Dancing Ledge

When the going gets tough the tough start blogging

What links a voice coach, Frankenstein, a dead poet and Bournemouth summer rep’ season?

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Vernon Thompson at the Shelley Theatre in Bournemouth. Photograph by Hattie Miles

Listening to the steady, well-modulated tones of actor and director Vernon Thompson it’s hard to imagine that he’s ever had a problem with his voice.

Yet Vernon, the creative talent behind the  summer repertory theatre season at Bournemouth’s Shelley Theatre, grew up with a significant stammer. It was so  bad that he spent the first five years of his life receiving speech therapy from a Harley Street specialist. And now he divides his time between producing and directing plays and working as a professional voice coach. 

Preparing for the fourth annual season at the Shelley with the much-loved London Repertory Players Company, Vernon told me: “As a child my stammer was fairly severe and if I’m really tired it’s still there a little bit.”

So why on earth did he choose to become an actor? Vernon smiles: “I always felt that if I was playing someone who didn’t stammer then I wouldn’t stammer either and 99 per cent of the time that’s true. It’s partly psychological so it really does help to bury yourself in the character of someone else but because it is also a muscular and breathing thing it very occasionally slips out. It’s still always there just below the surface.”

As a voice coach this knowledge has been invaluable and Vernon can help with a variety of problems from physical speech disorders to simply helping people to project an enunciate better.

He regular works for Channel 4 News coaching broadcasters including one journalist who needed more gravitas in his on-screen delivery. “He was reporting from war zones and they thought he sounded a bit too jolly.”

And as Vernon The Voice he has also helped a barrister to improve his resonance and phrasing, an Italian actress who wanted to reduce her accent and even a rapper who needed help with articulation.

“Many people come to me believing they have a poor voice but there’s no such thing,” he tells me. “It’s about finding the potential. Everybody’s voice can be developed improved.”

There will  be a fine selection of voices on display when Vernon’s  London Repertory  Players (something of a misnomer as most of them come from right here in Dorset) hit the Shelley stage this August.

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The cast from a 2018 production at the Shelley of JB Priestley’s Dangerous Corner

Vernon has also taken the opportunity to step away just a little from the classic weekly rep fare of whodunnits and murder mysteries. So alongside the inevitable Francis Durbridge (House Guest is the play of choice this time by the way) and the1950s crime thriller Murder Mistaken, he as programmed Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, Noel Coward’s Private Lives and, for the first time in LRP’s short but successful history, a completely contemporary drama, Peter Quilter’s play 4000 Days. It tells of a man who wakes from a coma to discover that 11 years of his memory has been erased. Vernon decided he wanted to stage it after seeing it premiered in London three years ago with Alistair McGowan in the leading role. He’s is confident that Bournemouth audiences will be pleasantly surprised.

“It’s a very good play and of course on this occasion I was actually able to talk with the writer about it which is something I’m not generally able to do.”

The cast for the 2019 season will include a wealth of familiar faces with London Rep Players regulars Barbara Dryhurst, Mark Spalding, Al Wadlan, Victoria Porter, Hepzibah Roe, Claire Fisher, Neil James, Amanda Chennell and Nikki Kelly all returning from last year.

Some, like Al and Southbourne based husband and wife actors Mark and Barbara, have been on board from the very beginning. Plenty of additional talent – now all firm favourites with the Shelley audiences  – has been picked up along the way.

“We have a great cast of actors and virtually everyone from last year is back,” says Vernon. “Only the wonderful Kirsty Cox is missing as she has another acting job but I’m sure she’ll return sometime in the future.” 

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Cast members for 2019 Summer Season at the Shelley Theatre including many familiar faces from previous years

There are some additions too, including Adam Trembath and Jessica Olin. Jessica became close to the company last year when she came to Bournemouth with her actor boyfriend Musa Trevathan.

“She almost became an honorary member of the cast and as she also happens to be a very good actress so it made sense to invite her to appear in a play or two this year,” explained Vernon. Musa was originally lined-up for the 2019 season too but had to pull out for the best of reasons when he was  head-hunted for a film role.

The company has also proved a magnet for home grown talent with eight members this year who are Dorset based. New names joining the crew include locals Charly Danby who is currently studying stage management and technical theatre at Guildford School of Acting and the exotically named Glanville Noye, a longtime stalwart of the local theatre scene.

Summer at the Shelley with the London Rep’ Players


Shelley Manor as it is today with the red brick theatre on the left

The other star of the company is of course the theatre itself. It was originally built by Sir Percy Florence Shelley, son of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley and the doomed romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Their restored and redeveloped clifftop mansion- known as Shelley manor –  is now a complex containing a thriving medical centre, a block of luxury flats and the theatre where the Shelley family once entertained their well-connected friends.

5RepShelleyManorBluePlaqueSir Percy Florence and his wife Lady Jane bought the small estate in the mid 19th century hoping to provide a home on the south coast for the then ailing Mary. Sadly Mary died before she could move there.

Her death in 1851 brought closure to a tragic life. For though she was a celebrated author, Mary had endured extraordinarily difficulties. Her mother, the pioneering feminist  Mary Wollstoncraft, had died just days after giving birth to her and when her father, the radical thinker William Godwin, remarried it was to a woman who had little time for her stepdaughter


Mary Shelley

Mary’s elopement at the age of 16 with the dashing young and already-married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley didn’t go down well either. Eyebrows were raised too when the  couple married just two weeks after the poet’s first wife, pregnant and distressed,  drowned herself in the Serpentine. It was a difficult relationship rocked by the suicide of Mary’s half sister, the untimely death in infancy of three of their children and Percy’s often extravagantly thoughtless behaviour.

When Percy Florence was born, healthy and thriving, it seemed that at last there was a reason for happiness but another disaster soon followed – the death of  Percy Bysshe who drowned in Italy aged just 29 when his boat capsized in a storm in the Gulf of Spezia. Young Percy Florence was three-years-old, fatherless and with a grief-stricken mother  battling frail health. Not an auspicious start but his fortunes changed when, on the death of his paternal grandfather in 1844,  he inherited a considerable fortune and also the title of 3rd Baronet of Castle Goring.


Percy Bysshe Shelley

Four years later he would  marry Jane Gibson, one of nine illegitimate children of a wealthy Newcastle banker (I suppose those bohemian genes had to find an outlet somewhere).  Jane too had less than robust health and Percy jnr  set about establishing a home by the sea that would benefit both his wife and mother.  The Boscombe house fitted the bill perfectly and it had enough land to create a beautiful clifftop garden.

Sir Percy and Lady Jane would establish themselves as valued members of the community, they were great supporters of the arts and generous hosts.  Notable visitors to their theatre included Robert Louis Stevenson, who became a friend when he lived in Westbourne in the 1880s and the renowned Shakespearean actor Sir Henry Irving. 

Their home, while never enjoyed by Mary Shelley,  did  however provide a temporary home for the charred remains of the heart of her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Legend has it that the organ was snatched from the ashes of  the poet’s funeral pyre on the beach at Viareggio by his friend Edward Trelawny who returned it to Mary.

A year after her death the remains were found wrapped in one of Shelley’s poems in Mary’s desk and were then kept at Shelley Manor for many years before being finally buried along with Mary, her son, daughter-in-law and parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft in St Peter’s Churchyard in Bournemouth.

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The Shelley family tomb at St Peter’s Church in Bournemouth

The Shelley era in Boscombe ended in 1899 with the death of Lady Jane. Over the past 120 years the old manor was used as everything from a Home Guard HQ to a school, an art college and briefly a Shelley museum.

