There is a review of Lord of Strange Deaths in the December edition of the Literary Review, by none other than the great John Sutherland. It took a while, but I eventually tracked down a copy in WH Smith at Victoria station.
Here's the first paragraph:
"Phil Baker and Antony Clayton write good books about bad books. It is a pity that George Orwell, connoisseur of the 'good bad book', is no longer with us to relish their intrepid ventures into the swampy depths of the uncanonical. 'The existence of good bad literature - the fact that one can be amused or excited or even moved by a book that one's intellect simply refuses to take seriously - is a reminder that art is not the same thing as cerebration,' wrote Orwell. In other words, turn off your minds, all ye who enter here. There may be pearls in the schlock."
Watched Dr Terror's House of Horrors last week, an Amicus portmanteau film, released in 1965. The blu-ray has an interesting documentary with comments by, amongst others, Reece Shearsmith and horror film expert Jonathan Rigby. Reckoned by some to be a classic of the genre, I found it watchable if a bit overlong, with a few moments to savour. My favourite portmanteau film remains Dead of Night.
When five men enter the same railway carriage compartment they are joined at the last minute by Dr Schreck (Peter Cushing) with his pack of tarot cards who proceeds to tell their fortunes to pass the journey. Needless to say, the future doesn't look good for any of them. The segments involve a Scottish werewolf, a Triffid-like killer plant, a voodoo curse, a vengeful disembodied hand and finally a vampire.
The main interest of the film lies in the amazing cast: Cushing, Christopher Lee, an early appearance by Donald Sutherland, Michael Gough, Bernard Lee, Isla Blair and, er, Roy Castle and Alan (Brentford Nylons) Freeman (although on the plus side, I listened religiously to his 1970s Saturday afternoon show and even had a request played). For me, the best section (and performance) is the one with Christopher Lee as a pompous and acerbic art critic who ends up mutilating an artist before dire revenge is exacted. The story where Roy Castle plays a jazz musician who borrows from the music accompanying a voodoo ceremony in Haiti was not as terrible as I'd been led to believe: it also includes an appearance by the renowned Tubby Hayes (often claimed to be the greatest jazzman Britain has produced, a recent doc on him available from here) and his quintet and Kenny Lynch, a notable songwriter who was a permanent fixture on 60s telly. Castle's West Indian accent has to be heard to be believed. There's also a very pomo moment (poment?) when Castle collides with a dustbin beneath a poster advertising the very film that he's appearing in (although it features the names of the characters rather than the actors). The film's final twist implies that they have avoided their awful fates, but at what cost?
Review from The Guardian taken from Rigby's excellent English Gothic, the film: '...is a kind of rehash of Dead of Night...One or two of the episodes are really quite ingenious, and bits are well handled by director Freddie Francis. Although the generally ridiculous dialogue takes away some of the horror, it does give you something to chortle over while you get through the sticky bits.'
The film inspired a purchase of Dr Terrible's House of Horrible, a series of parodies of Hammer/Amicus films with Steve Coogan, which on second viewing is still not particularly funny, but is well observed and worth it if only for his impression of Peter Wyngarde's voice. Coogan and Matt Berry have certainly nailed those strangely-accented macho male voices that frequently cropped up (often dubbed) in 1970s thriller and adventure films and television. I should point out that there's a Fu Manchu parody called Frenzy of Tongs starring Mark Gatiss as a sinister robed oriental with a distinctive moustache. Probably also drawing on the Hammer film The Terror of the Tongs (1961), also starring Christopher Lee, which I must get round to seeing one day.
Purely by chance I recently caught Ian Rankin promoting his latest Rebus novel on the radio (what a busy schedule these successful writers have). I knew that he was a music fan of about my own age and as soon as he said the book was called Even Dogs in the Wild I got the reference to the Associates song of the same name. It made me revisit my interest in their music and re-read The Glamour Chase, The Maverick Life of Billy Mackenzie by Tom Doyle. The tragedy of the tale is the fact that someone so apparently exuberant and bursting with life and ideas (as is evident from the early records) could take his own life before he reached forty.
