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.