Five minutes with two famous water rats

In London – a city of some nine million people – I’ve always thought that it is strange that you can sometimes find yourself entirely alone in public. I felt this surprise recently while sitting in the central square of Hampstead Garden Suburb in the shadow of St Jude’s Church.

The vast prim and proper lawn of the square was deserted, and as I sat eating a picnic, stuffing my face, I wondered where everyone was. Given it was the hottest day of the year with the temperature edging 40 degrees and the sun not even over the yardarm – I concluded that I was probably the only person stupid enough to be out and about.

It was architectural writer Ian Nairn’s ‘Nairn’s London’ that had brought me on a sunny Monday morning to Hampstead Garden Suburb – which was built from scratch as a model community in the 1920s. Following his guidebook, which offers insightful, often catty, descriptions of some of the city’s best and least know landmarks, provides a wonderful way to explore London.*

Nairn was not that impressed with central square in Hampstead Garden Suburb. He said it suffered from a “central blankness of imagination” and lashed out at the design’s inhumanity because the square doesn’t have a pub and is instead filled with churches and institutes. It is a valid argument – especially on a hot day.

In my mind – in my heat-induced delirious fever dreams dreamed on that roasting central lawn – I was walking with ghosts through Hampstead Garden Suburb that Monday morning. Ghosts of all the famous people who used to live in that once fashionable area of the city. Maybe if I’d stayed around longer I would have spotted Tony Hancock on a park bench reading a script for the next episode of Hancock’s Half Hour of Robert Donat on his way to the studio. Maybe I would have rowed past Eric Coats, rowing across an imaginary boating lake, as By the Sleepy Lagoon played in my mind.

Sadly, these were just the daydreams of someone with an antique sensibility.

As I made my way back down Hoop Lane, I walked past Golders Green Crematorium, a bizarre looking nondenominational building that is based on the Italian architecture of Lombardy. I’m not sure what Nairn made of it – not much I assume – given it doesn’t appear in his guidebook. But I am easily swayed to investigate a graveyard of quality – so I had a quick look around.

I found myself in a little courtyard – as the soft chanting from a Hindu funeral drifted through the hot summer air – the walls of which were lined with monuments honouring the great and the good of British entertainment.

All generations were represented. The newest plaque was for Barbara Windsor and there is a corner dedicated to musical hell raisers, with one for Keith Moon and another for Marc Bolan. There is a jazz section too, I spotted a plaque for Tubby Hayes and another for Ronnie Scott. But the one that caught my eye read ‘This tablet is dedicated by the Grand Order of Water Rats to the Revered Memory of King Rat – Teddy Brown’.

The words immediately piqued my overheated imagination. What was the Grand Order of Water Rats? In my mind, I sketched an image of a fraternity of sophisticated drunkards that rampaged through Soho’s pubs and caffes in the pre-war years and that Teddy Brown was a kind of Oliver Reed or Jeffrey Bernard of his day, tottering his way into a drink-sodden oblivion.

Some swift googling quickly revealed that I was wrong. The Grand Order of Water Rats are a group of entertainers, founded by music hall comedians, that do good works for charity. Every year they elect a ‘King Rat’ from their community and in 1946 the King Rat was an overweight xylophonist called Teddy Brown.

Brown, it turns out, was very famous in the 1930s, largely for his xylophone skills, but also for his girth, which appears in old black and white Pathe films to have been considerable. He was so fat, apparently, that he had to have an especially wide door fitted to his Rolls Royce, and in one Pathe skit he appears to get lodged in an elevator door.

Teddy Brown

Often nicknamed ‘The biggest musician in the world,’ – films of Brown, who was American and spoke like a Chicago gangster, tend to start with the camera panning upwards from his feet past his huge trousers – which could have doubled as an enormous wind sock at an airfield for zeppelins – before he starts tapping away at a jaunty tune on the xylophone backed by tuxedoed men playing double bases and saxophones.

It struck me, as I stood there learning about Teddy Brown and his giant trousers, that there were whole generations of wonderful entertainers like him that had cut a dash across the music hall stages of London, who now, like the stages themselves, were lost to history.

Teddy Brown died half way through his term as King Rat. He had a heart attack in a hotel in Birmingham. This prompted, one assumes, the Grand Order to gather a conclave to elect a successor. The Order plumped for Bud Flanagan, another renowned music hall entertainer of his day.

Flanagan was exceptionally famous in London, and the wider UK, in the first half of the twentieth century as a member of the Crazy Gang – a kind of home grown Marx Brothers. This group of vaudeville comedians appeared in music hall revues and made films, including 1941’s Gasbags, in which the Crazy Gang float into Nazi Germany in a mobile fish and chip shop attached to a giant barrage balloon. Out of the frying pan and into the Fuhrer.

That kind of dreamy scenario was also adopted by Flanagan in his work with Chesney Allen. As Flanigan and Allen – a kind of pre-war Morecambe and Wise – they made Dreaming in 1944, a film about a soldier who dreams a series of odd dreams while out cold on an operating table. They also recorded hugely popular songs such as Underneath the Arches about two down and outs sleeping underneath railway arches who ‘dream their dreams away’ and another song called Strollin’ about a man who knows his “luck is rolling when I’m strolling with the one I love.”

Strangely, or not, given apparent coincidences are often pre-engineered by people with poetic souls, a plaque at Golders Green memorialising Bud Flanagan sits almost directly opposite the memorial for King Rat Teddy Brown. The king and his successor brought together again in one place.

One has to imagine that the vast majority of London’s vaudevillians – a generation or two of wonderful entertainers worth remembering – ended up at Golders Green. That’s a whole lot of lost jokes and songs that are now a whole lot of lost ashes. But never mind, there are still little scraps of evidence of their existence that it’s possible to stumble across on a wander through North London on a summer’s afternoon. Just keep your eyes open and you’ll spot them too.

