very sad that Hastings pier was destroyed by fire on Tuesday morning. Around midday I looked out of the window and it seemed very foggy - didn't realise it was smoke - a helicopter was hovering over the pier but I thought that a boat might be in trouble. It was only when I turned on the radio that I heard what had happened on the news - we hadn't heard anything during the night.

Before it closed in 2006 I liked walking along the promenade and then out over the sea to the end of the pier - the view when you looked back was spectacular. The ballroom at the end also hosted some famous gigs: The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, The Sex Pistols - I saw a great show by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds there a few years back.

I walked past it last week and actually thought at the time 'this is an arson attack waiting to happen' - it was very easy to get on to the pier despite some fencing and there have been a number of unfortunate precedents around our coast. At least the arsonists appear to have been caught. Sadly, Hastings has an unusually high number of stupid residents and a stupid number of high residents thanks to the pervasive drug culture, a hangover from the Thatcherite policy of 'decanting' troublesome families and the long-term unemployed to its B&Bs in the 1980s. The fabric of the town has definitely been improved over the last few years, so this is a major setback. If only a multi-millionaire would step in and fund a rebuilding.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Ayrton, Stross and Crowley

First published 2/10/2013 UPDATE 5/7/2013 For addtional information on this topic see this excellent post from the Richard Warren blog in the list opposite.

I’ve recently become interested in the art of Michael Ayrton (1921-1975), painter, sculptor, printmaker, author and radio and television personality,. His Minotaur was once a powerful brooding sculptural presence in Postman’s Park near the Museum of London, where I worked for a while in the 1980s; during my lunch break on sunny days I would sometimes sit in this haven of peace in the City. Iain Sinclair writes about it in his essay ‘Bulls and Bears and Mithraic misalignments: Weather in the City’. Then, some years ago it disappeared - too off-putting for the lunching workers? I’ve now discovered its current whereabouts and intend to track it down in its new lair as soon as I have the time.

While dipping in to Justine Hopkins Michael Ayrton: a Biography (1994) I came across the following passage (p86):
‘Cecil [Gray, composer and music critic] had known the Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley, in the days of his power, and on one occasion introduced him to Michael, although the latter was little impressed by the bloated, boastful charlatan that Crowley had become since his fatal experiments in Paris. He was, however, the cause of a confrontation between the Beast and Barnett Stross, GP, MP and white wizard. Hearing through Cecil that Crowley had some particularly inventive and unpleasant devilry in mind he protested violently, and summoned Stross to the battle across the aether with his dark counterpart. Stross apparently triumphed, and Crowley threatened revenge on Michael in no uncertain terms; the fact that no disaster befell him only went to confirm the scepticism which was an essential part of his involvement with the spirit world.’

Ayrton and Stross were friends, the artist using the potteries as subject matter, in particular an old marl pit near Stross’s house, where he used to stay. Stross [quoted on p89] wrote that it was, ‘a dumping ground for old shards. Beneath the crockery there is a colony of rats, for when the potters empty and tip into this hole there is often food in the way of bread mixed up with the fragments. [Stross] took Michael to see this place one summer evening before dusk, and he saw the rats come up for an airing. Little ones and large ones, brown and badger and some were scabrous…He took Constant Lambert to see it, and Constant was very frightened…he thought no painter could paint such a subject and do it justice.’ The resulting oil painting ‘The Tip, Hanley’, executed in 1946, is in the collections of Stoke-on-Trent Museums; another work ‘The White Country’ painted the previous year is listed in a 1978 catalogue published by the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery as ‘Present whereabouts unknown; formerly in the collection of Sir Barnett Stross MP’.

Sir Barnett Stross does not appear in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. According to his Times obituary (15 May 1967 p12) he had enjoyed a distinguished career. Born in 1899, he was brought to Britain by his Polish political refugee parents at the end of the First World War. He got a degree in medicine at Leeds and started practice as a GP in the Potteries in 1926 – he became an expert on diseases associated with pottery workers, such as silicosis and warned of the danger of contracting lung cancer from smoking. In 1930 he joined the Labour party and at the 1945 election he was elected MP for Stoke on Trent’s Hanley division.

During the Second World War, the building in which he was giving a lecture for the Ministry of Food received a direct hit and Stross was later pulled out from the rubble seriously injured. He was the founder of the movement which rebuilt Lidice (now in the Czech Republic); the village was destroyed and its population massacred by the Germans in 1942 in reprisal for the murder of Reinhard Heydrich – for this he was honoured by the Czech government.

According to his entry in Wikipedia:
‘Two years after Stross' death, the Czech intelligence defector Josef Frolik named him as having been an agent of Czechoslovakia. According to Frolik, Stross (code-named "Gustav") had provided "interesting information about the domestic and foreign policies of the Labour Party while it was in opposition". Stephen Dorril and Robin Ramsay's book "Smear! Wilson and the Secret State" [p194] claims that such information as Stross supplied could have been obtained by writing to Transport House (the headquarters of the Labour Party)’.

Apart from the dubious claims that Stross was a Czech agent, I have found no other reference so far to his other secret life as a ‘white wizard’. None of the biographies of Crowley that I have consulted contain Stross’s name in the index. Crowley did frequent the Café Royal, as did Michael Ayrton and Cecil Gray according to the biography quoted above, so it is possible that Stross and Ayrton met him there.

