Dancing Ledge

When the going gets tough the tough start blogging

How mile-a-minute Harry lost £60 million on gambling, fast women and bad business deals

Devotees of the ongoing ITV drama series Mr Selfridge will know that things are fast spiralling out of control for the American retail entrepreneur. As the final episode of season three hits our screens tonight, they might be interested to know the real Harry Gordon Selfridge was even more reckless than the TV version portrayed by Jeremy Piven.

He came to London in the early 20th century and revolutionised the retail experience with his eponymously named store. It was a huge success and he made millions but he also managed to lose most of it through bad business deals, pipe-dreams, gambling and his taste for high-maintenance women. Below is a magazine feature I wrote last year about his extravagant spending and his little known life, away from London, on the Dorset/Hampshire coast.

Jeremy Piven as Harry Selfridge in the TV series

Jeremy Piven as retail magnate and self-made millionaire Harry Gordon  Selfridge in the TV series

By Jeremy Miles

Millions of viewers have been tuning in to Mr Selfridge, the glossy ITV1 drama about the flamboyant self-made American retail giant who taught the British how to love shopping in the early 20th century. But how many of them know that Harry Gordon Selfridge  – the man who founded the Selfridges department store and coined the phrase “The customer is always right” – lived for years right here on the Dorset coast?

Between 1916 and 1922 he rented the imposing cliff-top Highcliffe Castle near Christchurch. It was the start of a new era in the life of this extraordinary self-made man who had clawed his way up from being a 14-year-old stockroom boy in Chicago to become an inspirational retail entrepreneur. It would also mark the point when his reckless spending, womanising and gambling began to spiral out of control.

The real Harry Gordon Selfridge photographed around 1910 soon after his move to London

The real Harry Gordon Selfridge photographed around 1910 soon after his move to London

Selfridge had made millions and established a world-beating department store that had finally made shopping sexy. It had turned him into a multi-millionaire superstar. But the boy they had called Mile-a-Minute Harry back in Chicago was never able to simply sit back and enjoy his wealth and fame. He was a hopeless adrenalin junkie, a risk-taker who always wanted more.

While his devoted wife Rose and their children enjoyed the genteel country life in Highcliffe, Harry would race to town to entertain the glamorous young French singer and dancer Gaby Deslys. Gaby – one of a series of lovers – was extremely high-maintenance. Harry leased her a big Georgian townhouse in Kensington sending a Selfridges van each day bearing flowers and gifts. Meanwhile the singer had the run of the Oxford Street store, helping herself to whatever took her fancy. Jewellery, furs, fine-silks… they all went on Harry’s personal account.

Highcliffe historian Ian Stevenson says: “Everybody says Selfridge came to Highcliffe because he was worried about his family being in London with the First World War Zeppelin raids but the other half of the story is that he was having this affair.”

Stevenson, a former Fleet Street journalist, is an expert on Highcliffe, it’s castle and Selfridge’s time there. He helped author Lindy Woodhead research her best-selling book Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge which inspired the TV show and he reckons the real-life Harry Gordon Selfridge was even more remarkable than the character portrayed in the TV show by actor Jeremy Piven.

Stevenson isn’t particularly impressed with the TV version, saying “Frankly it plays fast and loose with the facts. They’ve made Selfridge so much younger than he really was. He was 53 when he opened Selfridges. There’s nothing in the programme to indicate that.” However he does concede that everyone else – Lindy Woodhead and Highcliffe Castle management included – seem delighted with the series. Not surprising perhaps. Visitor numbers and book sales have soared since Mr Selfridge hit the TV screens. The second series opened in 1914 and it is hoped that a third series will take the show into the Highcliffe years. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” says castle manager David Hopkinson. ( Note to readers: This did not happen, Series three has steadfastly ignored the Highcliffe connection).

Despite this Ian Stevenson is finding people ever-more eager for stories of the charismatic Mr Selfridge and his time at Highcliffe Castle.  It was a period of change for Harry during which both Gaby Deslys and his wife Rose would meet premature deaths. The  Family made a big impact on Highcliffe during the First World War, flying the Stars and Stripes from the castle roof and establishing a Convalescence Camp for wounded servicemen on the nearby recreation ground. After Rose’s death from pneumonia  in 1918 Harry devoted even more time to playing the the grand showman. His Whitsun fete at the Castle in 1920 attracted 5,000 people with special trains from Bournemouth and Southampton ferrying the crowds to and from nearby Hinton Admiral station.

At Highcliffe Selfridge was set on a path of outrageous displays of wealth and grandeur. He would play high-stakes poker with society friends like the tea magnate and keen yachtsman Sir Thomas Lipton and Royal financial advisor Sir Edward Cassel who had a holiday home at Branksome. Later Harry himself would keep a huge steam yacht, Conqueror, moored at Southampton. Like most of his interests it cost a fortune.  But gradually the money was running out.  The Wall Street Crash combined with a reckless relationship with gambling-addicted showgirls, The Dolly Sisters  – he would buy diamond necklaces to cheer them up when they lost his money on the tables in Monte Carlo – proved financially fatal. By the late 1930s his £60 million fortune was gone. He owed the taxman tens of thousands and Selfridges could no longer afford to pick up the tab. In a boardroom showdown Harry was forced out of the business he loved.

Harry Gordon Selfridge would die, aged 90, in relative poverty. A tragic down-at-heel figure in his final years, he would often catch the bus to Oxford Street just to stand and look at the great store that continued to thrive without him. Shabby and ill-dressed, he was once even arrested as a suspected vagrant. His simple gravestone now stands alongside those of his wife and mother in St Mark’s Churchyard in Highcliffe just a few hundred yards from his grand former home. Just a mile or two away is the beauty spot Hengistbury Head, the site of one of his more bizarre plans, to build a massive castle of his own.

Selfridge could stand at the bottom the Highcliffe grounds and see the ancient headland. When he eventually managed to buy it from Bournemouth landowner Sir George Meyrick, he announced with customary gusto that he was going to build “the biggest castle in the world”. Plans were drawn up for a massive 250-room Neo-Classical palace, a Gothic fortress with four miles of ramparts, its own theatre, a huge ballroom and a Versailles-style Hall of Mirrors. At one point he even planned to include a 300 foot tower. It was never too be. Eventually he had no option but to sell Hengistbury to Bournemouth Council for £25,000.

Ian Stevenson, like many other locals, is hugely relieved that this nature reserve and centre for environmental  research was spared the worst excesses of Selfridge’s imagination: “It’s a blessed relief that he frittered his money away. Nobody would have been able to afford to keep that building up and ‘The Head’ would now be littered with the ruins of his castle.”

One final tale from Ian Stevenson perhaps speaks volumes about how Harry Gordon Selfridge, despite fabulous wealth, could never compete with the elite of British Society. The 1921 wedding of his daughter Violette to French Viscount Jacques de Sibour was a huge social event but a request for Violette’s good friends Daphne and Viola Bankes from Kingston Lacy to be bridesmaids earned a sharp rebuttal from their snooty mother Henrietta. “She was too snobbish to allow them to take a role in the wedding of a commoner’s daughter,” says Stevenson.

For more about Highcliffe Castle go to www.highcliffecastle.co.uk

Birdsong – love, loss and slaughter on the Western Front

Birdsong: Lighthouse, Poole

This play is an absolute triumph! Rachel Wagstaff’s stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ best selling novel Birdsong brings the murderous madness of the First World War battlefields on the Western Front into sharp focus.

