Category Archives: Celebrity

The Diana shrine: 20 years ago

Almost 20 years ago, I saw London’s largest shrine. It was outside Kensington Palace a week after the death of Princess Diana. It was one of the strangest sights I’ve ever seen in London, an doubtedly historic moment that made me feel completely alienated from the city around me.

Just look at this nonsense.

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I am not a royalist and, at first, had little interest in Diana’s death. My main recollection of the immediate aftermath was that London appeared to have sprouted a thousand flagpoles overnight. Taking the bus from Victoria to Maida Vale a day or two after the accident, every building seemed to be flying a Union flag at half mast. Every building except Buckingham Palace of course. I was working for News International and The Sun was furious at the Queen’s lack of respect. So furious, in fact, that they erected a flagpole outside their office just so they could fly the Union flag at half mast for a photo opportunity, a tabloid stunt aimed at shaming the Queen and aligning The Sun with the views of the people, despite their having helped ruined Diana’s life over two decades of intrusion.

A week or so later, it was quietly replaced by a flag bearing the News International logo.

Private Eye‘s hypocrisy-nailing cover seemed more in tune with my thinking, but caused such a furore they had to withdraw copies. I wish I’d kept my issue.

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Over the following week, hysteria built across London. I wanted no part of it, and had no intention of visiting Kensington Palace until I was persuaded by an older friend who wisely pointed out this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’m sort of glad he did.

We met at Hyde Park Corner and began to walk across the park. As we got closer to the palace, a smell began to rise – I can still smell it to this day, the acid sweet stench of slowly rotting flowers.

Kensington Palace was a genuinely incredible sight. The park in front of Kensington Palace was carpeted with flowers, thousands of bouquets, several layers deep and turning to compost in the summer heat. There was no way of getting near the palace gates and lone figures walked among the flowers, stooping to read labels, looking like peasant farmers or bomb disposal experts. I’d never seen or smelled anything like it. I remember reading one label. It was from a mother who wrote that she had lost a son in the Falklands War. She hadn’t cried then, but she had when Diana died.

There’s too much to unpick here to even know where to start, but one thing that stood out – above the general public insanity and my own utter bewilderment at how people were responding – was the strange, seditious, slightly exciting undercurrent undercurrent to it all.

A shrine is a very public way of responding to private grief, and they are almost always political in some way in the sense that the are the public’s way of drawing attention to somebody who they feel was otherwise neglected by authority. Shrines are often about the way a violent or unpredictable deaths provokes a proletariat response that has rebellious, anti-establishment bent. Shrines are rarely sanctioned, they are impromptu and organic. This shrine felt as close to a revolutionary act as anything that had happened in London since the Poll Tax Riot, and it was far more wideset, an angry reaction to what was perceived as the cold, heartless behaviour of the establishment. It also felt very un-London like, as this city isn’t usually so ostentatious in its response to tragedy or crisis. It unleashed a national trait for emotional drama that has never fully gone away and I’ve still to completely understand. And boy, did it smell.

 

 

 

 

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Graham Taylor: City slicker, ballet lover

Graham Taylor, who has died aged 72, is the single nicest famous person I have ever interviewed. I met him in a City boardroom, where he was doing risk analysis for somebody who was about to buy a football club. It was a pretty unlikely location, but the conversation was even odder. Taylor had just given a talk to Dance East about leadership, and we were there to talk about ballet.

I had no great expectations of the encounter, but I’ve never forgotten it. There was, from the start, a complete lack of front mixed with gentle humour. “People think I’m retired from football,” he said. “But I haven’t. I’ve just retired from football management and that ought to please them enough.”

As he talked about ballet, something else came through, a genuine love and admiration for dancing that he expressed in completely unguarded fashion, something that seemed so strange and wonderful for a man of his age and background. I’ll always remember one quote he delivered, for the way he spoke as much as what he said. It came with a naivety or openness that was rather beautiful. “I’m no expert,” he said. “But Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo at Covent Garden, when they dance in Romeo And Juliet, I would deny anybody, anybody, to tell me they don’t know what passionate unbridled love is. I’m not saying I shed any tears, but boy was I close.”

