Last week I was able to visit the reopened Hunterian Museum at the Royal College Of Surgeons on Lincoln’s Inn Field. This is an anatomical, pathology and natural history collection originally started by 18th-century Scottish surgeon John Hunter, who acquired thousands of specimens – human and animal – in his desire to understand the natural world. Here is one of my favourites, a cute little foetus of a sloth.
I wrote about the collection and Hunter’s motivations for Apollo and you can read that article here.
It’s easy to cast the Hunterian as a sort of sophisticated freak show – a place where you can see diseased organs, strange animals, skeletons and a large number of dead babies. And to a certain extent – or at least to modern eyes – that is exactly what it is. But it’s important to understand the collection in the context of the time, before X-rays, aspirins, anaesthetic and all the other miracles of modern medicine that we take entirely for granted.
Hunter collected because he wanted to understand and he wanted to understand because he wanted to improve. His curiosity and motivation (and his approach to ethics) is very similar to that of John Soane, whose own vast jumble of artistic and architectural wonders can be viewed on the other side of Lincoln’s Inn Field.
Take just a moment to think about that. Here are the two cultures – art and science – in the form of two collections amassed by obsessed and committed individuals, facing each other across a large garden square in a pair of incredible free museums, either of which would be the envy of most national or city collections. London is by no means perfect, but – much like the scientific improvements that Hunter’s inquisitive mind helped propagate – such marvels should never be overlooked or underestimated.
As with the Mona Lisa, I’ve no idea when I first saw the cover of Dark Side Of The Moon, so ubiquitous is its presence in popular culture. The Floyd prism is one of the most recognisable record sleeves in the world and was the work of designers Hipgnosis, who are now the subject of a new book, Us And Them by Mark Blake. I’ve written about Hipgnosis before – in a feature for Uncut, in my book on Battersea Power Station, and in my next book too, a forthcoming musical history of Denmark Street as Hipgnosis’s office was at No 6, a space they shared with the Sex Pistols.
One of the reasons the Hipgnosis story is so interesting is that the company – founded by Floyd associate Storm Thorgersen and Aubrey Powell – came from exactly the same 60s scene as the bands they worked with. They loved rock and roll and Beat poetry, went to the UFO and the Technicolour Dream, watched the Beatles change music and saw first-hand as their friends in Floyd developed from a blues band into a psychedelic all-conquering world-making powerhouse. They were flatmates with Syd Barrett, took drugs, dated models and had huge ambitions – so when Paul McCartney wanted to take a photo of an Egyptian statue on top of a mountain for a Wings compilation, that’s exactly what they did, flying to Switzerland and hiring a helicopter rather than simply mock it all up in the studio – even if the final cover did actually look like a studio mock-up.
You can’t get them all right.
That thinking is what led to so many memorable covers from Presence to Ummagumma, including Led Zeppelin’s Houses Of The Holy – which I write about in more detail in my Led Zeppelin cover story for this month’s Uncut. It also meant rock stars enjoyed the process, particularly the likes of 10cc and Peter Gabriel, who really embraced the debate about art and commerce and meaning and surrealism. Not everybody was happy. Storm was a difficult customer and fell out with several of his clients, including heavy-hitters like the McCartneys, Zep manager Peter Grant and Roger Waters. But all of them kept coming back to Hipgnosis because they knew they had the best ideas and the chutzpah to carry them out.
Like all great bands – Floyd especially – the key figures in this story had an epic falling out. When I interviewed Suede in 2015, Mat Osman took a moment to reflect on his band’s journey: “I always thought we had such an interesting story – what we’d done was so different,” he said. “But then I looked at the shape of the story and it was every band ever: hard work, success, hubris, drugs, fights, coming back together a bit wiser. It’s been done a million times, it’s almost Shakespearean, but every generation has to go through it.”
The Hipgnosis story has exactly this shape, and it is one that naturally lends itself to biography. The 70s yarns are all well told but Blake’s book is particularly helpful in exploring Storm and Po’s origins in the Cambridge/London counterculture, as well as extending the gaze beyond the Hipgnosis era and looking at what happened when they stepped away from cover art and began to make pop videos and adverts in the 1980s. He also diligently explores their eventually falling out and reconciliation. Storm died in 2013 but Powell continues to work with Pink Floyd – he designed the new cover for the remixed Animals – and is surely one of the only human beings who has the confidence of both Roger Waters and Dave Gilmour.
