Category Archives: Drugs

John Lydon in Gunter Grove

There’s still time, just about, to grab a copy of the current issue of Uncut, which features my cover story on PiL, the band Johnny Lydon formed after the Pistols. One of the first things Lydon told in our interview was about the importance of the top-floor flat he owned at 45 Gunter Grover, on the border of Fulham and Chelsea. “Gunter Grove definitely had this ominous influence,” he said. “The house shook day and night with the traffic, non-stop revving of vehicles going by. So up would go the record player and the mood would get darker and darker. We were in a constant competition with the traffic outside.”

Although it was only round the corner from the King’s Road and World’s End, where so much punk began, Gunter Grove was a rather strange place for a Finsbury Park native like Lydon to end up. There weren’t many record shops around, for a start. Lydon now describes it as “suburban, with an aspect of Tring”, and the street was certainly in something of a no man’s land between Fulham and Chelsea. For Lydon, though, it was an important retreat from the world of the Sex Pistols, where he had been treated viciously by his old band, his former manager as well as the public and press. Here he could regroup and create a new reality.

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Gunter Grove soon developed a demonic character of its own. Lydon and his bandmates and other trusted friends would spend days hanging out at Gunter Grove, listening to music, smoking, speeding and arguing endlessly. Lydon has always been provocative, and those who hung around him had no choice but to join in. “What did we argue about?” said Lydon. “Everything. We’d argue over a curry. Was the spice content right? Was there enough butter in it?”

The flat was decorated minimally, with some of Lydon’s own paintings on the walls. The most important feature was the “very serious” Japanese stereo, on which Lydon would play dub and krautrock at deafening volumes. “John’s place was the best club in London,” said guitarist Keith Levene. “We had all this dub from Jamaica that nobody had and an amazing sound system. Loads of people would come through and we’d sit around arguing.”

Levene and drummer Jim Walker eventually moved in – Lydon says Walker was given money for furniture but spent it all on a moose’s head and slept on newspapers. Bassist Jah Wobble was a regular visitor. “It was heavy,” said Wobble when we met at the Chelsea Arts Club. “John and Keith both remind me of Withnail & I, only they are both Withnail. I had a girlfriend so I could stay until it got too much and then leave. I’d say to people, ‘If you’ve got any sense you’ll fuck off home’, but they never did. They wanted to be around the scene and were scared that if they went, they’d miss out on something. It was like Waiting for Godot, that Irish thing. I’ve always been good with chaos, I start arguments, I wind people up, that didn’t bother me, but it was like Beckett, quite desolate.”

Don Letts was another regular visitor. Was it as intense as people were telling me, I asked. He said, “Intense was a fucking understatement. People would come to visit and leave broken people. Even his fucking cat was nuts. He had a cut called Satan that he trained to fetch things and even this cat was freaked out by the whole experience. It was very dark.”

And all of this mood fed into the music. Lydon told me that with PiL, he wanted the music to be scratchy, to be irritating, nerve ridden and anxiety prone – and several songs on First Edition and Metal Box will still leave you feeling a little like Satan the cat. A crucial element of that was Lydon’s vocals. “His voice was at the same tone as a whining baby,” said Wobble. “Russians used the frequency to jam American recon jets. But it was this strident rabble rouser.”

 

Throughout my interviews with the band I was interested to discover whether the social and political atmosphere of the late 1970s – National Front marches, constant strikes, IRA bombs and the Yorkshire Ripper – had fed into PiL’s sound, but time and again I was told it was all about Gunter Grove. Don Letts put it best. “They were in their own microclimate, it didn’t matter what was happening in the wider political social cultural universe, they were in a place all of their own,” he said. “And that came from the whole Gunther Grove thing, which was an alternative world. Looking back, I can see it was scary. They created their own world. They weren’t checking out other music, they weren’t into politics, PiL was in spite of all that.”