Ayrton was also, according to the Birmingham catalogue quoted above (p11) part of a 'mystical circle' that included, 'Barnet [sic] Stross, Freda Cavell, James Laver and...Margery Livingstone' [another misspelled person who must be Marjorie Livingston,a psychic who apparently wrote books received clairaudiently, one from Apollonius of Tyana]. According to his autobiography Museum Piece (1963, p228), Laver, an art and fashion historian, Keeper of the Dept of Illustration, Engraving and Design at the V & A and author of a biography of Nostradamus, visited Crowley in his Hastings boarding house (he writes about witnessing him injecting heroin) so it is conceivable that other members of the group met the Great Beast, but the Ayrton connection may just be lazy research or wishful thinking. [I knew of Laver from his Whistler biography but I hadn't realised that he also wrote a biography of Huymans entitled The First Decadent]

Such was the notoriety of Crowley during his lifetime that many writers have attempted to spice up their autobiographies and biographies of contemporaries with alleged encounters with the Great Beast. Master of Villainy, the biography of Sax Rohmer written by his wife Elisabeth and Cay van Ash, states that the two met, although again I can find no other independent evidence for this; Rohmer was not a member of the Golden Dawn despite claims in some books to the contrary. Perhaps in the future more will emerge about Sir Barnett Stross, but I am more interested in the fate of ‘The White Country’.

Addendum: On 14th October I did a book signing at Atlantis Books. While I was there I thought I would ask proprietor Geraldine Beskin, an acknowledged authority on AC, about the Stross connection. I showed her a photocopy from the book, but she knew nothing about it - she also thought it was of dubious veracity.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Charleroi is my darling

This article in The Guardian caught my attention on Saturday. I have visited most of the large towns and cities in Belgium, but was advised by my friend in Brussels never to go to Charleroi - 'Charleroi stinks' was all he would ever say. It seems now that this run down, ugly and depressed town is trying to attract the 'crap towns' tourist; this tour sounds fascinating and I would love to go on it.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

(Do the) Charleston

Last night to Charleston, the former Bloomsbury Group country retreat, for an event that's part of a short story festival: Iain Sinclair talking about the life and work of his friend J G Ballard. The train to Lewes from Victoria after work was unbelievably crowded, at Lewes a volunteer-run bus took me to the house - the talks take place in a barn - saw Will Self here last year.

A very interesting talk concentrating on the short stories (which I happen to be reading at the moment anyway). He mentioned Heart of Darkness and by coincidence this morning I read a story entitled 'A Question of Re-entry' which was a definite Ballardian homage to Conrad's tale. At the same time I've been dipping into an anthology of the 'best-ever' SF short stories and on the whole I would say that the Ballard volume despite being by a single author is actually better, certainly better written than most of the other stories.

There were many mentions of the copies of two lost Paul Delvaux paintings that Ballard had paid to be recreated by an artist who also produced his portrait - in the NPG but not on display. On a short trip to Dunkirk a few years back we popped along the coast to the Paul Delvaux Museum, a curious place in a deceptively large underground gallery. Everything you would need to see by the Belgian surrealist is on display - there are very few of his works in British galleries - I love his eerie paintings of railway stations and trains. Sinclair also included an anecdote about William Burroughs telling him that his 'ugly spirit' had been exorcised in a sweat lodge - the shooting of his wife was assuaged by this incident. He says that the house in Shepperton is still intact with all Ballard's possessions, apart from the archive, which went to the British Library (see earlier post) and would make an unusual property for the National Trust to purchase should the family decide to sell it - a nice thought.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Connaught Tunnel

The biggest project affecting the Subterranean City over the next few years is Crossrail. There's an interesting article on London Reconnections (see Down in the Dark: Crossrail,the Connaught Tunnel and Silvertown station) about the Connaught Tunnel, formerly on the North London line docklands section from Stratford to North Woolwich that's been closed since December 2006. It's to be reused for Crossrail as it makes its way from Canary Wharf to Abbey Wood.

Oil Tanks at Tate Modern

I noticed, when overlooking Tate Modern from the Blue Fin Building last Saturday, that work was going on to the south of the old power station. According to the Tate blog former massive underground oil tanks are being refurbished as art and performance spaces (see the blog entry Tate Transformers.

Friday, 24 September 2010

A Gipsy Funeral in Mitcham

In my attempt to delve deeper into some of the material in The Folklore of London I have recently tried to do a little more research into a colourful funeral that took place in Mitcham. This is what I originally wrote for the book in the unedited version (pp.42-43 after editing) – with some fresh authorial comments in brackets:

‘Gipsy funerals can be spectacular affairs. One of the most impressive took place in 1911 in the old churchyard of the Mitcham Parish Church of St Peter and St Paul [pictured above], for the burial of Sophie Kirpatsh, a Galatian gipsy princess who had lived on nearby Hilly Fields. [Galicia generally refers to the eastern half of the former Austrian province of Galacia – Galizien –the terms ‘Galicia’ and ‘Galacia’ are often interchanged; it is currently divided between Poland and the Ukraine] The Galatians, dressed in Cossack-style boots, bore her coffin to the church, with mourners walking both in front of and behind the coffin. Before being lowered into the ground the coffin was opened, displaying the corpse dressed in her finest clothes, with a necklace made of coins and a massive silver belt. The coffin also contained a piece of soap, a towel, a mallet and a flask of water – mourners dropped money into it as they danced around the grave, their faces plastered with mud, as was traditional.

