Tag Archives: picasso

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

At Christie’s

Last week I attended my first auction. It was at Christie’s, the grand London auction house who hold their blockbuster Impressionist and Modern Sale every February.

It was a strange experience. This will almost certainly be the only time I’m ever in the same room as somebody spending upwards of £7 million on, well, anything. The big seller was Lot 10, a Pierre Bonnard oil painting from 1923 that went for £7.2m in a lengthy contest. The entire Bonnard bidding process can be witnessed here and is an interesting example of what can take place in this unusual atmosphere of extreme wealth and refined competition.

Terrasse à Vernon

At times, when the auctioneer is registering bids – ‘3.5… 3.8’ you have to remind yourself these are millions of pounds he is talking about. A painting can double in value in seconds. Note also how polite the auctioneer is. He personally addresses the bidders by name and asks them if they will continue to bid, delicately stoking their interest without seeming too pushy and occasionally breaking the tension with a joke. There is no aggression here, no way you could ‘accidentally’ bid for something, and the bidder is also given plenty of time to say whether they will maintain an interest. It is not the clock you are competing against.

Bidding also goes up quite gradually. You are not attempting to blow your opponent out of the water poker-style with an eye-watering bid, but merely hoping to part with as little more than your direct competitor is prepared to pay then you can get away with. For this reason, battles can be protracted.

The Bonnard contest perhaps went on a little too long for the purists, but even I could detect the air of disappointment when the auction’s landmark painting, a Gaughin estimated at up to £10m, failed to meet its reserve and was withdrawn from sale. Could nobody really be bothered to fork out for this work? The room sighed.

Some of the things I witnessed intrigued me. The auctioneer is Jussi Pylkannen, who also happens to be the President of Christie’s Europe, so each increment of £100,000 will translate directly into profits for the company’s coffers. No wonder he gives people time. At one point in the Bonnard sale, he started accepting bids of £50,000, much to the annoyance of the man sitting next to me who felt that ‘splitting the bid’ so late in the day simply wasn’t on. But it’s all profit for Christie’s.

I was also interested to see that many of the Christie’s senior management – including Olivier Camu and Giovanna Bertazzoni, who organised the sale – were now manning the phones, bidding on behalf of individual clients and offering advice on what to go for. This put them in a curious position, although given that Christie’s itself is essentially just a gigantic middleman, not a particularly troubling one.

The auction room itself is a busy, noisy place, packed with an international clientele of around 500 people dressed in their finery and younger than I expected. For some it was clearly seen as an exciting way to begin a night out in London.

Most of the bidding was done on the phone, but some came from people in the room. I wondered whether people deliberately remove themselves from the room so they can avoid the tension and the sort of ‘testosterone bidding’ I had been told about.

A man near me purchased a Picasso for £500,000 while slouching against a pillar, desperately trying to look casual. As his bid was accepted he barely looked up, but the arm holding the paddle was trembling. An elegant woman right at the back suddenly became involved in a fascinating competition over a Max Ernst sculpture, that was expected to reach £350,000 but eventually went for over a million. Between bids I watched her take instruction from a mobile phone. Was she bidding on behalf of somebody else, consulting an lawyer or accountant, or was she seeking approval from her husband before busting his budget over the million pound mark? The billionaires who deal in this market are, after all, overwhelmingly – but not exclusively – male.

Les asperges de la lune

The battle over the Ernst sculpture reminded me of something Bertazonni had said – that sculpture had become hugely popular in the post financial crash art market, ‘as though people wanted something tangible, three-dimensional’ to hold on to. This piece of tangibility cost somebody £1.3 million. Security comes at a price.

Inside London’s super-rich bubble

Peter Mandleson once famously said that ‘we are intensely relaxed about the filthy rich’, a sentence that has always made me intensely uncomfortable until very recently, when I spent some time exploring the various ways the filthy rich spend their filthy money. What really surprised me, though, isn’t what they spend, but the way they spend it. It isn’t greed so much as purchasing for sheer pleasure on a scale that most of us can barely imagine and that they themselves will hardly even notice.

It began at Christie’s auction house for a piece I wrote for the Independent on Sunday that went behind the scenes before this week’s big impressionist/modern evening sale. The collectors who will be bidding on paintings by Monet, Picasso and Degas are taken from the ranks of the world’s super rich, and will between them spend around £100m on new paintings for the walls of their second and third homes.

Then I went to see some of those second and third homes when I wrote a piece for Gulf Life magazine about London’s super-prime property market – that’s anything from £15 million up to about £150 million. I visited four apartments and houses in Knightsbridge, Bayswater and Regent’s Park – including the Candy Brothers extraordinary One Hyde Park development – that between them had a combined value around £121 million and contained more marble and flat-screen TVs then is good for anybody.

Finally, last week the owner of my favourite football club – who many believed to be losing interest in the sport – dropped in to spend a trifling £70m in one day on two players, just like that.

Now, while it is undeniable that the outlay of such vast sums of money on luxuries is morally indefensible and all the rest, it’s also increasingly apparent that as there is absolutely nothing you can do about it, there’s no point in being anything other than intensely relaxed about it. The alternative would drive you mad.

These people are worth billions, and for them £150m is an irrelevance. To understand exactly why, try this thought experiment, taken from John Lanchester’s outstanding ‘Whoops!’, about the global financial crisis, which shows in a fairly clear way the vast difference between millions of pounds and billions.  

Lanchester writes, ‘Without doing the calculation, guess how long a millions seconds is. Now try the same for a billion seconds. Ready? A million seconds is less than 12 days; a billion seconds is almost 32 years.’

Or as one estate agent told me, ‘When they spend £30 million on a property, it’s not a financial decision, it’s a personal one.’

Diaghilev at the V&A

Two months ago I knew diddly about Diaghilev. Since then I’ve written two features about him – including this in the Independent On Sunday – and can confidently assert that this Russian-born impressario changed the face of ballet in the early twentieth century when his company, the Ballets Russes, enlisted artists and composers like Picasso, Matisse and Stravinsky to showcase the work of groundbreaking dancers and choreographers like Nijinsky and Massine. Such is the magic of journalism.

The occasion is the V&A’s big autumn exhibition, Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russe, which opens on September 25. It’s an incredibly rich exhibition, crammed with memorabilia and costumes and images and music. Highlights include the astonishing, undanceable costumes from Parade, Picasso and Cocteau’s ‘Cubist ballet’, the monumental back cloth from ‘The Firebird’, and a wonderful bust of Nijinsky that captures his odd features.

I’m not a great fan of the ‘blockbuster’ exhibition as they are rarely as satisfying and intelligent as intimate displays at the more thoughtful museums, but this one is a real cracker, demonstrating decades of learning and showcasing a marvellous collection of costumes bought in auction and secured in the V&A’s vaults for just such an occasion.

(There’s a nice piece here from Diaghilev’s biographer about the Russian’s relationship with London.)