Category Archives: Poetry

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.

phonograph1158774864i7576nj7

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.

 

 

 

Advertisements

John Peel didn’t mean shit to me: my radio education

I’ve been thinking a lot about radio recently. It’s partly to do with the launch of Apple’s new radio station but really began when I read London’s Pirate Pioneers by Stephen Hebditch, and continued when I started Bob Stanley’s excellent history of pop music, Yeah Yeah Yeah, which has some interesting thoughts on the way Radio One has shaped British music tastes and the roles played in this by different controllers and their chosen DJs. As ever, Stanley talks a lot about John Peel, who for many music fans was a lifeline to new, exciting music. For much of the 1980s, this was the only place you could hear music that other DJs might deem difficult or unpopular. Get a bunch of music fans of a certain age together, and they’ll soon talk about the important of Peel in their musical education.

It’s at this point I usually look at my shoes and hope the discussion moves on. Peel was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me. That’s because when I was starting to seeking out music – a little later than most, I was in my late-teens before I discovered any music that really spoke to me – Peel was barely to be found on Radio One. He occupied a tea-time shift on Saturday afternoons when I was usually coming back from watching football. I’d listen when I could because the elder guardians of the NME/Melody Maker said I should, and I remember avidly listening to the Festive Fifty at Christmas despite the protestations of my parents. But my heart wasn’t in it no matter how much I adored Strange Fruit’s wonderful budget collection of Peel Sessions LPs.

Instead, I was a devoted listener to Mark Radcliffe, whose show ran from 10pm-midnight four nights a week (and before that, weekly on Radio 5, which I also listened to). Radcliffe was given the sort of freedom that was highly unusual in national radio. He could play pretty much anything he liked, and happily mixed old with new. It was here that I first heard bands like The Leaves, The Sonics and Paul Revere & The Raiders, and discovered I really liked garage rock. He played a fair amount of indie just as the genre went massive, but gave it some context by playing it alongside records from the 1960s and 1970s, largely guitar-based but not entirely.

This was important, there was no streaming then, no internet at all, and oldies stations like Capital Gold generally stuck to the standards, so the only way to hear this kind of marginal music was by tracking it down in record shops and taking the risk of the purchase, or hearing it on the radio.

But the other thing he did was place the music within a wider cultural context. Guests came in to talk at length about films and books. He even did poetry. And the guests were immaculately selected: Will Self did a weekly slot on cult books, his unsettling drone of a voice perfectly suiting portentous, absorbing discussions of Kafka, Hesse, Burroughs and Huxley. In contrast to the regal Self, Mark Kermode would enthuse about cult films like a woolly teenager. He usually manged to slip in a mention of The Exorcist but, like Self, would cover a range of genres and era, showing how the dots connected. He’d also, I think, point out interesting films being screened at 2am on C4 so you could set the video. Every week, this pair gave me suggestions for something new to get from the library, or at least talk about knowledgeably, as if I’d read or watched them myself.

Simon Armitage and John Hegley would recite poems, which even then I didn’t much like but hell, just think about that for a minute, weird northern poets on national radio talking to teenagers. There were other guests too, comedians, journalists, mates of Radcliffe and his sidekick Riley, who joined in with the daft quizzes and silly set-pieces, but it was the mix of old and new music, spiced with literature and cinema that I was listening for.

You see, I loved music, but it wasn’t the centre of my life, which is how John Peel always seemed to present it, with deathless, off-putting, intensity. Radcliffe in contrast used music as a crucial flavouring in a cultural casserole. It felt mind-expanding, and was a massive influence on my education, on how I perceive music even today.

I don’t know if Radcliffe’s show stands up now, I don’t really want to know, but here’s a link to a fan’s website and some clips from one of the shows.

The Ramones in London: What if nobody speaks English?

I have written a cover story about the Ramones in the current issue of Uncut. One element of the Ramones story is their two gigs in London in July 1976, when the band played the Roundhouse and Dingwalls before audiences of around 5,000 at a time they were drawing around 150 back in New York.

These are considered key dates for the punk revolution in the UK, giving a kickstart to the three pioneering London punk bands, the Sex Pistols, Damned and Clash. The truth is a little more complex. One of the reasons the Ramones even got a record deal was because of interest in the New York scene in the UK. As Craig Leon, who produced Ramones for Sire, told me: ‘There had been inklings in the British press that something was happening and Malcolm McLaren had been over for a while managing the New York Dolls and took a lot of the scene – mainly Richard Hell’s dress sense – over to London, where it began developing in its own way. Sire felt that if we could make a cheap album and then get our money back in Europe it wasn’t a risky proposition.’