Many of the mourners were coppersmiths from Eastern Europe – after the coffin had been lowered into the ground they poured rum onto it and drank some themselves, returning three days later to pour beer on the grave. Nine days after the funeral a feast was held and it was expected that a similar ceremony would be observed at the end of three, six and twelve months. It was also reported that on the day after the funeral an irate local licensee asked the verger if he could borrow a pick and shovel in order to open the coffin and remove some of the valuable contents, as compensation for alcohol consumed by the mourners and not paid for. Permission was not granted. The original iron headstone in the shape of a cross within a circle was inscribed ‘SOPHY’. According to a report written in 1978, the grave could still be seen beside the church, surrounded by railings and covered with a thick concrete slab, which had apparently helped thwart two attempts to rob the grave of its treasures. [Sources used were T. W. Thompson ‘The Ceremonial Customs of the British Gipsies’ Folklore, Vol. 24 No. 3. (1913), pp. 314-356, p.351 and London Folklore Group ‘Two Gypsy Funerals: Mitcham, 1912’ London Lore Vol. 1 Part 1 March 1978 p.7]

I could not find the time when writing the book to visit the churchyard and an email I sent to the church regarding the grave slab was never answered. A few weeks ago I finally managed to take a walk around Mitcham on a lovely sunny morning, during which I visited the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul. The church itself was locked, but I had a good look at the tombstones in the near vicinity of the building, searching in particular for any surrounded by railings; unfortunately I couldn’t find anything that fitted the description given above.

However, a search of Ancestry has revealed the registration of the death of a Sophie Karpatch at Epsom, Surrey in the period October-December 1911. Her age was given as 27 with a date of birth c.1884. As there are now more newspapers available to search online than there were even three years ago I have found two interesting articles from the Daily Mirror and Daily Express from October 1911 which provide us with more information and show that it was an important news story at the time:

Daily Mirror 14th October 1911 p.4

Strange Ceremonies Precede Burial Of Chief's Daughter

Clad in a scarlet dress, with new boots on her feet and her hair decorated with jewels and ribbons, Sophy Tchriron, daughter of the chief of the Hungarian gipsies encamped at Mitcham, lies dead in Carshalton Cottage Hospital. For some months past over 200 Hungarian and Bulgarian gipsies have lived at Beddington Corner, earning a peaceable living as coppersmiths and metalworkers. Tragedy has come upon them, for the chief's daughter - to them a princess of the blood - was taken suddenly ill early this week and has since died at the Carshalton Cottage Hospital. Picturesque and pathetic incidents have followed the passing away of Sophy, who was a good-looking young woman of twenty-seven.

When she felt sick the Hungarian Embassy was notified and a doctor was sent to her. But all he could do was to have her taken immediately to the hospital. Suffering from pneumonia, together with bloodpoisoning, she was conveyed to the infirmary, followed by men and women of the tribe. She objected to be put in a bed. "I have never slept in a bed," she said. When in bed Sophy begged for her pipe, as all the tribe—men, women and children—are smokers. She was allowed to smoke, and this eased her for some time. But, despite every attention that could he given her, she died early on the following morning. A messenger was sent to the camp bearing the sad news. Rushing from the camp came the dead woman's husband, her father and relations down to the hospital. Tchriron, the husband, on reaching the door of the hospital, grovelled on the ground and ate a handful of mud. He had to be restrained by his friends from eating more mud - a sign of intense grief and misery. The dead woman's father, bent on his knees, moaned pitifully.

For some hours this went on until the gipsies had to be firmly but gently turned away. Later in the day came twelve women of the camp dressed in scarlet with red muslin over their hair and decked out with ornaments. They carried with them three dresses, jewellery and ribbons to prepare the body of Sophy for burial. This ceremony took some time, the dead woman's hair being specially plaited and entwined with jewels. They were making their dead princess as gay and rich-looking as possible, according to their beliefs. Throughout this solemn ceremony all the women, curiously enough, smoked pipes and cigarettes, and even when they were moaning rarely forgot to smoke.

Then one of the men of the tribe arrived, carrying a new pair of boots he had just bought. These boots were placed on the deceased's feet to make her last journey more easy and comfortable. When The Daily Mirror yesterday visited the camp of the Hungarians the chief was very, solemnly hammering a copper bowl, while in the tents the women, wearing scarlet headdresses, were sitting on the ground mourning for their dead princess. Little children were sitting in groups, and almost all of them were smoking. A little girl of seven was solemnly puffing a cigarette, while a boy of the same age was smoking a pipe. All the tribe will attend the funeral.