Us And Them: The Authorised Story Of Hipgnosis by Mark Blake.
When I lived on the canal in Lisson Grove, we would often head west along the canal towards Kensal Green and Notting Hill, either by foot or narrowboat.
Whenever we did, we’d pass a small sculpture garden of garden ornaments and gnomes on the offside (non-towpath side) of the canal. This occuped a thin strip of land between the canal and a brick wall, which seemed to be the back of some housing. Every time we passed, the sculpture garden would have grown a little and paintings and mirrors started to appear on the wall itself. As far as I recall, we never saw anybody in the garden – it just seemed to mutate organically, as if the statues were breeding during the night.
I left the canal more than a decade ago and rarely returned, until a couple of years ago when work took me once more to Kensal Green. I was delighted to see that the statue garden still survived. Indeed, it had thrived. What had once occupied a single house now took over an entire terrace with what appeared to be more than a hundred statues and other decorations.
I took a quite bad photo, which gives you a vague idea of what it looks like.
I never knew who made this garden. It just seemed like one of those glorious London eccentricies that somebody willed into existence and then nurtured, simply because they could. They had the time and the talent and the inclination, so why not. They may will have had their own internally coherant reasons for creating it, but that scarcely mattered as it brightened the canal and the lives of everybody who passed.
Today I learnt much more via twitter. The garden is called Gerry’s Pompeii and was created by Gerry Dalton, who was born in Ireland in 1935, moved to London in the 1950s and after a career as a postman, factory worker and gardener retired and began to create his garden. As you might expect when you think about, this was not contained to the canal. This alternative universe began in Gerry’s own house, took over his garden and then spilled on the canal. By the end, it featured an astonishing 200 concrete and mixed media sculptures, around 170 wall mounted works and a 50 meter long mural.
If he had not died this year, one imagines that it would have just kept growing all the way to Camden. This video gives a great taste of what he created.
A crowdfunding project has now started to try to save Gerry’s Pompeii, either by raising £700,000 to preserve it in situ by purchasing his home from the housing association that owns it, reconstructing it elsewhere, or removing, storing and archiving it for the future.
If you can help, give some cash here. And get down to the canal to see this before it goes, as it’s a real London gem.
It feel as if the underground is heading overground. At the London Metropolitan Archives, an exhibition celebrates London’s subterranean treasures. Robert Mcfarlane has recently applied his golden Iain Sinclair-does-nature touch to a book on Underland. A photographic exploration of ghost stations is incoming from the London Transport Museum. And at the Museum of London Docklands, London’s Secret Rivers have been granted their own exhibition.
Jacob’s Island, Rotherhithe, 1887. Watercolour by James Lawson Stewart
London’s rivers are persistently fascinating and resistant to erasure. Like so many Londoners, I have been on their trail for decades. I nearly drowned inside the Fleet. I walked the Effra with a water dowser. I interviewed architects, businessmen and artists who have wanted to bring rivers back to the surface – or, in a particularly fascinating case, suggested we acknowledged the new flow of the buried Fleet via a subway, an underground bridge over a river under a road. I have studied the objects taken from the Roman temple alongside the Walbrook. I have stood in the middle of roads, ears to a grate, hoping to hear the passage of the subterranean river. I could go on.
All of this came flooding back at the Museum of London Docklands, a clever exhibition that features much of the above and more besides. It starts by exploring the reality of London’s rivers – where they were, what they were used for, why they disappeared – and then tackles the far meatier subject of what they mean to us now. It’s an exhibition of two distinct halves, one archaeological and topographical; the second more artistic and speculative. Bridging the gap comes a wonderful series of large photographs taken inside the Fleet, which gave me flashbacks and daysweats from my own subversive submersion in the sewer.
There are stacks of books, modern artworks, maps, films and digital pieces. Among them is a terrific sequence of SF Said‘s haunted Polaroids for Tom Bolton’t great rivers book, taken at above ground sites along the course of London’s rivers. I always think they look as if they were shot through a film of water, as if the ghost of the river has infected the lens.
