Friday, 23 December 2011

Those records of the year in full

As the amount of new music I have time and inclination to listen to continues to dwindle I haven't got a lot to recommend for this year, but I did like:

Huntsville For Flowers, Cars and Merry Wars (Norwegian Krautrock, if you know what I mean)with guest vocals from the lovely Hanne Hukkelberg whose 2008 release Blood From a Stone I can heartily recommend.

Wire Red Barked Tree - as good as their first two 'comeback' records in the 1980s.

The Robert Mitchell 3io (yes I know it's a crap name) The Embrace - jazz interpretations of an eclectic selection of modern songs by the likes of Aphex Twin and Little Dragon - much better than similar efforts by The Bad Plus.

A perfect one to write to, although it didn't come out this year, but I was given it in 2011, is Inlandish by Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Tim Story: very reminiscent of Harold Budd's Eno collaborations with bits of Boards of Canada floating in and out and fragments of other Eno ambient classics such as On Land. Only with the recent re-release of a lot of the Cluster material can it be now be proved how much Eno 'borrowed' from these progenitors of ambient.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Alan Moore

A great interview with comics genius Alan Moore - in three parts - whenever he talks I find myself agreeing with almost everything he says, an example below:

'Taking responsibility for something is generally a good way of gaining some measure of control over it. That’s certainly true when it comes to one’s own life. You take responsibility for it and all of a sudden you have control over it. And I think it extends to other things as well. If we take responsibility for the way we’re governed and the way that we’re ruled economically and the way that the Anonymous and Occupy protesters seem to be doing, then that potentially can have a huge world-changing effect. That’s the same whether you’re talking about politics or whether you’re talking about the arts. If I hadn’t believed that it would be possible for me to have some sort of effect then I’d never have tried. As it turns out, my ideas have been communicated to a fair number of people. But back at the beginning, that was far from obvious. All that you had was your own belief in yourself. So yes, it’s vital that individuals believe that they can have an impact upon society. For one thing, it’s historically true. For another thing, it is the best thing to believe because if you believe otherwise that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is the philosophy of a natural-born slave in many respects.'

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Philosophytown on the radio

So much time is being spent finishing my next book - it should be done by Christmas - that I can only post sporadically here at the moment.

On Friday morning there was an interesting programme on Radio 4 about the Malmesbury Philosophytown Festival that I spoke at last month. You can listen again here for a week.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Fu Manchu infiltrates Radio 2

I shall probably be appearing on Friday Night is Music Night tonight (4th November) on Radio 2, filling the interval space when the audience at home gets up to make a cup of tea. Yesterday I was interviewed on location in Limehouse by a lovely chap called Neil Rosser about Sax Rohmer and Fu Manchu. Hopefully, if he's managed to edit it by tomorrow evening, it will be broadcast to the nation. Particulary good was standing on the foreshore at Limehouse Reach talking about the 'Devil Doctor'.

A talk on The Cult of Ku at Treadwell's bookshop next Thursday is also of relevance.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Catching Up

Time to catch up somewhat. Short holiday.

Yesterday at 12.30 I was standing on top of Mount Snowdon. We had to take the (very expensive) train as it would have been a difficult walk with my three-year-old son.

Also paid a visit to Porthmeirion - costs £9.00 if you go before 15.30 - we went later when it's half price. I'd never been before. The money has probably gone towards sprucing it up - my wife said it was looking shabby when she was last there 20 years ago. Memories of The Prisoner were unavoidable - I'd like to see the early episodes again, but I think it became unwatchable towards the end.

The National Slate Museum at Llanberis is more interesting than it may sound. A short stay in Manchester to see the Ford Madox Brown exhibition and the murals in the incredible Town Hall, designed by Waterhouse.

In Liverpool I visited some old haunts, the magnificent Philharmonic and atmospheric Ye Cracke pubs and for the first time went to the Ship and Mitre, nearest equivalent to a comprehensive Belgian pub I have found in England - massive selection of beers.

The Philosophy Town talk the previous week went well - a thoroughly worthwhile venture I think. I particularly enjoyed 'How to be an Existentialist' by Gary Cox, a talk that briefly explained a philosophy I had been wrestling with in a very difficult book earlier this year.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Rogue Male

One of the strangest news stories to catch my eye this week concerns the Queen obsessive who constructed a hide on an island in St James's Park so as to constantly have Buckingham Palace in his sights; his desiccated bones have only just been discovered. Coincidentally I have been reading some old obituaries of John Symonds, one of the literary executors of Aleister Crowley. In 1966 he wrote the novel 'With a View of the Palace' 'about a man obsessed with the Royal Family who spies on King George V from the lavatory of his flat overlooking Buckingham Palace.'

Tuesday, 20 September 2011


It appears that I am going to be speaking at the Philosophytown Festival in Malmesbury after all.
If you happen to be in that delightful edge-of-the-Cotswolds town on the morning of Sunday 16th October at 9.30 (!) then you can come and hear me talk about the history of the London coffee house with added contribution about Joseph Addison from the festival organiser Michael Cuthbert.
The full programme is here.
Addison helped set up his wife's former servant Daniel Button in an eponymous coffee house in Russell St Covent Garden, just a few doors down from where Johnson and Boswell would meet many years later. He also visited coffee houses to get material for The Spectator.
Much more can be found in my book London's Coffee Houses. A short extract below:
'Some of the flavour of debate in London coffee houses is captured in Joseph Addison’s account of his visit, during the course of a day, to a variety of popular establishments, where he hoped to determine public opinion regarding a (false) rumour of the death of the king of France that was spreading across the capital. He started at the St James’s coffee house where,
“I found the whole outward Room in a Buzz of Politics. The Speculations were but very indifferent towards the Door, but grew finer as you advanced to the upper end of the Room, and were so very much improved by a Knot of Theorists, who sat in the inner room, within the Steams of the Coffee Pot, that I there heard the whole Spanish monarchy disposed of, and all the line of Bourbon provided for in less than a Quarter of an Hour.” '

Monday, 5 September 2011

Folkestone Triennial

Last week we camped for a couple of days at Little Switzerland just outside Folkestone. The weather and light conditions were such that France seemed a short swim away - see my photo above including the artwork Out of Tune by A K Dolven, a suspended bell on the shore that could be rung; although when we went to make it chime in the evening it was 'closed' - presumably so that people living nearby aren't kept up at night.

We were there on an Art Trip to investigate the Folkestone Triennial and nearby towns. Favourite works: Huw Locke's suspended model boats in the church, Cornelia Parker's Mermaid (my photo above), Towards the Sound of Wilderness where Cristina Iglesias created a window onto an almost unrecognisable Martello Tower completely covered in vegetation, and a video installation in a Masonic Hall by Olivia Plender, although the setting was more impressive than the work - Martin Creed's 'soundwork' in the Leas lift wasn't working. Tried to get into the GHost House (not officially on the list) but it was closed.

