Category Archives: Counterculture

Pirate radio in London: The Clash, Keith Allen and biscuits

There’s currently a small exhibition at the ICA looking at the history of London’s pirate radio. The Guardian recently ran a great photogallery on the subject.

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Not coincidentally, I’ve been reading a new book on pirate radio, London’s Pirate Pioneers by Stephen Hebditch, who formerly edited a magazine dedicated to pirate radio. It’s a great book, crammed with detail and utterly absorbing.

My knowledge of pirate radio was restricted to the 1960s offshore stations, and then the 1980s dance stations. I knew about the latter because I sometimes stumbled upon them while retuning from Capital Gold to LBC in search of football results. There would be a javelin of static, a man shouting, booming bass and a general feeling of chaos. I also diligently watched Lenny Henry, so knew all about the illegal broadcasting activities of Delbert Wilkins, who ran the a pirate radio show in Brixton.

Hebditch’s book mentions Henry, who was a supporter of probably London’s most famous pirate, Kiss FM, which like many others broadcast using transmitters stuck above shops on Westow Hill in Crystal Palace. But he also talks in detail about aspects of pirate radio that are much less well known. The book looks at developments in the pirate scene year-by-year from the 1960s, starting with a general overview taking in major shifts in technology, approach, licensing laws and law enforcement, followed by a longer look at a couple of  the year’s most important stations, and then a round-up of all the other stations that broadcast that year – some of them only surviving a week.

The detail is astonishing and what really fascinated me was the range of stations that existed. Many were playing jazz, dub, soul, funk and reggae – and the story of the way Black Londoners embraced pirate radio in the 1980s is an important one. Hundreds were later playing dance music, but there was also stations for heavy metal, classic rock, pop, and rock and roll as well as for local community groups: Poles, Greeks and South Indians all had stations. There was even said to be a far-right station, Radio Enoch, broadcasting in the Midlands, which was shut down after members from one London rock station went to pay a visit.

From these stations came numerous DJs we know today – Tim Westwood, Gilles Peterson, Annie Nightingale, Pete Tong, Judge Jules and Steve Lamacq – but also a hint of the variety of music and programming that the radiowaves could support. Many paid their costs by charging advertisers; some even charged the DJs for the right to present.

A station like Phoenix (1981-1985) would play early indie – Ellery Bop, Nightingales, Inflatable Boy Clams – mixed with “dub, jazz, industrial and African”, with guest presenters like Robert Wyatt and The Monochrome Set. Similar was Network 21, that played alternative rock and dance, while also covering news, cinema listings, concerts, plays and exhibitions.

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Then there’s Radio Concord, which grew out of the west London squatting scene between 1972 and 1976, sometimes broadcasting from the house in Maida Vale where Joe Strummer lived with the 101ers. This was a politicised counterculture station, and would comment on issues like Northern Ireland and housing rights. “They have even been critical of the Queen,” the Daily Mail reported. One time, they were busted while broadcasting so stuck  a mike through the letterbox to try and interview the law live on air.

Then there was Radio Amanda, that lasted from 1982-1984 playing a pre-Resonance diet of space rock and electronic music. At roughly the same time, there was Our Radio, a station started by anarchists that had shows devoted to feminists, gay groups and Brixton-based anarchists. It had few listeners but the police hated it: in one court case it was described as an “anarchist, terrorist, homosexual” radio station.

Radio Wapping broadcasting briefly in 1986 to support the printworkers striking after News International’s move to Wapping. And in 1983, comedian Keith Allen launched Breakfast Pirate Radio, which was broadcast “using helium-filled balloons over Notting Hill” (ahem) and featured “comic-characters, malicious celebrity gossip, radio outtakes and the names of supposedly bent coppers.” Robbie Coltrane also featured and you can listen to it here.

Best of all, though, was a station called The Home Of Good Baking which broadcast for a few weeks in 1989 using a jingle from United Biscuit Network, the 1970s in-house radio station at United Biscuits in Hayes.

Archive: Julian Cope interview

I recently rediscovered this 2005 interview with Julian Cope from Time Out. It took place over the phone and my main recollection is that Cope went to the toilet halfway through, with the sound of his piss hitting the urinal adding a certain sonic tang to the transcription.

They say that every boy needs a hobby; over the years Julian Cope has had plenty. At first it was taking LSD on ‘Top Of The Tops’ and talking about Scott Walker. Later it was sitting beneath a tortoise shell and listening to krautrock. Now it’s playing monolithic sludge rock riffs and visiting ancient monuments. There’s no pattern, it’s just how things worked out.