It was particularly pleasing to see my local river, the Effra, getting some good space. This went back to the 1990s art/political prank group Effra Redevelopment Agency, and continues today in the form of the decorative manhole covers that mark the course of the river. It’s also given its name to a regreening project, a small but worthy attempt to restore ecological balance to the city.
I once believed that lost rivers could be restored, acting as canals or ornamental bodies of water. Now I rather like them as they are, buried but acknowledged, a reassuring secret hidden in plain sight, out of sight but never to be ignored.
Secret Rivers at Museum of London Docklands until 27 October 2019.
I have written the cover story in the new Uncut about John Lennon in 1969. This was a pivotal year for Lennon, as he embraced Yoko Ono’s concept of experimental autobiographical artistic experiences and prepared for the break up with the Beatles.
Ono and Lennon were endlessly busy through 1969, releasing weird albums – Life With The Lions and Wedding Album – and forming the Plastic Ono Band. Lennon played free jazz in Cambridge University, sent acorns to world leaders, got married, sat in bags, took heroin and released several hit singles, including “The Ballad Of John And Yoko”, “Give Peace A Chance” and “Cold Turkey”.
One of the lesser known results of this creative outpouring was the film, “RAPE”. Sean Ono Lennon believes this to be: “A profound piece, especially in the context of the Me Too movement. It’s not designed to be entertaining, it’s a concept, a metaphor and an experience.”
“RAPE” was commissioned by Austrian TV and filmed by Nic Knowland, a cinematographer working for World In Action. He told me, “An Austrian gentleman called me and said John and Yoko wanted me to work on a project. I said okay and went to meet them in hospital – I think Yoko had a miscarriage – and they explained what they wanted from this film. It was to reflect their sense of being hounded by the press. They wanted me to get a small crew and then follow anybody in the street until they screamed or broke down.”
For the next couple of days, Knowland filmed around North Kensington, shooting a lot of footage but never reaching the point Ono and Lennon wanted. The producer than gave Knowland the address of an Austrian woman who was in London and had outstayed her VISA. Eva Majlata was the sister of a friend of the producer and Knowland was never sure how much she was told about the project.
For the next three days he followed her around London – Highgate Cemetery, Chelsea Bridge – ignoring her attempts at conversation and keeping the camera focused on her face. “Then on the third day we were given the key to her apartment,” says Knowland. “That’s pretty full on and ends with me being very aggressive with the camera, putting my foot on the phone so she can’t call the police. I felt we had pushed it as far as we could.”
You can watch the whole film on You Tube.
The finished film is extremely unsettling, as Majlata is essentially stalked for 90 minutes by a silent camera to her increasing discomfort and eventual alarm. We see everything from the camera’s perspective, making us complicit in the action. For Lennon and Ono, this was about fame but it’s also about everyday street harassment – which, as Sean Ono Lennon says, make it very appropriate today.
What makes it even more alarming was Majlata’s after story. The film landed her a couple of modelling gigs with Vogue but she then “got into a spot of bother” as Knowland put it, and moved back to Austria where, as Eva Rhodes, she opened an animal sanctuary. She then got involved in various legal tussles and was eventually murdered in suspicious and horrendous circumstances. One of the themes of Lennon/Ono’s 1969 was how life inspired art, and Majlata’s experience was the reverse – art became life.
“RAPE” is little known now, but of all the projects Lennon and Ono worked on in 1969, this was the most powerful. There are a couple of articles about it that are worth reading including here and here.
While most recollections of 1968 concern events in Paris, Germany, the US and South America, there was also a minor uprising in London. That is being commemorated with a suitably bijou single-room exhibition at the Tate Britain, and also a new publication in Four Corners’ Irregular series – about which I first wrote here.
The book is an anthology of the work of Camden’s Poster Workshop, a collective that silkscreen protest posters for any cause that needed them, directly inspired by the famous posters of Paris in May. It includes examples of every poster the group produced from their premises on Camden Road, plus essays explaining how they worked and their social context.
The graphics, slogans and general attitude are a perfect expression of the spirit of 1968, with campaigns focusing on big issues like Vietnam but also looking at very localised political issues such as rent strikes and student protests. There is a whole wall of those posters on display at the Tate, sitting opposite various artworks that capture the anti-establishment spirit of 1968 – a photograph by Richard Long, some work by Joseph Bueys.
