Monthly Archives: April 2010

Nostalgia: Bill Hicks, the NME and me

‘Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, “nostalgia” literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.’ Don Draper, ‘Mad Men’

You can experience nostalgia in the most unlikely places. Yesterday it was when Lou Reed’s ‘Satellite of Love’ came on the radio, a song my circle of friends listened to incessantly when we were 18 but I’ve hardly heard since. Like ‘Debris’ by the Faces, it’s a song can instantly take me back in time and space, 16 years and to the kitchen of my best friend Scott, when we all had curtain haircuts, smoked like chimneys and were terrifyingly sincere about everything all the time.

A couple of months ago the potent twinge in my heart came when I went to a screening of the new Bill Hicks documentary ‘American’.

When you go and see a film about Bill Hicks you probably expect to come out laughing or enraged or saddened, but I emerged wistful, contemplative and swamped by memories.

I hadn’t thought about Hicks a great deal since 1992, but suddenly it all came flooding back. Staying in to watch Hicks on ‘Clive Anderson Talks Back’ or being interviewed at the Montreal Comedy Festival as C4 surfed the wave of having the hippest comedy content on the block. Reading about Hicks in the NME on the bus to school, enthralled by this astonishing man who called himself a comedian but was sandwiched between features on the Lemonheads, Sonic Youth and Mudhoney and never looked out of place. You couldn’t do that with Jasper Carrot.

C4 comedy and the NME were the two key cultural influences for me at the time, so it’s little surprise that Hicks and his performances should have seemed so important, and also that they should be so easily forgotten, as what we most value in late adolescence is often the first thing that gets abandoned on the roadside during the long march to maturity.

I wrote an article exploring some of this in the context of British love for Hicks in the Independent on Sunday, but can’t help wondering the extent to which I am projecting my own memories of Hicks onto a wider canvas. 

Are these memories entirely personal and therefore largely irrelevent, or are there other people my age who place Hicks in the same C4/NME  bracket? In a sense, I don’t really want to know, because this is my nostalgia, not yours, but at the same, like everybody else, Hicks included (and why else did he love the UK so much?), I desire vindication, some confirmation that my nostalgia isn’t just a ‘twinge’, but something that has real cultural value beyond that. So come on people, vindicate me.

London disaster porn, or how I learnt to stop worrying and love the flood

I bought this book the other day. How could I not? Everything from the cover to the title to the name of the author screams ‘BUY ME!’, and so I did.

The Big Wave: The Day London Collapsed is, as you might have guessed, about a tsunami that destroys London. Here is a choice paragraph:

Somewhere twenty or so feet below us, under uncountable tons of debris, was the street we had once known as Haymarket; the grey hill to our right was largely the remains of Canada House; the ravine in front would be Sussex Place and beyond that – at the moment not visible – would be the National Gallery. The city we knew had been buried, the streets engulfed by debris, wiped out of existence. I stared at the grey and broken landscape attempting to absorb the scale of the disaster. It was too much. It was too big.

Hot stuff, huh?

And it got me thinking. Not about the danger of a seismic episode taking place ten miles off the Thames Estuary, sending shock waves through the city, felling major landmarks and preempting a giant tidal wave that turns the entire London basin into a corpse-riddled swamp, but about authors who love destroying London.

Will Self’s The Book Of Dave, Richard Jeffries’s After London and JG Ballard’s The Drowned World all take place in a London destroyed by flood (interestingly, Conrad Voss Bark’s The Big Wave is the only book I own that actually describes the flood taking place), and all are marked by a relish in seeing the city brought low. It’s all very Biblical.

‘The deserted and utterly extinct city of London was under his foot,’ writes Jeffries in After London, an almost unreadable Victorian novel. ‘He had penetrated into the midst of that dreadful place…’ We never find out what has destroyed London other than some sort of catastrophic flood, but Jeffries carefully draws an entirely new, almost medieval, world, which he clearly prefers to the Victorian one he has demolished. It’s a bit like John Christopher’s Prince In Waiting trilogy, only nowhere near as good.

Ballard’s dense and difficult 1963 novel The Drowned World is little better. Again, after catastrophic flooding, London has been replaced by a fetid swamp, something that Ballard seems remarkably sanguine about, as this spot of dialogue makes clear.

