Monthly Archives: February 2016

Uncovering a London ghost: the half-life of David Litvinoff

In the current issue of Uncut, I spoke to write Keiron Pim about his excellent book on David Litvinoff, Jumpin’ Jack Flash. Litvinoff is one of those characters that crops up in all sorts of strange places once you first notice him – in the last few years I’ve read books about the Krays, Performance and Operation Julie, and Litvinoff has featured in all of them as a mercurial, menacing muse. He also appears in Iain Sinclair’s books, but Sinclair is most interested in what he can use Litvinoff to represent – in this case a deliberately unknowable, shadowy figure who flits through London’s secret history, connecting the shadowy worlds of counterculture and crimes.

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Pim is a journalist, interested in people as people rather than as metaphors, and his book diligently puts flesh on the bones of Litvinoff’s known history, tracing this strange character’s ascent from the Jewish East End and into the worlds of art, crime and music, where he rubbed up against everybody from Lucien Freud to Eric Clapton.  It’s said that Litvinoff reached such elevated company he was even invited to Jimi Hendrix’s funeral – the invitation contained a tab of acid that the recipient was meant to take if they couldn’t physically attend.

Litvinoff was an unpredictable chancer who survived on his wits, making money here and there through schemes both legal and not. He worked for the Krays and Peter Rachman, but his defining role, as seen by Pim, is as consultant for Performance, that heady, troubling film that could be the finest ever made in this city. Litvinoff befriended and advised both Edward Fox and Mick Jagger on the ways of the underworld, and supplied his old Soho pal Donald Cammell with ideas for scenes and dialogue. One of the many memorable moments in the film – the shaving of one victim’s head by gangsters – was based on Litvinoff’s own experiences. This was a man who both delivered and received mob justice – and at times, he is unsympathetic to the point of psychopathy – until he discovered a form of salvation through drugs and the woolly world of hippie idealism.

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The story is ultimately a tragic one, as Litvinoff increasingly found himself left behind by friends, who could tolerate his wit and weirdness for only so long. He killed himself in 1975 as punk was breaking, and one sense that this movement of chaotic creativity, violence and contradiction would have suited him fine, although Malcolm McLaren may have baulked at the competition.

Given that Litvinoff didn’t actually leave much behind – no books or diaries, photographs or albums, little that is tangible or concrete – it’s difficult to put a pin in what he actually did. In an age in which we are increasingly defined by our jobs – commit a social media faux pas, and you are immediately reported to your employer – that’s strangely unsettling. The brilliant late artist Martin Sharp, a close friend of Litvinoff, makes a case that this needn’t be the case, that Litvinoff, by simply being himself and acting as muse and creative conspirator, did plenty. “It’s hard to earn a living doing it, but he made an enormous contribution to people’s lives,” says Sharp. “It’s not something you can send someone a bill for.”

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Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station

I’ve written a book about Battersea Power Station.

It’s called Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams Of Battersea Power Station and is out in the spring via Paradise Road, a new publisher concentrating on London non-fiction.

Battersea Power Station is one of London’s favourite buildings, but nobody before has told its story.

This will be the first book to explore the history of the building, from conception and construction, through use and obsolescence, and then into the long years of post-closure redevelopment.

I wanted to understand why so many people have been fascinated by Battersea over the years. I’ve spoken to former workers and designers of inflatable pigs, location scouts and photographers, politicians, Lords, architects, planners and entrepreneurs.

This is a book that tells us so much about London and the way it changes. It’s a story of power and land, of big ideas and broken dreams. It’s a story that takes in property and politics, architecture and popular culture. It’s a story about our city and our relationship with its most popular building.

It asks how we went from this…

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Battersea Power Station, 1975.

To this…

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Battersea Power Station, 2016

London’s latest museum – Jimi Hendrix’s Mayfair flat

This is a piece I wrote for Eurostar about the conversion of Jimi Hendix’s Mayfair flat into London’s first historic house dedicated to a rock star (a small exhibition was held in the flat in 2010). Interestingly, even before the death of David Bowie, the museum’s curators were concerned the flat would be turned into a shrine by fans.

The museum is a strong addition to London’s cultural scene, filling a definite blank space. It begins with an informative timeline of Hendrix’s life focusing on his time in London, and then moves into this charming and evocative recreation of his tiny bedroom, which is both ostentatious yet surprisingly spartan. 