As an added bonus click here for a playlist featuring some of the songs that inspired this article.

* I would highly recommend Ian Nairn’s ‘Nairn Across Britain’ series in which he travels across the country looking at buildings that were, at the time, under threat. Many of the structures are now sadly lost, but the series is still worth watching all the same – particularly the episode in which Nairn drives from London to Manchester. In fact, I first discovered him in a YouTube video that someone had made of Nairn driving into Manchester as The Duritti Column’s Otis plays in the background.

The Beatles or The Rolling Stones? One answer to a perennial question

I must confess from the outset that for me there has only ever been one winner of the Beatles versus Rolling Stones contest – The Beatles – but every long-held opinion deserves an appraisal from time to time.

Let’s be counterintuitive for a second and start not with the music but with geography.

Naturally, as a Northerner, my love of the Beatles has surely been part fostered by the fact that the group launched their journey to world domination from the Cavern Club in Liverpool, which sits 46 miles away from where I was born in Oldham, Lancashire.

However, it recently occurred to me that by an unlikely quirk of fortune (or misfortune depending on how you look at it) I have come to know, over the past decade, the home of the Rolling Stones – World’s End in London’s Chelsea – much better than I have ever known Liverpool.

The first iteration of the Rolling Stones’ line-up lived at 102 Edith Grove in the early sixties, in a flat Mick Jagger and Keith Richards later described as ‘squalid’ and around the corner from a ‘cheap Italian joint’ – which I think just might still be in existence in the form of Mona Lisa on the King’s Road. The caffe still serves up bowls of remarkably cheap (for Chelsea) amatriciana festooned with long ribbons of English bacon, which should be enough to drive any self-respecting Italian mad.

It might be the only survivor from the days when World’s End was the beating heart of Swinging London. In the early 1960s, as the Lot’s Road power station belched out black soot that poured over the derelict bomb sites that would one day become Westfield Park, Vivienne Westwood arrived from Tintwistle in Derbyshire to set up a shop in World’s End, while local resident Christine Keeler set out on a liaison that would make political history.

I would like to say that it is still possible to feel a ribbon of throbbing cultural energy flying through the World’s End – but sadly it appears to have long since moved on – in fact, anyone innocent to the area’s history today would surely pass through it without giving it a second look.

I felt somewhat the same when I lived in Marylebone in a top floor flat at 14 Devonshire Place. On sunny days when my room would swelter, I would climb out through the bathroom window and sit by the chimney pots. I could see all of central London from there, including at the bottom of my street, the roof of number 57, the house where Paul McCartney lived with Jane Asher in the early 1960s.

McCartney wrote Yesterday in that house. The melody came to him in a dream. Virginia Woolf walked down Devonshire Place and Wimpole Street too. Florence Nightingale set off to the Crimea and into legend from a house on the street behind and Stephen Ward lived in Wimpole Mews during the Profumo affair. And yet, if you walk down the street today, all you will sense is a whiff of anesthetics seeping out of all the expensive dental clinics that now call the street home.

One thing that does strike me as interesting about 102 Edith Grove in Chelsea though, is that there is no exterior evidence that the building played any role whatsoever in the early years of one of the most famous bands in history.

Which is strange given that if you go to practically any location associated with the Beatles, be it Strawberry Fields or Penny Lane in Liverpool, or Abbey Road or 57 Wimpole Street in London, you will find a landmark covered in international graffiti messages and crawling with people taking photographs. Outside 102 Edith Grove there is nothing.

I suppose that is because the Beatles are a spiritual band  and people need something real to hang on to in the fab four’s absence – whereas the Stones are very much still a physical group. In fact, the band played a four hour concert in Lyon in searing temperatures at the start of this week on the latest leg of a convoluted European Tour. The Beatles, on the other hand, exist only in our imaginations, frozen in time forever on a London rooftop on a frigid January lunchtime in 1969 – the last time the group played in public.

If you are going to attempt to form any argument that the Stones outshine the Beatles then the case has to rest on the Rolling Stones’ longevity.

By 1968, the year the flower power dreams of the early 1960s were disintegrating, the Beatles released the brilliant White Album, which is a culmination of all the extraordinary influences that Paul, John, and George soaked up over the previous decade. They would release one more album while still together, Abbey Road in 1969.

The Stones, in 1968, released Beggars Banquet the first of a four album run that would culminate in 1972’s sublime Exile on Main St. It is a musical journey that charts not only the tumult of 1968, but 1969’s Altamont Festival in California –  the blood splattered concert headlined by the Stones that was policed by rampaging Hell’s Angles and which, unsurprisingly, became a vortex of violence that ended with four people dead.

It is the Stones – not the Beatles – that charted the collapse of the 1960s into blood spilling and recriminations, as well as the hedonistic selfishness of the early 1970s. While the Stones were at the very centre of that whirlwind the Beatles were in full retreat mode with Paul McCartney recording his lo-fi solo debut before disappearing to the seclusion of his Scottish farm.

The Stones – as a fully functional touring group –  would go on to age in public, to experience tragedy, to pick up drug and drink addictions by the bucket load, to enter middle age and old age as one collective that has told, over the years, the story of a lifetime, an extraordinary multi-decade story, a multi-century story, while the Beatles are frozen in time.

But. There was always going to be a but.

There is the music to consider. When it comes to the music, for me, the Beatles will always tower over the Rolling Stones.

The Rolling Stones were and remain a brilliant rock and roll band, with a love of the American blues combined with a dash of jazz, which was provided by the wonderfully self-effacing Charlie Watts in his Huntsman suits. By the way, I must say that although I would champion John, Paul and George any day over Mick and Keith, when it comes to Charlie versus Ringo, for me, Charlie wins it hands down.

