Dancing Ledge

When the going gets tough the tough start blogging

Revisiting the punk revolution 40 years on

 

Sex Pistols - London - 1977

Sex Pistols Oxford Street Glitterbest photosession – 1977 Photo: ©Adrian Boot

40 Years of Punk: Photographs by Adrian Boot 

 Proud Camden until 8th January 2017 

 

I have to confess that my memory of the events of 40 years ago is hazy but I can tell you with absolute certainty that something strange and wonderful happened. During the months that saw 1976 turn into 1977 punk rock arrived.

I was a 25-year-old writer and sometime music journalist and the effect seemed almost instant. My hair shortened, my trousers narrowed and my mind broadened. I was suddenly covering bands that were full of anger and energy and driven by a wonderfully unrefined commitment to change.

Beyond the superficialities demanded by newspaper and magazine editors – the safety pins, the spit, the bondage trousers, the green hair (all of which I was dispatched to write stories about at one point or another) – there was something unrelentingly real happening

Punk swept the complacency out of a bloated, self-satisfied music business. It blasted the clubs and airwaves with a refreshing new attitude and scared the living daylights out middle England. It challenged, head-on, a society in the grip of social tensions and rising unemployment. Punk was seriously exciting and very badly needed.

Among those on the front line to record the cultural revolution that kicked  music back to life was photographer Adrian Boot. His remarkable work documenting the rise of punk culture is on show at Proud Camden until 8th January.

His exhibition 40 Years of Punk celebrates the legacy and continuing influence of the movement that challenged the establishment and changed music forever. Boot captured many intimate moments during the rise of punk culture. His photographs show the influence on fashion, the defiant stance that fuelled a thousand tabloid headlines and the ragged-arsed arrogance that burned with creativity.

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Ian Dury and various Blockheads, 1979.  Photo: ©Adrian Boot

This exhibition offers a history lesson too. It’s worth remembering that punk initially emerged from the US as a by product of the ‘60s counterculture. By the early to mid 70s radical New York clubs like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City were staging gigs by bands like The Ramones, Blondie and the Patti Smith Group. Back home  British music fans  were reading about them in the NME and Melody Maker. It was only a matter of time before the New York scene came visiting. London was more than ready with bands like The Damned, The Sex Pistols and The Clash already beginning to ignite the imagination of a disenchanted youth. Others were waiting in the wings. Pub rockers like Kilburn and the High Roads straining at the leash to be reborn as Ian Dury and The Blockhead. Adrian Boot was on hand to capture it all.

Of course it was the Pistols who, through a chapter of accidents and some astute marketing by their manager and mentor Malcolm McLaren, managed to get themselves elevated to the position of public enemy number one. The jaundiced, shit-stirring eyes of the media had found the perfect target. All the outrage – the filth and the fury – could be focused on this one band. The Sex Pistols went through hell. They were mangled by the press, censored by the BBC, banned by local councils, attacked in the streets and hounded by the police. Strangely this unrelenting hostility was, briefly, the making of them. It gave  publicity that could not have been bought and chimed with an England that, though it may have been ‘dreaming’ was always a sucker for an underdog. It also provided handy cover for their brothers and sisters in struggle.

By the time the mainstream press started growing weary of baiting them there were new punk bands appearing daily. They were in the charts, on radio and TV, touring the country and striking attitudes in magazines. Once it had gone mainstream the punk revolution was essentially over but its influence would be far reaching. It is perhaps only now, decades later and with the benefit of hindsight, that we can sift the reality from the nonesense and see what an important job punk-rock did. Most of the creative giants who were around in the 1979s can dig out a fading snapshot displaying the punk pretensions of their youth.

Looking at Adrian Boot’s photographs you realise that they capture a very special moment in time. There’s some pleasing symmetry in this particular slice of cultural history too.  Among the images are some great shots of The Clash taken in 1977 at their infamous Rehearsal Rehearsals studio at Stables Market in Camden. Guess what? Those photographs have come home. For Stables Market is now home to Proud Camden – the very gallery showing these pictures that we’re born from light on emulsion in this exact location four decades ago.

This excellent exhibition of Adrian Boot’s photographs provides many a clue as to how and why punk had to happen. It captures the ethos and raw spirit of the punk heyday and the momentous cultural shift that it inspired.

40 Years of Punk:  Photographs by Adrian Boot  

Runs at Proud Camden until  8th January 2017.

More info at http://www.proud.co.uk

 

We have colour TV and we’ve been to the Moon but some things just never change

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Ralph McTell: Lighthouse, Poole.

Celebrating 50 years on the road, acoustic folk giant Ralph McTell was in understandably nostalgic mood for this wonderful concert. For a start he was returning to Poole where he spent the freezing winter of 1962-63 living in a beatnik crash pad in a fish-crate store over a bookies shop in the High Street. There have been a few changes since then. “There’s so much more traffic,” he murmured in wonderment. “We’ve got colour television… We’ve been to the moon!”

McTell has written a few songs too. Not least his greatest hit Streets of London which he slipped in as the penultimate number, with the audience singing along, in a set that had taken us on a remarkable journey through his life and career. He said he would have saved it for the very end of the show, done a medley of his big hits but, he observed wryly, “You need more than one to do that.”

It’s true that he’s never been much of a commercial prospect but Ralph McTell is a profoundly skilled songwriter and compelling storyteller. Equipped with a deep velvety voice and a guitar style that is without equal, he delivers songs that are often, though certainly not always, deeply autobiographical.And while the music business may tend too let him do his own thing, I think he’d agree that he hasn’t done too badly.

His opening numbers at Poole Walk Into The Morning and Nanna’s Song evoked memories of life as a young busker in Paris while Barges recalled days of innocent wonder and childhood games. There were observational songs too like Peppers and Tomatoes which he penned in response to the appalling ethnic cleansing as neighbour turned against neighbour in the former Yugoslavia. First and Last Man was inspired by a poster of a Native American Indian on the wall of his flat and Reverend Thunder told the story of blues legend, Rev Gary Davis, who even though he was blind, carried a gun to deter thieves.

Other prime influences on McTell included Woody Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and of course Bob Dylan. We were treated to the result of their distant tutelage and a few spin-offs too. A little bluesy ragtime here, a blast of Dylanesque harmonica there. It was joy. McTell insists that as both a songwriter and musician he’s still learning. At the age of 71 he sounds at the top of his game to me though one or two of the high notes he would have routinely included a few years back are now something of a challenge to his vocal abilities. It’s not a problem. His mastery of stagecraft and songmanship is a more than adequate compensatory factor.

He encored with West 4th and Jones, a song inspired by the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, an album he recalled first seeing (and hearing)  when he was living in Poole, penniless but full of optimism for the future. McTell is of course right. There really have been a huge number of changes in the past five decades. Who’da thought back then that radical young vagabond folkie Dylan would go on to become a Nobel Laureate? We all know how well deserved that award was and Ralph McTell made a point of publicly adding his congratulations from the  Lighthouse stage. But back in 1963 such a notion really would have been unthinkable.