But before we get into one of those ‘isn’t Julian Cope crazy?!’ mindsets, let’s clear one thing up: Cope isn’t a whacked-out, moondog, schizoid beam-chaser, or even a ga-ga, freaked-up, attention-seeking acid-eater, he’s just a lot more interesting (and, crucially, interested) than most rock stars. Let the man himself explain, as he prepares for his Friday night gig at the Royal Festival Hall: ‘Playing the role of Julian Cope means I can hide behind what Julian Cope is supposed to be. People always say, “You’re a lot more normal than I thought you would be”, and I say, “Yeah, but if I was as weird as you thought, I wouldn’t be able to achieve fucking anything”. The whole point is that it’s the subject matter that’s weird, not the person behind it.’

These days such achievements are often literary – particularly best-selling books on standing stones (The Modern Antiquarian and The Megalithic European). But Cope continues to record. His latest is Citizen Cain’d, an epic, guitar-shredding study of alienation and monotheism that is heavily informed by travels in Iran and stupidly heavy rock ’n’ roll.

‘We’ve all got an inner moron,’ he explains. ‘And rock ’n’ roll entertains your inner moron, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be smart as well. I thought it would be great to take garage rock and fuse it with genuinely amazing guitar. American punk bands always struck me as being better because they were great musicians playing down. One of the reasons I work with Doggen is that he’s one of the best guitarists I’ve ever heard. He’s amazing. But it’s context, I never put him in a good context. I’m never going to make him look like Eddie Van Halen if he’s got to come out of the swamp.’

Talking of swamp, support on Friday is from San Francisco’s Comets On Fire, quality purveyors of cosmic sludge, who are playing their first UK show. Cope has been a fan for a while. ‘The great thing about Comets is they very much know where they’re coming from. When I first got in touch with Ethan Miller (Comets main guy) I was saying, “Man, you’re totally Roky Erickson meets John Fogerty with Hawkwind backing”, and he said “Shit man, in my dreams that’s where we are”. But it’s not in their dreams, they’re there already.’

As he enthuses about favourite bands like Speed Glue And Shinky (‘I’m a fucking cunt for a singing drummer’) and Monoshock (‘They’re really vile. Like a sewer Stooges’), it’s clear that Cope is totally into this stuff. And when Cope gets into something, it normally gets into print. ‘I’m writing a book that’s just called ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll’, but it has the most portentous subtitle in the world. I can’t even remember it. On the back we’re going to have a massive question mark and underneath say “Who will entertain your moron?”’

Will this be written in his trademark stream-of-consciousness style? ‘Actually, I’m probably no more stream of consciousness than Robert Graves, I’m just fucking great at giving that impression. One thing I do is write what I want to say, then I go into an internet translator and turn it into German, turn the German into French and then the French back into English, and then pick out the nuggets. It ends up sounding like Faust lyrics. I’m happy that secret being leaked: the people who hear it and don’t take it seriously won’t learn anything, and the people that know wisdom is everywhere will take it on board and start doing it. Part of my job is to reveal other ways. I’m trying to be a facilitator rather than somebody who hides behind a cloak of mystery.’

And Friday? ‘Expect generic dark psychedelia. I’m really punishing the cliché. Get there early because we’re going to play two sets, one as people arrive, then after the Comets we’ll come back and do that monolithic sludge. It’s going to be a real vibe. Healthy amounts of mushrooms will be good and women should dress for the occasion.’

Disappearing London: Food For Thought

I have a piece in the Guardian about the closure of Food For Thought, one of London’s most charismatic and seemingly nuclear-proof (and I’m not just talking about the consistency of the scones) restaurants. It closes on June 21, rising costs – basically rents and wages to cover staff’s rents – forcing the owner Vanessa Garrett, to shut a business that has been successfully operating since 1971.

Food For Thought is one of those places that’s always been there. It was there when I prowled Neal Street on amateur shopping trips in the early 1990s. I knew, instinctively, that it was some sort of hippie joint, so went elsewhere, a teenage boy in thrall to the twin thrills of the Sex Pistols and bacon double cheeseburgers.

Years later, grown up somewhat, I began to eat there regularly, usually nabbing a takeaway from the ground floor during lunch breaks at Time Out. It always felt more than just a lunch venue. Without wanting to get too Sinclair about it, waiting in line at Food For Thought felt like a visit to polydimensional London, somewhere that had been quietly doing the same thing, for the same people, in the same place, for generations. Close your eyes, and you could be in 1970s London or even London in 2015. For secular souls, there are few areas that carry this atmosphere in quite such an effortless way, not so much a timewarp as timeless. It wasn’t dated, retro or old-fashioned, it just was.