So even before the Ramones went to London, they knew the city was familiar with the CBGBs scene. For a band that loved English pop, this was quite a thrill. As Tommy Ramone explained, ‘They said the UK was interested and we’d grown up with all our favourite bands coming from the UK [Tommy told me that “Judy Is A Punk” was basically based on “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” by Herman’s Hermits] so we were very excited and we thought it might give us our break. We went over for a few days and played the Roundhouse and Dingwalls. We met a lot of the English bands, who came to the soundcheck at Dingwalls. We knew that we had sold out these place so we had an idea something was going on.” The success of the Camden shows did nothing for the band’s reputation back home, however. When they returned they continued playing in front of small crowds. In fact, as the Pistols gained in notoriety, being associated with English punk acts was more of a hindrance.

Nonetheless, Danny Fields, the band’s manager, felt the Ramones appearance gave London a crucial fillip. ‘To be the toast of London was incredible. There were people line up to meet them, to sleep with them, to sleep with me. All the would-be bands were there to see them. The  dressing room was full of people from the Clash, Damned and Sex Pistols. They were amazed that a band could put out a record like this, that they would even be allowed to play. We sat with Paul Simonon before the show and he said to Johnny he was in band but they weren’t good enough. Johnny said, “You’re going to see us for the first time. We suck, we can’t play. But don’t worry about it, just do it.” Johnny Rotten had to climb up knotted sheets. They took inspiration and thought the Ramones were exotic. The inspiration was, “We stink, stop rehearsing, start playing.’”

The only problem with Fields’ narrative is that the Pistols and Clash already were playing. Indeed, both bands actually missed the Ramones show at the Roundhouse because they were playing that same night, at the Black Swan in Sheffield, while the Stranglers were supporting the Ramones. The Damned made their debut a day after the Ramones show at the Dingwalls on July 6. So Rat Scabies, Damned drummer, thinks the influence of those London shows was more subtle. ‘Their influence on British punk rock is negotiable, because the London bands had already started,’ he says. ‘We were rehearsing, the Sex Pistols and Clash were doing the odd gig. But I remember listening to the Ramones debut album with Paul Simonon and we thought it was great as it was exactly what we were all about, three minute pop songs about life. We felt an immediate connection and it was confirmation: we realised we weren’t the only ones doing it. What was important isn’t ‘who came first?’ but the fact the same thing was happening in different parts of the world. It wasn’t just London frustration, it was the next generation getting angry. It made us realise we weren’t alone.’

In that sense, the Ramones shows were more like the International Poetry Incarnation at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965, when the hippies, ex-Beats, freaks and flower kids all turned up at the same place for the first time and realised they had a constituency, that the happenings they were organising in silos could be fed into a collective scene. It’s a glorious movement for any youth movement, the realisation you are part of something bigger than yourself. Even the underground wants to be popular.

The Ramones shows then have passed into punk legend, to be reinterpreted by new generations. ‘There’s a comic book called Gabba Gabba Hey that talks about the Ramones trip to London and how we were so concerned about the economic conditions, the UK depression, unemployment, children out of work,’ says Fields. ‘In truth, we were there for three days and the last thing anybody was thinking about was whether the British state was unfair to unwed mothers. They only thing they were worried about on the flight over is whether we had enough t-shirts to sell and what if nobody speaks English.’

Here’s an excerpt from the Ramones documentary End Of The Century talking about the Ramones in London.

Jimmy Page, Aleister Crowley and the curse of Eddie And The Hot Rods

For the full story of the curse of “Do Anything You Wanna Do”, see my interview with the band in this month’s issue of Uncut magazine. 

It’s easy to turn your nose up at any mention of Aleister Crowley, especially if you have little interest in the occult and esoteric world in which he thrived. But to do so means ignoring the man’s often brilliant writing – his Diary of A Drug Fiend is a superior pulp classic, for instance – and also missing out on some of the greatest anecdotes of the 20th century.

