Category Archives: Politics

A refugee’s son

When I was growing up, I unquestionably thought of myself as English. That was despite the fact one half of my family most clearly was not. They lived in Tooting and spoke a different language. They looked different, they ate different food and they had a way of being, a culture, that was profoundly different in a thousand indefinable ways.

Over the past two years, with every day and news cycle that passes, I’ve felt increasingly aware of this part of my background. It’s the part that doesn’t belong, the part that isn’t English and never will be. It’s the part that too many people would resent if my surname was not so plain and my skin not as white as theirs. Growing up I never thought of myself as the child of an immigrant, a refugee’s son: now, it’s increasingly how I define myself and my relationship with a country that seems to fear so much of what I represent.

First, some family history. My father’s side is easy. My grandad migrated from Barrow to Birmingham and then my dad moved to London when he was about 20. There may have been some Irish in there on my grandmother’s side – there usually is – but it was culturally 100% English and stolidly Protestant with it.

When my dad arrived in London, he lodged in Tooting at a house owned by a member of my mother’s extended family. This must have been an eyeopening experience. The family had arrived en masse in England in 1957. They were Mediterranean romantics, demonstrative Catholics who spoke Italian mixed with French, German, Greek, Arabic and even a bit of English and because they liked to eat properly, went to the chemist to buy olive oil, which the English only used to treat ear wax.

They were not English, yet they all had British passports. How so?

This is where it gets complicated. My mum’s family were originally Maltese, although they had lived in Egypt for at least three generations (my mum’s maternal grandparents were born in Egypt). Because of this somewhat vague Maltese heritage, the family were able to claim British citizenship even though they were culturally to all intents and purposes Italian. Italian was the first language, the food was Italian and they all supported Italy in the World Cup.

This led to some interesting collisions. My grandfather – my nonno – had the splendid Italian name of Salvatore Camenzuli, but he called his kids Daisy and Wilfred – which are as English as you could hope to get, even though neither of them spoke English. It’s why I have uncles with names like Herbert and Norbert. All were born around the time of the Second World War, so presumably were given such astoundingly English names to emphasise their official nationality.

It also meant that at the time of the Suez Crisis, they were thrown out of their homes. When Britain, France and Israel went to war with Egypt, everybody with a British passport was told to leave or become Egyptian nationals. Most chose to leave.

My family left Alexandria, the family home for at least 80 years, and got on boats that took them around the world. Some went to Australia, some went to Italy, but most went to England, the motherland, where they were interned in an old WWII camp in Horsforth, Yorkshire. They left Alexandria in January and when they arrived in England it was snowing. This is the passport on which they travelled.

 

For the adults, this must have been traumatic. Many did not speak English and the older men and women were taken to separate care homes. My mum’s nonna died a week after arrival. Here are my great-grandparents, who like so many human beings in history were victims of a conflict they had no part in causing.

For the kids, it was great fun. They didn’t have to go to school! Here’s my uncle Wilfred and his cousins at the camp, playing cowboys.

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When my mum arrived in England she possessed a British passport but didn’t speak English and had a funny name. When the family moved to London and she started school, she was singled out as different because she was. Did she live in pyramid? Did she go to school on a camel? The English kids imagined she grew up in an oasis and ate papyrus – they had no concept that Alexandria was a city every bit as modern as London, because that isn’t what they were taught. They could never have grasped that my mother had enjoyed in Alexandria a better standard of living that most kids growing up in Tooting. Even today, people struggle with this sort of basic understanding that other cities around the world are much like our own, and that immigrants and refugees aren’t always poor.

That was all tough, but more than 50 years later, she’s still here, an amazing woman married to an amazing Englishman but still in touch with her family. A few years ago, some of them got together to commemorate 50 years of exile.

This country would be a poorer place without them.

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So what has all this got to do with me? For years, nothing. I was aware of my non-English side and enjoyed it – the warmth of the company, the excellent biscuits, the funny accents, the glass of sweet Marsala at bedtime – but always considered myself an Englishman. Even my mum seemed English most of the time, so that when friends detected an accent and asked where she was from, it always took me by surprise. And when my mum mocked the blandness of English cuisine and talked about how boring England would be without immigrants like herself, I found it a bit uncomfortable, unpatriotic, even though I suspected that she was right.

But recently, as the rhetoric against foreigners, against immigration, against refugees, has toxified, I’ve become increasingly aware of my roots. I’ve been made to feel that I am English only by default, one small step away from being – like half my family, the people who raised me as English and who I love – foreign, unwanted, alien, an infestation.

The thing is, nobody who looks at me would ever know. But if I had different coloured skin or a strange surname, how would that change things? If my mother’s family arrived in England tomorrow, would they be welcome? Would the government even allow them entry? Would they be encourage to settle, make their home, open businesses, have children and generally enrichen the culture of the country so that English children can now grow up with olive oil on their plates rather than in their ears.