Daily Express
Monday 16th October 1911 p.5

The funeral of Sophie Karpath, daughter of the chief of the Galician gipsies who are encamped near Mitcham, took place, at Mitcham Cemetery on Saturday amid quaint and picturesque rites. For twenty-four hours before the funeral the girl's body lay in state, clad in three new dresses, the outer one of scarlet. A silver girdle was round her waist, and strings of red coral and rows of gold coins were displayed about her corsage. There were rings on her fingers, gold earrings in her ears, and a necklace of twelve 100-franc pieces around her neck. Many jewels wore woven into her hair.

Soap and a comb were put into the coffin in order that she might have the wherewithal to make her toilette before entering into the Celestial Kingdom, and over all was thrown a cover of fine lace. The service was that of the Roman Catholic Church, and on the return of the mourners ashes, to represent the body, were placed in a hollow in the ground. Over these the tribe gathered, and there was much wailing and many mystic prayers.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Hastings Horror

Picked up a flyer yesterday advertising an evening at the estimable Electric Palace Cinema on 5th October intended to raise money for a proposed horror film set in the Old Town. It sounds an intriguing idea as the streets and twittens of the Old Town can certainly be atmospheric, if not particularly menacing, especially in the winter. The film is to be titled Flesh & Blood. As far as I can tell the director has made one previous feature Dead Wood - I haven't seen it. In my present financial situation I am in no shape to invest in a film but I might go along to the evening anyway, with a £20 note in hand.

Also noted that Jamie Oliver's latest Sainsbury's advert is filmed entirely in the Old Town - oh God, we're not going to be the next Hoxton & Shoreditch are we?

Monday, 20 September 2010

Open House Weekend

A busy weekend. On Saturday morning I signed 250 copies of the new edition of Subterranean City at the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe and met a few of the people who decided to buy a copy; the number of people that turned up wanting to go on the train tours through the tunnel was phenomenal - I have been told that by someone who went on Sunday that the tours had been cancelled, presumably by an exasperated London Overground.

The energy I once had for Open House has dissipated considerably over the years and these days I indulge in a small number of hit and run visits (1st rule: no queuing) so I managed, in the afternoon, the picture library and mortuary in Rotherhithe and the Kirkcaldy testing Works and Blue Fin Building in Southwark Street. I had no intention of crossing north of the river, as everyone in London seemed to be out on the streets - plus the Pope was in town. The views from the 11th floor of the Blue Fin Building were impressive - see my picture - The Shard is rising with frightening rapidity. Evening to The Globe (first time for a play) for Henry IV Pt1 - I've loved it ever since we read it at school - I chose to stand in the second half and actually enjoyed it a lot more than when I was sitting on a hard bench during the first.

On Sunday on our way back to the seaside we fitted in a visit to Dulwich Picture Gallery (£4 instead of £9 thanks to Open House) for the Salvator Rosa exhibition. He is an artist who has intrigued me for many years - every major gallery you go to has one or two paintings by him - and this was a useful overview of his work. My favourites are his witchcraft paintings of which I had hoped there would be more here rather than the one I already knew from the National and a couple of others. He was a very early precursor of Romanticism with his rugged overpowering rocky landscapes - what was most interesting for me were his portraits, especially those representing Philosophy and Poetry and his late works on Fortune - one amusingly shows Fortune emptying the glittering contents of her cornucopia amongst farm animals and swine, his criticism of the Chigi Pope apparently.

Then on to Charlton House, somewhere I've wanted to visit for years, a large Jacobean house on the edge of a park in deepest South London. Some lovely plasterwork inside on ceilings and fireplaces and not nearly as shabby as I had feared; it's used as a community centre and for weddings these days. Photo above of a fireplace with scenes from Perseus and Medusa (or 'Modusa' as the Open House leaflet put it, a 'bore's' head was also mentioned). Didn't have time to visit the nearby Maryon Wilson Park, where much of one of my favourite films Blow Up was filmed.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Kensington Talk

A very impressive 190 people showed up on Thursday for the talk on underground London in the Kensington Central Library Lecture Theatre - seating capacity 162, so there were some sitting on the floor or standing at the back and by the door. The subject is of perennial interest and surprisingly I haven't done that many talks on this subject over the last 10 years; very few of the other handful of writers on Underground London seem to do talks.

I thought it went very well, the equipment was all set up and working when I arrived which is how I like it - there was even free wine. Sold a few books, but not as many as the large crowd might have indicated - however my cast iron rule is: if it's a free event most people don't want to spend any money on anything. When they've already paid for a ticket they don't seem to mind spending some more money on books.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Hackney Podcast

At the Illumini Talk last week I was approached by Francesca Panetta from the Hackney Podcast, which I have to say I had never previously heard of, but then again, as I haven't lived in London for 6 years now, there's a huge amount I'm not aware of. Anyway I had a chance to listen to some of the podcasts today and they are mostly interesting and very well put together: the water and coffee are particularly good .

One of my blind spots - and this is not particularly directed at these podcasts - is that I find it difficult to get really fascinated by much of the subjective 'micro-history' aspects pursued nowadays by some local historians of a particular area; my books tend to concentrate on the bigger picture of London as a whole, or at least the central part. Having said that there are some excellent studies out there of particular buildings or of some minor aspect of social history, but life is short and there is a lot of other stuff to try to investigate. That's the reason I stopped buying that admirable venture Smoke magazine after a few issues, I just couldn't summon up the enthusiasm any more for articles on bus journeys. I even get bored with some of Iain Sinclair's more recent psychogeographical obsessions - I found Edge of the Orison especially tough to negotiate in this respect, although the much longer Hackney book I mostly found engrossing.