The decision to award Dylan’s the Nobel Prize for literature is proof positive that the times they are a changin’ Sadly one thing that has not changed in the past half century is our lack of compassion for the plight of many of the homeless, poor and mentally ill.  The pen-portraits that Ralph McTell used to describe the desperate, lonely and vulnerable in Streets of London are as pertinent now as they were on the day that he wrote the song.

Jeremy Miles

Footnote: I have long admired Ralph McTell. His 1974 album You Well Meaning Brought Me Here was the first I ever reviewed professionally. That was a turning point for me, discovering that people would give you free records and then you could get paid for writing about them. A dream come true at the time. Our paths have crossed a number of times since. I’ve interviewed him, chatted with him, seen many concerts and always admired his honesty and musical integrity. He’s one of the good guys.

Discovering the hidden secrets of a town that didn’t even exist until 200 years ago

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Hotter staff and bloggers with Hattie (third right). Can you guess which one’s me?

Where can you find the grave of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley and the charred remains of the heart of her husband, the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley?  What about the birthplace of the man who wrote the music for the nation’s favourite hymn Jerusalem?

The answer is Bournemouth which may sound surprising but these are just two ‘hidden secrets’ from a town that most people regard as little more than a popular seaside resort. Appearances, and reputations, can be deceptive though. For a place that didn’t even exist until 200 years ago Bournemouth is home to an astonishing number of fascinating historical facts.

To prove the point photographer, social historian and walking guide Hattie Miles (who also happens to be my wife) has teamed up with Hotter Shoes to present a self-guided walk that reveals the town’s often hidden histories. Starting from the Hotter shop in Old Christchurch Road, the walk covers just a small area of the centre of town, takes around an hour but is extraordinarily rich in amazing stories from the recent and distant past._mg_5471

This week I joined a select group of bloggers to road-test the walk with Hattie reading from the script that normally provides the phone or tablet text for self-guided walkers. It was a real eye-opener shining a light on the history and heritage of this popular tourist destination.

The fact is  that Bournemouth probably wouldn’t even have existed had it not been for a romantic gesture by well-to-do army captain Lewis Tregonwell. He built the town’s first house in 1812  because his wife, grieving over the death of their child, loved the location by the sea.

Until then Bournemouth had been an area of largely untamed heathland on the road between the ancient borough’s of Christchurch and Poole. Tregonwell saw its potential and bought 8.5 acres of land in what is now the centre of town. He paid the princely sum of £179.11 shillings. Initially development was slow but the arrival of the railway and Bournemouth’s growing reputation as a health spa soon led to rapid expansion.

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Look up and there examples of changing times everywhere

Look above the shops to upper storey level and the evidence of past times and passing events from war-time bombings to multiple changes of use are plain to see. We found the smallest shop in town occupied by a man who has effectively run a thriving business from a cupboard under the stairs for the past 40 years. We discovered a stained glass window in the back of a clothes shop and the hidden mansion built as a home for the original Mr W.H.Smith. There was also a poignant moment for me as we took in the full art-deco grandeur of the purpose-built 1930s newspaper headquarters of the Bournemouth Echo. I worked there for more than 20 years and have many happy memories of news stories, features, good friends and great characters. It looks a little careworn these days but is still the paper’s headquarters. In its hey-day the building teemed with people – reporters, photographers, sub-editors, printers, plate-makers, advertising staff. Forty years ago its editorial staff included ITN’s Mark Austin, TV and radio presenter Anne Diamond and a young American sub-editor called Bill Bryson whose breakthrough book Notes From A Small Island would contain quite a lengthy description of life in Bournemouth and his memories of the Echo.  Times change and the newspaper office is a lot quieter now but the history remains.

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The Bournemouth Echo’s classic 1930s art-deco offices

Hattie knows her stuff. For 24 years she also worked on the Echo as a photographer. It’s the kind of job that gives you a front-seat view of historic changes as they happen. She’s put her knowledge to good use and for the past two years has run the town’s popular guided ‘walkingtalks’ tours. The Hotter shoes connection started a long time ago when she began wearing them for her photographic work. Comfortable and practical footwear is an essential part of the photographers kit, particularly when the job often requires you to be on your feet all day. Hattie found that Hotter shoes were not only comfortable, but supported her feet well. No surprise then that she still wears them for her guided walks.

We bloggers were also kitted out with Hotter shoes and, I promise this is not merely PR guff, I really liked mine.To be honest I had never considered wearing Hotter shoes before. I suppose I thought they just did slippers and comfy shoes for old folk with corns and bunions. What did I know? Things have moved on apace in recent years. They now not only do comfort but very stylish designs too. My Hotter walking shoes – named, rather alarmingly I felt, Thor, after the hammer-wielding Norse God of thunder and lightning – are light, strong, very comfortable, waterproofed with Gore-Tex and not only feel great but look good too. I can hardly believe I’m saying this. I sound like an advert but it’s absolutely true.

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A stained-glass gem at the back of a  shop

I am reminded of a sketch that the comedian Jasper Carrot used to do 25 odd years ago based on the observation that, on reaching a certain age, the average British bloke would be walking past a branch of Dunn & Co, the long-gone gentlemen’s outfitter that used to specialise in dull, sensible clothing, and find himself thinking: ‘You know what? That beige car-coat is really rather nice.’

Is my new found love of Hotter just a 2016 version of the Dunn & Co car-coat syndrome? I’ve looked very carefully and have worn my Thor shoes a number of times over the past week and I am certain they really are as good as I think.

Curiously our Bournemouth walk took us past the shop that 25 years ago was the Bournemouth branch of Dunn & Co. It’s now a flagship store for High Street cosmetics giant Lush, a company which was started locally by Mark and Mo Constantine.

They still live in nearby Poole, still own the business and have done rather well for themselves. Indeed they were listed  in last year’s  Sunday Times Rich List as the 28th richest husband-and-wife team in Britain, worth £205 million. There you go. Another fascinating fact.

You can find  Hattie’s circular self-guided walk from Hotter shoes in Bournemouth at www.hotter.com/blog/walk-with-hotter-and-discover-bournemouth/

Meanwhile there is plenty more information about her guided walkingtalks at  walkingtalks.wordpress.com

Jim Morrison idolised Jack Kerouac but it seems Kerouac’s mum was not impressed

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Jim Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris in 1982. Photograph: Hattie Miles

Turn the clock back 34 years and you’ll find me standing in front of Jim Morrison’s grave in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. I didn’t need a map to find it. I just followed the graffiti. Arrows with the word ‘Jim’ chalked on trees and monuments marked the way to the final resting place of the American rock star they called The Lizard King.  As I drew close the graffiti became more dominant and the air was filled with the smell of marijuana.

Lyrics from Jim’s most famous songs recorded with The Doors were scrawled without care or consideration on neighbouring graves.  ‘Father. Yes son? I want to kill you’ may not the most appropriate thing to have daubed on the side of your mausoleum but back then it was the price you paid for being the Père Lachaise neighbour of James Douglas Morrison – singer, poet, rock idol, and junky. To the fans this was the Lourdes of rock ’n’ roll.

In September 1982 Morrison had already been dead for 11 long years. There had been number of conspiracy theories and persistent rumours that he was still alive. However subsequent accounts of what happened on the night of his death had established that he almost certainly overdosed on a batch of rogue heroin and died of heart failure in the bath at his Paris apartment.

