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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve recently become interested in the art of Michael Ayrton (1921-1975). 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.