Dancing Ledge

When the going gets tough the tough start blogging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Quay harbour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jeremy Miles on New Quay harbour wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The John Nash villa at Llanerchaeron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fishing-boat-bobbing temporarily suspended at low tide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Henry the horse danced the waltz…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25th May 1917 – the WWI air-raid that blasted Folkestone into a new age of violence

 

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My great grandfather William Henry Stokes one of 61 people killed in the Tontine Street air-raid

The date:  Friday 25th May 1917. The time: 6.22pm.

It was a beautiful early summer’s evening and for the people of Folkestone the start of a seaside holiday weekend. In bustling Tontine Street children were playing while their mothers chatted and queued outside Stokes Brothers the greengrocers. There had been wartime food shortages and a new delivery of potatoes had just arrived. A crowd had quickly gathered as news got around. Shopkeeper William Henry Stokes, my great grandfather, and his staff were doing brisk business.

The mood was surprisingly carefree. Despite the terrible death toll on the Western Front just a short distance across the English Channel, the actual violence of war had had little direct effect on the town. The sound of distant explosions caused scant concern to the shoppers outside the Stokes grocery store that evening. It was just the military practising at nearby Shorncliffe Camp. Or so they thought.

Suddenly there was a terrifying roar as a German aircraft swept out of the skies and dropped a massive 50 kilogram bomb onto the street beside the gathering throng. There was a flash of light, a deafening explosion and a moment of searing heat as the blast ripped through the queue, completely demolishing the Stokes Brothers shop and setting fire to a broken gas main.

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The Stokes Brothers shop before the bombing. My great grandfather is pictured centre right

In a moment the scene had changed from that of a peaceful, balmy evening in the summer sunshine to one of terror and unspeakable carnage. The shop was completely flattened. All that was left was a mass of splintered  wood and masonry. Inside William Stokes, lay dying in the rubble. His 14-year-old son Arthur (my great uncle) was terribly injured but still conscious and, though his legs were shredded by shrapnel, he  managed to crawl into the street. Arthur would die in hospital three days later after gangrene set into his wounds. Two members of staff, teenage book-keepers Florrie Rumsey and Edith Eales, were also fatally injured. They were both just 17-years-old. Also in the shop was William’s brother Fred (my great great uncle) who would never recover from his wounds and died 17 months later.

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The Stokes Brothers shop ready for reconstruction.

Outside, the street was strewn with the dead and dying. The eerie silence that had followed the explosion was soon broken by the moans and cries of the injured as survivors picked through the broken bodies, severed arms, legs and even heads looking for their loved ones. The police, fire brigade and ambulance service were soon on the scene tending to the injured, comforting the bereaved and helping those survivors whose lives had been shattered, utterly changed in an instant. Some would eventually find a way back to a semblance of normality. Others would be destined to live out their days physically and/or emotionally crippled. Sixty one people had been killed by that single bomb and many more injured. Both the attack and its effects were unprecedented. Folkestone had never experienced anything remotely  like it  before.

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My great great uncle Fred Stokes died from his injuries.

Although by 1917 it was a garrison town full of soldiers and the embarkation point for thousands of troops heading for the front-line, Folkestone’s civilian population was strangely complacent. The townsfolk were  largely convinced that they were safe. Quite how blasé  people were is perhaps underlined by a contemporaneous account by a Mrs Coxon who describes the “exquisite summer’s day” and how  interested she is in “a very large flight of about twenty aeroplanes circling and pirouetting over my head.” She talks of watching their “graceful antics” happy in the misconception that at last Britain was “up and doing”. The idea that they could possibly be enemy planes didn’t occur to her until a bomb dropped killing a woman walking along the road behind her.  The military had done little to protect the town. There were no anti-aircraft defences and no efficient warning systems. Previous attacks from the air had been by Zeppelin airships and had never specifically targeted the little Channel Port before. What’s more Zeppelins were easily shot down.

However the German High Command had a plan. They secretly developed long-range bombers and on 25th May 1917 a squadron of state-of-the art  Gotha GIV planes laden with bombs set off planning to attack London. The flyers made it to the capital but, discovering it shrouded in low-lying cloud, turned south and followed the South Eastern and Chatham railway line down to the coast, targeting the railway hub at Ashford and the Royal Military Canal near Hythe on the way. Fortunately air warfare was in its infancy, many of the bombs were duds and damage was limited. In Hythe for example 16 bombs were dropped but only two people died.

