Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Kenneth Williams - "Why Do You Smile When You Think About Earls Court?"


When travelling into the West End from the north of London at weekends my bus route goes down Albany Street which stretches from Camden Town's interface with Regents Park to the junction of Marylebone Road and Great Portland Street. It thus passes close to Osnaburgh Street where the comic actor Kenneth Williams lived with his mother for the last six years of his life prior to his death as the result of a possible accidental overdose of painkillers in April 1988. He was born nearby in Kings Cross and the actual building in Osnaburgh Street was demolished in 2007.

The 2010 Born Brilliant biography by Christopher Stevens is a marvellous companion to the often outrageous diary and letters collection edited by Russell Davies while I still recall with great fondness David Benson's moving one-man show about Williams - Think No Evil Of Us: My Life With Kenneth Williams - at the Hammersmith Lyric many years ago and which indeed is still performed to this day.

An incredibly witty and cerebral habitue of Seventies and Eighties talk shows and variety, Williams was most famous for his appearance in 25 of the original 29 Carry On movies (from Carry on Sergeant to Carry On Emmanuelle) and for portraying the character of Sandy in the BBC radio series Round The Horne between 1965 and 1968.

Julian (played by Hugh Paddick) and Sandy were two out of work gay actors in the series and appeared in sketches in most episodes alongside straight man Kenneth Horne. As usually set in a Chelsea-based business scenario the characters' double entendres at Horne's expense were versed in the camp slang of polari - this at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Britain. Such usage included "bona" for good, "drag" for clothes and "vada" for to look etc.  In one episode the writers even managed to navigate Sandy's saucy commentary on Julian's skills at the piano past BBC management since "a miracle of dexterity at the cottage upright" was not seen as obviously referring to male erections in public toilets.

A common thread through the sketches was Sandy dragging out salacious details about Julian's private life with the admonition "Go on - purge yourself" though at series' end it turned out that the couple were in fact married to female partners all along. They represented however the first openly gay males in British popular culture up to that point.

Sandy and Julian's underground language was joyously celebrated in 1990 in Morrissey's Piccadilly Palare - a song which, in light of Waterloo Sunset's current relevance to modern times being equatable to Protestant and Catholic children skipping hand in hand around Eleventh Night bonfires in Belfast, may well be considered the greatest song about our edgy and most certainly unromantic national capital. This despite not being included in a recent hour long and pedestrian BBC retrospective on London songs. Morrissey also mentioned the city in  Hairdresser On Fire and also  London, Half a Person and Panic while with The Smiths.

Modern London in reality is now enshrouded with stasis and stress for much of its working population and this at a point where projections suggest that by 2020 the average house price will reach half a million pounds. Such grotesque inflation being unaffected by the fact that a broken (and often sectorally pulverised) employment market is complementing the stagnant (and often decrepit) property market or that the city is experiencing lifestyle-deflating demographic shifts rarely seen in peacetime or wartime anywhere in Europe. Hence the treading water sensation many people have - whether employed or otherwise - of feeling trapped in the dressing room while everybody else is out on the pitch playing the game.

Piccadilly Palare includes various pieces of appropriate polari slang, hints towards nefarious sexual goings-on (for a price) and a wonderful and eternally relevant comi-dramatic climax in:

So why do you smile when you think about Earls Court?
Why do you cry when you think about the battles you've lost and won?
It may all end tomorrow but it could go on forever...in which case I'm DOOMED.

Earls Court was of course a centre for the London gay community  between the Fifties and Seventies with one particularly infamous pub - The Colherne - located nearby towards Brompton Cemetery. This drinking  establishment was also mentioned in the track Hanging Around by The Stranglers. An unreleased version of the Morrissey song includes one verse referencing London's grim rental hell - "A cold water room, it's not much I know, but for now it's where I belong" - and extra lines of alienation in the playout insisting "I won't be home tomorrow...no doubt...no doubt".

The musical legacy of Morrissey - as a literal life partner for millions of Britons over the past three decades - truly relates to Richard Ellman's final words in his 1987 biography of Oscar Wilde which noted "his best writings validated by time, he comes before us still, a towering figure, laughing and weeping, with parables and paradoxes, so generous, so amusing and so right." Williams too remaining another reflection of a uniquely British, unforgettable and truly multifaceted talent - how tragic to think of his London now so changed as to be beyond recognition in character, atmosphere and presence.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Deconstructing Soho - London South of Holburn


Two weekends ago I visited London's West End to watch Quentin Tarantino's mighty Django Unchained movie. Afterwards I was yet again amazed by the sheer amount of people in the Soho area as late as a quarter to midnight on Saturday night in light of the number of closed pubs and restaurants in the vicinity due to the ludicrous British licensing laws and the continually broken London Underground connections.