 

 

 

 

 

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High Buildings, Low Morals by Rob Baker

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I wrote about Rob Baker’s last book – Beautiful Idiots, Brilliant Lunatics – a couple of years ago. It’s a collection of London-based short histories inspired by Rob’s superb blog, Another Nickel In The Machine. Rob’s now written a follow-up, High Buildings, Low Morals, which again explores a dozen London stories from the 20th century, some entirely forgotten and others well-known but brilliantly written by Baker, who takes a familiar tale – say, the Streatham brothel of Cynthia Payne – and use it to discuss something loosely related, such as the history of luncheon vouchers.

The fun of this approach can be seen in the opening story, which is about the infamous “headless polaroids” showing a Mayfair socialite giving an unknown man a blow job – the four photos had handwritten captions, “before”, “during”, “oh!” and “finished”. The photos were at the centre of an infamous divorce case but Baker also brings in Noel Coward lyrics, PG Wodehouse, Mussolini, Barbara Cartland and Normal Mailer.

Baker often focuses on a scandal of some sort but I particularly liked the chapter about Graham Greene’s wartime activities during the Blitz, which followed the author at work as a fire warden on one of the worst evenings of bombing. Within each chapter, are a handful of great facts and in the Greene section I learnt about a restaurant, the Hungaria on Lower Regent Street, which advertised itself as being “bomb-proof, splinter-proof, blast-proof, gas-proof and BOREDOM PROOF”. The restaurant had “a fleet of private cars driven by tin-hatted chauffeurs ready to take you through bomb blasts and shell fragments back home.”

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Other chapters take in the IRA’s operations of the 1970s, the Oz trial, and the extraordinary Lord Boothby. One of the best is about Tallulah Bankhead, who caused a scandal in 1928 when she hosted sex and cocaine parties for Eton schoolboys. An Eton teacher was said to have told her, “We don’t at all mind you taking some of the senior boys over for a smoke or a drink or a little sex on a Sunday afternoon. That doesn’t upset me. What does upset me is you giving them cocaine before chapel.”

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Altered States – new book

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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.

 

British Undergound Press

Fans of the London underground should head to a small exhibition at the A22 Gallery on Laystall Road between Farringdon and Holborn (hey, let’s split the difference and call it Midtown).

That’s not the London underground that gets us from A to B, but the inky, colourful, progressive newspapers produced by a small coterie of hippie publishers in the 1960s. The exhibition – curated by James Birch and Barry Miles – features just about every copy of Ink, IT, Oz, Friends/Frendz, Black Dwarf and Gandalf’s Garden ever published, strewn tantalisingly out of reach under glass cases. There are also some of the Crumb-inspired comics, such as Nasty Tales.

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There’s also a large amount of ephemera – letters, memos, badges and posters, including an entire wall devoted to the Australian maestro Martin Sharp.

The British underground press – which was conceived, written, edited and published in London – was inspired by the hippie/Beat press that sprang up in America from 1965. These took some inspiration from Beat/avant-garde art magazines, but added a heavy dose of hard and lifestyle politics. They were also printed on offset litho, which made layout easier to manage as there was no need for hot metal plates. These newspapers were by no means ideal – writers were rarely edited, illustrations were crude, there was rampant sexism both in offices and in print – but they were visually exciting and  challenging, advocating both political and cultural revolution.

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

Farren also talked to me about the working practices, which were as ad hoc as the financing (IT‘s profits were reinvested in drugs, as this was the best way to make a little go further). ‘It was all hands to the pump,” he said. “What are we going to do now? Well, we’re going to take speed and lay out a newspaper. It was systemised chaos. But a lot of us had learnt how to manage chaos in art school, and that gave us a nodding acquaintance with typesetting and a more than nodding acquaintance with amphetamines. Somehow, it worked.’

Another participant, Mike Lesser told me: ‘Vogue would try to do an IT issue but it didn’t work. They weren’t 36 hours behind deadline, they hadn’t been up for a week and they weren’t stoned.’

