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.