But gradually it fell into ruin and moves were made to redevelop the site. It was only tireless campaigning from conservationists, desperate to preserve what they saw as a vital part of Bournemouths heritage, that saved it from the wrecking ball. And what could be more fitting than the resurrection of the theatre?

The London Repertory Players season directed and produced by Vernon Thompson, opens on 1st August with Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. The second production will be 4000 days which opens on 8th August followed a week later on 15th August by Noel Coward’s Private Lives. Francis Durbridge’s House Guest opens on 22nd August and the final production of the season, Murder Mistaken, will run from 29th August to 3rd September.

Further information from http://www.shelleytheatre.co.uk

A town transformed by art


Jeremy Miles with Antony Gormley’s figure beneath Folkestone Harbour Arm

We went back to the old home town last weekend for the 60th birthday party of a young friend. There were lots of reminders of why I love Folkestone. I was born and brought up in the town, went to school there, met and married Hattie there and cut my journalistic teeth on the local newspaper.

Though we’ve returned many times since we haven’t actually lived in Folkestone for more than 30 years. It is full of good memories though, particularly of the local arts scene.  Inevitably I suppose most of the writers, artists, musicians and actors I used to know have moved on but great to find the old place still full of character and artistic energy.

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Richard Wood’s ‘harbourside’ Holiday Homes

It has undoubtedly been helped by the generosity of philanthropist businessman Roger De Haan who used the £1.3 billion he pocketed when he sold the Saga holiday empire 15 years ago to help regenerate the town as a cultural mecca. His bid to reinvent Folkestone as a ‘city of art’ got a little sideswiped by the credit crunch and ensuing age of austerity but he has still made enormous inroads into an area that was badly run-down.

A faded relic of a bygone age whose Edwardian splendour was given a near-fatal pasting by two World Wars and years of economic depression. It seemed Folkestone survived through character alone. It’s history of course dates back centuries beyond its Edwardian hey-day but that early 20th century era was when Folkestone was riding high as a fashionable resort.


The Grand beaming Yoko Ono’s Peace message 

In the early 1950s when I was born it was a patchwork of make-do-and-mend. Streets with bomb-sites and boarded up buildings, a community struggling to make good again. But prosperity was elusive. The Channel Tunnel promised much but eventually Folkestone ended up ‘underneath the arches’. Redevelopment plans had seen swathes of houses and businesses torn down in the town centre ready to cash in but the money and much of the development went to Ashford. Perhaps worse still for local residents Folkestone’s famous cross-Channel services were needed no more.

The town was in a very sorry state when Roger De Haan bought up and restored derelict and near derelict buildings, brought in artist as tenants and established a Creative Foundation to control rents and to encourage a culturally aware attitude that spread through the conurbation.

One of the Foundation’s masterstrokes has been the Folkestone Triennial. Staged every three years since 2008, it has inspired a new wave of creativity leaving a trail of artworks and installations in its wake. It’s heartwarming to walk around town, particularly on the clifftop and seafront and find wonderful quirks, thought-provoking visual statements and serious works of art.

Here are some of the works we encountered during our three day visit:

There was Antony Gormley’s cast-iron figure Another Time XVIII standing in an old loading bay beneath the town’s Harbour Arm staring towards the White Cliffs of Dover.

Patrick Tuttofuoco’s Folkestone sign created from lettering inspired or found on a journey from Istanbul to Folkestone via Paris retracing the classic rail route of the  Orient-Express.


Tracey Emin’s ‘abandoned’ baby mitten

Tracey Emin’s baby’s mitten permanently abandoned on a fence on The Bayle opposite the site of my now long demolished office. A comment on rising numbers of teenage pregnancies.

Richard Woods colourful little ‘Holiday Homes’ sharing the harbour with the town’s fishing fleet.

Lubaina Himid’s Jelly Mould Pavilion standing on the site of the old Rotunda amusement arcade.

Bill Woodrow’s The Ledge. A modernist sculpture about the devastation threatened by the melting polar ice caps. How the human race is literally standing on thin ice.


Weather is Third to Place & Time

Poet, writer and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay’s posthumous inscription on the Harbour Arm Lighthouse – ‘Weather is a Third to Place and Time’. It was originally designed to be viewed at a distance by telescope. Subsequent Harbour Arm renovations now  mean you can see it up-close as the base of the lighthouse is now a champagne and music bar.

Cornelia Parker’s Folkestone Mermaid sits overlooking the sands and harbour. Conceived as a reinterpretation of Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid for the 2011 Triennial, Parker invited all the women of Folkestone to apply for the honour of modelling for the sculpture. Eventually thirtysomething mum of two, Georgina Baker, was chosen.


Cornelia Parker’s Folkestone Mermaid 

Yoko Ono’s Earth Peace message transmitted in Morse Code from a lantern high on The Grand, a magnificent old clifftop building, once an Edwardian Hotel and now full of elegant apartments.

Though perhaps most poignant of all is Mark Wallinger’s Folk Stones – a large square on the clifftop greensward that is The Leas containing precisely 19,240 individually numbered beach pebbles, each one representing  a British soldier killed on 1st July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. 

The work which was part of the first Triennial in 2008 was inspired by the soldiers – more than a million – who marched past this exact location on their way to fight on the battlefields of France and Flanders. So many never returned.

There is much more of course and the Folkestone Triennial will return in 2020. So watch this space…

Clifftop view of Wilfred Owen

Folkestone, Sunday 11th November, 2018: An amazing day. We woke early in a hotel built on the old brickfields and headed for the sands. Found what was probably the last parking space in town and made our way in pouring rain to join  Danny Boyle and lots of other people on the beach to commemorate […]

Remembering the fascinating and illustrious roots of Folkestone’s annual autumn book-fest

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Benjamin Zephaniah at Kent Literature Festival in 1984. Photo by Hattie Miles

Meet a young Benjamin Zephaniah. The year is 1984.  I had just interviewed the then still relatively unknown Rastafarian dub poet and Hattie took this photograph. We had talked about the scourge of heroin and the drug casualties that appeared to be reaching epidemic proportions on the streets of Britain. Little did we know… 

Zephaniah was just one of the fascinating and talented writers, performers and musicians taking part in that year’s Kent Literature Festival. This wonderful event, run by my old friend the poet John Rice, had been held annually since 1981 (or maybe it was 1980) and was really hitting its stride. Based in my hometown of Folkestone it offered a feast of literature with famous authors and performers rubbing shoulders with emerging talents and  newcomers. 

That particular year featured, among others, best selling novelists Margaret Drabble, Beryl Bainbridge and Lisa St Aubin de Teran. There were poets like the wonderful Adrian Mitchell plus Michael Rosen, the inimitable Jake Thackray, and punk poet Joolz. There was even a mobile writers workshop called the Versewagon where kindly and experienced scribblers, including a young Ian McMillan, offered advice and constructive criticism to aspiring writers.


Punk poet Joolz at the 1984 Festival. Photo by Hattie Miles

The previous year, 1983, had featured Fay Weldon, Melvyn Bragg, John Mortimer, Raymond Briggs, Leslie Thomas, Marghanita Laski and Atilla the Stockbroker and Seething Wells.  Still to come in 1985 (possibly my  favourite KLF year) there were readings by Ian McEwan, Frederic Raphael, Craig Raine, Angela Carter and John Cooper Clarke. That year’s festivities were opened by Prunella Scales and closed with a rare public reading by the then new Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes.