He talked thoughtfully about the differences and similarities between ballet and football, offering his perspective as a player, manager and fan. He was decent, interesting and normal, but what was most remarkable given his previous experiences with the press was that there was none of the usual sense of distancing performance you get in interviews, whether it’s with a film star in a hotel suite or a caramelised peanut seller being vox popped on Oxford Street. Everybody is always aware they are being interviewed, and they always react ever so slightly to the situation, almost placing themselves outside the experience as if they were observing and monitoring their own responses. This separation of reality and performance can be fractional, but it’s happened with everybody I’ve ever interviewed, even close friends. It’s an entirely natural defence mechanism, and one that I have grown so used to I notice it only subconsciously.

Taylor, astonishingly for a man who had been treated so viciously by journalists in the past, had none of this. There was no distance, no performance, no separation, no judgement. It was just him.

After the interview, he walked with me to the nearest station rather than waiting for me to disappear as pretty much any other interviewees would do. Again, it was a simple moment of niceness I’ve never forgotten. We talked about Didier Drogba all the way to Blackfriars station, before heading our separate ways on the District Line.

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My Favourite Londoner: Tony Hancock

In 2005, I interviewed the author Tim Lott for Time Out‘s My Favourite Londoner feature, in which we invited writers, actors, musicians and other personalities to tell us about their favourite London character. Lott chose Hancock, who is also one of my heroes, and I’ve reproduced the piece below.

(Incidentally, my other interview in this series was with one of my favourite writers, George MacDonald Fraser, who told me of his fondness for John Bunyan – although I’m not sure how much he actually knew about him, as I recall him slowly reading chunks from the encyclopedia over the phone to me. Sadly, the piece was never published, I’ve lost the transcript and MacDonald Fraser died soon after, never having written the Flashman book about the American Civil War – something he told me kept putting off, as the war was so horrible.)

‘I identify extraordinarily strongly with Hancock. I remember loving him enormously as a kid and living for ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’. I was about eight or nine and thought it was just the funniest thing on television. He spoke directly to my world – I lived in a London suburb like East Cheam and I too was a kind of – I hadn’t reached the level of being pretentious but I was somebody who desperately wanted to transcend what I saw as being my suburban limitations. And yet I was hugely intimidated and bewildered by the larger world beyond. Hancock’s concept of noble failure was very appealing to me. He never gave up trying to raise above his station but he was always doomed, and that was the key behind his comedy.

It goes deeper than that though. Deeper than him being simply funny.

I should incidentally remark that Tony Hancock was born in Birmingham not London, but I’m talking of course about Antony Aloysius St John Hancock, the character created by the London-born Galton and Simpson, who were died in the wool Londoners and that’s why the London voice is so strong. I think that idea of petty pretention underpinned by a real desire to better yourself – a motif shared by another of my great London characters, Steptoe the younger.

Trapped by circumstances but longs to escape the limitations not only of his own external situation, but more crucially the limitations of his own personality. He dreams of a wider world, one that isn’t defined by the quintessentially dullness of a 1950s suburban world.

I remember on the day he died this very famous photograph of him in Sydney looking so haunted, if you wanted to draw a picture of a man about to commit suicide it was almost a perfect representation of depression. I’ve written a memoir about my own depression (‘The Scent Of Dry Roses’) and somehow even at that age – I was 11 – it made an enormous impression me. I wondered how anybody could reach a level of such deep misery that they should want to kill themselves, and I found that utter bewildering. I was too young to recognise the deep melancholy and frustration that lay behind the character of Hancock.

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You can look upon Hancock as a ludicrous figure but people loved him and felt a tenderness towards him because of his vulnerability. Underneath his absurdity was a genuine wish to transcend his world. In ‘The Rebel’ he escapes to Paris to become an artist even though he has no talent and that was always my dream, to escape the dead streets of Southall and mix with all the eccentrics, bohemians and artists. But on the one hand you want this, but you also want to be reassured that these people are slightly absurd.

