Dancing Ledge

When the going gets tough the tough start blogging

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.

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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.

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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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Bidding a sad farewell to Joy Beverley

The Beverley Sisters with Joy (centre), Babs (left) and Teddie (right). Their classic line-up.

The Beverley Sisters with Joy (centre), Babs (left) and Teddie (right). Their classic line-up.

I was saddened to hear of the death of Joy Beverley. She may have been 91-years-old and she certainly enjoyed a proverbial “good innings” but I suspect she would have liked to have hung on for a while more. I speak as someone who until a few short years ago used to often spend happy afternoons chatting to the Beverley Sisters. That stopped you in your tracks didn’t it! I’ll explain. During my years as arts and entertainments editor on the Daily Echo in Bournemouth I had occasion to interview Joy and her sisters, the twins Babs and Teddie, a number of  times.

It was that sort of job. One minute I’d be with John Mayall talking about the British blues boom or hanging out in a bar with former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor. The next I’d be lamenting the death of variety with Cannon and Ball, interviewing Ken Dodd sitting backstage somewhere in his vest and pants or…talking to the Beverley Sisters.  The inimitable harmony trio made a career out of being fresh-faced innocents who sang ever-so slightly bawdy songs. Identically dressed and loved by a fan-base that crossed the generations, they were acutely aware of their image and, perhaps even more importantly, their strength as a trio. Unlike many who work together for decades but eventually fall out, The Beverley Sister really were incredibly close. They even all shared the same birthday. Joy was born on 5th May 1924 and Babs and Teddie followed exactly  four years to the day later. Irving Berlin may have written Sisters, the song that became their unofficial signature tune, for the movie White Christmas but it could have been penned specially for Joy, Babs and Teddie.  The opening lyric ‘Sisters, sisters. There were never such devoted sisters’ tells it exactly as it was.

Meeting them was a delight helped no end by the fact that as soon as they discovered that I shared a surname with their mother Victoria, whose maiden name had been Miles, the Bevs took a distinct liking to me.  “How interesting!,” squealed Babs when I first introduced myself. “Maybe we’re related?” Just a cursory glance at either of our family trees  would have  blown that theory right out of the water but it was certainly an ice-breaker. Within minutes all three sisters were talking nineteen to the dozen about there early lives, their parents George and Victoria who performed as the music hall duo Coram and Miles and of course their extraordinary showbusiness career which made them one of the most enduring harmony trios of the post war years.

What a great story it was. Brought up in the East End, their singing talents were first noticed when they were chosen as models for a wartime Ovaltine poster  and the photographer heard them singing for the local troops.  He recommended them to a BBC producer friend who re-christened them Beverley Sisters and found them a gig on Variety Band Box.  They were on their way and in a few short years were massively popular. They played their first Royal Variety Performance in 1952 and recorded a string of hit records. Over the next decade they became not only a mainstays of British TV but also the highest paid female act of the time reputedly earning the equivalent of £10,000-a-week. Their chart hits included I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,  The Little Drummer Boy, Bye Bye Love and The Little Donkey but there were also longtime  favourite performance numbers  like How Much Is That Doggie In The Window? and of course the aforementioned Sisters.

Max Bygraves copy pictures from his personal collection: Max with the Beverley Sisters

Max Bygraves with the Beverley Sisters

Joy helped seal the Beverley Sisters fame in 1958 when she married the golden boy of football Wolves and England captain Billy Wright. The undisputed soccer superstar of his day, Wright led England as captain 90 times and became the first footballer to notch up 100 caps for his country. Together Joy and Billy were the ultimate celebrity couple, the Posh and Becks of the late 1950s. Their wedding – which took place at Poole Register Office during a day-off from a Beverley Sisters summer season in Bournemouth  – was mobbed by literally tens of thousands of fans.

Joy and Billy remained happily married until his death from pancreatic cancer in 2004. The last time I actually met The Bevs  was when they appeared as special guests in their friend Max Bygrave’s retirement concert. It had been Max – who I got to know well during my time at the Bournemouth Echo – who had originally introduced us. The retirement show in November 2003  came just before Max and his wife Blossom left their beautiful Bournemouth cliff-top home after more than 30 years and headed for a new life in Australia. It was a bizarre but happy evening during which Max, always canny with money, had attempted to sell his massive collection of ties in the foyer for £10 each. It was a bright idea he’d hatched while clearing out unwanted possessions prior to the Australia move, “Everyone always sends me a tie,” he explained. “I’ve got hundreds of them.” I expect he made a few quid but as business schemes went this was hardly on a par with the ultra shrewd investment he’d made back in the early sixties when he bought the rights to Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver! for £350.