The underground’s obsession with sex, drugs and radical politics meant the newspapers and magazines would inevitably get targeted by the police, who were also doing their best to nick rock stars left, right and centre. IT and Oz were both raided and Oz famously charged with obscenity following the Schoolkids issue. The resulting court case could well be seen as the crowing glory of the London counterculture, and there are several exhibits relating to the trial. For Farren, this wasn’t much fun. “At least if you’re busted dealing coke you’ll have had a good time and made a lot of money. But you’re happily going on practising your art and craft and philosophy and suddenly, boom, you’ve got to deal with the law. it’s a fight and you get to know far more about obscenity than you care to know, and there’s also the chance that at the end of it you might have to spend 18 months in prison. That’s a sobering thought, because you have plans for those 18 months.”

The exhibition is accompanied by an excellent catalogue – which can also be purchased online – which has almost every cover of every issue of the leading publications. It’s well worth your money.

 

 

 

 

 

1967 Uncut

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.

Never mind the Balearics: London and the hippies of Ibiza, Formentera and Deia

I have a piece in the current issue of Uncut about the 1960s hippie scene in the Balearic islands of Ibiza, Formentera and Mallorca. It explores three individual but inter-related scenes – the community of artists and writers centred around Robert Graves in Deià, which attracted musicians such Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt and Daevid Allen; the hedonistic hippies of Ibiza; and the more hardcore scene on Formentera, that was filled with escapees from London and which had connections to Pink Floyd.

This is a circular tale. Following the arrival of expat Londoners in the 1960s, Ibiza continued to attract a wide range of European travellers throughout the 1970s, and the resulting spirit of chemical hedonism, opportunism and musical adventure eventually spawned Acid House. This came back to London in 1988 at clubs like Shoom, which were directly modelled on the mutant neo-hippie attitude that London DJs had experienced in Ibizan nightclubs. Although the piece concentrates mainly on the Soft Machine/Pink Floyd angle, the circular nature of this journey really interested me – the way a generation of elite London hipster helped transport a certain spirit to the Mediterranean, where it gestated into something quite different that a later generation brought home again.

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To get an idea of what life was like in Ibiza and Formentera in the 60s, you should watch More, the film by Barbet Shroeder which had a soundtrack by Pink Floyd. “The film More, that’s what made Ibiza famous forever,” said Jose Padilla, the DJ who founded Cade Del Mar. “That was it for me, the Ibizan white house with no water or electricity, hanging around knackered, guys from Vietnam, girls, there was a lot of heroin too. You can tell [Floyd] were doing a lot of acid… but the landscape must effect the music.” You should also listen to “Formentera Lady” by King Crimson, with evocative lyrics by Peter Sinfield, who often visited the island. As a result, there is now a street named after King Crimson on the tiny island.

 

Another Balearic-influenced 60s psychedelic classic is Cream’s “Tale Of Brave Ulysses”, with lyrics by the great Australian artist Martin Sharp that were inspired by his time in Ibiza and Formentera.

 

The Floyd crew spent time on Formentera in the 1960s, with Syd Barrett being sent there to recuperate following acid meltdowns, accompanied by the ever fascinating Sam Hutt, the hippie doctor who later became the country singer Hank Wangford. I’ve written about Sam’s West London hash clinic before. Aubrey Powell, co-founder of Denmark Street-based designers Hipgnosis, also spent much time on Formentera and told me how the island’s landscape influenced the artwork he later produced for Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd – particularly the weathered sandstone that Syd Barrett would stare at while off his head on LSD.

Meanwhile, over in Deià, the scene that coalesced around poet Robert Graves helped influence Soft Machine and Gong. Graves was an extraordinary character, who straddles so many areas it’s difficult to know where to start, but was connected in several ways with music, drugs and a general spirit of inquisitive mysticism. I spoke to Graves’ Spanish son-in-law and son – both of whom are musicians.  I also talked to Gong’s Didier Malherbe, who lived for a while in a cave in Robert Graves’ garden, where he would practise his flute and talk to Graves about Greek mythology, while neighbour Daevid Allen took acid and dreamed up his Gong universe.

 

Among Graves’ many interests was a fascination with magic mushrooms – he corresponded with Gordon Wasson, the American banker who helped bring mushroom knowledge to the west – and both Soft Machine and Gong were hugely influenced by the psychedelic experience. Artists, writers, musicians and actors from London would often visit Graves, including Ronnie Scott – Graves was a regular at Ronnie Scott’s club whenever he was in London. Graves also spent time with Alan Lomax, the great musical folklorist.