The sound of the Rolling Stones is a potent, delicious mixture, but the recipe has largely gone unchanged since the early 1960s. It can, if you listen to album after album, start to sound a little painted by numbers, a little similar.

The Beatles, on the other hand, have something the Stones never had, a genius for melody provided largely by Paul McCartney. They were also willing to experiment. You won’t find a musical dream so all encompassing, so downright strange and wacky, so hypnotically brilliant as A Day in the Life on a Stones record. You won’t find anything close.

The legend of the Rolling Stones will live forever, but it will be the Beatles’ songs that people will still be singing a thousand years from now.

All music matters – not reputation

Karen and Richard Carpenter during the Carpenters international tour in 1972

Having a good taste in music is like having a good taste in wine – it takes time, effort and practice to acquire. Sometimes though, people just want to get sloshed and then vintage, vineyard and finesse count for little. It is the same with music, one day we want to appreciate, explore and learn, while the next we want to party, dance, wallow and weep.

Musical snobbery – a crime of which I have been guilty – is just as tiresome as wine snobbery – and ultimately just as useless, because a person needs a rounded appreciation in order to cater for any mood.

Yes it is fun, advantageous even, to develop a good taste in music and it is wonderful to adventure through the esoteric fringes of the musical universe. But, this is not a trip that should be taken for the sake of building street cred or while chasing some impossible definition of that ultimately undefinable word “cool”.

The truth is that some wonderful things are not cool and never will be, but you may still need them in your life. If you define yourself by “cool” alone then you will miss out on so much that is good.

I was thinking about this recently while I read Why Karen Carpenter Matters by Karen Tongson. It caught my eye because it finally confirmed my long-held – often privately long-held – belief that the Carpenters deserve a bit more respect from toffee-nosed music connoisseurs.

Why?

Well, first of all, there are only a handful of bands in music history – and the Carpenters are surely one – that are so distinctive, so immediately recognisable, that you place them as soon as you hear a few seconds of a song.

For some reason, I have always had a kind of strange photographic memory when it comes to the Carpenters. The moments – entirely innocuous – when I have heard a song of theirs in public are seared into my brain and I cannot explain why.

Most recently, last Christmas, I heard a song of theirs playing in a pub in Yorkshire while I was ordering lunch, and I remember sitting in Bermondsey in London, in a tea-total hotel bar, sipping a glass of hot chocolate as Superstar came over the sound system.

Why do I remember these things? I have no idea.

All you need to hear though is the drifting harp at the start of Superstar – which sounds like the start of an underwater scene in an old movie set in a kingdom of mermaids – to know exactly who you are listening to. Then along come those minor oboe chords that lead us to the deep, deep sounding vocal, “long ago, and, oh, so far away, I fell in love with you after the second show…..”

I only recently discovered that the song is a cover of one originally written by Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell. It sounds so much like a Carpenters song. It sounds like the pinnacle of Carpentry.  But that is the hallmark of a brilliant artist, someone who can entirely inhabit something that is not their own and then record the definitive version.

I mean, technically, Frank Sinatra was a covers artist, but he often recorded what ultimately would become the most famous version of whichever song he touched, such was his talent.

Karen Carpenter has gone down in history as a tragic figure, a tragic singer of sad songs, when in fact she was an exciting, young, vivacious woman and something of – which the Tongston book highlights -a feminist hero.

Karen Carpenter on stage

I’ve always thought that she deserved a lot more respect for not only being a singer, but a drummer too, and not only that but a singing drummer all at once, a very rare feat in music and one that few do well, with only Ringo Starr, Levon Helm of The Band and The Velvet Underground’s Moe Tucker coming immediately to mind.

And not only did she just sing and play the drums. She sang and played the drums with a voice that could stop a room, one of the most note perfect voices in music history.

She also – rather marvellously – upended the assumption formed by her supremely talented and dorky older brother – Richard – that he was the musical genius of the family, only to be lapped several times over when his sister’s extraordinary vocal gift became apparent. Ouch.

We can’t kid ourselves though. The Carpenters have baggage. They were safe, unthreatening, apolitical in an era when it was almost impossible to be so, plus they were white, as white as white can be. And, let’s not forget that they played at the Nixon White House in 1973 and were introduced by the president as ‘the best of young America’, which is not exactly the kind of endorsement that does wonders for your image.

Yes, they could be corny, but they produced music with a unique sound, music that makes you feel something, be it good or bad. Music that sounds perfect, yes, but as we all know, came from a struggling central source.

It is perhaps that we know the tragic end of her story that we can feel the same way listening to Karen Carpenter as we do when we hear John Lennon sing (Just Like) Starting Over.

If either Lennon or Karen Carpenter could win the chance to start over, it is doubtful that either one would want to be famous all over again.

Oh, and John Lennon was a Karen Carpenter fan, by the way.

It is rare that my increasingly irrelevant and out of touch musical opinions gain any justification through books published or articles written, but in this case, the Karen Carpenter case, I was right. Karen Carpenter matters.

In fact, I would say that all music matters, no matter what its reputation, from Harry Styles to Wolfgang Amadeus, as long as it makes you feel something.

So what’s next? I’ve always said Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat is one of the best pop songs of the late-1970s. Maybe ever. So, Al Stewart matters?

And what about Rickie Lee Jones? Rickie Lee Jones certainly matters. I mean, have you ever heard Pirates? Now there’s an album to savour….

Concrete Feathers and Porcelain Tacks – The Photographers’ Gallery

There is a lot to say about Rochdale.

Economically it is one of the most deprived areas in the UK, but culturally Rochdale is anything but.