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Jim Morrison

Inevitably there remained a vocal minority who harboured doubts. The fact there had been a hastily issued death certificate, no autopsy and a very quick funeral had been more than enough to fuel hopes that Morrison was alive and in hiding. Which is why among the rag-taggle of Doors fans, hippies and latter-day Beats holding vigil at his graveside that late summer afternoon  there were a small group insistent that Jim had faked his own death to escape from the public eye. There was even a rumour going around that he was working incognito in a Los Angeles bank – an utterly bizarre suggestion.

The Morrison grave – which in those days featured a carved stone bust of the singer – was laden with flowers, messages of undying love, candles, incense and small tokens of devotion – a pebble, a shell, a packet of cigarettes. I noticed one man – older than the rest, maybe in his fifties – wearing a frayed sports jacket, scuffed baseball boots and beaten up jeans sitting, apparently meditating, at the side of the grave. A half-empty bottle of red wine leaned against his leg. A dog-eared copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road lay on his lap. To be honest he looked beat in every sense of the word. He exuded an air of grimy despair and exhaustion but though his eyes were tight shut there was look of unshakeable determination on his weather-beaten face.

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My 1972 edition of On The Road

It was a poignant sight – a traveller in life intent on showing respect to a kindred spirit from a younger generation. A traveller whose ideals were being dismissed and trashed by a thrusting and merciless new world, making one last attempt to find satori in Paris. I guess he knew he was on a hiding to nowhere in a society where money was worshipped beyond poetry, beyond jazz beyond friendship and love. The only ‘Howl’ to be heard in 1982 was that of the wolves gathering across the Atlantic in Wall Street. Even in Paris – city of art, city of love and so vital to the history of the Beat generation – corporate greed was endemic.

I’ve visited Père Lachaise on many occasions since that encounter and as well as visiting the graves of Oscar Wilde, Chopin, Proust, Piaf, Molière, Balzac and many more, I always drop in on Jim. The bust, made by Croatian sculptor Mladen Mikulin, is long gone. It was stolen by trophy hunters in May 1988. Whisked away on the back of a motorbike. In its place is a flat stone with a  bronze plaque bearing the Greek inscription: ΚΑΤΑ ΤΟΝ ΔΑΙΜΟΝΑ ΕΑΥΤΟΥ meaning ‘Follow your own daemon – true to your own spirit.’ Then spelling of the word daemon is important for in classical mythology a daemon is a good spirit unlike the modern demon which is invariably malevolent.

Sadly when I last visited a couple weeks ago the site was grubby, unkempt and strewn with rubble and bits of litter. It was clear that though flowers, candles, ribbons and messages still arrive almost daily most of the graffiti has gone and so has the marijuana. The cemetery authorities and the local gendarmerie have clamped down on the more excessive displays of affection and solidarity by hardcore fans. You can no longer find Jim by simply following your nose.

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The Doors with Jim Morrison (right) in a publicity shot c.1967

It’s not surprising perhaps as things really started to get out of hand with the release of Oliver Stone’s 1991 film The Doors which generated a mass of new fans just in time for the 20th anniversary of Morrison’s death on 3rd July 1991. Thousands of them headed for Père Lachaise to pay homage. Many were drunk and stoned and the authorities responded by closing the cemetery.

The wild party continued outside its walls and eventually the drunken crowd tried to smash its way through the gates. There’s a blog somewhere on the web in which Doors aficionado Michelle Chapman describes the near riot that ensued as the mob sang ‘break on through’ and ‘light my fire’ as they tried to crash and literally burn their way into the cemetery. The police responded with tear-gas as a stolen car was driven into the gates.

Jim – 20 years dead – was for a while considered an extremely bad posthumous influence. Anyone visiting his grave in the 90s did so under the watchful eye of regular police patrols. Morrison mania gradually died down and over the years the devotees have become noticeably less radical. Most are simply curious tourists. Many are in late middle-age which makes something of mockery of the three-foot high makeshift security barrier that keeps them from the actual shrine and bears a notice saying ‘Do Not Jump Over The Fence’. The people I saw a couple of weeks ago couldn’t have jumped the fence if you paid them. Half of them couldn’t even have climbed over it.

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Jeremy Miles at the Beat generation exhibition in Paris last month. Photograph: Hattie Miles

Although I am glad that the thoughtless desecration of neighbouring graves has been halted I am sad that Morrison’s memorial has been allowed to deteriorate to such an extent. Of course just 45 years after his death there are still plenty of people alive who remember what an awkward, drunken, pain in the arse he could be. His behaviour was no worse however than many of the other creative talents who lie revered in Père Lachaise. Certainly no worse than many leading members of the Beat generation currently being celebrated in a major exhibition at the Pompidou Centre less than three miles from Morrison’s grave.

I went to check out this show and, should you be in Paris, I urge you to visit before it ends on 3rd October.  As you would expect there is lots of Ginsberg, Burroughs, Kerouac, Cassidy and Corso. Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy is just one movie running on a big screen and amid a magnificent mish-mash of Beat memorabilia and ephemera. Check out Jack’s old clothes, a Burroughs adding machine, old tapes, recorders and even telephones on which you can Dial-a-Poem. The act of passing the mantle to the next generation is represented by a huge video loop of a young Bob Dylan giving it his all with the famous  Subterranean Homesick Blues clip from DA Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back. To the side of the screen a sage-like Allen Ginsberg is in conversation with Dylan’s friend, confidante and sometime road manager Bob Neuwirth. It was shot in an alley by the side of London’s Savoy Hotel – a rather un-Beat location.

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A young Jack Kerouac

There are memories too from Mexico, Tangier, California, New York and of course Paris and the Beat Hotel – the dirt-cheap boarding house on the Left Bank favoured by beat writers and artists which for six years, between 1957 and 1963, served as the ‘office’ from which many of their most enduring works were composed.

The Beat Hotel was at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur and never really a hotel at all but a a flop-house housing a spectacularly talented group of occasional residents and an indulgent concierge – Madame Rachou – who cheerily tolerated the bohemian ways of her charges. Ironically today, more than 50 years after Madame R shut up shop, the building really is a hotel – a boringly snotty boutique establishment whose only nod to its former existence is a small perspex covered notice listing some of the more prominent residents: Brion Gysin, Harold Norse, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Ian Sommerville and William Burroughs.

In the Beat Generation exhibition Brion Gysin’s room – No. 25 – has been reconstructed. It was here that Gysin conducted experiments with his ‘Dreamachine’ – a supposed means to hallucination and enlightenment that he fashioned out of cardboard, a single 100 watt lightbulb and the motor from a record deck. A kind of bizarre hybrid drawing on the old What The Butler Saw machines and the kaleidoscope, it nonetheless fired the beats psychotropically fuelled imaginations.  It was also here that Gysin and Burroughs probed the literary potential of the cut-up technique.

On the face of it Room 25 looks a bit of dump but it was the Parisian mixing-pot for so much of the chaotic, haphazard and crazy artistic anarchy that emerged, promising a world full of hitherto undreamt of possibilities. A world that for the Americans in particular (Gysin was Anglo-Canadian and Sommerville was English) could help overcome the suffocating atmosphere of God (and commie) fearing puritanism that was so stifling at home.