In the space between are a handful of exhibition cases containing some ephemera related to 1968. Much of this relates to protests at Hornsey Art College and LSE, but there’s also some terrific King Mob and Anti-University paraphernalia, plus issues of IT and Black Dwarf. It’s definitely worth a quick look if you are planning to visit either of the current two main exhibitions, one on the impressionists on London and the excellent All Too Human, a very London-orientated featuring art by Freud, Bacon, Auerbach and Bomberg.
The King Mob elements particularly interested me, as this group had a striking way with word and image that anticipates – and inspired – the artwork of punk. “Comrades stop buggering about”, one pamphlet implores while another quotes Antonin Artaud in a perfect mix of the profane and the artful. They may well have been little more than annoying provocateurs, the Spiked Online of their day who said things like “football hooligans are the avant-garde of the British working class” but they certainly had wit. As Alan Marcuson explained to Jonathon Green in Days In The Life: “They were much more fun, their writings were more fun, they were a more interesting group of people, they were doing more interesting things, their pamphlets were more interesting than the boring fucking Trots, who really were the most tiresome bunch of people I have ever come across.”
King Mob were outliers in the London revolutionary scene. They formed in Notting Hill as an offshoot of the Situationist International. In ’68 – The Year Of The Barricades, David Caute writes that they “derided both passive, drugged hippies and the usual New Left rent-a-crowd who were forever ‘counting arseholes’ and pursuing stale ‘issue politics’.” It’s noticeable that there is no index entry for King Mob in Barry Miles’ history of the London counterculture, London Calling. That could be because one of King Mob’s first actions was to go to Miles’s Indica bookshop, where the hippie Trots of IT were then based, and “scaring the wits out of them”.
Like most left-wing revolutionary groups, King Mob believed they were the real thing. They articulated a keen sense of humour that was borrowed from the Yippies and Situationists, and also nurtured a belief in “creative violence” that they admired in New York’s brilliantly named and short-lived Motherfuckers. As a result, King Mob celebrated serial killers and planned audacious actions – blowing up a waterfall in the Lake District; hanging the peacocks in Holland Park – none of which came to pass.
Their most famous activity was when a group of King Mobbers, including Malcolm McLaren, invaded Selfridges dressed as Father Christmas and handed out toys to children. They are also said to have been responsible for some of London’s best graffiti, including the famous “How much more can you take?” in Ladbroke Grove. Their influence on the political climate of 1968 was minute, but McLaren and Jamie Reid would soon take King Mob’s love of ‘chaos and anarchy” and apply it to punk rock.
I have a new book out. It’s called Altered States: The Library of Julio Santo Domingo and is published by Anthology Editions. This is a coffee table book that chronicles the extraordinary private collection of Julio Santo Domingo, whose LSD Library (named after his dog as much as the drug) was an attempt to capture all literature and ephemera related to his perception of the term “altered states” – something that essentially meant drugs, sex, music and black magic but which tipped into related spheres of art, literature and politics. The bulk of the collection is now on long-term loan at Harvard
I’ll write more on this – and how I came to be involved in the project – at a later date but I’ve already done a few interviews around the book for Another Man and Huck Magazine, while Lit Hub has carried an excerpt of some Beat-related entries.
I have a couple of pieces about 1967 in the new issue of Uncut, a Summer of Love special.
The first is about the Monterey Pop Festival, which became a template for almost all music festivals that followed without actually taking on board the two things that made Monterey such a success – artists played for free and the audience numbers were relatively limited. The concert featured performances from The Who, Hendrix, Grateful Dead, the Byrds, Janis Joplin, Ravi Shankar and several more. The music wasn’t always spectacular but the vibe was clearly unique, thanks to fine weather, excellent LSD and a general mood of harmony both among crowd and audience. I interviewed musicians, organisers and also the guys who did lighting and sound, who provided great insight.
Monterey was arguably the high point in the career of John Phillips, who co-organised the festival, booked the acts, headlined and wrote the best-selling jingle.
It must have seemed that after Monterey anything was possible but in reality – and as a neat metaphor for the movement in general – it was all downhill for Phillips from here. Pete Townshend told me a couple of Phillips anecdotes that I couldn’t include in the piece and so will repeat here.