Deià is now a mecca for rich Europeans, partly due to a huge luxury hotel owned by Richard Branson. The story behind this goes back to London in the 1970s, when Branson and his wife were having dinner at Branson’s Little Venice houseboat with Kevin Ayers and his wife. Branson had his eye on Ayers’ wife and in the spirit of the era, this canalside soiree soon turned into a swinging scene, with everybody swapping partners. However, Ayers and Branson’s wife Kristen then fell in love and ran off to Deià. Kristen later ran off again, this time with a German architect, who Branson promptly teamed up with to build the hotel that would destroy the town’s bohemian spirit forever, sending Ayers into further exile, this time to Paris.

While Ibiza/Formentera and Deià were largely separate scenes, there was the occasional crossover. One such was this album, Licors by Pau Riba. Riba, a Formentera-based musician and grandson of Catalan poet Carles Riba, recorded this excellent psych-prog album with Daevid Allen in Deià. Riba also recorded the strange, beautiful Catalan folk album Jo, La Dona I El Gripau, in a stone house on Formentera in 1971.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Shrines of London

 

This is an edited version of a talk I gave last year for the London Fortean Society about London’s shrines. I decided to repost it after visiting the David Bowie shrine in Brixton last week.

 

 

To prepare for this speech and in an attempt to get my head around what a shrine was, I began thinking about the simplest shrines you see in London – that’s usually flowers tied to a lamppost after a sudden often violent death or the ghost bikes you see tied to lampposts after crashes.

That got me thinking about the largest shrine I’ve seen in London. This was in those strange weeks after Diana’s death. I was in my 20s and strongly Republican and so had little interest in the public mourning, but an older friend suggested we go and see what was taking place at Kensington Palace as it was something that only happens once in a lifetime. As we walked across Hyde Park this strange smell began to creep across the park – and I can still smell it to this day, the acid sweet stench of rotting flowers. It was indeed an incredible sight. The area in front of Kensington Palace was carpeted with flowers, thousands of bouquets, already turning to compost in the summer heat. People were walking among them, stooping like peasant farmers or bomb disposal experts to read a label. I’d never seen or smelled anything like it. You could not get near the palace gates.

Just look.

What fascinated me also about all this was that it had a seditious, outlaw aspect. There was a lot of noise in the press about whether the Queen was treating Diana’s death with sufficient respect, and this huge impromptu shrine – by the people, against the establishment – was given the atmosphere of an almost revolutionary act. It was a fascinating combination – the privacy of remembrance, carried out on a larger scale with political implications.

So perhaps these are some of the key elements for a memorable shrine: they need to be in memory of a colourful life cut short, possibly violently and unexpectedly, but also be plebeian or proletariat in nature, carrying a sort of unofficial, rebellious, streak, upsetting the forces of the order and establishment.

Unsurprisingly. London is filled with them.

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A disarming proportion are devoted to rock stars. This is Freddy Mercury’s old front door in West Kensington, featuring primitive scratched messages from fans all over the world.

There’s also a more or less permanent shrine outside Amy Winehouse’s house in Camden Square. It’s interesting to speculate why some musicians get this treatment and others don’t. For instance, why has Abbey Road become a shrine for Beatles fans but there’s nowhere similar for the Rolling Stones? Perhaps a shrine needs a magnetic location, and the Stones have never created that particular relationship with any single space in the city, perhaps we will need Mick or Keith to die before we find out.

I used to live near Abbey Road, and they had to repaint the wall every two weeks or so such was the flood of graffiti, even though you’d never actually catch anybody in the act of doing it.

Similarly, I’ve always been slightly puzzled as to why Marc Bolan has attracted a shrine. This is the sycamore tree on Queen’s Drive in Barnes that Bolan’s Mini crashed into in 1977, killing him instantly. People have been leaving notes and flowers ever since, and now there’s a bust. Why Bolan? I like T-Rex but don’t really see him as the sort of shamanic, eternal talent you’d think attracted such a tribute.

