Thursday, 12 December 2013

Philosophy as a Way of Life

One of the best philosophy books I've read is Philosophy as a Way of Life by Pierre Hadot which tells you how you can actually use philosophy to change and enrich your life, rather than endlessly theorize. Here's a pertinent section [p.83]:

'In the view of all philosophical schools, mankind's principal cause of suffering, disorder and unconsciousness were the passions, that is, unregulated desires and exaggerated fears.  People are prevented from truly living, it was taught, because they are dominated by worries.  Philosophy thus appears, in the first place, as a therapeutic of the passions...Each school had its own therapeutic method, but all of them linked their therapeutics to a profound transformation of the individual's mode of seeing and being.  The object of spiritual exercises is precisely to bring about this transformation.

To begin with, let us consider the example of the Stoics.  For them, all mankind's woes derive from the fact that he seeks to acquire or to keep possessions that he may lose or fail to obtain, and from the fact that he tries to avoid misfortunes which are often inevitable.  The task of philosophy, then is to educate people, so that they seek only the goods they are able to obtain, and try to avoid only those evils which it is possible to avoid.  In order for something good to be always obtainable, or an evil always avoidable, they must depend exclusively on man's freedom; but the only things which fulfill these conditions are moral good and evil.  They alone depend on us; everything else does not depend on us.  Here, 'everything else' which does not depend on us, refers to the necessary linkage of cause and effect, which is not subject to our freedom.  It must be indifferent to us: that is, we must not introduce any differences into it, but accept it in its entirety, as willed by fate.  This the domain of nature.

We have here a complete reversal of our usual way of looking at things.  We are to switch from our 'human' vision of reality, in which our values depend on our passions, to a 'natural' vision of things, which replaces each event within the perspective of universal nature.

Such a transformation of vision is not easy, and it is precisely here that spiritual exercises come in.  Little by little, they make possible the indispensable metamorphosis of our inner self.'


Various concerts over the last month or so:

The Fall at Clapham Grand 15th November.  Probably would have been better if it had been louder, from my perspective on the side I couldn't hear it properly - the mosh pit in the centre seemed to be having fun.  MES possibly the happiest I have ever seen him onstage - new ep track The Remainderer was aired plus a pretty shambolic oldie 15 Ways.  Alright, but I have much fonder memories of the Islington concert last year - far better venue for a start, where you could see and hear well from anywhere.

Christian Scott Ronnie Scotts 20th November.  I was really looking forward to this.  I still find the idea of eating a meal while listening to live music a bit strange, but the young bankers and legal professionals around me seemed perfectly at home.  Scott was with a quartet (no piano) but fortunately had his guitarist Matt Stevens onboard.  Stevens was more noodly Methenyesque with a much cleaner sound than on the records but certainly doesn't run down the usual worn grooves; then Scott announced that the guitarist was leaving to form his own band, which will be quite a loss I think and it seemed that Scott felt the same.  He spent quite a lot of the evening telling us what he thought - it took up way too much time in my opinion - how much he loved his wife (who came on to sing a number) and making numerous humorous observations.  The first set was a bit of a disappointment to me and it was only in the second that the group came alive and played with more bite and heaviosity, Stevens finally started using distortion - Jihad Joe and KKPD stood out.  I agree with this review that if more of this type of music could have been played I'd have enjoyed it more.

Troyk-estra Purcell Room 23rd November.  The best of the bunch - I've written about Troyka before (see earlier post) so it was interesting to see them in a much augmented line up.  The music was dense, constantly changing, but with a great rock and funk groove on most numbers.  This review and this one chime with my thoughts (a number of people walked out, always a good sign I feel) - Chris Montague is a very interesting guitarist and Kit Downes is certainly one to watch -  he works in many different ensembles and plays solo piano  - Joshua Blackmore the drummer's pretty good too and contributed my favourite piece Zebra (alternative anagrammatic title Braze).   The sound was excellent and I had a great view from the fourth row - the cd of the band live at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival this year was available and is recommended.

Wooden Shjips Audio Brighton 9th December.  I had high hopes for this concert but they were marred by the very poor venue.  Firstly, I can't have been the only person to go to the wrong club Haunt, as most of the publicity said the gig was taking place there.  Fortunately Audio wasn't far away along the seafront - but what a badly designed club for live music!  The stage was along the side wall past the entrance and the crowd was bunched in front of it meaning that anyone else coming in afterwards had to stand at the side with minimal view and the prospect of having to push through a very densely packed group of people to reach the toilets stranded on the far side of the room - combined with one of the most bored and surly barmaids I've encountered for a long time (not enough bar staff certainly) it wasn't a great experience.  However the music, what I could hear of it (once again it wasn't loud enough), but was probably good for the people directly facing the stage, was hypnotic and entrancing - as with any group I haven't seen before I don't prowl the internet for a preview - heavy psychedelic fuzzed drone influenced by the VU with hints of Suicide, Felt even, and most of all Spacemen 3 I thought.  They plough a very narrow repetitive furrow, but they do it well.  At the gigs you can buy the latest lp Back to Land on lovely pink vinyl with a far-out sleeve modelled on Led Zeppelin 3 and the 13th Floor Elevators artwork.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Alan Odle

This week I ordered a copy of The Life and Work of Alan Odle by Martin Steenson which tells you most of what you need to know about this interesting if fairly obscure artist.  I'm glad I found it, as I was thinking of doing a similar book myself - abandoned project No.57.  I do agree with the review that can be found here, however: after a pretty thorough bibliography of his work in books and periodicals there's very little information about the final illustrations - are they all in the collections of Terry Gilliam, Jeremy Hulme and Victor Arwas?  We're not told.  I see that Victor Arwas died in 2010.