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Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg

Indeed the exhibition helps pull into some kind of focus the full-blown post-war reaction of the Beats to the buttoned-up paranoia of McCarthy era America. Just as the dadaists and surrealists before them had reacted to the horrors of the First World War with a wild wave of creativity, the artists of the Beat generation searched for a new spirit of freedom in the 1950s and early 60s with literature, poetry, painting, film, photography and jazz.

Liberated by daring experimentation and fuelled by large quantities of booze and drugs, the Beats scandalised straight society and relished behaving badly. To the present day observer their attitudes can seem alarmingly misogynistic but viewed in context it can be seen that they were breaking free from an era with very different values to our own. Beyond their loutish, drunken escapades serious artistic inroads were being made.

The radical nature of what they were doing, particularly in their belief ( like the surrealists before them) that a kind of artistic purity and truth could be accessed through dreams and stream of consciousness thoughts, is laid bare in the Beat Generation show, perhaps epitomised by Kerouac’s 120 foot long On The Road type-scroll which is laid out across the full length of the exhibition hall. Written in 195, and not to find fully published form for another seven years, it was the result of a new working method that saw Kerouac using the steady rhythm of his fingers on the typewriter keys punctuated by  the carriage return to type in a near trance. It was he said  “an ecstatic experience”.  The exhibition notes quote him as saying: “I wrote it in one go, letting the subconscious express itself in its own way…hardly knowing what I was doing except that I was writing.”

Of course it’s well know that Jim Morrison idolised Kerouac and when he wrote: “I see myself as a huge fiery comet, a shooting star. Everyone stops, points up and gasps ‘Oh look at that!’ Then – whoosh, and I’m gone…and they’ll never see anything like it ever again… and they won’t be able to forget me – ever.” he was surely channeling the spirit of his unwitting mentor.

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Neal Cassady (right) with Jack Kerouac in 1952.

It clearly drew on Kerouac’s much quoted statement from On the Road: “…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centre light pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”

As a teenager Morrison devoured the Beat writings of Jack Kerouac and would quote lengthy passages from On the Road. It seems however that whe  they eventually met Morrison was probably badly disillusioned. In his book Subterranean Kerouac, writer and editor Ellis Auburn relates a brief, sad tale of the long haired, leather-clad rock star travelling to Lowell, Massachusetts, in  1968  to seek out his literary hero. He would find the great Jack Kerouac, a broken alcoholic, living with his mother – a formidable woman  who made it abundantly clear that she had no time for damned hippies. She wouldn’t even let Morrison through the door “without a hairnet”. Kerouac himself was by this time a boorish, bloated drunk. He had become increasingly right wing and reactionary in his views and had alienated many of his friends. But then he had never been quite what he appeared. All that high-spirited travelling in On the Road was based on a couple of journeys in the passenger seat of his friend Neal Cassady’s car and various rides on the Greyhound bus network. Cassady – immortalised as the wild and free Dean Moriarty in On the Road – would later go on to drive the famous hippy bus for Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. Neal was always more adventurous, volatile and dangerous than Jack.  The truth is that Kerouac never really managed live the life that he wrote about. He didn’t even acquire a driving licence until he was in his mid thirties.

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Jack Kerouac’s grave in Lowell, Massachusetts

Jack Kerouac would die from a massive haemorrhage caused by cirrhosis of the liver just a year after his strange encounter with Morrison. He was rushed to hospital throwing up blood but, despite a 30 pint transfusion, could not be saved. It’s ironic perhaps that the Beats were apt to quote William Blake’s mantra: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” They tended to forget the second part of the quote – “You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.” Kerouac found out the hard way. Morrison too had already travelled far on the road to self-destruction when he sought out his doomed idol. One wonders if Kerouac’s tragic death at the age of 47 had rung any warning bells for Jim or if he just wanted to follow those ‘daemons’ and zoom into the afterlife like a fiery comet?

*The Beat Generation exhibition is at Centre Pompidou in Paris, until 3 October. For more information go to www.centrepompidou.fr  Père Lachaise cemetery is open seven days a week and can be  easily accessed from either the Père Llachaise or Gabetta Metro stations. More information at www.pere-lachaise.com

Superlungs: gig of a lifetime runs out of puff

Terry Reid.jpgTerry Reid, The Tivoli Theatre, Wimborne.

Terry Reid has never been lucky. He was first choice as vocalist for Led Zeppelin but, busy on tour, helpfully suggested they might like to check out a chap called Robert Plant instead. Extraordinarily the same thing happened when they wanted him to front Deep Purple. Reid was out on the road and it was Ian Gillan who got the call.

Hard gigging didn’t pay dividends either.  He toured with the Rolling Stones, became a hero of the underground music scene, was a star turn in Nic Roeg’s 1971 film documentary Glastonbury Fayre. None of it made any impact on mainstream music sensibilities. Reid moved to America and worked with the elite of Laurel Canyon. Yet, after 50 years in the music business he remains unknown to all but the cognoscenti.

As for the Tivoli gig? Well as I said Terry Reid has never been lucky. He bumbled onto the stage saying he was realising a lifetime’s ambition playing  this small but highly regarded theatre deep in the Dorset countryside. Sadly the show was a shambles. Reid used to be known as ‘Superlungs’ yet his voice – once his greatest asset – was shot through. Some kind of throat infection appeared to be the main culprit, though the medicinal whisky he was sipping on stage may have not have helped. “One lung or two?” yelled someone unhelpfully from the front row as he wheezed his way around the high notes that were once his trademark

Maybe this gig was a one-off disaster precipitated by illness.  He told us at length that he was only able to perform thanks to the ministrations of a private doctor. However a little more focus would have undoubtedly helped. When Reid was in his 20s he would appear on stage in a cloud of marijuana smoke and deliver a set that was achingly cool, hardwired to the hippy zeitgeist. At 66-years-of-age and straight from the ENT clinic, his ‘untogether’ schtick doesn’t quite convey the same message. The material remains very good, at times exceptional, but its delivery was disastrous.

Classics like Without ExpressionThe Frame, To Be Treated Rite and Seed of Memory are great songs and Reid is still capable of finding that special groove. At his best he remains hypnotically compelling but, taken as a whole, this concert offered no more than glimpses of his past genius.

He rambled amiably between songs without appearing to have any notion of his own shortcomings. We heard about living in the desert, his brief teenage foray into car theft  to get to Soho and the R&B Mecca that was the Marquee Club.  We even heard about his daughter’s forthcoming wedding at which, tellingly I felt, he’s been begged not to play. Several stories petered out without reaching any kind of conclusion. What happened with Nick Lowe at the Palladium? I need to know!  And, while we’re on the subject, what was that other thing he was going to tell us about Zak Starkey?

Reid chuntered on regardless, occasionally forgetting which guitar he was  going to use or which song was coming next though he did sort of mention the reason for the show – a new CD featuring out-takes and forgotten gems from his 1973 River sessions.