Also went to the Turner Gallery in Margate - impressive building but the acres of space inside had very little to fill them - the work that impressed me most was by Russell Crotty, a series of globes, maps, documents and starcharts. Hastings' own contribution to hopelessly optimistic 'regeneration through art', the Jerwood Gallery, has announced that as works are running a little behind schedule it will not be opening this summer - too late anyway - but next summer instead - not a good sign. Again, however good the building, is there any interesting art to put in it? I feel it should have been placed somewhere in the New Town - there's plenty of empty shops and a warehouse-like empty newspaper office - rather than in the already crowded area at the beach end of the Old Town.

Another interesting place was Morelli's ice cream parlour and cafe in Broadstairs - apparently pretty much unchanged since the 1950s.

Horse on the House

I've been painting the front of our house over the summer - finished in August and it looks wonderful. When we returned from our holidays this magnificent beast had appeared on one of the walls - I don't intend to paint over it. It's probably the work of an artist who has left animal stencil pictures around the town.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Underground Magic

Recently read 'Grimoires' by Owen Davies on the history of supposedly magical books. I found one passage of particular interest which I quote below. Hope the publishers won't mind - I do heartily recommend it as an academic study of a fascinating subject. It concerns the study of the 'Black Arts and Magic' in underground locations, in this case beneath Toledo [see pages 27-28]:

“…Italian monk Francesco Maria Guazzo, writing in the seventeenth century, recounted the cautionary tale legend of the friar and physician Blessed Giles (d.1265) of Santarém, Portugal. This vice-ridden scion of a rich family, while on his way to study at Paris, fell in with a demon in human disguise who persuaded him to visit a vast cavern in Toledo. Here he met demons and their worshippers and signed a pact with the Devil. For the next seven years he ‘deeply studied the Black Arts and Magic’ before eventually seeing the error of his ways. The legend of a cave in Toledo where magic had been practised for centuries, and where a powerful grimoire lay hidden, seems to have developed in the medieval period. One of the stories written by Don Juan Manuel, a fourteenth-century Spanish nobleman from the province of Toledo, who unusually becomes a pupil of a great magician of Toledo called don Yllán who has an underground library and workshop. The deacon eventually becomes Pope and ungratefully threatens to imprison his old master for practising sorcery.

The Toledo legend was developed and given further legitimacy in the seventeenth century by the historian Christóbal Lozano. He wrote a fantastical account of how during the Roman period there existed under the city a vast subterranean palace of Hercules where magic was studied and practised. This occult underground world collapsed and for centuries lay buried until, according to Lozano’s take on history, in 1543 the Archbishop of Toledo organized an excavation and found an altar decorated with bronze statues. A loud noise was heard when they entered and some of the party died of fright. The archbishop ordered that the entrance be sealed once more to prevent its evil manifestations from spreading. One source of the legend is the archaeological remnants of a short subterranean passage flanked by two Roman columns, which was probably intended to act as nothing more magical than a sewer or drain. Similar stories circulated regarding the city of Salamanca, where the second oldest university in Spain was founded in 1218. The earliest reference to a cave-school of magic there is from a French chronicle from the mid-fifteenth century. It is clear that Salamanca, by now considered the major centre of learning, was mistakenly or deliberately associated with the old Toledo legend. It proved enduring. The Jesuit theologian Martín del Rio (1558-1608), who studied at the university wrote,

‘I have read that, as a result of the Moorish occupation of Spain, the magical arts were virtually the only subjects being taught in Toledo, Seville and Salamanca. When I was living in Salamanca, I was shown a secret vault which had been blocked off with rubble on the orders of Queen Isabella. It was a place where forbidden knowledge was taught.’”

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Back home

Returned from hols - missed the summer riots while sitting on a beach at Saundersfoot. On our way home we stopped off at Laugharne to visit Dylan Thomas's grave, boathouse and writing shed - lovely place that hosts a small but impressive literary festival.

On the way to Pembroke we stayed at Monmouth: a lot of Georgian buildings and a much better town than you probably think it's going to be. Also Malmesbury, which is branding itself The Town of Philosophy and has recently started hosting a 'philosophy festival' - I was supposed to be talking there about coffee houses in October, but nothing seems to have come of it. Beautiful place with a very pretty Abbey, also home to William of Malmesbury, flying monk Eilmer and King Athelstan.

I'm now working on two books - one hopefully to come out next year and one in 2013 to coincide with an important literary anniversary - hence the fewer posts here. The second will hopefully be a collaborative work with the possibility of some big names getting involved, but until they have committed I don't want to get too excited or reveal anything more.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

The Museum of British Folklore

Through one of the other blogs I subscribe to I've just found out about the Museum of British Folklore, set up by Simon Costin, a designer and collaborator with the late Alexander McQueen, who apparently regularly takes part in Hastings Jack-in-the-Green festival. It sounds like a worthy venture. By the usual strange coincidences he is planning an exhibition on witchcraft in Britain in the 1950s called Dark Britannica. Here's the text from their Facebook page:

"In 2011 it will be 60 years since the 1735 Witchcraft Act was repealed in Britain. To coincide with this the Museum of British Folklore is to mount an exhibition in central London, which examines a very particular time in British history. In 1951, while London hosted the forward-looking Festival of Britain exhibition on the South Bank, the Witchcraft Act was repealed with the enactment of the Fraudulent Mediums Act.

Dark Britannica looks at the history of Witchcraft in the UK and at the host of colorful characters who were later to take centre stage in Britain's growing interest with Witchcraft and the Occult from the 50’s onwards. It was a time of 'Witch Wars', involving court cases, dramatic newspaper exposure and quite a lot of self-publicity for some people. Out of this grew an increase in public interest and a certain amount of misinformation as well as much learned and genuine exploration of the subject of Witchcraft.

Using film footage, press reports, artifacts and archival letters, Dark Britannica seeks to celebrate those who were to be the founders of the modern Neo Pagan movement and asks, is Witchcraft the only religion that Britain has given the world?"

Another excuse for a witchcraft pic.

I should also mention the recent release by the BFI of Here's a Health to the Barley Mow, a 2 dvd compilation of British custom and folklore films which sounds absolutely fascinating. There's also an insightful piece by Philip Hoare (who wrote an interesting Decadence-related book called Salome's Last Dance) in this month's Sight and Sound which can be read here.