Hancock is greatly loved for that sadness that the real Tony Hancock brought to the role. It was the same with ‘The Likely Lads’, Steptoe, the essential tragedy of the situation.

He was a very beautiful man, he had a lovely face. There was something very evocative about his looks. Those great moony soulful eyes always acted as a counterpoint for the laughter and always said, yes it’s funny but it’s terribly sad as well.

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He was the soul of male suburbia in the 1950s. I always felt that aspiration, I always felt doomed, I always felt too stupid, I always feared I would end up back in Southall, my equivalent of Railway Cuttings, Cheam. And like Hancock I always felt a paradoxical affection with that place. It’s not a cruel, angry comedy. It’s very whistful, tender, reflective comedy.

I’m very rarely that shocked or sad when somebody dies, but I was when Hancock died. I remember seeing the story on the cover of the Daily Express and staring at it for a very long time. It’s strange how 20 years later I became terribly depressed, almost as if I had an intimation that it would happen. It’s almost creepy how fascinated I was by him, but he was a social climber with aspirational pretentions.

My favourite moment: when I went to university this sketch always came to mind. Hancock decides he’s going to increase his education so he gets out the biggest book he can find, this massive intellectual tome, and he sets it down on the table and prepares himself to do battle with the contents of this heavyweight textbook. He opens the first page and focuses and there’s this wonderful brave shot when nothing happens for about a minute, it’s just him looking at a page and then he looks up at the camera and just says ‘Stone me’. That basically summed up my entire attitude to learning.

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You love the freedom and art and culture of the middle classes, but you despise their pretention and their snobbery and their wealth and their privilege – and the two are very mixed up in your own mind, you want to become what you hate. He was very much of that era of working-class writers – Sillitoe and Storey and Waterhouse and Potter – but all of them were from the north. There were no southern working-class playwrights and in a way it was all transposed into the comedy of Galton and Simpson and Clement and LeFrenais. That novel about the lower-middle classes and working classes in London never came out – there was a whole tradition of northern writing but I didn’t recognise that, it meant nothing to me. But I did recognise Hancock and Steptoe. You didn’t find that world much in novels or drama, but most frequently in comedy and Hancock was the greatest of them.”

 

A Monkee in London: Alf Garnett, John Lennon, Princess Margaret and Balham

I have a feature on the Monkees in the current issue of Uncut.

It’s the second time I’ve spoken to Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork, having interviewed them both – plus the late Davy Jones – five years ago to discuss the recording of “Randy Scouse Git”. This time I also spoke to Mike Nesmith.

“Randy Scouse Git” was a song inspired by London. Dolenz wrote it in a London hotel, riffing on a line from Alf Garnett. He told me in 2011:

“We were in London doing press and the Beatles threw us a big party. We were staying at the Grosvenor. Mike and I had turned up on Top of the Pops to surprised everybody by saying hello and they’d smuggled us in in the boot of a car. That’s where I met my first wife Samantha who was a Top Of The Pops DJ, the record girl. It was an amazing experience. I am told I had a great time. I met Samantha and we had a massive love affair. Brian Jones hid in one of our rooms when he was hiding from police and then we got a letter from Princess Margaret asking if we could keep the fans quiet as it  was disturbing her sleep.

The next morning there were a few people hanging around, Mama Cass was in town, and I’d met this girl and I just started doodling with the guitar and singing about Samantha and my friend in the room and the waiter who came in with breakfast and the girls outside screaming. It was like a diary, word association. There’s no deep hidden meaning.

‘The being known as wondergirl’ was Samantha and the ‘wonderful lady’ at the start was Mama Cass. I must have been watching Till Death Us Do Part on TV. Alf Garnett called the kid (Tony Booth, Tony Blair’s future father-in-law) a ‘randy Scouse git’. I had no idea what it meant, but I thought it was funny so I wrote it down.”