In the latest podcast on coffee I was alerted to the presence of a new trendy coffee house in (where else?) Shoreditch called Penny University, which is a great name, based as it is on one of the original terms for a coffee house. Sadly it seems that the only resemblance to an 18c institution is the seating arrangement at a large wooden table, otherwise discussion appears to be limited to an assessment of the gourmet coffees on offer. Obviously a reading of my London Coffee Houses book would make a suitable accompaniment to this broadcast; I would dispute, by the way, that Hackney led the way in introducing coffee houses - the earliest in London were in the City and around Fleet St and Covent Garden. A listen to some of these podcasts is definitely recommended.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Steve Severin in Hastings

Just read in the local paper that Steven Severin is playing here on Monday 18th October at St Mary in the Castle the atmospheric venue at the heart of Pelham Crescent. Siouxsie and the Banshees were amongst my favourite groups, one of the first punk bands I got into - I think that The Scream and Juju are great records, the latter being said to have birthed goth. I last saw them in St James's Church Piccadilly many years ago and have lost touch with their later music. A few weeks back I watched a dvd of a concert from the Juju era with the peerless John McGeogh on guitar and got really excited again, very powerful. I knew that Severin composed film scores these days but haven't got any of his records, he cultivates a 'wise hermit' image - the soundtrack for this latest project is for the Cocteau film Le Sang d'un poete, which I don't think I've seen, might have been on a bill at the Scala many years back. We did a bit of a Cocteau tour in the south of France a couple of years ago, visiting his gallery and places that he decorated. This concert could be interesting, but I wonder how many people will go?

Heritage Open Day in Hastings

Had a bit of time today to visit a couple of places as part of the Heritage Open Days. Could only manage Hastings, so we went to a walled garden that once belonged to a large house up by the Law Courts - much larger than I was expecting and sporting some very impressive sunflowers, a favourite with the Victorians. Later went to Marine Court hoping for a glimpse inside but instead heard an interesting talk on the seafront about the history of the building (see Banksy post) the largest residential block in Europe and the tallest in Britain at the time of its construction (late 1930s). Apparently Pevsner wrote that it was 'an affront to the seaside' but I like it, even though it has been much abused -UPVC window plague and balconies enclosed - could do with a lick of paint and the rear section is a disappointment. Good to see some interesting shops opening up on the ground floor again. Weather incredibly hot for September.

Illumini Talk

The talk on underground London, one of the events for the Illumini show in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall, went very well. Yes, Hoxton and Shoreditch are even more trendy than ever, as I found out as I walked up Shoreditch High Street on the previous night to attend the preview. There was a long queue of hundreds of people blocking most of the pavement so I had to walk in the road - I assumed that a new nightclub had opened or The Libertines were playing a secret show - before the reality dawned on me that they were waiting to get into the Illumini exhibition. I overheard a young man saying to his companions, "Yeah, they're opening up the secret tunnels under the town hall"; actually they are only disused basements and cellars, but word gets around so quickly these days thanks to mobiles and Twitter that a lot of the crowd probably thought it was going to be a huge party. I managed to convince the bouncer on the door that I was a speaker and jumped the queue, otherwise I wouldn't have got in.

The art itself was the very mixed bag (my pics above with flash, these rooms were actually very dark) I was expecting and the rammed nature of the venue made it difficult to see a lot of it - a smattering of predictable Hammer Horror scenarios - some of the more interesting pieces used light - one that I liked consisted of a heap of broken crockery with a bath in the middle in which a bull's head was reflected - the Minotaur in the Labyrinth? I donated my own author's copy of the new book for the raffle and tried to make my way around - the bar was impossible to reach, many Goths in attendance of course and in certain places it was stiflingly hot - I lasted around half an hour before I had to get out for some fresh air.

At the talk on the following evening I got around 45 people and sold 6 copies of the new book, literally just arrived out of the container (there had been a delay unloading it) - one rotter decided to steal a copy when our backs were turned. The event finishes on Wednesday.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

A Very Irregular Head

Just finished A Very Irregular Head by Rob Chapman, a biography of Syd Barrett lent to me by my father-in-law. Well worth reading, especially as he offers a revisionist Syd history, investigating a number of 'classic' stories that seem to have no basis in fact (eg the Brylcreem and Mandrax story) and delving into the literary influences on his distinctive lyrics. Chapman deals very sensitively with the 'lost years' when Barrett retreated totally from fame, living quietly in Cambridge, that is until idiots began ringing on his doorbell and following him around. It is very thorough in places, although at times I thought I was reading a collection of lit crit (it's always a problem when 'music' journalists concentrate on the words as they often lack the knowledge and vocabulary to deal with the music).

The influence of laptop guitarist Keith Rowe of AMM on Syd is given prominence - I saw AMM supporting Faust a few years back - together with the nonsense tradition of English verse and stories. Many names from the time or influential figures are given mini biographies but others are mentioned with the assumption that we know who they were - do many people today know who Alex Trocchi was?