Bexhill Beano

Been to Bexhill-on-Sea for a couple of events recently: Mogwai at the De La Warr Pavilion - satisfyingly noisy, especially the encore; and a wedding in the lovely church of St Peter's at the heart of the Old Town. Bexhill is not a particularly interesting or exciting place, but I was reminded, when walking around the Old Town, that Alex Sanders 'King of the Witches' lived in Chantry Cottage. The house came up for sale shortly after we moved down here - I have a feeling that the advert in the local paper even mentioned that he had lived there. I first encountered his name in the excellent long-defunct journal Rapid Eye; I also have a paperback by June Johns called King of the Witches. The dvd Legend of the Witches, Their Secret Rituals Revealed is also worth a watch, as I seem to recall that he features in it.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Lost Lyons

Walking along Piccadilly at lunchtime today I was shocked to see a huge gap surrounded by hoardings where an attractive group of Victorian buildings once stood - the whole block down to Jermyn Street has gone; the shops had been shut for some time but I thought they were going to be refurbished, not totally demolished. The alleyway on the west side was very atmospheric, with its old-fashioned tocacconist and newsagent. The most significant loss is the building at No.213 which was once the very first Lyons teashop - see my books London's Coffee Houses and Decadent London - it opened on 20 September 1894. The distinctive fascia has been long gone, but it's a shame nevertheless that another piece of London's past has vanished.

On a similar note, Phil Baker tells me that No.124 Victoria Street, formerly the temple and headquarters of Aleister Crowley's A.A. Order is also about to disappear - I must get down there to take a photo before it's too late.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Underground Rumblings

The July issue of Modern Railways has a very useful supplement on Crossrail with maps and computer-generated images of the finished stations - still in the shops.

Plans for HS2 are not being universally welcomed. Proposals to dig a tunnel at a depth of 30-35 metres beneath parts of north Westminster have met some opposition from local residents. Recently the Stop the Tunnel North Westminster action group protested outside City Hall against the potential disruption works would cause in the area, noise from the tunnel and the plan to build a huge ventilation shaft in Queen's Park. Personally, I'm not sure that the expense, disruption and journey time saved will be worth it - isn't 1 hour 20 minutes a fast enough time to get from Euston to Birmingham? The case against is put here.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Handcarved Coffins

I recently read a fascinating interview with Marlon Brando from the New Yorker written by Truman Capote. Highly impressed by this piece of work I realised that I'd never read any of Capote's books, despite having seen the films of Breakfast at Tiffany's and In Cold Blood and enjoyed the Philip Seymour Hoffman biopic (I'd also like to see Infamous, which is highly rated -you wait years for a Truman Capote biopic and two come along at once).

While I've never studied the 'craft' of writing (obviously, you may say) I think I can recognise a great piece of writing when I read it; fortunately someone more qualified in this department has explained some of the reasons why the Brando interview is so good. On the train into London last night I finished Music for Chameleons, the centrepiece of which is 'Handcarved Coffins: a non-fiction account of an American crime' - another terrific read, beautifully constructed, but clearly containing many fictional elements and unlikely coincidences. Just how non-fictional it really is can be found here - Capote was branded a hoaxer as a result. There have been a spate of 'non-fiction' works found to be mostly fiction in recent years - Dan Brown's claims that The Da Vinci Code was based on fact always annoyed me.

Another book I reread this year was Fiesta/The Sun also Rises by Ernest Hemingway - I was perfectly prepared to think it was going to be disappointing, having been very impressed with it as a young man at university. In fact, this time I thought it was even better than I remembered, very vividly written and evocative of the parts of France and Spain in which much of the book is set. What a pity his later work fell off dramatically - Across the River and into the Trees I found especially poor. If, as a drinking game, you tried to keep up with the amount of alcohol consumed in the course of that book you would be dead well before it ends.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Museum Piece

Thanks to AbeBooks I've just read Museum Piece by James Laver, mentioned in an earlier post. He seems to have enjoyed an extraordinarily fortunate life, combining work as a poet, novelist and screenwriter, together with writing a number of books on fashion, biographies of Whistler, Tissot and Huysmans while holding down a job as keeper of the department of engraving, illustration, design and painting at the V &A. He got his job there without having any qualifications in art history - but then again, he did go to Oxford. As he says of his time there: "Certainly at Oxford one soon learned to distinguish the types: the earnest, carefully-courteous Wykhamists, the elegant Etonians, the noisy Carthusians and Rugbeians, the frank Philistines from Fettes and similar schools" [p.60] - plus ca change.

Unfortunately in 1926, "the busy but agreeable life I had been leading was suddenly interrupted by the General Strike". Despite the fact that he was, in his opinion, "an utterly unpolitical animal" he volunteered as a special constable: "If there were going to be barricades, I knew that I wanted to be on the side of Law and Order". He was, however, "a little disconcerted" by the "strange collection of Black-and-Tans and proto-Fascists who had flocked together for the saving of Society" [p.126].

He seems to have been a reasonably decent chap, but the book is pretty much a litany of name dropping - for example, he met Cole Porter when his successful novel Nymph Errant was turned into a musical; in his studio the songwriter "picked out the tunes [on the piano] which I thus heard for the first time, and which were afterwards to become famous". As is often the case, though many of the names dropped are impressive, he has little of any interest or insight to report. He says nothing about why he felt impelled to write a biography of Huysmans, which is disappointing.

One incident in particular stretches credulity. Laver is drinking in a Munich beer hall in the twenties when suddenly, "the music was interrupted by a little man with a falling lock and a toothbrush moustache who jumped on a table and began a speech denouncing the Jews. If only I had known - I would have stayed and listened."

A particularly indulgent chapter is devoted to his taste in fine wines and exquisite foods, including the menus for some of the more sybaritic examples. He does, however, mention that he was present at a number of banquets held by the Corvine Society presided over by Rolfe's biographer A J A Symons [pp.165-168, see earlier post] where, "around the room were displayed the original manuscripts of Corvo's books in his extraordinary Elizabethan script"; the whole lavish event was funded by Maundy Gregory, an equally colourful figure in his day who was probably a murderer.

He developed a massive interest in the occult and even travelled to Hastings to meet Aleister Crowley after having received an invitation - AC had enjoyed Laver's biography of Nostradamus. Laver's conclusion: "That he was a blackmailer is, I think, more than likely; that he was a fraud is certain. But was he nothing but a fraud?" Museum Piece was published in 1963 - would any mainstream publisher bring it out today? Laver died in a fire at his Blackheath home in 1975.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Bill Bruford

78 people showed up for the Bill Bruford talk last Friday evening - the joint was packed, as they say - afterwards he sold a fair number of books. The talk itself was very absorbing, covering some of the historical and economic reasons for the development of a music 'industry' and 'business' and the ways in which technology has influenced the production, distribution and consumption of music; he also threw in some amusing anecdotes involving Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, Dire Straits and Coldplay.

The questions produced some stimulating responses - surprisingly (you might think) the most technical inquiries about drumming came from women in the audience and there was much talk of playing in unorthodox time signatures and different ways to hold a drumstick. It was encouraging to see a few young people in the crowd - two walked away afterwards carrying a drum head that he had signed, it also bore the signature of Steve Gadd.

