Category Archives: History

A glimpse back ten years ago to Queen Elizabeth I of Scotland’s Golden Jubilee

Concorde flypast of Buckingham Palace on 4th June 2002

In those less cyberspaced days before I blogged, I occasionally kept notes in diaries. These are extracts from 2002, when Queen Elizabeth II (or, if you are being very Scottish, Queen Elizabeth I) was celebrating her Golden Jubilee.

Saturday 1st June 2002

I went to see comedian Charlie Chuck at home in Leicestershire. In the local pub in the evening, there was a noisy disco – people wearing St George’s flag clothes amid Union Flag bunting.

Sunday 2nd June 2002

Actor Mike Wattam told me that, in the Vietnam War, the Vietcong hung prisoners upside down with bags on their heads. The bags had rats inside. The prisoners’ blood rushed to their heads. The frightened and hungry rats ate the prisoners’ faces.

On my way home, I drove through a street party in Radlett, Hertfordshire. Union flags and St George’s flags flying, bunting, trestle tables with food, lots of children excited at a licence to do pretty much whatever they wanted.

Monday 3rd June 2002

Extracts from an Instant Message with a friend in Washington DC:

Her: I met a twat hack from the Washington Post last night. Complete arrogant tosser.

Me: You have a way with words. What was wrong with him?

Her: I told him : “At least you’re consistent, as all the bars and restaurants you recommend tend to be crap.”

Me: Bunting, St George’s flags and Union flags aplenty here.

Her: He told me: “Oh, I only recommend places that I think readers will like, not places I like.”  Critics don’t do that!  It’s egocentric that brand of journalism.

Me: It’s normal!

Her: Really?

Me: Like TV producers looking down on punters and making programmes they wouldn’t themselves watch.

Her: So film critics don’t recommend movies they like, but that they think other people will like?

Me: I think tabloid journos probably do that.

Her: Well I still think it’s wrong.  He recommends very expensive very bland places where he gets free drinks.

Me: It is wrong

Her: The place I went to last night he said was the most disgusting skanky place in DC. It’s actually a really nice private house with eclectic decorations (you would love it), full of interesting people. But he is so goddamn arrogant because people in DC cannot go out without consulting his reviews. You would really like it. He started to insult me because he thought I was stupid (I mentioned I had friends in the Independent Media who are Socialists)

Me: What’s the Independent Media?

Her: dc.indymedia.org Free press. I told him I’d rather live in a society where people get free healthcare and education and he left the room.

Me: In the US, “Liberal” means Communist, so “Socialist” must mean “In League With the Devil”… Americans!

Her: I think Socialism means Communism here.  He said he’d read Marx and I told him he obviously didn’t know what Socialism actually is. I think he got pissed off when he realised I was more intelligent than him.

Me: I should tell him kibbutzes are Socialism in action. Communism, indeed. Ironic that right-wingers in the US support Israeli kibbutzes.

Tuesday 4th June 2002

Live Jubilee coverage all over the TV. Somehow it seems bigger than the Silver Jubilee.

Wednesday 5th June 2002

I talked to someone who has dealings with prisoners. She says prison letters all have the same smell. Slightly musty, slightly medical.

She told me about an old woman of 78 who reads newspapers then, unsteady on her feet, moves around her home by touching the walls for support. She leaves black finger marks everywhere – which she can’t see because of her bad eyesight.

‘Britain’s Most Violent Prisoner’ Charles Bronson, has been inside for 28 years. This week he was given a TV set for the first time and, for the past three days, he has been totally docile – watching episodes of the children’s series Teletubbies.

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North Korea – Walter Mitty truth in an anarchic, pedestrian totalitarian state

The throbbing industrial heart of the mineral water plant

It is ironic that one of the most controlled states in the world is so anarchic.

Every day on our continuing guided – or should that be guarded? – tour of the the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, we are told: “The itinerary has changed.”

It is in the countryside that you realise just how disorganised things are in North Korea.

An ox pulling a medieval plough is a rarity – possibly even a luxury. People sit using their hands on the soil. A tractor is as rare as a raindrop in the Sahara. Not unknown but still visually shocking.

In the cities, cars are a rarity. Even in the capital city of Pyongyang, where there is some traffic, vehicles do not exactly jam; they drip.

When one of our two ever-present guides realised I had been in North Korea before – in 1986 – she said: “You must see a lot of changes.”

I smiled and nodded a lie.

There seems virtually no change in 26 years. The monuments have got bigger. That’s about it.

When I was in China in 1984, people used to bicycle to get around. In North Korea in 2012, they still mostly walk. In the countryside. In the cities.

This is a very pedestrian totalitarian state.

Today, we got taken to a mineral water bottling plant to see the awe-inspiring strides North Korea has taken under the glorious guidance of its three great Leaders: father son and holy grandson.

The mineral water bottling plant, like so much else in North Korea, had a stylish look to it, but was not working. We were told the workers were “rehearsing for the celebrations tomorrow” of the late Great Leader Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday.

Plausible if odd, given that our two official state tour guides had organised the trip and, in the coach, had told us what we would see happening inside the bustling bottling plant.

Someone in our group had been before to the same mineral water bottling plant – a couple of years ago. It was closed then too. Back then, the story was that it was closed “for maintainance”. No visible maintenance had been happening. It was – and still is – the Marie Celeste of mineral water bottling plants.

Today, the gleaming, suspiciously clean machines looked un-used. We were told by the manager of the mineral water bottling plant that, each day, they produce 400 tons of health-giving mineral water – 10,000 bottles per day. Quick mental arithmetic makes me realise this mean that 25 bottles must weigh one ton. This seems somewhat unlikely. Perhaps they are manufacturing health-giving mineral heavy water for health-giving mineral nuclear bombs.