For me, as the local newspaper’s self-appointed principal arts writer it was a joyous time. I had freedom to more or less  talk to whoever I wanted which I now know was an even greater privilege than I realised at the time.

Though the festival continued in rude health under John Rice’s skilful stewardship for several years, for Hattie and me 1985 was the final up close and personal Kent Literature Festival experience. A few months later we moved to Bournemouth for  new jobs and new challenges, head-hunted to launch a newspaper that would triumph briefly before crashing and burning when the money-men decided it was just too expensive.

It was an interesting if rather scary learning curve. Fortunately the then Evening Echo – the very paper we’d been sent to compete with – was happy to give us both jobs. Bet it wouldn’t work like that these days!

We’ve had rich and rewarding creative lives in Dorset but I think we both remain just a little nostalgic for the wonderful times we enjoyed all those years ago at the Kent Literature Festivals. It was just before the age of the yuppie really kicked in and access to writers and performers was made near impossible without going through a PR company. 

They were happy days full of interesting encounters, and now, the best part of 35 years later, I have some vivid but slightly fractured memories in which 1983, 1984 and 1985 kind of merge into one.

So in my head I’m talking about possible solutions to social problems with Benjamin Zephaniah before tucking into a big plate of liver and onions with Beryl Bainbridge. Getting slightly drunk with Prunella Scales, coveting Roger McGough’s wide-brimmed hat as we walk to an Indian restaurant, meeting Ian McEwan and interviewing D.M. Thomas and Angela Carter. Spending time with Linton Kwesi Johnson and sharing the alarm of the festival organisers when they thought they’d literally lost the poet laureate.

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Poet Craig Raine who appeared at the Kent Literature Festival in 1985. Photo by Hattie Miles

Ted Hughes had decided to walk from the festival headquarters at the New Metropole Arts Centre to the venue where his reading was due to take place. It was a nice afternoon. All he had to do was stroll in a straight line for half a mile between the two cliff-top buildings. But somewhere along the way he ventured down a path to the undercliffe and maybe became a little disorientated. The result was that he briefly vanished until, much to the relief of the festival team who had been looking at their watches and anxiously scanning the horizon,  he arrived at the venue a little sweaty and rather shaken only minutes before he was due to speak. This is certainly how I recall it. However if  I’m ‘misremembering’ I’m sure someone out there will put me right.

What I definitely do know is true is also perhaps my most alarming Kent Literature Festival memory – being invited to introduce John Cooper Clarke on stage only for the Bard of Salford to turn up late and out of his proverbial gourd. For JCC was at that time in the grip of the same heroin epidemic that Benjamin Zephaniah had discussed a year earlier. 

I remember trying to placate the restless audience between trips to see if I could coax John Cooper Clarke and his chum, a chap called Eric who looked as though he hadn’t slept for weeks, out of the backstage loo where they were er ‘freshening up’. 

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John Cooper Clarke at the 1984  Kent Literature Festival. Photo by Hattie Miles

 Astonishingly, when JCC  finally made it onto the stage, the rapid-fire delivery and mastery of his material belied his frail state. He lived up in every way to my unimaginative and inevitable introduction “His Chelsea boots are pointed, his knees are double-jointed, you won’t be disappointed – Good old Johnny Clarke!”

I was with John Rice at the end of the evening when he was approached by JCC who asked if he could possibly have his fee in cash, right now. John explained that they didn’t keep that sort of money on the premises and that it would be sent by cheque to his agent as was the normal practise.

JCC glanced at his friend Eric. They looked troubled. He leant forward and whispered: “You don’t understand, we’re heroin addicts. We need the money.”

Happily John Cooper Clarke eventually got clean and has now become something of a national treasure. I’ve met him on a number of occasions and he’s a great performer and brilliant wordsmith. Had you asked me back in 1985 I’d have guessed that his chances of survival were extremely limited. 

These days John Cooper Clarke admits that he’s lucky to be alive but rarely discusses the heroin years and shuts the subject down when journalists ask, as they invariably do, for the gory details. It’s a tedious subject, he says.

As he told GQ magazine a couple of years ago:  “It’s like any addiction. First it’s great, then it isn’t; then it’s hell… ” He added: “The one message I would like to send out is that this is not something you can pick up and leave alone just like that, you know. Neither is it exotic or romantic. Believe me.”

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Kent Literature Festival director, the poet John Rice. Photo by Hattie Miles

Now of course all things evolve including John Cooper Clarke and the Kent Literature Festival. After a number of incarnations the event is now known as The Folkestone Book Festival. This year it will run from 16th -25th November. It offers an excellent programme as ever but I was a little surprised to read a ‘short history’ on the festival website which states that  “… until 2001 it was a rather small affair” The piece then goes on to quote former director Nick Ewbank as saying that, after 2001, “audiences increased with writers such as Alan Bennett, Beryl Bainbridge, William Hague, P.D. James and Jacqueline Wilson.” Adding that, with the addition of an annual children’s day, the festival now reaches out to all ages.

I wish the Folkestone Book Festival nothing but success but,  although every word of the ‘short history’ essentially true, I can’t help feeling that the implication is that somehow the old Kent Literature Festival was rather insignificant in comparison to what is now on offer. Not so. The literature festival back in the 1980s was certainly physically smaller but in terms of the stature of the writers and performers taking part it punched well above its weight. It also had its own dedicated children’s events by the way.

So please enjoy this year’s Folkestone Book Festival but also spare a thought for the wonderful heritage and past history that it enjoys. It didn’t spring from nowhere.

From leap to freedom to dance of death – the tragic final days of ballet star Rudolf Nureyev

image.pngA fascinating new documentary about the extraordinary life and mercurial career of Russian ballet sensation Rudolf Nureyev arrived in British cinemas this week. Called simply Nureyev it tells a story so astonishing that it is hard to credit that it really happened. It traces one of the creative legends of the 20th century. A dancer of such amazing talent that despite an impoverished background he kicked down barriers and enriched and changed the world of classical ballet forever.

Rudolf Nureyev was born on a train on the Trans-Siberian railway in 1938. He came from a poor family but discovered a love of ballet as a child. His father was horrified and tried to beat the passion for dance out of his young son. This brutality simply made a defiant Rudolf even more determined to fight for a place at ballet school. His brilliance, power and grace soon shone and by his early twenties he was a star of the famed Kirov Ballet.

He was also a free spirit, a gay man who felt straight-jacketed and psychologically at odds with the restrictive Soviet regime. In 1961 on tour in Paris he made a break for freedom and defected to the west. 

It was the very height of the Cold War, just weeks before the construction of the Berlin Wall. The Russians were furious, the west grabbed its prize with glee. Nureyev was free but knew he could never go home or see his beloved mother again.

So it began: a life of fame, flamboyance, excess and stunningly sensational dance. He was proud, stubborn and outrageous but his brilliance was such that when he demanded the spotlight it was his for the taking. 

Nureyev was an artistic and creative sensation.  His partnership with 42-year-old Royal Ballet ballerina Margot Fonteyn became the stuff of legend. He broke all the rules but stunned the world with the explosive charisma of his performances.  

Offstage he was petulant, volatile, reckless and never far from the headlines. He partied with the biggest stars, cruised the discos, gay clubs and bath-houses. Eventually, in the 1980s, the almost inevitable happened and he was diagnosed as HIV Positive.  Unable to confront his own mortality, Nureyev struggled on as his talent gradually faded and his health collapsed. He died in 1993. He was just 54 years -old. 