‘Do you know where we are, the name of this city?’ he asked.

‘Part of it used to be called London; not that it matters.’

Later, in the book’s most evocative passages, the characters walk through drained streets around Leicester Square. ‘Dying fish and marine plants expired in the centre of the roadways… they stood in the entrance to one of the huge cinemas, sea urchins and cucumbers flickering faintly across the tiled floor.’

Both these books were obvious influences for Self’s recent The Book Of Dave, which takes places on the island of Ham. This is Self’s name for the high-lying remains of Hampstead Heath, which overlook a London that has been replaced by a lagoon after, you guessed it, catastrophic flooding. Self doesn’t exhibit quite so much glee at the demise of London, although he draw a strong contrast between the idyllic, unquestioning life of those on Ham and the manic contemporary Londoners, brains overfilled with unnecessary knowledge, that we meet in flashback. One of them, the titular Dave, has been driven insane by the intensity of modern living.

So all three, in their different ways, present the London-free future as being preferable to the present. And if they are accurate predictions of the future, perhaps the following shouldn’t freak me out quite as much as it does.

Pleasant dreams!

Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, who has a glass eye…

Like many people, I will watch the leaders’ TV debate tonight for a mixture of reasons. Guilt that I am otherwise taking so little interest in the election, mild interest in whether they will say anything I really believe, curiosity at what Nick Clegg actually looks like. But I will also watch in the blind anticipation that Gordon Brown finally makes use of his key electoral asset and whips out his glass eye.

It is my belief that future generations will look back in amazement, astonished and perhaps even aghast that we had a Prime Minister with a glass eye and nobody really seemed to know anything about it.

It is not too late for this to change. For starters, every article about the PM should start, ‘Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, who has a glass eye…’ to really reinforce the point. And in the debate, Brown, the Prime Minister, who has a glass eye, should make a much stronger attempt to use the eye to his advantage.

A few suggestions. He could pop it out and stick it on the lectern looking up at Cameron while the Tory is talking. Or toss it casually from hand to hand while delivering his own speeches. Perhaps he could bounce it against his flexed bicep and into his outstretched hand in a flamboyant gesture that would manage to be both insouciant and intimidating. Watch his poll ratings climb! A namby-pamby nanny-bred nincompoop like Cameron would be terrified.

Better still, Brown could keep the eye in, take a dart to the debate and then just tap it casually against the glass eye whenever Cameron is speaking. How cool would that be?

It would leave Cameron with only one option. Lop off a hand, and replace it with a hook.

Now, I don’t want to suggest our political leaders should get involved in an ever-sicker whirlpool of deliberate self-mutilation in a vain bid to impress the voters… well, actually I do.

Let the freak show commence!

A new free newspaper for London

London’s latest free newspaper will launch next month. Snipe is a fortnightly arts and listings newspaper that will be available in selected bars, restaurants, clubs and shops from May 15, with an initial print run of around 10,000 – although this is set to rise. The website launches on Friday April 15. 

Don’t worry though, London Weekly it most certainly ain’t.

Snipe‘s founder, Darren Atwater, is a Canadian and small newspaper nut with considerable editorial experience in his native Vancouver. We met up a couple of months ago and he explained that he was basing Snipe on the free community papers that are available in most US cities. This is a concept that has always impressed me. These independent enterprises survive through classified and small-business advertising and at their best can be tremendous, vital local newspapers with a real grip on what is going on in their city. In some cases, they are the glue that holds a city’s diverse scenes together, with passion and knowledge of their subjects married to a genuinely independent and non-commercial spirit. Yes, websites can cover this sort of ground – see the excellent Londonist, for example – but there is still nothing better than print for making a real, concrete imprint on a city.

I have often wondered why London has never produced an answer to a paper like the Austin Chronicle, an essential alternative newspaper that is free, useful, cool, politically engaged, culturally confident, intelligent and easy t0 find. Atwater wondered the same, and then decided to do something about it.

London has had some terrible experience with free newspapers recently, but this is something different altogether, an enterprise that all London-based lovers of arts and newspapers should get behind.

Beer for a year

The other day, somebody delivered this box to my door.

I opened it.