For the uninitiated, Crowley (1875–1947) was a British writer who used sex, drugs and magic –often simultaneously – to try to attain altered states of mind and who achieved such a level of notoriety for his activities that he was brandished the ‘wickedest man in the world’. If not wicked, he was certainly a character. As well as signing his letters ‘666’ and conducting numerous affairs with lovers of both sexes, he climbed mountains, wrote pornographic poetry, fraternised with novelists, artists and spies and attempted to write a new American national anthem.

To give a flavour of Crowley’s often bizarre intersections with normal society, in the early days of the Second World War he was tapped up by British intelligence officer Ian Fleming, who asked him to take part in an ‘occult disinformation plot’ against Adolf Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess, a fervent believer in astrology and the occult. Crowley was keen, but the plot was ultimately shelved; Fleming, however, later used Crowley as the model for villain Le Chiffre in his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, in 1953. Another fan of Crowley was Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard. It is claimed Hubbard took part in ‘sexual magick’ (magick was a term favoured by Crowley) with a couple called Jack and Betty Parsons in an attempting to create a magical child, thus fulfilling a prophecy from Crowley’s The Book Of The Law. Crowley was not impressed, writing in one of his typically entertaining letters: ‘Apparently Parsons or Hubbard or somebody is producing a Moonchild. I get fairly frantic when I contemplate the idiocy of these louts.’

Crowley was bisexual and a heavy drug user, eventually becoming addicted to heroin. He also enjoyed peyote, handing it out at parties. On one occasion in New York he gave some to the novelist Theodore Dreiser, who became uncomfortable and asked if there was a doctor in the area. ‘I don’t know about a doctor,’ said Crowley, ‘But there’s a first-class undertaker on the corner of 33rd and 6th.’

This freeness with sex and drugs saw Crowley embraced by the rock and roll generation, particularly after he appeared on the cover of Sgt Pepper. But the story behind another of Crowley’s cover appearances is not so well known. In 1977, Essex rockers Eddie And The Hot Rod wrote a song that was partly inspired by Crowley’s famous motto: ‘Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law’. The band rewrote this as “Do Anything You Wanna Do”, a spirited ode to self-empowerment, and attached the lyrics to a perky pop tune that quickly reached the Top Ten. It was engineered by a young Steve Lillwhite, who recorded it at Island’s studio in Notting Hill.

In recognition of his contribution to the song’s genesis, the band decided to put Crowley on the cover of the single. But they also felt his glowering visage was not really in the spirit of the band, so manager Ed Hollis (brother of Talk Talk’s Mark) attached a slightly comical pair of Mickey Mouse ears to Crowley’s head.

Great cover, big mistake. According to rumour, this image soon came to the attention of Jimmy Page, a Crowley apostle who lived in the Crowley’s old house, had a vast collection of Crowley paraphernalia and was fascinated by the occult. Page had orchestrated the Crowley-influenced occult symbolism that adored Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, which incidentally was also record at Island Studios.

The band were told that Page placed a curse upon Eddie And The Hot Rods for their disrespectful treatment of the Great Beast. From that moment, the band were plagued by problems. They were dropped by their label, their manager became hooked on heroin and they never bothered the higher reaches of the chart again. From behind his Mickey Mouse ears and with the help of satanic rock royalty, Crowley had got his revenge. As bassist Paul Gray told me, ‘Weird shit happened after that. A lot of people said we shouldn’t have fucked about with Crowley.’

North and south: the enduring hatred of Chelsea and Leeds

It was the draw every older Chelsea fan wanted. The plastic flash of the Champions League may excite shallow newcomers, but a League Cup quarter–final at Leeds is what gets the blood pumping. This is proper football, one of the juiciest rivalries in British football, a celebration of regional differences with mutual bad memories stretching back to the mid-1960s.

That’s about how long Leeds have been singing this little ditty about shooting Chelsea scum.

In the late 1970s, Chelsea fans would reciprocate by asking their Yorkshire foes, ‘Did the Ripper get your mum?’ And they’ll always have this.

The fixture will probably have the sort of ‘toxic’ atmosphere that hysterical commentators love to condemn, but it’s also the very reason people pay to watch football in numbers that dwarf that of any other sport. It’s a game that feels more important than it really is, one steeped in tribalism, history and cultural dislike, offering momentary respite from the sterility that defines the modern football-watching experience. For many fans, this is personal, this is pride.