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My great uncle Arthur Stokes, 14, also died

But the last gasp attack on Folkestone as the 21 Gotha’s prepared to head back across the channel raised the eventual death toll to horrendous proportions. In all 97 people were killed – 79 civilians and 18 soldiers, mainly Canadians stationed at Shorncliffe camp. It changed the town forever. There was a tangible loss of innocence. Among the dead there were many children, 27 in Folkestone alone.  Terrible stories emerged of entire families destroyed. The youngest fatality was Walter Moss, just two months old, who died in Tontine Street from a terrible wound in the chest. His mother Jane also died. It is believed that her legs were torn off by the blast. They were the family of Private George Moss a Canadian soldier serving with the Labour Battalion. Poor George was a member of the Salvation Army and had ambitions to become a chaplain. He had signed up to fight the good fight in August 1914. By the end of the war he had lost four brothers, a cousin, his father-in-law and his wife and baby son .

Another child victim of the Tontine Street bomb was 10 month old William Norris who died alongside his mother Florence and his two-year-old sister also named Florence. Their father, a local mechanic, would return home to the incomprehensible news that a simple shopping trip had resulted in the loss of his entire family. There were other horrors too. As the clear-up operation began and police and volunteers literally scooped up body parts in buckets, the head of little girl was found on the doorstep of the Brewery Tap pub next-door to Stokes Brothers. For decades it was rumoured that, however much it was washed and scrubbed, the bloodstain could not be removed. A simple natural discolouration of the stone-work had been turned into a symbol of death and, by extension, a portent of doom. For years certain people crossed the road rather than walk past that door.

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My great grandmother Jane Stokes

Many had issues to deal with. My own great grandmother, William Stokes’ widow, Jane, lived to be 90-years-old, but went to her grave still racked with guilt over the fact that her husband had already come home that evening but had returned to the shop because his tea wasn’t ready. I can just remember my great grandmother as a very, very old lady who lived with my great aunt. She died shortly before my third birthday. She had also of course lost a brother-in-law and a grandson in that single raid. None of them  were meant to be at the shop at 6.22 that evening. The world of the survivors was haunted by so many ‘what ifs?’

Not surprising then that the bombing was rarely mentioned when I was growing up. In retrospect I realise there was almost a vow of silence  about the subject. I can only of course speak for my own family who, although the raid was commemorated with a memorial plaque and an event that was central to Folkestone’s recent history, approached the subject with a collective stiff upper lip, a survival technique that would no doubt horrify contemporary mental health experts. The struggle of the post First World War years hardened their resolve. As William’s granddaughter, my 90-year-old mother Joyce Miles, explained to me just the other day: “They had been through one dreadful war and knew there was probably another one coming. They wanted to get on with their lives rather than dwell on the horrors of the past.”

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My mum Joyce Miles. William Henry Stokes’ granddaughter. Photo March 2017

The Stokes Brothers shop was quickly rebuilt after the attack and the business continued with little said on the subject of the bombing. There we’re so many imponderables. My grandfather William Stokes Junior for example survived the Great War because he was serving with the Royal Engineers. Had he been at home selling potatoes it might have  been a very different story and of course I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale.

The Stokes Brothers business continued trading until 1985 when an arsonist broke into the shop one night and set fire to both himself and the premises. He died and Stokes Brothers was razed to the ground. As News Editor on the town’s local paper I personally covered that story. At the time it felt as though the Stokes family business was in some way cursed but the empty site that has remained undeveloped ever since seems a curiously peaceful place. Maybe its demons have been laid to rest.

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Direct descendants of those killed in the air-raid gather at the new memorial

I am writing these words  just a few days after the victims of the 25th May 1917 air raid were remembered at a special centenary commemoration in Folkestone attended by descendants of those who were killed. This poignant event included a church service and the unveiling at 6.22pm – 100 years to the minute after the fateful bomb dropped on Tontine Street – of a commemorative plaque in the town’s Garden of Remembrance. Relatives young and old of those who were killed and injured came from all over the country.

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6.22pm the precise time the fatal bomb fell on Tontine Street

Sadly the commemoration was made even more thought-provoking because it took place just days after the murderous terrorist attack on Manchester Arena which, although a very different kind of bombing, also resulted in the death of a large number of children.

Many who were present will not realise that the centenary commemoration only happened thanks to the tireless efforts of Margaret Care – a distant cousin of mine, the great granddaughter of my great grandfather’s brother Fred Stokes. Crikey, that was a bit of a mouthful but I’m not sure there is any other way of saying it. I had never met Margaret before last week but we had exchanged emails over the past three years as she tracked down relatives and negotiated with the authorities over what form a commemoration could take.

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Me at the grave of my great grandfather William Henry Stokes and his son Arthur who were among the 97 who died on 25 May 1917

With the help of Folkestone historian Martin Easdown, bags of gentle enthusiasm and dogged determination, Margaret made it happen. She is a modest soul but I hope she gets the recognition she deserves. Organising the memorial event was a huge undertaking. I am proud that this thoughtful, caring, diligent woman is a relative.