Byron, the legendary romantic poet, owed his title – Baron Byron of Rochdale – to the town. Gracie Fields, one of the most internationally famous actresses and singers of the 20th century was born in Rochdale, and most famously, the town gave birth to the modern Cooperative Movement.

The pioneers who founded it based the Cooperative on the ‘Rochdale Principles’, the most crucial of which states that each cooperative has to be run democratically by its members and that membership should be open to all no matter what race, religion, sex or sexuality a person happens to be.

Rochdale’s community is a patchwork quilt of numerous sections. The town is extraordinarily diverse, and despite well-documented problems over the years, Rochdale’s community has remained largely tightly knit.

While other nearby towns, such as Oldham, saw a fraying and an erupting of racial tensions in the 1990s and early 2000s, Rochdale retained a sense of togetherness – despite its many adversities – to offer a welcoming home to people from all over the world.

For example, at a time when the very existence of Ukraine as an independent nation is being threatened by Russian troops menacing its borders, it is important to note that Rochdale has long been a safe harbour for Ukrainian people in times of strife.

Rochdale was the first town to recognise the Holodomor Famine – a man-made catastrophe caused in part by Joseph Stalin’s decision to single out Ukraine for harsh treatment in order suppress an independence movement – as genocide.

The famine killed as many as ten million Ukrainians and there is a memorial stone commemorating the event in front of Rochdale Town Hall.

It is Rochdale’s community that multimedia artist Helen Cammock pays tribute to in her exhibition ‘Concrete Feathers and Porcelain Tacks’ which is now in its final days at London’s Photographers’ Gallery.

The exhibition, which was put together in cooperation with Rochdale’s wonderful Touchstone Gallery, uses film, photography, text, song and performance to present all the different facets of Rochdale’s bustling community in one place.

Cammock uses the Cooperative Movement and the town’s proud industrial heritage as a starting point and uses this base as a way to examine the power and potential of a social collective.

An immersive, nearly two-hour film, forms the centrepiece of the exhibition and it features people working together to make the town a better place, while outside the projection room objects that are referenced in the film are on display.

A Ukrainian choir is featured singing a traditional song on a bandstand in one of Rochdale’s many parks. In another section Sultan Ali is interviewed, a man who went from growing up as a shepherd boy in Sahiwal in Pakistan to becoming Rochdale’s first Asian Muslim mayor in 2003.

Rochdale resident Pete is also featured, a retired joiner, who speaks of his attempts to re-wild an abandoned patch of scrubland close to the town centre. His success is evident, as he lists the countless numbers of wildflowers, butterflies and birds that he has spotted in the years since he began his work.

A Bangladeshi artist is depicted showing the sewing machine skills – a nod to Rochdale’s textile industry- that were passed down to her by her parents and grandparents. Her knowledge has proved to be an inspiration for her artwork and she is pictured using an antique sewing machine by the side of Hollingworth Lake – a popular local beauty spot.

The conversations depicted between the residents capture discussions about the future and the past, the good and the bad, but most importantly they focus on common experiences.

All stills from Concrete Feathers and Porcelain Tacks, 2021 © Helen Cammock 
Courtesy of the artist

“The spaces we inhabit are different shapes to everyone. The comfort we enjoy is not the same from one community to the next – from one home to the next,” Cammock comments.

“But some strive more for a sense of collective parity. The Rochdale Principles embody this notion of a shared role, responsibility, and stake in what little or great opportunity and subsistence a community generates.”

This is an exhibition that proves that despite Rochdale’s often harsh industrial history and the problems that still confound the town and its community to this day, a sense of humanity, humour and warmth still shines through.

Does Manchester look as good as Los Angeles on film?

There is a story – I’m not sure how true it is – that Tony Wilson – the famous Mancunian music impresario behind Joy Division and New Order, wanted to fly a film crew over Manchester in a helicopter at dusk to ascertain if the city looked as sexy as Los Angeles in the moonlight.

LA has long appeared sultry on celluloid, but has Manchester? The answer, in case you are wondering, is yes.

To me, Los Angeles has never looked better than in Robert Altman’s 1973 film of the Raymond Chandler detective thriller The Long Goodbye. Altman’s detective, Philip Marlowe, played by Elliott Gould, is a man out of time. He’s a man who has seemingly been asleep for thirty years only to wake up in a spinning world of non-existent morals that he does not understand.

To support this picture of Marlowe as a chain-smoking Rip Van Winkle, Altman’s detective lives in the High Tower in Hollywood Heights, with its tall turreted lift shaft that leads to several nautical style art deco residences on a palm-tree covered hillside.

From his chaotic hilltop flat that he shares with his cat, Marlowe can see all the urban sprawl of Los Angeles, which is captured in soft, hazy colours on film by the inventive cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond.

Does Manchester have an equivalent of LA’s Marlowe? Well, yes. Just take out Elliott Gould and replace him with Stanley Baker, the great Welsh actor, who played Detective Inspector Harry Martineau in the 1960 Val Guest directed film noir Hell is a City, which was shot in Manchester.

Just as The Long Goodbye tries to create a colourised film noir, Hell is a City does the same in 1960s black and white. Just as the characters in The Long Goodbye step out of seedy shafts of light, so do the characters in Hell is a City, only the light is distinctly Mancunian. Just take out the sun-streaked haze of the Hollywood Hills and replace them with the rain-soaked gloom of Saddleworth Moor, where one of the film’s key moments takes place.

Hell is a City’s climax sees Martineau clambering over the rooftop spires of the Palace Hotel on Oxford Street as he hunts down an escaped convict, all guns blazing, as the smokey dirty urban sprawl of early 1960s Manchester hums beneath him. 

Los Angeles just like Manchester is urban sprawl. Los Angeles in the time of Altman, and before, was choked by smog, just like Manchester was choked by smoke from its factory chimneys.