It seems that almost nothing is known about the time that Syd spent at Chelsea Cloisters in the late 70s prior to walking back to Cambridge (the John Clare connection is interesting here, Iain Sinclair wrote about it in Edge of the Orison). Certain topics are almost totally ignored - I wanted to know more about the recording of Saucerful of Secrets and Iggy the girl who appears naked on the sleeve of The Madcap Laughs.

I'm sure I'm not alone in finding Sydworld a disturbing place to inhabit - 3 days of listening to his music was enough for me, wonderful though some of it is. I have his Pink Floyd stuff plus the box set that came out a few years ago containing his solo material - I love the fractured songs and the bizarre wordplay but after a while a darkness begins to descend on this listener as he hears the well gradually run dry. The total renunciation of fame and fortune (although David Gilmour made sure he received his considerable royalties) is an intriguing example; in the age of the internet it is becoming increasingly difficult to live a private, reclusive life and I admire those who do.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Banksy in St Leonards

Last month a work by Banksy appeared on some steps leading to the beach at St Leonards. We went to see it today and I took a photograph (above). It isn't far from Marine Court, the subject of an article by Iain Sinclair in yesterday's Guardian. Surprisingly perhaps the council has covered it with a perspex sheet, which has already been defaced with graffiti, although by the time of our visit it had been cleaned up again.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Paul Raymond

I am looking forward to reading the shortly-to-be-published biography of Paul Raymond by Paul Willetts (author of an excellent biography of Julian Maclaren Ross). Raymond was one of the wealthiest men in Britain and owned large chunks of Soho. Paul will also be doing a walk on the subject for the London Adventure next month - see post below.


Last night I happened to be walking along High Holborn and thought I would check out what had happened at Nos. 31/33, a former employment agency office. For many years, directly on the street, you could see the grimy fire-damaged entrance to the lift leading down to the hugely impressive Kingsway underground bunker, a major telecommunications hub and home to various 'secret' government departments at various times. A good deal of information about this formerly reticent structure appears in the new edition of Subterranean City. It was put up for sale last year and received a fair amount of publicity - there are news reports on You Tube and numerous newspaper articles out there.

For many months from 2009 into this year it was obvious that major structural work was taking place above ground - the building had been bought by a property developer and was sheathed in scaffolding and protective sheeting. The results of their labours were clearly visible last night as the work has been completed. The building is unrecognisable at street level (I walked past it and had to come back) and now rejoices in the name 'Chancery Station House' (the tube station is close by and this was formerly the site of the entrance) and has been converted into the all-too-familiar 'luxury apartments'. You can peer through a small area of clear glass in the front door and see a perfectly normal-looking entrance area with lifts - it would be interesting to know whether they also go down as well as up. I am assuming access to the bunker from here is now impossible - there is, however, still a prominent entrance with a freight lift in Furnival Street. As far as I am aware a buyer has not yet been found for the bunker itself.

Friday, 27 August 2010

The London Adventure

That noble undertaking The London Adventure, for which I have provided a number of walks, has been reactivated. The programme for 2010 is below, sadly I don't think I shall be able to get to any of them:


Presented by Paul Willetts
Saturday 25th September 2010, 3pm
Meet outside the front of St Martin-in-the-Fields Church, Trafalgar Square

Presented by Cathi Unsworth
Sunday 17th October 2010, 3pm
Meet in front of Holland Park Underground Station

Sunday 31st October 2010, 3pm
Presented by Diana Taylor
Meet on Courtfield Road, just around the corner from Gloucester Road Underground Station

Rock Books

Having now finished Electric Eden I thought I would list, in no particular order, my favourite music books - predominantly about rock music I should add:

James Young Nico, Songs They Never Play on the Radio
David Toop Ocean of Sound
Nick Kent The Dark Stuff
John Savage England's Dreaming, Sex Pistols and Punk Rock
Simon Reynolds Rip It Up and Start Again: Post Punk 1978-84
Johnny Rogan Starmakers and Svengalis
David Cavanagh The Creation Records Story: My Magpie Eyes are Hungry for the Prize
Bill Drummond 45
Julian Cope Head On and Krautrocksampler
Lester Bangs Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung

Honourable mentions for cultural histories:
Jonathon Green Days in the Life, Voices from the English Underground 1961-71
Robert Hewison Too Much
Jeff Nuttall Bomb Culture (the edition pictured is the same as mine and in similar condition)

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Electric Eden

Currently ploughing through Rob Young's Electric Eden, a history of British 'visionary' music. It basically traces the history of British 'folk' music, especially its transformation into so-called 'folk-rock' in the period 1967-72, with an emphasis on individuals and groups interested in the folkloric, mythical, supernatural, visionary and occult areas of British art and culture. There are some fascinating connections and details and many discoveries for me: Ewen McColl was having his phone tapped by the security services, Sir Reginald Blomfield of Regent Street redesign fame designed the first electricity pylon in 1928, Celia Hammond nee Humphris from the group Trees provides the voice that announces 'Mind the gap' on the Northern line; Carole Pegg from Mr Fox worked on songs with Graham Bond in a spooky sounding house shortly before his suicide at Finsbury Park (he didn't 'mind the gap') - the subject matter of the Mr Fox songs seems to chime uncannily with that of the early Fall, was MES listening to them in the early 70s?; the antiquarian lp cover work of Marcus Keef.

