Monthly Archives: June 2010

Man crushes: No 1 Georghe Hagi

Seeing Mesut Ozil dismantle England so deliciously yesterday reminded me of one of the first times I felt those confusing stirrings of desire towards another man. His name was Georghe Hagi, and after watching this in 1994, I was smitten.

Fancy a dip? Cos I bloody don’t: shrinkage, country music and David Hockney at Brockwell Lido

Although I am lucky enough to live just a short belly flop from Brockwell Lido, it will be a cold day in Cairo before you ever see me in the water.

Some people adore swimming. They embrace the invigorating iciness, relish the chance to strip down to their Speedos and take on the chill of the British outdoor pool, defying both cold and dreaded shrinkage (‘like a frightened turtle’) in search of their daily dip.

I am not one of those people.

I have never liked swimming. I don’t like getting wet, I don’t like changing rooms, I don’t like being cold and damp, I don’t like shrinkage. I know that after the initial ice-induced paralysis has worn off the swimming pool can be almost pleasant, but I don’t like the actual mechanics of swimming either, the hard work, the splashing, the water in your mouth, eyes and nose, the getting overtaken by grannies, the knowledge you are wallowing in urine, saliva and chlorine.

Slather me in seal fat and offer me the Queen, and I still won’t go near the shallow end even on the hottest day of the year. What’s the point? You can’t read in a swimming pool.

So, it is perhaps rather ironic that one of my favourite London songs is about a lido. ‘Springboard’ by The Arlenes featured on their 2002 debut album ‘Stuck On Love’. ‘Gospel Oak Lido is the place to be,’ sings Big Steve Arlene in this brisk, wide-eyed ode to swimming and love at a London lido. The sound quality isn’t great, but give it a listen here.

The Arlenes were that rare beast, a decent English country and western band. English artists have always struggled with authentic c&w. There have been some great albums and songs, but these are usually pastiches or neo-homages. There have been some interesting reinventions from the likes of the Mekons. But rarely have a British band truly embraced country music in all its authentic glory, creating a noticeably British take on an American art form. (A nod here to The Rockingbirds, who also got it.)

Perhaps that’s because country is too sentimental for British tastes, or maybe it’s because it’s not something we Brits grow up with – how often do you hear a country song on British radio (similarly, how many decent British Westerns have you seen)? But while imported sounds like blues or jazz are swiftly assimilated into the British musical tradition, country has always been the unwanted runt, something to snigger at, an American tradition we don’t understand like eating grits, going to church and being optimistic. Even country artists like Johnny Cash are celebrated for their rock more than their country, while the country influences behind Elvis Presley are rarely grasped on these shores.

The Arlenes, who were a half-English, half-American duo, genuinely adored country, and ‘Springboard’ oozes the sort of sunny outlook that David Hockney had to leave Yorkshire and move to California to find. It is a difficult thing to pull off in London, where the sun doesn’t shine all that often, nobody knows the words to ‘Pancho and Lefty’ and some miserable sods won’t go near a swimming pool, but they managed it.

I’m not sure where they are now. Their second album ‘Going To California’ – lacked the panache of their debut and the band disappeared, but I thank them for ‘Stuck On Love’, which I adore and listen to frequently.

So put together ‘A Bigger Splash’ and ‘Springboard’ and you go some way towards convincing me of the aesthetics merits of the outdoor pool, even if you can be sure I’m not going to dip a toe in the water.

See you at the lido. I’m the one who isn’t getting wet.

Slime Out: the sequel

I wrote recently about the hate letter I received at Time Out a few years and how it changed my outlook on writing (Like A Demented Seagull: How Hate Mail Changed My Life).

At the end of the post I said that this prolific writer of hate mail, who had rather wittily rechristened the magazine Slime Out, had stopped sending his bile-laden missives to Tottenham Court Road.

Not so, it seems. A former colleague recently contacted me to say:

‘I didn’t want to leave a comment because I’m genuinely afraid he might read it and target me. But I can tell you that he didn’t stop writing the postcards. We have received three or four in the last year. They’re not as personally offensive about individual staff any more, but still mental. I imagine him to look like Buffalo Bill from ‘Silence Of The Lambs’.’

So he’s still out there, reading a magazine he despises and making sure they know it. Somehow, I find this reassuring, and I’m sure these days he has plenty to write about.

This might also be a good time to mention the best ‘hate’ letter I received. This was before I was neutered, when I still prided myself on writing vicious, witty, scathing criticism of anything that came into my sights.

It asked simply: ‘Peter Watts. Is he a short man?’

It still stings.

The essence of football

David Brooks gets it:

‘Soccer is a sport perfectly designed to reinforce a tragic view of the universe, because basically it is a long series of frustrations leading up to near certain heartbreak.’