Meeting Modernism at the Russell-Cotes

 

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A Dorset Landscape  by Leslie Moffat Ward (1930)  All images: Russell-Cotes Gallery & Museum

By Jeremy Miles

When Victorian art collector Sir Merton Russell-Cotes bequeathed his lavish cliff-top home, East Cliff Hall, and its huge collection of paintings and sculptures to the people of Bournemouth he created an intriguing problem. He was a fearfully hard act to follow. The collection that he and his wife Annie had spent decades acquiring was idiosyncratic and wide-ranging. Magnificent paintings shared wall space with those that were considered minor and mediocre, but somehow it all worked. It was a collection that reflected Sir Merton’s flamboyant style and generosity of spirit.

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Arthur Bradbury’s 1935 painting Pamela

But it also highlighted the fact that he had been a man of his age, born into the era of Empire. By the time of his death in 1921 the contemporary art world had moved on. Post First World War sensibilities were open to radical change and though public taste, as ever, lagged a few years behind the artistic vanguard, eventually the inevitable happened and Victorian art fell seriously out of fashion.

However Bournemouth was sitting on what was effectively a priceless time-capsule and the Russell-Cotes Art  Gallery and Museum  collection is now recognised as one of the finest complete Victorian collections in the world. That it is housed in its original home is a major bonus. Unfortunately none of this helped answer the problem of how to add to and develop the collection. The answer is found in Meeting Modernism: 20th Century Art in the Russell-Cotes Collection which runs at the museum’s galleries until 24th April.

It’s an interesting title. For modernism is generally considered to encompass such styles as impressionism, cubism, surrealism, futurism, abstract expressionism and so on. At a glance there is little of that in this nonetheless fascinating show although myriad influences from all manner of isms can be found without looking too hard.

The mid 20th century curators at the Russell-Cotes favoured, with understandable logicality, the work of locally based artists. Once again it mixed the marvellous wth the mundane and once again, given the passage of time, it works. Personal tastes and arts-world connections are obviously reflected in this exhibition which is drawn largely from the museum’s bulging vaults. There’s a particular focus for instance on works in tempera, a medium that was championed by Norman Sylvester, curator of the museum for 25 years up to 1957

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Sunday at Weymouth by Eustace Nash

There is much more of course including landscapes by local talents like Henry Lamb, Leslie Moffatt Ward and Maxwell Armfield and a significant collection of portraits and war art. Contributors include some big names like Stanley Spencer, Alfred Munnings, Graham Sutherland and John Piper.

It is clear that the Russell-Cotes museum acquired some very impressive works during these years. Undoubtedly many were the direct result of its close connection with the thriving and innovative Bournemouth Arts Club which had frequently exhibited works by artists like the aforementioned Sutherland, Paul Nash and Augustus John. It would later attract guest speakers like Sir John Betjeman, David Hockney and Sir Hugh Casson, all of  whom helped boost an already heightened interest in art.

The Meeting Modernism exhibition is, like the original Victorian collection, diverse in content. There are overtly local paintings as epitomised by the work of Leslie Ward and Eustace Nash, two close contemporaries who often sold work directly to the museum, particularly in the 40s and 50s and there are works by nationally recognised artists too.

Ward’s A Dorset Landscape is hardly a masterpiece but it’s certainly a crowd-pleaser. It’s a lovingly idealised study of a sweeping view across Worbarrow Bay with five hikers set against a patchwork of the Purbeck Hills. It’s an image that pre-dates Blyton’s Famous Five by more than a decade but you just know there would have been lashings of ginger beer at the end of that walk.

Nash meanwhile uses his skill as a commercial artist to colourfully evoke the fun of a seaside merry-go-round at Weymouth but adopts a darker palette to evoke the day to day reality of the local bus station. There are stylish nudes, commissioned portraits that offer thinly veiled displays of wealth and status and excursions into the spiritual world.

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Tank Landing Craft on Bridge at Dawn by Stephen Bone (1943)

There are bleak scenes from wartime too with Keith Henderson’s study of an RAF machine gunner and Stephen Bone’s tank landing craft. Graham Sutherland  meanwhile used his position as an  official wear artist to capture the furnaces at work for the war effort.

Elsewhere there are stylised portraits from between the wars like Arthur Bradbury’s 1930s painting Pamela and several studies that explore the work and leisure pursuits of the era like Joseph Southall’s Fishermen and Visitors.