Dolenz also talked about visiting The Beatles at Abbey Road.

“I’d gone to a Sgt Pepper session at Abbey Road in my paisley bell-bottoms and tie-dyed shirt and hair in beads and giant sunglasses. I looked like a cross between Ronald McDonald and Charlie Manson. I was expecting a wild, psychedelic funfest freak-out happening, but it was more like a high school gymnasium with four guys in jeans and t-shirts sitting on folding chairs and playing. I must have looked such an idiot. John Lennon said, ‘Hey monkey man, do you want to hear what we’re doing?’ and in the booth is George Martin in a three-piece suit and he presses the button and played “Good Morning, Good Morning.”

Dolenz is something of an Anglophile. His first two wives were British and he lived in London for many years, in Tooting Bec. While working as a TV producer in the UK, he directed this 1979 take on the classic 1950s Denis Norden/Frank Muir sketch, “Balham – Gateway To The South“.

Getting battered at the Half Moon

With the Half Moon in the news so much these days – and about to feature in its own book – I thought I’d reprint this article I wrote in 2002 for Time Out when I went sparring in the gym above the pub. I’ve included a couple of grainy photographs of me flailing wildly, sweating ringlets asunder, but cannot be responsible for any harm these may cause the viewer.

He comes at you again, all padding and muscle like a Michelin man filled with concrete. The ropes dig into your back as he bellows in your air – “Hit me! Give me what you’ve got!” – but even if you could raise your tortured arms there’s no room to swing a punch. Sweat spills down your face and your longs flip-flop as they grab for air. Then suddenly there’s space. “Jab!” he shouts. And you do, smacking his raised glove at full pelt. “Cross, jab, cross!” One, two, three! Bam, bam, bam! Then he’s down your throat again, pushing you back and forcing a clinch. You can’t see, you can’t move, you can barely breathe. It’s exhausting. It’s exhilarating.

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The setting is a rough-and-ready gym above a nondescript pub in Herne Hill. This is where Clinton McKenzie, former British and Commonwealth light-welterweight champion, runs a “boxercise” class that he boasts “is the closest thing to getting in the professional ring”. McKenzie, the brother of former world champion Duke and father of footballer Leon, has been here for seven years, ever since he found something that satisfied after the messy couple of years that followed his retirement from the game. The place was derelict when he began. Now, he says, the demand is such that he may need to close the membership for a couple of months.

 

You can see the appeal. First, the gym is one of the least threatening you’re ever likely to walk into. For a venue in which so much energy is devoted to hitting things, there’s a surprising lack of testosterone in the air. Such is the unintimidating atmosphere that a fair number of women take part, as partial to a workout and punch-up as anybody else. When you’re in the ring, fellow boxercisers yell encouragement. They help tape up your knuckles. They don’t laugh when you trip over the skipping rope.

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As affable outside the ring as he is dominant inside, McKenzie tailors the sessions to individual needs and interests. Mine went thus: 15 minutes on the exercise bike; 12 minutes on the punchbag; one minute failing to skip; an eternity in the ring; 20 minutes trying not to throw up; 10 minutes warm down. Make no mistake, this is tough work. The punchbag is hard and heavy, and pummelling it for four rounds of three minutes is punishing. Our arms aren’t used to that kind of treatment, the shudder of connection as you wallop and counter-wallop the swaying sack. First time out, boosted by McKenzie’s encouragement and ignoring his warnings, chances are you’ll overdo it and punch yourself out. With the adrenalin pumping, it’s difficult not to.

It’s in the ring that the real stuff happens. You feel like a champ as you tighten your bandages, pull on the gloves and step into the ring. McKenzie waits. He’s in padding that covers his chest and stomach and wears sparring gloves but has not intention of simply making himself a target. For the first minute or so he shouts instructions – jab, cross, work the body, switch stance, put together combinations – but every now and then you get a cuff round the head, a reminder of where you are. Then he starts forcing you back, into corners, against the ropes, using sheer mass and presence to push you into tight spots where you have to gather all your wit and strength to stay mobile. There’s just enough pressure to make you understand what it means to enter a ring for real.

