Monthly Archives: July 2013

Mick Farren: dead good Deviant

‘Sure the underground was elitist: we were an elite. We were the cutting edge of ongoing bohemianism at that point.’ Mick Farren in Days In The Life by Jonathon Green

The last time I spoke to Mick Farren (May, 2013) he was waiting for the doctor to come round. He was, he told me, in pretty poor shape but welcomed our interview as it gave him something else to think about. Farren’s ill health had been known for some years, but it didn’t stop him going on stage with his old band the Deviants every now and then. It was while performing at the Borderline last night (Saturday, July 27) that he collapsed and died.

It seems crude to say that is how Mick Farren would want to go, but it’s certainly no great surprise that this vivacious ball of hair and action, the closest thing London ever came to producing an Abbie Hoffman,  should die while giving it all to his great love rock and roll. (The following, and all subsequent quotes, are from my interviews with Farren.)

‘Essentially, from when I was in art school through to Joe Strummer the major communication medium of the counterculture certainly in the second half of the 1960s was rock and roll music. You start with that and everything else was peripheral to it.’

Farren’s Deviants were pre-punk noise terrorists whose self-distributed debut album, Ptooff! was one of the first records to come directly out of the London counterculture. When I spoke to Farren for Uncut about the Rolling Stones free gig at Hyde Park in 1969, I asked him whether the Deviants had wanted to play the show. He said,

‘We asked if we could play. We were vetoed, it was probably Jagger. Everybody said I wouldn’t behave myself and start rabble rousing, which was fair enough.’

I put this to Pete Jenner, who co-organised the gig, who responded.

‘Well, there was that and also the fact they were a rotten band. I really like Mick [Farren] but they were a rotten band who smashed instruments on stage. It wasn’t kick out the jams motherfucker, it was let’s have a joint and a buttercup sandwich.’

The Deviants weren’t really a rotten band, but Farren certainly saw them as London’s answer to the MC5. He was heavily active in the political end of the counterculture, forming the London branch of John Sinclair’s White Panther Party and leading the occasional putsch at the International Times when he felt it was getting too bourgeois and boring. Farren was a key figure in so much of what happened in the counterculture, running the door at UFO, writing for and editing alternative newspapers, organising free festivals while playing shows and really meaning it, man. He was fixer and a doer, a wit and sometimes a sage.

‘IT came out of the Beats – poetry, jazz and art with a bit of lefty politics. I told them this was fucked up, they weren’t talking about the weird changes going on with The Who, or where The Beatles were coming from. I’d say that with all respect to John Coltrane there’s this black geezer in the Bag O’ Nails who has long hair and plays guitar with his teeth, what are we going to do about THAT?’

His politics though, always came with a sense of fun – at one anti-war demo the Deviants played he annoyed the po-faced organisers by being more concerned with getting on stage without splitting his trousers than with espousing the cause. He was once described to me by a fellow traveler as being one of the three coolest men in London in 1967, and that made him one of the three coolest men in the entire world.

”We were always condemned as frivolous and philosophically disorganised, and the counter-accusation was they were just boring totalitarians who wanted to sing the Red Flag when we’d rather listen to Voodoo Child and smoke pot.’

When the alternative press disintegrated, Farren – like many from the underground – went on to write great pieces like this for the NME:

The immediate legacy of the underground papers was the NME because we all went there. They had a very profound effect on the visual effect of magazine publishing, but much more important is that the spirit of the thing is now preserved on the internet.  It’s all still there, it’s just become more specialised and you have to go looking for it.’

Farren is one of the dominant figures in Jonathon Green’s essential history of the British underground, Days In The Life, and also wrote brilliantly, if unreliably, about his own activities in Give The Anarchist a Cigarette. What resonates from those books is what an unlikely fit Farren seems in the upper-middle-class world of the counterculture, which was largely run by public schoolboys and Oxbridge graduates imbued with that remarkable confidence that comes with a good education. Farren was different, his confidence was self-generated and less polite, while his art school experiences meant he ‘learned to manage chaos’. Indeed, he relished it. Take a look at the clips below if you don’t believe me.