Some years ago, searching around for a cover image for my Decadent London book I found the above picture in a history of the Cafe Royal and the search was over.  Many people think that it's a portrait of Aubrey Beardsley (or even the result of an incestuous relationship between Beardsley and his sister Mabel!) but it is in fact Odle, painted by his friend Adrian Allinson (if I recall correctly, the original is now missing, but the V&A has a photograph, hence the sepia tones).  I'm not sure that I care for a lot of his art, I prefer the earlier illustrations but he seems to have suffered many disappointments and setbacks in his life.  He was married to the Modernist writer Dorothy Richardson, whose reputation, unlike her husband's, grew after her death.  She writes that she was glad that he predeceased her, as he appears to have been almost hopeless at coping with everyday life; in earlier years he led a life of ceaseless dissipation, mostly within the comfortable environs of the Cafe Royal.  In a letter to his brother he wrote 'You know the old man's allowance won't run to Cafe Royal evenings and fires.  Necessities come first so, I do without fires.'  He also collaborated with Clifford Bax (friend of Aleister Crowley - see his memoirs Some I Knew Well) and Austin Osman Spare on the periodical The Golden Hind.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Ripe Malcolm Lowry

Having recently read in Iain Sinclair's American Smoke that the writer Malcolm Lowry was buried in the village of Ripe, not too far from us, I thought a visit to the grave was in order.  This is how Sinclair describes the scene: 'Lowry's name on a curved slab, a granite postcard buried in an extension of St John the Baptist Church, is not in deconsecrated ground, but this garden strip, close to a low wall, has a detached aspect.  Like a recently abandoned allotment.  Margerie is not beside him or with him.  The salient facts are faded but visible.  Combing back untrimmed blades of grass, I discover a glazed tablet with a Spanish inscription: "Le gusta este jardin?  Que es suyo?  Evite que sus hijos lo destruyan!"  I have a notion where that comes from but I'll have to check.  Also buried are several empty mescal miniatures.  And a Guinness can. [not visible on my visit]  The grave is thoroughly libated.  Wild roses thrive.'

Lowry died during the night of 26th June 1957 of an overdose of sleeping pills combined with alcohol.  As Sinclair notes, Lowry's wife, 'could not be planted further from her husband without striking off towards Charleston' - despite precise instructions in the porch of the church, I couldn't identify her gravestone.  Iain Sinclair also comments on this.  Biographer Gordon Bowker has questioned aspects of Lowry's death and the subsequent inquest [Foul Play at White Cottage, TLS 20th Feb 2004], pointing the finger of suspicion at Margerie.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Crossrail Progress

Phyllis the tunnelling machine this week completed the first lengthy tunnel bore between Farringdon and Royal Oak, a distance of 4.2 miles.  More than half of the 26 miles of tunnels has now been excavated.  Crossrail is due to open in 2018.  More news here, here and here.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Hermes Trismegistus

The reference to Hermes Trismegistus reminded me of a couple of visits I've made to the Duomo in Siena.  Not only does it contain one of the most magnificent frescoed libraries in Europe - the Piccolomini Library decorated by Pinturicchio (probably my favourite example of Renaissance decoration) - but also boasts an ornate marble pavement that includes an image of the great Magus (see above).  As Yates outlines in her book, during the Renaissance Hermes Trismegistus was thought to have been the author of the Hermetic writings believed to date to the ancient Egyptians; eminent Fathers of the Church such as Lactantius and Augustine had earlier added their own imprimatur to the texts' antiquity.  In fact they were probably written in the second to third centuries AD.

Therefore the Renaissance Magus 'was not returning to an Egyptian wisdom, not much later than the wisdom of the Hebrew patriarchs and prophets, and much earlier than Plato and the other philosophers of Greek antiquity, who had all - so the Renaissance Magus firmly believed - drunk from its sacred fountain.  He is returning to the pagan background of early Christianity, to that religion of the world, strongly tinged with magic and oriental influences, which was the gnostic version of Greek philosophy, and the refuge of weary pagans seeking an answer to life's problems other than that offered by their contemporaries, the early Christians.' (Yates p.2)

And from the sublime to the ridiculous: a personal prog rock fave of mine is by Todd Rundgren's Utopia at the peak of their bombast - it's called Mr Triscuits.  Not the version on Another Live but the longer more far out one that can be found on the bootleg Nimbus Thitherward taken from a 1975 BBC radio broadcast that well and truly blew my teenage mind when I first heard it.  As Todd announces before they play it, the original title was The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus.


This recent interview with Gary Lachman about Hermes Trismegistus and Hermeticism made me reach for my copy of Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition by Frances Yates.  Despite doubts about the reliability of their scholarship - voiced particularly by Brian Vickers - Yates' books have been hugely influential and for many were their introduction to various occult movements and ideas: Rosicruciansim and the House of Memory for example.   On p.54 I found a wonderful passage from the fourth book of Picatrix (Sloane 1305, f.III recto) describing a city said to be founded by Hermes in Egypt:

' There are among the Chaldeans very perfect masters in this art and they affirm that Hermes was the first who constructed images by means of which he knew how to regulate the Nile against the motion of the moon.  This man also built a temple to the Sun, and he knew how to hide himself from all so that no one could see him, although he was within it.  It was he, too, who in the East of Egypt constructed a city twelve miles (miliaria) long within which he constructed a castle which had four gates in each of its four parts.  On the eastern gate he placed the form of an Eagle; on the western gate the form of a Bull; on the southern gate the form of a Lion, and on the northern gate he constructed the form of a Dog.  Into these images he introduced spirits which spoke with voices, nor could anyone enter the gates of the City except by their permission.  There he planted trees in the midst of which was a great tree which bore the fruit of all generation.  On the summit of the castle he caused to be built a tower thirty cubits high on the top of which he ordered to be placed  a light-house (rotunda) the colour of which changed every day until the seventh day after which it returned to the first colour, and so the City was illuminated with these colours.  Near the City there was an abundance of waters in which dwelt many kinds of fish.  Around the circumference of the City he placed engraved images and ordered them in such a manner that by their virtue the inhabitants were made virtuous and withdrawn from all wickedness and harm.  The name of the City was Adocentyn.'