I didn’t realise then quite how entwined Food For Thought was with the counterculture that spawned Time Out. When I tweeted about the closure of Food For Thought, the writer Richard King responded thoughtfully that: “FFT felt like one of the final remaining traces of the original Tony Elliott vision of London for Time Out.”

It was an astute observation. Food For Thought was born in the same spirit as Time Out, a desire to make London new, fresh, exciting, modern and funky, but also to make it, for want of a better word, good: cheap, utilitarian, healthy, an experience to expand the mind and reward the soul. London can still do this, but not in such a distinctive and understated political manner.

It went deeper. One of Food For Thought’s first chefs was Sue Miles, the wife of Barry Miles, founder of International Times, the underground newspaper from which Time Out hatched in 1968. Sue had learnt her trade at the Arts Lab, a counterculture take on the ICA that operated from Drury Street, and she later worked at Time Out, writing its first pair of London guides, which included enthusiastic reviews of Food For Thought.

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What’s particularly depressing about the closure of Food For Thought is that it wasn’t doing anything wrong. It was popular, it was serving good food at reasonable prices. They could have expanded, sought outside investment and gone into the franchise business, but they felt that would dilute the experience. Why should they change when they were doing what they wanted and doing it well?

And it was this commitment to offering value for money – that deeply held desire to not rip off the consumer – that led to its demise. That was at the heart of what Food For Thought represented, and it is precisely the sort of thinking that doesn’t wash in rentier London, where even success is punished and landlords feel duty bound to wring more profit out of something they have done nothing to create, like Mafia bosses demanding their cut. People revolt when a government behaves this way, so why is it acceptable for landlords?

What a city we have created.

Robert Fraser: the butterfly, Performance and the Rolling Stones

I’ve often thought that when William Rees-Mogg wrote his famous editorial in the wake of the Redlands court case, the butterfly was not so much Mick Jagger or Keith Richards but the third party in that sorry affair. Art dealer Robert Fraser was convicted alongside the Rolling Stones for possession, but while Richards and Jagger were spared prison partly thanks to the Times editorial, Fraser pleaded guilt and was sent to Wormwood Scrubs. It’s difficult now to think of Richards and Jagger as butterflies; Fraser was the one that got left behind to get broken.

Some of letters and telegrams Fraser received and sent while during his four months at the Scrubs feature in the Pace Gallery’s superb exhibition, A Strong Sweet Smell Of Incense, which runs until 28th March. The title comes from Richard Hamilton’s collage, created as a response to the Redlands bust.

It is displayed alongside one of Hamilton’s other famous creations in his Swingeing London series, which shows Fraser and Jagger being led away from court.

Hamilton was one of several artists that Fraser promoted at his Duke Street gallery in the 1960s, and many of them feature in the show. Here there are works by Andy Warhol, Jim Dine, Eduardo Paolozzi, Claes Oldenberg, Clive Barker, Gerhard Richter, Bridget Riley and Peter Blake, as well as later pieces by Francis Bacon, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

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Copyright Pace London

There’s also a nice mock up of Fraser’s office.

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Copyright Pace London

Fraser had a great eye and a sense of daring, and that helped attract the stars. Fraser’s gallery became a centre for the cool kids of the counterculture, attracting pop stars, actors and film directors as well as perennially lurking scene figures like Keith Anger. Paul McCartney described Fraser as “one of the most influential people in the London sixties scenes” and The Beatles feature in the exhibition, most wonderfully in the shape of the drumskin from Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which Peter Blake created under Fraser’s direction. Fraser was the catalyst for much that happened in this mid-60s meeting of art and pop.

Copyright Pace London

Copyright Pace London

Fraser was nicknamed Groovy Bob and a sense of the fluid interchange of ideas that resulted from these encounters can be seen in a long display cabinet, arranged with artful haphazardness and crammed with personal letters, memos, books, flyers and photographs. There’s no caption for this wonderful ephemera, but rich pickings for those who take the time to drink it in.

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Copyright Pace London

I was fascinated by a 1968 letter Fraser wrote to Richard Lock at Simon & Schuster proposing a biography of the Rolling Stones, which “would be satirical and totally fictional”. It was seen as a suitably Stonesy response to Hunter Davies’s recently published and “totally humourless” Beatles biography. Sadly, this came to nothing.

