Monthly Archives: August 2010

My London Library: No 1 – Private Eye On London

I own a lot of books about London, so I thought I’d share them with you in no particular order.

  • Title Private Eye On London by Christopher Booker, Willie Rushton and Richard Ingrams (1962, Weidenfeld and Nicolson).
  • Cost £4.
  • Bought from The Cartoon Museum, Bloomsbury.
  • Genre Humour.

One of – if not the – first special annual produced by the Private Eye team followed the adventures of Gnittie, a ‘little man’ with a ‘vague longing to be rich and famous’, who heads to London to fulfill his dreams.

There he discovers that ‘nobody who is rich and powerful and famous lives South of Old Father Thames’, visits Whitehall, Trafalgar Square and Buckingham Palace, discovers the prisons are full of ‘parking offenders and demonstrators’ and tries unsuccessfully to take a No 11 bus to Fleet Street.

Best bit The Estate Agent.

Verdict Even in London, most things never change.

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Jimi Hendrix in the suburbs

Jimi Hendrix’s London flat overlooking Mayfair’s Brook Street is opening to the public tomorrow (August 25th) for the Hendrix In Britain exhibition. The exhibition – which is being mounted by the Handel House Museum (Hendrix and Handel were temporally dislocated neighbours) – is a cosy affair, amounting to a costume, a guitar, some great photos, handwritten lyric sheets, posters (‘The Fabulous Walker Brothers/Cat Stevens/Jimi Hendrix/Englebert Humperdinck’), notes, including directions to the Isle of Wight for the famous festival, and his death certificate (’cause of death: vomit’).

Hendrix’s actual flat is now the Handel House Museum offices, but they will be moving out for two weeks in September so the public can have tours of the quite spacious flat Hendrix lived in with his girlfriend Kathy Etchingham. The museum hopes to open this flat to the public permanently when they manage to raise sufficient funding and get all the hash burns out of the carpets.

My favourite part of the exhibition was the giant map of Hendrix’s London that takes up one wall, with stickers donating key venues, hotels and apartments. Opposite is a list of the major concerts Hendrix played during his three years in London before his death. I was pleased to note that alongside the more famous clubs – Scotch of St James, the Marquee, the Astoria and the Royal Albert Hall – Hendrix found time to play the suburbs, including Bromley Court Hotel, Ricky Tick in Hounslow, Upper Cut in Forest Gate, the Ram Jam Club on Brixton Road, Granada Theatre in Tooting, Star Hotel in Croydon, Bluesville ’67 on Green Lanes,  and the Orchid Ballroom, Purley.

Hendrix in Purley, now that’s a side of swinging London you don’t hear much about these days.

Holes

If there’s one thing I can’t resist it’s a hole in the ground.

Whenever I see one – which is often in London – I have to peek inside. What do I hope to see find? Roman coins, a secret pavement, a Victorian sewer, an uncovered river, clay pipes, Tudor jewellery, treasure, booty, anything strange, fascinating and previously buried.

I never have.

Yes, Fabio: the eternal sitcom that is English football

A few years ago, during a BBC attempt to find the nation’s best sitcom, Armando Ianucci was asked to make the case for ‘Yes, Minister’. In the excellent documentary that followed, Ianucci discovered that one of the reasons ‘Yes, Minister’ holds up so well is that the creators went back over the news archives for the past 50 years and analysed what stories recurred, and than based their episodes around these themes – the special relationship, the EU, expenses and honours scandals, arts funding, civil service waste. Hence it still seems fresh and relevent today.

Ianucci went on to nick this idea wholesale for ‘The Thick Of It’.

You can very easily do the same thing when writing about English football. When I was researching a piece on 40 years of London football for Time Out‘s (very fine) ‘London Calling’ book, I discovered familiar arguments being made twenty or thirty years ago.

‘Football has been taken away from its natural community, commercialised and given the worst trappings of Hollywood by the mediam,’ wrote Peter Ball in 1974. What would he make of it now?

The same writer than analysed the national team’s failings in 1980 and surmised that ‘The English game does not enhance the development of technique, nor of flair players, who tend to be regarded with suspicion.’

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I was reminded of this when I was handed half-a-dozen old newspapers from 1973, covering the aftermath of England’s infamous World Cup failure at the hands of Poland. England had followed up that result with a 1-0 defeat at Wembley against Italy in November, prompting some very familiar comments in the papers.

‘Now England need a substitute for Alf’, said the Daily Mail (and press nerds will be interested to note that the hated ‘Now’ to pad out a headline was already in use at this time).

Alf Ramsey was quoted as saying the result was ‘unbelievable’ and insisting that ‘only the Press asks me if I want to resign. It is none of their business.’