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“I like to give people a feel of what it’s like for a pro, the hard work you’ve got to put in to survive,” he says. Trying to punch, move and think at the same time takes considerable effort and – the occasional tap on the top of the head notwithstanding – here you don’t even have to worry about defence. By the end you’re reeling, vision blurred, stomach hollow, knuckles raw, arms leaden. The bell is blessed relief. And that was just one round.

“Most gyms are just machines,” says McKenzie. “Don’t get me wrong, machines are great for exercise. But there’s something special about pitting yourself against somebody else, doing it one-on-one. It makes people try that bit harder. That’s what the regulars love about this place. And the fact they are getting in the ring with a champion gives them a buzz.”

And a buzz there undeniably is. Even those of a non-violent persuasion will relish the safe, healthy environment that offers just enough whiff of danger to get the heart pumping. “If boxing ever goes under, this is what people will be turning to so they can find out what it used to be like,” says McKenzie. Sure, he’s exaggerating, but as you pound the bag or jink through the ropes, you’ll have to bite your lip to stop humming the theme from Rocky. It might not be the real thing but it’ll do champ, it’ll do.

Clinton is still running boxercise classes from a new venue in Tulse Hill. Details here

 

 

 

 

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.

“I loved the brutality of it”: Suede and London

I wrote about Suede for the current issue of Uncut. This was something of a revelation for me, as I was able to remind myself how excited I was when I first heard Suede – I remember playing “Animal Nitrate” over and over again in my bedroom, thinking that I’d finally discovered a band I loved as much as The Smiths. Before interviewing the band, I went to see them play at the Roundhouse and all of that old energy was still there, and I was just as thrilled as I had been at 16.

One angle covered in wide-ranging interviews with Brett Anderson, Mat Osman and Neil Codling was the importance of London to the Suede aesthetic – this was a band that even renamed themselves The London Suede, albeit under duress, for their American releases.

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When the band were formed, Osman and Anderson shared a flat on Hilever Road in White City “on the border with Notting Hill – bohemia one way, estates the other,” Osman said, and Suede’s music came to occupy this very same sort of space, the sort of London written about by Patrick Hamilton, Dylan Thomas, Gerald Kersh and Roger Westerby in those novels about outsiders arriving in London and being instantly swallowed by vice and excitement. Doing something similar around this time was the TV version of Hanif Kureishi’s Buddha Of Suburbia, with a soundtrack by David Bowie – the combination of Suede and Kureishi is what led me to Bowie.

“London was a place where you can be what you want,” says Codling. “You can disappear, you can embrace any subculture, you can reinvent yourself and glamour is a possibility inherent in that.”

Anderson didn’t deny any of this. “I romanticised what London was,” he said. “I lived in a bit of a film fantasy. I loved the brutality of it, the loneliness and the hardness of it all. I really responded to that. But this is what we were living. I was part of this world I was writing about. I’ve always tried to find the romance in any situation I’ve been in and that happened to be the situation I was in. I’ve always loved art that deals with the prosaic. The Smiths aesthetic, I found that very powerful, ‘the riches of the poor’. There’s beauty in the brutality.”

 

Anderson told me he’s still inspired by London, often cycling the towpath from his home to West London to Camden, even if it doesn’t directly appear on the band’s new album. The excellent Night Thoughts is instead preoccupied by those unnerving concerns about children and fatherhood that keep Anderson – and myself – awake at night.

“I refute the tortured artist clichés, it’s bullshit, a lazy misunderstanding of what creativity is,” he said. “It’s not expected of authors and film-makers, Michael Haneke always seems very balance and his films are genius of discomfort. For me, a writer is finding those moments of friction, and those can occur in any existence, in any relationship, no matter how stable or content. There are always misunderstandings and moments of friction and this is what I write about.”