I also liked a letter written by the producer of Performance, confirming that Anita Pallenberg would be renting Fraser’s flat in Mount Street for the eight-week duration of the shoot, at £30 a week. This was presented alongside a page of the script from Performance. Fraser’s spirit is essential to the milieu and mystery around Performance. He had known Pallenberg since 1961, and his interest in art, drugs and bohemia was infectious.  Pallenberg later recalled that around Fraser gathered “a fascinating group of people who were on the cutting edge of what was happening in high society, great cultural evenings, wonderful intellectual talk, plenty of hash and marijuana and speed and LSD.” Marianne Faithfull’s recollection is a more withering English take on the same deal: “Desultory intellectual chit chat, drugs, hip aristocrats, languid dilettantes and high naughtiness.”

The weeks that Pallenberg, with boyfriend Keith Richards, stayed at Fraser’s flat, would be pivotal to the unfolding psychosexual drama surrounding the Stones. Fraser was using heroin (his opium pipe is on display), and soon turned on Keith, who was otherwise writing Let It Bleed and brooding about the shenanigans Pallenberg and Jagger were getting up to while making the film.  The ensuing atmosphere of jealousy, betrayal spiced by heavy drug use would hang round the Stones for decades. As Richards spiteful autobiography shows, they still haven’t entirely gone away.

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Cecil Beaton photograph from Performance set.

Also floating around the scene was another arch mischief-maker, Kenneth Anger, and a couple of his missives to Fraser can be found in the cabinet. Best of these is probably the telegram requesting £60 which concludes “GROOVING ON MAGIC CURRENT ONE TRILLION VOLTS AFTER AUSPICIOUS LUCIFER HOUSE BOAT LOVE IS THE LAW”. Indeed.

But it’s the Stones with whom Fraser became most closely associated, for better or for worse. No matter how it ended, I’ve always loved a pair of photographs Michael Cooper took of the Stones with Fraser in 1966 and 1967 in Morocco, a location that is almost as emblematic of the 1960s as London itself, lingering even in the set design of that orgiastic lightning rod Performance. Here is the calm before the storm, before the butterfly is broken.

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A Strong Sweet Smell Of Incense at Pace London, 6 Burlington Gardens, W1S 3ET.

London curiosities, from Don Saltero to Viktor Wynd

This weekend, the grandly titled Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History opens at 11 Mare Street, Hackney. You may already know of Wynd’s whims. An intriguing dandy, Wynd is the founder of the Last Tuesday Society – a body that promotes the esoteric in lectures, salons and workshops – which included Wynd’s own huge collection of oddities and curiosities, acquired over a lifetime of inquisitive travelling and impulsive purchasing. Originally, these items were meant to be sold – Wynd is still a dealer in the weird, a middleman in this strange underworld of people that buy and sell the corpses of giant spider crabs and Javanese hen’s teeth –  but he found “it didn’t work as a shop and it isn’t fun selling stuff. I had to keep buying and you can never be sure what will sell, it’s an endless cycle. So I thought it would be more fun to make it into a museum.”

These curiosities are now going on display as the new museum. And curious they certainly are. On the shelves are two-headed lambs, tribal skulls, dodo bones, plastic toys, lion skeletons, radioactive scallops, Victorian dolls, surrealist art, an artificial foreskin, a cassette of a John Major speech on the subject of red tape, a Victorian mermaid, convict Charles Bronson’s sketches, feathers from extinct birds, a giant hairball from a cow’s stomach and jars of celebrity poo [“How did you persuade Kylie Minogue to poo in a jar for you?” I asked, when interviewing him for Eurostar; “I asked her very nicely,” he replied.]

Impeccably arranged cabinets contain delight after horror after delight, some labelled, others entirely mysterious, but all put together in a way that implies the art of the display, the way these things look on the shelves, is every bit as important as the items themselves.

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London has always appreciated the chance to gawp at a gruesome gallery like this. Wynd’s endeavor harks beck to the very first public museum to open in London at Don Saltero coffee shop in Cheyne Walk in 1695. Saltero, a barber, had previously been known as James Salter and worked for Hans Sloane, the collector who started what became the British Museum. Sloane reputedly gave some of his cast-offs to Saltero, who used them to attract custom to his coffee shop. In 1713, his catalogue boasted in terrible rhyme: “Monsters of all sorts here are seen, Strange things in nature, as they grew so; some  relics of the Sheba Queen, and fragments of the famed Bob Crusoe.”