I read his autobiography this week and it's certainly the most intelligent and thougtful I've seen written by a former 'rock' musician; there are even footnotes quoting music theorists and sociologists such as Chris Cutler and Simon Frith. As he said in response to an inquiry on Friday he 'doesn't do dirt', so you won't find any stories about snorting cocaine off Rolls Royces in swimming pools or debauched hotel shenanigans with groupies. Similarly, the ineffable mystery of Robert Fripp remains intact, despite some interesting insights. I think anyone considering a career as a musician should read it - it also offered some wisdom that I can apply to my own meagre creative endeavours. After the talk he spent a long time signing books and answering more questions including my own about the recording of 'Starless' on the influential Red lp by King Crimson (one of Kurt Cobain's favourites apparently). What a gentleman.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Birkbeck matters

I've only just found out about the death earlier this year of Barry Coward, eminent historian and one of my tutors on the Early Modern History MA at Birkbeck that I took around ten years ago. He came across as a genuinely nice and decent man, helpful and encouraging; he also wrote some important books on Early Modern English history. Obituary here and tributes here.

One of my other tutors Mike Berlin is organising an exhibition about the Partisan coffee house in 1950s Soho; it will take place in 2012, can't find the location yet. I wonder if he realises that the author of London's Coffee Houses was one of his students, although at that time it was Professor Michael Hunter who excited my interest in that direction through his seminars on Early Modern thought and belief.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Ida Kar and The Farm

Paid a visit to the Ida Kar exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery today. Worth seeing if you are interested in the artistic, literary and bohemian milieu of London in the 1950s and 1960s, as I am. One photograph in particular caught my eye - the caption referring to a coffee house I hadn't heard of before: The Farm at 14 Monmouth Street, run by Brian Robins (1928-1988) and his wife Susan.

When Brian Robins met Ida Kar and her husband Victor Musgrave he was apparently working as the last lamplighter in London; he was also a self-taught sculptor, who later became known for his kinetic sculptures. According to the catalogue (NPG No.68) The Farm was a short-lived coffee shop in the basement "which became a meeting-place for young artists and poets after the couple opened it on 23 June 1959. As well as selling coffee, its aim, according to Robins, ‘was to show works which the commercial galleries would not show…I felt that art freed from the purse strings would give it more scope and personality.’ Robins showed work by Gustav Metzger, Roger Mitchell and Susan Bryan. The last exhibit before the closure of The Farm in May 1960 was Robins’ painting machine, which produced a picture every twenty minutes.’"

Robins also helped Metzger publish the first manifesto of Auto-Destructive Art dated 4 November 1959 in which it was stated that, ‘Auto-destructive paintings, sculptures and constructions have a lifetime varying from a few moments to twenty years. When the disintegrating process is complete the work is to be removed from the site and scrapped.’

From 9-30 November 1959 Metzger exhibited 'Cardboards' a series of 'pictures’ made from cardboard boxes; he was interviewed by the Daily Express which published a story the next day with the headline, ‘Bearded man trips over a box and finds a new form of art…IT’S PICTURES FROM PACKING CASES’ (Museum of Modern Art Oxford 1999 catalogue pp24-28)

In December 1962 Metzger delivered a lecture/demonstration at Ealing Art College with slides and film entitled Auto-Destructive Art, Auto-Creative Art: The Struggle for the Machine Arts of the Future. One rapt member of the audience was art student Pete Townshend who acknowledged the effect of the lecture on his thought and later went on to play out his own auto-destructive art through his guitar smashing antics with the Who.

The artist went 'on strike' for a number of years (if only more would follow suit - Stewart Home was another fellow 'striker' for a time) and disappeared from view (although he would regularly come in to where I work) before being 'rediscovered' by a new generation.

Friday, 3 June 2011

French Leave

Just returned from camping in France - the cheap option. Stayed at Camping des 2 Rivieres, Martigny, a few miles south of Dieppe - beautiful site situated, as the name suggests, between two rivers and by a series of lakes - former gravel pits? Fortunately, we only found out on departure that the annoying mechanical noise carried by the wind on certain nights emanated from the busy local abattoir.

Recommended: the excellent salt water swimming pool by the beach at Dieppe - heated outdoor pool and indoor pools and baths; Cafe des Tribunaux in Dieppe, haunt of Wilde and various Decadents; Le Chapeau Rouge restaurant, Neufchatel-en-Bray.

Not recommended: Le Galion restaurant, Quai Henri IV Dieppe - overpriced and undercooked.

Saturday, 28 May 2011


Hauntology - courtesy of Jacques Derrida - is a very fashionable interest these days; you might call it 'nostalgia with a theoretical turn'.

There are various musings to be found here and here. An interesting article by Simon Reynolds in this month's Wire magazine is also worth reading for this thoughts on the gains and the losses (only gradually coming to be realised) resulting in the change from analogue to digital culture and the ready availability of material that was once eagerly sought out, sometimes over many frustrating, but ultimately satisfying, years.

Shopping in London will soon be dominated by two vast malls called Westfield - the one in Shepherd's Bush has been open since 2008, the Stratford version will form a retail gateway for the 2012 Olympics - perfect examples of timeless 'non-places'.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

A New Map of Underground London and other news

Following my ICA talk I met the artist Stephen Walter, who kindly bought one of my books. He has been commissioned by the London Transport Museum to produce a map of underground London; he previously made 'The Island' which was completed in 2008 and can be viewed here on the British Library website. He told me that Subterranean City had been a great help in his preliminary researches. More information on the map can be found on the LTM blog.

Apparently there is a very favourable review of the new edition of Subterranean City in the current London Topographical Society Newsletter. I shall read it next time I visit the City of Westminster Archives Centre.

Apropos my other interests in folklore and witchcraft, an extended interview with probably the leading scholar in these areas Ronald Hutton can be found here.

The little-known Ceremony of the Lilies and Roses at the Tower took place recently - a well-illustrated report can be found here.

Claude Cahun was one of the lesser-known Surrealists - probably because she was a woman. A new exhibition in Paris should change all that.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Walks and Talks

A reminder that there are still places on the Paul Raymond talk at Westminster Reference Library on Friday 27th May; bookings are also being taken for Bill Bruford on 17th June.

The Decadent London walk on Thursday is now fully (over) booked. Because a tube strike was announced for that day I increased the numbers - then the strike was cancelled, but more people had already booked. I always reckon on a third not turning up, so it should be manageable. Apparently people are still trying to book and names have been taken, so I may have to do another one within the next month.

This blog is one year old - almost the only comment I've received was about a remark I made regarding the style of a certain writer - I won't put the name here again as I suspect it was posted by someone who spends all day trawling for mentions of his favourite author.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Rainbow climbing high

On my way to the Stan Tracey gig on Monday night at around 8.15 I was greeted by a literally jaw-dropping sight at the end of my road where it comes out onto the panoramic views of the West Hill. The most spectacular rainbow I have ever seen formed a perfect arc from somewhere in the Country Park (it seemed) to a spot far out in the English Channel - all the colours were clearly delineated and there were two sides of a double rainbow. People were talking about it in the jazz club, which is down on the beach.