Across the world, the prevailing politics revels in the hatred of other. Some people – many millions more than I ever could have imagined – despise anybody who is, essentially, exactly like my mother. As a result, I have become more aware of my background as the child of an immigrant and what that really means. I am more conscious of the rhetoric of race and division, of them and us, of who belongs and who would be allowed to stay if the fantasies of white nationalists should ever come to pass. But I am a refugee’s son, and nothing makes me prouder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.”

 

 

 

 

 

Under the arches – ghost signs of London

Herne Hill’s subway tunnel is getting a makeover. The process began with the stripping away of some old panels that lined the passageway. That revealed some strange and ancient tribal wall markings that nobody will have seen for years.

What can they mean?

 

The graffiti can be dated fairly precisely by some of the political messages that were also exposed in the renovation. One is a stencil saying “No cruise”, while the other features the tattered remains of three “Militant Miner” posters, which would have been stuck on the wall around the time of the Miners Strike in 1984/1985.

You can see a clearer version of the Militant Miner poster here.

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I find it fascinating to see this sort of ephemera uncovered after more than 30 years. It’s a brief insight into an older London that was always there, within reach but out of sight.

The other wall of the tunnel has yet to be stripped. What further social history wonders lie beneath?

King Mob, the Camden Poster Workshop and revolutionary London in 1968

 

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While most recollections of 1968 concern events in Paris, Germany, the US and South America, there was also a minor uprising in London. That is being commemorated with a suitably bijou single-room exhibition at the Tate Britain, and also a new publication in Four Corners’ Irregular series – about which I first wrote here.

The book is an anthology of the work of Camden’s Poster Workshop, a collective that silkscreen protest posters for any cause that needed them, directly inspired by the famous posters of Paris in May. It includes examples of every poster the group produced from their premises on Camden Road, plus essays explaining how they worked and their social context.

 

 

 

 

 

The graphics, slogans and general attitude are a perfect expression of the spirit of 1968, with campaigns focusing on big issues like Vietnam but also looking at very localised political issues such as rent strikes and student protests. There is a whole wall of those posters on display at the Tate, sitting opposite various artworks that capture the anti-establishment spirit of 1968 – a photograph by Richard Long, some work by Joseph Bueys.

In the space between are a handful of exhibition cases containing some ephemera related to 1968. Much of this relates to protests at Hornsey Art College and LSE, but there’s also some terrific King Mob and Anti-University paraphernalia, plus issues of IT and Black Dwarf. It’s definitely worth a quick look if you are planning to visit either of the current two main exhibitions, one on the impressionists on London and the excellent All Too Human, a very London-orientated featuring art by Freud, Bacon, Auerbach and Bomberg.

 

The King Mob elements particularly interested me, as this group had a striking way with word and image that anticipates – and inspired – the artwork of punk. “Comrades stop buggering about”, one pamphlet implores while another quotes Antonin Artaud in a perfect mix of the profane and the artful. They may well have been little more than annoying provocateurs, the Spiked Online of their day who said things like “football hooligans are the avant-garde of the British working class” but they certainly had wit. As Alan Marcuson explained to Jonathon Green in Days In The Life: “They were much more fun, their writings were more fun, they were a more interesting group of people, they were doing more interesting things, their pamphlets were more interesting than the boring fucking Trots, who really were the most tiresome bunch of people I have ever come across.”

King Mob were outliers in the London revolutionary scene. They formed in Notting Hill as an offshoot of the Situationist International. In ’68 – The Year Of The Barricades, David Caute writes that they “derided both passive, drugged hippies and the usual New Left rent-a-crowd who were forever ‘counting arseholes’ and pursuing stale ‘issue politics’.” It’s noticeable that there is no index entry for King Mob in Barry Miles’ history of the London counterculture, London Calling. That could be because one of King Mob’s first actions was to go to Miles’s Indica bookshop, where the hippie Trots of IT were then based, and “scaring the wits out of them”.

Like most left-wing revolutionary groups, King Mob believed they were the real thing. They articulated a keen sense of humour that was borrowed from the Yippies and Situationists, and also nurtured a belief in “creative violence” that they admired in New York’s brilliantly named and short-lived Motherfuckers. As a result, King Mob celebrated serial killers and planned audacious actions – blowing up a waterfall in the Lake District; hanging the peacocks in Holland Park – none of which came to pass.

Their most famous activity was when a group of King Mobbers, including Malcolm McLaren, invaded Selfridges dressed as Father Christmas and handed out toys to children. They are also said to have been responsible for some of London’s best graffiti, including the famous “How much more can you take?” in Ladbroke Grove. Their influence on the political climate of 1968 was minute, but McLaren and Jamie Reid would soon take King Mob’s love of ‘chaos and anarchy” and apply it to punk rock.