Alike Covent Garden - though fundamentally unlike historic literary Fitzrovia to the north - the atmosphere of this wonderful area seems to be undermined year upon year by the increasing level of tourists and suburban (in both senses of the word) human traffic through it in modern times.

The following day in North West London in turn I witnessed similarly extraordinary examples of crowds in a renowned early 19th Century public house in one particular world famous suburb once associated in days of yore with bohemian and political intellectual appeal yet now linked with futuristic property prices.

Some postings ago I mentioned Soho in light of a BBC documentary about the British folk scene in the Sixties and footage used therein of the German-Jewish refugee Judith Piepe walking through a wonderful twilight Soho on her way to the Les Cousins basement club in Greek Street. There were also clips of her at Bunjies Coffee House in Litchfield Street off Charing Cross Road.

Only yesterday in turn on youtube I watched a great atmospheric clip of cine-footage from the Soho of the Eighties placed against a soundtrack of Soft Cell's driving A Man Could Get Lost. Some public commentary underneath noted:

Brings back such memories of a once great city - a London that has now vanished completely...

Brilliant upload. Super 8 ey? tidy, well tidy. Fucking magnificent in fact, and Soho when I was in my late teens and early twenties, pervy as fuck, smell of fish everywhere. Glasshouse Stores pub on Brewer Street with a pint of Sam Smith Old Brewery Nut Brown from a proper pint bottle. Tidy times...

Yes, I know, there are about 7 Starbucks. Loved the Italian sandwich bars where you could sip a cappuccino, have a tuna melt and watch the people for hours....I see no reason to ever return to London now...

Soho was originally grazing farmland until the early 16th Century when it was acquired by Henry VIII as a royal park - many believe that the name derived from a hunting cry for smaller prey. By the later part of that century immigrants began to settle in the district and it became known as London's French Quarter. It never became an area for the rich and fashionable alike nearby Bloomsbury to the east or Marylebone to the west and indeed by the middle-half of the 19th Century it was associated mainly with prostitutes and the music hall. It was in the early part of the last century and right through to the Sixties that it became firmly synonymous with bohemians, artists and intellectuals.

Soho - as an area generally considered bordered by Oxford Street, Leicester Square, Charing Cross Road and Regent Street - has mainly been associated in modern times with the music and sex industries alongside significant importance for the theatre world and cinema. With regard to music the Club Eleven on Great Windmill Street was regarded as the home of modern jazz in the Fifties while London's first skiffle club was also opened on Wardour Street in the early part of the same decade. The legendary 2i's Coffee Bar on Old Compton Street arrived in 1956 and Ronnie Scott's in 1959. The Marquee Club in Wardour Street - future home of The Who's Maximum RnB - also opened in the same period while Denmark Street off Charing Cross Road is still an important part of the capital's music culture.

The area has of course been associated with adult-orientated financial transactions for over two centuries with the Windmill Theatre providing motionless nudity between 1931 and 1964 and over one hundred strip clubs in business there by the Sixties.  London's first sex cinema opened in 1960 in Old Compton Street while the infamous Harrison Marks ran a studio for glamour photography from Gerrard Street in Chinatown until the late Sixties.

Nearly sixty sex shops were in existence by the mid-Seventies though a radical decline had taken place by the Eighties due to police and council crackdowns. By the time of my own arrival in the capital in 1987 there was - in stark contrast to the present day - a significant amount of peep shows, Lola-style clip joints, general soliciting, strip clubs, blue movies, bed shows and shrink-wrapped bootleg porn magazines on offer. These days the sex shops are indeed a listless and empty reflection of past times off the back of the digital revolution and ironically - given the public school makeup of our current whiskerless and dodgy political leadership - even a well known spanking bookshop on Old Compton Street has ceased trading.

Perhaps the tragic 1979 suicide of beautiful British porn queen Mary Millington before her scheduled appearance in Emmanuelle in Soho (as originally conceived as a gangster thriller Funeral in Soho) was indeed a portentous and fateful omen regarding the slow and steady decline ahead for London's once-heaving red light district. Marianne Faithful starred as a middle-aged housewife turned Soho glory hole service provider in the much-panned Irina Palm six years ago while the area still remains a major entertainment centre for the London gay community.