According to Doyle's biography (p.140), by 1984: 'It was increasingly becoming apparent that it was as a piano-accompanied torch singer that Billy felt at his most comfortable in the live arena. Warners, keen to coax him back into live performance on whatever level, arranged a date at London's legendary jazz haunt Ronnie Scott's on 9 December 1984. Billy had not performed live in the capital for four years ... so there was the inevitable clamour for the 200 tickets made available, although ironically, Warners quickly snapped up three-quarters of the allocation and this key event was witnessed by an audience comprising mainly record industry personnel and music journalists. Viewing the existing footage of this half-hour performance was as close as the majority of Associates' fan base got to witnessing the unarguable peak of Billy Mackenzie's live career.' It wasn't all music biz types there, I managed to get tickets for me and my friend from an agency in Shaftesbury Avenue: it was clear as soon as we sat at our table that this was no ordinary gig audience and we felt like the only real 'fans' there. I loved it, although obviously half and hour was not nearly enough time. Footage of the show is online and this (unreleased at the time) was my favourite song of the evening. I saw The Associates a couple of times after this (Leicester Poly and St James's Piccadilly) but it wasn't as special as the Ronnie Scott's show.
Nottingham is one of the most fascinating English cities from a subterranean point of view. Back in 893 the Welsh monk Asser wrote in his Life of Alfred about how in 868: 'the army of pagans leaving Northumberland invaded Mercia and came to Nottingham which is called in the British tongue Tigguacobaucc which means "the place of caves".' Nottingham sits on very soft sandstone (Sherwood Sandstone) that can be excavated with ease while providing structural integrity, ensuring that well-designed caves do not collapse, a fact realised by the earliest settlers in the area. On a higher outcrop a Norman castle was constructed in 1068 and a town grew up around its base. The present castle building was erected in 1679; it was seriously damaged in Reform Bill rioting in 1831 and was later rebuilt on its spectacular site as a museum and art gallery. There are in fact hundreds of these caves (around 500 have been recorded) and all are man-made; reference to a recent survey can be found here.
Over the centuries Nottingham's caves have enjoyed a variety of uses: beneath No.8 Castle Gate is a virtually intact medieval malting, the cool and stable climate enabled it to be used all year round. Sand was mined underground for use in the construction and glass industries; some caves were used as subterranean dwellings, others later made secure air-raid shelters. A series of caves below Broadmarsh shopping centre were originally individual features beneath houses flanking an ancient street called Drury Hill (criminally knocked down in the 60s - I sometimes wonder if the 'Swinging Sixties' refers to a wrecking ball). The demolition revealed pub cellars, storage caves and an impressive underground tannery with a number of rock-cut vats in the floor. Today they form part of the tourist attraction called 'City of Caves' which is well worth visiting on a guided tour. (See map above).
The Flying Horse Inn, established in the fifteenth century, had two levels of rock-cut beer cellars and survived as a public house (rebuilt in the seventeenth century and heavily restored in 1936) until the late 1980s, but is now a shop at the entrance to the Flying Horse shopping arcade in the centre of town. There is an underground restaurant at the Hand and Heart Inn on Derby Road, as well as cellars and bars cut into the rock; the Golden Fleece on Mansfield Road also uses caves as cellars. Obviously while were in town we visited the Trip to Jerusalem with many of its bars cut back into the sandstone at the foot of Castle Rock. Private drinking spaces were also excavated. Between 1730 and 1740 Rothwell Willoughby, younger brother of Lord Middleton of Wollaton Hall, built himself a house on Low Pavement (now Willoughby House): above ground it appears to be a typical Georgian townhouse, while below three perfectly circular caves can be reached by a staircase from the garden. These form a clover shape, each supported by a carved central pillar; from the largest a passage leads south towards the former location of the river Leen before it was diverted. The smaller caves have tables carved into the central pillars and the largest has benches around its edges. It is most likely that the smaller were wine cellars, while the large cave was a drink den. Since 1994 the building has been a flagship store for the Nottingham-born fashion designer Paul Smith.
Incidentally, I had a very poor response from Paul Smith's 'Customer Services' department, who didn't even bother replying to my recent request to visit the caves. The house next door is of the same period and is now a Jamie Oliver restaurant where we ate with the children; the toilets are part of a warren of passages and rooms below, which probably link(ed) with those under the Paul Smith shop.
Two excellent studies of the caves can be purchased at various places in town: Sandstone Caves of Nottingham (2008) by Tony Waltham and Nottingham's Caves (2004) by Andrew Hamilton.
Reading a short book by Frank Norman Why Fings Went West about the London theatrical scene in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the letter reprinted in its entirety (pp.66-68) from the Lord Chamberlain's Office amused me. It may seem strange to many that the Lord Chamberlain was able to censor plays from 1737 up until the Theatres Act of 1968. Frank Norman had an interesting life of real struggle (it's unlikely he would manage to escape from the precariat these days) and was part of that whole Soho scene chronicled by Dan Farson in his highly entertaining books. Norman was co-author with Jeffrey Bernard of one of the definitive works of that genre Soho Night and Day (I only have the paperback, the hardback is an expensive collector's item).