The manager tells us the factory’s water is exported to 1,000 different countries around the world.

Opinion varies on how many countries there currently are in the world. But it seems to be accepted to be between 89 and 196 countries. (What, for example, of Palestine or Taiwan or, indeed, Scotland?)

So, of these 196 countries, North Korea sells its health-giving mineral water to 1,000 of them?

Welcome to North Korean reality.

Perhaps many of the countries are not of this Earth. I could believe that.

If modern-day Beijing has a touch of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis about it, North Korea has the touch of a paranoid Walter Mitty about it. In that very real sense, nothing has changed since I was last here in 1986.

One of the most frightening parts of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is when the hero Winston Smith is being tortured and is told that it is not good enough for him  to say he loves Big Brother; it is not good enough for him to say 2+2=5.

If Big Brother tells him 2+2=5 then he must truly believe that 2+2=5. He must know without doubt that the truth is that 2+2 really does equal 5.

In North Korea, people have no access to outside information sources. The trick is to ban the personal ownership of radios. The people have no access to foreign TV, no access to foreign publications or news sources, no access to radio except state-owned radio sets broadcasting the state radio channel. From cradle to grave, the truth they know is what the state tells them.

I do not know that Adolf Hitler existed. I only ‘know’ because I have been told in books and have seen him speak  in old footage used in TV documentaries. But I do not from personal first-hand experience ‘know’ that he existed.

In 1986, the North Koreans showed us (its foreign visitors) a documentary film explaining how the Korean War started. As we saw in the film, the United States’ pet dogs the South Koreans wantonly attacked North Korea without warning. The valiant North Koreans fought back and pushed the South Koreans and the imperialist Americans back to the sea and the Americans begged for peace. The Americans did not push the North Korean forces back significantly; the Chinese did not enter the War and push the US/UN troops back.

In 1986, grandfathers and grandmothers would have been alive who remembered American troops passing northwards through their towns and villages; they would also have remembered Chinese troops passing southwards through those same towns and villages.

But, presumably, they could not tell their grandchildren that.

Because it never happened.

Their grandchildren ‘knew‘ from books and photos and captions and documentaries and museum trips what had actually happened in ‘reality’.

If their grandparents told them anything else, it could only be based on American imperialist fabrications. The only right thing to do, I presume, would have been to report them to the police.

Historical reality is what you are shown to have existed.

I know the aliens were defeated by an Apple computer because I have seen filmed evidence in Independence Day.

Pictures do not lie.

… CONTINUED HERE …

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Filed under China, History, North Korea, Politics, PR, Psychology

The Edinburgh Fringe, Malcolm Hardee and the anniversary of the Great Leader

Statue of the Great Leader in Pyongyang

My blog four days ago on the Edinburgh Free Fringe’s unusual, some might say neo-Stalinist, restrictions on its performers did nothing to free the block on one of the long-term members of The Greatest Show on Legs performing at a planned reunion show at the Laughing Horse Free Festival’s Hive venue this August.

Free Fringe originator Peter Buckley Hill is quoted on the Chortle comedy website as saying: “We have done the fairest and the best thing in the 65-year history of the Fringe for performers.  Without us, they’d still be losing thousands of pounds. Let anybody who wants to cast a stone reflect on what they themselves have done to help performers at the Fringe.”

But now, just two days before the final Edinburgh Fringe Programme deadline, I can exclusively reveal (as the best hacks say) that the Greatest Show on Legs performance will go ahead at The Hive with long-time members Martin Soan and Martin ‘Sir Ralph’ Clarke plus – filling in for the unavailable third member – special guests on each of the three planned nights.

The Greatest Show on Legs will be performing at The Hive in Edinburgh on 23rd, 24th and 25th of August which (not coincidentally) means they can also appear during the two-hour Malcolm Hardee Awards Show in the ballroom of The Counting House on 24th August. This year, that show is being put together and hosted by the extraordinary Miss Behave, star of La Soirée and the Olivier Award winning La Clique.

The stand-in guest performers with the Greatest Show on Legs have not been arranged let alone confirmed yet – bloody hell, the booking was only arranged yesterday – but  past stand-in guests for their naked balloon dance have included comedian Simon Munnery, German variety artiste Otto Kuhnle (himself a Malcolm Hardee Award winner) and TV presenter Keith Chegwin.

Me? I am off to North Korea this morning to join in the heartfelt celebrations on 15th April for the 100th birthday of the late Great Leader and Eternal President Kim Il-sung.

When I was last in North Korea, in 1986, the great man himself was still alive. I sadly was not there during the rule of his son, the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, but I look forward to the rule of the new Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un.

North Korea is a fascinating country. But an unfortunate side-effect of my visit is that I will be uncontactable while there and will not be blogging again until 22nd April, when I get back to the UK.

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The new Wild West of Eastern Europe and its new stag party capital of Kiev

Dancing the night away in the Wild West of Eastern Europe

(This piece was also published in the Huffington Post and on the Indian news site WeSpeakNews)

I was in a basement disco in Kiev a couple of nights ago at three o’clock in the morning.

Anyone who knows me will tell you this is not my natural habitat. I hated dancing and strobe lights in the late 1960s and early 1970s when people not only dressed in primary-coloured clothes and juddered in bright flashing lights, but also wore flared trousers.

I remember going to a very jolly Saturday night party in someone’s house in London around 1981. The colours, the lights, the loud pulsing music. It was very well done but, that morning I had been in the studio in Birmingham for the live three-hour mayhem that was the Tiswas children’s TV show – and I think it was towards the end of that season’s 39-week run.