And Chelsea-Leeds has always been huge. The TV audience for the 1970 FA Cup final replay remains the second largest for any sporting event (after the 1966 World Cup final) and it has the sixth largest TV audience of all time – more than any Champions League or European Cup final involving the self-important Establishment clubs of English football. That’s because Chelsea and Leeds had captured a hold on the national imagination since the mid-60s, when two young, stylish, streetwise sides stormed out of the Second Division within a season of each other.

So much in common but so little alike, Chelsea and Leeds set about each other with a passion in a series of increasingly ill-tempered league and cup encounters. By the time a ferocious 1967 FA Cup semi-final was settled by an awful refereeing decision – a last-minute Leeds equaliser from a rocket-like Lorimer free kick was disallowed because the Chelsea wall had moved too early – the foundations were firmly in place. Chelsea and Leeds, they didn’t get on.

‘Hate. We hated them and they hated us,’ is how Chelsea’s Ian Hutchinson once described it, and footballers are rarely so forthcoming about such things. It was a hatred mired in misconception as much as anything else, an embodiment of all of the north and south’s prejudices about each other. This was Yorkshire v London epitomised.

Chelsea considered themselves the club a la mode, King’s Road stylists, swinging London dandies who knew as much about fashion as they did football. On the pitch, they strutted and posed, playing with flair and panache – but only when they could be bothered. Off the pitch, they dressed up, grew their sideburns, hung out with  filmstars and were photographed by celebrity photographers with famous fans. No wonder George Best said Chelsea was the only other club he’d ever consider playing for.

Raquel Welch, not in a Leeds shirt

Leeds were more hardworking, more focussed, with a Yorkshire work ethic and attention to detail. They were also masters of professionalism in all its forms. Uncompromising, indomitable, they’d only turn to showboating when the opposition were already on the canvas. To make it worse, neither respected the other’s approach: Leeds thought Chelsea were flash failures; Chelsea thought Leeds were boring and nasty.

These stereotypes weren’t entirely fair – Leeds had beautiful footballers like Gray and Lorimer, Chelsea had roughnecks like Harris and Dempsey, and both teams could be said to have underachieved – but they contained more than a grain of truth. When the teams met at the 1970 FA Cup final, fireworks ensued. It must be the most enthrallingly violent games ever seen in this country. Played today, both teams would count on at least three red cards. This tackle (unpunished) is typical. I’d love to see a You Tube compilation just showing the fouls. Paul Hayward would wet himself.

As they rose together, they sank together. From the mid-70s and through much of the 1980s, both clubs endured financial turmoil, relegation, racism and hooliganism. The rivalry remained intense. At a Second Division fixture in 1984, which Chelsea won 5-0 to secure the title, Leeds fans responded by destroying Chelsea’s new scoreboard with a scaffolding pole. This was the scene at another 1980s game at Stamford Bridge, when the fixture still attracted one of the largest crowds of the day.

For a while, things calmed down. When Chelsea won the Second Division title in 1989, the fact they were playing Leeds was almost irrelevant as both sets of supporters maintained an impeccable minute’s silence the week after Hillsborough. When Leeds won the league in 1992, Chelsea fans barely flinched.

The rivalry only really picked up in 1996, when Brian Deane’s vicious ankle-stamp on Mark Hughes signalled the rebirth of Chelsea-Leeds hostilities. For the next few years, Frank Leboeuf, Lee Bowyer, Dennis Wise, Graeme Le Saux, Alan Smith and Jonathan Woodgate produced moments of quite stunning spontaneous cruelty. This was epitomised by George Graham’s side, who arrived at the Bridge in the winter of 1997 with no intention other than to kick Chelsea to pieces. It worked. Leeds had two players sent off before half time, but secured a valuable 0-0 draw. Ruud Gullit’s beautiful but fragile side were never the same.

As Chelsea rebuilt upon experienced foreign lines and David O’Leary went with native youth, the ideology again differed. This time Chelsea came out on top, picking up cups while Leeds imploded (Chelsea even scored, above, one of their greatest ever goals against Leeds). The two sides haven’t faced each other since Leeds were relegated in 2004, in which time Chelsea escaped their own financial reckoning, instead becoming one of the biggest clubs in the world. Leeds, meanwhile, have been scraping along in the lower divisions, the pain exacerbated by the fact they are now owned by much-despised former Chelsea chairman Ken Bates.

So to Elland Road, and while the two clubs have probably never experienced such a vast divergence in fortunes, the fans have been looking forward to this one for weeks. It might be epic, it might be a damp squib, but it will matter, and if we’re really lucky, it’ll be just that little bit toxic. 