Incidentally, during the summer we spent a week staying at a cottage in the Devon village of Georgeham. One morning I went for a wander, as I tend to do, around the village church and churchyard; I came across a gravestone for Negley Farson, which nagged at me, as I was sure I'd heard the name somewhere. It was only later that I realised that he was Dan Farson's father and had once been a well known author and correspondent. Apparently Dan inherited his father's alcoholism and both men died in the house at Georgeham.
The Norman book was one of a series called Time Rembered issued in the 1970s by Lemon Tree Press, based in Bedfordbury and named after the still-popular pub nearby. The press owner Allen Synge sounds like another of those admirable small publishers of the period.
Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be was a successful musical with music by Lionel Bart, recently revived - interesting that The Guardian review also mentions the camp interior decorator.
7th February 1961
The Lord Chamberlain has received numerous complaints against the play 'Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be', in consequence of which he arranged for an inspection of the Garrick Theatre to be made on 1st February last.
It is reported to his Lordship that numerous unauthorised amendments to the allowed manuscript have been made, and I am to require you to revert to it at once, submitting for approval any alteration which you wish to make before continuing them in use.
In particular I am to draw your attention to the undernoted, none of which would have been allowed had they been submitted, and which I am to ask you to confirm by return of post have been removed from the play.
Indecent business of Rosie putting her hand up Red Hot's bottom.
The dialogue between Rosie and Bettie. 'You've got a cast iron stomach.' 'You've got to have in our business.'
The interior decorator is not to be played as a homosexual and his remark '...Excuse me dear, red plush, that's very camp, that is,' to be omitted, as is the remark, 'I've strained meself.'
The builder's labourer is not to carry the plank of wood in the erotic place and at the erotic angle that he does, and the Lord Chamberlain wishes to be informed of the manner in which the plank is in future to be carried.
The reference to the Duchess of Argyll is to be omitted. Tosher, when examining Red Hot's bag, is not to put his hand on Rose's bottom with finger aligned as he does at the moment.
The remark, 'Don't drink that stuff, it will rot your drawers,' is to be omitted.
Tosher is not to push Rosie backwards against the table when dancing in such a manner that her legs appear through his open legs in a manner indicative of copulation.
The Lord Chamberlain's Office,
St James's Palace, SW1
I shall be returning to Nottingham next month to give a talk at 2:00 in the afternoon at the 12th Readers' Day on Saturday 7 November. Events will be held in County Hall, West Bridgford. Author Linda Grant is the main attraction at the end of the day, but if I get there early enough I'd like to hear the talk about literary impostures.
It would appear that the much-delayed Lord of Strange Deaths, which I co-edited with Phil Baker (in case everyone's forgotten, it's about Sax Rohmer and amongst other things his most famous/notorious creation Fu Manchu) will emerge from the printer on the same day at the end of this month as Secret Tunnels of England, a rather bizarre coincidence that will mark the culmination of three years' work. Available from Strange Attractor - I'm hoping to have a few copies to sell on my promotional travels, but we shall see.
On a first visit to Loch Ness in the spring I just had to go to Boleskine House on the side of the loch. Still quite remote and a long way down a far less busy road than the one thronged with coaches on the opposite side it was pretty atmospheric - the cemetery opposite is also worth visiting. As I didn't want to trespass I couldn't get a full view of the house - as it is you have to stand on the front wall and avoid the barbed wire. Better photos by those who had no such qualms can be found online, for example here. Photos below are taken by me, apart from the pic of Jimmy Page, who hardly spent any time there when he owned it, as he was rather busy at the time.
Another reason for visiting Warminster was as research for a small part of my new publication on secret tunnels. In one of his increasingly bonkers books Warnings from Flying Friends Arthur Shuttlewood mentions the burial in a secret tunnel near Warminster of a 'talisman of the Devil' (although a talisman is actually intended to ward off evil). Extract below that follows on from folklore accounts of the burial of a 'golden calf', often in a tunnel, which are surprisingly common around England:
"A darker alternative form of the golden calf tale, was recounted by journalist Arthur Shuttlewood, an eccentric writer on ufology who enjoyed some fleeting renown for publicizing the so-called ‘Warminster Thing’ in the 1960s. In one of a series of increasingly bizarre and credulity-stretching books he claimed to have been told the tale of the burial locally of the ‘golden ram of Satan’ when researching local ghost folklore concerned with the Royal Oak pub in Corsley Heath, a village about four miles (6.4 km) west of Warminster. According to Shuttlewood the building had once been a monks’ refectory that formed part of thirteenth-century Longleat Priory, on the site now occupied by Longleat House and was haunted by the ghost of a monk in a brown habit. The Royal Oak’s landlord had also told him that a ‘triangle of passages and tunnels’ led from the pub to Cley Hill – a prominent landmark to the west of Warminster, with evidence of an Iron Age hill fort on its summit – and a nearby farmhouse at Whitbourne.
