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
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