 

Saltero’s collection included such marvels as  a giant’s tooth, a necklace made of Job’s tears and Pontius Pilate’s wife’s chambermaid’s sister’s hat, which had been made in Bedford. It was, nonetheless, hugely popular and by 1760 the collection includes priceless artefacts like the Pope’s candle; a piece of the true Cross; the Four Evangelists’ heads cut on a cherry-stone; the King of Morocco’s tobacco-pipe; Mary Queen of Scots’ pincushion; Queen Elizabeth’s prayer-book; a pair of Nun’s stockings; Job’s ears, which grew on a tree and  a frog in a tobacco-stopper. Moreover, it had inspired other entrepreneurs, eager to educate the public in the wider mysteries of the world, to follow likewise. Among those following in Saltero’s wake was Mr Adams of the Royal Swan in Kingsland Road, not far from Wynd’s palace of the strange. In 1756 Mr Adams was exhibiting”the heart of the famous Bess Adams, that was hanged at Tyburn; Sir Walter Raleigh’s tobacco-pipe; Vicar of Bray’s clogs; teeth that grew in a fish’s belly; the very comb that Abraham combed his son Isaac and Jacob’s head with; Wat Tyler’s spurs and the key of the door of the Garden of Eden.”

Well then!

Wynd is an artist as well as a collector and showman, and his museum will double as a gallery, opening with a show devoted to early British Surrealists and including work by Austin Osman Spare, Leonora Carrington, Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff. His curiosities are also sprinkled with the occasional artistic embellishment, whether its sculptures donated by artist friends, his own drawings, fine work by the likes of Spare or Mervyn Peake, or more occultish fare, like “blood squeezed from a stone” or a box containing “some of the darkness that Moses brought upon the Egyptians”. These latter items are much like the imaginative exotica of Saltero and Adams, and also remind me a little of Yoko Ono, and her attempt to auction in London a ‘Vial of Genuine New York Tears’ and ‘Jar of Captured Cloud Formations over the Bronx’  to subsidise Norman Mailer’s Mayoral candidacy.

Wynd’s collection features a lot of dead things in jars – babies, dissected vaginas, stuffed animals, old bones, beetles, butterflies, intestinal worms – but he rejects the notion that it is simply a celebration of the macabre, a house of horrors designed to shock the straights. “Nobody’s ever been shocked,” he says. “If you are going to a curiosity museum you want to see dead babies, it’s what you expect. That isn’t what’s new, what’s new is the idea that dead babies and Furbies are equally attractive. It’s uncanny rather than macabre, it’s the juxtaposition of items, setting off thought processes.”

“I see putting everything together as an art,” says Wynd. “If you are a collector then the world is your tins of paint and the walls and cabinets are the canvas. Everything has to look right. It’s a way of trying to understand the world, but a world that has no meaning. It’s all the pretty things that show what an amazing place we live in. It’s also an attack on conventional aesthetic values, so we have a Furby, which is seen as completely valueless, sitting next to a rare and valuable skull of an extinct beast, sitting next to Chinese sex toys. I don’t recognise a distinction between high and low, it’s just if I like it. It also makes me laugh. I’m quite miserable and this place cheers me up.”

It’s not entirely clear how much Wynd enjoys his role as a collector. As he points out, most of us collect when we are children, but then grow out of it. The collector is in a state of permanent pre-adolescence, unable to move on, still fixated by those items that first caught his attention many years before. Wynd says that as a child his favourite places were the Natural History Museum and the Pitts-River Museum. In adulthood, he is still trying to locate that childish sense of awe and intellectual awakening.

He recalls being a student in Elephant And Castle and compulsively filling a garage with items he find on the streets – “I couldn’t pass a bin liner without opening it.” Later he moved to Paris and discovered that at the end of the month everybody’s rental contracts ended at the same time, and on these moving days treasures would be left outside every block of flats. “It was heaven.”

The problem, he says, is that a collection is “like a garden. It’s never going to be finished. It’s never done. It’s a psychological condition, it’s stupid, it’s pointless and causes endless worries.” It also gives us the Museum of Curiosities, for which London should be thankful. Go gawp, embrace the uncanny.

‘I didn’t want to drop a turd on the reader’s lap’: Meeting James Ellroy

James Ellroy has a new book out, so I thought I’d republish my interview with him from 2009 when he was promoting Blood’s A Rover. I was unusually nervous before our meeting as I’d heard Ellroy was a difficult man to talk to and his memoir – My Dark Places – saw him plead a strong case for his own insanity. But all in all, it went pretty well. Ellroy seemed sad rather than difficult, although anybody can seem lonely in a Chelsea Harbour hotel on a Sunday morning. I wish I had kept the full transcription of the interview, as we also discussed, from memory, his research techniques and his plans for a new series of book, the first of which has just been published.  

