Monthly Archives: June 2011

Role models: Pete Doherty and the death of Robin Whitehead

On Sunday, the Observer published my interview with Jake Fior about Pete Doherty and Robin Whitehead.

The story has generated some interest and other newspapers have followed up on it, with more to come, but away from the lurid headlines the key quote is probably this.

‘It’s something the Rolling Stones learnt after Altamont,” Fior says: “You have a duty of care to your audience. If you break down boundaries [with guerilla gigs] it causes new problems, especially if your music appeals to the young and alienated. You can’t have people in your entourage who are likely to overreact with fans. Pete’s lifestyle choices are his own business, but he has a responsibility to keep them to himself.

I am not a great fan of the idea that celebrities should be considered role models, but think this could be an exception.

‘My heart’s in the highlands, wherever I go’

I’ll be taking a break from the blog while I go to Scotland. Speaking of which, I’ve never really got my head round Rabbie Burns, but this statue in Victoria Embankment Gardens is rather lovely.

Sadly, it’s no match for the nearby attractions of the remarkable York Watergate…

London’s finest camel…

Or the weeping bare-breasted maiden who thrashes impotently (and rather fetchingly) at the memorial for Victorian composer Arthur Sullivan.

I’m sure many of you will feel this way about my absence, but don’t worry, I’ll be right back… after a few of these.


Secret London: Toulouse-Lautrec in Catford

Say what you like about South London, but it clearly has something about it. Why else would a trinity of the world’s greatest 19th-century artists have come here?

You probably know about Vincent Van Gogh’s time in Brixton because of the play from a few years ago. Van Gogh lodged in Hackford Road, Brixton in 1873 and regularly walked from there to Covent Garden where he worked as an art dealer.

This is the only surviving picture he sketched during this period It’s of the Georgian houses on Hackford Road itself.

Van Gogh also lived in Isleworth in 1876, at 160 Twickenham Road, when he later returned to London as a teacher. Hackford Road now has an English Heritage blue plaque for Van Gogh, and there used to be a Van Gogh Cafe on Brixton Road, but it’s closed down.

Camille Pissarro painted around a dozen pictures of Sydenham and Dulwich during his time in South London in 1870. I particularly like this one, of Lordship Lane Station.

As Michael Glover writes in the Independent: ‘The painting shows us a new kind of modernity. Here is London being mightily transformed by the growth of housing and the ever onward thrust of the railways in the second half of the 19th century.’ Pissarro lived at No 77 Westow Hill and then on Palace Road, and married at Croydon Registry Office. He returned to London a number of times. Lordship Lane station was demolished in 1954. A non-English Heritage blue plaque adorns the site of his house on Westow Hill and a restaurant called Pissarro is in Chiswick, but I’m pretty sure that’s named after his son Lucien.

Best of all, though, is the fact that Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec did time in Catford in 1896. The diminutive brothel-loving soak was a huge fan of cycling and in 1896 was asked by a company called Simpson to work on a poster for their new bike, which used a new type of chain. This, according to Wiki, ‘was composed of linked triangles forming two levels. The inner level was driven by the chainring and the outer drove the rear cog. Instead of teeth, the chainring and cog had grooves into which the rollers of the chain engaged.’

I’m not sure what that means, and probably neither did Lautrec, so he came to the newly built Catford Velodrome to watch the bike in action during special races, set up by Simpson to advertise their product. Lautrec produced a couple of images during his visit. The poster was one of the last he designed before his death in 1901.

The velodrome was knocked down in the 1990s and there is no trace of it left (it’s location was approximately around Sportsbank Road), but there is at least a brasserie in Kennington called Toulouse-Lautrec.

But perhaps Toulouse-Lautrec had more influence on Catford than we may have thought?

Consider this, a famous poster advertising one of Lautrec’s favourite clubs by one of his contemporaries and very much in Lautrec’s style.

And this.

If you do not wish to go all the way to Catford to pay homage, an exhibition of Lautrec’s work goes on display later in June at the Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House, where you can also see Pissarro’s lovely picture of Lordship Lane Station.

London, JFK and Profumo

As fans of conspiracy theories know, there is always a connection if you look hard enough, and the one between JFK and the Profumo Scandal is particularly intriguing.