The official announcement said that his death had been due to “a cardiac complication following a grievous illness.” The wording had been drafted by Nureyev himself reflecting the fact that AIDS was still a difficult subject for many people.

It was a strange situation. Many in Nureyev’s circle had long been aware of his condition but the dancer himself desperately hoped for recovery and couldn’t bring himself to admit the truth. A little over a week later his doctor, Michel Canesi, publicly admitted that Nureyev had had AIDS. In an interview with the French paper  Le Figaro, Dr  Canesi said that the dancer had feared that revealing his illness might limit his career.

 “If I clarify things now, it is because there is no such thing as a shameful disease,” he said. “I am thinking of all the anonymous patients who are suffering from being ostracised. Rudolf lived for 13 or 14 years with this virus, thanks to his force, his combativeness. People should know that. He was too famous to be able to hide the truth.”

I encountered Rudolf Nureyev at the end of his life  and wrote a newspaper story about an event that I really really would rather had never happened. Reading about the film this week I went to my files and found a 1991 cutting containing what amounted to my demolition of his shabby late-career attempt to  pretend he was still a contender. It was a good piece but I was dreadfully sad to have had to write it. 

I genuinely wanted to see one of the greatest dancers in the world in action. What we got by the time he and his troupe arrived at the Bournemouth International Centre in May that year was a poorly staged ballet show with a visibly ageing and seriously ill 53-year-old galumphing  around a badly dressed provincial stage to a recorded soundtrack. 

This man who had filled the great ballet stages of the world was a shadow of his former self. There were flashes of brilliance, genius even but the production billed as a ‘Farewell Tour: A Gala Evening of Ballet with the World’s Greatest Dancer’’ was a sad, tawdry affair. 

It featured bite-sized excerpts from well known ballets with a team of dancers on hand to do most of the challenging stuff while Nureyev, who appeared in just two set pieces, struck attitudes between finding the energy, finesse and balance to briefly remind us that he really had once been the greatest.

It was heartbreaking to see this magnificent dancer in such artistically reduced circumstances. Perhaps even more tragic was the fact that he was in deep denial. 

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People had walked out, demanded their money back. The theatre was fielding a list of complaints about the show but, apparently oblivious to his lacklustre performance, Nureyev still insisted on  appearing at the stage door to sign autographs for his fans. But the days of crowds of admirers rushing to lavish  him with flowers and messages of undying love had long past.  When Nureyev finally appeared in the doorway wearing a stylish beret and leather coat he looked tired but still magnificent as he surveyed the small gaggle of autograph hunters grouped in this unprepossessing  corridor at the back of the barn-like BIC. There was a defiance in his eyes. He signed a photograph or two and a pair of children’s ballet shoes and then he came to me.

 Almost as soon as the lights went down Hattie and I had realised this wasn’t just another review, there was a real story here and we wanted to give Nureyev a chance to have a say,

Hattie had raced to the car and grabbed her camera and I had joined the little group of autograph hunters. I turned a copy of the show’s press release inside out and thrust into Nureyev’s hand. As he signed his name with a  flourish he joked: “I hope I am not signing some goddam statement.”  I shook my head and asked if he had enjoyed the evening. “Yes, he said, looking surprised. “I danced well.” 

It was then that I told him I was a journalist and asked if he realised that dozens of people had walked out of the show. He looked horrified and started backing off.  “Could we do an interview? I asked but a couple of minders were already closing in.  “No interviews”  I was told as they ushered a shocked looking Nureyev away. The remaining fans looked angry. “What a dreadful thing to ask,” scowled one. Someone yelled: “Take his pen away.” My biro was snatched from my hand and I was unceremoniously escorted from the building. 

Standing on steps of the BIC I wondered for a moment what to do. I knew Hattie had got at least one picture and in the confusion no one had connected that we were together. I felt inside my jacket pocket, grabbed my notebook and another pen and realised that I also had the press release bearing a rather splendid Rudolf Nureyev autograph.  

I waited a couple of minutes and walked back into the foyer. I spotted the International Centre’s then director Luis Candal  seemingly engaged in an agitated conversation with the entertainment’s manager Rob Zuradzki. They were shaking their heads and looking troubled. I wandered over just in time to hear Zuradzki  utter the immortal words. “Nureyev has really got the hump.” I took a deep breath. “I’m afraid you’re not going to want to hear what I’m going to say,”  I said.

The story that appeared in the next morning’s paper brought praise from my editor and colleagues but inevitably fury from Nureyev’s fans, particularly those who had not seen the performance.  Those who had been present complained about the poor sight-lines, the price of the tickets, the  ‘school hall atmosphere” and the feeling that they had been conned.

Those who hadn’t actually been there really let me have it with both barells. One wrote that the age of chivalry was obviously dead as my reporting was “discourteous and biased.” Sadly it was merely accurate. I did however agree with another correspondent who pointed out that Nureyev’s achievements had cost an enormous amount of effort and sacrifice – “far more one suspects than it takes to be a journalist…How many people would pay to see Jeremy Miles?” he asked. 

That letter appeared under the headline ‘Sacrifice and the stage-door scribbler.’ So the whole episode did give me one thing. I have weekly blog that I write for a theatre company. It is called Stage-door Scribbler. And of course I still have that autograph.

Dorothea’s dustbowl migrants and the tale of Tom McGuinness and Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup


Migrant Mother the photograph of itinerant pea-picker Florence Thompson and her children taken in California in 1936 that catapulted Dorothea Lange to international fame

A couple of weeks ago I found myself at London’s Barbican viewing The Politics of Seeing – an exhibition of superb and often troubling photographs by pioneering American photographer Dorothea Lange.

Across the gallery, admiring Lange’s iconic studies of Oklahoma dustbowl migrants in California in the 1930s, was a man who I was fairly convinced was Manfred Mann and Blues Band guitarist Tom McGuinness. I wasn’t sure though and short of wandering over and asking, I couldn’t figure out a way of finding out. 

It’s not as though Tom is a mega-celebrity. His impeccable musical credentials and fascinating network of connections has always veered towards the esoteric. He may have started out playing in the same band as Eric Clapton but rock star material he ain’t. Consequently no one else was taking a blind bit of notice of him. 

Trying not to behave like a complete dick, I contrived to move closer and eventually found myself alongside Mr McGuinness who was by this time deep in conversation with another much younger man about the shocking inequality faced by poor black people in America, then and now.

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Tom McGuinness

That’s when I heard him say: “For a time in the early 70s I had a guy living in my house in London. His name was Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup…” The story continued but by now Tom had moved out of earshot.

It didn’t matter. That was all the confirmation I needed. I knew that Crudup was an American Mississippi Delta blues singer, songwriter and guitarist. I also knew that late in his career he visited London and recorded a brilliant album called Roebuck Man. It was named after a pub in Putney and the musicians on it included Tom McGuinness and other like-minded musicians

Among the many songs that Arthur Crudup had written during his  long  career was That’s All Right Mama which, in the 1950s, became the hit single that launched Elvis Presley’s career. Presley would later pay tribute saying that his one overriding ambition had always been “to be as good as Arthur Crudup”

Unfortunately the Mississippi bluesman’s undoubted talent had brought few financial rewards. Crudup, who had been born into exactly the kind of travelling migrant farming family that was photographed by Dorothea Lange, was forced to work as a bootlegger to put food on the table.

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Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup in London in 1970

Eventually, after a career in which he was routinely ripped off by the sharks of the music business, he found a blues promoter prepared to campaign for his unpaid royalties.