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Straight on till Morning

An oddity in the Hammer canon Straight on till Morning was released in 1972 and is an unsettling little film that I suppose fits into the category 'psychological thriller'.  The acting is impressive: Rita Tushingham plays a naive Northerner coming down to the Big Smoke hoping to meet a charming Mr Right and prospective father.  Unfortunately she runs into 'Peter' played by Shane Briant an affectless serial killer living in squalid luxury in a Kensington mews house.  It's all a bit of a downer and probably about 20 minutes too long but I liked the period evocation, especially the interiors: the boutiques and her clumsily painted psychedelic room from which she moves into his 'tastefully' decorated bachelor pad with Hogarth prints (The Rake's Progress, appropriately, certainly the debauched scene in the Rose tavern Covent Garden) and scenes from executions on the walls.  I'm pretty sure these were from Jacques Callot's Les Grandes Miseres de la Guerre published in 1633 and depicting the horrors of war, looting, pillaging and summary execution (I think I saw the image reproduced above on his wall). There's a great scene filmed in the early hours at the deserted South Bank looking hugely impressive in its newly-created Brutalist splendour, before it was toned down so as not to frighten the horses.

There are a number of rather obvious Peter Pan references and Tushingham's character is rechristened 'Wendy' - towards the end she has an ill-judged makeover, emerging, I have to say, looking remarkably like the young Shirley Collins.  Filmed mainly around the Earls Court area - famously home to London's transient population - it supposedly starts in Liverpool although I immediately recognised Sarf London - in fact not far from where I grew up - see here for some atmospheric stills - much of The Sweeney was also filmed in this area.  Also enlivened by the appearance of the gorgeous Katya Wyeth, you can also find James Bolam, frizzy haired John Clive (the director Peter Collinson - died young - also made The Italian Job in which Clive features) and an unrecognisable Tom Bell.  The editing initially is very much of its time, rapidly cutting forwards and backwards, but soon settles down; there's also some very disturbing use of the type of reel to reel tape recorders that many households had in those days.  How did he manage to so easily dispose of all that blood and all those bodies?  It's well worth watching if you like to see the fag-end of the optimistic 'swinging' 60s as it slides remorselessly down towards Thatcherism in 1979.  Would make a great double bill with Dracula AD 1972.  See also here and here.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Olson and Andrews

One of the key figures in American Smoke, apart from William Burroughs, whom Sinclair tracks down to his home in Lawrence, Kansas, is Charles Olson, poet and critic, denizen of Gloucester, New England, which is also visited for the book.

Reading this, I was suddenly reminded of my three enjoyable years at the University of Leicester in the early 1980s when I decided to take two years of American Studies to supplement History and the History of Art.  The American Studies department at Leicester was a peculiar institution indeed and would probably never be allowed to exist in today's rigorously instrumentalized academic climate.  Most of the department was flamboyantly gay (one tutor frequently dressing in full Leatherman outfit - he once dozed off in the middle of a tutorial after a particularly heavy night) and then there was Lyman Andrews.

It was the reference to Olson that brought him back after thirty years, as he'd recommended that we read the poet's work on Melville and Moby Dick (Call Me Ishmael 1947, can't remember if I did or not) - one of the few reasons I'm glad I took the course is that I got to read that wonderfully rich novel.  I found some material on Andrews online which pretty much chimes with my memories of his demeanour and behaviour.  He clearly had little interest in teaching - his lectures were often shambolic - and it was not uncommon to turn up for an afternoon tutorial to find him passed out in an alcoholic stupor on the floor of his study.  He could come alive if the subject was one of his favourite writers - he certainly amplified my interest in Hemingway.

After a hurried session he would invite you to the student union bar so that he could continue with his daily drinking schedule.  If he really fancied you it would be the university academics' own bar, whose portals I penetrated a couple of times - on one occasion eminent sociologist Laurie Taylor was holding court there much to Andrews' disgust.  He would then ply you with pints of snakebite in the hope that you might accompany him home to his shared student house - reader I stoutly resisted.   What I didn't realise at the time, being a hopelessly callow youth, was that he had an earlier reputation as a decent poet (once poetry critic for The Sunday Times - those were the days) had met the likes of Burroughs and Ginsberg and partied with some key figures of the sixties.  His Wikipedia entry mentions his 'colourful' life at Leicester.  A blog entry by a fellow student at Leicester (did I know him at the time?) gives a sympathetic and ultimately sad account of his life: ending up as a recluse in a Nottingham YMCA where he died in February 2009.

Another Flurry

Last Thursday to Brighton to meet up with Gwilym Games (Machenalia editor for The Friends of Arthur Machen) and various guests of the World Fantasy Convention in the Victorian-flavoured Cricketers pub.  Friday in London, at the invitation of a friend, went to Soho's Alleycat Bar to see a couple of youngish groups I knew nothing about: Six Years - Post Punk with a drum machine, very much in thrall to The Au Pairs and Delta Five-type early 80s female-fronted bands and yet when I mentioned this to the singer/guitarist she'd never heard of them - and Psycho Delia a riot grrl style, White Stripes lite, drummer and singer/guitarist with a lot of ferocious energy and a nice line in see-through white body stockings (pic above).

Saturday to The Beacon in Hastings to hear Iain Sinclair read from his latest book and recite some poetry.  He was accompanied through some of this by top sax man John  Harle (a noted composer in his own right, he's also played with the likes of Elvis Costello) and some ambient laptop soundscapes.  American Smoke is Sinclair's homage to the Beats who he has long admired and been influenced by - I purchased a signed copy and have been reading it.  I have to confess I find him less convincing when sundered from his Hackney/Spitalfields haunts but, as he himself admits, he's pretty much exhausted this ground.  The evening was part of the admirable Black Huts festival put on by St Leonards poet and publisher Nicholas Johnson who I briefly talked with at the end.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Genesis Revisited

To the Albert Hall last Thursday to see Steve Hackett's Genesis Revisited.  I'd ummed and ahhed for months about going - I'd heard the first Genesis Revisited cd and thought it was appalling:  unwisely added new vocals and no improvement on the originals, to my mind.  I haven't heard vol.2 and have no intention of doing so, but...maybe this might be the last time I'd hear music from the period 1972-78 performed by someone from the group, as it seems extremely unlikely and indeed redundant for Genesis to reform now (Phil Collins has retired anyway).  I was one of the many thousands who endured the waterlogged conditions at the Milton Keynes Bowl to witness the final time that Peter Gabriel played with them in 1982 (he was brought onto the stage in a coffin).