For people at the party, bright exciting colours, lights and noise were a good thing. I just wanted to stare at a beige wall for three hours. Sensory overload was not excitingly stimulating; it was more of what I had already had all morning, minus the smell of shaving-foam-filled ‘custard pies’ and whatever the sweet-smelling ingredient of the occasional explosive puffs was.

Which brings me to a basement disco in Kiev at three o’clock in the morning and me being there with a runny nose and a hacking cough.

Unmarried twenty somethings with disposable incomes way beyond the wild imaginings of their parents at the same age were dancing and drinking the Thursday night away to 0730 on Friday morning

Kiev’s streets are busy with Range Rovers and other 4-wheel drive vehicles and occasional nightclubs and 24/7 restaurants.

“It’s a cross between the decadent remnants of a Communist state and the Wild West with mobile phones,” I told my eternally-unnamed friend back in the UK via Skype and the free WiFi in my very good room at the Impressa Hotel. “It’s young people with money for the first time,” I added, knowing what I meant but not knowing if that phrase communicated what I meant.

In The West in the mid-to-late 1950s, ‘teenagers’ first appeared. Before then, people in their late teens had been schoolchildren or students or a living-with-their parents underclass with no money. But then they suddenly had disposable incomes and could afford to build their own lifestyles.

Then, starting in the Swinging Sixties though the Seventies, sexual liberation added a whole testosterone-fuelled extra dimension and (a phrase I hate) the Working Class British kids found they could be as decadent as the upper classes had always been because, suddenly, their parents were going on holiday to Spain not Blackpool and ‘Working Class Yoof’ was ‘in’.

From the early 1990s, post-Soviet Union kids had a theoretical new freedom, though without the money to fuel any real new lifestyles. I worked in Prague in the mid-1990s and saw this after it started but before it fully happened – there, the change I saw seemed to be heavily-fuelled by foreigners and tourists finding an open-minded country with relatively cheap living costs.

A Brit who has been coming to Kiev since around 1992 told me: “You could really see the changes happen from about 1999 onwards.”

The old Soviet Union is the new Wild West. Not an original thought, but true nonetheless. I vividly remember being behind a young couple in 1996 who were walking hand-in-hand down Wenceslas Square in Prague. He was wearing a dark jacket which clearly marked him as working for some private security company. Out of the bottom corner of my eye, I saw something bouncing on his right hip as he walked with his left arm round his girlfriend and it was then I saw it was a handgun in a hip holster.

It really was the Wild eastern West.

There was much talk in Prague at that time of the various mafias – German, Italian, Russian – who controlled parts of the city’s and country’s economy – one mafia ran most of the taxis. There is talk today in Kiev of the mafias and a surprising number of people – taxi drivers, shop assistants et al – without prompting, show extreme verbal dislike of the current President, openly calling him a ‘criminal’.

Where all this goes, only time will tell.

I do not know if the testosterone-fuelled mating rituals in that Kiev basement disco are a sign of a new awakening or the last belated gasp of a decadent Europe before the inexorable rise of China.

When I was in Prague in the mid-1990s, it was becoming (with Dublin for Brits) the weekend party capital of Europe. In last week’s edition, the Kyiv Post was touting Kiev as the “new stag party capital of world”.

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Filed under 1960s, History, Prague, Russia, Sex

The eccentric UK cult of the Kibbo Kift Kindred & the Greenshirts of the 1930s

The Kibbo Kift Kindred were keen on costumes & ceremonies

I was at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1976 (yes, I am that old) but sadly I did not go to see a rock musical called The Kibbo Kift at the Traverse Theatre which was, as far as I can remember, at that time, a rather ramshackle room up some metal stairs.

I am very sad I did not see the musical, written by Judge Smith (his real name) who co-created heavy metal rock group Van der Graaf Generator in 1967.

But last night I went to a Sohemian Society meeting to hear Judge Smith (now bald – aren’t we all) extol the eccentric virtues of the now almost totally forgotten 1930s movement called the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift… and its highly charismatic leader John Hargrave – an illustrator, cartoonist, wood carver, thriller novelist, inventor and psychic healer.

By the age of 17, Hargrave was Chief Cartoonist for the London Evening Times.

After the First World War, he joined the Boy Scouts and, a charismatic outdoor man, he was soon appointed Commissioner for Woodcraft and Camping. In 1919, now calling himself ‘White Fox’, he married the leader of the Merry Campers – part of the Camp Fire Girls movement – called Ruth Clark (her ‘Woodcraft name’ was ‘Minobi’)

John Hargrave started the Kibbo Kift Kindred in 1920 as an anti-war breakaway from Baden-Powell’s more militaristic Boy Scouts. Hargrave’s aim was to encourage “outdoor education, the learning of handicrafts, physical training, the re-introduction of ritual into modern life, the regeneration of urban man and the establishment of a new world civilisation.”

These aims were to be accomplished by hiking and camping. “Picturesque and dramatic public speaking” was also encouraged.

The man sitting next to me in the Sohemian Society meeting last night had come down to London all the way from Leicester just to find out more about this extraordinary group.

During the Kibbo Kindred’s weekend hiking and camping extravaganzas, members were encouraged to make their own tents and wear handmade uniforms – long Saxon-styled hooded cloak , belted tunic and shorts for men; knee-length dress, leather belt and Valkyrie-style leather helmet for women. They liked a bit of elaborate ritual and ceremony, did the Kibbo Kift. At larger ceremonial meetings, the KK’s different Clans, Tribes and Lodges paraded with their tribal totems – everyone was encouraged to carve their own personal totem pole and parade round with it. Their tents were decorated in bright colours and their elaborate robes and regalia embossed with symbolic designs were somewhere between Hiawatha and Art Nouveau.