 

 

 

 

The Diana shrine: 20 years ago

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

Just look at this nonsense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Building on London allotments

I wrote a piece for the Guardian about a conflict between social housing and green spaces, two of the most important issues facing London today. It concerns Northfields Allotments, a stunning sliver of green space in Ealing that is London’s oldest surviving allotment. I visited the allotments on a gorgeous June morning and was captivated by this secret garden hidden behind ancient hedgerows.

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Credit: Paul Bate

Rather than the rather staid lines of vegetables that I expected, the allotment was like 100 completely individual back gardens in one giant field – so some people had turned their spaces into meadows of wildflowers, others had grown small orchards, there were all manner of handmade sheds, somebody had flung a hammock across a makeshift porch, and there were several Wendy houses for the kids. It was an example of the best a city can offer – people of many nationalities and with very personal tastes thrown together and creating something truly magical.

Then I went across the road to meet Robin, who was living in an almshouse owned by Pathways, a local housing charity that also happen to own the allotment following various historical mergers. Robin’s flat was very small and a little rundown, but provided him with a home when he found himself homeless, jobless and unable to support himself. Thousands of Londoners face similar situations, and there isn’t enough housing being built to provide for all of them. It’s London’s greatest failing.

Pathways now want to correct this by knocking down Robin’s block and rebuild it to modern specifications. While that takes place, they will build a new block of social housing on a small strip of the allotment site. This is so they can keep all the residents of Robin’s block together during the rebuilding work. They will fund this – contentiously – by building a small element of private housing, either to rent or sell depending on what they are allowed to do (technically, they cannot sell the allotment land).

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Credit: Nabil Jacob

Robin argued very persuasively that the needs of vulnerable Londoners are paramount and the loss of a tiny amount of green space was no big deal. Christina and Ian at the allotments argued equally persuasively that green space was essential for London’s mental and physical wellbeing and that once it is gone, we never get it back (60% of the original allotment site was already under concrete following development in the 1970s). They also felt that Pathways would keep coming back for more land, so eventually there would be nothing left. A spokesperson for Pathways assured me they had no intention of doing so, but who is to say how his successors will feel in 20 years time? This is a deceptively large section of land and housing will continue to be a concern for decades. The temptation to repeat this process, taking another 5 per cent here and there, will surely be too great.

As I wrote this story, I found it very difficult to decide where I stood. Ultimately, I come down on the side of the allotment holders because I think there is going to be increasing pressure on inner London green spaces in the next few decades so it’s important to protect what we have – and it won’t just be charities hoping to build on it.

If I had ever been homeless myself, I’d probably feel very differently, though.

We need social housing, but we surely can do better than this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Big Capital – Anna Minton

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There is no bigger issue in London politics than housing. It’s probably the most significant reason London voters of all ages and from almost every social background turned to Labour in such numbers in last week’s election, and I wonder if the demographic changes caused by the capital’s out-of-control housing market had wider repercussions, as yet unexplored.

Was it partly responsible for the hollowing out of the Tory vote in Kensington, where the wealthy British are being replace by non-voting non doms? Are suburban constituencies being affected by the presence of recent graduates, unable to afford property of their own, and living with parents in the previously Tory-voting shires? What about those who have been forced to leave London because of prices – are they going to turn the country red wherever they end up? For many people under 50 – as well as older, concerned for their children and grandchildren – it is housing, not Brexit, that is the prism through which everything is viewed.

So how did we get here? Anna Minton’s Big Capital provides many of the answers. A few decades ago, this would have been published with a blue cover by Pelican, one of those great, short, cheap books that simply and effectively explained a moment in society for a wider audience.

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With the minimum of fuss, Minton explores the historic reasons for the housing crisis – right to buy, planning laws, changes in the way benefits are distributed, overseas investment – and then shows how these have affected London. She shows how the luxury housing bubble has impacted Londoners further down the scale and highlights what happens to people and property after councils, frequently Labour ones, elect to blow-up estates and sell the land on the cheap to developers. She even spends some time in the marketing suite at Battersea Power Station, where she discovers the way developers are encouraging people to invest in a lifestyle rather than simply buy a home for their family.

Minton is interested in what this has meant for people, and she talks to renters, campaigners, developers and politicians, as well as those who have been forced out of London by hostile redevelopment.  She wraps things up by looking at a handful of possible alternatives to the mess we are in – the most simple yet impossible of which is that the state starts taking responsibility and builds places where its citizens can live.

There has been a consensus against council housing for decades but as the election showed, there is a renewed appetite for state spending where it’s clearly seen that the market has failed. A national policy of housebuilding should be simple vote-winner but as long as the Conservatives view right-to-buy as the flagship achievement of the Thatcher years, they won’t be able to face up to the continuing disaster they helped unleash in the 1980s, assuming they even want to. Labour under Corbyn do not have such a shibboleth, which goes some way towards explaining their success in London despite any discomfort with the party’s policy towards Brexit.