Faulks’ poignant story of love, loss and inhuman suffering has been reworked as a magnificent piece of multi-layered theatre in this touring production by the Original Theatre Company.

Under director Alastair Whatley, a strong cast, powerful set and superb lights and sound combine to make this story of young English officer Stephen Wraysford thrown into the horrors of war on the rebound from a passionate affair into a compelling stage drama.

Peter Duncan as Jack Firebrace. Photo by Jack Ladenberg

Peter Duncan as Jack Firebrace. Photo by Jack Ladenberg

Edmund Wiseman is brilliant as Wraysford who is fighting not only the German army but his own demons as he prepares to lead his men – a rag-taggle bunch of horribly ill-equipped volunteers – over the top into the hellfire of the Battle of the Somme. It will be battle so fierce that as the verdant French countryside is turned into a muddy morass strewn with broken bodies it even silences the ever-present sound of birdsong.

The sense of fear and hopelessness is tangible as, during the stand-out scene of the play, the men – office boys, farm-workers, labourers and shop assistants – write what may be their final letters home. Vocal harmony and violin highlights the emotion of the moment.

Wraysford clings desperately to the memory of his lost lover, Isabelle Azaire, the abused wife of a French factory owner, and the pre-war affair that brought them a few brief months of happiness. Their story is told through a series of seamless flashbacks with Emily Bowker  as the trapped wife forced to abandon all for love and some kind of freedom.

Back at the front Wraysford is stationed amid shattered trenches at a command post controlling a network of tunnels snaking beneath no-man’s land. A team of sappers – “sewer rats” – crawl into the darkness to lay explosive charges beneath enemy lines.

Among their number is the honest, decent and dutiful Jack Firebrace. In a standout performance by Peter Duncan we discover that Firebrace is endlessly resourceful, steadfast in the face of adversity and remains almost inconceivably strong as he receives heartbreaking news from the home-front. He offers compassion and support to his comrades and looks on in distraught resignation as they die one by one.

His own death…in agony, paralysed and trapped in the filth, darkness and rubble of a sabotaged tunnel is so unjust that it somehow stands as a metaphor for the whole mindless and disgraceful slaughter of war.

The message of this play, and Faulks’ book, is clear. As we prepare to commemorate next year’s centenary of the Battle of the Somme  – a campaign that claimed the lives of nearly 20,000 British soldiers on the first  day of fighting alone – we must never forget and we must never allow such horrors to happen again.

Sadly, it only takes a glance at the TV news to see that the brutal inhumanity of war lives on.

Jeremy Miles

Life in the old bag yet! That’s the one hanging from Hattie’s shoulder I hasten to add.

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The old Billingham 225 (and Hattie) in action in Vietnam a dozen years ago.

An old diary tells me that 30 years ago today, on 1st of February 1985, Hattie and I acquired a Billingham 225 camera bag. Until its straps started falling apart five years ago it would accompany us on a bizarre variety of writing and photography assignments for the next quarter-of-a-century.

It’s first outing was to a factory making bullet-proof cars in Bristol. It then travelled with us all over the world to Australia, the USA, Canada, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Israel, Greece, Turkey, the Czech Republic and most of western Europe.

That bag was with us when we were tear-gassed in Bethlehem, encountered renegade bikers in Nevada, got sand-whipped in the Sahara, soaked in the Mekong Delta and searched at gunpoint in Cambodia.  It’s met rock stars, movie actors, writers, politicians and broadcasters.

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Billingham before repair

bag new

Billingham with new straps

I know it’s stupid to get sentimental about a battered old bag. It’s not as though it’s our only camera bag. It’s not even our only Billingham bag but we’ve been through a lot together and when the old 225 finally appeared to give up the proverbial ghost we put it in a cupboard, unwilling to throw it out. We’re not superstitious but it had become a kind of talisman. I cleaned it up, scrubbing everything from elephant sweat and turtle poo and the accumulated dust from ancient sites and ramshackle roads from its grimed surface. It was incredible how well the bag revived but the straps were still in tatters and until a couple of weeks ago we were convinced it was beyond repair.  Then I had the remarkably unoriginal idea of contacting the Billingham factory in the midlands and, after a brief inspection, they announced that it indeed it could be saved.

It wasn’t cheap. Fitting new straps and webbing handles cost eighty odd quid but they did a spectacular job and in less than two weeks we were reunited with the bag, still full of character but given a wonderful new lease of life. It was only then that I realised that February 1st marked  its 30th birthday. What new adventures can we plan?

Shelley Theatre staging of Jekyll and Hyde pulled after actor gets into on-stage difficulties

Actor James Bowden left the stage of Boscombe’s Shelley Theatre in a clear state of distress last night after battling his way through a two hour performance that saw him repeatedly forget his lines. This morning  theatre company Doppelganger Productions announced they were pulling tonight’s performance and offered refunds to those who had already bought tickets.  James Bowden had been playing the evil Mr Hyde in an updated version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic late 19th century psychological thriller The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Playwright John Foster had relocated the action to the  badlands of 21st century London in a drama focusing on Doctor Harriet Jekyll, a criminologist haunted by an evil alter-ego played by Mr Bowden. Mystery surrounds what actually went wrong. The actor had apparently given a near faultless performance in preview and despite last night’s memory blanks that led to him repeatedly calling for prompts, his acting appeared strong and confident. I hope he’s OK. See below for the review of the show that I posted earlier today.

James Bowden as Mr Hyde with Hermione Halpin as Doctor Jekyll

James Bowden as Mr Hyde with Hermione Halpin as Doctor Jekyll

Jekyll and Hyde: Doppelganger Productions: Shelley Theatre, Boscombe

I first saw this intriguing but troubled play a couple of years ago. I had problems with it then and sadly (for somewhat different reasons) I have again now.

It’s a shame. Playwright John Foster’s fascinating contemporary analysis of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale of good verses evil has as a great deal going for it. It’s a fascinating subject and, in the main, a clever piece of writing. Back in 2012 I felt it struggled, failing to square its own complexities with the limits of its budget.

This latest production has dealt with at least some of those problems. It conveys, I feel, a better overall sense of the story which focuses on a present day London-based criminologist Dr Harriet Jekyll whose research into the psychotic mind gradually consumes and destroys her.

It even has the advantage of being performed in Boscombe’s marvellously atmospheric Shelley Theatre – a venue frequented back in the late 19th century by Robert Louis Stevenson himself.

Sadly for reasons that I may not fully understand James Bowden the actor playing Edward Hyde – the evil and controlling alter-ego who gradually turns Jekyll into a psychotic killer – simply could not remember his lines. Though he appeared to be performing with confidence and had clearly got the measure of his character he made countless calls for lines. Maybe a dozen or more in the first act alone . Prompts, often coming from two different directions at the same time, fatally disrupted the flow of the drama.

Frankly I was embarrassed for him and though he rallied in the second half (far fewer memory blanks) it was by then too late. Quite a number of audience members failed to reappear after the interval.

The problem was perhaps made even worse by the fact that the programme notes made much of the fact that James Bowden is the co-founder and principal of a vocational drama school and has “recently developed his own approach to the art and craft of acting” called ‘The Process’. Hmmm!

This play offers an interesting Post-Freudian re-examination of the central theme of Stevenson’s novella – written right here in Bournemouth in 1886. It’s run at Shelley Theatre should have been a landmark production, particularly as it featured some fine acting.