They used the native American greeting of the outstretched arm and raised open hand (to show you held no weapon) and Hargrave was “somewhat annoyed” when he discovered that the Italian Fascists’ raised arm salute looked exactly the same. Hargrave dropped the hand greeting when too many photos of Nazis in Germany with raised arms “caused confusion”. He did not like Fascists.

The Kibbo Kift sound like a bunch of amiable loonies but, involved in the Kibbo Kift, were suffragette Emmeline Lawrence, photographer Angus McBean, social reformer Havelock Ellis, biologist Julian Huxley and author H.G.Wells.

By 1925, Hargrave had switched his interest from ‘back-to’nature’ to the political Social Credit movement, which aimed to eradicate poverty and unemployment. The Kibbo Kift Kindred split when Hargreaves refused to recognise a new South London Lodge called ‘The Brockleything’. He formed the more political Green Shirts; the ‘back-to-nature’ diehards formed The Woodcraft Folk organisation (which still exists today).

In 1930, Hargrave formed a “Legion of the Unemployed” in Coventry. Wearing green paramilitary uniforms and berets, these political activists became known as the Legion of the Kibbo Kift and, by 1935, were known as The Green Shirt Movement for Social Credit, marching through the streets with their own bands of drummers. In 1935, they put up a Parliamentary candidate under the banner of the Social Credit Party of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but lost their deposit.

As Judge Smith explained to the very crowded room above a pub last night, the Green Shirts were the largest uniformed paramilitary street-army in 1930s Britain. They supported and promoted the Social Credit movement which, basically, said the Western banking system based on massive debt (the economic system makes money by lending money) is mad and inevitably results in periods of boom and bust. They had more followers than Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts, yet have been totally forgotten.

They were idealistic and had a particular dislike of ‘fat cat’ financial institutions, Communists, Fascists and the Governor of the Bank of England.

During the Second World War, Hargrave invented an ‘automatic navigator’ for aircraft. The RAF tested it, decided it worked well but, as it required a gyroscope and all the gyroscopes were being used for bomb sights, they never took up the idea.

After the War, Hargrave decided he had the power of psychic healing and dissolved his organisation in 1951, making a living as an author, illustrator and cartoonist for Vanity Fair and the Daily Sketch.

In 1967, he discovered that the new Concorde supersonic airliner had a ‘moving map display’ which sounded remarkably like the ‘automatic navigator’ he had invented during the War; but he had allowed his patent to lapse. Despite this, eventually, in 1967, he forced the British government to hold a full Public Enquiry which, basically, decided that Hargrave’s idea had, indeed, been nicked but he would get no money for it as he had let the patent lapse.

In 1976, now in his eighties, Hargrave went to see Judge Smith’s rock musical The Kibbo Kift in the Traverse Theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe and enjoyed it thoroughly though, Judge Smith said last night, this may have been because he was “pretty deaf by then and this very loud rock music may have been the first  music he’d heard for years”.

Before he died in 1982, Hargrave set up the Foundation of the Kibbo Kift Foundation.

All the paper records are now held by the London School of Economics; the costumes, banners and other physical stuff is held at the Museum of London.

Unjustly forgotten. As Judge Smith said last night, “one of the most unusual things about this very unusual man is just how little-known he and his movement are today. There’s no biography; there’s been no TV documentary. But he is far more interesting, significant and downright entertaining than many personalities of the time who are still famous today.”

On my way home from the Sohemian Society meeting, a girl opposite me in the tube train was making up her eyes with her right hand, using her Apple iPhone 4S in her left hand. She had it switched on to the camera, using it as a video mirror.

Times change. Lateral and creative thinking continues.

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Filed under Eccentrics, History, Politics

Comedy in an economic recession: how the Greatest Show on Legs survived

(This was also published in the Huffington Post and on the Chortle comedy industry website)

There is a report in The Scotsman today which starts: “Theatres across Scotland have had their best winter for years as families flock back to the panto to raise morale and spread Christmas cheer during a time of economic crisis.”

Who knows whether a Recession is good or bad for showbiz in general and comedy in particular? Hollywood movies and Busby Berkeley escapism prospered in the 1930s.

I was chatting to performer Martin Soan recently.

With his wife Vivienne, he currently runs the Pull The Other One comedy clubs whose format is, basically, to book several bizarre variety acts and one token Big Name stand-up comic. It is an unusual formula and always interestingly different.

But Martin is also renowned for his Greatest Show on Legs comedy troupe, which included British comedy godfather Malcolm Hardee. Their main claim to fame was the naked Balloon Dance which they performed on Chris Tarrant’s OTT TV show in 1982. Once seen, never forgotten.

The Greatest Show on Legs’ surreal and anarchic comedy survived the last big Recession and also the rise of straight-faced political comedy in the 1980s. I asked Martin how The Greatest Show on Legs prospered and survived changing comedy tastes until Malcolm Hardee’s death in 2005.

This is what he told me:

_______

What happened in the 1980s with Thatcher was that just everybody jumped on the political bandwagon. Even with The Greatest Show on Legs, we used Margaret Thatcher posters instead of balloons at one point. If you ripped the mouth out, you could just stick your knob though it and get a big laugh. It was hardly political satire: it was a visual knob gag.

In the 1980s, a lot of comics were derisory – to say the least – about The Greatest Show on Legs. But the good guys found us funny. The bad guys said things like: “Your style of comedy is dead. It’s now all about stand-up gags and politics. You look so silly. Stupid. Why are you doing this?”

It was depressing for a bit because people coming up to you and saying those things can knock your confidence a little bit. But we had no capability or talent to change in any way whatsoever, so we stuck to our guns. We had no choice.

How did it turn round? Well, I don’t think you can keep stuff down, so we did start getting a little more complex in our ideas. We did start experimenting a bit more.