His accompanists, highly respected producer/musician Jennifer Maidman on bass and one time Level 42 founder Phil Gough on drums, looked bemused and occasionally mildly concerned but worked hard to hold things together as the wayward singer-songwriter meandered his way haphazardly through the show.

Reid returned for a solo encore – an excruciating rendition of Lady of the Island but not before telling us how he’d assisted at the very birth of the song, spending months co-writing with his friend Graham Nash. Guess what? The published version, featured on Crosby, Stills and Nash’s eponymously titled 1969 debut album, bears just one songwriting credit – Graham Nash. That’s the thing about Terry Reid. He’s never been lucky.

Jeremy Miles

Barry and the curse of the Pier Theatre

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By Jeremy Miles

I was saddened by the recent death of Barry Howard. I will remember him as a lovely man with a sparkle in his eye, a waspish wit and a talent that belied the glib ‘Hi-de-Hi actor’ label that accompanied almost all of his obituaries.

Not, I hasten to add, that there is anything wrong with being associated with the classic David Croft/Jimmy Perry sit-com. It’s just that Barry’s career encompassed a whole lot more than the character of Maplins Holiday Camp’s resident washed-up ballroom dancer Barry Stuart-Hargreaves. Though he was extremely grateful to have played the role of the supercilious dance instructor through seven series of a prime time TV show, he felt a little trapped by it in later years.

As he was laid to rest at a private funeral yesterday I reflected on this gentle, proud man who never really came to terms with the fact that he was loved and admired by so many. He often found life a bit of a battle and believed Hi-de-Hi had limited the roles he was offered, telling one journalist that he found it frustrating and rather boring to always be asked to play “similar limp-wristed, rather fey ‘is he or isn’t he?’ characters.”

Barry was 78-years-old when he died and had been suffering from cancer but until very recently he remained passionate about acting. For though the need to pay the bills meant that for many years summer seasons and pantomime – often as an Ugly Sister alongside the late John Inman – was his main source of regular work, Barry was first and foremost an actor who loved a new challenge.

A few years ago when I was a full-time entertainments writer I used to meet Barry for a coffee in the Bournemouth Pier cafe. Even when he wasn’t appearing at the adjacent theatre it was an almost daily destination for him – a good stopping off point after taking a morning stroll along the front from his nearby home in Branksome Park.

He was a great character: Good company a fount of showbiz knowledge and invariably ready with an eye-catching quote. Back in the days when newspapers were still fun, one of the joys of being the arts and entertainments editor on a major regional daily by the seaside was the licence it gave to hob-nob with the old-stagers and hear their stories about the glory days of variety and music hall.

I have memories of so many wonderful moments with Max Bygraves, the Beverley Sisters, Eric Sykes, Spike Milligan, Les Dawson, Cannon and Ball, Little and Large, Freddie Starr, Ken Dodd, Roy Hudd… the list goes on. To be honest these were people who would never have appeared on my radar had I been doing any other job. My principle interests were (and still are) the visual arts, serious drama and the kind of music played by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and John Lee Hooker.

I suppose I was a bit of a snob and no one was more surprised than me when I found myself enjoying a good natter with a Beverley Sister or Max Bygraves. These people had been around. They were a walking lesson in show business history. I valued the time I spent with them. I have surreal snapshot memories which still make me smile. Danny La Rue asking me to look after his pet dog while he nipped to the loo with the immortal words: “Hold my Chinese Hairless, there’s a love.” Hanging on Max’s every word as he talked of his time in the USA in the 1950s working with Garland, partying with Sinatra and dining with Groucho Marx. Chatting with Britt Ekland as she spilled the beans about Peter Sellers and Rod Stewart. Sitting in a giant fairground teacup to interview Barry’s longtime panto ‘sister’ John Inman.

For many of these people there was a direct connection to an era when variety shows were huge. When summer season meant three months of packed houses.  The gradual decline of interest in traditional seaside entertainment shocked them. By the turn of the millennium it was clear that the Pier Theatre needed a change of direction. Barry Howard was a member of the cast of an ill-fated production of the farce No Sex Please We’re British. Once a classic end-of-the-pier romp, it died a death.  The show played to such poor houses that it was axed midway through its summer run. Barry was horrified.

It was one of a chapter of disasters for the theatre. In 2002 actor Gareth Hunt had to be rushed to hospital when he collapsed on the Pier Theatre stage after suffering a heart attack during a performance of the Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular. I was in the audience. What had originally been intended as a 250 word review was suddenly a front page story. As the stricken Hunt slumped groaning across a table and the curtain came down fellow cast member Robert Beck called desperately from the footlights “Is there a doctor in the house?” Sensing confusion in the audience, he added urgently: “I’m being VERY serious.”

Two years later Hunt – who would eventually die in 2007 from pancreatic cancer – was back at the ill-fated theatre in the Francis Durbridge thriller The Gentle Hook. He told me that getting back on the Pier stage had been a nerve-racking experience. “If it was any other theatre it wouldn’t be so bad but because it’s the same place… It’s like being on the top board and making a dive when your last one was a belly flop.”

He admitted that after his illness he had considered giving up the theatre completely. ”For a while I thought ‘that’s it.’ But you have to face the challenge.” More misfortune followed when Barry Howard’s old Hi-de-Hi co-star Ruth Madoc was taken ill days before the opening of a production of Sailor Beware.

Barry pondered on the grim situation and reached a conclusion guaranteed to make headlines: “It’s the curse of the Pier Theatre,” he pronounced gravely. He was only half joking. He had memories of the theatre going back to the early 1960s. His very first appearance was during a season marred by the comedian Freddie Frinton suffering a heart attack. He was also working at the Pier when comedy actor Richard Hearne aka Mr Pastry was rushed to hospital after being stricken by a vascular spasm. How Barry enjoyed emphasising those two words. His comic timing was impeccable!

There were others too who died alarmingly soon after appearing there, including Terry Scott, Les Dawson and Marti Caine. But the most deadly threat to the theatre in recent years was one that many people never even knew about. In August 1993 Bournemouth Pier was targeted in an IRA campaign and a huge bomb was strapped onto girders directly beneath the venue. The explosives would have been enough to destroy the theatre which was packed with 800 people watching Les Dennis, Su Pollard, Lionel Blair and Vicki Michelle appearing in a summer season production of Don’t Dress For Dinner. By sheer chance the detonator came loose and the device was safely defused by bomb disposal experts.

Some years later I reminded Les Dennis of the occasion. Astonishingly he said he’d forgotten all about it. I bet Barry Howard hadn’t.

Footnote: Sadly the Bournemouth Pier Theatre is no more. A couple years ago it was closed down and turned into the Rock Reef climbing wall and adventure activity centre. It’s a terrible shame. Curse or no curse we loved that theatre. It always drove some people up the wall but now that particular practise has become the essence of its continued existence. Of course when it was a theatre the powers that be bemoaned the fact that audiences could not be tempted along the pier in bad weather. Guess what? Potential wall climbers don’t much fancy turning out in the cold and wet either.

Did Robert Louis Stevenson’s horror classic emerge from a drug-induced nightmare?

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson

The fevered imagination of author and poet Robert Louis Stevenson shocked and thrilled late Victorian Society. His Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – said to have been written during a six day cocaine binge – appalled and excited readers in equal measure.