Most of the time the writing rises to its subject, such as this extract: 'For all the academic sweat expended in the ensuing decades to prove that the folk idea is a wilderness of mirrors, the music survives where otherwise there would be none. Like the Green Knight, the force of nature who lays down the challenge to the pentangle-festooned Sir Gawain, you can swing your axe and decapitate it, but it will simply pick its head up, repeat its challenge and ride off into the night.' I've been soundtracking the reading with music from my own collection but a book of this type always encourages you to seek out records you have never heard before, which I shall indeed be doing. Despite the fact that there is a companion cd to the book - I haven't bought it - one of the best compilations I know of is Gather in the Mushrooms, which Bob Stanley compiled a few years ago - the box set Anthems in Eden is also worth having.

So far some of the most interesting music for me is by Spirogyra (not the later jazz-lite group) featuring Barbara Gaskin who would eventually score a number one with a cover of 'It's my party and I'll cry if I want to' with the much underrated Dave Stewart (not that one) from Egg and Hatfield and the North (she also sang backing vocals with both groups); Comus of course are also outstanding; Robin Scott, later of M and that great single 'Pop Music' enjoyed an earlier incarnation as a psychedelic troubador.

The book comes bang up to date with mentions for Ghost Box and David Tibet (another eccentric resident of Hastings) and even English Heretic. For me the surprising omissions or people barely mentioned are Nic Jones (his Penguin Eggs lp), June Tabor, Spiers and Boden and Chris Wood, although perhaps they are not 'visionary' enough. Also very strange is the complete lack of reference to XTC, who have made use of many folk song tropes and images - one of their lps was called Mummer after all and much of their work explores the notion of Englishness; I also thought that Jethro Tull's lps Songs from the Wood and Heavy Horses might have received more notice as they came out in the years 1977 and 1978 when they couldn't have been less fashionable - I find the former a very listenable and atmospheric record.

Many of the reproductions of lp covers are frustratingly small and you can't see the details that Young writes about. Throughout the book he seems to still subscribe to the 'cultural evolution' theory of folklore, which has been discredited by most folklorists, some of the quotes from folk musicians also undermine his arguments, but factually, as far as I can tell, the book is refreshingly free of major gaffs and errors - I should point out, however, that there is no evidence that Bram Stoker was a member of the Golden Dawn. This is what I wrote about Stoker's alleged membership in my book 'Decadent London':

'According to R A Gilbert, historian of the Golden Dawn, Bram Stoker was an outside observer with a number of close friends who were members. Scottish author J W Brodie-Innes, founder of the society’s Edinburgh offshoot, Alpha et Omega, dedicated his 1915 occult novel The Devil’s Mistress – somewhat ambiguously – “To the memory of my dear friend the author of ‘Dracula’ to whose help and encouragement I owe more than I am at present at liberty to state.”'

In conclusion, dare I say that a reading of Electric Eden could be complemented by a perusal of my own The Folklore of London and sections of Decadent London.

The 'real' 1970s

Returned from holiday jaunting around England to a wedding in Liverpool, camping in Somerset, cottage in Braunton Devon and another in Mevagissey Cornwall - relieved to be home. I had officially the worst cup of coffee ever at Newport Pagnell services on our way north.

During that time I've been reading When the Lights Went Out, Andy Beckett's history of the 1970s. It's a refreshing change from the 'Spacehoppers and Spangles' tv history so prevalent these days, when stand-up comedians who weren't even alive at the time offer us 'humorous reminiscences' drawn not from their own experience but from what they've seen on telly or read in the papers. The Rock and Roll Years television series of a few years back was much more hard-hitting in its choice of material.

Fortunately Beckett redresses the balance by offering a weighty political history which at times made me seethe with anger at the behind-the-scenes machinations and manipulations of our class-dominated political system which has not changed appreciably since, if only for the worse (Old Etonian David Cameron as PM for example). Although it covers gay liberation and women's lib the book is not the 'definitive' history which a casual buyer might be lured into believing it is, as there is very little social history or coverage of major events that were not political. Film, theatre, books etc are similarly only mentioned if they were politically motivated, which of course many were in those days; nevertheless it's still a very quick trawl through a decade whose culture was probably more interesting than that of any subsequent decade, certainly musically. I could have done with a few more statistics - publishers probably think they are irrelevant and a distraction these days in a popular history, but it was interesting to read that Britain was at its most equal in the years 1977 and 1978 with the inequality gap increasing ever since. Terrorism in Northern Ireland is covered but I couldn't find a reference to the Angry Brigade.