Joy, Babs and Teddie were an essential ingredient in that retirement show. They had shared countless variety bills with Max for more than 50 years. He would have hated doing the show without them. Though they were well, into their 70s the Bevs would have done anything to be there.   They apparently made a rather striking arrival at the town’s Pavilion Theatre that afternoon having managed to get stopped by the police for driving the wrong way along Westover Road. Fortunately their misunderstanding was forgiven and a rather splendid anecdote had been born. To this day I smile at the thought of  a hapless traffic policeman pulling over their car and being greeted by the sight of the Beverley Sisters beaming out at him.

After that show. The Bevs occasionally continued to regale me with stories over the phone from their adjoining houses in North London but not for long. Their own retirement soon beckoned. I’ll treasure the memories though of the three of them jabbering happily away on the conference line that they routinely used for interviews. The sisters had been so close for so long that they had a positively telepathic understanding of each others thought processes. They frequently finished each others sentences,even when the conversation had gone off at some crazy tangent. It was often impossible to tell who was saying what but it really didn’t matter. They effectively spoke as one and they never lost the ability to deliver a useful soundbite. A quote you could use. For instance when, in the 1980s, the Bevs suddenly found themselves with a new gay following they took to it as only three ladies with penchant for wearing pink could. Astonished by the strobes, stage-smoke and flashing lights that greeted them as a super-camp crowd delivered ear-shattering ‘bow-wows’ to accompany  How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?, they observed that it was “Just like being back in the Blitz”. The media loved that one and they loved the Bevs too. They were friendly, fun and they knew how to play the showbiz game.  I’ll miss Joy and know that Babs and Teddie, now 88, will be devastated by her death. I hope they’re OK.

 

Mona Lisa and mad snappers

photograph by Hattie Miles ... August.2015 ... Paris ... (not) looking at the Mona Lisa

Tourists at the Louvre in Paris (not) looking at the Mona Lisa. Photograph by Hattie Miles, August 2015

A never-ending tide of humanity in t-shirts, trainers and cagouls surges ever onwards, sweeping up the grand steps of The Louvre – the one-time Parisian Royal Palace that is now one of the largest and most famous art museums in the world. These tourists –  just a few thousand of the 10 million people who visit here each year – are heading for the first floor of the Denon wing, home to an exquisite collection of French and Italian paintings. They are intent on finding La Gioconda, Leonardo da Vinci’s early 16th century masterpiece universally known as the Mona Lisa. It’s not difficult. It’s sign-posted every few metres.

Mona Lisa smiles for the cameras

Mona Lisa smiles for the cameras

As they draw close they prime their phones, iPads and cameras as a team of security guards usher them into a cordoned-off, makeshift pen. Finally in front of the relatively diminutive painting – a portrait in oils on wood-panel measuring just 30 by 21 inches and protected by bullet-proof glass – they strain to get a clear enough sight-line. Many turn their backs on this painting that once hung in Napoleon’s bed chamber to take selfies of themselves, grinning faces with the enigmatic Mona Lisa playing second fiddle  in the distant background. Few appear to have any opinion about the painting. They simply have to have it on their hand-held device before returning home. They don’t really look at the Mona Lisa at all, just view the image on the screen of their phone. They don’t discuss it either or even consider buying a postcard.

Tourists with Monet's Water lilies

Tourists at the Orangerie in Paris with Monet’s Water lilies

It’s difficult to imagine how life during the first decades of the 21st century will be viewed by our descendants. We are living in an era of visual self-gratification. We look but we rarely see.  Despite this we obsessively record our leisure time in an unedifying series of bad images snapped on smart phones, iPads, Go-Pros, selfie-sticks and occasionally even conventional cameras.  A couple of years ago someone calculated that a tenth of all photographs that had ever existed had been taken in the previous 12 months. Since then our appetite for pointlessly snapping everything we see has continued to grow and there’s no sign of our digital gluttony abating anytime soon.

In the days of photographic prints our rejects were often shoved in a drawer and forgotten, sometimes for many years until a chance rediscovery revealed their true worth. Some of my favourite photographs are the self-same prints that once seemed rather dull and nondescript. Sadly, those images – the ones that take us time to appreciate – barely exist anymore.