For nearly 130 years this psychological thriller – originally published as a novella in 1886 – has been revisited again and again on stage, screen and the written page. For decades there have been Hollywood movies, theatre productions, TV and radio plays and regular documentaries examining the Jekyll and Hyde phenomenon.

Now a new ITV production penned by author and star of The Fast Show Charlie Higson is midway through a controversial run proving once again the enduring fascination and appeal of what Stevenson himself described as “a fine bogey tale”. Yet how many people realise that this gripping story of good versus evil and one man’s struggle with the beast within was written in what was then an extremely genteel Bournemouth?

A 1920 film poster for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

A 1920 film poster for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Scots born Stevenson who came from a family of leading lighthouse engineers was a rising literary star and had already written Treasure Island when he arrived on the Hampshire/Dorset coast in the 1880s. He and his wife Fanny moved to Bournemouth on medical advice, hoping that the bracing sea air and pine-scented chines would help combat his increasingly frail health.

By the time he wrote his Jekyll and Hyde story, Stevenson was virtually housebound, racked by a fearsome cough and barely able to leave his substantial Westbourne home. His house, Skerryvore – named after the tallest lighthouse in Scotland which was designed and built by his uncle – had sweeping views across Alum Chine to the sea. It was given to Robert and Fanny as a family wedding present.

Sadly it would later be destroyed in a Second World War air-raid. Its ruins were finally demolished in the 1950s. All that is left today is a rather unkempt memorial garden, the footprint of the old house and a curious stone model of the lighthouse which gave it its name. The sea views that Stevenson and Fanny enjoyed are long obscured by trees and buildings. The site of the house remains however a popular port of call on the regular ‘walkingtalks’ guided history walks that are run in Westbourne.

Before arriving at Skerryvore the Stevensons stayed first at a number of addresses on Bournemouth’s West Cliff before moving on to rent the newly-built but now long demolished Bonallie Tower in Burton Road. The site, near the junction of Lindsay Road, is now home to residential garages.

First hand accounts of Stevenson during his Bournemouth years describe him as being pale and sickly, rake-thin, nervous and agitated. Two portraits of the author painted at Skerryvore in 1885 and included in the recent John Singer Sargent exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery seemed to confirm this.

John Singer Sargent's strange 1885 painting of Stevenson and his wife Fanny

John Singer Sargent’s strange 1885 painting of Stevenson and his wife Fanny

According to Sargent, Stevenson was like “a caged animal”. This of course fits neatly with the oft-repeated claim in books, newspapers magazines and documentaries that Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde while high on cocaine. The truth I suspect is little more mundane despite the fact that RLS was clearly no stranger to the pleasures of exotic drugs.

His biographer James Pope Hennessy tells how a decade before the Bournemouth years RLS and his cousin the artist Bob Stevenson “pursued girls together and smoked hashish (when they could get it).”

However that was Stevenson footloose and fancy free in his 20s. As a married man in his 30s, although rather eccentric and unorthodox, he remained very much a product of his straight-laced, Presbyterian Scots upbringing. He was fundamentally a highly respectable man and certainly not any kind of debauched, coke-snorting libertine.

He was however under constant medical supervision and, like many Victorians, regularly prescribed medication derived from both cocaine and cannabis. The ‘tonic’ he was taking may well have boosted both his energy and imagination.

Stevenson’s friend and Bournemouth neighbour, Lady Jane Shelley, daughter-in-law of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, was convinced that Stevenson’s book was inspired by the vivid dreams induced by local doctor Thomas Bodley Scott’s prescription of a hemp preparation to cure hemorrhages.

A vintage Jekyll and Hyde poster

A vintage Jekyll and Hyde poster

Whatever the truth, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was an extraordinary work and the speed with which it was executed was astonishing. Fanny Stevenson is quoted as saying: “That an invalid in my husband’s condition of health should have been able to perform the manual labour alone of putting 60,000 words on paper in six days, seems almost incredible.”

Apart from ministering to Stevenson’s medical needs, Dr Bodley Scott – later Mayor of Bournemouth – became a trusted friend and in return the writer dedicated Underwood, his 1887 collection of poems, to him. When Stevenson left Bournemouth that same year to travel first to the United States and then Hawaii, New Zealand, Tahiti and Samoa he continued to correspond with the good doctor about his failing health and the efficacy of various exotic remedies.

It did little good. Stevenson died in Samoa in December 1894 aged just 44-years. Remarkably it wasn’t the lifelong chest problem – almost certainly tuberculosis – that finished him. He suffered a massive stroke while struggling to open a bottle of wine.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s spirit lives on his books and particularly the story of Jekyll and Hyde which originally found favour with a late nineteenth readership fascinated by the struggle between science and religion. Amazingly more than 130 years later his cautionary tale about the perils of meddling with the natural world has lost none of its impact

Charlie Higson

Charlie Higson

Charlie Higson’s new ITV version of Jekyll & Hyde is a mixture of fantasy, horror and sci-fi. Set in 1930’s London, it focuses on Robert Jekyll, grandson of the original doctor, and inheritor of a ‘curse’ that takes over his personality in times of stress or anger. Although aimed at an audience principally made up of children – a Doctor Who style demographic –  it  has already shocked viewers. The opening episode  received more than  450 complaints about violent scenes and disturbing imagery which many thought were too frightening to screen before the 9pm watersheds. By the time the media had got its teeth into the story the number o objectors had risen to 800 and Ofcom had to open an investigation.

In fact the programme is a fairly innocuous thriller. The horror element is comic book in style. Charlie Higson got it about right when in a radio interview he said he was sorry if the programme had upset anyone but stressed that Jekyll and Hyde was intentionally scary. “It’s a scary show,” he said. “I was expecting more people to complain that it wasn’t scary enough.” He pointed out that compiling about a horror story being frightening was a bit like complaining about a comedy being funny.Yep, I  don’t think RLS, who was a hugely successful children’s writer himself, would have had much time for a bland and unscary version of his “fine bogey tale”.

Barbara Hepworth revisited: Sculpture for the Modern World

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Barbara Hepworth Curved Form (Delphi) 1955 Sculpture Guarea wood, part painted, with strings. © The Hepworth Estate. Pictures courtesy of Tate Britain.

Tate Britain’s magnificent Barbara Hepworth retrospective Sculpture for a Modern World ends this weekend. If you haven’t seen it, drop everything and make a beeline for Milbank. You won’t regret it.

Not only does this show explore and celebrate Hepworth’s extraordinarily powerful work but also her position as one of Britain’s greatest artists. A leading figure of the international modern art movement of the 1930s, Hepworth would become recognised internationally as one of the most successful sculptors in the world during the 1950s and 1960s.

She died in a fire at her Cornish home and studio in 1975. She was 72 -years-old, a towering figure who despite failing health was revered and perhaps a little feared by the art world.  It had been an intriguing journey for this singularly talented artist – a strong and determined Yorkshire woman who had first made an impression with a series of striking carvings back in the 1920s.

Barbara Hepworth at work in St Ives.

Barbara Hepworth at work in St Ives.