The light was incredible and it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed - yet again, a pity I didn't have a camera with me, although perhaps there's too much emphasis these days on capturing everything for posterity and not enough ephemeral events.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Low-Flying Aircraft (apologies to JGB)

I have transcribed below a letter published in this week's Hastings and St Leonard's Observer, a not untypical example of the kind of material frequently submitted. I have omitted the name and address of the sender - it could of course be an Ortonesque prank (not guilty). I have never witnessed this alleged phenomenon myself, although coastguard and military planes and helicopters sometimes fly low along the coast - we also get a lot of sea mist at certain times of the year (term times?):

(headline is 'Cloudbusting above [sic] the skies of Hastings?')

I would like to ask the councillors of Hastings to explain what is going on in the skies over the town.

I live facing a local school and college and I have noticed that every term time, the skies over the area have planes constantly flying at low altitudes and leaving behind a trail which spreads out during the course of the day and forms grey clouds which can be seen dropping slowly into grey mist over the areas. I have researched normal contrails that are a natural occurrence when planes are flying at high altitudes, this contrail disperses very quickly, but these low flying aeroplanes criss cross across the sky leaving grids which is [sic] predominantly over the schools and college.

So my question is, why is this happening? And while I am on the subject, who is responsible for this and what is in the cloud that it doesn't disperse as normal?

And why only in term time?

If they have no answers then who does?

I have heard of weather modification and I would think that people should know exactly what's going on and if there are any dangers especially when its [sic] seen to happen over local schools, has anyone else noticed this phenonema [sic]?

Saturday, 7 May 2011

J K Huysmans

This week I finally got round to reading La Bas by J K Huysmans (the Dedalus 2001 edition, it was first published in France in 1891) - what a great book. It's notorious for the depiction of a Black Mass, but the descriptions of the sadisitic excesses of Gilles de Rais - the subject of a biography by the main character Durtal - are equally graphic and disturbing. The translation by Brendan King is excellent and gives the book a very modern sensibility of cynicism and ennui - as Huysmans says, 'There's only one reason for literature to exist, to save those that write it from the tedium of living.' The book can also serve as a guide to the mentalities of the period, when Sar Peladan revived the Rosicrucians and all kinds of religious eccentrics, quacks and charlatans were abroad. Again Huysmans observes, 'At the precise moment Positivism reaches its height, mysticism awakes and a mania for the occult begins'.

I intend to read some more of his oeuvre, starting with En Rade (available from Dedalus); he was also a formidable art critic. His most famous work is A Rebours, translated as Against the Grain or Against Nature, a remarkable book, totally without a plot, consisting of a series of erudite heightened descriptions of the methods used by a wealthy aesthete to cut himself off from consensus reality - you will either love it or hate it - I had trouble getting through the whole thing last time I read it, although I think it is highly relevant in the age of 'virtual reality' and estrangement from the natural world. Arthur Symons called it 'the breviary of the Decadence' and it appears anonymously in Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. After having written it Huysmans was told by his friend Barbey D'Aurevilly that he would have to choose 'between the barrel of a revolver or the foot of the cross' - he chose the latter course, as his later novels testify.

There's a very comprehensive site on Huysmans here.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Victoria line stock

The new trains on the Victoria line have been gradually introduced since the first ran in July 2009 and are due to take over all services by July this year. An error in Subterranean City regarding the seating has been brought to my attention: on p.201 I say that all seating is transverse, in fact I should have written longitudinal, as on the new North London and East London line trains.

Friday, 29 April 2011


A significant event is taking place today - it's the first day of Jack-in-the-Green, the Hastings festival celebrating the turning of the year and my favourite time to be here. The weather is lovely and later we shall be visiting some Old Town pubs to listen to folk musicians and singers - the Stag is usually the best, if the most crowded; with its mummified cats in a display case, low beamed ceilings and large fireplace it's a suitably atmospheric location. On Monday the Jack will be released from the Fisherman's Museum at Rock-a-Nore and followed in procession through the Old Town. Our newly-elected Tory MP is in a dilemma, as her party want to kill off the Mayday Bank Holiday, thereby depriving the town of one of its principal money-earners of the year.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Austin Osman Spare

After a very well attended launch at Maggs last week Phil Baker's biography of Austin Osman Spare is finally available in a beautiful edition published by Strange Attractor Press. I'm reading it at the moment and I can thoroughly recommend it. Lots of stuff I didn't know about such as the Cult of Ku and his friendship with Sylvia Pankhurst, Andre Raffalovich and John Gray.

At the launch I met the publisher of Atlas Press, which specialises in avant garde, Surrealist, Oulipo and Dadaist texts - I've already ordered a book from them.

Incidentally, my Decadent London walk on 19th May (see earlier post) is already 50% subscribed - maximum 40 places.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Stoke Newington Bunker

A couple of weeks ago I was attending a wedding at Stoke Newington Town Hall - as we were not immediate family we were requested to go to the rear of the building to get to the balcony of the main hall where the wedding was to take place. While we were waiting for the back door to be unlocked I took the opportunity to photograph the entrance to the bunker beneath the building, now used as a CCTV and ' emergency planning' centre. For more information see this from Subterranea Britannica, my own Subterranean City and Iain Sinclair's Hackney, That Rose Red Empire. Oh, and I also took some pictures of the wedding.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Jack Cade's Cavern

In my ICA talk next month on Legends of Underground London I shall briefly mention Jack Cade's Cavern, or Blackheath Cavern to be more precise, that fascinating subterranean excavation beneath The Point in Greenwich that has been 'rediscovered' on at least a couple of occasions. Last week on a suitably atmospheric overcast evening I walked around the area taking photos (top is the path near the summit of The Point) - the centre of Greenwich is a very beautiful part of London especially as you make your way up to Maidenstone Hill (may I recommend the walk mapped out in Andrew Duncan's Village London).

Apparently access was once possible from a back garden in Maidenstone Hill. Many of us would like to discover a secret passage or the entrance to caves in our basements or gardens - for example, our house is very near to closed-off or forgotten access points to St Clement's Caves (something I intend to 'look into' in the future), parts of which are open to the public.