Manchester, in fact, sounds very similar to a description David Lynch once gave of LA. “I know a lot of people go there and they see just a huge sprawl of sameness,” Lynch once said about the city, “but when you’re there for a while, you realise that each section has its own mood. Even with the smog, there’s something about that light that’s not harsh, but bright and smooth.” Just like in Manchester when those endless grey slate rainy days bring a sense of warmth and homeliness through familiarity.

Jumping forward a few years to 1969, Manchester’s next significant appearance on film comes in 1968’s Charlie Bubbles. This film was directed by and stars Albert Finney as the eponymous Bubbles, a successful London writer, a Mancunian exile, and another man like Marlowe, trapped in a world he doesn’t understand, asleep on his feet.

So he heads back home to rediscover his childhood in Salford and he takes his assistant, Eliza Hayhoe, who is played by Liza Minnelli, back with him. Did you know that Liza Minnelli once clambered over the ruins of a bulldozed Salford street? The answer is yes, and she appeared to enjoy it.

Aside from witnessing slum clearance in Salford, Charlie is also seen sauntering past the under-construction Piccadilly Plaza Hotel an appearance of the brutalist architecture that would come to dominate the northern look for the rest of the century, which is not something Stanley Baker would have recognised as he tumbled across the Palace roof. However, Altman’s Marlow would have seen some similar brutalist designs such as the Liberty Savings and Loan on the corner of South Beverly Drive and West Pico Boulevard.

We end where we began, with Tony Wilson and the band he made famous, Joy Division. The life of Ian Curtis is perhaps best depicted in the stately black and white of Anton Corbijn’s 2007 film Control, which almost sees Manchester appear like the monochromatic images of Berlin that were seen when David Bowie was making Heroes in the 1970s.

The most recognisable image of Joy Division is the picture of the group crossing the Epping Walk Bridge which stretches over Princess Street in Hulme. The street leads towards the city centre and the raised road that encircles the city known as the Mancunian Way or ‘the highway in the sky’ as it was called when it was built in 1967. 

It is another element of Manchester that could perhaps be compared with the freeways of LA that segregate rich and poor neighbourhoods to this day. The poor and the glamorous living at close quarters is what is so often captured in films about Manchester and Los Angeles, but in both, it has always been in the underbelly where the magic happens.

Bice Lazzari: Modernist Pioneer – The Estorick Collection Reclaims an Unsung Female Hero

Abstraction of a Line No. 2, Astrazione di una linea n. 2, 1925, Private collection, Rome

As anyone with an interest in early to mid 20th century Italian art will know, the Estorick Collection in Islington’s leafy Canonbury Square is a treasure trove.

From the musical swirls that flow from the fingers of a shadowy pianist in Luigi Russolo’s Music, to the piercing eyes of a woman in a multi-coloured hat and a single pearl earring in Umberto Boccioni’s Modern Idol, the Estorick Collection certainly boasts the highlights of Italian Futurism and Modernism on its walls.

The museum’s programme of temporary exhibitions tends to delve deeper though, to cast a light on early to mid twentieth century Italian artists that are not as well known.

In Bice Lazzari: Modernist Pioneer, which opened on 14 January 2022, the Collection’s galleries turn to an inventive abstractionist in an exhibition that aims to reclaim an unsung Italian female hero.

Lazzari’s status as a relative unknown outside of her home country is unfair, given the self-made nature of her artistic success and the battle she had to wage to achieve it.

Untitled, Senza titolo, 1966, Private collection, Rome

“As well as being under appreciated internationally, I would say that Lazzari is neglected in Italy too,” Roberta Cremoncini, director of the Estorick Collection, told me. 

“Women tended to be pushed towards applied art rather than art itself. She decided that she wanted to be an artist in her own right, yet she remains little known. 

During the 1960s there was a lot of exchange between the British and Italian art worlds, but with the reduction of the Art Council’s budget everything became much more insular and Italy turned to the United States to show off its post-war rejuvenation.”

Bice Lazzari, born a Venetian in 1900, opted to study design and applied arts at the Venice Academy of Arts, rather than follow her heart and study art itself. She had an intention to make her own living from her craft, despite her parent’s desire to see her become a teacher.

“When my father died in 1928 I had to face life on a practical level,” Lazzari wrote. “So rather than walking around with a painting under my arm, I took a loom and started making fabrics, scarves, bags, belts and carpets, in order to continue living in the climate I so adored – namely, freedom.”

Blue Architecture, Architettura azzurra, 1955, Private collection, Rome

It was the art world that provoked an inescapable fascination in her though, and she would display her interest in abstraction through the designs that she completed for clients.

Her desire to break into the male-dominated Italian painting world would constantly be frustrated, firstly by her natural shyness that she struggled with all her life and led to a description of her as being ‘like a piece of ice in which a flame burns’. 

Lazzari’s shyness is reflected in her work. “Her art is very sophisticated in a way,” Cremoncini adds, “it is very polished and fine and it is not disruptive so it didn’t come to the foreground very easily.” 

Her progress was also disrupted by the arrival of fascism and war in the 1930s, which prompted Lazzari to turn to illegally imported art magazines for fresh inspiration.

Acrylic No. 5, Acrilico n. 5, 1975, Archivio Bice Lazzari, Rome

When her art found full flight after conflict concluded in 1945, she created intricate, geometrically abstract work, comprised of lines and marks which seem to move across the page like notes on a symphony’s score, reflecting her time spent at a conservatoire as a child.

Towards the end of her life, her work became increasingly simple, and as time wore on and her eyesight started to fail, her only artistic tools were a red and white pencil with which she created pieces with a remarkable sense of symmetry and harmony.