Smart, stern and ramrod straight, James Ellroy sits in his Chelsea Harbour hotel room and broods about women and words. He is upright. Terse. Correct. He doesn’t quite speak the way he writes – hell, nobody speaks they way he writes, in sentences entirely unadorned with commas, adjectives or conjunctions – but his sentences are short, exact, punchy.

‘I love the English-American idiom,’ he says. ‘I love Yiddish. I love racial invective. I love alliteration. I love slang. I love profanity. And the simpler the language, the more direct, the more blunt, the better. When writers try to imitate me they always put in too many words, and none of it works.’

People try to copy Ellroy because his jazzy, rhythmic, slang-strewn pulp-prose is deceptive in its simplicity and addiction in its execution. The latest fix comes from Blood’s A Rover, the Nixonland masterpiece that completes his Underworld USA trilogy, an alternative history of conspiracy, crime and collusion that includes American Tabloid and the psychotic The Cold Six Thousand. Like its kin, Blood’s A Rover is a bloody collision of Johnny Cash, Raymond Chandler and Sam Peckinpah in which Ellroy uses three fictional male characters to explore factual events – in this case, the ascent of Richard Nixon, who joins J Edgar Hoover and Howard Hughes in the pantheon of American personalities Ellroy has slyly redrawn. ‘You’ve got to like Nixon,’ he says. ‘He;s funny, full of shit, drunk half the time. You’ve got to love a guy like that.’

Where this novel differs is in its bold ancillary characters such as Joan Klein, a femme fatale who embodies Ellroy’s tribute to a life-changing lover. ‘It’s about a boy who finds a matriarch, and that’s my story,’ he says. ‘One of the men is asked why he does what he does and he says, “So women will love me” and that’s why I write. I wrote it to honour Joan. There was a dark romanticism to the relationship, it ended badly and I will never see her again. There’s a line from The Hilliker Curse [Ellroy’s second memoir]: “I left bloodspills wherever we went.” She just cut me open.’

Joan is the book’s hinge. She is pursued by all three male characters – Wayne Tedrow Jr, a tortured ex-racist; Dwight Holly, a CIA fixer with shadowy brief and headful of grief; and Don Crutchfield, a teenage voyeur with the knack of being in the wrong place at the right time. All of them represent a part of Ellroy himself and all of them are looking for ‘salvation, redemption’, reflecting what Ellroy calls his ‘misunderstood Christian morality’. Joan brings female strength and left-wing idealism into their (and Ellroy’s) masculine right-wing world.

‘I wanted to write the story of that woman and me, and I wanted to write about symbiosis and synthesis and how the right and left need each other and how that often leads to catastrophe, because everything Joan and Dwight touch turns to shit,’ explains Ellroy.

There are other changes from past books. The prosy style is turned down a notch, the violence less gut-churning, the noir bleached a little. ‘The Cold Six Thousand was too difficult,’ he admits. ‘My ex-wife said: “Babe, it’s the most ambitious novel I have ever read, it’s 100 pages too long, it’s fucking complex, the style is too difficult and I didn’t know what the fuck was going on.” And she was right. So here you have a range of characters who are much more thoughtful, much more, in their weird way, composed and who think about shit a great deal more, so you need a more explicatory style.’

Ellroy breaks up the pace with journal entries written from less testosterone-soaked perspectives, and softens the mood towards a tentatively upbeat conclusion. ‘I don’t feel bleak,’ he says. ‘It’s very much a book about romance. I didn’t want to drop a turd on the reader’s lap.’

As distinct as Ellroy’s style is his setting, a pre-70s America where powers is held by the Feds and CIA, rogue cops, Hollywood players, bent pols and the Mob. Plots are punctuated by historic events, which he uses and interprets as narrative demands. It’s a world Ellroy has made his own, but didn’t invent.

‘The three Underworld USA book were launched by Libra by Don DeLillo [a fictionalised biography of Lee Harvey Oswald] and his take that JFK was assassinated by renegade CIA guys, crazy Cuban exiles and the Mob,’ he admits. ‘Conspiracy is there, I love writing about it, I love exploring the collusive mindset and I can’t prove any of it. What it comes down to is whether it is dramatically viable and whether the human infrastructure of the big public events is believable. That’s my job. I take the ideas, the characters, the milieu, the real-life history, the real-life situations and the research fills it in. Then I lie in the dark, I think of love stories, and I brood.’