Big Capital is a short and angry book, filled with data, case studies, interviews and personal opinion. This was a style Minton first used for 2009’s Ground Control, a prescient and important study of New Labour regeneration on UK cities. Minton was the first person to seriously highlight nagging doubts about New Labour’s regeneration policy, looking at the way communities had suffered because of failures of planning, design and basic humanity. Most memorably, she looked at the issue of private control of public space, an increasingly important topic in an age when developers are given larger and larger areas of land with which to do as they please, making their own rules along the way. It was groundbreaking, as so much of this seemed to have happened while people were looking the other way, seduced by the buoyant economy before the crash of 2008.

Big Capital isn’t quite in that category. There’s little here that isn’t already well known or hasn’t been covered many times before. Its value, though, is to join the dots and to gather everything together in one place. As a textbook primer on where we are today, it’s essential.

 

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.

Read or Dredd: 2000 AD at the Cartoon Museum

Everything I love about British pop culture is encapsulated in 2000AD, which celebrates its 40th anniversary in February 2017. There are several birthday events planned, including an exhibition at the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury that runs until April 23rd. I had a look around in the company of the curator Steve Marchant, who enthused about the gorgeous clarity of the original artwork from Dave Gibbons, Brian Bolland, Mike McMahon and Carlos Ezquerra (“At times, the comic looked like it was printed with mud on toilet paper,” he said), while I reacquainted myself with the world of Dredd and Rogue Trooper.

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As a kid, my comic-reading progress went something like this: BeanoTransformersRoy Of The Rovers2000AD. It wasn’t quite that simple – the first comic I ever read was Beezer, and I was a big fan of Whizzer And Chips. When I was reading Transformers, I was also regularly reading Batman and Superman. And for a while, I got really into a horror comic called Scream!.

But in this journey, 2000AD always seemed like the inevitable destination. Even when I was reading the playful pranks and japes of Dennis and Minnie, I’d see 2000AD on the rack at WH Smiths and quiver in confused anticipation at the cover, and the weirdness and violence it promised.

I knew one day I’d be ready.

The exhibition at the Cartoon Museum starts by showing how 2000AD was created and how it developed. I learnt that the initial hero was soppy space curate Dan Dare, in whose blue-eyed banality I saw as the very opposite of what 2000AD stood for. Several other strips – often loosely based on popular movies or TV series – were given a turn until Judge Dredd inevitably took over. And it was Judge Dredd who most fascinated me. He is a brilliant creation, this square-jawed, deadpan, literal-minded, licensed thug who you can never be sure is good, evil or amoral. Sure, America had Batman but he was a playboy billionaire who frequently expressed moral conflict. Dredd, by contrast, was a foot soldier with no exterior life who always knew what he was doing was right because he was law incarnate. In that lack of doubt, he had more in common with supervillains than superheros.

But what made Dredd sing was the universe around him, and especially the surreal, sinister Mega-City One, which had its own architecture, slang, fads and culture. The world of Mega-City was often very funny and satirical – giant tower blocks named after some of the most insignificant 20th century personalities and politicians – and Dredd was this single-minded avatar plodding through it, trying to erase difference and make sense of it all.

The combination was fascinating: a strip could be at once nihilistic, surreal, smart, sarcastic, joyful, violent and morally ambiguous. One strip at the Cartoon Museum illustrates this neatly: Dredd is spending Christmas Day on the beat, by the end of which he has deported an illegal immigrant, shot a fellow judge and punched a well-wisher in the face. And this was the good guy.

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Much less ambiguous was my other favourite character, Rogue Trooper. The exhibition looks at several long-standing strips including Judge Anderson, Strontium Dog and the wonderful Halo Jones, but it was Rogue who I adored. He was weird – taciturn and blue, with a talking gun, back pack and helmet – but he at least provided some moral clarity after Dredd. The concept was simple too, a sort of future war Fugitive, with Rogue out to hunt down the man who betrayed his unit – the classic quest that could be strung out for as long as possible.

It’s heartening to see 2000AD is still popular today. When it was formed, it was assumed it would last around six months, as that was the usual lifespan of new comics – indeed, the aforementioned Scream! folded after 15 issues. That it is still relevant is testament to the skill of the artists and the writers, who continue to ensure there are sufficient parallels with the real world for plots to be relevant. A couple of strips at the Cartoon Museum showcase this perfectly: in one, a patriotic, racist robot sings Rule Britannia and whines about foreigners as it goes on the rampage amid the skycrapers of Brit-Cit; in another, Chief Judge Caligula has taken power, a deranged, rambling permanently enraged narcissist with a huge ego and lustrous hair who insists on building a giant wall around his crumbling empire.

Remind you of anybody?

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My Favourite Londoner: Tony Hancock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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