More information is coming to light thanks to the work of diligent researchers and I suggest that you look here , here, here and here for a detailed history. Early this century a large hole opened up in Blackheath Hill and caused all kinds of bother.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

The Widow's Bun

An unusual custom celebrated on Good Friday in London's East End will be taking place next week - try to get along if you are interested in such things. At the moment I cannot access the photos I took on my visit in 2007 but I'll try to put one up later. Below unedited original text from The Folklore of London:

A Bun at The Widow’s Son

Despite its singularly unattractive location on a busy road, surrounded by monochrome tower blocks and appallingly designed ‘industrial units’, The Widow’s Son at 75 Devon’s Road, Bromley-by-Bow, E3 proved to be a traditionally boisterous East End boozer. Fairly recent photographs show the exterior bearing the words “The Widow’s Son On the Site known as The Bun House”, but these must have been erased in subsequent repainting. Outside, in the car park, a party of immaculately uniformed sailors from HMS President, the Royal Naval Reserve, together with their Commanding Officer, stood talking and drinking, having their photos taken and looking decidedly incongruous compared with the casually attired locals, although one or two were dressed as pirates. Inside, a disco blared from one corner and a buffet was laid out for later; the large room was very busy and the atmosphere expectant. Just in front of the bar a couple of nets hung above head height containing, I suppose, around thirty or forty hot cross buns, some with a distinctly unappetising black and mouldy appearance.

At 2.30pm precisely, everyone gathered inside to witness a bun being ceremonially borne into the bar by one of the sailors. He briefly held it aloft for the crowd’s inspection and for photographs. I was surprised at its size, more like a small cake than a bun, perhaps because it was easier to photograph or possibly as a comment on contemporary supersizing. (Old photographs of the custom sometimes show a larger-than-average bun). Each quarter of the hot-cross bun held one of the numerals of the year – it had obviously been baked specially for the occasion. After a couple of minutes an attractive Wren was hoisted up by her fellow matelots before popping the bun into the net, to the accompaniment of numerous camera flashes, mine included. This annual Good Friday ceremony had been performed once more and the merriment could continue, but the traditional origin of this custom is much sadder than the contemporary celebration might suggest.

The Widow’s Son Bun Ceremony is said to have originated in the early nineteenth century, when the site of the pub was occupied by a humble cottage. Here lived a poor widow, together with her only son. The boy went off to sea, possibly during the Napoleonic Wars, promising to return at Easter. On Good Friday, expecting his imminent arrival, the mother baked a hot cross bun. Sadly, her son failed to return but, having never received official notification of his demise, she continued to live in hope, baking and keeping a bun for him on every Good Friday until her own death. By that time the house had become famous for its melancholy collection. When a pub was built on the site of the mother’s cottage in the 1840s it was decided to name it The Widow’s Son and to continue the quaint custom. Subsequently, every year, on Good Friday, a sailor or Wren from the Royal Navy has been invited to place another bun in the net above the bar, for which he or she receives a pint of beer or similar drink in payment.

Historian Ronald Hutton writes that, “During the nineteenth century folklorists discovered the superstition that bread, buns, or biscuits baked upon this day [Good Friday] had especially beneficial powers. They were generally believed to never go mouldy and to be capable of curing diseases, especially intestinal disorders, if eaten. If hung in a house, they were thought to protect it against misfortune. Not merely the day of manufacture was important, however, for like a pre-Reformation host they had to be marked with the sign of the cross.” Hutton believes that this custom recalled the veneration of the consecrated bread of the mass, particularly on Good Friday when the host was used in the rite of the sepulchre.

William Hone also noted in The Every-Day Book that, “In the houses of some ignorant people, a Good Friday bun is still kept ‘for luck’, and sometimes there hangs from the ceiling a hard biscuit-like cake of open-cross work…to remain there till displaced on the next Good Friday by one of similar make…[I have] heard it affirmed that it preserves the house from fire.” Pieces of bun, mixed with water, were used as a remedy for diarrhoea and whooping cough. It was also generally considered to bring good luck and in some coastal areas was believed to protect all members of the household from shipwreck. This could account for the link with sailors and the sea at The Widow’s Son.

Slight variations in the tale have been recorded: that the son asked his mother to bake him a bun to enjoy on his return; that the widow’s cottage was already a pub and that she was the publican; that neighbours hung up the accumulated buns in the house after her death; or that subsequent residents in her dwelling, by then famous as the “Bun House” or “Bun Cottage”, faithfully kept up the custom until a pub was built on the site. It has also been claimed that after the widow’s death her collection of buns was bought at auction by a local publican as a gimmick and added to every year thereafter.

Writing in 1943 the folklorist Christina Hole recorded that, 'The collection now totals one hundred and seventy-three buns which during air-raids are taken to a place of safety along with the other valuables of the house.' Many books state that the continuation of the custom is a condition of the pub's lease, although the present landlady is unaware of any such stipulation. She also confirmed that there are no older buns stored in the cellars and that those hanging in a bunch above the bar are the only surviving examples, following a fire in recent years.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Comus, The Unthanks and Trembling Bells

Some activity on the 'folk' music front recently: went to see Trembling Bells and The Unthanks at the De La Warr Pavilion on 20 March. The former have a female singer with a beautiful clear voice and a guitarist who plays outside the normal folk parameters - songs were a bit samey though. The Unthanks were as desolately atmospheric as ever, much expanded from the previous time I had seen them, with a string section and additional musicians. Highlights for me were an extremely disturbing song by Alex Glasgow called something like 'Close the coalhouse door', which would put Nick Cave to shame and a surprising cover of possibly my favourite King Crimson track 'Starless' (without the incredibly controlled guitar solo of course, probably one of Fripp's simplest, but most effective).

Comus playing last Saturday night at the Borderline were an intriguing proposition: split since 1972 and recently reforming owing to their steadily building legend (the internet plays a big part in these reunions I feel) based almost exclusively on their debut First Utterance; pretty much all the original members are in the present band. The rekindled interest lies in the unusually intense vocals of Roger Wootton and the unusual subject matter of the songs: mental illness, murder, paganism etc. They played the songs I was familiar with from the first lp plus some new material - one new song with a heavy breathing backing was really impressive. Female singer Bobbie Watson was not only stunningly well preserved but could also still hit all the high notes on The Herald. The crowd were hysterical and a surprising mixture of ages - some had clearly travelled a long way to be there. One problem with these reformations is recapturing the intensity of early recordings when mental states, living circumstances, emotional tensions, were often wildly different.

They were part of the 'legendary' Sixties Beckenham Arts Lab, which also spawned one David Bowie - apparently they also supported him in the early days. I had to leave before the encore to get back to the seaside, but it had been an interesting evening. At the beginning of procedings some ancient footage of the Incredible String Band was played on a screen at the back of the stage.

Young support band Diagonal were very good, channelling Hawkwind, Gong, Van der Graaf Generator and other classic prog acts and it wasn't embarrassing - they even (mostly) had the requisite amount of long hair and beards - the guitarist resembled the young Daevid Allen. They played for nearly an hour and only managed to get through four 'songs' - brilliant.