On it goes. He told London’s Evening News that ‘soccer must change at club level if England are to show more skill in internationals’ and pointed out that ‘people say we need more skill, but this has been said for years’. Alan Hardaker, secretary of the Football League, was ready with the platitudes, ‘We must all buckle down to the job in hand. To strengthen our game at domestic level and through that our standing at national level.’

Even the Italian manager, Ferruccio Valcareggio, had a view we can recognise: ‘You must have flair and only Osgood appeared to have this.’

But the press weren’t interested in excuses, they wanted blood. And they got it. Ramsey lasted one more game, a 0-0 draw against Portugal, before he was sacked. Astonishingly, England’s internationals didn’t suddenly develop greater flair and technique as a consequence.

And who scored the crucial goal for Italy that night in November? Do I really need to say? Arrivederci Fabio, it was always going to end this way, eventually.

To the library! For comix!

When I was a kid I used to pretend to be ill so I could bunk off school and go to the library. That’s how square I was. I’d feign illness, then nip down to Cheam Library to choose books, before coming home to eat cheese on toast, lounge on the beanbag and read. Boy, was I a devil.

That’s pretty much my ideal day still, and so it’s no coincidence that since turning freelance – which is basically licenced truancy – I have rediscovered my love for the library. Let’s just take a minute to appreciate what a wonderful concept this is: a huge building where you can borrow thousands of books for free, or just hang around avoiding the tramps and reading periodicals.

It’s particularly useful because I have also rediscovered my love for comics. As a teenager, I subscribed at various times to Transformers, Roy of the Rovers and 2000AD but put these childish things away when I was 16 and thought I should be reading NME and Camus, even though I really preferred Rogue Trooper to The Plague and The Lemonheads.

I’ve often wanted to get back into comics and picked up the odd book from the rejects pile at Time Out, but balked at paying £15 for something that I could get through in a couple of hours – if I want shitty value for my entertainment I’d go to the cinema. 

Which is where the library comes in handy. I can nip down there once a week and pick up five new books without paying a penny. Brixton Library has a pretty decent selection of comics, and I have a lot of catching up to do, so it’ll keep me happy for a few months yet. Although I wish they’d get in a complete set of The Invisibles.

So here’s the best of what I’ve been reading: V for Vendetta, Swamp Thing, Y: The Last Man On Earth, Superman: Red Son, Batman: The Killing Joke, Batman: The Dark Knight, Batman: Face To Face, Slade, JLA: The New Frontier, Tamara Drewe, Gemma Bovery, Greyshirt, Crisis On Infinite Earths and Preacher.

Most of these are great. Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe are wonderfully subtle English middlebrow lit classics – and far preferable as such to, say, Ian McEwan.  Greyshirt is a wildly smart genre spoof that reminded me of the best of the Coen brothers. JLA: The New Frontier was wonderful nostalgia. And anything involving Batman is always going to be great. Well, apart from all of the films.

Then there’s Preacher, which is one of the lewdest, sickest, smartest, weirdest, funniest, scariest and most brilliantly written, drawn and dramatised pieces of art I have seen in any form for years.

When one of my friends found out I was reading comics again, she accused me of reading ‘tosh’. I suppose it is, but only to the extent that most fiction – be it radio, cinema, TV and novels – is ‘tosh’. And some of it is very far from tosh indeed. Equally, I’ve been surprised how many people I know have also turned out to be fans of comics, quietly chipping in with recommendations and suggestions when I’ve mentioned my regained love. And it is love. How could it not be with something as beautiful as this?

Connections: Boris bikes, psychedelic rock and Dutch anarchists

This week, I interviewed Top Topham, founder member of the Yardbirds. At one point he told me: ‘I also remember seeing Keith West’s Tomorrow, who had Steve Howe (later with Yes) on guitar. He was brilliant, a completely different style. They were a very interesting experimental band. ‘My White Bicycle’ was quite infectious, very ahead of its time.’

Tomorrow were a fascinating mid-60s band who had close ties with the London counterculture, regularly performing at head venues like the UFO Club and the Roundhouse.

‘My White Bicycle’ was inspired by the Dutch anarchist group the PROVOS. Counterculture writer Stewart Home explains:

‘The PROVOS announced in a leaflet that white bicycles would be left unlocked throughout the city for use by the general population. The prototype of this ‘free communal transport’ was presented to the press and public on 28th July 1965 near the statue of Lieverdja. The plan proved an enormous success as a ‘provocation against capitalist private property’ and ‘the car monster’, but failed as a social experiment. The police, horrified at the implications of communal property being left on the streets, impounded any bicycle that they found left unattended and unlocked.’

You can read more about the PROVOS at the British Library. Here’s a nice picture of them and their bikes from the International Institute of Social History.


I wonder if Boris Johnson knows that his bike scheme is at least indirectly inspired by a bunch of sixties anarchists?