Having recently acquired a drawing by John Minton (1917-1957) I read his biography by Frances Spalding Dance Till the Stars Come Down. A good friend of Michael Ayrton (see earlier post) this talented painter, illustrator, stage designer and teacher seems to have suffered from manic depression: he took his own life on 20th January 1957. He was homosexual and a heavy drinker and hung out with the usual Soho & Fitzrovia suspects: the two Roberts, Bacon, Freud etc and shared a studio with Keith Vaughan. For me, some of his most evocative works are his Thames dockside pictures, when it was still a working port and not an investment opportunity. Here's a passage he wrote about this favourite subject:
'I do not think the initial stimulus to paint is necessarily visual. For instance, a ship's siren is one of the most potent sounds I know, arousing a whole series of images. Awakening the particular grey sadness of the docks, the dark enormous ships and cold chill wind shuddering over the sea, the cranes drawn slenderly intricate and black upon the steel sky; amongst the small shapes of painted colour, the vivid orange, rust red, white and cobalt, or again, the high still skies of midsummer, the warehouses sharp and square in the honey-coloured sun, and the quietness of ships glittering across the pale horizontal water; where occasionally a small figure moves and is still again. The flags hanging limp; afternoon; nostalgia for distant cities and landscapes of the world.' [Spalding p.103]
It would be no exaggeration to say that reading J G Ballard's Crash in my late teens had a substantial impact on my outlook on life. I saw him speak a couple of times and he kindly signed my copy of The Kindness of Women (stupidly, I didn't take Crash with me) - I was also present at the NFT talk with JGB and David Cronenberg when the film of Crash came out and was banned by Westminster City Council; the book signing queue afterwards was long enough to put me off, another decision I've since regretted.
I've just finished Extreme Metaphors a collection of Interviews 1967-2008: the interviews in the first special Re:Search on JGB (partly reproduced here) were another huge influence in my younger days - so many stimulating ideas! This latest volume is very repetitive but contains a lot of interesting (and prescient) stuff. I seem to recall being surprised on seeing him being interviewed by Mavis Nicholson on her afternoon show in the 1970s, but that encounter doesn't appear here. A few extracts:
With Frank Whitford in 1971:
'But technology in terms of videotape machines and so on may make it possible to have a continuous alternative to direct experience, and I mean any alternative. You can have this played back in a slow motion, or do you want it in infrared, or do you want it this and that. Take your pick, like in a jukebox. Technology may make it possible to have a continuous feedback to ourselves of information. But at the moment I think we are starved of information. I think that the biggest need of the painter or writer today is information. I'd love to have a tickertape machine in my study constantly churning out material: abstracts from scientific journals, the latest Hollywood gossip, the passenger list of a 707 that crashed in the Andes, the colour mixes of a new automobile varnish.
With James Verniere in 1988:
'I think we're living in a landscape of enormous fictions, of which television is a major supplier. The danger with TV is that it predigests and pre-empts any kind of original response by the viewer. It just feeds the viewer a kind of reality. (It has become, in fact, the new reality, just like processed food has become the staple diet of many people in the West.) this force-feeding makes us rather like a lot of bullocks in a pen. Reality now is a kind of huge advertising campaign, selling television's image of what life is about. The real aim of TV is fulfilling its own needs. Television is no longer an innovative medium here, and I imagine it's probably true in the States as well.'
Last week at a book launch in London I had the pleasure of chatting to Timothy d'Arch Smith, author, bibliographer and antiquarian bookseller. Amongst his works are the erudite and entertaining occultist Books of the Beast (Mandrake) and an autobiographical volume The Times Deceas'd (Weiser Antiquarian) about his time at Foyle's and the Times Bookshop, formerly located in Wigmore Street (it disappeared in the late 1960s). As well as praising my most recent book he also mentioned another interesting character who lived not so far from Hastings, Cyril Scott, whom I'd not encountered before.
I thought I would reproduce a short extract from his account of working in the book trade to give you a taste of the joys within; it deals with a couple of 'Uranians' who are included in my own Decadent London.
'Anthony d'Offay, an enterprising undergraduate at Edinburgh University, had acquired the library of the nineties poet, John Gray and of his friend, Marc-Andre Raffalovich. This he had done in very simple fashion by knocking on the door of the monastery where the books were housed and offering money for them. In common with many decadent writers, Gray had converted or, to put it in a less charitable light, subverted - part and parcel of a general wilfullness exhibited by this literary movement - to the Church of Rome. In contrast to many of his fellow writers, he did not die young. He and his rich friend 'settled down'. Gray became a priest. Their pooled libraries, moved about from cure to cure, ended up in Edinburgh where they had been bequeathed to the Dominican order. Raffalovich's books all had his bookplate, or rather one of two bookplates, a pictorial label of fin-de-siecle design executed by the psychic artist Austin Osman Spare; and for books of a homosexual nature - plenty of those - an Eric Gill woodcut of a serpent wound in a knot: perhaps a lover's knot to add to symbolism already heavily-handedly ratified. We had acquired at Sotheby's a copy of John Gray's Silverpoints (1893), the special vellum-bound issue, which set off the association copies bought from D'Offay for our second catalogue. D'Offay produced his own catalogue of the more important books from the Gray/Raffalovitch menage adorned with a cover photograph of the young Andre Raffalovich which bore striking resemblances to the young Anthony D'Offay. Already hankering after a career in pictures instead of in books, D'Offay jobbed off to us his entire stock over the next few years, among which remained a sprinkling of the Gray/Raffalovich treasure-trove.' [p.44]
For more on John Gray see In the Dorian Mode: a Life of John Gray by Brocard Sewell.
D'Offay, of course, went on to become a major art dealer - I was a regular visitor to his gallery, just south of Oxford Street, in the 1980s and 1990s - it closed in 2002. The Times Deceas'd is written in a delightfully orotund style that had me occasionally reaching for the dictionary, one obscure adjective also reminded me of my favourite name for the publishing house of my last work - Callipygous Press - that had to be abandoned in favour of Accumulator.
I have to mention the 150th anniversary of the London Underground: on 10th January 1863 the world's first underground railway opened to the public. The line ran from Paddington to Farringdon Street with intermediate stations at Edgware Road, Baker Street, Portland Road (later renamed Great Portland Street), Gower Street (Euston Square) and King's Cross. A year later the line was carrying more than 11 million passengers. Today a steam engine reappeared on that section of line; see herehere and here. Photograph from London Reconnections.
Author of Subterranean City, Beneath the Streets of London, London's Coffee Houses, Decadent London, The Folklore of London, Subterranean City (Revised and Expanded Edition), Netherwood, Last Resort of Aleister Crowley, Lord of Strange Deaths, the Fiendish World of Sax Rohmer