We had a Hands piece where we used Johann Strauss’s Radetzky March 

We had a very ordinary, black proscenium arch with eight holes in it and black curtains so you couldn’t see the holes and then we choreographed a routine with white gloves. So, at the beginning of the show, the music starts and eight gloved hands appear and open and close and create this pattern. Doesn’t sound much but, for us, it felt like Oh God! We’re really going out on a comedy limb here.

Malcolm pushed it forward in terms of business and I was forever trying to push it forward in terms of the creative side. But, of course, Malcolm was a genius. He’d just say one phrase and then I would go away, envisage it all and choreograph it all.

The classic example of that was the Red Sparrows routine. He said:

“Oy Oy. Instead of the Red Arrows, we do the Red Sparrows.”

Just from that one phrase – the Red Sparrows – I go away, make all the sparrows on sticks, choreograph it, get the music, turn up and try to do a bit of rehearsal.

“I ain’t fucking doing a rehearsal,” Malcolm says.

“Oh, come on, look Malcolm,” I say, “I’ve made all this fucking gear. At least put five minutes in before we go on stage.”

“Well,” he says, “I wasn’t expecting this. Having to rehearse!”

With some other ideas I suggested to Malcolm, he said: “Nah. It’s too artistic.”

Once, I said: “I’ve got a great one about voodoo, Malcolm. You come on and you talk about voodoo and you say I’ve got a voodoo doll here this evening and you hold this doll up and it’s got a very specific costume and, as soon as you bring it up in front of the microphone, I pop out from downstage in this same very specific costume that’s on this voodoo doll. You lift the arm up; I do exactly the same. I just mirror whatever you do with this doll. And then you say Voodoo? It’s a load of old bollocks! throw the doll over your shoulder and I do a back flip.

“That,” he said, “is much too poncey and artistic.”

I suppose a combination of Malcolm and the Balloon Dance created a whole image that we were just a load of old Joe Soaps going around.

I was always a little disappointed, because I wanted to work harder. Malcolm was always content with being a bit of a minor celebrity, owning a club and going around doing our Balloon Dance and Michael Jackson’s Thriller routines. I wanted to push it forward. But we got the reputation of just being a load of drinking men getting up and taking our clothes off.

There was an element of that, of course.

But, if you ‘do’ surreal and anarchic, you have to be disciplined if you want to reproduce that on stage time-and-time-and-time again. You have to think things through, work out how ridiculous props can be fitted-into small spaces and all the rest of it. It’s discipline.

If you get more than one person doing the same thing at the same time to a bit of music, it’s always impressive.

I would say I am a performance artist with a sense of humour.

It’s well-on-the-cards now that we are probably going from Recession into Depression. Even the optimistic forecast says it’s going to be five years before we get proper growth again.

So I reckon the way through for people like me is to do the cabaret/German type surreal comedy of the inter-War years where you are reflecting how people feel.

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Filed under Comedy, History, Marketing, Politics, Theatre

Punks were Hippies with short hair – the link from beatniks to The Beatles

When I was in my teens, I used to read the hippie newspaper it (International Times – the title was reduced to the iconic it after The Times threatened to sue, on the somewhat unlikely grounds that people would confuse the hippie International Times with The Times, serious recorder of world events). Later, I wrote a column about movies for a briefly-revived it.

In the earlier issues I read, though, there was a far more prominent column by a guy called only Miles.

He was and is an interesting man. He had created the International Times with that other seminal Swinging London figure John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins.

Miles managed the legendary Better Books shop in London’s New Compton Street and later, with Marianne Faithfull’s husband John Dunbar, he ran the Indica gallery/bookshop where Dunbar introduced John Lennon to Yoko Ono. Still later, Miles ran the Beatles’ Zapple record label and lived in the Chelsea Hotel in New York.

Last night, he was chatting to the Sohemian Society, who shrewdly billed his talk with the line:

If You Can Remember The 60s, You Are Probably Miles

And – though this might be affected by a comparison with my own terrible memory – he does have an extraordinary, fluent memory for names, dates and descriptions of locations… they all tumbled out, recreating the height of the Swinging Sixties, which he reckons really ran from about 1964 to about 1976.

“I always thought punk was really the end of that same period,” he says, “I used to know The Clash quite well, because I used to write for NME, and they told me Well, of course, we grew up in the years of Oz and Kerouac and Burroughsbut we couldn’t tell anybody, because Malcolm McLaren had told everyone to say ‘Who gives a shit?’ It was all ridiculous.

“You see early pictures of Mick Jones and The Clash with hair out to here, it looks like something out of Mott The Hoople who were, of course, his favourite band.

“I always thought that the punks were just hippies with short hair.

Joe Strummer cast the I Ching to decide whether to join The Clash or not – you can’t get more hippie than that.

“Somebody like John Lydon was probably a bit more authentic and generally more angry and cut off from that underground culture, but most of them were still arts students. I used to know Rat Scabies’ mum. She used to come to the UFO club.

“It was part of the same scene as far as I was concerned. Joe Strummer was only eight years younger than me.”

Miles’ start in trendy London, though, was much earlier, after seeing a TV documentary on the American ‘Beat Poets’ – Allen GinsbergGregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

He became the 21-year-old manager of Better Books, which had links with the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco (run by Ferlinghetti) and the Peace Eye Bookstore in New York’s Lower East Side (run by Ed Sanders of The Fugs).

This ultimately resulted in an astonishing poetry reading – the International Poetry Incarnation – at the Albert Hall in London on 11th June 1965.

At the beginning of 1965, Allen Ginsberg went from the US to Cuba to “check it out” and managed to get himself deported. They could not send him back to the US because there had been no official transport connection between the two countries since the Bay of Pigs/Cuban Missile Crisis problems.