And this is what was inside.

Beer! Thirteen bottles of the stuff.

I get four of these boxes each year, my Christmas present from Ms Great Wen. They are supplied by a company called, a new company that specialises in finding obscure real ales from microbreweries in every corner of the country and delivering them to anybody who fancies trying new and different beers. I am a member of the 52 Week Beer Club, which means I get a different bottle for every week of the year. Included in this quarter’s box is an alcoholic ginger beer, and something called Undertaker from Wincle, which must be good for so many reasons.

I am not a heavy drinker and I’m not a CAMRA nerd, but I like a fine ale. So this is perfect.

Ed Turner, the founder, started the company after sampling a brilliant beer in the Lake District and then realising that nobody else in the country could get hold of it, because the means of supply were beyond the tiny brewery’s budget. They now deliver beer from dozens of small breweries, including Clapham’s Sambrook’s. Last year, Ed took me on a tour of Sambrook’s, followed by a tasting session about which I remembered little other than the website of the company, which I then passed on to my missus accompanied by some large and appropriate hints.

So there you go. If you like beer, this is for you. Tonight, I plan to try the Unpronouncable IPA from Crown Brewery, a ‘punchy 7 per cent’ the tasting notes inform me.


My finest achievements No 1: Wikipedia

No, I didn’t invent it, but I do now appear on it, in this entry on the No 68 bus.

Impressive huh?

Wikipedia and buses are two of my favourite things, so this pleases me greatly.

It is also far better than my previous appearance on Wiki, when I ‘used’ an entry about Longest Streets In London as the basis for a piece in Time Out. Somebody then ‘used’ my piece in Time Out as the official reference for an entry on Wiki about the Longest Streets In London, which was a classic example of why Wiki doesn’t always work, or at least it was until somebody deleted it.

If you appear somewhere on Wiki, please share it here.

I should be so lucky: blackmailed by a poet

My interview with the writer Michael Horovitz appeared in the Times on Saturday. You can read it here.

This piece had a curious gestation. I contacted Michael in December as part of my ongoing attempts to track down a lost London counterculture magazine of the 1970s to which Michael had contributed.

I asked him to help, and he said he would, but only if I first wrote a feature about him based on the many anniversaries he was about to celebrate, including his own 75th birthday. It was blackmail, but of the nicest sort because Horovitz is an extraordinary figure, who I had great fun interviewing and writing about.  He also has a fridge packed with some of the most delightful cupcakes I have tasted in years (and I have tasted a lot of cupcakes). The piece then proved to be a surprisingly easy sell to the Times and has directly led to a couple of other pieces that are now in the pipeline. To all of which, I say ‘Hurrah!’

Michael has worked with artists and writers as distinct as William Burroughs, Paul McCartney, Lenny Bruce, Dudley Moore, Spike Milligan, Joe Strummer, David Hockney, Peter Blake, Allen Ginsberg and Patti Smith, and of his many achievements, the one I sadly didn’t get space to write about in the Times was the part he played in the unexpected cultural renaissance of Kylie Minogue.

It was at one of Michael’s Poetry Olympics events at the Royal Albert Hall in 1996 that Kylie first shook off her Stock, Aitken and Waterman pop image when she performed a tongue-in-cheek spoken word version of ‘I Should Be So Lucky’. ‘Indie Kylie’, the NME star, was born.

Michael currently has an exhibition of his paintings on display at Art@42 in Notting Hill Gate until the end of April, and a documentary about his life was broadcast on Sunday on BBC Radio 4, which you can listen to here.

Improving Standard: the return of Andrew Martin

One of the delights for me about the improving Evening Standard has been the return of old hand Andrew Martin, with his unorthodox but smart tales from the underground, now called Man On The Tube (and only intermittently available online).

This used to be called Tube Talk and was my favourite feature of the old ES magazine in the late-90s when that mag was a great supplement. Martin’s column was the chief influence behind my own bus column at Time Out, where I endeavoured to catch every London bus in numerical order and write about the journey each week.

Martin had this knack of finding fascinating weekly stories about the Tube (something Annie Mole has been doing for the last few years), and writing them up with wit and skill. He’s a fantastic writer and a real London enthusiast; it’s great to have him back.