Art and protest at the V&A

I’d been looking forward to the Disobedient Objects exhibition at the V&A for quite some time, so perhaps it was inevitable that I’d end up being disappointed. The exhibition looks at the art and design of protest, the way campaigners create new objects to enhance their ability to protest. Most obviously, this involves items like banners or posters, but protesters can be incredibly creative, and the boundaries for this are almost limitless.

The V&A exhibition, though, all felt a little safe. There was very little here that could upset anybody. The protests could all have come from a Guardian-approved list of righteous causes, while the objects were either strung up high out of reach – inflatable cobblestones, old banners – or dwarfed by the surrounding cabinets made of cheap plywood. Not that that there were that many objects: some posters and banners, a decorated car, some bicycle contraption, a phone with a subversive game and a limited selection of T-shirts and button badges. I was particularly disappointed that the Barbie Liberation Organization, a group that placed subversive voiceboxes inside old Barbies, were represented only by a film much like one you can watch on You Tube.

It wasn’t terrible. I liked the shields made to resemble book covers, for instance, and the Suffragette china has historic importance, while the Fuck The Law pendants made by a Black Panther who has spent 35 years in solitary had a rare power. Certainly more so than the rather trite banner, below, that the V&A clearly love so much they’re selling as postcards. I liked the free sheets they were giving away, though, telling people how to make their own disobedient devices.

Bone china with transfers printed in green, bearing the emblem of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU)Coral Stoakes, I wish my boyfriend was as dirty as your policies

Best of everything, though – and the only stuff that really felt at all dangerous even now – were the mock newspapers created by Reclaim The Streets and Class War. These supported a variety of causes, but were generally just designed to piss off the power of the establishment.

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This had a lot in common with the excellent exhibition upstairs in Room 88 called A World To Win: Posters Of Protest And Revolution, where Class War were also represented. This display takes place across two rooms which collectively contained dozens of dramatic posters from more than 100 years of graphic protest across the globe. There are items here from the Weimer Republic, Vietnam, Soviet Russia, Oman, Northern Ireland, Paris 68 and the Iranian Revolution.A lot are designed to shock – dead bodies at My Lai, Fuck The Draft, the incongruity of a poster celebrated the Ayatollah Khomeini placed just across the room from one lauding Angela Davis. The mix worked, and the images were superb.

A few of my favourites are below. but I recommend you check the collection out yourselves. Both this and Disobedient Objects are free.

 

Poster - So Long as Women are not Free the People are not FreePoster - Never Again! Stop the Nazi NF!

Against Apartheid. Boycott South African Goods (Poster)

Les Beaux-Arts Sont Fermés, Mais L'Art Revolutionaire Est Ne (Poster)

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Ten weird London films from Pathe: featuring leopards, scooter jousting, Willesden oil wells and Peter Cushing’s toy soldiers

1. Japes! It’s a fight between students in Brixton over a stolen stuffed owl, featuring many flour bombs. These days, this wouldn’t lead to a jaunty newsreel as much as apocalyptic headlines in the Evening Standard. 1957

2. A secretary in Kensington takes her pet leopard for a walk, 1968.

3. Jousting on scooters in Wembley, 1957.

4. Marcus the chimp cycles around London, 1940s. 

5. Dog blessing ceremony in Swiss Cottage, 1939.

6. Ever wanted to see Peter Cushing play with his collection of toy soldiers? From 1956.

7.  Some great Pathe footage comes in the form of out-takes, like this silent colour footage of a man pogo-ing into a Soho strip club in 1962.

8. An oil well in Willesden, 1947.

9. Kentish Town children hold a protest march to demand a zebra crossing, 1962.

10. A look at fashion featuring I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet and a couple dressed as Bonnie & Clyde pretending to murder a man wearing an Afghan, 1969.

Pathe newsreel: London time machine

These are all taken from the recent cache of thousands of Pathe newsreels loaded on to You Tube.

1. A trip to Swinging London in 67. Is that Yoko reading International Times at Trafalgar Square? Surprisingly sympathetic beneath the patronising tone. I love those Bob Dylan paper dresses. And at 4:50 you get to meet Keith Albarn, father of Damon, as he organises a happening. Also features Mary Quant, the Speakeasy, the Scotch of St James and much more.

2. This Is London, with commentary by Rex Harrison. A tour of the capital for the British Travel Association, starting at the Tower of London, into Fleet Street and Temple then into the West End and Westminster. It’s all very quaint and polite, but great for location spotting. The shots from Chelsea at 10:42 are extraordinary.

3. Platform shoes, 1977. A wide range of Londoners discuss platform shoes – “they’re not natural,” says one cockney. I think this was filmed around the King’s Road.