There were stand-out performances from Hermione Halpin as Jekyll, Hannaj Bang Bendz as her pyscho-killer patient and Russell Biles as her psychiatrist Dan Carew. Ironically the hapless Mr Bowden also turned in a powerful and brooding performance as Hyde. Why of why didn’t he just read from the book? It would have been far less disruptive.

Jeremy Miles

Robin Hood – Lighthouse, Poole

Robin Hood 3 (Photo Hattie Miles)

Stephanie Walker as Fairy Mary & Patrick O’Kane as the evil Sheriff. Photographs by  Hattie Miles

 

Robin Hood: Lighthouse, Poole

With a twinkle in his eye and swash here and buckle there, folk hero Robin Hood runs glorious rings around the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham in this fun-filled pantomime at Poole’s Lighthouse.

With boos and hisses aplenty Game of Thrones baddy Patrick O’Kane makes a wonderfully malevolent Sheriff – evil and pathetic in equal parts. It’s a character the kids love to hate while mum’s and dad’s can all too easily relate to the idea of an arrogant authority figure who is squeezing his people for taxes they can’t afford.

Robin Hood 4 (Photo Hattie Miles)

Ed Petrie as Robin Hood and Tom Bright as Friar Tuck

His nemesis is Robin of Loxley, banished to the depths of Sherwood Forest and branded an outlaw. This Ripping Yarns style character – confident, laid-back and played with studied insouciance by CBBC presenter Ed Petrie – proves the perfect foil to the vile villain.

One look at this stylish man of the Forest who robs the rich to give to the poor and you just know good is going to triumph over evil. At the centre of the story is Robin’s love for the beautiful Maid Marion (Alicia Woodhouse) and the Sheriff’s plan to kidnap her and steal her inheritance.

The knockabout farce that ensues is fun family entertainment every inch of the way. There are hapless thieves, Bill and Ben (Dan Looney and Neil Smye), recruited by the Sheriff to do his dirty work. They are hopeless criminals providing a touch of slapstick levity, undermining the pomposity this brilliantly monstrous ‘king leer’.

Writer and director Tom Bright meanwhile draws on decades of working the northern clubs to deliver a perfectly pantomimic reading of Friar Tuck. What emerges is a pork-pie obsessed monk who morphs seamlessly into this panto’s dame – one Gladys Windybottom.

Produced under the seasoned eye of Robin Cave, this really is a pantomime which has everything, though of course it probably isn’t technically a pantomime at all. Never mind. – the main components are there. Goodies, baddies, crazy capers, talented young dancers and even a good fairy( Stephanie Walker). There’s singalong fun, a neat little band in the pit and a fine set too.

A show not to be missed. Robin Hood plays Lighthouse in Poole until Sunday 4th January. For Tickets & information call 0844 406 8666 or go to www.lighthousepoole.co.uk

 

Hey Bungalow Bill you’ve not had your fill…

Beatles and wags with Maharishi

Left to right: Jane Asher, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Cynthia Lennon, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Pattie Boyd, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and Jenny Boyd.

When I was asked to introduce Beatles insider Jenny Boyd at Wimborne Literature Festival last week I jumped at the opportunity. After all this is a woman who effectively lived with my record collection during the 1960s and 1970s.  Whatever I was listening to or reading about in my teens and twenties there was a pretty good chance that Jenny Boyd was actually experiencing it first hand.

Together with her older sister Pattie she became a leading teenage model at the height of swinging London. She was photographed by David Bailey for Vogue and Harpers and Queen and idolised by the Carnaby Street set. Thanks to Pattie, who married first  George Harrison and then Eric Clapton, she also acquired two very influential brothers-in-law.

Jenny Boyd

Jenny Boyd

When the British beat invasion swept into New York, Jenny was there. She dropped acid in San Francisco during the summer of love and in 1968  travelled to India with John, Paul, George and Ringo to study transcendental meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Donovan who was with them at the Ashram in Rishikesh wrote Jennifer Juniper for her.  In London she worked at the Apple Boutique and shared a flat with The Beatles rather dubious psychedelic electronics guru Magic Alex. “Not very magic at all,” she would later tell me.

She went on to marry, divorce and marry again her teenage sweetheart Mick Fleetwood and spent years on the road amidst the mayhem and madness of the Rumours era Fleetwood Mac. She was also married for a while to the late Ian Wallace, drummer variously with Bob Dylan, Crosby Stills and Nash and Don Henley.

In her 30s Jenny abandoned her rock ’n’ roll lifestyle and turned to academia, eventually gaining a PhD in psychology. With a little help from her many famous friends she specialised in studying the creative process among musicians and artists. The result has been years of clinical practice and now a book, It’s Not Only Rock ’n’ Roll  culled from her doctoral thesis and given a populist spin.

Which is why she was appearing at a bookshop event in the little Dorset Town of Wimborne with me as presenter and guest interviewer. It was a good evening with a packed and satisfied audience. However the best part for me was the opportunity a few days before the event to have a long discussion with Jenny about her life and experiences at the epicentre of popular culture.

The purpose of our chat was theoretically designed to do sufficient research to prepare an effective list of questions and discussion points. I’m afraid I ended up just wanting to hear her talk about life with The Beatles, the 1960s fashion revolution and what it was really like living through the cocaine-fuelled insanity that was Fleetwood Mac in the late 1970s. I’m delighted to say that Jenny was perfectly happy to indulge me.

Donovan and Jennifer Juniper

Donovan and Jennifer Juniper

It was particularly intriguing to hear about the time she spent with The Beatles, particularly in India. “It was amazing,” she told me.”Just what I needed. I’d been in  San Francisco taking acid and all that stuff and it had made me question a lot of things. I was very confused at the time so going to India was absolutely right for me at the time. George knew I’d had some kind of spiritual awakening and invited me. It was wonderful because there was nothing, just meditation and it was so beautiful. I loved it there.”

Jenny remembers beautiful evenings with the sun going down, sitting with The Beatles on the roof of one of their simple bungalows watching them playing their guitars. “That really was an opportunity to see creativity in action. They’d be talking about something, start playing and it would just develop into a song. I remember John once saying that he hadn’t been able to sleep the night before. He found it quite difficult to adjust at first. That became So Tired.

Several of the songs that would emerge on The White Album later that year owed their origins to those ashram sessions – the early rooftop concerts? They included Dear Prudence – about Mia Farrow’s meditation-obsessed sister and Sexy Sadie, a swipe at the Maharishi when it was rumoured that he was not altogether averse to the pleasures of the flesh. On reflection several members of the party dismissed the suggestions that the Maharishi had been misbehaving as the result of mischief-making by ‘Magic’ Alex whose promised technological marvels tended to never quite see the light of day.

Jenny signatureI was particularly interested to hear the background behind Bungalow Bill which, while seemingly one of the more flippant tracks on the album, was John Lennon’s characteristically sarcastic response to a fellow ‘devotee’ at the ashram who suddenly decided to go off and shoot a tiger.

Here accounts differ drastically. The wealthy young American, Richard A. Cooke III – Rik to his friends – was visiting his mother, Nancy Cooke de Herrara ( who just happened to be doing the Maharishi’s PR), when they were invited to take part in a traditional hunting party.

