Monthly Archives: December 2010

We need to talk about Martin Brennan

Every fortnight, at the back of Private Eye, there’s a big advert for the Brennan JB7 and an introduction to its founder Martin Brennan, ‘the man who re-invented the hi-fi’.

The advert is invariably accompanied by a photograph of Martin Brennan.


I worry about Martin. For a man who has re-invented the hi-fi, he doesn’t look very happy.

Then again, what do I know? Maybe this is what men who re-invent stuff look like. Perhaps he’s too busy to smile because he’s thinking about how he’s going to re-invent the video recorder. Or maybe he’s genuinely sad because he’s realised that Sony have seen his idea and will make far more money out of it than he will.

Or perhaps the pic is meant to guilt-trip us into buying the Brennan JB7. Martin is re-inventing the advert. Instead of TV commercials of Jamie Oliver and all his friends running around looking happy, implying that if we shop at Sainsbury’s we will also be able to run around looking happy with friends, Sainsbury’s will just use a picture of Jamie looking sad or pensive, implying that if we don’t shop there an ennui-overcome Jamie will top himself.

Actually, that would probably backfire, wouldn’t it?

Whatever the reason, I’m tempted to buy a Brennan JB7 if only to see if in the advert for the next issue Martin is smiling a little bit, with his eyes if not his actual mouth. But instead I stick Private Eye in the recycling and start thinking about ways to re-invent the sandwich maker.

Magic mushrooms in Georgian London

I have always considered Green Park to be the dullest of all central London parks. Look. There’s really nothing there. It’s just a very big lawn.

But twas not always this way. High Society, the Wellcome Collection’s superb new exhibition on drugs in culture – which I recently reviewed in New Statesman – includes a great story from 1799 concerning a doctor, Everard Brande, who was called to the London house of a family suffering from some form of poisoning.

Concerned for his sick family, the father had gone out to seek help but was soon found in a confused state, unable to remember where he was going or why. He was rescued by neighbours and eventually the doctor pieced the story together.

The family had been out gathering mushrooms in Green Park, which they had cooked into a broth, and this had upon the parents and four children an extraordinary effect. All were giddy – with high pulse rates and intense breathing – and all were seeing things. While the adults seemed struck by a morbid fear of death, eight-year-old Edward ‘was attacked by fits of immoderate laughter’ and his staring pupils were massively dilated.

After treatment from Dr Brande, the family recovered (aka came down). I’ll never see Green Park in quite the same way again. I’m sure they didn’t. 

For more, see Michael Jay‘s excellent accompanying book.

The London Anti-University

This newsclip of the London Anti-University from 1968 is wonderfully evocative, not just for the interviewees’ earnest insistence that they could change the world of education, but also through the grim tattiness of late 1960s Shoreditch, reproduced in glorious colour.

The London Anti-University was formed after participants at 1967’s Congress on the Dialectics Of Liberation at the Roundhouse decided they wanted to continue to explore some of the themes and conversations that had started there (sample debates: The Future of Capitalism; Black Power; Imperialism and Revolution in America).

Based at 49 Rivington Street – previously home of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign – the Anti-University was opened in February 1968 by David Cooper and Alan Krebs, and featured lecturers such as Cornelius Cardew, CLR James, Robin Blackburn, Bob Cobbing, RD Laing, Yoko Ono, Jeff Nuttall, John Latham and Alex Trocchi – all key figures on the intellectual left-wing of the 1960s counterculture.  The Anti-University syllabus covered three main areas: radical politics, existential psychiatry and the artistic avant-garde. 

 Poster announcing the opening of the Antiuniversity of London (1968)

An idea of the direction of the Anti-University can be gleaned by a reported exchange at Joseph Berke’s course on ‘anti-universities, anti-hospitals, anti-theatres and anti-families’.

He asked the class: ‘How can we discuss how we can discuss what we want to discuss?’ After a long silence, somebody answered ‘Maybe we don’t need to discuss it.’ Berke pondered this for a while and then left; the class continued for an hour despite his absence.

The Anti-University lasted almost a year, which isn’t bad by the standards of the time, but it’s premises soon became squatted, and the landlords, the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, reclaimed the campus.

But the Anti-University’s most important legacy may have come from a conversation in the classroom of psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell, who lectured on literature and psychology.