Stan Tracey on the Beach

One of the legends of British jazz Stan Tracey is playing at the Hastings and St Leonards Angling Club next month on Monday 9th May. I imagine this is quite a coup. Maybe John Mclaughlin could be lured there later this year - mind you I saw him in the late 70s at the Rainbow and left before the end. This concert is £10 instead of the usual £7 - I suppose I should try to get there early.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Tottenham Court Road engineering works

Before the Comus concert at The Borderline on Saturday night I wandered round the edge of the Tottenham Court Road Crossrail building site. It was depressing to see the security gates installed in the sleazy but atmospheric alleyways off Denmark Street - still weird not to see the Astoria. Charing Cross Road is closed at the northern end and all buses are diverted; as from last Saturday 2 April until November (allegedly) no Northern line trains will be stopping at Tottenham Court Road station. There are details of the huge and complex engineering works here at London Reconnections, including diversions of major utilities. I'm one of the people that likes the Paolozzi mosaics and wants them preserved undamaged - we've already lost the pool and fountains from in front of Centre Point.

Monday, 4 April 2011


I attended the fascinating talk by Phil Baker on Austin Osman Spare at the ICA last Thursday, part of the Strange Attractor Salon series, for which I'm giving the final talk.

Afterwards a few of us repaired to the ICA bar and then ate in Chinatown. I had a chat with the artist Sarah Sparkes, who sounds as if she is doing some fascinating work, especially with the Harry Price Archive in the University of London and the GHost shows.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Decadent London Walk - change of date

Owing to a clash with another event I am rescheduling the Decadent London walk to the day before: Thursday 19th May. Meeting up inside Westminster Reference Library at 6.00 to leave about 10 minutes later. I've changed the date in the previous entry.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Mundus Subterraneus

Mundus Subterraneus is an interesting site that features:
A bibliography of literature on the Hollow Earth, subterranean worlds, worlds beyond the poles, the Secret World, the centre of the Earth, the earth's interior, the hollow globe, Symzonia, Geo-Kosmos and the cellular kosmology.

See also Arktos by Joscelyn Godwin on these topics.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Ghost station pubs?

An article from last week's Independent dangles the tantalising prospect of pubs, bars or concert venues opening up in some of London Underground's disused or 'ghost' stations. I think this is probably as likely to happen as the Lost Rivers being reopened in central London - another idea mooted in recent years and included in Subterranean City. The main reason will probably be that old chestnut 'health and safety', although I suppose it might be possible in one or two of the surface buildings - the former entrance to Hyde Park Corner housed the Pizza on the Park and other surface buildings such as South Kentish Town are used by businesses. More information here.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Baron Corvo

Many years ago, when I worked in a public library in Kensington a peculiar man, frequently clad in lederhosen, would come in and chat with the male workers and request a series of arcane (for me at the time) books – most of them eventually had to be acquired from the British Library and other specialist sources. One author whose name I remember cropping up many times was Frederick Rolfe, also known as Baron Corvo; I didn’t have a clue who he was.

Decades passed before I was recommended to read the classic ‘experiment in biography’ The Quest for Corvo by A J A Symons, which through a series of epistolary investigations and personal interviews with those who had met him, paints a portrait of a strange, obsessive, difficult, pedantic and ultimately lonely individual who spent many years in poverty writing numerous books and articles which were pretty much ignored in his day. It is also interesting to discover how he was befriended on many occasions, mostly by members of the closely closeted homosexual community of the period (by reading between the lines of The Quest) and managed to turn any potential friend into a ruthless enemy – in his own mind at least. His perverse behaviour was to be his fatal flaw.

One of the most fascinating parts of Symons’s book is the examination of how Corvo’s reputation grew after his death, until he inspired a collector’s cult, for which any scrap of paper or jotting had immense value. The collective name for his writings and memorabilia is known amongst bibliophiles as Corviana – Donald Weeks, an especially obsessive collector and biographer died in 2004; his collection eventually was given to Leeds University. The fate of various Corvo texts has also inspired a huge amount of detective work and manuscripts once thought lost forever have been rediscovered by diligent, truffle-hunting researchers.

Personally I find Rolfe’s writing difficult to take in large doses – he revels in language but also loves to invent new words, which always annoys this reader, whoever does it. I also read his autobiographical novel Nicholas Crabbe last week, again I find the obsessive tone wearying, but it provides a useful insight into his dealings with important publishers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries such as John Lane and Grant Richards.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Bill Bruford

I am very happy to report that Bill Bruford will be reading from his autobiography at Westminster Reference Library on the evening of 17th June. He played with some of my favourite groups in the 1970s, although when I try to think of the occasions I've seen him live I can only remember the Discipline (before they reverted to King Crimson) concert at Her Majesty's Theatre on 10th May 1981. I'm probably going to be introducing him - below is the text I've compiled for the poster. It hasn't been advertised on the website yet.

An Evening with Bill Bruford

6.30-8.00 pm FREE

In the 1970s Bill Bruford played drums and percussion in some of Britain’s most successful bands Yes, King Crimson, Genesis and UK as well as such cult groups as Gong and National Health before forming his own band Bruford. From 1985 he played in the jazz group Earthworks until his retirement from public performance in 2009.

Tonight Bill will read from his autobiography (published by Jawbone Press, 2009) and answer audience questions. Copies of the book will be for sale on the night.

‘Bruford's autobiography not only provides a humorous insight into the daily detail of a successful musician's life but also grapples with the big existential issues of what it takes to be an artist of any sort in the modern world.’ The Guardian

Monday, 21 March 2011

Future London Tunnels

From London Reconnections a couple of interesting maps: both of relevance to Subterranean City, although the first is possibly the most interesting as it shows all the tunnels planned under the capital in the next few years, including the Chelsea-Hackney Line (often referred to these days as Crossrail 2), the Thames Tidal Tunnel and various power supply tunnels.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Luna Sea

Tonight I walked home from St Leonards station along the seafront and saw a beautiful full moon creating a corridor of light across the water. Apparently tonight's moon is unusually large - a perigee moon in fact. I saw numerous camera flashes going off including one on the pier, which is supposed to be off limits as a dangerous structure since the fire last year. The view of the moon through the substructure of the pier was probably the most impressive of all, the tide was out and the sandbanks and spits were gently illuminated. Until I moved to the seaside I had never witnessed the effect of moonlight on water - I had to rely on painters such Wright of Derby - but when I occasionally feel that I should have stayed in London, sights such as this convince me otherwise. Pity I didn't have my camera with me.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Radio, Radio

It's very likely that I'm going to be interviewed on the Robert Elms show on Wednesday 11th May at around 1.00pm about my talk at the ICA on Legends of Underground London the following evening. I've been his guest a few times in the past, mostly around the time that my various books have been published. I didn't get a chance to promote the Folklore of London book on the show in 2008 as another book on the topic that came out at the same time got the slot - this appearance will help to remedy that.