Rik – who is still very much alive and working as a photographer – says their elephants were attacked by a tiger and that he shot it before posing for a photograph with the carcass. Nancy insisted to her dying day that it was a the tiger or them. Lennon’s reaction, described as “scornful and sarcastic” was unimpressed. In a Playboy interview sometime later he said: “Bungalow Bill was written about a guy in Maharishi’s meditation camp who took a short break to go shoot a few poor tigers, and then came back to commune with God. There used to be a character called Jungle Jim and I combined him with Buffalo Bill. It’s sort of a teenage social-comment song and a bit of a joke.” To check out Buffalo Bill/Rik’s own take on all this go to: http://www.thealohabear.com

Suffice to say I had a wonderful time talking to Jenny about all kinds of things. The Wimborne Folk Festival too (Wilf is its acronym) turned out to be a revelation. For a tiny town in rural Dorset this annual literary show organised by Wimborne Bookshop owner Malcolm Angel is a major achievement, an event that punches way above its weight.

Our evening certainly did the business. Lots of interested punters, including I’m delighted to say, a couple of people  who came up afterwards and thanked me for being so well researched.  What can I say? I knew a lot of it already. I talked to Jenny about it at length before the event but ultimately it happened by osmosis. After our conversation Jenny said: “I’m so glad you are one of us” That’s an accolade and a half but I have to say that it was Jenny’s astonishing recall and eloquence that actually made it work so well. Thanks Jenny!

Brothers in arms laid to rest in a foreign field and reunited shoulder to shoulder in death

Thirteen soldiers from the Dorsetshires killed in action

Thirteen soldiers from the Dorsetshires killed in action and laid to rest shoulder to shoulder in Authuile in Northern France. Photographs by Hattie Miles

In death, as in life, they are shoulder to shoulder. Thirteen First World War brothers in arms buried side by side in a wooded valley in Northern France. Brave young soldiers from the Dorsetshire Regiment, cut-down in a vicious hail of mud, blood and bullets on 8th May 1916 as a ferocious German bombardment gave way to an infantry raid. In the gunfire and desperate hand-to-hand combat that followed the daring dozen and their 19-year-old commanding officer were slaughtered – shot, bayoneted, blown to pieces. The violence of the deaths of these men – Privates Stretton, Painter, Cottom, Barrow, Cavley, Haynes, Sergent and Matthews. Lance Corporals Keeping, Eaton, Wells and Greenway and 2nd Lieutenant Vere Talbot Bayley, the teenage subaltern who led them, was appalling. It is particularly sobering to think that Bayly was barely a year out of Sherborne School.

T WW1 trench warfare

Trench warfare in the First World War

At the Authuile Military Cemetery they have found peace. With the dappled summer sunshine playing on their headstones, a gentle breeze gusting through the trees and the gentle sound of the River Ancre flowing nearby. A distant cuckoo called as I stood silently by their graves and reflected on the brutality of battle, the bravery and sacrifice of these young men and the hopeless optimism of those who really believed that this was the war to end all wars. I wondered what these Dorset boys had been like. Many had come from familiar towns and villages around the county. Obeying their country’s call to duty, they had willingly signed up and headed for the front.The carnage they faced was beyond belief. The Dorsetshire Regiment (it became the Devon and Dorsets in the 1950s) lost 4,500 men in the 1914-18 war. They had been carpenters, bricklayers, farm-workers, shop assistants, mechanics. Many were little more than boys.

Travelling with an expert guide as guests of travel company Saga, photographer Hattie Miles and I joined the Road of Remembrance Tour which follows in the footsteps of the British troops from the Channel Port of Folkestone to the battlefields of Flanders and the Somme – the final journey of a generation lost to a war that many regard as sheer folly on the part of the politicians and military leaders.

The Road of Remembrance in Folkestone

The Road of Remembrance in Folkestone

More than million men died on the battlefields of Belgium and Northern France as allied troops struggled to push back the advancing German line. There are literally hundreds of military cemeteries and monuments to the dead and missing on the Western Front. In a single day you can see thousands of carefully regimented rows of Portland Stone headstones standing proud amid clipped lawns. Meticulously maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, some carry neat floral tributes, perhaps a wooden cross and a poppy, even a photograph and message from a descendant. The atmosphere at each cemetery is unfailingly quiet and reverential. There is absolutely no vandalism or graffiti.

Our journey took us to museums and memorial sites across the region. To the vast Tyne Cot cemetery with the graves of nearly 12,000 men and a memorial to 35,000 missing. To Essex Farm where the fallen lie near the bunkers of an old front line dressing station. Fascinating towns and villages like Ypres and Passchendaele that were rebuilt and reclaimed from the rubble. The Menin Gate where crowds gather daily for the Last Post. Trenches that once bore names like Park Lane, Piccadilly Circus and Shaftesbury Avenue – little reminders of home. The huge monuments at Vimy Ridge and Thiepval, the latter designed by Edwin Lutyens in memory of the 72,194 officers and men whose bodies were never recovered from the battlefields of the Somme.

Of all the battles of the First World War The Somme offensive was the bloodiest and, in terms of loss of human life, the costliest. On 1st July 1916, the first day of the battle, nearly 20,000 British soldiers were killed. Yet under orders from Commander Douglas Haig they fought on for three months before finally be able to declare a victory of sorts. They had gained five miles…and lost a quarter of million men. The Dorsets finally got their own memorial near the Somme battlefields in 2011 when an eight foot high Portland stone obelisk was sited outside Authuille. Bearing both regimental and county crests, it was carved by Dorset sculptors Alex Evans and Zoe Cull at their workshop in Bockhampton, near Dorchester. Appropriately it carries a quotation from Thomas Hardy: “Victory crowns the just.”

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Memorials on an old machine-gun emplacement at Hill 60

The Dorsetshire Regiment’s most intense loss came more than a year before the Somme, in May 1915, as they fought at the infamous Hill 60. A vital observation point above the flat Flanders’ landscape, a man-made ridge created out of spoil from a mid 19th century railway cutting. Before the war it had been known as Lovers Knoll, a beauty spot frequented by courting couples. By the time the Dorsetshire Regiment fought there it was desolate, broken and battle-scarred, an oozing morass of mud and bodies, strafed by machine gun fire and infested with rats reputedly the size of rabbits.

As the allies made plans to defeat the enemy by tunnelling under the hill and laying massive explosive charges, the Germans attacked with a new weapon – chlorine gas. It was only the second time that poisonous gas had been used in battle. The effects were devastating. In a moving diary entry Company Sergeant-Major Ernest Shepherd described the scene as “heartbreaking” saying: “Men were caught by fumes and in dreadful agony, coughing and vomiting and rolling on the ground…”

It was another 19-year-old former Sherborne boy who saved the day. Lieutenant Robin Vaughan Kestell-Cornish grabbed his gun, leapt onto the parapet of his trench and with the remaining four men from his 40 strong platoon delivered such a fierce volley of rifle fire into the oncoming gas cloud that it drove the German infantry back just long enough for the Dorset support units to cut off the enemy advance. Casualties were high with 85 Dorsets killed and another 200 suffering from gas inhalation. Nearly 60 of those would later die, many within hours, from the injuries they had suffered. Kestell-Cornish, struggling for breath, was temporarily invalided out but insisted on returning to the front within days. He won the Military Cross for gallantry but died in 1918.

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Bomb crater reclaimed by nature at Hill 60

Today Hill 60 has been largely reclaimed by nature but is still home to bullet-scarred bunkers and the shattered remains of military hardware. It is a place of bizarre contrasts. An old crater has become a beautiful pond alive with dragonflies that flit beneath a weeping willow. Just metres away an old machine-gun emplacement is covered with tributes to the Dorset dead. Never before have war poet Rupert Brooke’s words seemed so apposite: “If I should die, think only this of me: that there’s some corner of a foreign field. That is for ever England.”