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Looking through a doorway at Musee Picasso

In Paris we visited not only The Louvre but many other favourite art museums including Musee d’Orsay, the Picasso Museum, the Orangerie, Musee Rodin and the Pompidou Centre. Now people have always taken photographs in these amazing centres of culture, us included.  Something has changed though. The sheer mass of phone-toting snappers traipsing through these world-class galleries methodically collecting an image of every work they see has grown enormously. As we witnessed with the Mona Lisa, few people actually look at the painting or sculpture they are photographing and they certainly don’t stop to study it. They just want to acquire  proof that they have “done” Manet’s Olympia, Degas’ Little Dancer, Rodin’s The Thinker or Monet’s Waterlilies.

photograph by Hattie Miles ... August.2015 ... The Louvre

A visitor snapping Ingre’s Grande Odalisque at The Louvre

Intriguingly somewhere along the line the perceived etiquette of gallery behaviour has changed. Standing in front of a painting without photographing it is now considered by many to be simply  getting in the way. I was studying a rather splendid  Cezanne still-life in the Orangerie when three different people simply walked in front of me and took pictures with their phones. There were no apologies. In their eyes I was standing around doing nothing. Yet when I raised my own camera people ducked out of my way, raised their hands in apology and frantically skirted round me. How strange!  For a start I would have been more than happy to wait and anyway I wanted people in the picture. That was the point of taking it. If I simply wanted an image of an artwork I would have bought a postcard.

The strange case of Victor Noir the unlikely martyr who became a sex symbol

Victor Noir's grave at Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris photograph by Hattie Miles ... August 2015 .

Victor Noir’s grave at Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris has become a magnet for the childless and those looking for love. Photograph by Hattie Miles (August 2015)

What a bohemian life we lead!  I’m in Paris leaning on a grave in the Père Lachaise cemetery chuckling as my wife photographs another man’s erection. Right! Now I have your attention let me explain. The man in question is in effigy form. It is the bronze memorial to 19th century journalist Victor Noir, the pen-name of hapless hack Yvan Salmon, who was  gunned down in his prime in 1870 and, for reasons lost in the mists of time, commemorated with a statue that features him in a state of perpetual sexual arousal.

Childless women and those looking for love rub Victor's lump

Childless women and those looking for a husband rub Victor’s groin.

It is an extraordinary life-size memorial which ostensibly portrays Noir’s untimely death, but there is more. Frock-coat open, he lies on his back, shirt undone, bullet wound in his chest, his top-hat lying on its side at his feet. His trousers are partially unbuttoned too and there is a very obvious bulge in the crotch area. In a bizarre twist of fate Victor’s sculpted image has gradually found fame as a fertility symbol. Childless and lonely women leave messages and flowers in his hat , kiss his lips or even rub the lump in his trousers. For those unlucky in love the belief is that they will find a husband within a year while the childless will miraculously be able to conceive.

Flowers in Victor's hat

Flowers in Victor’s hat

This myth is believed to have emerged after tour guides contrived to invent a story that made some kind of sense of this strange grave. However no one really knows the truth or indeed why sculptor Jules Dalou chose to immortalise Victor Noir in such a manner. All indications suggest that the newspaper reporter behind the nom de plume, Yvan Salmon, was a relatively mundane fellow. What’s more he was just 22-years-old and though engaged to be married, very probably still a virgin.

What is clear is that visits from desperate women are frequent and often.  There are wilting flowers in his hat and the bronze figure is covered in an oxidised patina of verdigris except in the trouser area, which along with his lips, positively gleams from the attention received.

Victor is one of the more intriguing residents of the huge Père Lachaise cemetery – final resting place of countless thousands of the great, the good, the notorious and of course  the thoroughly ordinary folk of Paris. Among the more famous figures occupying graves in this hauntingly beautiful Parisian city of the dead are Chopin, Proust, Oscar Wilde, Molière, Colette, Isadora Duncan, Edith Piaf and of course American rock star and poet Jim Morrison whose grave can be found by following fans graffiti and the faint lingering smell of marijuana.

It’s a cast list that ensure that this vast cemetery which climbs a tree-swept hill to the north east of the city remains high on the list of must-see Paris attractions. Père Lachaise is a magical world of cobbled pathways and monuments that range from magnificent sepulchres  to crumbling, broken memorials to long forgotten souls. It’s a compelling place full of ghosts of the past and many stories that remain untold, half-told or reinvented.