From the New York Times.

The Old London Underground Company


Dave Hill at the Guardian has this interesting post about Ajit Chambers, the man who wants to help Londoners get into disused underground stations.

I have been in contact with Chambers since 2009, when he first sent me a teasing business card in the post to promote his idea of turning old underground stations into tourist attractions. One thing that has always impressed me about Chambers is his determination to succeed despite the tremendous obstacles in his way (basically, TfL are incredibly reluctant to open old stations to anyone, let alone to give an outsider access to such prime assets).

I interviewed Chambers last month for a feature that runs in the June edition of Metropolitan, the new (excellent) magazine for Eurostar passengers. He told me then that his motto is ‘proving things can work by doing them without asking’ and his decision to bushwhack Boris Johnson and Anthony Browne at a conference for small businesses is a perfect illustration of how he goes about his work. No wonder TfL are ruffled.

Chambers got his idea on Valentine’s Day 2009, when he was looking for something to do with his wife that was ‘more exciting that just sitting in a restaurant with loads of other couples. I wanted an adventure, something like a first date, and I thought there must be loads of secret doors all over London just waiting to be opened. So I started researching and discovered the abandoned stations.’

He has identified 26 sites he wants to pursue with a view to opening each one as a venue with three revenue streams – as a museum, as storage and as a space for entertaining. This is astonishingly ambitious and he is so far being stymied by TfL, so he is trying to circumvent them by purchasing the deep-level shelter at Chancery Lane (pictured above) – which I wrote about after visiting in 2008. This would be a terrific venue, as it has a fascinating back story, is wonderfully evocative and lies at the heart of a network of underground spaces.

I hope he succeeds. Londoners have a tremendous thirst for the mysterious parts of the city that lie beneath their feet – the weekend opening of Brunel’s Thames Tunnel earlier this year proved to be extraordinarily popular – and a dedicated museum to Subterranean London would be possibly the most exciting to happen in this city ever (although I may be biased in this view).

Chambers is determined, as Boris and Browne are soon to discover, and I would never bet against him. ‘I’m not going to give up,’ he told me. ‘There’s no stopping me. And as soon as people realise that they seem to come on board pretty quickly.’

Update There is some discussion about the feasibility of Chambers’s plan at Annie Mole‘s blog.

So just what the hell is a ‘contemporary’ butcher anyway?


I spent this morning at the British Library, looking at the recently acquired archive of JG Ballard. Ballard is one of those authors whose work I have devoured, absorbed, appreciated, exalted and admired but never really adored or even enjoyed, absolutely, that is without reservation.

I read him partly because I feel I should, not necessarily because it gives me the escapist satisfaction of my favourite writers. That’s not to say I read him out of dour and unwilling duty, like a GCSE student forced to confront Conrad, but it is markedly different to how I approach writers like James Ellroy, Jose Saramago or John Lanchester. With them, I know that no matter what the subject, I’m going to have a blast. With Ballard, it’s more complex. I know what I’m going to get, I’ll admire the way it is written, but I won’t be knocked off my feet, not any more anyway.

Ballard’s enthusiasts – among them Will Self and Iain Sinclair – often attribute to him extraordinary powers of insight and perspicacity, of having an almost mystic-like view of what awaits the world. There is some truth in this, as he accurately anticipated an atmosphere of suburban psychosis and predicted a society of disconnected and violent insular communities who have a paranoid fear of the ‘outsider’. But in general, it’s all a bit overstated.

His best novel is 1975’s ‘High Rise’, where he first put together a plot he then relentlessly repeated for almost 35 years – an enclosed community, a charismatic professional, a tribal awakening, a middle-class orgy of destruction.  Many of the books that followed were almost identical, just with the location changed (one of the best is ‘Super-Cannes’ from 2000).

By 2003’s ‘Millennium People’, his dire penultimate novel set in contemporary London, the methodical working through of these familiar tropes had passed firmly into the territory of self-parody. It was still ecstatically reviewed by critics, obsessed with the man rather than the novel he had written. Personally, I have more time for his early short stories, which are more or less straight science fiction and absolutely brilliant but often dismissed by those who are more interested in what he did after the seismic auto-porn ‘Crash’.

All that said, the archive acquired by the British Library is fascinating and will keep biographers busy for years. Expect many of them to mention his early school report for English, which says he ‘has remarkable ability… but with greater concentration, his work could be even better’.

What astounds when looking at the archive is the amount of revision Ballard applied to his work. His first typeset draft of ‘Crash’ is loaded with handwritten amendments, almost every word appears to be changed in a visual, violent display of self-editing. The level of self-criticism is terrifying – it’s enough to put you off the idea of ever being a novelist.