As we travelled from the killing fields of Northern France  to the once bombed and blasted wastelands of Flanders we came upon a terrible legacy of that war of 100 years ago.  At a glance the fields of Varlet Farm, set amidst the flat Belgian countryside, look completely unremarkable. There are potatoes here, a crop of celeriac there. A tractor stood waiting to start its day’s work.

But what a day’s work! Every time he ploughs those fields farmer Dirk Cardoen knows that he might unearth, bombs, shells and grenades. He has a tin tank full of them on the track to the main road, a constant reminder of his deadly additional crop. Dirk showed us his latest finds and, pulling out a couple of rusting shells, he announced  “This ones still live,” adding with a wry smile. “Don’t worry. They don’t go off very often.”

It is known as the Iron harvest. A century ago this land was a First World War battlefield. Just a few kilometres from Passchendaele, Varlet Farm was under constant bombardment as the occupying Germans battled to keep it out of allied hands. Dirk told  me that so far this year he’s found 13 shells. Last year it was 17 and in 2007 “our best year” they dug up nearly 70. The potentially deadly finds are constant. The bomb disposal squad make regular visits to this and many other farms in the region, stopping off at agreed collection points to pick up the ageing military hardware.

Dirk is philosophical about his lot. When his grandparents took over this ruined farmland rent-free in the 1920’s digging up explosives was all part of the deal.

Farmer Dirk with some of shells he's ploughed up

Farmer Dirk with some of shells he’s ploughed up

It could be worse, some farmers still find human remains. For the past 12 years Dirk has run a bed and breakfast at the farm. It’s a favourite with military historians and battlefield tourists. He has even converted an old barn into a museum full of shells, bullets, grenades, machine guns, helmets, water bottles, bits of old uniform and the occasional rifles he finds dangling off the bottom of his tractor.

In his breakfast room as Abba played in the background Dirk showed us a display of shells polished and fashioned from ordnance into ornaments. “People love them,” he said.

We visited Varlet Farm on a quick side trip from the Road of Remembrance tour . It was just one of the experiences that put the war into a graphic geographical context and help explain the horrors of 1914-18.

Jeremy and Hattie Miles were guests on The Road of Remembrance tour – France and Belgium which costs from £699pp for seven nights based on two people. The itinerary starts in Folkestone, home of The Road of Remembrance and embarkation point for millions of First World War troops heading for the Western Front. Across the channel it visits Arras and the Wellington Quarry, The Somme and Amiens, Ypres and Bruges. To book call 0800 056 6099 or visit saga.co.uk/france

Hopper’s vision of an America in metamorphosis – Hollywood to the acid tests

Me outside the RA Hopper show. Photograph by Hattie Miles

Me outside the RA Hopper show. Photograph by Hattie Miles

After a four month run at the Royal Academy an utterly intriguing exhibition of photographs by the late American actor, film director and artist Dennis Hopper closed at the weekend. It was called The Lost Album and featured more than 400 original prints of photographs taken by Hopper between 1961 and 1967. These images had last been seen at his first major exhibition at the Fort Worth Art Centre in Texas in 1970. They were rediscovered, packed away in a series of old boxes, after his death from cancer in 2010.

The RA exhibition was the first time these photographs – haphazardly printed and still on their original rather tatty mounts – had been seen in the UK. They gave a new view of the artistic output of a man known as a maverick. Capable of great performances but dismissed by many as mad, bad and dangerous to know.

Dennis Hopper

Dennis Hopper

Hopper had originally arrived in Hollywood in the mid 1950s. At nineteen he was appearing alongside James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and later Giant. He got on well with Dean – in fact it was Dean who first got him into photography. Hopper had considered himself to be the next big movie acting sensation until he arrived on set and actually saw Jimmy Dean in action. Suddenly a whole new word of dramatic opportunities had opened up before him.

By all accounts Dean’s tragic death left Hopper bereft. He had listened long and hard to this mercurial stars advice but found some resistance from the old guard when  he tried to improvise on set.  Soon his massive ego, loose-tongue and penchant for guns, booze and drugs got him blacklisted. Big shot director Henry Hathaway showed him the door in no uncertain way after Hopper tried to engage in a power struggle over the delivery of his lines in the 1958 film From Hell To Texas. One scene had to be re-shot 80 times before Hopper stormed off the set and Hathaway made it clear that he needn’t come back. The director later explained: “He (Hopper)  figured he was the greatest young actor in the world. Well, he wasn’t. He was a headstrong kid, full of dope and bullshit. He was a self-styled enfant terrible and a pain in the ass.” For years no studio would touch him but eventually John Wayne (whose influence outweighed just about everyone else) insisted that Hopper be hired for The Sons of Katie Elder. He managed to behave himself and was subsequently signed up for True Grit.

The content of the RA show proved fascinating –  a unique visual diary created by a man who had an insider view of both traditional Hollywood and the counter culture of the 1960s. The presentation though raised, for me at least, a few questions.

The gelatin-silver vintage black and white prints – in both portrait and landscape formats – were mainly small (9.5inches x 6.5 inches). They were exhibited at eye-level as either single images or sometimes two or three deep in an extended strip around the walls of the RA’s huge Burlington Gardens galleries.

Superficially this was good. It gave the show the slightly retro, do-it-yourself feel of a sixties hipster project and was, I am sure, intended to give an added sense of authenticity to the project.  In doing so however it failed to make the most of some truly extraordinary photographs – giving the stars of the show what amounted to equal billing with far too many also-rans.

Personally I would have lost about a quarter of the prints in this exhibition and would have had the best of Hopper’s photographs reprinted on a much larger scale. For it can’t be overstated just how incredible many of these images are. Hopper knew everyone. He effectively had a backstage pass to a period of extraordinary social change.

With his Nikon F around his neck he took portraits of actors and artists like Paul Newman, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Jane Fonda as well as many of the other exciting new performers, artists, poets and musicians of the day. He photographed his family and friends and captured counter culture’s main  players from the Hells Angels to the hippy gatherings. The show takes in figures from the Beat and Peace movements – radical writers and thinkers like Michael McLure and Timothy Leary. Hopper’s photographs are often little more than casual snaps of his friends at play but they catch the zeitgeist with rare perfection and the fun is counterbalanced by images of tense and volatile political events like the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery at the height of the African- American Civil Rights Movement.

Technically the results range from seriously good to decidedly unremarkable, but even the most mediocre images are of important moments in time. For that reason alone they should be cherished and their impact optimised. Intriguingly when Hopper began to work on the film Easy Rider  – eventually released in 1969, the same year as True Grit - he simply stopped taking photographs. It seems that photography had served its purpose and he now had other creative outlets. “I never made a cent from these photos. They cost me money but kept me alive,” he would later say.  However, the feel of the images from The Lost Album and the sense of time and place they convey remained noticeably present in the visual language of Easy Rider. To underline this point excerpts from the film were shown within the RA  show.

It’s strange to think that, had things been just a little different, Dennis Hopper could have gone down in movie history as one of the last old school stars of the big Hollywood westerns. He would instead become defined by the drug-soaked feel of Easy Rider and his brooding on-screen performances in films like Apocalypse Now and Blue Velvet. This image was helped of course by the fact that off-screen he could be just as weird as any of his characters. Hopper’s excesses were legendary. It has long been rumoured that at one point he took so much LSD that he completely forgot that he had married Mamas and the Papas singer Michelle Phillips. Not surprisingly perhaps the marriage lasted only eight days.