The connection is called Mariella, or Maria, Novotny. Different sources give her different places of birth – London, Sheffield, Prague – but most agree that she was really called Stella Capes. She almost certainly wasn’t the niece of former Czech President Antonin Novotny as she claimed, nor had she spent four years in a Soviet camp. But what’s undeniable is that she lived quite the life.

It was Novotny who hosted the infamous Man In The Mask orgy in an apartment in Hyde Park Square in December 1961, where various members of high society consorted with glamorous woman such as Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler. Novotny, who called the party The Feast of Peacocks after what had been served for dinner (she also cooked badger), spent much of the evening wearing a corset in bed with a whip and six men. Stephen Ward, the mysterious society osteopath, was there wearing socks and nothing else. Everybody else – among them actors, MPs and judges – was naked except for a man wearing a gimp mask, who was tied between two pillars and whipped by everybody on entry. There has been much speculation as to his identity, with names including minor royalty and Cabinet Ministers, but he has never been named.

The Feast Of The Peacocks became public knowledge after featuring in Lord Denning’s 1963 report into the security implications of the Profumo Scandal. This was written in the wake of Conservative Minister John Profumo’s resignation from the Cabinet following revelations regarding his relationship with Keeler and Keeler’s relationship with Soviet naval attach Eugene Ivanov.

This was not the first political scandal Novotny was at the centre of. Wherever she was born, she had moved to London in 1958 to become a model, and was soon performing as a topless dancer in Soho.

In 1960, she married. Her husband, Horace ‘Hod’ Dibben was in his 50s and moved in serious company. He ran the Black Sheep Club in Piccadilly and knew both the Duke of Kent and the Krays. He was a sado-masochist and a friend of Stephen Ward. Through Hod, Novotny met Harry Towers, a mysterious and sinister figure, who persuaded her to go to New York for some modelling work.

Novotny was soon operating as a prostitute in New York, with Towers as her pimp. Before long Towers had introduced her to Peter Lawford, the film star and John F Kennedy’s brother-in-law whose main responsibility was to find willing women for the insatiable President.  Novotny was soon sleeping with JFK. On one occasion she and fellow prostitute Suzy Chang were asked to dress as nurses, with JFK the patient.

In May 1961, Novotny was deported from the US, returning to London on the Queen Mary where she began hosting her memorable parties. Guests are said to include everybody from Bobby Moore to Felix Topolski. She was also introduced by Ward to both Ivanov and Profumo before Keeler, but nothing developed from this. Novotny believed she had been used to ‘get’ JFK and was wary of the same thing happening again. Keeler was not so smart.

When the Profumo Scandal broke, JFK was said to be fascinated by it, demanding to be kept informed of ongoing events, at least in part because of his own tenuous connection. Robert McNamara, the US Defence Secretary, knew all about the President’s dalliances with this prostitute who claimed to be from Eastern Europe and said ‘he felt like he was sitting on a bomb’. On June 23, one American newspaper even hinted at the President’s involvement, until his brother Robert Kennedy forcefully intervened and the story was dropped. Nobody picked it up and the President took his secret to the grave.

What to make of this? Some believe the fact Novotny was connected to JFK and Profumo was no coincidence and here you could go down a rabbit warren of theories and counter-accusations. One argument is that Novotny was part of a honey trap operation, run by Lyndon Johnson’s office by Towers and Ward with the assistance of the sex-obsessed FBI, aimed at blackmailing powerful men in Britain and America. Others claim it was a KGB sting – Novotny claimed Czech heritage and Chang was Chinese – and Towers was using his women to try to infiltrate the United Nations. Still others  say Ward and Towers were working for MI5 to entrap Ivanov. Conspiracy journal Lobster has more. This stuff could drive you insane.

Novotny later worked for the police in same capacity, and was used to help bring down gangster Charles Taylor. She died of an overdose in 1983. Some, including Christine Keeler, claim it was murder. Novotny had attempted to write a book about her life shortly before her death, but mysterious things kept happening to her and the ghostwriter, causing them to nervously end the project. After her death, her house was burgled and her diaries disappeared.

She did write a book in 1971. It is a fictionalised account of her adventures called King’s Road and one of the worst books I’ve ever read. You can get it on Amazon for 14p.