The British Library member of staff in charge of cataloguing the archive says that the most exciting part of his job is getting a new collection in from a great writer and taking the lid off the box to see their novels in draft form. ‘What’s it going to look like? How did they write?’

Those interested in the answers to those questions should get to the British Library from Friday, June 11, where two pages from ‘Crash’ will be on display at The Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library.

The funfair

This week, I went to the fair at Brockwell Park. I don’t have a picture of that, but here’s me at another funfair in 1977. I was not a particularly pretty child, nor a thin one, nor one that actually looked all that much like a boy. And what is that coat I’m wearing? But along with a photograph of me and my dad riding the dodgems taken a year later – me marginally cuter, he like the Brummie James Dean – it is one of my favourite images from my youth.

That’s because it was taken at the Epsom Derby funfair, where we went as a family every year. It is almost impossible for an adult to now understand how exciting the funfair is to a small child – the colour and clatter of the rides, the sweet smell of popcorn, onions and candy floss, the sheer thrill of being outside after dark – but this picture brings a lot of that back to me. It’s a pure pleasure, one without any compromises or guilt. By contrast, most grown-up fun tends to come with the feeling that one is doing something one shouldn’t, and will pay for it later, either with a hangover or an empty wallet. Or perhaps that’s just the Catholic in me talking.

When I was a teenager, fairs were still about thrillseeking, just in a different way. There were the rides of course, but now it was more because this was were you went to meet girls (or watch your friends meet girls, or watch your friends talk about how they’d like to meet girls). You also went along in fear/search of some real danger – the possibility of getting chased round the park by the semi-mythical Roundshaw gang, who supposedly spent every evening roaming the borough, looking for people to beat up. Such bifftastic activity has been circumvented by the organisers of the Brockwell Park fair, who have a ‘No Gangs’ notice prominently displayed and a police van on constant vigil. I’m not sure whether this is a good or a bad thing. The parent says ‘good’, the teenager says not.

And it’s as a parent that I take my daughter to the funfair every time it comes to Brockwell Park. That’s partly for her sake, because she loves it so much, but it’s also partly for me, because I want to remember what it’s like to feel this way.

Here she is last week, on a violently orange airplane.


I read an article last week about the dishonesty of most funfairs, how it is impossible to win any prizes and the whole thing is essentially a tiny, tacky, travelling confidence trick. It’s very difficult to visit the fair as an adult and not see the sleaziness. But to a child, unaware that the coconut might be glued to the stand, this is paradise. It is wonderful to witness, but also slightly depressing, because it is impossible to share in the innocence, to see the funfair through an eye unstained by prejudice.

My daughter had more fun at Brockwell Park funfair than I think it is possible for an adult to comprehend, when everything is costed in terms of money and time. I hoped that when I went with her, I’d vicariously absorb some of her glee. And I was happy to see her happy, but I also ended up wallowing in nostalgia and misremembered romance. Is that such a bad thing?

This guy knows what I mean, or at least I used to think he did.

Is that a flagpole on your portico, or are you just pleased to see me?

To whom it may concern: Poetry Incarnation at the Royal Albert Hall

The new issue of Uncut magazine contains my feature about the International Poetry Incarnation, which took place 45 years ago this month on June 11, 1965. It begins like this:

Allen Ginsberg is drunk. Big, bald and bearded, like a Jewish bear stuffed in a suit, the beat poet stands tall in the Royal Albert Hall, London’s sacred haven of the high arts, and proclaims to 7,000 fellow thinkers:

“Fuck me up the asshole”.

In the crowd was Heathcote Williams, the future poet, playwright and artist. Williams recounts what happened next: “A man with a bowler hat, beside himself with anger, shouted out: ‘We want poetry. This is not poetry’, and Ginsberg retorted, looking up towards the gods: ‘I want you to fuck me up the asshole.’”

And it goes on in a similar manner for another 2,400 words. If you think that sounds like fun, head down to your local newsagent now.

The International Poetry Incarnation – which featured Allen Ginsberg, Adrian Mitchell, Gregory Corso and Michael Horovitz – is said to be the moment that signalled the arrival of the 1960s counterculture movement in London. However, in ‘White Heat’, his otherwise splendid history of the 1960s, Dominic Sandbrook writes dismissively: ‘Seven thousand people was indeed an enormous attendance… on the other hand, it was still considerably smaller than the typical crowd for a Second Division football match… to millions of people, the event meant absolutely nothing. What is more, it had not even been a very good reading.’

Oh, really? Watch this extraordinary clip of Adrian Mitchell from Peter Whitehead’s film of the reading, ‘Wholly Communion’, and tell me it has the same impact as Torquay vs Rochdale.