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Hendrix’s reconstructed bedroom, with former girlfriend Kathy Etchingham

When Barrie Wentzell photographed Jimi Hendrix at the rock star’s London flat in 1968, neither of them imagined that the colourful bedroom would one day be transformed into a museum. “I photographed him for Melody Maker,” says Wentzell. “It seemed so small when I went back recently. He’d have found it hilarious that it’s being turned into a museum.” Hendrix moved into 23 Brook Street in January 1968 with his girlfriend Kathy Etchingham, using it as a base to explore London as well as a space to conduct interviews and hang out with fellow musicians – George Harrison was one of those who stayed overnight on a camp bed. Since 2001, the flat was used as offices by the Handel House Museum who are located at the 18th-century composer’s old home next door at No 25. The entire space is now being renamed Hendrix & Handel In London, and Hendrix’s flat will open to the public in February 2016.

Hendrix arrived in London in September 1966 and began playing shows on his first night, immediately attracting the attention of a London music establishment who had seen or heard nothing like him. Incendiary, transformative early gigs in tiny West End clubs were witnessed by the likes of Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend and The Beatles. “All those guys, they played the blues but Hendrix had taken it to a different level,” says Wentzell. “He told me once, ‘Sometimes I play the guitar and sometimes the guitar plays me’. But he was very humble and soft-spoken, he kind of under-rated himself. He would talk about how great Clapton was and Clapton said the same about him. They had real love for each other.”

London boasted a powerful music scene packed into a small corner of the West End, and word about Hendrix soon spread. He became a star and as a result, he loved the city. Although he’d met Etchingham on his first day in London, he spent much of those early months moving between flats and hotels. “He moved around an awful lot and had lots of girlfriends who all thought they were the one,” recalls journalist Chris Welch, who interviewed Hendrix several times. Etchingham and Hendrix eventually moved in together, paying £30 a week for the pokey one-bed Mayfair apartment above a restaurant called Mr Love. Hendrix called it “the first real home of my own” and helped select ostentatious decorations of bright fabrics, peacock feathers, bric-a-brac and a rubber rat. The bedroom, which is where most of the entertaining took place, is being recreated for the museum after curators identified and tracked down around 70 items of furniture and fittings. Other exhibits include clothes, records and guitars as well as a timeline exploring Hendrix’ pivotal London months.

Although Hendrix spent his time in Brook Street enjoying some level of domesticity – he played Risk and watched Coronation Street – he also threw himself into the world of Swinging London, which was right on his doorstep. Promotors, agents, publicists, music papers, clubs, guitar shops, studios and fashion boutiques were all based in Mayfair and Soho. “He was in the best place to be,” says Welch. “Bands from all over the world converged on London and it was still the hippie era so if you were going to be accepted for being unusual anywhere it was the West End. He was adopted by Londoners very quickly.” Wentzell agrees. “There was a lot of love for Jimi,” he says. “He was only around for four years and he changed the world, he really did.”

Hendrix, who died in London in September 1970, always loved the flat’s connection to Handel – indeed, he believed he was living in Handel’s old home as Handel’s blue plaque was on the wall separating the two properties. “I remember him saying that he got this vibe of music from Handel and we joked about how he’d like to have jammed with him,” says Wentzell. “I guess now he is.”

Handel & Hendrix In London, 23-25 Brook Street. Opens on 10 February 2016.

Navvies, landlords and protest

I’ve written three pieces elsewhere recently.

For Londonist, I wrote about the battle in Herne Hill between independent shops and the local landowner, Dulwich Estates, who some feel are taking more away from the community than they put in. A protest last week saw several hundred Herne Hillians march from the station to the local toy ship, which was forced out by a huge increase in rent. Several other tenants told me they feared they’d also be forced to move in the next year.

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For Apollo, I wrote about a new exhibition of posters from Berkeley in 1970, when students protested about the ongoing Vietnam War and also the deaths of four student protesters on a campus in Kent State.

 

And for Waterfront, I wrote about the life of the navvies in London. I was intrigued by the urban legend that the four pubs in Camden with castle in the title – the Edinboro, Windsor, Dublin and Pembroke – were built for the navvies, to ensure separate nationalities drank apart and didn’t scrap. It quickly became apparent that the story wasn’t true, but as I researched the life of the navvies, I began to understand how the myth was raised and also learnt a lot about this tough breed of migrant worker.