 

Beautiful Idiots and Brilliant Lunatics by Rob Baker

For several years, Rob Baker has written one of London’s best blogs, Another Nickel In The Machine, which explores the cultural history of London’s 20th century in a unique way. Rather than focus on, say, a musical genre or a particular locale or an identifiable concept such as celebrities or architecture, Baker simply finds great stories and researches the shit out of them. And now he’s turned it into an excellent book: Beautiful Idiots and Brilliant Lunatics.

As with his blog, Baker doesn’t pretend to find a unifying theme to artificially define the richness of his material, instead relying on his natural instincts to identify a good story and tell it for just the right amount of time. This is crucial. Some of these chapters cover some pretty big subjects – the Krays, Lord Haw-Haw, Christine Keeler, Pop Art – but Baker always manages to find a new angle without going on too long: for instance, his piece on Pop Art concentrates on Pauline Boty and the Anti-Ugly Movement while he looks at Blow-Up through a street in Stockwell that appears in the film. He’s brilliant at detail – clothes, weather, atmosphere, quotes – and tightly wound narrative (the section on the escape of spies Burgess and Maclean could come from a thriller), but he also loves exploring interesting tangents.

But his real skill is contextualising individuals within their era or locality. So his chapter on Benny Hill tells us much about the post-war comedy scene at the Windmill as well as Hill’s own rise and sad decline, the Profumo Scandal chapter is also about Soho and the Flamingo club in the early 1960s while the section of Winifred Atwell takes in Atwell’s strange career as a popular black performer but also the history of Brixton, where she lived.

This is essentially, the book of the blog, with several of the same stories, only expanded with new research. The blog also features great photography, just the right amount of which is reproduced here, including a cracking cover shot from the 100 Club, a venue that increases in importance with each year it avoids closure. Collectively, these photos and historical essays build a picture of London that captures some of the city’s chaotic sensibility far more truthfully than a conventional or even psychogeographical history, which will try and draw dry parallels between then and now, sometimes with lamentable results. Instead, Baker simply tells a story and then leaves you to think about what it means, if anything.

Some of these yarns I knew nothing about, such as the strange days James Earl Ray spent in Earl’s Court after assassinating Martin Luther King, or the spiv murder of Warren Street, or Charlie Chaplin’s wonderful return to Lambeth in 1921. Others I was familiar with, but still learnt more about, such as the plans to redevelop Covent Garden in the 1960s that was stopped by protesters – in the current climate, I wonder, would a similar protest have any success at all?  The net result is like being rattled round the London decades by a raconteur with a time machine, a sort of blue badge Doctor Who, who tells a story with wit and panache before whizzing you off to his next unpredictable destination.

Paul Weller in Uncut

I’ve written the cover story for the latest issue of Uncut about a couple of days I spent in San Francisco with Paul Weller in October.

I enjoyed the incongruous location – Weller was staying in the Japanese district and played a country music festival at Golden Gate Park and a show at hippie landmark Fillmore West – as well as the chance to spend time backstage with Weller and his band unaccompanied by any label management or press officer.

Weller discussed his forthcoming projects, including an avant-garde film soundtrack he’s composed, and also reminisced about early tours of America with The Jam. On one occasion, he said, the band were asked to celebrate their London credentials by posing outside an English pub in Santa Monica with a double decker bus.

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I also got the chance to explore San Francisco – where I discovered ghost signs, parrots, a punk-themed restaurant called The Brixton, coyote warnings and a complete absence of cranes, billboards, pneumatic drills and the general intensive building work that blights daily life for so many Londoners.