One of Mitchell’s students, Diana Gravill, had inherited some money and was intending here to spend it on a women’s refuge. Mitchell instead persuaded her to put it towards a bookshop. This she did, and the shop, named Compendium, was opened by Gravill and her partner Nicholas Rochford on Camden High Street in August 1968.

Over the next thirty years it became one of the world’s great bookshops, stocking everything from academic studies of the women’s movement to punk fanzines. It was still going strong when I used to go there in the late 1990s, fascinated and intimidated by the content of the bookshelves. It eventually closed in 2000, a sad end to one of London’s greatest counterculture institutions, but a longstanding tribute to the ideas and passions raised by the London Anti-University.

Mapping Sixties London

This exquisite map of the 1960s West End is one of the most interesting ways I’ve seen of making tangible that fascinating era that remains tantalisingly out of reach and hard to comprehend. Produced by Herb Lester Associates, Wish You Were There is a fascinating physical attempt to bridge the gap in time, to fill in some of the blanks.

It is also a beautiful artefact, a fold-up map that offers a ‘retrospective guide to London’s shops, clubs, boutiques and sundry diversions, 1960-66’. Included are such diverse pleasures as Better Books, home of the Beats, the offices of promoter Don Arden and restaurants like Cranks and The Nosh Bar alongside better known clothes shops, bars and venues.

On one side is a map of central London, and on the other a written guide to the 130 locations, padded out with period advertisements.

Wish You Were There can be purchased here for a bargain £4.


For lack of blogging this week, my life is currently taken up with:






But more to come shortly.

Eel Pie Island

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My feature on the birth of British R&B at Eel Pie Island is in this month’s issue of Uncut.

It includes interviews with Pete Townshend, Ron Wood, Kenny Ball, Top Topham and the inventor Trevor Baylis, who still lives on the island and told me.

 ‘I moved to the island in the 1970s when I’d made enough money as an underwater escape artist in Berlin to buy a plot of land, but I went there regularly from 1957. They were wild times. If you wanted to get your leg over, that’s where you went. It was notorious. There was no bridge, the only way to get there was on a chain ferry. On the island, a little old lady sat in a tollbooth and stamped the back of your hand. The hotel was very Dickensian, a bit of a tramshed just about hanging together, but it had a dance floor that was like a trampoline so if you couldn’t dance when you went in you certainly could when you came out.’

South-west London was a fertile territory for music in the early 1960s, and the likes of Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart and Jimmy Page all learnt their craft in the venues of Richmond and on Eel Pie Island.

As Ian McLagan of the Small Faces explained: ‘The audience was full of musicians. Loads of them. You’d see them all in the front row – “Do you see that?”, “Yeah”, “Well I can do that too”. We were all kids, but when you saw the Stones it was “Fuck me, it’s possible…” ’

Diamond Geezer visited Eel Pie Island recently and writes about it here.

Rebranding Britain

When I first saw this advert, my initial thought was that the cretin rebranding various parts of London was at it again. As I’ve written before, we not only have we got Holborn as ‘Midtown’ and Fitzrovia as ‘Noho’, but also the bizarre decision to call a Pimlico development ‘Westrovia’. (My preference is to rename areas in the manner of American towns with their pragmatic Business District and Meatpacking Quarter, so you’d have  Comic Strip for the comic shops around the British Museum and a Ukulele Quarter for the bit of Brick Lane where the Duke of Uke shop can be found. It hasn’t caught on.)

But on reflection and as a proud London snob I rather like this idea of rebranding Northampton as North Londonshire and see no reason why it can’t be expanded to the rest of the country. Most of Britain, after all, really wishes it was in London and hides its jealousy of our superior ways in various silly ways, such as pretending that nobody in London talks to anybody else. In truth, the only people Londoners don’t talk to is northerners, and that’s just a magnanimous gesture intended to help them stop feeling guilty about abandoning their oldest friends and frail, elderly parents in a frankly selfish attempt to find work and a decent cup of coffee.

So, to that end, here are some ideas I had for other parts of the UK that could be renamed after bits of London. Some, like Stoke, clearly modelled on Stoke Newingston, are already doing this themselves.

Wales – West West Acton

Cornwall – Surbiton-on-sea

Brighton – Cheamier

Birmingham – Very very Brent

Ireland – Greater Kilburn

France – Waterloo South

Then I went to have my tea.