Within a few years she was exploring more abstract forms. World War II found her moving  with her second husband Ben Nicholson from their London base in Hampstead to the safety of Cornwall. It was a period of personal upheaval and artistic reassessment. Drawing parallels with the rugged landscape of her Yorkshire childhood, Hepworth found an instant affinity with the wild Cornish coast and began making worked that responded directly to her environment.

This exhibition, which features over 100 works from her major carvings and bronzes to less-familiar pieces, traces Hepworth’s development as an artist and also examines the different spaces in which she presented her work.Alongside works in wood, stone and bronze, the show features fascinating photographs that have never been seen before in public, rarely seen textiles, collages, film and selected works by both her peers and predecessors from Jacob Epstein to Henry Moor.

Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World runs until tomorrow  25 October at Tate Britain

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The Tate show brought  to mind a feature I wrote a few years ago about Hepworth’s famous garden in St Ives. This is a version of that piece which included an interview with art historian, author and Hepworth expert Miranda Phillips. It was originally published in Cornwall Life magazine. It might give you an idea of the uncompromising battle that Barbara Hepworth fought to stay true to herself and her art.

Barbara Hepworth in her St Ives sculpture garden in 1970

Barbara Hepworth in her St Ives sculpture garden in 1970. Picture: Tate archive

By Jeremy Miles. Pictures below:Hattie Miles

Walking through Barbara Hepworth’s strange and wonderful sub-tropical garden in St Ives it’s hard to imagine that it was once little more than a work-yard where the sculptor created some of the most radical works of the 20th century. The lush exotic plants and swaying palms that create such a magical setting for her powerful and instantly recognisable sculptures seem to have been there for ever. They delight the tens of thousands of visitors who each year seek out Trewyn Studio, her old home, long preserved as The Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden.

It’s easy to assume that it was this garden as much as the discreet facility offered by the studio’s town-centre location that drew Hepworth here in 1949. After all she’s inextricably linked with the place. She lived, worked and eventually died at Trewyn. Her death at the age of 72 was caused by a fire believed to have been started by a dropped cigarette end. It sealed her association with this house forever. To this day her studio remains frozen in time exactly as she left it. The date of her death – May 20th, 1975 – is still on the wall calendar. 

In fact her initial interest in Trewyn was purely in finding a suitable space to work. She had just separated from her second husband the painter Ben Nicholson and had been invited to produce  two major commissions for the forthcoming Festival of Britain. Trewyn was the perfect answer. Hepworth had enjoyed a growing reputation among the artistic elite in London but the birth of triplets – Simon, Rachel and Sarah – and the outbreak of World War II had temporarily derailed a glittering career. As German bombs threatened to rain down on the capital she and Nicholson decided to move their family to the relative safety of Cornwall.

Living in Carbis Bay they soon became central to what would become St Ives’ golden era as an artist’s colony. It wasn’t always easy. Nicholson could be autocratic and controlling and Hepworth, not the easiest person herself, was forced to put domestic chores before art. The breakdown of the marriage and the move to Trewyn gave her the freedom to fight her way back into the public eye. With international success came the opportunity to re-model her working environment and in the mid-1950s Hepworth set about transforming the blank canvas that was the Trewyn garden. Over the next few years it slowly turned into what art historian and author Miranda Phillips describes as  “almost a showroom for potential buyers and people who might commission her.”

To achieve this Hepworth took advice from her good friend the modernist composer Priaulx Ranier and also Will Arnold-Forster who had established a marvellous garden at  Eagles Nest, the house high above Zennor  that would later become the home of the artist Patrick Heron. Arnold-Forster was a well-travelled retired Colonel who had written the influential 1948 book Shrubs for Milder Counties. Ranier meanwhile possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge of plants both from her native South Africa and across the New World. Hepworth could count on extraordinarily informed advice to help plant a garden that would perfectly  combine the beauty of natural forms with the strange power of her stone and bronze sculptures.

photograph by Hattie Miles ... 18.5.11 ... Hepworth ... Feature on the Barbara Hepworth's garden in St Ives, Cornwall.

A wonderful mixture of the traditional and exotic gradually took form as the garden was landscaped and planted with fan palms, bamboo, honeysuckle  magnolia, eucalyptus, Japanese anemones and roses. Rockeries were built, paths laid and an old pond rescued and given new life. The result combined with Hepworth’s sculptures was a mesmerising display of colour and form that continues to evolve to this day.

Miranda Phillips has worked closely the Tate and the  Hepworth Museum for nearly 20 years and is an acknowledged expert on the garden.  She is the author of Barbara Hepworth Sculpture Garden (Tate Publishing). Written nine yeas ago with curator Chris Stephenson,  the book was developed from a popular guide she had put together after being constantly quizzed about the plants in the garden by visitors to the museum.

It records of the plants at Trewyn through the seasons and examines their relationship With Hepworth’s sculptures. It continues to sell steadily in the Tate shops

“People are constantly fascinated by the garden,” she told me. “Hepworth certainly used it to impress potential buyers but the sculptures she sited here were very much her own favourites. Phillips believes that Hepworth used the garden – “with its spiky primeval forms and the ancient nature of some of her sculptures” – as a source of inspiration. “Placing her works in this setting with the interplay of light,shadow and movement allowed her to see how different sorts of light and even dry and wet conditions would work on the sculptures. I’m sure it influenced her art.”IMG_3277

On a bigger scale the rugged and ancient Cornish landscape was her inspiration too. Hepworth had originally fallen in love with large sweeping vistas as a child in Yorkshire. In Cornwall she was able to rediscover the feel for weathered rock, lichen and windswept heathland that had been hardwired into her infant soul. Trees twisted by the wind and storm lashed beaches provided a wealth of material.

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Hepworth’s studio complete with the day of her death on the calendar reflected in the mirror

Despite her great achievements –  internationally feted as an artist  and made a Dame of the British Empire in 1965 – Hepworth did not have an easy life. Her work was physically tough and she also endured two divorces, the death of an adult child ( her eldest son Paul died in an air crash in Singapore in 1954) and terrible health problems. By the end of her life she had received treatment for throat cancer, was almost crippled by a fractured hip and her hands were full of arthritis. She was also heavily dependent on pain killers and drinking heavily. “I think she ran on nervous energy, drove herself terribly hard and wasn’t particularly interested in physical comfort,” says Phillips. “Beyond her work she didn’t have much time left for living.”

The general assumption is that the fire that caused her death was the final ghastly chapter in an increasingly miserable existence. Phillips sees it slightly differently. “There was actually very little fire. It caught some plastic.” She believes Hepworth was probably already asleep and succumbed to fumes.  “To be honest life wasn’t going to get any more pleasant. She was already in great pain and she wasn’t going to get better. To go in the place that you love surrounded by the things that you love is no bad thing.”

*The Barbara Hepworth Museum & Sculpture Garden is at Barnoon Hill, St Ives, Cornwall TR26 1AD. For further  details telephone: 01736 796226 or visit www.tate.org.uk/stives

From underwater naturist films to lighting the way for the tripsters and hipsters

mathmos_astro_lava_lamp_with_inventor

Edward Craven Walker pioneering maker of underwater naturist films and  inventor of the lava lamp

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, was an early enthusiast declaring it “Amazing!” before 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 – which celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2013 – 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.