 

Save the Half Moon in Herne Hill

There has been a hole in the centre of Herne Hill since August 2013. That’s when a water main flooded Half Moon Lane closing most of the businesses. All eventually reopened (although some subsequently closed again, defeated by the insurance process) except what’s arguably the most important one: the Half Moon pub, a glorious gargantuan neo-Gothic late Victorian Grade II-listed pub that should be Herne Hill’s crown jewel but has instead been allowed to fester for more than two years, to the lasting shame of landlords Dulwich Estate. This is a fine London pub, which opened in 1896 – a pub has been on the site since the 17th-century – and has featured in graphic novels by Alan Moore, hosted gigs by U2 and Frank Sinatra, comedy shows by Eddie Izzard, and whose former drinkers include Dylan Thomas, who took the name of Under Milk Wood from the nearby Milkwood Road. Now, it’s dead, boarded up, dilapidated and rotting from within.

So how has this come to pass?

half moon

Locally, rumour and counter-rumour have swirled about its fate. The chief sticking point is that there are several floors above the pub – these once contained boxing a gym where I spent an exhausting three minutes being chased round the ring by a former middleweight champion – that represent a huge financial opportunity. Attempts to convert them into residential flats went nowhere and it’s said that Dulwich Estate, who look after the interests of the wealthy nearby private schools as well as a couple of other pubs, wish to turn it into some kind of boutique hotel as they are doing with the Crown and Greyhound in Dulwich Village.

This would almost certainly spell the end of live music at the large function room attached to the pub. This 200-capacity room has a surprisingly rich history as a London venue, as I discovered when talking to Peter Blair, who is leading the Save The Half Moon campaign with the Herne Hill Forum, fed up of the secrecy, silence and endless rumours.

Last week, Blair submitted to Southwark papers that would see the Half Moon listed as an Asset of Community Value that focus on its history as a music venue. He believes that while the pub will eventually reopen – because of the listing status, Dulwich Estate can’t really do anything else with the handsome ground floor bars – the live music component needs to be understood, celebrated and protected. The closure of London’s live venues has reached such epidemic proportions that even the mayor wants to do something about it.

“To have one of south London’s few independent live music venues shut in this way is terrible,” he says. “It’s the flagship of Herne Hill and it just sits there empty on the corner.”

Campaigners have been exploring the pub’s history and have discovered it was a crucible for London’s live blues scenes in the 70s – sessions featured an array of musical talent from the most popular bands of the era including members of the Jeff Beck Band, Rory Gallagher band, Thin Lizzy, and 7th Wave. An account of its history can be seen in this film.

It remained a music venue for the next four decades. In 1980, U2 played an early gig. In the 90s, the house PA was owned by Alabama 3 and gigs included Big Joe Turner and Geno Washington. More recently it hosted Devon Allman from The Allman Brothers and guitarist Albert Lee.

“It’s been a live music venue since the 60s and we can’t lose that live music function,” says Blair. “It has such a great history and was a great venue. Everybody I’ve spoken to says it was such a special place to play. This is a local community pub but it’s also much more than that.”

Damn straight: Leslie Nielsen even filmed a commercial in there.

If the campaigners win their bid to get the pub listed as an Asset Of Community Value, it will mean Dulwich Estate will have to consult the Herne Hill Forum over their plans, finally bringing them out into the open. “Out understanding at this point is that they wish to use the function room as a restaurant,” says Blair. “We want them to explain their plans in full, and to ensure live music is a key component of the new pub, whenever it opens. If it is converted as a hotel, how will that effect the music venue? We have no intention of making it unviable but we want to know what it will be when it opens.” The campaigners have no interest in purchasing the venue, which would cost a fortune but have been in discussion with the nearby Ivy House, who used Asset of Community Value status to purchase their local pub from developers.

There’s also the question of when it reopens. While Dulwich Estate is said to be in negotiations with several pub chains – “everybody you speak to has a different name” – it’s unlikely to open in the next 12 months. Since it closed, no restoration has taken place at all and it’s said the pub, which was at the very centre of the flood and thus under water for some time, is in very poor condition. It seems astonishing that a listed venue can be left to rot by a landlord that is supposed to have local interests at heart, especially when one presumes there is insurance money on hand to fix the damage.

It’s a sad state of affairs for what should be a south London landmark.

To keep up to date with the campaign, see the Facebook group.