In his own writings and when interviewed, Farren always came across as funny and incredibly sharp but there was more to it at than that. He was fundamentally, intrinsically, decent. A man without edges. As Jonathon Green told me when hearing the news of his death: ‘Of the underground ‘stars’ he seems, and always did, to have been one of the good guys.’

RIP Mick Farren. He will be missed by many.

Farren invading The Frost Show.

Farren recollecting the Grosvenor Square anti-Vietnam riot of 1968.

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Exploring the lost Lea Valley with Saint Etienne

The BFI have just released a fantastic DVD for London fans. A London Trilogy: The Films Of Saint Etienne collects the three documentaries Saint Etienne and director Paul Kelly made between 2003 and 2007. Finisterre, What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? and This Is Tomorrow are three fine oblique celebrations/meditations of London esoterica, soundtracked by the band and also guided philosophically by band member and London nerd Bob Stanley (who once beat me in a London quiz with his excellently named team of ringers, The London Nobody Knows, the bastard).

As ever with the BFI, the extras are also superb, including a short film about the then little-known Banksy, three eulogies to lost London cafes and a piece about Monty The Lamb, North Hendon FC’s club mascot.

My favourite of the three main features is 2005’s What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day?, which tours the Lower Lea Valley, a then almost abandoned part of London that has since been covered by the Olympic Park. In 2007, I took a tour of the valley with Kieron Tyler, an archaeologist at the Museum of London who also happens to be a regular collaborator with Stanley and Saint Etienne. Here is what we found.

I’ve often wondered where the East End begins, but never realised there was an actual border: one that’s so physical, and so weird. The River Lea (or Lee – both are acceptable) rises in Luton and flows into London at Edmonton and then, via Hackney, Stratford and Bromley-by-Bow, into the Thames. It has been the municipal boundary between Essex and Middlesex since the sixth century. ‘When you’re on the Middlesex side, you’re in the City of London, and when you’re on the Essex side, you’re east of London,’ Kieron Tyler explains helpfully. Tyler is the Museum of London archaeologist responsible for assessing the archaeological potential of the 2012 Olympic site, large swathes of which straddle the Lea Valley. As a committed Londonist, he’s become fascinated by one of the capital’s oddest landscapes.

You see, the Lea is more than just a theoretical dividing line on an administrative map, it’s a deep, wide trench gauging out a huge chunk of prime London land and bordered on either side by reclaimed marsh, Victorian rubbish heaps and industrial wasteland that physically separate the communities on either side. Look at a map if you don’t believe me. The Lea Valley boasts that ‘A-Z’ rarity, actual blank space, spotted with grey squares and circles that are precise in form but vague in utility, listed only as ‘works’, ‘depot’ or ‘warehouse’. All roads over the valley are fast and functional, crossing as quickly as possible, unwelcoming to residents. It’s a no man’s land in which few Londoners live, or ever have.

‘It’s the whole nature and character of the Lea Valley itself,’ says Tyler. ‘The area either side of the banks has acted as a buffer zone, stopping development. Before the ice age, this entire area was a water-filled valley. As the tide level changed the water become marsh with water channels snaking through it. Looking at evidence from between the end of the last ice age to the early medieval era (the eleventh century), we can see the Lea stretching from Stratford Town Centre to Hackney Wick, with marsh all around. Marsh is a problem. You can’t build on marsh. You can graze cows on it, or grow plants, but you can’t build on it. That’s why the Lea Valley itself is a buffer, wider than the river itself.’

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We take the 308 bus from Stratford tube to New Spitalfields Market on the A12, a bleak block of urbanity that makes the North Circular look like the Cotswolds, and stroll down Quarter Mile Lane – a piece of gleaming new roadwork that, like a Sicilian motorway, ends abruptly, having gone nowhere – into Eastway Cycle Circuit. Buried somewhere on this meadow are the remains of Temple Mill, a thirteenth-century mill managed by the Knights Templar. The mill is one of many things lost in the mud, dumped on by successive generations who used the marsh as a rubbish tip (bits of the Euston Arch were chucked in the Lea in the 1960s), which Tyler hopes to uncover when work on the Olympics site begins.