It was reckoned he was due at least $60,000 dollars. By 1971 he was attracting new interest and had managed to recoup around 10,000 of those missing dollars. But it was too little too late. His health was failing and within three years Arthur Crudup was dead. He was 68.

Footnote: I knew I vaguely remembered hearing a story about Crudup’s stay in London and guess what? I found it in Blues: The British Collection, an indispensable guide to the British Blues and R&B scene penned back in the 1980s by original Fleetwood Mac bass player Bob Brunning. In case you’re wondering, Bob played on a handful of tracks during the early recording sessions for their eponymous debut album before being replaced by John McVie. Bob sadly died a few years ago but was a stalwart supporter of the blues playing in Savoy Brown and his own bands while simultaneously holding down a challenging day job as a schoolteacher, eventually becoming a headmaster.

Anyhow I digress. Taking my well-battered copy of Blues: The British Collection off the shelf for the first time in years, I scoured the index for Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup and there he was. In a chapter devoted to British musicians working with visiting American bluesmen (and they were almost exclusively men) I found Tom McGuinness talking about his houseguest who, perennially short of money, stayed with him to save on hotel bills. And there was the story that Tom must have been telling at the Barbican. An incident that rammed home to him just how impoverished the life of this brilliant, talented man was. It seems that Crudup had thrown his stage suit into his case without really examining it and when he came to unpack realised that it had been eaten by rats. Quite an eye-opener for a London boy whose idea of being poor was probably having to find a shilling for the meter and eat beans on toast rather too often. You can imagine. Tom had probably had the odd moth take a nibble at his shirt. But, Oh man, these blues guys had rats to contend with.

Footnote 2: I should have known that including the words Big Boy in the headline would attract some dubious attention. Sure enough a sex-crazed algorithm  found my piece and within days there was a photograph of a large bottomed young women holding a camera. and inviting me to view a variety of ‘racygirls’ sites. Fortunately I’m not so deluded, or desperate, to imagine that in the real world girls, decades younger than me, would be remotely interested. And I’m certainly not interested in them.

Buy my lamps you won’t need drugs – a compelling and effective marketing slogan

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Craven Walker: daredevil, pioneering naturist and inventor of the lava lamp

I am intrigued to see that Mathmos, the Poole based company that, back in 1963, launched that soon to become indispensable hippy accessory the lava lamp are celebrating the centenary of their founder Craven Walker.

Craven – his full name was Edward Craven Walker – was in some ways an unlikely inventor of the lamp that fascinated the counter-culture.

A former RAF pilot with a passion for fast cars, speed boats and helicopters, he was also a pioneering nudist who made a number naturist films that avoided the censor by being shot underwater.

He developed the first ‘Astro’ lava lamp after basing it on a design for a Heath Robinson style egg-timer that he’d seen in a pub in the New Forest. To his delight, and probably astonishment too, his lamp was an instant hit and when one of the Beatles ordered one it sales started to really boom. It took only a short while for the turn on, tune in, drop out generation in the US to become fixated with the new lamps with their trippy light show displays.

Craven was amused. Hearing that followers of underground heroes like Timothy Leary and  Ken Kesey were hailing the lava lamp as some kind of alternative way to enlightenment, he announced: “If you buy one of my lamps you don’t need drugs”. It proved both a compelling and effective marketing slogan and the lava lamp has remained in continuous British production in Poole ever since. More info at www.mathmos.co

12e63e1c-4db7-4734-b922-c6dd4013e649.jpgTo celebrate the centenary Mathmos are giving away 100 of their candle powered Fireflow lava lamps over the summer. The lamp (pictured above) features the unique lava formulation perfected by Edward Craven Walker himself see here.

The company is also inviting people to post images of their vintage lava lamps and lava lamp stories at #ECW100. To enter the giveaway follow Mathmos on social media and look out for our #ECW100 competition post.
Meanwhile here’s a feature I wrote about Craven and the lava lamp that was published in Dorset magazine a few years ago. I think it’s worth another read.

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An original lava lamp prototype that in all honesty looks more like something you might find down a mine  rather than decorating a swinging sixties apartment

With its gloopy, trippy, luminous light, the gently bubbling Astro lava lamp will forever be associated with the turn-on, tune-in, drop-out generation of the 1960s.

Organiser of the famed Woodstock Festival, Wavy Gravy, called it “Amazing!” adding with breathless enthusiasm that: “It causes the synapses in your brain to loosen up.”

In fact this ultimate addition to any 1960s hippy pad owes its origins to a Dorset based former World War Two RAF pilot, a remarkable imagination and that old business trick of being in the right place at the right time.

The man behind the lava lamp – currently celebrating its 50th anniversary – was the late Edward Craven Walker, a remarkable daredevil, inventor and pioneering naturist who shot the first underwater naked films to squeak past the censor.

 Whatever else the dapper Craven (as he was invariably known) was, he was certainly no hippy. Not that he minded. Once aware that everyone from The Beatles to The Grateful Dead  were making much of his new invention, he made a public statement: “If you buy my lamp, you won’t need drugs…It is like the cycle of life. It grows, breaks up, falls down and then starts all over again

The hippies lapped it up and the endorsement of the counter-culture did Craven no harm at all. The lava lamp was actually inspired by spotting a Heath Robinson style oil-filled egg-timer in a pub in the New Forest.

Craven set about creating a lamp that worked on roughly the same principal – using heated oil, melted wax and an old orange squash bottle. After many modifications the lava lamp went into production at his factory in Poole in 1963. The company has been based in or around the town ever since.

The first two lava lamps on the market –  The Astro and Astro Baby – immediately chimed with the emerging sixties hipsters but marketing was much tougher in those distant pre-internet days. In fact the original lava lamps were delivered around the country in a rickety old secondhand Post Office van.

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Craven Walker and his wife Christine pictured with their delivery van in the early 1960s

Craven’s second wife, Christine Baehr, recalls how exciting life was when the lava lamp suddenly became the must-have accessory for the hip and the happening.

It appeared in cult TV programmes like The Prisoner and Doctor Who. No self respecting follower of fashion would be without one. It was even deemed an official design classic. Not that the trend-setters had a monopoly. A lava lamp was also featured in the decidedly uncool sit-com George and Mildred.

Down in Poole the Walkers suddenly found themselves at the sharp end of the swinging sixties. “Things seemed to move so quickly. It was terribly exciting,” says 69-year-old Christine who still lives on the Dorset-Hampshire border. “Psychedelia was a long way from our thoughts but it was the height of Beatlemania and one day a shop in Birkenhead phoned and said: ‘We thought you might be interested to know that Ringo Starr has just been in and bought one of your lamps.’

 “That was it! We had no experience in marketing or PR but we didn’t waste any time in getting that particular message out. Things went absolutely crazy. We suddenly found ourselves in this bubble which just seemed to keep expanding. It was enormous fun.” That single Beatle endorsement had put them well and truly on the map.

Christine met Craven in 1960 when she was still in her teens. They married soon afterwards.  She remembers him as a man “full of energy and ideas.” His controversial lifestyle and the notoriety he drew from his naturist films were, says Christine, of little concern: “It didn’t worry him at all because he felt there was nothing to worry about.”

Cressida Granger took over the Poole company in the early 1990s and now runs it as Mathmos  – a name derived from the seething subterranean lake in the cult 1960s sci-fi movie Barbarella.

She has similar memories of the devil-may-care Craven. She first encountered him when she found a growing demand for lava lamps on a vintage stall she ran at London’s Camden Market. It occurred to her that she might be able to source the lamps direct from the Poole company. After doing a deal with the Walkers she turned the then declining company around and took over the business.  