Lazzari in her studio on the Fondamenta Cà Rezzonico, 1920s

“Her work has a special feeling to it,” Cremoncini concludes. “It is very subtle and extremely accomplished. Her paintings are poetic, you can grow into them. Your first impression might be to see a few lines on a canvas, but if you look more closely you will see that there are a series of layers to be discovered.”

The independent nature of Lazzari’s work is perhaps best summed up in her own words: “For many, the only way to survive artistically is to establish a continuous dialogue with oneself,” she wrote, “a challenging monologue to build’s one’s own art.”

Bice Lazzari: Modernist Pioneer runs at the Estorick Collection until 24 April 2022. 

Looking Back On My Interview With Bill Fay

In 2010, Bill Fay was considered to be – within the narrow confines of the UK’s folk-rock scene – a reclusive musical enigma of almost Salingeresque stature.

In the early 1970s he recorded two albums and, after being promptly dropped by his label, he disappeared into obscurity in north London.

The two records that he left behind, over time, presumably through accidental dusty record shop discoveries and later CD reissues, began to build a small army of followers.

His first record, the eponymously titled ‘Bill Fay’, with its hymnic devotional songs to nature, and its darker follow-up, ‘Time of the Last Persecution’, have a style entirely to themselves.

In 2010, Bill commenced what would become an unlikely comeback, by releasing a series of home recorded demos that he had completed during his years in seclusion.

The album was released by Coptic Cat, a label that was founded by David Tibet of Current 93 fame. 

Spying an opportunity to get a chance to speak to the man himself, and solve one or two mysteries in the process, I got in touch with David to request an interview with Bill.

I was, to say the least, not hopeful of success. But, a reply did come, as well as a request for questions with the caveat that there were no assurances that they would be answered.

Luckily, Bill liked the questions and called me to discuss them. The results of the conversation became an article that I wrote for Flux Magazine, which was at the time a print publication based in Manchester.

When I emailed Bill to tell him that the article was done and the magazine was printed, he told me that he would go to his local WH Smiths to see if he could find a copy, which is a part of the story that makes 2010 sound longer ago than it really was.

Bill’s music is timeless though and the adulation that he received, including an article in the New York Times, for the two albums he released after 2010, with American record producer Joshua Henry, was richly deserved.

Looking back on my interview with Bill, eleven years later, many of his answers seem to me to be rich in a wisdom that is hard won. I have included a few answers from the interview below: 

Your music has always been about returning to nature. In Garden Song, you sing about planting yourself in the garden. Are beauty and nature and our relationship with them things that still inspire you?

For me, Garden Song was the beginning of seeking something deeper. I came to feel that we were largely in our day-to-day lives asleep to a greater reality. I believed there was something to find out, but more than that, I felt strongly that you could actually find out, which was a big step for me.

I felt that we as human beings had named things like a tree or a butterfly and in the act of naming them, we had explained them away. I came to feel that we were living in one sense within the restrictions of our own heads.

So, I started to pay more attention to nature. I didn’t run to the mountains or anything, I mean that I would sit on the top deck of a double-decker bus and look at things, trees, for example. Part of your head is saying ‘why are you doing this, it’s only a tree’, but I kept looking, to try and understand more and get outside of my own head.

How did you channel this thought process into your song writing?

What used to happen back then and to some degree still happens, is that a song is a vehicle, a means of expressing, where I’m at inside.

Just as I sing in Garden Song, ‘I’ll wait for the rain to anoint me and the frost to awaken my soul.‘ It was that waking up that was important to me, connecting with the real world around us of living things. I did come to feel an enormous strangeness, the connection that I began to feel with the living world was very vivid.

Aside from nature, I also get a sense that some of your music is inspired by the wartime generation, your parent’s generation and the wars that they fought?

I have always been grounded in the 1914 generation, the generation that fought the First World War. I remember my old Aunt May and her sister looking after my Uncle Will after he was poisoned by mustard gas in the trenches. He used to just sit there all day in a chair and they used to look after him. My song ‘Sing Us One of Your Songs May‘ is loosely based on that.

May would sing the old songs like ‘Sunshine Of Your Smile’ and I would play the piano to accompany her singing. She never married and May and her sister went through life looking after their mum and dad and their brother. It was another generation, which was just not confronted with the same things I was in the 1960’s but I felt amazingly linked to them.

It seems to me that your songs are written more from a spiritual angle than a political one, although you came of age in an era when political and protest songs were very much in vogue. Do you avoid politics?

I suppose my songs can be political, sometimes, just think of The Sun is Bored on my first record and ‘the minister for good taste’ that I sing about. There is a political aspect sometimes, but I don’t often find modern politicians inspiring.

I am sure that there are good politicians though. I do remember fondly the old Labour politicians, like Manny Shinwell, and people of his ilk, who said they wanted to bring about heaven on Earth, but it was as much as they could do to prevent hell on Earth. I could say a lot politically, I have a lot of political anger, but I do understand that a lot of the issues that politicians deal with are very complex.

Your third album Tomorrow Tomorrow and Tomorrow ends with the line ‘Nothing has changed, only me, the world’s still the same, but I’m not the same.‘ Are you still changing? Still searching? Or have you reached a level of contentment?

I don’t think that the level of contentment you speak of exists. I don’t think you can be content when there is so much wrong in the world. I do think that you have to strive to keep awake to all the things I was talking about earlier. Nature will always inspire me. It’s great just to see a robin sometimes! There are such miraculous little things in the world.

In day-to-day life you can quite easily become not as connected as you have been in the past, so there is always a feeling within me that I need to stay awake to the full picture, no matter what the distractions.