As I'd hesitated for so long about going to the Albert Hall and only bought a ticket a week before the show I ended up with a Gallery standing ticket.  As it turned out this was an advantage as there were only about 20 of us in the vast seatless, stratospheric space and you could wander around from one vantage point to another and enjoy the show in complete isolation, rather than being stuck in the crowded, cramped-looking seating below.  One fired-up chap was making the most of it, running around and bellowing along - but he was easily avoided.  The lighting looked good from up there too.  The audience was all too obviously what would be expected, although there was a smattering of younger people and even some women.

Musically the show was impressive, although most of the songs had been rawked up, which worked for some but detracted from others.  The low point of this came when the guest guitarist (whose name I didn't catch) scrawled some HM noodling over Return of the Giant Hogweed to its detriment.  Looking at setlists for earlier shows it seems that a much larger section of The Lamb was played - instead of The Lamia and The Chamber of 32 Doors we got some extra Nursery Cryme tracks - the aforesaid Hogweed and one of my personal favourites The Fountain of Salmacis, which sounded huge in the vast hall.  Another highlight was The Musical Box from the same lp, which really benefitted from the heavier, rockier sound - one of many standing ovations.  This concert was surprisingly loud, much louder than I remember the original group's gigs being.

Other highlights: Firth of Fifth with John Wetton singing, Ripples sung by Amanda Lehmann and of course Supper's Ready that finished the set before the encores.  Steve Hackett stood and played almost continuously for two and a half hours, quite a feat for a man in his sixties with music of this complexity.  As far as the other musicians on stage - and basically this was a high-class tribute act - Lee Pomeroy deserves extra praise for excellent work on guitars (double-necked natch), bass and pedals.  I was expecting to find Nad Sylvan's singing jarring but it worked pretty well, apart again from a few 'rock vocal' flourishes.  I missed some of the subtle power of Phil Collins' (and Chester Thompson's) playing on the drums, which were the weakest point in my opinion.  Nevertheless I think any fan from that period would have gone home pleased - I shall now resist going to any further Genesis-related concerts.  Coming up:  The Fall, Christian Scott, Troykestra and Wooden Shjips.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Daughter at the De La Warr

To Bexhill last week to see Daughter - I'd heard one track on 6 Music which I liked and thought I'd take a punt.  Show sold out - in fact whole tour sold out!  Very enthusiastic audience of all ages - I was by no means the oldest - plenty of teenagers, one or two of whom recognized my wife as their former teacher.  Missed support Indians to watch the full moon make a corridor of light across the Channel from the balcony outside.  Daughter were good, played well and were received rapturously - not sure about the crowd-pleasing Daft Punk encore.  I bought the cd (on 4AD, which I thought had disappeared years ago, home in the 80s to many of my favourite musicians and based very close to my birthplace).  I've not seen a group change guitars so many times since the days of the likes of Steve Howe and his racks of instruments.  Definite shoegazing tropes (fine by me) and a hint of Sigur Ros with the bowed guitar - the biggest influence on the sound as far as I was concerned was early Verve (when they were still interesting, before the addition of the definite article), especially the crystalline guitar arpeggios - and her voice still reminds me of someone, who I can't pin down - such are the impressions nowadays of concerts when I feel that I've heard all the music, good as it may be, somewhere before.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Mail Rail Plans

An interesting idea to open up the Mail Rail tunnels beneath Mount Pleasant as an extension for the British Postal Museum and Archive.   Also known as the Post Office Railway it was in operation from 3rd December 1927 to 31st May 2003.  See my book Subterranean City and here.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The Swaffham Pedlar

From my book  The Folklore of London (unedited version) photos above taken by me in August:

'Visit the fifteenth-century church of St Peter and St Paul in Swaffham, Norfolk and you will probably be impressed initially by the squadron of angels in flight incorporated into the magnificent chestnut roof.  However, a little more time spent inspecting the interior reveals a number of carved bench-ends depicting a man with a dog on a chain; the same image appears on the central pinnacle of the south porch of the church.  The figure commemorated here is John Chapman, who had given a large sum of money to construct the north aisle, together with its stained glass windows, (long since disappeared) showing him with his wife and three children.  The reputed source of his fortune is of interest to anyone fascinated by London’s folklore.

John Chapman was a resident of Swaffham during the fifteenth century who made his living as a pedlar.  He is the subject of the earliest of several legends concerning a pedlar’s dream, in which he is told that he will hear something to his advantage if he visits London Bridge.  As a result of the information he receives he discovers treasure in his back garden.  The earliest written account of Chapman’s tale, recorded by Sir William Dugdale in a letter dated 29 January 1652/3, relates:

“That dreaming one night if he went to London he should certainly meet with a man upon London Bridge which would tell him good news; he was so perplext in his mind, that till he set upon his journey he could have no rest; to London therefore he hasts and walk’d upon the Bridge for some hours where being espyed by a Shopkeeper and asked what he wanted, he answered you may well ask me that question for truly (quoth he) I am come hither upon a very vain errand and so told the story of his dream which occasioned the journey.  Whereupon the Shopkeeper reply’d alas good friend! should I have heeded dreams, I might have proved myself as very a fool as thou hast; for ‘tis not long since that I dreamt, that at a place called Swaffham Market in Norfolk dwells one John Chapman a pedlar who hath a tree in his backside under which is buried a pot of money.  Now therefore, if I should have made a journey thither to dig for such hidden treasure, judge you whether I should not have been counted a fool. To whom the pedlar cunningly said “Yes verily, I will therefore return home and follow my business, not heeding such dreams henceforward.”  But when he came home (being satisfied that his dream was fulfilled) he took occasion to dig in the place and accordingly found a large pot full of money which he prudently conceal’d, putting the pot amongst the rest of his brass.  After a time it happen’d that one who came to his house and beholding the pot observed an inscription upon it which being in Latin, he interpreted it, that under that there was an other twice as good.  Of that inscription the Pedlar was before ignorant or at least minded it not, but when he heard the meaning of it he said, “‘tis very true, in the shop where I bought this pot stood another under it, which was twice as big”; but considering that it might tend to further his profit to dig deeper in the same place where he found that, he fell again to work and discover’d such a pot, as was intimated by the inscription, full of old coine: notwithstanding all which he so conceal’d his wealth, that the neighbours took no notice of it.  But not long after the inhabitants of Swaffham resolving to reedify their church, and having consulted with the workmen about the charge they made a levy wherein they taxed the Pedlar according to no other rate than what they had formerly done.  But he knowing his own ability came to the church and desired the workmen to shew him their model, and to tell him what they esteemed the charge of the North Isle would amount to, which when they told him he presently undertook to pay them for building it, and not only that but of a very tall and beautiful tower steeple.” [Sir William Dugdale’s letter is transcribed from Sir Roger Twysden’s Remembrancer in Francis Blomefield An essay towards a topographical history of the County of Norfolk  (William Miller, London, 1805-10) 11 vols. vol. vi. pp.211-214.  See also Enid Porter The Folklore of East Anglia (B.T. Batsford Ltd. London, 1974) pp.126-127]

There is another slightly different version of the story in which the lid of the pot or box that contained the original precious hoard, with its Latin inscription unintelligible to Chapman, is placed in his window.  Shortly afterwards he happens to overhear some passing young scholars translate the verse as:

Under me doth lie
Another much richer than I

Thus inspired, he digs deeper in his garden and uncovers a treasure much richer than the first.  The story of The Pedlar of Swaffham was well known in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as both a chapbook and as a children’s book.  Though tied to details of Swaffham church, it did not begin there.  It is the earliest-known English version of an international tale, “The treasure at home”, found all over central Europe, and in Eastern collections of stories; in Britain, there are versions set at Upsall Castle, North Yorkshire, and in Scotland and Wales. [Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends from Spring-Heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys (Penguin Books, London, 2005) pp.516-517]'

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Michael Ayrton's Grave

After having recovered from an undiagnosed diabetic neuropathy Michael Ayrton died from a sudden heart attack in his London flat at the age of 54.  His house and studio Bradfields was in Essex so he was buried in the quiet village churchyard of St Botolph's, Hadstock nearby.  I took these photos on a visit there a couple of weeks ago.  The church is of great antiquity and a number of archaeological digs had taken place in the near vicinity.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Urban Exploration

An interesting piece by Robert Macfarlane on urban explorers in last Saturday's Guardian.  Although a lot of it sounds remarkably dangerous I have to tip my hat to some of the achievements of these daredevils and often give them a quick mention in my talks - the websites have provided one or two of my illustrations.

Open House in Battersea

Each year my enthusiasm for London Open House declines (too many crowds and queues and public transport in London is far more crowded than it was when I lived there) but I still manage to drag myself around a handful of places.  This year I decided to stick south of the river.  My plan to visit Battersea Power Station was stymied by meeting someone who'd just passed the massive queues, so I decided instead to revisit some old haunts (from the outside - they weren't part of Open House) namely my old school Sir Walter St John's in Battersea High Street.  Buildings still there, but no longer a state grammar school.  Hard to believe now but round the corner, at what was then called Devonshire House, we had our sixth form common room and various beautiful wood-panelled chambers at our disposal for tuition - now in private hands of course and probably worth millions.  The queue to view the house next to the old school was too long so I wandered off to the De Morgan Centre in Wandsworth.  The collection there used to be housed in Old Battersea House owned by the Forbes Foundation - in the mid-1980s they allowed me inside to see their considerable cache of Evelyn de Morgan paintings as part of the research for my thesis on the influence of Florentine painting on Edward Burne Jones and his followers.  Nice to see them once again - bottom pic Flora by Evelyn de Morgan.

Rother Valley Railway

To Robertsbridge yesterday to travel on the newly reconstructed section of the Rother Valley Railway, which now connects with a main line station. A great deal of work has been going on recently including the construction of a platform, laying new track and installing bridges.  There's still a fair way to go until it links back up with the Kent & East Sussex Railway at Bodiam - there's the busy A21 to cross, but I hope that ultimately it will be as successful as the Bluebell Railway, which recently extended to a National Rail connection at East Grinstead.  My photos above.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Spinney Secret Tunnel

I recently acquired a copy of [Here are] Ghosts and Witches (Batsford, 1954) by J. Wentworth Day, illustrated by Michael Ayrton, wherein another East Anglian secret tunnel legend can be found [pp.22-24], told in Wentworth Day's inimitable style:

'Spinney has several ghosts.  No place is better fitted for them.  Founded by Lady Mary  Bassingbourne, 'of the Wykes', in the twelfth or thirteenth century, it was a lonely outpost of the Augustinian Canons, standing grey and grim, enisled amid reefy leagues of fen and mere.  A bare wind-twisted belt of scrubby firs was all that protected it from the wild nor'easters that howled down on the wings of the frost and battered its doors, rattled its windows, and beat flat the winter reeds in the great fish-stews.

They lived a good life, those old monks - asceticism offset by old wine and the best that the Fen netsmen and decoymen could bring as tribute.  It was too good to last.  When Henry VIII fell upon them Spinney suffered with the rest.  That is how the first ghosts began their earthly span.