Cressida remembers Craven as a force of nature. “He used to fly helicopters, drive speed-boats and fast cars and once came running into the office shouting: ‘I’ve just bought a fire engine’.  He was always inviting me to go in his helicopter. I used to think ‘If you hadn’t crashed so many Jaguars I might actually consider it’ But he was great fun: very bright and a very unconventional thinker.”

She recalls her initial business meeting with the Walker’s at their nudist camp at Matchams just outside Bournemouth but denies claims that she demanded that Craven and Christine keep their clothes on for the discussions.

“That wasn’t what happened at all” she laughs. “It was however suggested that I might like to take my clothes off. Let’s just say that I declined and the meeting went ahead with all us fully clothed…which was a great relief. ”

Although lava-style lamps are produced all over the world, Cressida Granger insists that the Mathmos lamps, still finished and filled in Poole, are unique, the precise contents a closely guarded secret.

So, I asked, has the secret formula been memorised by a select team and locked in a safe somewhere? I’m afraid not,” replied Cressida. “It’s written down and kept in a purple folder.” Silly of me. Of course, it would be.

To celebrate the 50th birthday Mathmos has launched a limited edition Astro lava lamp complete with certificate signed by Christine. The company has also produced a new heritage collection and has just completeda season of commemorative events at the London Design Festival. This included the unveiling of the world’s largest lava lamp – a 200-litre monster – at the Royal Festival Hall.

But it wont be the biggest in the world for much longer. At least not if the residents of Soap Lake City in Washington State, USA, get their way. There have been plans afoot for more than a decade to build a 60-foot lava lamp as a tourist attraction. The $1million dollar plan has yet to find funding though.


Tony Hancock – the comic genius who could not be saved from his demons

Fifty years ago this week one of Britain’s greatest comedians, Tony Hancock, committed suicide. Lonely and depressed, he ended his life with an overdose of drink and drugs in a rented flat in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia. He was just 44-years-old.  It was a tragic and lonely end, thousands of miles from home, for a man who just a handful of years earlier had been a huge TV and radio star, a household name loved by millions.

 During the 1950s and early 1960s Tony Hancock’s extraordinary comic-timing paired with brilliant scripts by  Ray Galton and Alan Simpson made him the BBC’s most popular entertainer. The inspired sit-com Hancock’s Half Hour ran for 100 episodes on radio and 76 on TV before spawning a one-man spin-off called simply Hancock. 

Based on the life and times of a pompous, misanthropic, down-at-heel suburbanite, the character of Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock caught to perfection the prevailing mood of post war austerity. Everybody loved Hancock. They laughed with him and they laughed at him. Stop any dozen people in the street and the chances are they could tell you his fictional address – 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam – without a second thought.

Sadly the real-life Hancock, although desperate for success, was unable to cope with his fame. Dogged by depression and haunted by self-doubt, the more successful he became the more terrified he was of failure. 

He hit the bottle and slowly as the booze robbed him of his talent he became more and more paranoid. He dropped long-standing support-star Sid James fearing that their winning partnership was making them look like a double-act. In Hancock’s head there could be only be one star. Worse still he sacked Galton and Simpson believing that he would do better writing his own material. It was a disaster. 

Soon after reaching Australia, ostensibly to record a new series of career-reviving shows, he was beginning to face the bitter truth. Professionally and personally he was all washed up and had little hope of reversing the situation. 

During that spring and early summer of 2008 in Australia they managed to get a  handful of programmes in the can but Hancock’s new start was already looking decidedly shambolic.  He was boozing hard and TV bosses were forced to send him to a drying out clinic. They also told him that he’d be fired if took another drink. He tried to remain sober but was  frightened and in turmoil. In desperation he retreated to his rented flat and shut the door. His body was found the next day. An empty vodka bottle and a scattering of barbiturates lay at his side. There was a note that said: “Things just seemed to go too wrong too many times”. Family, friends and colleagues were shocked but not surprised by news of his death. Everyone agreed there was a sort of inevitability about it.

Spike Milligan, who for a time shared an office with Galton and Simpson, perhaps summed it up best when, years later, he said of Hancock: “Very difficult man to get on with. He used to drink excessively. You felt sorry for him. He ended up on his own. I thought, he’s got rid of everybody else, he’s going to get rid of himself and he did.” 

Yet those who knew the comedian sober said he was a thoughtful man – gentle, reflective and caring. they watched helplessly as the old Tony was gradually eclipsed by a morose boozer.   

Tony Hancock was born in Birmingham but grew up and launched his early career in Bournemouth. During the years I was arts and entertainments editor on the local daily paper I had the privilege of meeting  a number of his friends at various celebrations of his extraordinary comic legacy. It was telling perhaps that those who knew him best, even those who had seen him wretched, drunk, bewildered and angry, hung onto their memories of the funny, gentle, vulnerable Tony Hancock that they first knew.


Remembering Tony Hancock. Actress June Whitfield with Hancock’s script-writers Galton and Simpson. The late Alan Simpson is left with Ray Galton right.  Photograph Hattie Miles  (2012).

Ray Galton told me that in the early days Hancock was a joy to write for. “We never had any problems with him. He was a pussycat.” While actress June Whitfield  said: ”He was his own worst enemy.” She recalled recording a series with him and sitting waiting for a cue. Hancock seemed distracted and morose and started brooding about the point of his life and career. “He looked at me and said ‘What’s it all about eh?’ I said ‘I’ve no idea Tony but we’re on in five minutes.’ He was a lovely man but I don’t think he ever realised how much everyone thought of him.”

After dispensing with the services of Galton and Simpson, Tony Hancock’s career gradually drifted into the doldrums. He left the BBC and recorded a couple of failed series for ABC. His drinking was out of control, his marriage had collapsed and he was visibly struggling. Friends who tried to help him were ignored and TV executives, fed up with turning a blind eye to his chaotic behaviour, were fast losing patience.  Australia had been Hancock’s last chance to start again and he blew it. Top Aussie comedy writer Hugh Stuckey was drafted in to help a drunken Hancock with the scripts. He would later say he felt less like a writer and more like a minder.”

The sad truth is that it would have taken a small miracle to save Tony Hancock from his demons. The last time Sid James saw his one-time comedy partner was just months before his death. He told an interviewer he was driving down Piccadilly when he spotted  a dishevelled Hancock stumbling along the pavement.

“He looked dreadful. I tried to pull up and get over to him. I got the car parked, but by then he had disappeared. He was so full of liquor he didn’t see me. I wish to God I had been able to catch him, because little things like that can change people’s lives.”

Indeed they can but in the 1960s bi-polar conditions were neither understood nor treated in the way that they are now. Medication wasn’t as sophisticated and alcoholism was often either ignored or treated behind closed doors with a brutal withdrawal regime simply known as The Cure. Hancock, racked with fear and an almost total loss of self-confidence, wasn’t strong enough to deal with the stresses of the high-profile Tv career that in other ways he was perfectly suited to. And there’s the rub.  Tony Hancock’s comic genius was driven by the same obsessive personality traits that led to his ultimate mental collapse. Tragically he just couldn’t cope. Best that we remember his brilliance rather than his tragic decline.. 

  • In a curious twist to this sad tale Hugh Stuckey, the Australian comedy writer called in to help Hancock with his ill-fated final TV project in 1968, died last week just 10 days shy of his 90th birthday. He had enjoyed a long and successful career. 

