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.
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.
Thanks yet again to a generous donation, I have been listening to the recorded output of Aphrodite's Child, the Greek pop group that enjoyed some impact over here. Formed in 1967 and consisting of Vangelis Papathanassiou on keyboards, Demis Roussos on bass and vocals and Loukas Sideras on drums and vocals they released 3 lps and a bunch of singles.
First lp The End of the World (1968) has some great stuff on it, parts of which are heavily psychedelic; second offering It's Five O'Clock is a real ragbag of styles, with a couple of ballads which showed the way that Roussos would go by the mid-70s. The third and final lp 666 is a remarkable piece of work that would be diffcult to extrapolate from what had come before. Based on the Revelations of St John this double lp is packed with unusual ideas and great playing -it benefits greatly from the dexterous guitar work of Anargyros 'Silver' Koulouris.
666 represents a break from their earlier pop career and a bold move into 'progressive rock' territory. However, even for a prog rock lp it's adventurous: one track represented by the symbol for infinity and 'sung' by Irene Papas as a frantic sexually climactic mantra would give Diamanda Galas a run for her money - definitely one of those 'weird out your friends' or 'clear the room at parties' pieces. 666's music is by Vangelis and utilises a lot of early electronic keyboards together with traditional Greek instruments which add some beautifully atmospheric touches.
What I found amusing when reading about 666 online was that Mercury Records found the contents of the record offensive (especially the 'infinity' track) resulting in it not being finally released until 1972, many months after it had been recorded. Also, apparently, some purchasers interpreted the statement on the sleeve stating that 'This album was recorded under the influence of sahlep' to mean that the band were drug addicts or part of some satanic cult. Sahlep is in fact a beverage made from sahlep flour; it was popular over here in the early days of the coffee houses when it was kown as 'saloop' (see my London's Coffee Houses book).
They split after the release of 666 - Vangelis going on to huge success with soundtracks and records with Jon Anderson and Demis Roussos enjoying equally 'huge' success with a string of chart topping ballads in the mid-70s. At the time of his much-derided presence in the charts and music press I can remember nothing being mentioned about his previous band which had been so much more musically interesting.
There will be a talk to promote the new edition of Subterranean City at Kensington Central Library on Thursday 16 September 6.30-8.00pm. Many years ago I worked in that library prior to going to university, I remember that the lecture theatre was impressive with a large capacity so I hope there won't be too many empty seats. Mind you, I did sell out the British Library lecture theatre in 2006.
I have also been asked to give a talk on underground London for the Stuart Low Trust in Islington. It will take place on Friday 15 October between 7.30 and 8.30. At some point I need to start organising my own events.
Since Subterranean City was sent to the printers in May (it's supposed to be in the shops late August) a number of developments in underground London have inevitably taken place that I shall try to keep abreast of in this blog:
The death of the Moleman of Hackney has been mentioned in a previous blog.
The Shunt Lounge at London Bridge has closed - pity, as I was considering it for the book launch.
The name of the Cabinet War Rooms has been changed to the Churchill War Rooms (branding rules everything nowadays).
The North London and East London line works continue:
'By 2011, passengers will benefit from increased services with eight trains per hour at peak times between Camden Road and Stratford, and eight trains per hour on the new East London Line service that will terminate at Highbury & Islington Station.
The London Overground network between Gospel Oak and Stratford reopened on 1 June 2010 after a three month closure to carry out construction works along the line. During this period Network Rail renewed the tracks, installed overhead lines and signal cables and replaced the Victorian sewer. Refurbishment works have also been carried out at Caledonian Road & Barnsbury, Highbury & Islington and Canonbury Stations to support the new improved service and provide lift access to platforms.'
No doubt the cruel cuts instituted by 'our' government will affect some of the planned improvements to London's transport system, although unfortunately it tends to be projects outside the capital that get cut first.
A recent clean-up operation below one of London's busiest areas was undertaken by Thames Water. The sewers beneath Leicester Square suffer more than most others in London from the huge quantities of cooking oil and fat deposited into them by surrounding fast food outlets and Chinese restaurants. The amount removed this time did not 'cover an area the size of Wales' but could fill, it was estimated, 9 double decker buses. Surely one of the most unpleasant jobs in London?
As we have to spend most evenings at home with the baby these days and given the generally unadventurous diet of tv (how much Top Gear and Mock the Week can people watch?) we sit through a fair number of dvds. Recently I decided to revisit such classic British films of the late 50s and early 60s as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The L-shaped Room and Billy Liar; a welcome surprise was my first viewing of Darling with the gorgeous Julie Christie, a social satire from the pen of Frederic Raphael that still had some resonance today in the era of micro-celebrity obsession.
The worst film we have seen recently was the League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse (£2.00 in the Morrison's bargain bin, an occasional treasure trove where for example I found at one point a number of Polanski's early films for a couple of quid each) . I had some time for the telly series in the beginning but lost interest by the third series - the film was the sort of navel-gazing, solipsistic, post-modern, self-referential beast that has given the British film industry such a bad reputation over recent years. Probably the most self-indulgent film that I've seen since Sammy and Rosie get Laid (my friend and I spent a non-stop couple of hours afterwards in the pub analysing why that one was so bad and irritating a waste of film fund money). They obviously had no interest in appealing to anyone who wasn't already a fan of the show and probably angered a lot of them too; maybe that was the point, as they had clearly and understandably had enough of the characters themselves. For a 'comedy' I probably laughed twice, unlike during the considerably older Billy Liar, where at one point (the scene in Shadrack's office when Tom Courtenay thinks he's not being observed) I thought I might be choking to death with laughter. Mark Gatiss has done some interesting stuff over the years, but I think a reunion of the League will not be necessary.