So they deported Ginsberg to Czechoslovakia where eventually, according to Miles, he “fell foul of the secret police. He got so involved with the students there that he was elected the King of May and 100,000 people paraded through the streets and he was wearing a crown and the authorities started to take a very dim view of this, so the secret police managed to get hold of his secret notebook which, unfortunately, had a long description of some insertions of a broom handle. So they put him on the next plane out of town and that was going to London.”

Ed Sanders had given Ginsberg a list of interesting contacts which included Miles at Better Books.

For a time, Ginsberg stayed at Miles’ flat in Fitzrovia which, then, was a ‘beat’ area.

Ginsberg, according to Miles, was “hanging out at all the local beatnik bars around there. In the winter, everybody used to wear long greatcoats with long white scarves – I think that was the symbol of being a proper English beatnik.”

Ginsberg, though widely-travelled, had never encountered the concept of gas meters, where you put a coin in the meter to obtain a power supply.

“One day,” says Miles, “a man from the Gas Board came to empty the money from the meter and had to stand on a chair to get the half-crowns out. I just left him there as usual and went off to do something in the back room. Then, suddenly, I heard him say: I’m finished now, sir. Can I go now, sir? which was odd.

“Normally, he would just go and let himself out. I went back into the room and the man from the Gas Board was on the chair with Allen standing stark naked next to him asking him all these questions about the money going in the meter and how it worked. The man refused to come down from his chair until Allen moved away from him.”

Ginsberg later turned up at an event naked and, according to Miles, John Lennon’s reaction was: “You don’t do that in front of the birds.” Ironically, says Miles: “John himself did it two-and-a-half years later on the album sleeve of Two Virgins, so everybody could see.”

When Ginsberg had first walked into Better Books, Miles had asked him: “Would you like to do a reading?”

“Of course,” came the immediate reply.

At that time, Ginsberg had a policy of not charging for readings – because poetry had to remain “pure”… Look, it was the 1960s.

The reading was unadvertised but the shop was filled for it, with people halfway out into the street.

Donovan was pressed against the window,” Miles remembers, “and there was Gypsy Dave and Andy Warhol was in the front row – he would never have been outside.”

This Better Books reading was so successful, they decided to have another more ambitious one because they found they could get Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and Corso together in London at the same time.

Ginsberg was almost entirely gay but had an on-off girlfriend, underground film-maker Barbara Rubin

“She was very, very aggressive,” according to Miles, “just like his own mother and poor Allen was quite scared of her.”

Both Barbara and Ginsberg’s mother had mental problems: his mother died in a mental hospital.

“When the idea of having this big Beat Poet reading came up, Barbara asked: What’s the biggest hall in town? and my wife said, Well, the Albert Hall, I suppose. So Barbara phoned the Albert Hall and booked it. Pure American chutzpah. My weekly wage at the time was, I think, £8.16s.8p. The Albert Hall cost £400; an unbelievable amount of money. Plus another £100 for every hour we ran on.

“The booking was in ten days time, but we got quite a lot of publicity in the Sunday Times, the Observer and so on. At that time, Hoppy (John Hopkins, co-founder of it) was a press photographer and handed photos out all around Fleet Street.

“We got so many people turning up, we had to turn people away. I think the Albert Hall holds about 7,000. It was just an unbelievable evening.

“The one flaw in it was that we ended up with 17 people on the bill and an awful lot of them had never read in anything bigger than the upstairs room in a pub. And they were just frozen sometimes with all the lights and 7,000 people looking at them.”

Very 1960s.

The film-maker Peter Whitehead made a short documentary Wholly Communionon the 1965 International Poetry Incarnation, which is on YouTube in four parts.

Miles’ books include London Calling: A Countercultural History of London Since 1945.

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My brief encounter in Beirut with a man from the Syrian Army

Once, when I was working for the Discovery Channel, I had to make a TV trailer for a rather suspect documentary on the Waffen-SS.

I say ‘suspect’ because it started off with the words:

“The Waffen-SS is renowned throughout the world for its efficiency…”

Yes. I thought. Yes, but… and it is a very big But.

These last few months, I have been reminded of that by the Syrian Army’s wide-ranging put-down of the Syrian uprising. Very efficient. But…

I only had one encounter with the Syrian Army.

I visited Lebanon at the very end of 1993, almost four years after the Lebanese Civil War had sort-of ended. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I had tried to combine my trip to Lebanon with a visit to Syria to see the ruins of Palmyra but the Syrians had refused me an entry visa without explanation. My passport said my occupation was “writer” which probably did not help, though this had proved no problem in Albania  under Enver Hoxha nor in North Korea under the Great Leader Kim Il-sung.

In Beirut at that time, there were still Syrian ‘peacekeeping’ troops manning occasional sandbagged emplacements at crossroads and roundabouts.

Beirut was a strange city. At rush hour time, there were traffic jams of Mercedes-Benzes – almost all the taxis were Mercedes Benz. Money was flooding back into what had been the banking centre of the Middle East. You could walk along a street and it would seem perfectly normal and peaceful. But you could turn a corner and there would immediately be two or three blocks of burnt-out, bombarded skeleton buildings, utterly devastated, like visions of Berlin in 1946. You could not go up those streets nor into the buildings because there were mines and unexploded shells.

This is an extract from my diary.

FRIDAY 7th JANUARY 1994 – BEIRUT

I have a sneaking feeling we are the only guests in this hotel. We never see anyone else at breakfast. Never share lifts with anyone. The room next to us, where we heard a loud argument late one night, has no beds. I just looked in. Just two sofas.