Dylan Thomas and New Quay – the little Welsh town that inspired Under Milk Wood

New Quay harbour

Picturesque New Quay the town where Dylan Thomas wrote the first draft of Under Milk Wood

I am standing outside one of Dylan Thomas’s favourite pubs in a “cliff-perched toppling town” on the west coast of Wales. It is true that many a hostelry claims the notoriously thirsty Welsh poet as a regular. But this is New Quay, the picturesque fishing village on Cardigan Bay that Dylan often visited as a child. He and his wife Caitlin also made it their home and writing-base for a year during the Second World War.

The pub is the Black Lion where the infamous hell-raiser once got embroiled in a spat with a jealous husband who later attacked his £1-a-week “shack at the end of the cliff” with a machine-gun and hand-grenade.

The grenade failed to detonate but multiple shots we’re fired. Happily the cowering poet emerged unscathed. New Quay however didn’t.  Dylan Thomas has left his mark on this peaceful fishing community. His hell-raising rows and constant need for money and drink have left countless tales of belligerent behaviour and unpaid debts in their wake and they t are still being told today, nearly 65 years after his untimely death following a drinking binge in New York.

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The Black Lion in New Quay.  Dylan Thomas’s favourite watering hole 

More importantly New Quay is where he wrote the first draft of Under Milk Wood, his famous ‘play for voices’, and it was almost certainly the original inspiration for its fictional seaside hamlet of Llareggub (read it backwards and all will be revealed). Even today the little town with its colourful houses tumbling down the hill to the harbour fits to perfection the description of its fictional counterpart. Under Milk Wood’s colourful characters too were taken straight from the streets of 1940s New Quay. Dylan’s friend Norman Evans has long been thought to have provided the original inspiration for Nogood Boyo, while local seafarer Captain Tom Polly has been claimed as the real Captain Cat. Interesting too that the Congregational minister in New Quay during Dylan’s time there was one Orchwy Bowen who, just like Under Milk Wood’s Eli Jenkins, was both a priest and a poet.

Dylan expert David N. Thomas has described Dylan’s first six months In New Quay as being as creative as his four years at the Boat House in Laugharne, perhaps even more so. “Dylan was happy in New Quay,” he says, adding that Caitlin described the tight-knit little community as exactly her husband’s kind of place. It also offered the bonus that some of his childhood friends were still living in the town.


Jeremy Miles on New Quay harbour wall

In wartime one can imagine Dylan staggering home from the pub in the blackout and on a dark, cloud-covered night formulating in his mind the words: “It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’- and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea.’’

This hypnotic and most Dylan Thomas of Dylan Thomas descriptions opens Under Milk Wood. The passage would go on to become inextricably linked with Richard Burton who voiced the words in the famed 1954 BBC recording.

In a satisfyingly connected way I am now standing outside The Dolau Inn in New Quay’s Church Street where both Dylan Thomas and Richard Burton drank, though mercifully not at the same time. The Dolau was another regular port of call for Dylan on his seemingly ceaseless quest for beer and whisky. It was also place to soak up the atmosphere and eavesdrop on local characters, absorbing the rhythms of their chatter. Another Dolau regular was Alistair Graham, a nephew of the Duchess of Montrose. Upper-crust Graham  was said to be Dylan’s inspiration for Under Milk Wood’s Lord Cut-Glass.


A bird’s eye view of New Quay – Dylan Thomas’s cliff-perched toppling town

Ellesmere is a comfortable, remarkably well-equipped, three bedroom terraced cottage with sea-views from the garden and easy access to the delights of New Quay. Whether walking the rugged coast path, taking a boat trip to see bottlenose dolphins leap and play in the bay or just quietly enjoying the beach and watching life go by, Ellesmere is a great place to stay. There are a surprising number of good bars and restaurants nearby and there’s even a decent Indian brasserie just a few doors away.

Beyond New Quay itself we enjoyed a fascinating day-trip to Llanerchaeron, the former family home of wealthy landowners. Now operated by the National Trust, it offers the chance to explore the upstairs-downstairs lives that were a reality in this stunning early John Nash villa until 1989 when the final master of the house, Ponsonby Lewes, died. Outside are walled gardens, a working farm and riverside and meadow walks. There’s also a quirky museum of ancient agricultural machinery.


The John Nash villa at Llanerchaeron

A trip to Cardigan – 20 miles away – found us discovering another intriguing architectural gem – Castle Green House, a Regency house that was built into the walls of Cardigan Castle in the early 19th century.

For many years it was home to the 900 year old castle’s last private owner. Miss Barbara Wood, a determined and eccentric woman who, despite the fact the castle and house were crumbling into ruination around her, refused all approaches by the local authority to take over the historic site.

She famously once told Cardigan Borough Council that they could “go fry themselves.” The local newspaper loved that one. Eventually Miss Wood’s home was declared unfit for human habitation. Forced out, she was appalled at the offer of a nearby bungalow but agreed to relocate with her many cats to a caravan in the grounds.

In 1996, suffering from failing health, she was admitted to a nursing home and eventually, in 2003, she agreed to sell the derelict castle to Ceredigion County Council for £500,000. She died in 2009 at the age of 91.

Happily a £4.8 million Heritage Lottery bid set the wheels in motion for a massive restoration programme which has now renovated both castle and house. Well worth a visit.

Marine wildlife centre

New Quay where life continues in much the way Dylan Thomas would have known it

Staying In New Quay is ideal for recharging the batteries with the coast path nearby and the spectacular beaches of Llangrannog, Tresaith, Penbryn, Aberporth and Mwnt all within half an hour.

Ironically New Quay’s greatest strength is also probably its biggest problem. It is a very remote and for anyone in Southern England involves an extremely  long drive to get there. It offers great rewards for those who make the journey though. Hanging out on the Ceredigion coast is a wonderfully energising experience, pretty much as close as you can get to time-travel.

For while this region is definitely in tune with the 21st century and offers all mod cons there is also much about New Quay and its surrounding area that I would guess hasn’t changed significantly in the past 50 years.

Like many distant places clinging to the edge of the British Isles, it attracts, artists, eccentrics and those who wish to seek a simple, maybe alternative lifestyle. There are many native Welsh speakers and long held local traditions endure. It is also home to some spectacular ageing hippies who, sometime over the past half-century, have made their way west to escape the rat-race. They’ve chosen well.

Fishing boats

Fishing-boat-bobbing temporarily suspended at low tide

Back at Ellesmere I set out once again on the Dylan Thomas Trail. With the excellent self-guiding booklet you can find a dozen locations that he frequented. They are helpfully marked with blue ceramic plaques bearing a picture of the tubby, tousle-haired poet.

There is plenty of revealing information for Dylan fans. You can find for instance the old Post Office where he regularly mailed his manuscripts back to London and where Jack Lloyd, a local postal worker, probably provided the original blueprint for Willy Nilly, the postman in Under Milk Wood.  Today the former Post Office building is The Hungry Trout restaurant.

Then there’s the former police station – a dead-ringer for Llareggub’s Handcuff House – and up on Llanina Point, overlooking the town, you can find Majeda, the little house where Dylan and Caitlin lived in 1944-45. Majeda of course was also the scene of the infamous shooting. The incident was the focus of the 2008 film The  Edge of Love starring Matthew Rhys as Dylan, Sienna Miller as Caitlin, Keira Knightly as extra-marital love interest Vera Phillips and Cillian Murphy as her enraged husband.

The general consensus is that director John Maybury used much artistic licence in the reimagining of the supposed ménage à trois that brought such sudden violence to the Dylan household.