Tantra Song – The Mystical Modernity of Paintings from Rajasthan

Energy fizzing about a turquoise sea - From Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan, selected and with writings by Franck André Jamme. Published by Siglio
Energy fizzing about a turquoise sea – From Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan, selected and with writings by Franck André Jamme. Published by Siglio

With our modern eloquence, our technology and our brash and inventive culture, contemporary artists have developed individual ways of expressing hopes, beliefs, doubts and fears through art. Yet magically, when arts and crafts are brought together from across the world — from cultures and nations completely separate from one-another — unlikely bonds emerge, suggesting a common human struggle for expression.

An excellent example of this can be seen in Tantra Song, a new book compiled by one of France’s leading contemporary poets, Franck André Jamme. The book features a collection of rare Tantric paintings from Rajasthan, India, used to awaken heightened states of consciousness through meditation. Collated by Jamme during many trips to his beloved India, the paintings bear an uncanny resemblance to 20th century abstract art, Bauhaus and Russian Constructivism, despite the fact that they are articles of the 17th century, replicated by generations ever since.

Having spent more than two decades in conversation with the private communities of Rajasthani tantrikas, Jamme—like other poet-ethnographers before him, Michaux, Leiris, and Bataille, was moved to highlight the paintings’ subtle magic.

The pictures presented are often joyful: filled with colour, they are both hypnotic and sensual, their simple geometry elegant yet immediate. Produced upon recycled paper, the paintings feature divine and religious diagrams and representations of deities and mystic forces, which are used to help believers visualise the deity they portray.

White arrows dance and fizz across a deep turquoise square representing energy, whilst colour filled wheels contain all the shades of the Earth. There are fiery triangles atop a tropical shade of blue — the tongue of the goddess Kali in duplicate — the repetition supposedly inducing true intoxication.

All the colours of the world - From Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan, selected and with writings by Franck André Jamme. Published by Siglio
All the colours of the world – From Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan, selected and with writings by Franck André Jamme. Published by Siglio

Jamme quickly recognised the simple logic of the Tantrika craftsmen: “They see time and day and night very naturally, they think of two stripes, black and white.”

“There are a lot of small rules with this kind of Tantric painting,” Jamme adds, “but [ultimately] they respect colour: if they want to express consciousness, they are going to use light blue; they are not going to use red.”

This favouring of colour over stipulation is indicative of Tantra, which is often looked upon with scorn by traditional Hindus who’s own religion is comprised of complicated rules and regulation. In comparison, Tantrism embraces freedom, personal liberty, and gender equality. “Traditional Hindus are skeptical and a bit afraid of this,” explains Jamme, “because Tantrism can sound a little bit devilish to them — there is so much freedom. They’re afraid of freedom. — [fear] is the standard for humanity.”

Returning to France from India with the artwork and a better understanding of its meaning, Jamme exhibited the paintings as part of Magiciens de la Terre (Magicians of the Earth) an exhibition held at the Pompidou Centre in 1989. The display brought together contemporary art from across the world in an attempt to answer the question: “Is there such a thing as a common world art?”

Jamme considers the answer to that question to be yes; the evidence lying not only in the distinct similarities between Tantric painting and our own contemporary art but in the art and culture of eras past.

“In Orissa, India,” Jamme says, “[they’ve] found a particular form of poetry from the Medieval times which is extremely close in form to Haiku poetry from Japan — very short pieces with the very same number of syllables. That’s fascinating! I think there is [universally] a collective, hidden human search for expression,” Jamme explains, “just think of yodelers in Switzerland — you have exactly the same thing in the North of Vietnam.”

The principal force driving this search is freedom of expression, something embodied by the Tantrika craftsmen who harbour a “mad and pure desire for mental elevation. They’ll think of any way, any manner, any practice to reach that goal, beyond many of the rules and regulations of their rite.”

These Tantric paintings are the colourful, disciplined result of concentration combining with freedom, beautiful to look at, yet also — to those who believe — an attempt to “assemble almost everything, out of almost nothing.”

Tantra Song, collected and with writing by Franck André Jamme is available through Siglio Press.

Factual Nonsense – The Art and Death of Joshua Compston

flowers

Those Kray twins were right bloody bastards weren’t they? With all that filching, cly faking, dewskitching and dollyshop demandering. Should have gone into scrap metal like their old dad instead of always being a few sour moves away from a pair of silver derbies. Ronnie and Reggie were both born in Hoxton, London, which today is sewed together with bordering Shoreditch. Back in those fun filled glamorous days that we collectively term England’s Middle Ages, the body of Jane Shore, a noteworthy tart and one time gumar to Edward IV, you know, that pudgy faced, all cheeks and very little mouth, David Cameron lookalike of a Plantagenet monarch, was dumped in a ditch in the area, leading to the district’s ironic dubbing, or so the highly dubious and historically disputable story goes.

Hoxton and Shoreditch used to be characterised by bustling small industry, factories and workshops, but in the years after the Second World War industry began to move out, leaving behind a great number of empty warehouses and shop floors cheaply available. Because of the large spaces and low rents artists and musicians began to move in, giving birth to a burgeoning creative scene. The cultural bridge between the tail end of the industrial Kray scarred Shoreditch and its early days as an artistic haven in the early nineties was dreamed up, built and cemented by Joshua Compston. Artist, impresario and curator.

Compston is best known for the gallery he set up in a former factory on Charlotte Road named Factual Nonsense. Described as a “cultural think tank” Compston wanted the gallery to aim towards revolutionising the lives of the working classes. In his lovingly crafted new book on Joshua Compston, published in conjunction with an exhibition of work and materials related to Joshua’s career at the Paul Stolper gallery in London, Darren Coffield, a friend and contemporary of the artist, writes of Shoreditch in the early 1990s. Coffield describes the area as “a dilapidated and unpopulated place”, in the wake of another British recession, a place that appeared to Joshua as something of an ‘undiscovered country’, a million miles away from the late-era Thatcherite middle class hedonism that had taken root in London’s west.