‘My best John Phillips stories are:
1. He hired my Dad to play sax on a Nic Roeg film (The Man Who Fell To Earth I think). My Dad came home and said, “I thought I could drink, but that John Phillips out-drank me five to one. And he never stopped working, we started at seven, and were still doing takes at five in the morning.” My Dad didn’t really know about cocaine.
2. His sister asked me to call him a few years back to try to persuade him to stop drinking and using cocaine. “Pete!” He was delighted to hear from me. “Have you heard the news?” “Yes,” I replied. “You have a new liver”. “Ah!” He was triumphant. “But it’s a black woman’s liver. At last, I’ve got soul.”
The second piece is about the London scene, which is basically the story of the UFO club but covers everything from the 14-Hour Technicolor Dream to the Dialectics of Liberation conference and the launch of Radio One. I spoke to numerous figures from the scene, including Joe Boyd, Jim Haynes, Jenny Fabian, Dave Davies, Twink, Mike McInnerney and Sam Hutt.
I wanted to make this interesting, to get beyond the Beatles and write as little about fashion as humanly possible, so at the suggestion of Robert Wyatt I spoke to Caroline Coon about Release, the NGO she helped start in 1967 – partly as a result of the Stones bust at Redlands – to provide information and support to those who had been busted for drugs.
I also wrote about the psychedelic art, which is probably my favourite element of the psychedelic experience. Mike McInnerney was excellent at explaining the subtle differences between the key UK practitioners – himself, the Nigel Waymouth/Michael English collective, Martin Sharp and Alan Aldridge.
Hippies are often rejected as fluffy utopians – partly the fault of The Beatles and “All You Need Is Love” – but I’ve always been impressed by things like Release and Steve Abrams‘s full-page ad in The Times (funded by The Beatles) challenging the marijuana laws. These are radical undertakings, that required considerable gumption and a great deal of practical planning. The underground had these in spades, even if the results weren’t always as intended. This was also the last time when the underground was really united. By the autumn of 1967, political schisms had emerged and pop was beginning to fracture into often opposing genres.
It’s impossible I think to watch the film of Monterey and not want to be there, to feel that this is the world and these are the ideals which we’d all like to inhabit. And no wonder so many still look back on 1967 with such fondness and bristled when I asked if they actually achieved any of what they had intended.
I have written two pieces for the Canal & River Trust.
The first is about what it’s like when it rains on a canal boat.Being on the canal when it rained could be a powerful experience, from watching a storm approach you across a basin to the sound of being woken by fat drumbeats of rain on a metal roof at night. I spoke to the writer Melissa Harrison, whose book Rain: Four Walks In The English Weather has just been published in paperback by Faber, and also quote this song by Pulp.
I’ve also written about Eric De Mare, a photographer who explored the dying canal network on a makeshift boat just after the Second World War. His photos, collected in the classic book Canals Of England, were instrumental in reigniting interest in the canal. As an architect, he particularly admired their functional beauty, the simplicity of “architecture without architects”, and the way the bridges, locks and towpaths blended with the natural landscape. He photographed all aspects of the canal, but my favourites are his images of weathered bollards, which he describes as accidental sculptures.
His bridges are beautiful.
He would later repeat this sort of work with photographic surveys of the Thames and then the rest of the country’s industrial infrastructure – the breweries, warehouses, docks, factories and, of course, power stations.
Several of these lovely iron plaques have recently appeared in South London to mark the flow of the River Effra, the lost London river that now lies beneath the streets between Norwood and Vauxhall. It’s a wonderful project and Diamond Geezer has more details. He notes that the first plaques were laid in July and the project appears to be some way from completion, with several plaques yet to be installed. But there is a flurry of them around Herne Hill along Dulwich Road, where they make a nice counterpoint to the Effra’s other principal markers, the stinkpipe.
For those interested in the Effra, a book by Jon Newman has also just been published about the river. I once followed the course of the Effra in the company of a water diviner, who got us all lost in the middle of an estate during a snow storm while taking us on a route that bore very little resemblance to those diligently mapped by Effra experts. Still, it made for an entertaining afternoon.