5. Edward and Christine Craven Walker early 60s

Craven with Christine and their first delivery van in the early 1960s

Whatever else the dapper Craven (as he was invariably known) may have been he was certainly no hippy. Not that he minded being associated with the counter-culture.  Once he was 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 hipsters lapped it up and the endorsement of the counter-culture did Craven no harm at all. However anyone who thought  that the concept of the lava lamp was conceived during an acid trip could not have been wider of the mark. Craven was actually inspired by a Heath Robinson style oil-filled egg-timer that he spotted in a pub in the New Forest.

He set about creating a lamp that worked on roughly the same principle – 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.

3. An original lava lamp 1960s Astro lava prototype

An original prototype for the Astro lava lamp

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. 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 by 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.

13. Mathmos Astro lava lamp heritage range

21st century version – the Astro lava lamp heritage range

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 only agreed to a face to face  meeting if Craven and Christine agreed to keep their clothes on for the duration of their discussion. “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 completed a 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.

Alphonse Mucha the art nouveau master who inspired 1960’s pyschedelic poster art

L 137 Gismonda

Mucha’s poster for Sarah Bernhardt’s Gismonda

It was 120 years ago that the talented but relatively unknown young artist Alphonse Mucha was catapulted to international fame after a chance encounter in a Paris print shop found him designing a poster for superstar actress Sarah Bernhardt.

Such was the power of his work publicising her new play Gismonda that the public clamoured for copies. As soon as the image appeared on the streets of the French capital on New year’s day 1895 people were cutting them from hoardings and bribing bill-posters to hand them over. Bernhardt, at the height of her fame, immediately signed Mucha to a six year contract.

His Gismonda, with it’s subtle pastel shades and sensual design literally revolutionise poster art. No one had seen anything like it before. Art Nouveau had been born and Mucha’s reputation had been sealed. Before long his work was everywhere, advertising not just the illustrious Bernhardt but cigarettes, bicycles and baby food.

L 113 Zodiac

Zodiac

Mucha’s work drifted in and out of style but decades later, long after his death in 1939, his influence could be seen in the hippy era posters for concerts by Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead and The Doors. Mouse and Kelly in San Francisco and Hapshash and the Coloured Coat in London were among those who adapted Mucha’s style for the tune in, turn on, drop out generation. Yet Alphonse Mucha’s posters represent just a tiny part of his prodigious output. He didn’t much care for the Art Nouveau label either. There was more to him than that.

Now a breakthrough exhibition at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth explores the full might of his extraordinary artistic legacy.

Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty runs from 1st of April until 27th September and explores the core principle underlying his artistic philosophy – that the aim of art is to celebrate beauty. It examines how Mucha’s distinctive style evolved and developed beyond Art Nouveau. It’s a compelling story tracing the work of an artist driven to create not just posters but paintings, sculptures, jewellery and much more in a roller-coaster life of changing fortunes.

Alphonse Mucha

Alphonse Mucha

Born in Moravia (now the Czech Republic), Alphonse Mucha was feted in Paris and New York at the turn of the 19th/20th century and went on to enjoy widespread recognition in the newly independent Czechoslovakia where he designed the Republic’s new postage stamps and bank notes. Eventually though, during the dark days of the rising Nazi regime, he was sidelined in his Czech homeland. His death at the age of 78 came after severe interrogation by the Gestapo. Even beyond the grave Mucha’s artistic legacy faced a struggle. Communist control in Czechoslovakia saw his art dismissed as bourgeois and decadent.

Which is where Dorset law firm Humphries Kirk, which is sponsoring the Russell-Cotes exhibition, comes into the equation. The company has close connections with the Mucha family and worked tirelessly to keep Alphonse Mucha’s name and work alive when it was threatened with obscurity before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

L 106 Nestles Food

Nestles baby-food

Senior partner James Selby Bennett is a cousin of Sarah Mucha, wife of Alphonse’s grandson John, and has known the family for decades: “I well remember the dark days of uncertainty and repression before the velvet revolution in Prague,” he says. “Alphonse’s works and heritage were under considerable threat. The advice that we gave the Mucha family proved resilient. It is no exaggeration to say that the works on display and the deeper artistic heritage of this extraordinary artist were saved for posterity and we at Humphries Kirk are very pleased to have played our not inconsiderable part in that.”

What happened to Alphonse Mucha was the result of massive political upheaval across Europe during the 20th century. “He was very big in Paris and then in New York and then in the Czech Republic right up until the time of his death but during the Second World War they tried to airbrush him from history,” says Mr Bennett. “There was a short interval when everyone thought it was OK and Alphonse’s son George took his wife Geraldine and their young son back to Prague and lived in the family house. Then suddenly the Communists grabbed power and they were all out. Literally out. “Geraldine once described to me how George came back from work one day and they were all sitting on the street with a handcart with all their possessions in it, including the priceless works of art.”

As a visitor to the home of George and Geraldine in cold war Prague Mr Bennett witnessed at first hand the bugging of their home. “When I was there they would often find a new microphone usually with a light and a slight humming noise. It was extraordinary. I was a Territorial Army officer and after the wall came down I was given sight of part of my own dossier. Here I am a solicitor and farmer in Dorset and yet excerpts of my conversations were being listened to too. Every room in that house was bugged including the loo. They listened to every poop and parp.”

L 114 Reverie 1897

Reverie 1897

It was a strange time and, as the Berlin Wall fell and what Mr Bennett calls the “vultures and carrion crows” moved in for a piece of the action, the future of the Mucha collection was very much under threat. Happily with legal advice from Humphries Kirk the collection was saved and Mucha’s wider artistic heritage fully re-established.

Mr Bennett, whose mother Dolores Lees was a wartime resistance heroine and the only Englishwoman to receive the Croix de Guerre and bar, also has a curious political history. He is that rare beast – an English country solicitor, landowner and former TA officer who is a card-carrying member of the Labour Party. He even made front page national headlines during the 2001 general election campaign when he unwittingly became a have-a-go hero while canvassing as the Labour candidate in Dorset Mid and North Poole during the elections. The six foot seven inch, 17 stone lawyer raced into action after spotting a burglar breaking away from two men who had him cornered. Leaping from his Labour battle bus, he felled the thief with a rugby tackle and hung onto him until the police arrived. He then calmly continued canvassing, making sure that the victim of the burglary pledged a vote for Labour in return for his actions.

L 166 Cycles Perfecta

Mucha poster advertising bicycles

Fourteen years on his commitment to both the Labour Party and the artistic legacy of Alphonse Mucha remain as strong as ever. “I think it is marvellous that you can go to the Russell-Cotes and see these extraordinarily beautiful and fascinating pieces. Not just the pictures and the posters but also his sculptures, jewellery and his designs for everyday living. It’s a very appropriate location.” he says.

Museum manager Sue Hayward agrees, pointing out that the exhibition will draw links between Mucha’s work and philosophy and the Art Nouveau environment of the Russell-Cotes Museum and its remarkable collections.

*Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty is at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum until Sunday 27th September. For more information visit russellcotes.com

 

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