The Syrian soldiers have no problem with accommodation. No tents on the wet ground for them. They just live in some of the skeleton buildings. We saw them camp-bedded in the Hotel St-Georges yesterday and, round the corner from our hotel, they are living in three storeys of a burnt-out building – usually we see some playing cards at a table on the first floor. No walls, of course. Like several around here, it is a building reduced to a vertical grid of open-fronted concrete boxes.

Nearby, there is a sandbagged emplacement in the middle of a junction at the far side of which is a Kentucky Fried Chicken/Baskin Robbins emporium in all its plastic red, white and pink glory. Two soldiers with machine guns stand inside the ring of sandbags, which has a little metal roof over it. There are usually at least three other soldiers standing around, looking in different directions, either in the roadway or on the surrounding pavements or both. Yesterday, there were five soldiers and a lorry. They do not seem trigger-happy; but they seem alert.

Today, a man on the seafront pavement saw the Pentax camera hanging over my shoulder, half-hidden under my arm, and decided to shake my hand.

“Welcome to Lebanon!” he said.

I thought he did this to practice his English but, eventually, he invited me over to buy a tea from his van. It was impressive to see Lebanese entrepreneurial skills re-emerging.

As he made the offer, a military jet flew low overhead and a couple of klaxoned motorbikes ee-aw-ee-aw-ee-aw-ed out of a junction, leading a four-car convoy and, a little later, a couple more jet fighters flew over and round in a complete circle.

On Tuesday, I was woken up by the sound of two jets flying fast and low one after the other.

I walked down as far as the Summerland Hotel – which I knew for its peach melba, chattering American financier, vast swimming pool and supermarket. A man with a Buick told me his sister had bought a nearby flat for $750,000.

I looked at my map for directions and left the Summerland Hotel for the city centre but a gent in front of me pointed out that two soldiers behind me wanted me to stop. These two soldiers – then a third – then a fourth – then a fifth – wanted to see what I was reading. None of the five could speak any English or French at all. But they wanted to know if I had been taking any photographs. (My Pentax was over my shoulder; the smaller Minox camera was invisible in my pocket.)

They wanted to know where I got the map. I had bought it from a shop in one of Beirut’s main streets. Fortunately I still had it in the paper bag and could point at it. They did not seem to have seen any map nor knew one existed. They were not content. I showed them my passport, which the soldier in charge (in his twenties) did not really understand. He was more interested in my Middle East Airlines ticket stub. He must have read the Arabic on the back of the stub about four times at various points. It says (in multiple languages):

“Kindly reconfirm your reservation between 10 and 3 days before date of departure to guarantee your seat. Otherwise your reservation will be cancelled.”

This fascinated him so much we all went over to a guard post, then into an open area between two nearby buildings. I explained my week of merry jaunts around Lebanon by pointing to the days in my diary. But he was more interested in three Daily Telegraph Holiday Offer coupons I had torn out for a friend. They showed drawings of an aircraft, a cruise ship, a sun, a family and a bar code. He looked through these slowly twice.

As he was doing this, I palmed something else that was in my diary – a letter from a friend in Norfolk who sends letters/parcels to a ten year old girl in Beirut. It read:

“If you really want to live dangerously in Beirut, the address to seek out is (and it gave the girl’s name and address). Her dad was a policeman in the Lebanese Internal Security Forces so TAKE CARE!

I thought it wise to palm this even though, clearly, none of the soldiers understood English.

By this time, a Syrian Army Intelligence officer in civilian clothes had been brought over to our group. He was older, maybe mid-40s, and very relaxed. He also understood and spoke basic English.

We went through the map, photos etc again. He seemed to have been told the soldiers saw me taking photos which, ironically, I had not been. He, too, seemed surprised I had a map. He asked more detailed questions – or, rather, I volunteered information – travel agency in Beirut, hotel, route, the diary again.

All those many TV years of obsequious amiability, smiling, wittering and keeping calm came to fruition. If you can tell children and parents their appearance on national TV has been cancelled, then gents with battledress toting Kalashnikovs are less of a worry.

But only slightly.

The Intelligence man asked me:

“What is your job?”

“I write for children,” I told him, on the basis this had done me no harm in (an even dodgier country which shall be nameless until next year) and my visa said ‘Writer’ but I did slightly worry that the Syrians had refused me a visa.

“Mmmm…” the Intelligence man said.

The main military man went off with my passport and the Beirut travel agent’s card. I was left alone with Intelligence man in civilian clothes and a very young soldier fiddling absentmindedly with the trigger of his Kalashnikov. He could shoot his own ear off I thought.

“Are you in Lebanon with others?” the Intelligence man asked.

“One other person.” I replied. “I think he is still asleep back at the hotel.”

I was in obsequious/amiable chatting mode.

The Intelligence man had come back to Lebanon from the US one year ago. He was not surprised a flat in this neighbourhood went for $750,000. I asked how much flats in the building to our right would cost. He said about $400,000 with three bedrooms.

He was polite, amiable and smiling. But sometimes, when I was not looking at him directly, his smile would drop a little.

“Your British Foreign Secretary Mr Hurd went from Beirut to Israel this week. What do you think of the Israeli-Arab problems?” he asked me, then realised it was too blatant a question and back-tracked.

The main soldier came back.

They took me into a tent in the ground floor of the house to our left and we went through the map again.

I showed them my route.

“What photographs have you taken today?”

I could not remember anything except the devastated Holiday Inn area by the sea (not a good thing to mention) so I said Martyr’s Square and pointed it out on the map.

None of them (about five) had heard of Place des Martyrs/Martyr’s Square, the main – indeed only big – square in the city; and they had difficulty looking at the map and figuring out where it was in town.

You would think soldiers could read a map and would know the local layout, I thought.

It was around this time they started mentioning you need a licence to shoot film.