The strange case of Victor Noir is a fascinating example of how both life and death can sometimes take an unusual turn. It all began when Victor’s pro-revolutionary editor at the newspaper La Marseillaise became embroiled in a political row with Prince Pierre Bonaparte – nephew of the late Emperor. Angry words were exchanged and the hapless Victor was despatched to fix the terms of a duel. Bonaparte was incensed that a mere minion had been sent to demand that honour should be satisfied, a scuffle ensued and Victor was shot dead.

photograph by Hattie Miles ... August 2015 ... Pere Lechaise, Paris ..

Oscar Wilde’s memorial at Pere Lachaise  smothered in kisses

Although he was just an ordinary newspaper reporter, a rather mundane individual by all accounts,  the slaying proved a catalyst for protest and demonstrations across the city. Before long the name of Victor Noir became inextricably linked to the causes of revolutionary activists. So much so that 20 years after his death Victor’s body was exhumed from a family grave near his home in the suburb of Neuilly and taken to Père Lachaise where he lies to this day beneath the extraordinary memorial created by Jules Dalou.

Not surprisingly perhaps the Victor Noir grave has not been free from controversy. As recently as 2004 the authorities fenced the site off  to prevent what they described as “lewd acts” being performed on the effigy. A BBC report at the time stated: “Officials concerned about damage to the icon’s groin area have erected a fence around the grave, and a sign prohibiting indecent rubbing.”  More than a decade on there is no fence, no sign and a distinctly relaxed attitude to how visitors may or may not choose to express themselves.

Other graves at Père Lachaise have given cause for concern too. Devotees of Oscar Wilde smothered his exotic memorial – painstakingly carved from a 20 tonne block of Hopton Wood stone by Jacob Epstein –  in so many lipstick-slavered kisses that it was  feared the monument would be permanently damaged.

Jim Morrison's grave .

Jim Morrison’s modest  grave .

In 2011 a glass screen was erected to protect it. It is now only the climbers who manage to plant a crimson smacker on the Wilde tomb which depicts a sphinx-headed winged messenger. Epstein gave it a spectacular pair of testicles too but not only did these cause trouble from the French police who maintained that were “unusual” and should be covered up but, once revealed in all their glory, they became the target of vandals who finally removed them in 1961. Legend has it that the ‘Wilde bollocks’ were then pressed into service as a paperweight by the cemetery manager. Whatever the truth they are now missing.

Vandals also managed to make off with a large stone bust of Jim Morrison sometime in the early 90s.  The lead singer of The Doors died, aged 27, in mysterious circumstances in Paris in 1971. The official account of his death stated that he died of heart-failure while taking a bath at the apartment he was renting with his partner Pamela Courson. However the fact that there was no autopsy and a hastily issued death certificate allowed his body to be released for burial before too many questions could be asked  led many to suspect that he actually died of a heroin overdose. Other theories maintained that he was murdered or that he faked his death in order to escape public attention. For years rumours persisted that he had changed his identity and was working as a bank clerk in Los Angeles. As if! But then who would have believed that mild-mannered reporter Yvan Salmon would end his days shot by Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, become a martyr for the Republic, be immortalised as a randy ladies man and ministered to almost daily by strange women?

Tourists at Pere Lachaise

Tourists at Pere Lachaise in Paris in August 2015.

Fact file: Père Lachaise, which covers 110 acres was originally opened in 1804.  It was the city’s first garden-cemetery and though it initially contained only 13 graves, it now contains an estimated one million bodies.  It is easily found adjacent to the Boulevard de Ménilmontant in the city’s 20th arrondissement. The Philippe Auguste station on Metro line 2 is closest to the main entrance, although many  people prefer to head for the Gambetta station on line 3, which allows them to enter near the tomb of Oscar Wilde and then walk downhill to visit the rest of the cemetery. Don’t make the obvious mistake and get off at the Père Lachaise Metro station as it is 500 metres away and near a side entrance that has been closed to the public. You can buy a plan of the cemetery at the conservation office near the main entrance or download it in PDF form from the internet. Armed with this you can navigate your way around the famous graves and trace some of the key events and characters that have shaped French history. There are three memorials to the First World War and  Père Lachaise is also the site of The Communards’ Wall – Mur des Fédérés – where 147 Communards, the last defenders of the workers’ district of Belleville, were shot on 28 May 1871 – the last day of the “Bloody Week” in which the Paris Commune was finally crushed.

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