The legend is that when Henry's men-at-arms marched on Spinney, the monks fled in terror down the subterranean passage which is supposed to connect the Abbey with Denny Abbey, five miles across the fens, on the other side of the Cam.  They took with them the plate and all else moveable of value.  Half-way down the tunnel they met the monks of Denny, who also had been turned out by Henry's ruffians.  They decided that it was better to yield up the holy treasures and be saved than perish and be glorified.  So they trotted back to Spinney.  There they found the Abbey wrecked and cast down, and tons of debris over the door to the outer world.  The same had happened at Denny.

Thus the monks expatiated their carnal backslidings by dying in that nightmare tunnel.  Some of my family tried to explore the tunnel fifty years or more ago, but it was full of water and noisome gases.'

He goes on to say that a later owner of the house, built on the cellars of the priory, was troubled by tapping under the floor (said to be the ghosts of the monks tapping on the roof of the tunnel).  'At other times footsteps have been heard and horrible sliding, serpentine rustles, as of gigantic snakes slipping about on the brick steps.  Water fills the tunnel to within a few steps of the top. it is extremely probable that the river has broken in at some time and flooded the passage.  This belief has given rise to stories that the tunnel is inhabited by great eels, which accounts for the "slippery ghosts".'  He also reports that workmen digging on the fens 'found the arched brick roof of a tunnel which seemed to run in a straight line between the two abbeys.  The men got down to gault before they struck the roof, so it is possible that the tunnel might have been driven through the sticky tenacious gault with little fear of inundation from the marshes above.  Gault is impervious to water.'

A more prosaic history of the Priory of Spinney can be found here and some information on the subsequent history here.  One important feature of such tunnel legends, common after the Dissolution, was that they reinforced the official propaganda of the 'carnal backslidings' of the monks, as Wentworth Day puts it.

Binham Priory Tunnel

In August we visited Binham Priory in Norfolk, a former Benedictine house established in the twelfth century - after the Dissolution the nave was used as a parish church -it's a beautiful place.  The west front has one of the earliest traceried windows in England.

It's also interesting from a folkloric point of view.  In 1898 a contributor wrote to Norfolk and Norwich Notes & Queries:  'It is believed that an underground passage leads from Walsingham to the church at Binham, where the natives still point out the spot where the entrance is said to be.  The story has it that many years ago a fiddler volunteered to walk through this passage from the Binham end, and to play his instrument all the way.  He began his journey alone...but was followed above ground by a number of people, who could hear the sound of his violin below.  All appeared to go well till about half the journey was accomplished, when the music suddenly stopped, and the man was never seen again.  The spot where the subterranean harmony ceased is still called "Fiddler's Hill"'.

An earlier story from 1892 names the fiddler as Jimmy Griggs and he's accompanied on his subterranean explorations by his dog Trap.  The line of the tunnel could be seen on the surface as a green bank.  It was said that at night 'a grate tall feller, like an old monk and dressed in black' [a Dominican monk] walked along this bank from Walsingham to Binham shaking his head and appearing to look for something.  In this version the dog runs trembling from the tunnel without his master who was said to have been taken by the Black Monk.

We couldn't see any signs of a tunnel at Binham but at the point where the fiddler's music stopped there is a large round barrow known as 'Fiddler's Hill'.  During road works in 1933 the mound was cut into and workmen uncovered human bones and those of a small animal.  The fiddler and his dog?  Despite the fact that there were two human skeletons, one of a girl, the animal skull was thought to be a dog's, so it's understandable that many wanted to believe that the legend was true.  Archaeologists thought that the burial was Saxon.  The mound still stands at a crossroads which would have increased local lore about it.  As Westwood and Simpson state in Lore of the Land (from which much of this information comes) 'Burial mounds in folklore are associated with a cluster of themes, particularly one categorized by folklorists as 'Path from grave to lower world.'  Detailed archaeological information about the barrow can he found here.

The early versions of the story have the tunnel running between Binham and Walsingham (where we were staying on holiday) but the information board at the mound claims that it ran from Binham to Blakeney.  A legend at Blakeney tells of a tunnel from the Guildhall to the Carmelite monastery and a later one that it finished at Wiveton -  there is also a story of a blind fiddler entering the tunnel but failing to reach the other end.  All photos by me.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Fu Manchu's 100th Anniversary

Much catching up to do now that summer is definitely over.

First up: 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the publication in the UK of the first Fu Manchu novel by Sax Rohmer The Mystery of Doctor Fu Manchu.  There are a number of events in the autumn to mark this anniversary including a conference at the University of Westminster at which I shall be speaking about Sax Rohmer's life and work.  Phil Baker and Robert Irwin, amongst others, are also involved.  More details including the programme here.

There's also a play called The Fu Manchu Complex by Daniel York at Ovalhouse in South London offering an alternative perspective on the fiendish Devil Doctor.  In connection with this production there will be a conference later this month at SOAS.

Hopefully, all this will culminate in the publication by Strange Attractor Press of Lord of Strange Deaths in November featuring contributions from Phil Baker, Prof Clive Bloom, Antony Clayton, Gary Dickinson, Christopher Fowler, Paul French, Robert Irwin, Lawrence Knapp, Gary Lachman, Prof Roger Luckhurst, Alan Moore, Steve Moore, Kim Newman, Mark Valentine and Dr Anne Witchard.  More information on Amazon although my name has been misspelled and the link leads to a different writer with similar name.

Salon No.11 at London at the Library will focus on Fu Manchu.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Brompton Station For Sale

Brompton Road, one of the so-called London Underground 'ghost stations' is up for sale, a bargain at £20 million.  More details here and here.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

WR: Mysteries of the Accumulator ('The new cult of sex and anarchy')

Just finished reading Adventures in the Orgasmatron by Christopher Turner, a very well written and fascinating biography of Viennese psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich.  Turner casts his net wide and the book includes forays into Freud and his early disciples, Alfred Kinsey's groundbreaking studies, the origins of birth control ('Many critics have seen in the Rockefeller support of Kinsey's sex research an attempt by the ruling classes to manipulate human behaviour by trying to find the means by which sex could be controlled' p.214), Paul Goodman, Gestalt Therapy, Esalen, Herbert Marcuse and the insidious uses made of psychology and psychoanalysis in advertising from the 1950s onwards (Mad Men obviously springs to mind here, as does the work of documentary maker Adam Curtis).