Factual Nonsense organised a number of public events that, if one, like a complete fucking buggerlugs, were to analyse Shoreditch’s recent cultural development, would be regarded as key moments in the area’s rebirth. The Fete Worse than Death (1993) was one such event, a kind of art house street party organised by Joshua and located in Hoxton Square around ‘the notorious triangle of Great Eastern Street, Old Street and Curtain Road, a Victorian artisan area famous for its nobler design.” Damien Hirst and Angus Fairhurst famously dressed up as clowns for the event, producing spin paintings at one quid a pop, just as anyone who has bought a Hirst in the following years should have adopted similar jovial gear.

Damien Hirst and Angus Fairhurst at the Fete Worse than Death dressed as Clowns by Guy Moberly.
Damien Hirst and Angus Fairhurst at the Fete Worse than Death dressed as Clowns by Guy Moberly.

Gavin Turk did a bash the rat stall, Brendan Quick a pubic hair exchange for those who wished to pluck and barter with their tangled diamonds, Sarah Lucas had an empty stall with a piece of cardboard placed on it reading ‘our thoughts on any matter for 20p’ and James Goff (these are all names of artistic veks who were on the scene at the time, quoted diligently in Coffield’s book) was particularly proud of his tuna fish tail stall. “We went to the bloody fish market and got all these tuna fish tails and then we got this grill and we barbecued together and we sold it. And I remember at the end of the day, we were sweating and stinking and we were selling tuna fish tails for five quid a piece. And Damien Hirst was selling his fucking spin paintings for a quid a piece.” Across the way from Goff’s tuna fish tail stall Tracey Emin was running a kissing tent, 50p for a kiss and by 7pm of the same day you could get a lot more for the same price. Did James Goff of the tuna fish tail stall stop by for a snog on the rot from Jane Shore, oh, I mean Tracey Emin. “No, we were to busy doing the fucking tuna,” he remembers. The Fete ended with the traditional drawing of a raffle (the prize: a bag of dildos) and someone yelling at them to turn the music down.

The Fete was successful in binding together a disparate set of characters into a community, but the cool reputation it garnered as the event fell into crystalline memory began Shoreditch’s transformation into what it is today. “Within a year and half,” Gary Hume notes in the book, “everything had gone up in price. People could no longer be there. A coffee house arrived and another one. The Fete was the beginning and the end of it.”

In the meantime Factual Nonsense continued its pioneering work. There was The First Party Conference (1993), a string of cultural events of the kind that if you remember them then you weren’t really there, the cock and yarbles posters that publicised the programme are fondly remembered, but caused a great deal of controversy when they tried to plaster them down the King’s Road. There was also the Fete Worse than Death II, which Compston said attracted “over 4000 people of different descriptions and denominations, making myth of the area of Hoxton and Shoreditch as an upbeat up and coming cultural zone.”

Darren Coffield and Graham Bignell -  Factual Nonsense  - Sex Art Money
Darren Coffield and Graham Bignell –
Factual Nonsense – Sex Art Money

Compston’s public work, such as the Fete, in many ways foreshadowed some of the recent public artworks by Jeremy Deller, yet aside from the public events, the book also highlights Compston’s more conventional artworks. Coffield praises Joshua’s ‘Other Men’s Flowers’ collection as “one of the most underrated and overlooked artworks of the last twenty years.”

Coffield notes that he and Compston were interested in printed ephemera and says that the two of them would attend ephemera fairs at the Victory Services club near Marble Arch, with Joshua going on to recycle the purchased turn of the century paper curios by sending people letters scrawled on the back of “old ocean liner menus, Edwardian cheques and pre-war public health posters.” Compston’s ‘Other Men’s Flowers’ project saw him recruit a number of leading British artists, old and new, to produce a series of prints, inspired by ephemera and based on old texts, so Mat Collishaw recreated a page from Lady Chatterley’s Lover, for example, while Henry Bond contributed a description of Monaco.

The title was inspired by a collection of poems collated by Viscount Wavell, a general in the Second World War, who had the habit of reciting poems to encourage his men on the eve of battle, he was later persuaded to compile these poems into a collected volume, which he titled ‘Other Men’s Flowers’, flowers being an age old term for writing. Compston’s father had given him a copy of the book and he later discovered that the title was not Wavell’s own, but belonged to the French writer Michel de Montaigne, who had written to describe his own collection of other men’s poems, “I have gathered about me a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is my own.” Which is rather a good description for the stories presented in this fine book, Coffield gathering together and binding up for the sake of posterity the life’s work of a dear friend.

Darren Coffield and Graham Bignell Factual Nonsense - Verbage
Darren Coffield and Graham Bignell
Factual Nonsense – Verbage

Joshua Compston died in 1996, at the age of 25, and was buried with all the fuss and shenanigans usually accorded a pharaoh or a brave and true conqueror of great panoramas of giant stuff. “Joshua’s funeral, it kind of looked a bit like one of the Kray twins funerals,” writes Coffield, “it was a lot of people.” His coffin was painted with a William Morris pattern and bottles of wine were stashed by his body as crowds of people thronged the East End while Joshua made the journey from Factual Nonsense to his final resting place. “I found the funeral quite strange,” says Andrew Wilson. “I remember thinking, who are all these people? It was a sort of circus and it was, almost, dare I say it, one of the most successful events that Joshua inspired, but he didn’t benefit from it at all.”

London characters come and go, but the city is eternal. Rejoice by the dusty railings around the steps to the pedestal of the statue of this great and incorruptible youf. Rejoice. Rejoice. Rejoice.

Factual Nonsense – The Art and Death of Joshua Compston is available now: http://www.factualnonsense.com

All images (except the first) courtesy of the Paul Stolper Gallery, London ©Dosfotos