Death and collecting

The Wellcome Collection is currently showing a typically absorbing exhibition titled Death, but it’s not really about that at all. It features work from a private collection, that of Richard Harris, and largely consists of skulls and skeletons, many of which are actually rather lifelike.

In fact, despite its arresting title, this is in many senses a rather squeamish, clean exhibition. There’s no dying, no decomposition, no pain, little mourning or God. There are no worms eating dead bodies, no cancer destroying live ones. It’s not even particularly morbid. It’s more about one man’s obsession with the human skeleton, stripped of flesh and cleansed of blood, sinew and memory, as portrayed by a number of very beautiful works of art over the centuries. If you want a more gruesome, more real, idea of death, try the Museum of London’s Doctors, Dissection and Medicine Men.

Collection owner Richard Harris stands in front of a work my Mexican artist Marcos Raya called Family Portrait : Wedding  at the 'Death: A Self-portrait' exhibition at the Wellcome Collection on November 14, 2012 in London, England. The exhibition showcases 300 works from a unique collection by Richard Harris, a former antique print dealer from Chicago, devoted to the iconography of death. The display highlights art works, historical artifacts, anatomical illustrations and ephemera from around the world and opens on November 15, 2012 until February 24, 2013.

It is tempting to speculate why Harris is so fascinated with his particular idea of death – why so clinical? Why so safe? – but it’s also ultimately rather pointless. In his excellent essay on collecting, Unpacking My Library, Walter Benjamin noted that ‘‘Collectors, like artists, operate out of unconscious motives, and so we cannot be known to ourselves.’ A collection can be about anything, and may reflect a personal interest or a psychological flaw, but the reasons behind their creation are rarely as interesting as you may hope.

What is intriguing about Harris’s love for skulls is that collections are often built as a defence against death itself, a way for the collector to claim mortality for himself in the form of something that will exist after he no longer does so (even if most collections end up being broken by families who lack the passion or obsession to keep them intact). Collections are also about memory, a way for the collector to freeze a moment in time. Every item represents a second, an hour, a week, a month – however long it took to locate and acquire – in the collector’s life that he can look at and recollect for years to come.

A collection is also about surrounding yourself with cool things that you like, although whether this ever makes the serious collector happy is a moot point. In his study of the collecting impulse, To Have And To Hold, Phillip Blom astutely notes that ‘For every collector, the most important object is the next one’, an acknowledgement that the collector will never be satisfied by what they have, as their next acquisition could be the big one, the one that completes the collection, or sends it off in an exciting new direction. This will never happen, of course, locking the collector in a spiral of anticipation and disappointment.

All of this is true whatever is being collected, whether it’s sick bags from aeroplanes, James Bond first editions or things that might be haunted. And just about anything can be collected, if you have the right kind of imagination. My friend Carl Williams, who deals in the counterculture, talks about his idea of collecting around ‘the sullen gaze’, that look of cruel insolence and careless superiority perfected by William Burroughs but which can be traced to many others, putting arresting flesh on Harris’s ambivalent skull.

Pot in Hyde Park and the death of Stephen Abrams

Steve Abrams, a key member of the London 1960s counterculture, died last week. Abrams was principally responsible for the above advert, which ran in The Times in July 24 1967 declaring that ‘The law against marijuana is immoral in principle and unworkable in practice’.

The advert was paid for by Paul McCartney and was signed by numerous celebrities, including all four Beatles, Francis Crick, Graham Greene, David Dimbleby, Jonathan Miller, Brian Walden and many others.

Abrams told Jonathon Green in ‘Days In The Life‘ that ‘After the ad came out  a friend of mine got on the train and delighted at each stop in watching people opening their copy of The Times and their expressions of disbelief. So wonderful was this that when he got to Victoria he took another train back and did it again just to watch.’

It is less well known that Abrams was also involved in Timothy Leary’s experiments with psilocybin, taking the drug at Harvard for Leary in 1961. Abrams then described his experience as ‘very pleasant’, giving him ‘tremendous insight’ even if it was ‘somewhat alien’, and he was ‘very eager’ to try it again, which he most certainly did.

After the  The Times advert, Abrams co-organised a pro-pot rally at Hyde Park in 1967. Everybody got very high, including guest Allen Ginsberg, who wore a virulent psychedelic shirt given to him the day before McCartney and was warned by police for disturbing the peace by playing his harmonium.