One such buried treasure is the Lea’s first bridge. ‘Nobody knows how the Lea was first crossed,’ says Tyler. ‘The Roman London-Colchester road came up to the edge of the Lea Valley around Wick Lane and picks up on the other side, but we haven’t a clue exactly where and how they crossed.’

We do know that the focus for crossing the Lea moved south, with the construction of Stratford Langthorne Abbey in 1135, now covered by factories, railways and a sewage-pumping station. This bridge was called Queen Matilda’s Crossing after the yarn that it was built at the behest of the wife of Henry I, who almost drowned while trying to cross the old ford. It was the first stone arch bridge in Britain, and was called Bow Bridge because of its shape – a name that later lent itself to the area on the Middlesex side, Stratford-by-Bow, now shortened to Bow.

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The Lea isn’t the only river in the valley. Half-a-dozen other ditches, streams and rivulets snake through it. Tyler guides me, via the doomed Eastway Cycle Circuit, to Hennikers Ditch, a medieval drainage ditch that’s little more than a hollowed-out puddle. We cut right, through dense foilage – Japanese knotweed, the most invasive plant around – and join a rarely trod path along the bank of the sluggish Channelsea River, a stream supposedly dug by King Alfred to keep the Danes from sacking London that has been dated to the eleventh century. Within minutes, we’ve gone from the concrete Ballard-scape of the A12 to an otherwordly, overgrown terrain that Tyler suggests lacks only Ray Harryhausen’s jerky dinosaurs to give it that proper prehistoric appearance. Allotments overlook the stream, and Tyler points out one tumbledown shed that his team have identified as a World War II pillbox. The Channelsea is still fulfilling its original function of defending London from invasion.

After peering through a fence that guards the new Eurostar terminal at Stratford, we head back to the A12 and cross the Lea, via torturous means (the Valley is as hard to navigate as it ever was), to wander down the weird Waterden Road, an alienating thoroughfare that features the Kokonut Groove Nite Klub, a demolished greyhound stadium, a bus depot, an ‘International Christian Centre’ and a travellers’ site. There’s no sense of the famed East End community here; indeed, it’s hard to think of a more disconnected environment outside an American strip mall.

At the bottom, Waterden Road meets White Post Lane, crossing the Lee Navigation (spelling decreed by a 1570 Act of Parliament), a canalised section of the river that runs almost parallel to the Lea that was built in stages from the eighteenth century. With its arrival, the Valley became a centre for industry.

As the lost Temple Mill shows, mills have been located here for centuries. There’s Three Mills, recently the location of the ‘Big Brother’ house, and Wright’s flour mill, London’s last working independent mill. Slaughterhouses crossed the Lea after being banished from the City in the fourteenth century, and the remains of animals were used in a variety of Lea-side industries. Walls Matteson churned out sausages by the yard at Abbey Mills until the 1990s and animal bones were used for china, chemicals, candles, soap, glues and fertilisers. Chemicals for tanning skins came from Lea and it’s said the smell was so bad that, in the early seventeenth century, James I asked for work at the mill to stop before he travelled past. Not for nothing was it known as ‘stinky Stratford’. The ‘ready-made kebab’ factory at the bottom of Waterden Road seems aptly placed.

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Heavier industry soon moved in, boosted by an 1844 Act of Parliament that ruled that, within London, ‘offensive trades’ could not be located within 50 feet of a house. The Lea’s industrial alumni is formidable. Matchbox cars were made here until the 1980s. The diode valve was invented in Lea by Professor Ambrose Fleming in 1904, which led directly to the invention of the wireless; Britain’s first radio valve factory was established in Lea Valley in 1916, and the first television tube factory followed in 1936. Bryant and May had a match-making factory in Newham, which was the site of the landmark matchgirls strike in 1888. Monorail was invented in Lea in 1821. IPA was first brewed on the Bow riverbanks in the 1780s. The Yardley soap factory was on Carpenter’s Road, and the Lea is where the first British commercially successful porcelain, Bow China, was produced. AV Roe became the first Briton to pilot an entirely British-built aircraft on Walthamstow Marsh in 1909.

The Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield produced the British Army’s Lee-Enfield rifle by the thousand (though unfortunately the Lee bit comes from its inventor, not the location), and also helped with the development of the bouncing bomb.It’s a rich history that, in a most un-London way, is celebrated by approximately nobody (although Saint Etienne’s film on the Lea Valley, What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day? captured much of the weirdness). We’re at the junction of White Post Lane, Wallis Road and Hepscott Road, which, Tyler points out, is the location of ‘a conglomeration of late Victorian industrial concerns that either introduced a number of products to this country or were invented here or recast in their modern form’.

He’s talking about plastic, petrol and dry-cleaning, which all came from here. Carless, Capel and Leonard started making a product they named petrol in Hackney Wick in 1892. Before then it was called ‘unrefined petroleum’ and competitors continued to call it ‘motor spirit’ until the 1930s. A few years previously, Alexander Parkes had been manufacturing a celluloid based on nitrocellulose with ethanol solvent that he uneffacingly named Parkesine, but which we now call plastic. And in the 1860s Frenchman Achille Serre introduced dry-cleaning to the UK, setting up a chain that lasted a century until it was bought out by Sketchleys.

It’s only as we reach Hackney Wick station that I realise we’ve not seen the Lea itself, though Tyler points out we crossed it while negotiating the A12. The river is more accessible elsewhere along its long slide through London, but it forms only a tiny part of the appeal of the Lea Valley, a glorious scrap of London that will change forever with the Olympics. With it, one fancies, the barrier between London and the East End may become a little less precise, and a lot less interesting.

Banking on Sherlock

When Abbey National opened their grand Art Deco headquarters at Nos 219-229 Baker Street in 1932, they didn’t quite know what they were getting into. Because it sat in the spot where 221b should be, the new building almost immediately began receiving letters addressed to Sherlock Holmes. When Arthur Conan Doyle chose an address for Holmes, he deliberately picked 221b because the Baker Street numbering did not go that high. But after renumbering, and with the arrival of Abbey House, Holmes’s address suddenly came into solid existence.

While many banks might have ignored this accident of geography, Abbey embraced it. Over the years, they really threw themselves into the business of celebrating the fictive biography of the world’s greatest detective. They installed a plaque (now lost), they published books and, after a while, they employed a letter writer, somebody whose job was to respond to all the letters addressed to Sherlock, acting more or less as his personal secretary.

In 1989, the New York Times interviewed Nikki Caparn, who then had that responsibility, and she described how she had received letters asking Sherlock to solve Watergate, or locate some missing homework. ‘Many people don’t ask for anything in particular,’ she said. ‘They just want to know what Mr Holmes is doing now or where he is and they hope he is well. And many people know he’s not real and write tongue in cheek. But some people haven’t worked it out. Mr Holmes would be 136 years old now, so it’s unlikely that he’d still be living here.’

Here is one such response from around exactly that time, sent to Kieran (@hail_tothechimp on Twitter), who had written to Sherlock to ask him about his most difficult case. Ms Caparn clearly does not feel equipped to respond to such a difficult and controversial query, so plays a straight bat with her standard response.

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Abbey have since moved from Baker Street and are owned by Spanish giants Santander, and I don’t know what has happened to their vast archive of letters. However, Abbey also created something for Sherlock Holmes fans that is definitely still standing. In 1951, the bank put together a Sherlock Holmes exhibition for the Festival of Britain at Abbey House. The Spectator said the Festival ‘was unlikely to show anything nearer perfection in its way than the reconstruction by the Marylebone Public Libraries Committee of Sherlock Holmes’s room in Baker Street.’