The Lost Album offered a chance to glimpse the world of a restless soul with friends in the right places but demons that meant he would always be an outsider.  Hopper’s Nikon with its 28mm lens offered a way in and a way out. He could observe and document a world that was shifting and tilting in a way that had never been seen before. Yet the camera also provided a barrier behind which he could hide. The result – an astonishing slice of 1960s Americana – is extremely interesting and I can’t help feeling that it deserves to be seen again one day but in a form that fully highlights its strengths.

The class of 64 and the Folkestone Triennial

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A  few days ago my wife Hattie and I found ourselves staying in a seaside hotel as guests of a girls school reunion. The ‘girls’ in question were former pupils of the near legendary St Margaret’s School in my home town of Folkestone. The class of ’64 celebrating the fact that it is 50 years since they were first turned loose on the world.

Knowing the history of their alma mater I couldn’t help feeling that this curious rag-taggle of 66-year-olds were actually celebrating not only their shared history but also their survival. For St Margaret’s, though dearly loved by many of its alumni, was not for the faint-hearted. By the 1960s it was the kind of down-at-heel private school that had fallen on hard times after a rather glorious past.

St Margarets in the 1960s

St Margaret’s School, Folkestone,  in the 1960s

It had originally opened in 1890 and enjoyed the prosperity of late Victorian and Edwardian England in its imperial pomp before continuing doggedly through two World Wars and the depression of the 1930s. When it finally closed in 1967, the school was a shadow of its former self. At the best of times it had been an eccentric institution. By the summer of love it was struggling to make sense of a world changed beyond recognition. I knew it back then or at least some of its girls. Indeed Hattie herself was a pupil there, though I wouldn’t meet her until 1969. St Mags continued ’til the money ran out, one foot firmly in the past, wondering what on earth all those beads, bells and sitars were about.

It was a sorry but defiant sight in its final days. There were several members of staff who could never have found employment anywhere else and the girls survived freezing dorms, near-inedible food served from cockroach-infested kitchens and an educational regime that was haphazard, weighted towards the gifted and utterly unforgiving of those who didn’t fit the bill. All that was left were memories and the two subjects in which the school really did excel – theatrical productions and women’s cricket. As for everything else?  To an outsider it looked very much like the fictional St Trinians brought graphically to life. To insiders it was far worse. There were tales of gambling, drunkenness and mental breakdowns…and that was just the staff. No wonder that the good ladies of the class of 64 were an exotic little group. The first one I spoke to had jetted in specially for the occasion from her French farmhouse in the hills above Nice, the second owned a lighthouse and the third told me her husband was an Eskimo. You couldn’t make it up…..and I haven’t!

Father's invited on stage to emulate The Beatles

Fathers invited on stage to emulate The Beatles

Believe it or not we weren’t actually in town for the reunion. We had been offered two free nights at the town’s Clifton Hotel courtesy of one of my wife’s twin sisters who was unable to make the occasion. Fortunately her single room (full board) was painlessly converted into a double room (bed & breakfast ) and we found ourselves on a Folkestone freebie ready to check out the 2014 Triennial – the three-yearly feast of art that has, since 2008, been putting my once battered and rather woebegone home-town well and truly back on the map.

I haven’t lived in Folkestone for nearly 30 years but it will always be special to me.  Sadly its decline mirrored that of St Mags or maybe it was the other way round. Once a fashionable Edwardian resort, Folkestone was hammered by the First World War, slowly driven into economic decline through the 1930s and bombed to buggery during World War II. By the time I was born there in opening weeks of 1951 it was already a faded, jaded version of its pre-war self but its spirit was thankfully intact. The fishing port still thrived and down on the beach channel swimmers lathered themselves with lanolin and grease and struck out for the French coast 22 miles away. They were my early heroes, though I never sought to emulate their feats of endurance.

Yoko Ono's Earth Peace -  Triennial pictures Hattie Miles

Yoko Ono’s Earth Peace – Triennial pictures Hattie Miles

The beach, the bomb sites, the abandoned fortifications and the hills behind the town offered an endless playground. There was the Leas Pavilion Theatre with its traditional seaside repertory company presided over by Arthur Brough, a diminutive but loveable actor-manager who would later find minor TV recognition as Mr Grainger in the sit-com Are You Being Served? As a child my parents would take us to tea-matinees to watch creaking whodunits and light comedies played against a background of rattling teacups and low-level chatter. My brother and I loved it. Later there would be bands at the Leas Cliff Hall where, in the sixties, I saw acts like Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Fleetwood Mac, Savoy Brown and Geno Washington, and Tofts – a wonderful sweaty loft club at the top of Foord Road – where John Mayall would regularly bring various Bluesbreakers line-ups, and people like Alexis Korner, Graham Bond, Jack Bruce and Duster Bennett would play a heady mix of jazz, blues, rock and R&B. Later I would be heavily involved with the Metropole Arts Centre. Great days involving some remarkable  exhibitions and performances.

Despite these rather enjoyable distractions the decline of the town continued and as the Channel Tunnel at first promised to bring new prosperity then failed to deliver. Folkestone appeared to slump into a state of run-down torpor. All the redevelopment went to Ashford. Folkestone was effectively underneath the arches and the ‘chunnel’ was underneath Folkestone. She still exuded character though and while many sought to write her off, there was still something vital about this tenacious and strangely beautiful little town. Writing for the local newspaper and steeping myself in the town’s arts and music scene I never lost faith. Folkestone simply needed a helping hand. Her saviour turned out to be billionaire philanthropist Roger De Haan who invested heavily in the poor end of town and was instrumental in establishing the Creative Foundation – the driving force behind the now internationally acclaimed Triennial and much more.

A world-class event with the visitor statistics to prove it, this year’s Triennial has been curated by former artistic director and chief executive of the Liverpool Biennial Lewis Biggs. What a great job he’s done! The overarching theme is Lookout, a subject that chimes perfectly with a place that has for so long been on the front-line, fearful of invasion but ready to accept the new.  Not surprising then that many of the installations, concepts and flights of fancy that make up this year’s Triennial include watchtowers of one sort or another. Gabriel Lester’s The Electrified Line offers a bamboo observation deck over the weed-strewn remains of the old Harbour railway.

Pablo Bronstein has created an incongruous and unlikely English Baroque Lighthouse rising like a giant periscope from a beach hut on the promenade. This structure, surrounded by concrete slab shelters in pastel shades is, he insists, filling a gap in architectural history incorporating the 18th century style of Nicholas Hawksmore with some decidedly post-modern elements.  Will Kwan has used the old vinery on the cliff-top Leas to create his own lookout, a piece of latter day chinoiserie keeping a wary eye on the ships passing below. Yoko Ono meanwhile has a signal-lamp flashing morse-code across the channel from the top of The Grand, one of two magnificent Edwardian buildings. Above it a vast banner reads Earth Peace.

Me sitting by a commemorative tablet describing the 25th May 1917  bombing

Me sitting by a commemorative tablet describing the 25th May 1917 bombing

Slovenian artist Marjetica Potrc  has joined forces with the architecture practice Ooze to install a turbine powered Wind Lift to take visitors to the top of the 70 foot high railway viaduct – probably the best view in town. While high above the harbour on a kind of giant hammock suspended from the top floor of the Grand Burstin Hotel artist Alex Hartley and a team of volunteers watch over Folkestone’s seaward approaches. A huge sign proclaims that this is a Vigil.