Some weeks after the story was published in ‘a leading evening newspaper’ Shuttlewood was contacted by the landlord who said he had been visited by ‘a tall thin man with fanatical dark eyes who claimed that the [tunnels] held the most precious secret or earthly relic of the Devil.’ After his request to visit the cellars was granted the young man then asked about demolishing the cellar wall that was said to separate the inn from one of the tunnels. When the landlord refused permission his mysterious visitor ‘confided his firm belief that the talisman of the Devil, the golden ram of Satan, lay buried in the earthen walls of the tunnel, probably interred under Cley Hill itself.’"
We visited the Royal Oak (my photo), a very friendly pub, and had a nice lunch in the beer garden. I asked the landlady if she knew anything about Shuttlewood's extraordinary story but, not surprisingly she, and some of the older regulars, had never heard of it. One middle-aged man did say there was supposed to be a tunnel to nearby Cley Hill, so that part of the tale is still based in local folklore.
With two books about to emerge at any moment it's time to try and catch up with what's been going on this year.
On our way back from a holiday in North Devon we paid a visit to Cradle Hill, just north of Warminster in Wiltshire. I'd recently read an excellent account of the so-called 'Warminster Thing' UFO flap in the mid-1960s (In Alien Heat by Steve Dewey and John Ries) and having never been there, thought it might be my only opportunity for a long time. I had no idea it was the 50th 'anniversary' of the onset of the strange events that all got classified as UFO-related (even if they weren't), mainly thanks to the presence of local journalist and eventual UFO guru Arthur Shuttlewood. There's a good overview article in this month's Fortean Times.
Cradle Hill was the most popular spot for groups of enthusiasts (many already expecting to see something) to gather and watch the skies for unusual lights. Situated as it was, and still is, close to army training areas it's not surprising that low-flying helicopters and flares fired off at night were often mistaken for 'flying saucers'. At the peak period in the mid-60s hundreds of people would gather there. Shuttlewood himself claimed to have seen over 800 unidentified flying objects, but as the authors of In Alien Heat ably demonstrate, he was not a reliable witness.
Dr David Clarke is probably the most important figure in contemporary British ufology and I would recommend his books over the vast majority of poorly written, inadequately researched and sensationalist publications out there. An excellent review of his latest book on the Magonia website (its name deriving from the book that shaped my teenage thoughts about the subject, Passport to Magonia by Jacques Vallee, that situates the subject quite rightly in the realm of folklore) really nails the heart of the whole phenomenon and Dr Clarke has recently written about Warminster on his own site. Incidentally, I contacted him to contribute a chapter to my secret tunnel book, but he was too busy, no doubt on the recently published How UFOs Conquered the World.
Some photos I took last month on Cradle Hill: the graffiti is on the 'barn' which was reportedly often used at the time to sleep in after a long night's skywatching, but is now securely locked.
The new book is now finished and is at the typesetting and proof-reading stage. I've been working on it pretty much non-stop since Christmas and - unlike the Sax Rohmer/Fu Manchu book - it is absolutely on schedule. I'm still hoping it will be out in September or early October.
Publishing it myself means a large amount of work on everything from the usual research and writing to typesetting, book design, cover, printing, promotion, distribution, organizing a book launch and subsequent events and use of social media (not my strong point). Fortunately I have managed to persuade Bradley Garrett to write a foreword and Gary Lachman an afterword.
It should be up on Amazon within the next ten days and I shall be posting some material from it in the near future. More regular posts will hopefully resume soon.
Very little happening here at the moment as all my free time is being spent writing the next book, which I want to be out by September. As far as Lord of Strange Deaths is concerned there have been so many false announcements of its appearance that I won't bother mentioning it any more - according to Amazon it's coming out in December this year. I have much more control over my present book which I'd say is two thirds completed - more news in a month or so.
Despite promising myself that I wouldn't do any events during the writing of the new book, I've agreed to one or two. The first, which should be very interesting, will be with Bradley Garrett details here under Salon No.24. As City Read has a subterranean theme it's likely that there will be a talk in April somewhere or other. Also a talk for the Dracula Society on Sax Rohmer, possibly in June.
Sad to hear of the death of Demis Roussos this week, my post on Aphrodite's Child here. Also the passing of Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream - my first live concert was TD at Fairfield Halls Croydon 23rd October 1975, a memorable and very loud occasion.
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; Secret Tunnels in England, Folklore and Fact