He did however recreate the little wood and asbestos shack with painstaking accuracy, building it in a field adjacent to the original which is now a luxury bungalow.

Also up on the Point you will find the Plas Llanina manor house which Dylan originally visited with his friend the artist Augustus John back in the1930s. Later, when Lord Howard de Walden who was himself a writer, playwright and patron of the arts, leased the manor he allowed Dylan to write in an old watch-house in the grounds overlooking the bay.

Sea wall

A detox for the soul: New Quay – a place that is ideal for lazy days and recharging the batteries.

That New Quay was important to Dylan is without question. He wrote far more  than the first draft of Under Milk Wood while living there. It was where he penned many poems and the radio piece Quite early One Morning which was first broadcast by the BBC in August 1945. That programme started a there years association wth the corporation during which he made more than 100 broadcasts and sealed his literary reputation.

Dylan Thomas died following a drinking binge while on a poetry reading tour in New York on 9th November 1953. He was just 39-years-old.  There has been much speculation about his death. Was it the booze? Was it the pneumonia discovered at autopsy? Or was it simply bad medical practise?

I think the latter is the real culprit here. Despite Dylan’s boastful claim on the eve of his death that he had just drunk “18 straight whiskies” it seems unlikely that, even if true, this would be enough to fell such a hardened drinker.

On the other hand he was in a poor state of health, weakened by drink and self-neglect and was suffering from both gastritis and gout. Almost inexplicably the doctor who was called to his hotel administered half a grain of morphine sulphate, a dangerously high dose for a man in Dylan’s condition. The poet gradually slipped into a deep sleep and lost consciousness. He was taken to hospital in a coma and died several hours later

The tragedy is that he still had so much to give us as a writer. At the time of his death he was about to begin work on an exciting new commission, writing a libretto for an opera with Igor Stravinsky. It was never to be,

Who knows what else he could have achieved had he lived? At least a visit to New Quay allows us to trace Dylan Thomas’s footsteps and glimpse some of the ghosts from his past.

*You can book Ellesmere through West Wales Holiday Cottages.  Just a five minute walk from the sea, this is a much loved family home owned by the same family for more than 50 years. It has recently been refurbished to a high standard and has become a popular holiday let. For more information go to www.westwalesholidaycottages.co.uk/ellesmere or call 01239 810033.

When Henry the horse danced the waltz…

beatles 5.jpgIt was 50 years ago today that Sgt Pepper taught the band to play – well give or take a day or three. On Thursday 1st of June 1967 I was 16-years-old and like most of my schoolfriends made a beeline for the local record shop to hear The Beatles’ newly released album.  Little did we know at the start of what would become known as the Summer of Love that music, and indeed a whole bunch of other things, would never be quite the same again.

Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band may not have been the greatest album ever recorded but it was one of the most innovative, inventive and influential. It was unlike anything anybody had ever heard before and it caught the spirit of the time perfectly. Listening now to the remastered 50th Anniversary edition I realise that it gave us a soundtrack to an era and, as the 1967 Summer of Love morphed into the 1968 Year of Protest, the album stayed with us.

One  needs to understand the historical context. Revolution really was in the air. In London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, San Francisco, Chicago and New York, social and political activists were gathering strength. A network of underground magazines and the word on the street kept everyone informed. Even those of us who still had to do our homework before we could pretend to possess any anarchic leanings were briefly convinced that we were going to stop the war in Vietnam, halt the ‘bread-heads’ in their tracks, feed the hungry, house the homeless, destroy racism and usher in an age of global peace, love and understanding.

Hopelessly naive perhaps but baby boomers, born during and just after the end of World War II, were a force to be reckoned with and determined that a change was gonna come.  Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was their music – a central part of the soundtrack of those heady, idealistic months.

In retrospect it seems strange that the album came to epitomise the spirit of youth internationally. It was after all extraordinarily British. It’s thematic rock, whimsical pop and lush arrangements were peppered (no pun intended) with unashamed references to English music hall, fairgrounds, traffic wardens, the popular BBC TV sit-com Meet the Wife, a well-known British cornflake advert and holidays on the Isle of Wight alongside a shimmering wash of psychedelia and a touch of Eastern mysticism.

It’s almost impossible all these years later to remember the initial impact of hearing astonishing tracks like A Day in the Life, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite but they were jaw-dropping in their aural imagery created by wizardry in the studio  that was breaking new ground. I do however recall, early on, marvelling at the sound that seemed to somehow get right inside your head. We had been primed of course. Earlier in the year the first two sessions from the Sgt Pepper recordings – Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane – had been released as a double A sided single. They never made it onto the final album but they were very much a part of the project.

The album had the distinct advantage of worrying the more paranoid parts of the establishment who seemed intent on finding it in some way subversive. Headlines about Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds being code for LSD started a frenzy of speculation about possible drug references in the lyrics. The Beatles looked on in bemusement and insisted that they were blameless. It was of course brilliant publicity and forever endeared both the band and the album to the counter-culture.

It’s easy to forget that the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album may have become an album of choice for hippies, yippies and bedsit revolutionaries but it actually pre-dated the era of flying cobblestones and fighting in the streets by several months. It was rooted in a more innocent times and recorded during the first half of 1967, just a couple of years after John, Paul, George and Ringo first started shaking off the shackles of being a perennially mobbed mop-top boy band.

Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was and is an extraordinary recording which captured a special moment in the history of the 20th century, an era that in the UK at least, emerged blinking into the 1960s suffering from a bad case of arrested development. After two World Wars and major economic recession the nation was still run by politicians and captan’s of industry who were essentially still Edwardian in attitude and outlook. Something had to give. It was helped by the fact that compulsory military service ended in 1960, coinciding neatly with the first generation of teens and 20s to have money in their pockets.

The Beatles arrived just in time to offer a psychological springboard for a generation inspired by rock ’n’ roll and the glittering seemingly unreachable world of the American Dream. On the other side of the Atlantic lifestyles glimpsed through TV, the movies and magazines, looked more glamorous, cars were bigger, music was brasher. The new generation of Brits wanted some of the action. Fed up with playing second fiddle they soon realised that The Beatles were at the vanguard of a youth movement that would even impress the yanks.

The Fab Four couldn’t miss. The band were a perfect mix of talent and personalities that existed during a brief but highly creative moment in time. Having landed a recording contract with stuffy old EMI Records they were allocated a producer who had previously been responsible for comedy and novelty records.

As far as the rather haughty EMI bosses were concerned it was all that this untamed beat-group from Liverpool deserved. It just so happened that George Martin was a creative thinker with a genius for sound design that had never been given full reign before. Add to that the quiet but determined counsel of manager Brian Epstein and the unique set of circumstances that led to the development of the experimentations that created the Sgt Pepper sound were in place. So many things about it were groundbreaking, from Peter Blake and Jann Howarth’s cover to the fact that it was the first pop album to have its song lyrics printed on the sleeve.

Sadly Brian Epstein died less than three months after Sgt Pepper’s release. He was just 32-years-old. Though Magical Mystery Tour, the White Album, Abbey Road and Let it Be were still to be recorded and released, Epstein’s death was the beginning of the end for The Beatles. It is astonishing that, half-a-century after its release, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band remains unique in its ability to conjure up the feeling of a special moment in time. It doesn’t contain The Beatles best songs and as I’ve already said, it certainly isn’t their best album. That accolade, in my opinion, belongs to Revolver which was recorded and released a year earlier. But it is without doubt a landmark in both social and musical history. The fact that 50 years after its release we are analysing and reappraising its impact says it all.

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