Having read an amusing letter in The Guardian recently that highlighted the practice I can't help noticing how authors who were 'fortunate' enough to go to public school and Oxbridge love to mention the fact as often as they can in their books, reviews and articles. One review I read recently got the Oxford connection out of the way in the first sentence; so we discover as we read through that Beckett attended a prep school and is a Balliol man. He was only a child in the 70s, but at least he's gone back through the source materials and interviewed many of the principal players, many of whom are now deceased. I don't envy him having to read through numerous volumes of self-serving political memoirs. On the whole a rather depressing read as the last third of the book prepares you for the onslaught of Thatcherism at the close of the decade under which so many of us suffered, mostly through high unemployment, which looks set to make an impressive comeback in the next couple of years.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Rocket in my Pocket

To the Boogaloo Bar in Archway Road (close to Highgate tube) last night to attend the book launch for Rocket in my Pocket by Max Decharne, a history of rockabilly music; a cd is also available. It's not a genre of music I know much about and I haven't had time to read the book yet, but I was aware when I first started listening to The Fall and The Cramps that this type of early rock had been very influential on their music. I didn't recognise many people there apart from Mark Lamarr and Andy Weatherall, who was the dj for a while. Had another interesting chat with Cathi Unsworth. Lots of people I didn't know seemed to want to buy me drinks, which was nice. I was surprised to hear 'Jeepster' by T Rex until someone told me that it was the song that Marc Bolan had 'borrowed' for his hit single that was being played - probably 'You'll be Mine' by Howlin' Wolf. Although there was a 'lock-in' until 2.00am I made my excuses and left before midnight as I had work in the morning.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

The South Downs Way

I love walking on the South Downs Way. From where I live their eastern reaches are easy to get to by train. Here's an easy walk that I did on Tuesday in the late afternoon: take the train to Southease station, one stop from Lewes; cross the busy road by the newish wooden footbridge and climb Itford Hill (the only strenuous bit); continue along the path taking in the magnificent scene on both sides - to the south Newhaven and the Channel and to the north the Sussex Weald with extensive views to the North Downs; if you look back you see the Downs snaking enticingly westwards after the Ouse Valley.

You pass a pair of ugly radio masts after less than an hour and continue towards the highpoint of Firle Beacon, where you may wish to stop to take in the panorama before carrying on over Bostal Hill to the descent towards Alfriston. On this occasion I decided to take a chalk track leading northwards which curved round downhill and joined a path across cornfields to Berwick church. From Southease station this walk had taken around two and a half hours to cover around 7 miles.

My ultimate destination was the magnificent Cricketers Arms Pub in the village, which still serves beer direct from the barrel as it did when I first visited it in the 1970s - it's had the gastropub makeover since then but it hasn't been spoiled. After a couple of pints of Harvey's Best and a dressed crab salad I was ready to make the 20 minute walk to Berwick station to catch the 19.39 train back home - this was a Gatwick Express which was a pleasant surprise. I am always shocked at how few walkers I encounter on my countryside excursions (quite a few cyclists on Tuesday), so why not do this walk yourself?

'S' Stock on the Underground

The first of the replacement 'S' Stock trains ran on the tube this week according to Lewminesce.

Burgh House Talk

My talk for the Camden Local History Society (all are welcome) at Burgh House has had to be rescheduled to Thursday 14 October (double booking on the previous date apparently). It is planned to start at 7.30 and will last around an hour including questions. If you have never been to Burgh House it is well worth a visit if you are interested in the history of Hampstead; it's also a lovely building.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Illumini Installation

In September Illumini present an underground-themed art show, situated beneath the heart of trendy (is it still?) Shoreditch that could be excellent. I hope to have some books available to buy there, if they have arrived from China by then. I am speaking in the early evening of Friday 10 September. Scott Wood, who wrote the epilogue to The Folklore of London covering modern lore will be speaking earlier in the day. I shall probably talk a bit about underground folklore - there is a chapter on it in the book - but I'll let Scott concentrate on that topic.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Eye Lotion at the Green Man

Over the coming months I shall attempt to do a little more research into various aspects of London folklore that appeared in my book The Folklore of London.

Today I paid a brief visit to the Green Man pub on Edgware Road, right next to the Bakerloo line entrance to the station. The pub itself is shabby and unappealing, I couldn't be bothered to buy a drink so just had a quick look around - a pity, given the evocative name. Here's what I wrote in the book:

'When The Treasury of Folklore: London was published in the 1950s it was apparently possible to sample something a little out of the ordinary in The Green Man, 308 Edgware Road. At the bar we are informed, “you may ask for eye lotion and the publican will measure you out an ounce or two. This is a strange custom having its origin far beyond the eighteenth century, when a spring existed here that was supposed to have marvellous healing properties. The time came when the local people learnt with some measure of fear that their magic spring was threatened and they objected so strenuously that a clause was inserted into the lease of the tavern that was then being built over the spring. The clause said that the landlord of the inn should give a glass of the healing water from his cellar to any customer who asked for it. When the underground railway was tunnelled almost under The Green Man something untoward happened to the ancient spring and it had to be bricked over. Still, The Green Man continued to give away its eye lotion. They even now have it made up at the chemists. Always a bottle is kept in the bar as they never know when they will be asked for it.”'

I had rung the pub in 2008 and the barman knew nothing about eye lotion being available. On my visit today the situation was no different and there is nothing inside the pub such as a framed newspaper article or suchlike to recall the strange tale. Was this story quite literally 'eyewash'? A trawl through local newspapers might prove rewarding, but as these are still largely unindexed and not available in an online archive, the prospect does not fill me with enthusiasm. I shall do a little more searching but really it's the sort of thing that an elderly resident might recall. The photo of the pub above makes it look much better than it is in reality.