The review continues that ‘everything is here for the student of Holmes—violin, hypodermic syringe, revolvers, handcuffs’ and provides not just ‘a shrine for the connoisseurs of Holmes but a deep pleasure for the student of the late Victorian period’. The Spectator concluded that ‘when the Festival has subsided, this charming reconstruction is preserved for the enjoyment of posterity.’

Which it was. In 1957, the brewer Whitbread purchased the entire exhibition and put it on display in a pub, the Northumberland Arms, which it renamed the Sherlock Holmes and opened as what was surely one of London’s first theme pubs. The pub is located in Charing Cross, a key location in many Holmes stories, and the exhibition is still standing exactly as it was installed, preserving to this day behind glass in an upstairs room a slice of 1950s Britain in the shape of a fictional Victorian living room.

At the Poll Tax Riot

I attended the Poll Tax Riot by accident. I was at the theatre with my family on Charing Cross Road when the lights came up at the end of the performance and the house manager told us there had been a little disturbance outside so we would have to remain in our seats for a short period. As we did so, this was taking place on the street above.

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We’d seen the coaches parked up as we drove into London, but I had little interest in politics. I knew who the Prime Minister and  leader of the opposition were, but that’s about as far as it went. I would have recognised other names – I watched and enjoyed Spitting Image – but none of it really meant very much to me. Perhaps that’s as it should be when you are 14. Questions of policy were largely irrelevant so the anger towards the Poll Tax Riot had passed me – and my Daily Mail-reading parents – almost completely by. And, boy, were people angry.

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When the house manager gave us the all clear, we climbed the stairs – the theatre  was in a little basement – and emerged on to a devastated Charing Cross Road. What I most remember is the stench from all the overturned bins, debris spilling on to the streets, and the complete absence of traffic, people and noise. It was spooky. That smell I can still recall, a horrible, fatty, sweet stink of rot and decay. London then was a dirty city, but this was something else.

My father – surely in a state of some fear – ushered us through back streets towards the car park in Soho but I remember little of this journey, which surely would have taken us past smashed shops, mobs of protesters and riot police desperately trying to get their shit together. Once we reached the car, my father visibly relaxed but one junction, he had to hit the accelerator while we waited at a red light. He later said he’d seen we were about to be sandwiched between a bunch of rioters and some police and decided this was not a time to obey the laws of the road. Once again, I’d missed this sight.

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I thought about all this again while reading a pamphlet I picked up recently for £2 in a local bookshop. Produced by ACAB Press (an acronym for All Coppers Are Bastards) and ‘dedicated to all working-class heroes’, Poll Tax Riot: 10 Hours That Shook Trafalgar Square contains 12 eyewitness accounts of the riot. The interviewees all appear to be anarchists, and are as equally contemptuous of the traditional Left – Militant are particularly despised, and there are amusingly barbed references to George Galloway and Tommy Sheridan – as they are the police. Most of them seem to have had a great old time, chucking stuff at coppers, smashing windows and setting fire to South Africa House. This is about revenge.

‘Off we go intent upon destruction, up Charing Cross Road, into the West End, everything a target, everything subject to our rage and deep down surely a demonstration of how hated this world is.’

Cars are turned on their roofs, shops looted, the Hippodrome smashed and the police attacked whenever they are seen. There are no dissenting voices to the general feeling the Met finally got what they had deserved for a decade. One protester who ended up in a cell even claims that his fellow cellmate was a prison officer who joined in the fun because he ‘fucking hates the cops’.

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The pamphlet is so gleefully celebratory of the riot that it has to distance itself from the Trafalgar Square Defendants’ Campaign, set up to help those that had been arrested, even as it promises it will give them all proceeds from its sale. It also announces that ‘this pamphlet is anti-copyright and can be freely reproduced by any revolutionary group. But copyright protects it from being used by journalists, rich bastards, etc.’ I hope they don’t sue.

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