Category Archives: Society

Michael Livesley: The Bonzo Dog’s Viv Stanshall & understanding masculinity

Michael Livesley has been reviving the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s Vivian Stanshall’s iconic show Sir Henry at Rawlinson’s End  for nine years with sundry Stanshall-related co-stars.

Now, he is doing two final shows – on December 7th (next Friday) at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London and on December 12th at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool.

The Daily Telegraph described the show as “a combination of Downton Abbey and Gormenghast set to music”.

We had a chat in a Wetherspoons pub in London.

Why is he doing two more shows? 

Why is he stopping?


MICHAEL: I can’t do any more. Nine years of having someone else in yer head is enough – especially when that person is Vivian Stanshall.

Viv Stanshall: the original Sir Henry

It’s a lot of work and it has kicked open a lot of doors for me and it’s great fun but it’s enough. We did the album with Rick Wakeman and Neil Innes. We did the Bristol Old Vic with Stephen Fry. We’ve done the London Palladium, the Glastonbury Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe. We’ve done the Millenium/O2 Dome in London. A lot of other stuff. And we will be filming this one at the Bloomsbury Theatre for a Sky Arts thing.

JOHN: So why?

MICHAEL: In March this year, I was living in a village between Winchester and Andover in Hampshire – which is where we recorded the album in the shed – and it was great. But ultimately you run out of road in these places. There was nothing happening, so it was time to move back to Liverpool and I thought: Let’s put something in the work diary – and it’s the 40th anniversary of Sir Henry.

JOHN: And what happens after these two shows?

MICHAEL: There’s a Rodney Slater’s Parrots gig at the Zanzibar Club in Liverpool on 14th December. And I am doing the Edinburgh Fringe myself next year.

JOHN: Doing what?

MICHAEL: A show called Half the Man because I’ve lost five stone in three months and I intend to be half the man by the time that happens and my stand-up, when I do it, is all about my observations of being brought up by a single mother and a grandmother: the challenges of establishing your manhood within that female environment.

That’s why I hang out in Wetherspoons: so I can hang out amongst real men. These places are almost like social breweries, because they filter out the impurities in society like me and give us somewhere to reside for a while. It’s a place that’s essentially filled with wounded gazelles: divorced men, single men, who salt their wounds with warm lager. I fit right in here.

JOHN: By drinking?

Michael, in Wetherspoons, has given up drink

MICHAEL:  I am treating myself to beer today because it was my birthday last week. But, other than this, I’ve not drunk beer since August.

JOHN: And you are giving up Sir Henry too…

MICHAEL: I’m not denigrating it in any way – it’s fucking genius, but it’s not mine. It’s a bit of imposter syndrome. But, paradoxically, doing it has enabled me to find my own voice in a strange way: it gave me the vehicle to get on stage in front of people.

I sort of made a compromise when I was 16 to be a musician rather than a performer and this gave me the excuse to take it on. That’s partly what I want to explore with Half The Man. There’s a conversation to be had about what masculinity is and isn’t.

JOHN: You are gonna talk about ‘Northern folk’?

MICHAEL: Well, talk about growing up in the 1980s, growing up in the North without a dad in a very small village in Lancashire where it was all Catholic and shit… it was no picnic… Some people have a really tough life. This was NOT a really tough life.

JOHN: But…?

MICHAEL: But because me mum weren’t married, it used to rile the teachers in this Catholic school. Our side of the street were Catholic and the other side were Protestant; and we’re only talking about the 1980s. I remember standing in the front room with the curtains shut when the Protestants were on their Walk.

JOHN: The Catholics had a walk too?

MICHAEL: It was kind of like a Virgin Mary thing with a cart with stuff on it.

The teachers at my school had also taught me mum and all me uncles and aunties. I would get a school book and there would be me auntie’s name in it from 30 years back. The teachers were all long past retirement. There was a guy who taught me in the 1980s and he had been in the First World War! Fuck knows how old he was! He had a yellow streak in his hair because he always had a fag in his mouth. He reeked of whisky and had yellow teeth and used to beat the shit out of us.

I saw him take a little girl who sat next to me out to the front of the class and he pulled her knickers down and bare-bottomed smacked her. She was a 5-year-old! Real men don’t beat children. That ain’t masculine! That’s just complete and utter barbarism.

There is a whole confusion about what masculinity really is. The sort-of imposition of masculinity in those communities was completely at odds with what I believe masculinity is.

There was one murder in the village where I grew up. 

JOHN: How many people in the village?

MICHAEL: About 300 or 400. It was a mining village.

JOHN: What was the murder?

MICHAEL: This guy – Mulligan – murdered his girlfriend in the local woods. His dad was the village wife-beater. This sounds like bullshit but there WAS a village wife-beater. Everyone knew he did it. He was the guy whose wife had a black eye going for the bread on a Sunday morning. Everybody knew it and everybody tolerated it.

My mum used to say that men love women but they don’t like them. That ain’t true in general but in that village – that little place – I think it was.

Anyway, so when Mulligan stood up in court and they asked him why he’d murdered his girlfriend, he said: “I thought that’s what you did.”

That is true.

And you can buy into that, because all he had seen all his life was his dad knocking bloody hell out of his mum.

And that is quite incongruous because, in the world I grew up in, the women were in charge. Everyone colluded in the illusion that men were in charge but they were not and I don’t think that’s a peculiarly Northern industrial thing. I think that goes across the animal kingdom. And the frustration and anger that that situation brings about with the section of the population that are physically stronger is… Well, that’s the kind of world I grew up in. 

When I was 16, I started working in a pub and, on a Sunday morning, they would put trays on the bar with black pudding and tripe and cheese – a peculiarly Northern Catholic thing which I had not been aware of at home, because alcohol played no part in my upbringing. 

Until I started work, I was not aware of 50% of life, because I was brought up in a 100% female household. It was a male thing. On a Sunday, men went to the pub, ate meat and left the women at home.

In my home, we had a half-bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label whisky that me grandad won in the Catholic club in the 1970s that remained untouched until me mum met the man they called Barry and then it went within a week. 

JOHN: The man they called Barry?

MICHAEL: Her boyfriend. My mam met the man they called Barry when I was 13. He was just a fucking alcoholic wanker. 

JOHN: Is he still alive?

MICHAEL: No. Everyone’s dead. That’s the crazy thing about the North. Within about 20 years, every fucker’s dead. There’s no longevity.

JOHN: So this is your next year’s Edinburgh Fringe show – with a few laughs thrown in.

MICHAEL: In one of your blogs, you said every successful Edinburgh comedy show needs a dead dad story!

JOHN: Yes, at about 40 minutes into the hour…

MICHAEL: I’ve got nothing BUT dead dads, not that I’ve ever met me dad.

JOHN: I saw a show the other day and the comic wasn’t good enough to sustain 60 minutes. The show sagged at about 32 minutes and I thought: You need a dead dad story in there…

MICHAEL:  After nine years of doing someone else’s work, you end up with this big backlog of things you wanna say yourself.

JOHN: And you now have nine years’ experience of how to say things.

MICHAEL: Yes. I had no father figure to explain where I should fit in… it’s all that stuff I want to explore… and doing Sir Henry has given me the legs to realise how to do that.

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Filed under Comedy, Music, sectarianism, Sex, Society, Sociology

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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Filed under 1960s, Culture, History, Music, Newspapers, Rock music, Society