Much has changed in Soho during my time here in London - and indeed as discussed in the early part of last year in a particularly interesting British newspaper article. Hence Jimmy's basement Greek restaurant has shut alongside the political bookshop on Charing Cross Road, The Astoria music venue, The Intrepid Fox pub, St Martin's art college, the condom shop in Rupert Street, Sportspages bookshop on Charing Cross Road, The Marquee itself, the left-handed shop, the Moulin Cinema in Great Windmill Street, Wheelers fish restaurant, the Helter Skelter rock bookshop on Denmark Street, Bunjies Coffee House, the foreign language bookshop on Great Marlborough Street, several second hand record shops, the sausage butcher on Berwick Street and even the Raymond Revuebar as the World Centre of Erotic Entertainment in 2004.

As for the past calendar year itself - and aside from the aforementioned demographic swamping of the district at weekends - the pedestrianisation to be seen at the end of Brewer Street, the ongoing Biblical works at Tottenham Court Road tube station, the horrific second world-condition of the eastern half of Oxford Street and the depletion of so much character from the once bookshop-lined Charing Cross Road all suggest that the character of the area may indeed be undergoing a period of radical and historic change for the worst.

The intersecting background of modern London's house price hyperinflation - to a degree that has left property in its ten most expensive boroughs surpassing the worth of housing stock in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined - and utterly extraordinary population surges surely shortening the odds that physical changes in the fundamental fabric of Soho's streetscapes can be anything but a foregone transition to safe commercial Carnaby Street-style banality and expensive self-congratulatory travel guide fodder.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Red Riding - Murder By The Throat


An interesting article in a British broadsheet newspaper recently seemed to genuinely break cover within the mainstream media on the scale of demographic changes in Greater London - and their radical and irreversible social repercussions. The origins and nature of such historic population redistribution being suggestive of a fundamental breach of the very social contract between citizen and nation-state upon which we are lead to believe Western social democracies used to function in the good old days.

In another context of changing times - and our faltering sense of place - this week has seen the death of Malcolm Brodie who was Northern Ireland's main football journalist during the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. Brodie, who was born in Scotland and arrived in Ulster as a child evacuee, covered 14 World Cup finals in his career - these including three with Northern Ireland teams in Sweden, Spain and Mexico. Brodie was sports editor of the Belfast Telegraph - the sister Ireland's Saturday Night evening sports newspaper ceased publication in 2008 due to dropping circulation figures because of the digital revolution. It had been first published in 1894 while in 1896 two versions were introduced - one for the North and one for the South of Ireland. It was known as "The Pink" up to 1917 because of the paper colour and generally throughout Northern Ireland thereafter as "The Ulster".

Also with regard to football, and in light of an earlier post about Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, the British author David Peace's next book will consider the legendary Scot's professional career at Huddersfield and on the Mersey. Talking of Red Or Dead Peace has noted: "I have written about corruption, I've written about crime, I've written about bad men and I've written about the demons. But now I've had enough of the bad men and the demons. Now I want to write about a good man and a saint - a Red Saint".

Yorkshire-born Peace's previous two books were crime stories set in post-war Japan while earlier works included his GB84 portrait of the bitter and devastating miners' strike and The Damned United about Brian Clough's brief 44-day residency at Elland Road in charge of Super Leeds.

Prior to all these was Peace's extraordinary and utterly unique Red Riding quartet - set between 1974 and 1983 - which was subsquently made into three television crime dramas starring Sean Bean, David Morrissey and Andrew Garfield. The narrative thread of the second and fourth volumes interweaves between several individual perspectives to hypnotic effect and the plotline overlaps throughout with regard to the Yorkshire Ripper and other northern nightmares.

Only a writer like Peace with such incredulous capacity for timing and tone could emplace a scene as hilarious as the corpulent solicitor John Piggott's pissed tour around the pubs of Leeds with his mates in a landscape of random violence, unspeakable perversion, urban decay, rank racism, loveless sex, functioning alcoholism, institutional corruption and a darkness bordering on the occult.

Red Riding was truly a stunning look at a vanished Britain then splintering upon the Class War and industrial decline yet a country still fully wedded to its unique culture, worth and history. Peace thus laid down a burning marker for British fiction with these works that has been seldom surpassed in its unfettered brutality, unrelenting pace and retrospective style.