Beats in London

When Ned Polsky wrote Hustlers, Beats And Others his pioneering sociological study of the Beat subculture as it was in 1960, he was scathing of their literary value. ‘Most beat literature is poor when it is not godawful,’ he opined. ‘And this is certainly true of its best-publicised examples, which have been surpassed by even the minor Victorians: James Thomson’s poetic howl of urban despair, The City of Dreadful Night, is greater by far than anything Ginsberg offers, and in on-the-road literature the genuine gusto of George Borrow is preferable to the faked-up fervour of Kerouac.’

Stinging stuff – and that faked-up charge must have hurt – but times change, and while the Beats are still an acquired taste, one can’t image George Borrow being the subject of a special exhibition at the British Library, as is currently the case with Jack Kerouac.

On The Road: Jack Kerouac’s Manuscript Scroll is a small but welcome look at the basics of Beatery, offering an overview of the main protagonists – Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso (the only one Polsky rates) – and trying to explain where they fitted within the American literary tradition. The exhibition is illustrated by photographs, many of the American landscape as explored in On The Road, but also of the writers themselves. I particularly liked this shot of William Burroughs, dressed like a fugitive Nazi, hand shielding eyes from the sun as he stares back with clinical impassivity. Burroughs is possibly the most photogenic writer there has ever been.

The main exhibit, though, is the extraordinary scroll on which Kerouac wrote a key draft for On The Road. You do not have to like the book – and I don’t, particularly – to appreciate the sheer thrilling insanity of this object, 120 feet of closely typed pages, filled with ‘spontaneous prose’ and occasional pencil marks. I have never seen a manuscript like it.

Kerouac’s second novel has been described as the book that ‘started
a whole new youth culture of which drugs were an accepted part’, so sodden is it in dope and speed. It was based on a series of road trips Kerouac took with
Neal Cassady (the pair are reinvented as Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty respectively) between 1947 and 1950, and most of the characters are based on Kerouac’s friends. Mythology states that it was written in a three-week
splurge fuelled by coffee and Benzedrine, but Kerouac actually began it as early as 1948, when he also came up with the title. He spent a while searching for a voice, but eventually settled upon a stream-of-consciousness, jazzy, impressionistic style. This was inspired by a 40,000-word letter written to him Cassady, a charismatic sociopath described by his biographer as ‘a slim hipped hedonist who could throw a football seventy yards, do fifty chin-ups at a clip and masturbate six times a day’. Cassady was trouble; he was also said to have ‘one of the greatest minds I’ve ever known’, by a friend of writer Ken Kesey.

Kerouac sat down to write his famous ‘scroll’ draft on 2 April 1951 on a 120-feet sheet of paper that had belonged to Bill Cannastra, a wild-living friend who had been decapitated after sticking his head out of a New York train window.
Kerouac spent many years rewriting the manuscript as he tried to find a publisher, and it was eventually brought out by Viking in September 1957 – Kerouac belatedly considered renaming it Rock and Roll Road
to catch the spirit of the time – and immediately received an ecstatic review in the New York Times, which claimed it was ‘the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as Beat’.

On The Road is one of the most important books of the post-War era, but it’s questionable how much it influenced English culture given that it is such a specifically American book on such an American topic written in the American vernacular. London was more taken by Burroughs and Ginsberg, both of whom would spend extensive time in the city while Kerouac only visited for a few days in the 1940s when serving in the Navy. By 1959, Barry Miles, Jeff Nuttall, Michael Horovitz and the rest of the British counterculture scene were soon discussing, publishing, imitating and eulogising the Beat poets. 

Being more of a philistine, though, I prefer the exploitation stuff. Tony Hancock frequently mocked Beatnik culture, notably in The Poetry Society.

Hancock: You see, Sidney, we are a collection of kindred spirits who are all revolting against the Establishment.

Bill: How long have you been at it?

Hancock: Three days.

I also like Colin Wilson’s often sardonic but hugely charismatic novel, Adrift In Soho, which has that time-honoured plot of a young ingenue coming to London and getting drawn into a curious sub-culture, in this case the Beats. It is apparently currently being made into a film.

But the pull of the Beats, that desire to be different, was probably best expressed by Hancock again, in the opening scenes to his film, The Rebel. ‘Where are we going?’ It’s what Kerouac was asking, and it’s what Hancock wanted to know as well. Well, where?