“You need a licence to shoot film,” I was told. “Do you have one?”

“No.”

In fact, this cannot be true and, indeed, I have always carried the Pentax in full view (though mostly using the Minox).

Yesterday, a soldier saw the Pentax over my shoulder

“You cannot take film here,” he said. “Bombs… Boom!” He pointed at the ground. “Not here. Poof!…Bombs!… Boom!”

But he never said I needed a licence to film.  I presume today they were trying to intimidate me.

I had been offering to take the film out of the camera and give it to them and they now decided I had to… take the film out of the camera and give it to them.

I could not remember what was on the film – possibly photos of the bombed American Embassy, the Holiday Inn, the Hotel St-Georges and the bay by these hotels.

I dabbled with the idea of opening the back of the camera, then unspooling the film for them, but figured it would be too obvious I was destroying the pictures I had taken. So I just rewound it and gave them the film as it was. Assuming they would not develop it by 0730 tomorrow anyway (my take-off time).

Everything was very relaxed after that. I was at my most obsequiously polite.

The Intelligence officer and the main soldier took me outside. I thanked the soldier three times for his politeness. The Intelligence officer said, “I hope you understood it is a difficult time… only for security reasons… A difficult time… very sensitive… for the country’s security and your own… A difficult time.”

I assume it was just a Jobsworth affair with the soldiers trying to get brownie points from their superiors for being alert to security dangers.

They had not searched me. If they had, they would have found the Minox camera and four new rolls of film in my trouser pockets.

When I left, I walked back to my hotel and switched on the BBC World Service, which was transmitting a report on the Jewish community in Cuba, with various Jewish songs being sung. I decided to switch it off.

Later, I went out and bought Tuesday’s Arab Times, which bills itself as “The First English Language Daily in Free Kuwait”. It reports that, on Monday, the day we were in Tyre and Sidon in South Lebanon, “Guerrilla factions in South Lebanon went on maximum alert in a pre-emptive move designed to avert Israeli strikes expected to accompany the forthcoming Syrian-American summit scheduled for mid-January.”

The Arab Times went on to report that, on Monday, the Israelis (via their ‘South Lebanon Army’ militia) “carried out a reconnaissance by fire tactic at 9.00am by firing six 120mm mortar rounds at a hill overlooking the southern Lebanese market town of Nabatiyey.”

What an interesting use of the word “reconnaisance” I thought.

They are all mad.

All sides.

Everything is out of control.

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Filed under History, Lebanon, Middle East, Politics

“At the going down of the sun and in the morning…”

This morning, I looked at my diary for 9th November 2001 – two days before Remembrance Day.

I had noted down some Facts I Didn’t Know.

This is back in 2001…

– In the last 100 years, there has only been one year in which no British serviceman was killed on active duty

– Since 1945, there have been 70 separate conflicts involving Britain

That was way back in 2001.

Now we are another ten years on.

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One night in Tashkent, I did not sleep with a Nazi

I am knackered by lack of sleep and cannot think of anything to blog about, so I am reduced to remembering what happened on Friday 3rd May 1985 in Bukhara and Tashkent, in what was then Soviet Central Asia.

I was on a 37 day group tour of the Soviet Union, Mongolia and China. We started in what was then Leningrad (later re-named St Petersburg after the collapse of Communism) and ended in Hong Kong (which was, at that time, still a British colony and not part of China).

In our group, there were Americans, Australians, Canadians, English, Germans and Scots. This is an extract from my diary:

_____

Friday 3rd May, 1985

Our group leader, Jimmy, is a dour and wizened Glaswegian in his mid-fifties who, when not taking large groups of strangers to exotic locations, works as a barman in London. He says he has been coming to the Soviet Union for 23 years and has never been invited into an ordinary Soviet citizen’s home. He has been visiting China for 4 years and has been invited to ordinary people’s homes several times.

“Russians are so completely paranoid,” he explains, “They don’t even trust their neighbours in case they report them for something.”

At the airport in Bukhara, a woman border guard sniffs and wants to confiscate a plastic bottle of water carried by American platinum blonde Carla. Having got through Customs, we are told we cannot sit on any seats in the Departure Lounge because “the Departure Room seats are not for sitting on”. We are taken to wait on the tarmac, separated by several yards from the locals already patiently waiting there, in case we contaminate them or vice versa.

As usual, the locals have to wait while we are first to board the smallish prop plane with its wing above the fuselage. The locals look at us forlornly with something between hatred and resignation. They are seated separately from us and are collected by different airport buses when we land at Tashkent.

In the afternoon, we are taken to a collective farm. Someone asks what happens in years when the crops fail. “We never have crop failures,” comes back the immediate reply. Seeing us laugh, the Party member pauses, taken aback, then adds: “ Once we had a crop failure… Once.”

At each stop, the singles in our group have to share with different members of the group – this is Jimmy’s wise idea to avoid people being paired permanently with people they hate.

Tonight, I have to share a room with one of our Germans – Alex – a boorish old man in his sixties who keeps geese and who, at every stop in Russia, blithely told the Inturist people that he had been in their country once before – during the War. This went down particularly badly at Leningrad.

He leches after any women under 30, sometimes clenching his fist and raising his forearm behind their back: a sort of retired Nazi Benny Hill.

His animal-like snoring is so loud that the walls virtually vibrate and, during the night, it continually wakes me up. I find I can temporarily stop the snoring by clapping my hands, but it soon re-starts. I progress to turning the radio quickly on and off, banging my headboard, throwing headache tablets at him then finally putting the light on above his bed head. All to no avail.

It is like sleeping in a room with a Panzer tank revving up its engines.

I try not to think about what he might have done when he was in the Soviet Union during the War.

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Filed under History, Russia