4. Tracking shots of Soho at night, 1968. No sound or context here, just a series of tracking shots around Soho at night. It’s incredibly atmospheric and full of strange glimpses into past lives, especially the laughing man at 3:22, whose companions have slipped off to an upstairs flat.

5. West End, 1977. Similar to the above, this is a series of disconnected, fairly random shot of London and the West End starting in Chinatown. Silent but fascinating as a sort of moving street photography. Note the number of Scotland fans around Piccadilly Circus, the porn shops, and the huge amount of scaffolding that appears to be everywhere.

7. Making a psychedelic light machine, 1968. A sitar plays while Mike Leonard constructs his machine for a light show. For 60s scene nerds, this is pretty fascinating.

8. White Defence League, 1959. Footage from Notting Hill, featuring an interview outside the HQ of the White Defence League (soundtrack starts around 1.20min). Staggering racism, unapologetically voiced.

Comics at the British Library

Action 1976-77, by Jack Adrian and Mike White. Action, used with permission from Egmont UK Ltd.

The British Library’s current exhibition, Comics Unmasked: Art And Anarchy In The UK is one of their best for a while. A thematic study of seditious comics in the UK, it covers a lot of ground without over-cramming – a consistent fault of BL exhibitions to date. And while exhibitions devoted to books can get a little frustrating – essentially, you are staring at hundreds of book covers you cannot read – comics work perfectly as you can read a single page and at a glance grasp an awful lot about the concept from the artwork and a couple of panels, such as this from Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s London classic From Hell.

From Hell, by Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell published by Knockabout Ltd. 1999 (c) Knockabout

Another plus is that the exhibition never makes excuses for its content matter so we are spared yet another analysis of why comics are for grown-ups. Instead it shows that comics have always been for grown-ups, right back to George Cruikshank (whose work is presented in a tremendous juxtaposition with an OZ strip about Edward Heath). The exhibition also takes a bold step by looking at the historical inspirations for comics writers’ love of magic and fantasy, with exhibits including John Dee’s spell book, the first draft of Crowley’s Diary Of A Drug Fiend and one of his tarot cards. These items are somewhat tenuous, but they are also marvellous and suggest an area a future BL exhibition could explore.

Original painting of Aleister Crowleys tarot card 'The Universe', on loan from The Warburg Institute. Photography (c) Tony Antoniou

There are several items with particular London resonance or import. I was fascinated by Riot, a book written in the immediate aftermath of the 1981 Brixton riot about which I’d love to know more. I also enjoyed the juxtaposition of Batman with Spring-Heeled Jack. There were also several contemporary strips, including Janette Parris’s Arch, about life in Archway, and Katriona Chapman’s contribution to Ink + Paper about renting in modern London. Oh, and there was a comic written by William Burroughs during his London sojourn.

Riot

Riot

Spring-Heeled Jack

Spring-Heeled Jack

IMG_2515

Other countercultural exhibits included a beautifully bound copy of IT, with the cover a reprint of a Situationist comic the publishers had found stuck on their office door (or a lamppost, I forget which) and a comic about the Nasty Tales trial, the IT spin off that was charged with obscenity.

The Trials of Nasty Tales, 1973, cover art (c) Dave Gibbons and Richard AdamsThere’s also loads of stuff on Batman and Superman, with particular reference to the work of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, while Moore’s Lond0n-set V For Vendetta is a recurring motif. And there’s a decent amount of 2001, including Judge Dredd’s helmet and a never-reprinted Judge Dredd strip about a war between fans of Burger King and fans of McDonald’s – featuring a psychotic Ronald McDonald – that has never been reprinted for fear of a law suit. I also learned that tedious busybody Dan Dare of the Eagle had originally been created as an intergalactic space vicar, which probably explains why I never much liked the man.

Judge Dredd's helmet loaned by DNA Films - producers of 'Dredd'. Photography (c) Tony Antoniou

Now do you want to hear the flaws? There were only three I really noticed. One was the design, which was never quite as weird and psychedelic as I’d have liked (though that may be why I am not an exhibition designer). Another was that there wasn’t enough about the artists, who while by no means neglected were never quite given the attention and praise they deserve. And finally I’d like to have seen more about the development of the grammar and rules of comic book art – how artists have torn up the traditional episodic, thought-and-speech-bubble panel-based framework – which was addressed only superficially towards the end. These though, are little more than quibbles. Go see.

V for Vendetta mask on a manequin in Comics Unmasked. Photography (c) Tony Antoniou