Many, though certainly not all, of the paintings on show are quite lightweight in art history terms but, like forgotten snapshots rediscovered years after they were originally taken, they tell a fascinating story about a century that with two world wars and major economic depression suffered from a kind of arrested development before being catapulted at enormous speed into the 21st century.

One particularly fascinating painting, John Minton’s Artist and Model, offers a glimpse of society gradually shrugging of its shackles. It also points towards the Russell-Cotes next major exhibition in October which celebrates the area’s lesbian, gay, bi and trans community and marks the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

Minton’s 1953 work is a self-portrait which sadly I can’t show here for copyright reasons. It  finds the artist capturing himself in the act of painting the object of his desires, the young actor Norman Bowler. Minton is caught in a mirror, reflecting one feels, on a love that he knows will remain unrequited. Bowler would go on to marry Minton’s friend Henrietta Moraes, a Soho character who was the sometime muse and model for both Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. He would also become a well known TV actor and for years played Frank Tate in Emmerdale. John Minton meanwhile struggled with depression, became increasingly dependent on alcohol and eventually committed suicide in 1957, ten long years before homosexual acts in private between consenting adults became legal.

Like so many other paintings in this intriguing exhibition Artist and Model has several different stories to tell. It is well worth exploring.

*Meeting Modernism: 20th Century Art in the Russell-Cotes Collection isn on show at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth until 24th April, 2017. More info at http://www.russellcotes.com

Strictly Murder Review

Strictly Murder2.pngLara Lemon as Suzy and Gary Turner as Peter in Talking Scarlet’s production Strictly Murder

By Jeremy Miles

Strictly Murder – The Theatre, Lighthouse, Poole.

With its clunky title – full of murder mystery promise – and a plot that twists and turns with every scene, this classic stage thriller cannot fail to satisfy.

But then the man who wrote it is the late Brian Clemens, the mastermind behind such 1960s and 70s TV hits as The Avengers and The Professionals.

Strictly Murder is a good old fashioned stage thriller from the days when fictional killings (and real ones too) were not hampered by mobile phone technology, DNA analysis and state-of-the art forensics.

Clemens himself once described this as “the golden age of murder” and pointed out that not a single Agatha Christie story would survive if constrained by modern CSI techniques.

So it was that we were able to happily settle down to this production from the excellent Talking Scarlet theatre company without fear of anyone being nicked as a result of a remote criminal database scan halfway through Act One.

Strictly Murder is set in rural France in 1939 and tension is rising as  Europe braces itself for the outbreak of World War II. We find English couple Peter and Suzy living in a remote cottage in Provence and earning just enough to keep body and soul together. Their simple lives are thrown into turmoil when it is revealed that Peter (Gary Turner) is on the run. But who from and why?

Turner, best known as Carlos Diaz in Emmerdale, is excellent as Peter, full of barely concealed anxiety and burning on a short fuse, while Lara Lemon impresses as Suzy trying to work out what is troubling the man in her life.

But the real scene-stealer is Brian Capron (Richard Hillman from Coronation Street) as strange police inspector Ross who comes calling with alarming consequences.  Corinne Wicks – another familiar Emmerdale  face – plays a pushy murder squad superintendent and Andrew Fettes is a simple minded German vagrant with a gun and a head full of confused memories.

Eventually the tissue of lies, subterfuge and betrayal at the core of this story is revealed and so too is the savagery of the coming Nazi regime.

This production of Strictly Murder, directed by Samuel Clemens (Brian’s son) has a plot that never flags but I do take issues with the publicity that describes it as ‘fast-paced’. It is actually a bit of a slow-burner which is one of reasons it’s so enjoyable.

*Strictly Murder completes its run at Lighthouse with performances today (Thursday 16th March)  at 2.30pm and 7.45pm

Revisiting the punk revolution 40 years on

 

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

40 Years of Punk: Photographs by Adrian Boot 

 Proud Camden until 8th January 2017 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By the time the mainstream press started growing weary of tormenting them there were new punk bands appearing daily. They were in the charts, on radio and TV, touring the country and striking attitudes in magazines. Once it had gone mainstream the punk revolution was essentially over but its influence would be far reaching. It is perhaps only now, decades later and with the benefit of hindsight, that we can sift the reality from the nonesense and see what an important job punk-rock did. Most of the creative giants who were around in the 197os can dig out a fading snapshot displaying the punk pretensions of their youth.

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

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

40 Years of Punk:  Photographs by Adrian Boot  

Runs at Proud Camden until  8th January 2017.

More info at http://www.proud.co.uk

 

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

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Ralph McTell: Lighthouse, Poole.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeremy Miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Look up and there examples of changing times everywhere

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

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

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

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

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A stained-glass gem at the back of a  shop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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