Peter Hitchens on drugs and the moral, opium-eating, Victorians

Peter Hitchens is a very clever man. I’m sure he’s also sincere – I can’t believe British newspapers would employ somebody to say stupid and provocative things just to get attention, after all – but judging by the interviews he’s conducted for his new book about drugs, The War We Never Fought, he’s a little bit daft.

Hitchens theory is that there has never been a war on drugs. ‘Drug-taking was, in effect, decriminalised by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971,’ is how Decca Aitkenhead paraphrases. Instead, he harks back to the golden age of the Victorians, when there was ‘increasing self-imposed moral conduct’ (Hitchens’ words.)

Where to begin with this nonsense? Well, let’s just stick to the last bit, those morally virtuous Victorians. In a sense, he’s right: the Victorians didn’t take illegal drugs. That’s because they were too busy snaffling down the legal ones – things like opium, cocaine and cannabis – which were available to just about anybody who needed them until 1868, and then over the counter from chemists until 1926. This was the golden age of drug-taking in Britain, with opium being consumed on a scale we could scarcely now believe.

Victorian London was awash with opium, not in semi-mythologised Chinese opium-smoking dens in Limehouse (of which there were very few), but in pubs, chemists, general stores and markets, where it was sold in bottles, powders, pills, lozenges, on plasters, in sweets and much else besides. The centre of trade was in Mincing Lane, London, where 90 per cent of transactions occurred. It was most commonly taken as laudanum, a tincture of opium and red wine, with saffron and cinnamon.

This was not thrill seeking. In the days before aspirin, opium was one of the few reliable painkillers available to Victorians, especially especially fever and diarrhoea, but also malaria, smallpox, syphilis and TB. And it was effective as well. As anybody who has taken codeine or morphine will confirm, opiates have a tendency to block you right up – something that was particularly helpful when the next cholera or dysentery epidemic was just around the corner.

However, opium was also used on children, particularly when teething, in specially formulated sweet concoctions like Godfrey’s Cordial and Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, and thus surely led to the deaths of many by overdose. It also, believes the drug’s historian Martin Booth in Opium: A History, ‘provided an escape from the misery and vicissitudes of working-class life.’ This was especially the case in the Fens, where ‘many never take their beer without dropping a piece of opium into it.’

Because of these two factors, opium was belatedly seen as a physical and spiritual danger, and Victorian abstinence advocates put it right up there with alcohol and tobacco as serious threats to British life. What’s interesting, though, is the way – anecdotally at least – users were able to effectively and relatively painlessly self-medicate, living normal decent lives despite their addiction, without resorting to crime. This is true for the working classes, it’s true of the famous opium-eating writers like Coleridge, Shelly, Keats, Collins and De Quincey, and it’s also true of the many great statesmen – the sort of people who shaped the British Empire so beloved by Peter Hitchens – who took the drug. You see, because opium was the only halfway reliable painkiller around, everybody took it – including people like William Wilberforce, the great Christian abolitionist, and William Gladstone, who popped some in his coffee before speaking in Parliament to improve his rhetorical powers – even if not all of them became addicted.

In later years, opium – and especially its stronger derivatives morphine and heroin – began to be used by those simply seeking a pathway to an altered consciousness, a shortcut perhaps to the sort of transcendent mystical experience some people get from religion. In doing so, they were merely following pattern taken by mankind in all civilisations since the dawn of time, however much Hitchens may wish that weren’t the case.

As restrictions were introduced – for opium, not alcohol and tobacco – drug-use declined massively and by 1960 there were less than 100 registered heroin addicts in the UK. They received their drugs from doctors, cheap and undiluted, and were largely able to enjoy a normal existence (at least in comparison with their criminalised counterparts in America). However, as drug use increased in the 1960s, restrictions were imposed, culminating with Hitchens hated Misuse of Drugs Acts in 1971, after which drug supply passed almost completely into the hands of the criminal and use immediately rocketed. A far cry indeed from those morally virtuous days of the 1850s, when Britain’s great and good could simply pick up a bottle of premium laudanum from their nearest general store and retreat into blissful opium dreams.

Une saison en Camden: Rimbaud and Verlaine in Victorian London

I am an ephemeral and a not too discontented citizen of a metropolis considered modern because all known taste has been avoided in the furnishings and the exterior of the houses as well as in the plan of the city. Here you would fail to detect the least trace of any monument to superstition.