Recent illness has led to fewer blogs here; hopefully that situation will be remedied soon. In the meantime here's a guide to one of London's many abandoned tube stations, some of which I talk about in Subterranean City.
I am currently reading London Blues by Anthony Frewin, a well-written and engrossing novel following the exploits of a pornographic film-maker in Soho in the early 1960s. There are overlaps with Bad Penny Blues by Cathi Unsworth, with whom I had the pleasure of hosting a literary event last week.
Apparently there is a film in production of Colin Wilson's Adrift in Soho (I own the edition above), probably the quintessential Soho novel, especially as it is set during what is generally regarded as the highpoint of the cultural life of the district - the 1950s, when John Deakin, Francis Bacon, Dan Farson and the usual cast of colouful characters stumbled between hostelries and bedrooms.
addendum 25 July: decided to reread Adrift in Soho and very enjoyable it still is, although the ending is a bit abrupt as if he got fed up with it, or was intending to publish further instalments. It is a much more down-market and impoverished Soho of dingy bedsits, grotty cafes and pubs and constant cadging that Wilson explores with real-life local characters such as Ironfoot Jack appearing. An exploration of beatniks and proto-hippies living communally. I must check to see if some of the other eccentrics who appear were based on real people. Seems a bit of an odd choice to film as not a lot actually happens, most interest for me resides in descriptions of the streets, buildings and people. Wilson's obsession with slightly dodgy philosophy (typical of many a young man of that age though) permeates the pages. Interesting to see what they make of it, although I have my doubts about its eventual appearance.
An interesting article in this month's Sight and Sound by Rob Young called 'The Pattern under the Plough' (a quote from folklorist George Ewart Evans who wrote, amongst other things, a classic study of the hare in English folklore) on English films that draw on the landscape and folklore of olde Albion. I can pat myself on the back that I have seen most of the films mentioned - usual suspects mentioned in previous post plus Powell & Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale and Patrick Keiller's films. I'm sure I saw The Owl Service when it was originally on tv in 1969.
There are a number, however, that I have not yet seen but have mostly been aware of for some time: Winstanley, Derek Jarman's Journey to Avebury, Akenfield and Gallivant (Andrew Koetting came round our house to pick up a filing cabinet I was discarding, but I was out at the time, if I had known it was him I would have stayed in). Ones I hadn't heard of that sounded intriguing were Alfred the Great with David Hemmings and some obscure documentaries such as The Flora Faddy Furry Dance. The one that I have been wanting to see for many years was Penda's Fen by David Rudkin, a Play for Today from 1974 (what a brilliant concept that was); I don't remember seeing it although I saw a lot of those plays around that time - it is not available on dvd so it's very frustrating - it's always mentioned in articles of this kind so I would have thought a reissue was overdue. PS I have since discovered that Rob Young has a forthcoming book and blog called Electric Eden that overlaps at many points with my interests and have added it to the blog list opposite.
Saw 'Black Death' last week: not quite as grim as I was expecting, pretty interesting on the whole. The director Christopher Smith was behind 'Creep' a horror film set on the London underground. Sean Bean was good as the warrior leader of a disparate bunch of soldiers supposedly directed by the Word of God to investigate a remote village strangely left unravaged by plague in 1348. The young monk who accompanies them is a rather mysterious character who was not sufficiently developed. After a series of encounters they finally arrive at an idyllic lake village, but is it too good to be true? I like the ambiguity that the 'necromancy' could have just been imagined and the 'witch' merely a skilled herbalist; in Hollywood I fear her gorgon gaze would have blasted the mercenaries while streams of light poured out of her hands.
Obvious debts are paid to previous genre highs including Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man; one of the godly group is a spitting image for Klaus Kinski in Aguirre Wrath of God, there's probably something from The Seventh Seal in there, although I haven't seen that film for many years, ah yes, the procession of flagellants. My main quibble lies around the whole premiss of the film that witches were being hunted and burned during this period: the period of persecution on this scale took place at least two centuries later than mid-14c in England and most witches were hanged not burned. A woodland fight with a band of thieves [villagers?] seemed gratuitously violent, which made me dread the inevitable torture scenes which were brief and much less gory; the soundtrack was also a bit too over-the-top and thunderous. Worth seeing though.
To Lewes this morning to see the unveiling of a statue of the radical political theorist Tom Paine. Tony Benn was guest of honour and delivered a succinct speech; sculptor was Marcus Cornish who has previously created a sculpture called 'Jesus in Jeans'. A very large crowd in attendance.
Author of Subterranean City, Beneath the Streets of London, London's Coffee Houses, Decadent London, The Folklore of London, Subterranean City (Revised and Expanded Edition), Netherwood, Last Resort of Aleister Crowley, Lord of Strange Deaths, the Fiendish World of Sax Rohmer