Ironically the very day we visited, as the vigilantes scoured the horizon from above, 130 asylum seekers arrived, temporarily moved into the Burstin on Home Office instructions. With Folkestone’s high unemployment, poor housing and limited prospects such moves do not play well with the local population. They voice fears of illegal immigrants arriving daily and speak of the often lawless scenes that make the harbour area a no-go area at night. Whether it is locals, immigrants or a mixture of the two that cause the trouble, it is clear who gets the blame. Taxi drivers call it the Gaza Strip.  Again and again I heard people discussing this thorny subject and the most common opening phrase was “I’m not a racist but…” These are people who feel under threat as indeed does the Conservative MP for Folkestone and Hythe, Damien Collins, who knows that during next year’s general election he and his constituency will be firmly in the crosshairs of UKIP’s sights.

Of course troubled times tend to be good for art ( apart from that awkward funding business) and the Triennial more than does its bit by stimulating imaginations and provoking discussion. The biggest talking point this year has been German artist Michael Sailstorfer’s Folkestone Digs. The near-genius idea of burying 30 gold ingots in the outer harbour and then inviting people to come and find them has given the Triennial 24 carat media coverage.  Whether it’s actually art or not  is unimportant. No sooner was Folkestone Digs announced than it was more than living up to its name. Sales of spades, trowels and metal detectors went through the roof and, in addition to the people of Folkestone, thousands of visitors were digging in the hope of striking gold as a small patch of beach turned into a mini Kentish Klondike. The international media pack poured in too from newspapers, magazines, TV, radio stations and more online publications than you could shake a bag of gold at. It cost £10,000. The publicity it has generated must be worth much much more. Best of all, however frantic the digging, each incoming tide restores the shoreline and its shiny secrets to pristine condition once again.

The bamboo structure of Gabriel Lester's cross-track observation deck

The bamboo structure of Gabriel Lester’s cross-track observation deck

I have a personal interest in Algerian artist Amina Menia’s Undélaissé - an intriguing response to the vacant lot between the buildings in Tontine Street that was once the site of my great grandfather, William Henry Stokes’, business – Stokes Brothers greengrocer. On 25th May 1917, a 50 kilogram bomb dropped from a state-of-the-art German Gotha bomber blew the shop to smithereens. Sixty people – mainly shoppers packing the busy street, many queuing for a newly delivered consignment of potatoes – were killed. Dozens more were injured. William Henry, 46-years-old, and his 14-year-old younger son Arthur Ernest were among those killed instantly. His 40-year-old brother and business partner Charles Fredrick Stokes suffered appalling injuries and died the following year in hospital. Thankfully William Henry’s 19-year-old older son, William Edward Stokes (my grandfather), was away serving with the Royal Engineers.

The bombing was the first enemy air-raid ever to target Folkestone. No one understood what was happening, no attempt was made to take shelter. The result was a street that turned in a few hellish moments from a scene of urban normality to a battlefield strewn with rubble, broken glass, splintered wood, twisted metal and human remains. The air-raid had been the result of an aborted attack on London. The squadron of newly designed Gothas had headed for the capital but finding low cloud cover obscuring their view had turned back towards the coast and dumped their deadly payload on Folkestone. Bombs fell across the conurbation destroying isolated buildings and killing 36 more people. Dreadful though it was the damage elsewhere in the town paled into insignificance in comparison with the carnage wrought in Tontine Street.

My great grandfather William Henry Stokes

My great grandfather William Henry Stokes

Confronted with a commemorative plaque, a gap between the shops and a rather fanciful version of the site’s history, Amina Menia set about creating an installation that appears to be based on two wrong assumptions – that the shop was a bakers rather than a greengrocers and that the site has been empty ever since 1917. As I and many other descendants of those directly involved could have told her, this was not the case. The bombed-out shop was quickly rebuilt and continued trading as a greengrocers for many decades. It was finally destroyed in a fire in 1985. Never mind. Amina’s attempt to reimagine the life of the old shop, complete with the stencilled ghost of the Stokes Bros sign, is a well-intentioned commemoration – even if it does centre around sound recordings featuring ethereal spoken word recipes for bread. I’m just delighted that a part of my family history should be incorporated into the Triennial and understand that moves are afoot to establish a permanent memorial garden on the site.

At the moment the garden is basic in the extreme and overgrown with weeds and wildflowers. If the memorial plan comes to fruition I would love to be there when it opens, presumably on the centenary of the bombing on 25th May 2017. I am genuinely pleased that Amina has helped to highlight the site and its history even if some of the facts are little askew.  I hear that on the press day she was stung by a bee. Perhaps it was karma!

Of course human beings seldom get things absolutely right when looking to their past. History has a habit of getting re-written whether through Chinese whispers, misunderstandings or wishful thinking. Monitoring the often alarmist international news during the Triennial are a series of Withervanes sited on various rooftops across the town. Created by artists Cezanne Charles and John Marshall they take the form of headless chickens which react via the internet to the output of the BBC, Reuters and The Guardian. Predetermined keywords suggesting war, economic collapse or other disasters cause them to change colour from green to red.

Other Triennial entries tap into more abstract areas of our hopes, fears and aspirations. Strange Cargo has attempted to impart luck by finding people prepared to be 3D printed in their personal lucky colour and placed, along with their chosen lucky charms/possessions, under the town’s Central Railway station bridge. The old brick bridge – a stones throw from the house where I grew up – is now officially labelled The Luckiest Place In The World.

A 'withervane' reacts to negative news

A withervane reacts to negative news

Back at Strange Cargo’s base – Georges House Gallery overlooking the ancient cobbles of the Old High Street – there’s more 3D printing for those prepared to spend up to £600 to have themselves reproduced. There are lucky badges and even lucky money. It’s not that lucky though!  When we visited we found the front of the gallery boarded up. It seems someone had chucked a brick through the window. Can’t win ‘em all.

What you can win is a connection with a very special place. Even though I haven’t lived there since 1986 Folkestone still feels like home and I know with increasing certainty that one day I will return. Of course I got used to hearing people run the place down but now I feel it’s unique qualities are coming into their own once again. It may sound like nonsense but there is something in the air. Even the meeting of St Margaret’s old girls -SMOGS – was like a Triennial add-on as they looked out for their former classmates and a formative slice of life that could only have happened in Folkestone.

Yoko Ono, who arrived in town a couple of days before me, summed it up. Commenting after her Triennial visit, she wrote that she had expected to find a town that had once been grand but had been “asleep” since the First World War. She imagined it would need her energy but discovered instead a place with a quiet energy all of its own and full of ‘bright eyed, bushy tailed’ people of all ages. It reminded her, she said, of Iceland – one of the most enlightened, green and artistically progressive countries in the world.

“Folkestone was totally different from what I expected…The place was beautiful in the way we would like to see all cities now. Eco, bodily and spiritually. Very alive in a quiet way, as if everybody was into meditation, and mindfulness!”

That’s my town! Full of wonderful eccentricities and lovely surprises.

*The Folkestone Triennial runs until 2nd November. More information at www.folkestonetriennial.org.uk

Zoot Money, tales of a mayor in tights and a death hoax – just another Sunday afternoon

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Zoot Money and Bournemouth Mayor Chris Mayne exchange memories of their 1950s schooldays. Photographs by Hattie Miles.

So there we were, a couple of hundred musicians, artists, writers, photographers and old blues and R&B fans crowded onto a Bournemouth town centre pavement outside an unremarkable row of shops, bars and restaurants. Those in the know were staring nostalgically at a nondescript door sandwiched between an Italian coffee shop and a Polish Delicatessen. For beyond that door, at number 9 Holdenhurst Road, lies a flight of stairs leading down to a dingy cellar where, 53 years ago on 3rd  May, 1961, the town’s first full-time jazz, rock and blues club was born.