Arthur Rimbaud on London in Illuminations

Getting a face full of wet fish is usually associated with Monty Python at Teddington Lock rather than French poets in North London, but such is the warping power of Camden Town. Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine were the Gallic rhymers in question. The pair enjoyed a tempestuous relationship in a variety of London addresses, which culminated in the aforementioned fish-slapping incident in Camden.

rimbverl

They had arrived in London in September 1872 after fleeing scandal in Paris. Rimbaud was 17, Verlaine ten years older, married with a child. Verlaine’s brother-in-law described Rimbaud as ‘a vile, vicious, disgusting little schoolboy’, but Verlaine found him an ‘exquisite creature’ probably for much the same reasons. At first they settled in Howland Street in Fitzrovia. They became part of Soho’s expat anarchist dissident set, reportedly attending meetings helmed by Karl Marx in Old Compton Street, drinking heavily, taking hash and opium (Rimbaud advocated ‘derangement of all the senses’) and keeping warm at the British Museum, where Rimbaud’s name  – but not Verlaine’s – was later added to the Reading Room roll of honour. Neither were particularly politically motivated, but the anti-establishment environment would undoubtedly have appealed to the outlaw couple.

Drawing by Verlaine of Rimbaud in Canon Street

They both loved London. Rimbaud felt that by comparison Paris looked like nothing more than a ‘pretty provincial town’ and loved the ‘interminable docks’, while Verlaine was captivated by the ‘incessant railways on splendid cast iron bridges’ and the ‘brutal, loud-mouthed people in the streets’. Together they travelled on the river, visited Hampstead Heath and rode the newly opened underground railway. They visited Hyde Park Corner, Madame Tussaud’s, the National Gallery and the Tower Subway (‘It stinks, it’s hot and it quivers like a suspension bridge, while all the while you hear the sound of the enormous volume of water,’ they reported back).

They wrote as well. Parts of Rimbaud’s Illuminations and Une Saison en Enfer were written in London, and his relationship with Verlaine is recorded in the latter’s lines: ‘On several nights, his demon seized me, we rolled around together, I wrestled with him!—At nights, often, drunk, he lies in wait in the streets or in the houses, to frighten me half to death… In the hovels where we used to get drunk, he would weep at the sight of those around us, miserable beasts…’ Verlaine was also influenced by the hectic modernity of the docks, and wrote a poem about Regent’s Canal.

Their sojourn in Fitzrovia was briefly commemorated with a plaque written in French and erected in 1922, although it only mentioned Verlaine – Rimbaud’s name was omitted on grounds of morality. Unfortunately, the street numbers had changed by this time, so the plaque on No 34 was almost certainly commemorating the wrong house. These defects were solved in 1938 by simple means – the house was demolished. It’s said the plaque was saved from destruction, but if so it has long since been lost.

There is a plaque for their next house however, left by ‘unknown hand’ according to Simon Callow. This is on their residence at 8 Great (now Royal) College Street, which they moved to in May 1873, living in two rooms on the top floor for three months. Here the pair’s self-destructive instincts really blossomed. They argued relentlessly, and often fought physically. This reached its nadir one July morning when Verlaine returned from Camden market carrying fresh fish and olive oil. It was a hot day and Verlaine had a hangover, but Rimbaud, watching from an upstairs window, was unsympathetic. He laughed and bellowed, ‘Ce que tu as l’air con!’ (‘What a cunt you look!’). Verlaine responded with a kipper in the face (hurt, he later wrote to a friend rather pathetically,  ‘I retaliated, because, I can assure you, I definitely did not look ridiculous’), packed his bags and fled to Brussels. Rimbaud eventually followed, only to receive two bullets in his wrist for his troubles.

Verlaine was sentenced to two years in prison, which he spent in part reading Une Saison en Enfer, and that was pretty much the end of that relationship. Rimbaud returned to London in 1874, living at Stamford Street, SE1 with the poet Germain Nouveau and later taking a room at No 12 Argyll Square in 1875. He then disappeared for four months – biographers still speculate about whether he was in Scotland, Scarborough or Reading. He barely wrote another word and died, one-legged, in 1891. Verlaine also returned to England, teaching in Boston and Bournemouth, before returning to Paris where he succumbed to alcoholism and died in 1896. Camden can do that.

Photo by Dornac of Paul Verlaine in the Café François 1er in Paris on May 28, 1892