British Sea Power

British Sea Power played at Westminster Reference Library recently. Some film of the performance can be found here. Not really my bag, although I admire their attitude and the fact that they like to perform in unusual places. Support was provided by poet and raconteur Jock Scot, who, I realised half-way through his performance, had attended my Decadent London book launch with my father-in-law - he left before the absinthe was brought out.


I shall be leading a Decadent London walk on Thursday 19th May, starting from Westminster Reference Library in St Martin's Street, just south of Leicester Square. We commence at 6.00pm and it will last around two hours, finishing at a pub with suitably 'decadent' credentials.

It will be an event for Adult Learners Week, although it also coincides nicely with the exhibition on the Aesthetic Movement at the V&A - I should stress that the walk is not part of their event programme or directly related to the exhibition.

Lest there be any confusion, when I say 'Decadent London' I'm referring specifically to life in the city during the 1890s, when characters such as Arthur Symons, Lionel Johnson, Aubrey Beardsley and of course Oscar Wilde were enjoying their moment of fame. The walk will be based on my book on that subject (above).

The walk is free and should be booked in advance through the library; it hasn't been advertised on their website yet.

Further posts may well have a yellowish decadent tinge as I undertake my revision.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Blandland Blog

I should mention that from this year I am also running another blog called Blandland, which will be added to about twice a month. Any potential publishers wishing to bring it out in book form please contact me via Facebook.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Paul Raymond talk

I've managed to arrange a talk and discussion at Westminster Reference Library by the excellent writer Paul Willets (biographer of Julian Maclaren-Ross) and Marc Glendening of the estimable Sohemian Society on the life of Paul Raymond, pornographer and property baron of Soho. Willets has written a biography of Raymond called Members Only and has promised to bring along some suitable (?) film clips. (Which reminds me that I saw the dvd Primitive London recently, featuring a lot of 'showgirls' and a fascinating documentary on 1960s striptease called Carousella as an extra). It will take place on the evening of 27 May, details will be available from the library website nearer the date. This Saturday British Sea Power are playing there - not a favourite band of mine but I may pop along.

Fairlight and D'Oyly Carte

Today, as the weather was sunny, I undertook my first ‘proper’ walk of the year, from Fairlight village through Fire Hills and Hastings Country Park back to my house. An amusing incident occurred on the journey to Fairlight when the inevitable bus-borne alcoholic dropped his can of beer, which exploded and soaked most of the pensioners at the front - he didn’t bother apologising.
On an earlier visit to the church of St Andrews Fairlight (the tower can be seen from many miles around and can be climbed on certain days) I had made an interesting Decadent London-related discovery: in the graveyard can be found the burial place of Richard D’Oyly Carte (1844-1901) theatre impresario well known for staging Gilbert and Sullivan’s most famous works under the auspices of Mr R. D’Oyly Carte’s Opera Company. My photo of the grave above.
He also commissioned the construction of the Savoy Theatre, the first public building in the world to be lit by electricity; it opened on 10 October 1881. On that day Patience, G & S’s satire of the aesthetic movement, moved to the Savoy from the Opera Comique, where it had debuted on 23 April 1881. The character Bunthorne has been taken to be based on Oscar Wilde, but initially was probably modelled on Swinburne and Rossetti. D’Oyly Carte managed Wilde’s American lecture tour in 1882. His Savoy Hotel next door to the theatre opened in 1889 – it was recently reopened after a huge refurbishment programme.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

East London line reaches Highbury & Islington

The East London line extension to Highbury & Islington did indeed open yesterday morning. The Londonist has a post about it with links to further information.


Just completed Whoops! by John Lanchester, an idiot's guide to an idiotic financial system which many of us shall be bailing out for the foreseeable future while the people responsible for the recent disasters pocket large bonuses and generous pensions. In 200 pages Lanchester manages to explain, even to finance ignoramuses such as myself, the ‘flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works’, in the words of Alan Greenspan, the man in charge of US financial policy (and disciple of dodgy ‘philosopher’ Ayn Rand) during the crucial years.

In a nutshell Lanchester believes that the credit crunch, ‘was based on a climate (the post-Cold War victory of free-market capitalism), a problem (the sub-prime mortgages), a mistake (the mathematical models of risk) and a failure, that of the regulators.’ He describes in damning detail the origins of the crisis in a quasi-religious, self-deluding belief amongst financial ‘experts’ and governments such as those in the US, UK, Ireland, Iceland and Spain in ‘the market’ and its miraculous self-regulating properties, coupled with newly minted financial instruments such as CDOs (collateralized default swaps) CDSs (credit default swaps), which few fully understood but in which many bankers had blind unswerving belief, especially when they were earning them huge salaries and bonuses. This money-making edifice was built on foundations so shaky and insubstantial that most intelligent outsiders, had they been properly informed of the nature of these transactions, could have predicted a disaster waiting to happen – a few astute bankers and journalists did, but they were ignored or shouted down by the true believers. In the US in particular outright fraud was perpetrated by the likes of Enron and Bernard Madoff.

Over here the inevitably dire outcome was not helped by a housing-price bubble that was bound to burst hyped up by hours and hours of daily gung-ho television programmes telling us we were stupid not to be buying up properties to rent out, or purchase a couple of extra houses to do-up and sell for a massive profit; these shows seem strangely to have diminished in number now. He also points out that Britain has half the total European credit-card debt.

For those put off by the finance jargon of the first five chapters, the final two chapters of the book could be read on their own as they encapsulate the central problems of the whole enterprise. This is pretty much summed up in the section quoted below [from pp187-188]:

‘Mrs Thatcher began, and Labour continued, a switch towards an economy that was reliant on financial services, at the expense of other areas of society. One can disagree…with that policy, but what was equally damaging for Britain was the hegemony of economic, or quasi-economic thinking. The economic metaphor came to be applied to every aspect of modern life, especially the areas where it simply didn’t belong. In fields such as education, equality of opportunity, health, employees’ rights, the social contract and culture, the first conversation to happen should be about values and principles; then you have the conversation about costs, and what you as a society can afford. In Britain for the last twenty to thirty years that has all been the wrong way round. There was a kind of reverse takeover, in which City values came to dominate the whole of British life. There needs to be a general acceptance that the model has failed. The brakes-off, deregulate or die, privatise or stagnate, lunch if for wimps, greed is good, what’s good for the financial sector is good for the economy model; the sack the bottom 10 per cent, bonus-driven, if you can’t measure it it isn’t real model which spread from the City to government and from there through the whole culture, in which the idea of value has gradually faded to be replaced by the idea of price.’

No lessons appear to have been learned from the recent debacle. In The Quiet Coup, Simon Johnson, formerly chief economist of the IMF recorded that as part of his work he had, ‘acquired an extensive experience of countries which had effectively been captured by a ruling elite who governed entirely in their own interests. His startling conclusion about the current crisis is that the US has become one of those countries.’ Given the number of millionaires and ex-public schoolboys in the current cabinet, the same conclusion might be drawn about our own present situation.