The aptly named Downstairs Club was a game-changer for a generation of hip young post-war groovers discovering the joys of a new wave of beat and R&B music. Like a strange magnet this sweaty, low-ceilinged basement almost instantly became the favoured haunt of musicians looking for the freedom to break free from the constraints of dance hall commercialisation. With half a dozen key characters calling the shots, its Friday and Saturday all-nighters sowed the seeds for what would effectively become the house band of Swinging London.

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The plaque outside the old Downstairs Cluib

For among the local boys cutting their teeth in that grimy, smokey hole  was a young keyboard player and vocalist called George Money and an equally youthful guitarist called Andy Summers. Fast forward a couple of years and the pair, together with another Bournemouth boy, drummer Colin Allen, would be the mainstays of Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band – resident musicians at Soho’s Flamingo Club. Of course it didn’t end there. After some psychedelic adventures with Zoot’s Dantalian’s Chariot, Andy Summers would go on to play with The Animals, Soft Machine, Kevin Coyne and Kevin Ayres before finally becoming a superstar alongside Sting and Stewart Copeland in The Police. Colin Allen would play drums with Bob Dylan, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Mick Taylor, Stone the Crows and Georgie Fame to name but a few

And Zoot? He remains to this day a near-legend One of those characters who seems to have the knack of being at the epicentre of whatever is important just a little while before anyone else realises it even exists. It was to Zoot’s Fulham flat that new boy in town Jimi Hendrix headed when he first arrived in London from the States. It was Zoot who Paul McCartney sought out when he was looking for talent for a new record label.  At the age of 71, Zoot is still playing, often alongside Colin Allen with singer Maggie Bell, bassman Colin Hodgkinson and various virtuoso guitarists in the British Blues Quintet while his latter-day version of the Big Roll Band is a regular must-see at The Bulls Head in Barnes.

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Some of the crowd that turned up for the unveiling

Zoot has also enjoyed success as a music producer and film and TV actor. A busy man, but thankfully not too busy to return to his hometown to join the jostling throng and officiate over the unveiling of a commemorative plaque marking the site of The Downstairs Club and its later incarnation as the exotically monikered Le Disc A Go! Go!  This cellar club was for a time one of the prized gigs on the south coast, a venue where the great and the good played, including, as former owner Allan Azern never tires of telling people, Eric Clapton. However it’s not so much the coup of booking Slowhand himself that Allan is proud of. It’s the fact that he got him for a fee of just 25 quid.

So to the great unveiling. There were many memories being discussed and stories, some of them taller than others, being swapped by the crowd which included several of the names and faces that made the club happen half-a-century ago. Michael Giles, founder drummer with King Crimson, stood quietly at the back. There was author Jonny Kremer – who in 1963 with his good friend Al Stewart (still several years off writing Year of the Cat) hustled his way backstage to chat to The Beatles at the Bournemouth Gaumont. Others included 1960s movers and shakers like John ‘Jet’ Berryman, Pat ‘Pee Wee’ Sheehan, John Penhale, Mike Bowerman – stalwarts of the town’s beat-boom years. Then there was master of ceremonies and blue plaque organiser Al Kirtley who played at The Downstairs Club with the very first Zoot Money band.

As Zoot would later remark many of those present seemed vaguely familiar.  “They sort of look the same, only upside down,” he said, pointing at the  disproportionate number of bald heads and beards present.  “People keep coming up to me saying: ‘I suppose you don’t remember me?’ “Well I can tell you, you’re absolutely right. I do not fucking remember you but I’m glad you’re all here and glad that at least you remember me because sometimes I don’t.”

Andy Summers

Andy Summers

Andy Summers, who of course Zoot still knows very well indeed, should have been present too but rescheduled dates during his current European tour left him marooned in Germany.  A few cynical eyebrows were raised at this news. I heard someone muttering darkly about multi-millionaires who can’t be arsed to acknowledge their humble roots. I know this was absolutely not the case. Indeed Andy, who is reputed to be worth around £200 million ( a figure that, true or not, has the capacity to irritate certain individuals)  sent his apologies in a witty and heartfelt email which was read to the crowd.

“I remember with great affection many nights playing at the Downstairs Club. Of course I was only a child of three and my mum was always waiting for me when I got off stage, but it is where I got to grips with the guitar and the road ahead as a musician. 
“Without the Downstairs Club it is quite possible that in my case none of it would ever have happened. The dark little cellar is where Zoot and I met and where we knew we’d have to brave the big time in London.  I’d live for our weekend all night sessions at the club. It is where I first tried to bring my dreams and fantasies alive and of course the dreams and fantasies of the many nubile maidens that I imagined were at my feet in glowing admiration. In a way it was the perfect beginning to a life in music…I’ll see you downstairs.”

That sign-off caused much guffawing about a collective misspent youth and maybe even deals with the Devil. Zoot told of sexy encounters with the many willing young women who’d find there way to owner Jerry Stooks upstairs flat and long nights fuelled by forbidden alcohol in the booze-free club below. He was positively glowing with nostalgia as he recalled how (decades before the advent of bottled water) he’d pour neat vodka into a milk bottle and keep it on his keyboard, saying it was  “just a little water for my throat.”

An even more graphic view of the club and the characters that surrounded it can be found on Al Kirtley’s website where he remembers Jerry Stooks as a jazz-loving beatnik with a penchant for the kind of huge open-topped car generally associated with minor South American dictators and an upstairs neighbour known as Johnny de Monk who had a club-foot, a pet monkey and a stinking, fetted flat. Click on link here. Those were the days, eh?

Zoot and Chris Mayne snap a selfie. Al Kirtley looks on

Zoot and Chris Mayne snap a selfie. Al Kirtley looks on

Before Zoot finally did the honours and pulled the cord that unveiled the plaque, one his old school chums, the current Mayor of Bournemouth, Cllr Chris Mayne arrived hotfoot from a civic lunch to add his official weight to the proceedings. Chris, it was explained, had been one of the crowd that used to see acts like Alexis Korner, Graham Bond, Jack Bruce, John Mayall, Manfred Mann, Jimmy Powell and the Five Dimensions and many more at the Disc A Go! Go!

Resplendent in chain of office, he was thrilled by this chance to revisit his colourful youth. I later heard that he considered the unveiling to be the undoubted highpoint of his engagement diary. It seemed to be doing his image quite a lot of good too. Not only did he get to snap a couple of selfies with his erstwhile classmate Zoot but he was suddenly being described by all and sundry as ‘the Rock ’n’ Roll Mayor.’

“What memories!” he said, beaming at the crowd. Zoot, always a jolly japester, took the opportunity to reveal that back in the 1950s he and Chris Mayne used to appear in school productions together and on the last occasion that they trod the boards the future Mayor had been cast as his girlfriend. “We both had to wear tights,” said Zoot before gesturing towards the slightly reddening First Citizen and gently pointing out that “His were a much smaller size of course.”  With that Zoot pulled the cord and revealed the plaque that has once more put the site of the Downstairs Club on the map.

*Bizarrely, just two days later, a hoax message appeared on the internet claiming that Andy Summers had died. Distraught fans posted messages of condolence before receiving reassurances that the guitarist is not only alive and well but clearly not ready to take that long walk downstairs just yet.

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