The shoddy treatment of Reich by the FDA and 'crusading' journalists (the headline of Mildred Brady's article for Harper's Magazine April 1947 issue appears in the title of this post) now seems pointless and a waste of time and money.  For me the book stands as a testament to the treatment of non-conformity - towards the end of his life Reich was clearly delusional, becoming obsessed with cloudbusting (see Kate Bush) and UFOs.  He died while serving a prison sentence for violating an injunction against sending his orgone accumulators across state lines.  It's heavily ironic that the FDA ordered the burning of his books as had Hitler before Reich escaped the Nazis and fled to the USA.  His ideas were influential on a number of writers including Alan Ginsberg, Norman Mailer and most famously William Burroughs who made his own accumulators (see photograph above of Kurt Cobain sitting inside one of these at Lawrence, Kansas).  Makavejev's 1971 film WR: Mysteries of the Organism was always showing at arthouse cinemas in the 1970s and 1980s but I've yet to see it.

A review of the book here.

Two of the most interesting characters to emerge from the book for me were Ernest Dichter and Fritz Perls.  About Dichter Turner writes (p.393):
'He embraced consumer culture wholeheartedly as a bulwark against fascism and the best weapon against communism.  Like many European exiles, he felt that the totalitarian threat was simmering below the surface of American life.  Dichter saw the motivational researcher as a psychoanalyst-at-large  whose job was to safeguard democracy by assuaging the fears of an anxious society, he turned consumption into a kind of therapy.  Whereas thinkers such as David Riesman and C Wright Mills saw mass affluence as leading to an epidemic of alienation, Dichter interpreted it as the very thing that kept democracy and the economy on the march.  "If we were to rely exclusively on the fulfillment of our immediate and necessary needs, our economy would literally collapse overnight."

The elderly Perls became a guru-figure at Esalen, promoting 'free love', later becoming disillusioned.  His oft-repeated slogans included 'Live in the present', 'Re-own your projections', and 'Be here now' (used for a very crap Oasis album).

Obviously my own Accumulator Press imprint owes a huge debt to Reich via Hawkwind.

Lyons Lithographs

A lovely exhibition at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne showing the 40 lithographs produced by some of the finest British artists of the period (in the decade following the Second World War) in an attempt to brighten up the rather tired looking Lyons Tea Shops and Corner Houses that were a staple of the refreshment and relaxation business in that long-vanished England.  A lot of detective work must have gone into matching some of the prints with their original paintings and studies.   The catalogue for the first series Sixteen Lithographs by Contemporary Artists (1948) bore an introduction by our old friend James Laver.  I was also pleased to see two works by Michael Ayrton: The Spectators was not to my taste, but Life in Autumn was very pleasing - curiously this commission isn't mentioned in the occasionally over-detailed Ayrton biography by Justine Hopkins; there's also a very attractive John Minton Apple Orchard (see above), Kent.  Many might call it twee, but consider the contrast with today, when works of art are exhibited in restaurants to show how sophisticated (or not) trendy and wealthy the owners are - the Lyons lithographs were available to buy and employees got a discount.

One downer is that the small paperback catalogue, which I wanted to buy, costs an eye-watering £40!  It's not just the price of exhibitions that's becoming prohibitive.  I'm sure the Lyons lithographs regularly come up for sale - here's one at the Goldmark Gallery, for example.  See also an essay in The Guardian.   The other illustration above is Albert Bridge by Carel Weight, who painted many locations in the area where I grew up.  My book London's Coffee Houses has a section on the Lyons tea shops - see also an earlier post about the demolition of the very first one in Piccadilly, a photograph of which appears in the exhibition.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Ayrton, Stross & Crowley (revised)

First published 2/10/2010 UPDATE 5/7/2013 For addtional information on this topic see this excellent post from the Richard Warren blog in the list opposite.

I’ve recently become interested in the art of Michael Ayrton (1921-1975), painter, sculptor, printmaker, author and radio and television personality,. 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?
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.

Michael Ayrton's Barbican Minotaur

'His body is part human yet he begins as a bull at the loins and he bears a hump of sinews upon his shoulders which carried the great horned skull and the cattle brute mask of his head.  His belly however is human...' Michael Ayrton The Maze Maker (1967) p.168

Ayrton's Minotaur (1968/9, bronze) was presented to the City of London in 1973; initially situated in Postman's Park, it was also intended to be part of a turf maze, which never materialized.  Following a fascination with the myths connecting King Minos, the Cretan labyrinth, Daedalus and Icarus, he had first turned his attention to the Minotaur in 1962, possibly as part of his love-hate relationship with Picasso's art (in 1944 Ayrton had penned a notorious essay on Picasso entitled 'The Master of Pastiche').  In his version of the myth he denied that Theseus slew the creature, whose destiny was ultimately to become human.  His book The Maze Maker quoted above was read by a wealthy Czech-born American Armand Erpf who commissioned Ayrton to construct a labyrinth or maze on his estate at Arkville in the Catskill Mountains.  At the heart of the labyrinth stood two bronze sculptures of Icarus and Daedalus and a bronze Minotaur - a cast of which was made, purchased by the Corporation of London in 1972 (total cost of sculpture and installation £9000).  It remained in the park until 1997 when it was relocated to a raised walkway on the north side of London Wall (this area was being redeveloped in 2013).  Written using Philip Ward-Jackson Public Sculpture of the City of London (Liverpool University Press, 2003) pp233-235.  The image comes from Smoke.