Perhaps it’s simply the violent nature of the death that appeals to people. But the way his death tree – his cause of death – is being marked is inescapably macabre. In some ways, it makes me think of the old Bill Hicks line, that the last thing Jesus would want to see if he came back to Earth was another bloody crucifix.

That brings us neatly to the religious aspect of shrines. Even in the secular ones, it’s there under the surface, this primitive, sacred need to mark a spot and remember the dead devotionally. But London also has numerous religious shrines. There are two that particularly interest me. One is on Bayswater Road at Marble Arch, where there’s a small convent for nuns. In the basement is a chapel, with walls covered in ancient relics – skin, bone, bits of fingernails – pulled and plucked from some of the 350 Catholic martyrs who were hanged at Tyburn, the gallows nearby. Behind the altar is a replica of the gallows itself. It’s remarkably medieval and extremely weird, especially when a nice old nun is telling you about their favourite piece of shrivelled skin.

There’s also a really interesting element of the shrine found in the canals of west London. Here you often find coconuts floating in the water, sometimes cut in half and containing candles, sometimes tied with ribbons. I used to live on a narrowboat and would occasionally travel west to Uxbridge – the nearer you got to Southall the more you’d see.

I was told they were placed in the water by London’s Hindus in religious ceremonies, with the canal representing the Ganges. A recent article confirmed this: they are place in the canal as an offering to Maa Ganga who symbolises Mother Earth and also the elixir of life, as water is where all life begins. And why coconuts? A Hindu scholar has explained that “Coconuts are the fruit of the Gods – it’s a pure fruit with remarkable qualities, it takes in salt water and produces sweet fruit and it’s neatly packaged too. Also it’s a symbol of fertility, it reflects the womb, and has human qualities – it has two eyes, a mouth and hair.” It’s fascinating that this symbolism has been transported across hundred of miles and generations.

When I was researching this talk, I began to wonder whether London had any graffiti wall shrines – that’s public spaces that have been adopted by street artists to commemorate specific moments and remember people. I’m sure that these exist, but they are hard to pin down because of the transient nature of the form. London does have lots of murals, huge paintings, often commissioned by the community and with a political angle. There’s the Battle of Cable Street mural in Wapping and the Nuclear Dawn CND mural in Brixton. A lot of these are official, but it was interesting to read about the War Memorial Mural at Stockwell tube. This commemorates various aspects of war, with a section for Violette Szabo, who worked behind German lines in WW2 and lived in south London. More recently, artists decided to include on the memorial an image of Jean Charles De Menezes, who was murdered by the police in 2005. But there were disagreements – people felt he didn’t conform to the spirit of the overall piece. Eventually, he was painted out. But there is a small mosaic and shrine to De Menezes nearby.

Then there’s the really strange shrines. I had no idea until this week that the phone box near St Bart’s hospital had been briefly turned into a shrine to Sherlock Holmes after the TV show had him falling from the hospital roof. I don’t imagine there are that many shrines to fictional characters elsewhere in the world.

London also has a skateboard shrine. If you look over the side of the Jubilee Footbridge, you’ll see dozens of broken skateboards lying on one of those immense concrete feet that anchor the bridge to the Thames. These are boards that have been broken during skating sessions by the nearby skaters on the South Bank in the undercroft, and ceremoniously chucked over the bridge to form this strange graveyard.

Then there’s what for me is the saddest shrine of all, partly because it no longer exists. I used to see this all the time when I walked Farringdon, close to Mount Pleasant sorting office, where there are steps going up the viaduct. High up on the wall of one of these dank stairwells you’d see a dozen or so spoons stuck to the tiles.

I always wondered what this was about – even though I think I also partly knew. One day I asked the collective wisdom of Twitter and somebody told me what I’d always suspected: that these were placed here by heroin users in tribute to their dead comrades, each spoon marking a departed soul.

This summarises the essence of an urban shrine for me – it’s clandestine, it’s seditious, it’s violent, it’s about a form of martyrdom and above all it’s about remembrance. I was extremely sad to see the spoons had been removed when the bridge was recently repainted. It’s like those people, those lives, were erased from the public memory. Even as a shrine, they are not allowed to exist.

“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.”