ADDENDUM During Open House 2017 I had a very interesting tour around Salters Hall.  At the end we exited into the garden where we were shown a box containing the Minotaur, which had been installed there and was awaiting unveiling.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Man-Ergs and Minotaurs

To the Barbican last night to see Van der Graaf Generator - third encounter since the reunion - solo Peter Hammill seen many times.  Only knew about a third of the set.  After a restrained start - second song Flight was good but could probably have been replaced by one from the band repertoire.  The killer combination came at the end: Man-Erg, A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers and Childlike Faith in Childhood's End (for me Still Life is the quintessential VdGG record) - very few rock bands are equipped musically or philosophically to explore the areas these complex songs encompass.

Quite by chance, as I wound my way round the circuitous Brutalist concrete elevated walkways, close to the ruins of St Alphege, I found the Michael Ayrton Minotaur sculpture that once graced Postman's Park, surrounded by security fencing with a notice saying that it had been removed (was this a facsimile before me?)  A timely reminder to repost a piece about that creature and its creator.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Clubs and Salons

After the well-attended Salon for the City on Thursday a chap recommended that I should talk at the Catalyst Club in Brighton (if they'll have me).  I'll think about it, but I'm trying to limit any further appearances this year, preferably to none - although I've now agreed to speak at a conference in October, as the subject matter is not underground London.  However, the Catalyst Club itself looks well worth supporting.  The revival of the salon continues apace, reassuring in these days of (anti)social media.  Earlier this month over 100 people showed up for the Balham talk, which was nice. 

The next Salon will include Bob Stanley from St Etienne, who kindly wrote the foreword to my book on the folklore of London and Paul Kelly who's made a series of excellent films about the city, which are about to be released by the BFI.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Tubular Bells for Two

On Wednesday evening to Hastings White Rock Theatre to witness Tubular Bells for Two.  Like millions of others in the early 1970s I bought Mike Oldfield's opus and helped make Richard Branson's fortune, but I haven't heard it for at least 30 years - I was attracted by the idea of just two musicians playing the whole thing themselves.  Obviously, thanks to modern technology it's now feasible for such feats to be attempted - phrases were continually looped and built upon, but timing and tuning must be absolutely crucial.  An element of showbiz could also be seen in one of the two having to run around the stage frantically adjusting mikes, swapping instruments and bashing away at a full drum kit - at one point towards the end he looked really out of breath.  They played all the instruments, numerous guitars acoustic, electric and bass, various sampled keyboard sounds, bass drum and cymbal, and of course tubular bells - they even did the 'female' vocals.  Also the best use of kazoos I've ever seen at a rock concert.  Only one obvious cockup almost at the end in the Sailor's Hornpipe section, which only required two acoustic guitars, but they had to restart after they started out of time with each other.  I'd forgotten how good parts of the music were, particularly the lovely gentle ending of 'Side One'on acoustic guitar - made we want to strap on my axe again.  The audience loved them.  Recommended.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Christopher Priest in Charing Cross Road

To Blackwells in Charing Cross Road yesterday to hear Christopher Priest in discussion with Simon Ings.  My personal favourites of his books (out of the ones I've read) are The Glamour, The Affirmation and his most well-known novel The Prestige (filmed of course by Christopher Nolan - with David Bowie as Nikola Tesla!).  I've admired his work for its unusual and original subject matter and most of all for its beautifully clear and grammatically rigorous style.  In the discussion he had some interesting points to make about science fiction: quite correctly, that once you get the bug in your teens it's impossible to ignore it, but that much of it is, with hindsight, terrible - the work of Heinlein and Asimov, for example, were described as 'shit' and 'a pile of bollocks' - can't really disagree with that.  However, he singled out the Sixties New Wave and M. John Harrison as the writers to read - again I have to agree.  Looks as if I need to read the first volume of Graham Greene's autobiography as well.  At the end he kindly signed a copy of The Prestige for me and I gave him a copy of my latest book as I thought, as a fellow resident of Hastings, he would enjoy it.  It appears that he did.  His latest novel is The Adjacent, the principal subject of the talk.

On the opposite side of the spectrum from the art and craft of Christopher Priest, last week I read the novel Chemical Wedding which was one of the worst books I've ever had to force myself through (I did so because there's a connection in the first chapter with my latest book): very badly written, obviously a hastily adapted screenplay, incoherent and incomprehensible in places, Rizla-thin characterization, gobbets of quantum physics and pseudo science chucked in to impress but failing to do so and an even higher than average count of typos and word mangling and mismanagement.  The final irony is that a proof reader is thanked in the acknowledgments (unlike the publisher of the song lyrics quoted).  Now I shall just have to see the film with Simon Callow...

Saturday, 1 June 2013

June Events

A couple of events to mention this month.  Firstly a talk on underground London at Balham Library on Friday 7th at 7.00pm.  It's part of Wandsworth Heritage Festival and the programme can be downloaded here.  Second I'm appearing at London at the Library on Thursday 27th at 6.30pm talking about the subterranean city with Tom Bolton who's written about London's Lost Rivers.  Hopefully they will be my final public appearances of the year.  I'm planning some repeat walks for 2014: William Burroughs, Sax Rohmer and Whistler over next summer - details here as and when.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Jack in the Green 2013

Some photos I took at this year's hugely popular Hastings' Jack in the Green with the biggest crowds I've ever seen at the event.

Whistler's Mother

I finally got round to visiting Hastings Cemetery today on a glorious sunny afternoon as part of some local research I'm doing as well as a follow-up to the last book.  Unconnected with the book, but very much pertinent to my interests - Whistler is one of my favourite artists - is the fact that his mother Anna Matilda McNeill Whistler lived a few doors down from us and it is extremely likely that, as our house was built in 1861, the great artist himself walked past it on a number of occasions.  I found her memorial in the Garden of Rest - it is now buried in the ground but still perfectly legible.  I hope to expand this post at some point in the future.

Above photograph by me of the memorial stone; below Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 (1871, Musee D'Orsay, Paris)