Friday, August 31, 2018

FRIDAY MUSIC: Jazz from Big Easy Street, by JD

More jazz on the street, not all of it in New Orleans, but all of it the spirit of the music of the 'Big Easy' and including some fine clarinet playing by local legend Doreen Ketchens.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Public House, by Wiggia

The demise of the public house, one of the cornerstones of the British way of life, has been going on for some time now. In some ways it is inevitable: with so many other ways of entertaining available and the price differential for beers between pubs and supermarkets, there was always going to be a fall-out.

The more far-sighted of the breweries and the publicans saw the writing on the wall way back and started to cater for a larger clientele by offering food at a standard a long way from the sweaty cheese roll under a plastic dome that many pubs exhibited as their only food option, apart from pork scratchings and crisps. Many of these have thrived but position and investment are crucial to success: many pubs still fail as the footfall does not rise owing to the pub's poor location.

Since 2000 10,500 pubs have closed and the closure rate is currently running at roughly two a day, but the rate is slowing as the number of pubs that will never make a profit in the modern age dwindles.

The days of the public bar, the saloon bar and the snug may be no more, which is shame as those clandestine meetings in the quiet of the upmarket saloon bar were part of the life in those not so far off days; a lot of business was also carried out in those surroundings as well.

All that has gone, fortunately despite some sad closures most of the old coaching inns remain, maybe not in their original form but they remain nonetheless.

A wonderful example of the coaching inn is the George Inn in Borough High Street, Southwark. It is owned by the NT - I have no idea if that is a good thing for a pub - but it is run by Greene King and very successfully. It is Grade 1 listed, hence the NT involvement no doubt, and boasts the only galleried frontage on a pub in London, used in the past by players to entertain.

The list even today of historic watering-holes in London runs to a lot more than be encompassed here so I will just select a few that I have visited personally, even if it was a while back.

The Prospect of Whitby was built in the 1520s on the Thames in Wapping. It is now a trendy waterside area: Sir David Owen - of the Gang of Four fame! - lives a few doors away. I was taken there by my father originally when it had a curiosity factor but was not on the tourist trail and the view from the back terrace showed cranes and wharves; a very different scene now.

Pubs like the above would fill a book even today. Other areas have seen a decline for other reasons. When I left school, Fleet Street where I worked was awash with pubs: it seemed everyone connected with the Press spent most of their time in the myriad of pubs that existed there' Just round the corner at Smithfield market was an all-night pub so you could slake your thirst twenty-four hours a day - that one still exists, The Hope - but even Smithfield has changed. The Hope is no longer twenty-four hours and the other pubs are struggling, impacted by the way the market is run and by drink-drive laws. The death knell for the Fleet Street pubs sounded when Murdoch moved to Wapping and the rest of the papers followed.

I always liked The Red Lion in Crown Passage, St James. It is old, simple and in reality hasn’t a lot going for it: it does no food to speak of, the beer is and always has been average. It is the classic suits-at-lunchtime pub, a standing-room-only real pub in a fantastic location. It also has the advantage for those that imbibe of being round the corner from another institute, Berry Bros and Rudd the wine merchants, whose own premises are worth a look.

A good example of the work-related pub was the Kings Head. What was unusual about this place was not the rather boring building but its location in the middle of the giant Lathams wood yard on the River Lea, not far from where I lived as a youngster at the time. Lathams was a huge place. The barges would deliver great logs from the Thames ships that brought them here, and they would be planked on site; no more, though the yard is still there. To get to the pub you would walk through the giant sheds and avoid the cranes and fork lifts on the way. It closed in the nineties and was demolished for housing, along with some of the yard.

Other work-related pubs were slightly different, such as the Coach and Horses in Greek Street, Soho. This pub had the same landlord for 63 years, Norman Balon, and he revelled in the title of “the rudest landlord”, though the pub's fame in later years came from the almost permanent incumbent Jeffrey Bernard, Private Eye and Spectator columnist and permanently drunk - his life was immortalised by Peter O’Toole in the play Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell. Balon's memoirs “You're Barred, You Bastards” followed. The place has now added "Normans" to its name and has a vegetarian and vegan menu !

The Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden used to be a favourite watering-hole for the market workers and previously Dickens and John Dryden but of course the market has moved so along with its rival pub the Cross Keys they cater for a very different clientele now with the revitalisation of the area. All markets had their own pubs not just in London but across the country. Many of the best pubs were associated with the markets they served.

The Black Friar pub was always a favourite of mine, simply because of the art nouveau interior In Queen Victoria Street the place itself has a strange wedge-shaped exterior backing onto the railway viaduct. In the sixties it faced demolition  but a campaign led by Sir John Betjeman quite rightly saved the place. The sixties may have been a wonderful era to live through but it was an appalling era for the destruction of notable buildings.

There is no way I could include all my favourites, this is just a random dip into nostalgia. For London I will finish with one of the iconic pubs of North London, the Spaniards Inn in Hampstead. The area boasts a number of pubs frequented by artists, actors and the like, but the Spaniards is hard to miss as the road pinches into a bottleneck as you approach, as the old toll booth on the other side of the road deliberately restricts the traffic. There were attempts to demolish the toll house in the sixties, again, but fortunately it was resisted.

The pub has had famous clients such as Joshua Reynolds, Byron and Keats and famously Dick Turpin the highwayman. This area with the toll booth was a favourite place for highwaymen to hold up coaches and the tree from which those caught were hanged was only a couple of hundred yards from the Spaniards.

For many years my frequenting of pubs waned, I really didn’t visit many, and only when we moved to Long Melford in Suffolk did my interest perk up again. For reasons unknown and unexplained Melford is inundated with pubs, when we lived there nine existed and they still do, and there had been five more. How these were supported by a large village I have no idea but they were. Today the tourist industry keeps them going in the summer months as Melford is a big local attraction, but in the winter the lights are on but few people are buying. The Bull is the main pub, more like a hotel, and with its studded exterior it looks the part in this type of village - a village that has the presence of two stately homes on different sides of the green, another rare occurrence.

Though the Bull Hotel largely caters for the hotel side and weddings you are hardly short of alternatives in the village. The Black Lion can be seen here with the wonderful Holy Trinity church in the background.

The area is rich with pubs of all types. I will finish with one of those places everyone who comes across goes into. Up the road a few miles from Long Melford, Bury St Edmunds boasts what is reputed to be (and according to the Guinness Book of Records is, depending how you measure these things) the smallest pub in Britain, The Nutshell, with an interior of 15’x 7’. It is a tight squeeze for more than ten people. Its survival is almost guaranteed by its position, you can’t miss it, and the footfall is constant.

Whilst in Bury I cannot leave there and finish this without a mention of not a pub but the bar at the Theatre Royal. This theatre is the sole surviving playhouse from the Regency era and has again been saved and renovated. A wonderful place, much visited when we lived down the road. Amazingly the old bar which creaked under load and was so tight you had to order in advance has been replaced by Greene King who run the place and the NT who own this Grade 1 listed building. How the hell they got permission to put in this modern bar in such a historic building I have no idea, so I finish with something that has lost a historic bar but not its wonderful interior.

The public house may be going through a difficult time, more will be lost but I am sure the historic and the weird and wonderful will survive for a good few decades at least, and hopefully longer, so that future generations can come to appreciate a very important part of their social history.

Friday, August 24, 2018

FRIDAY MUSIC: Jim White, by JD

One of the comments beneath the first video here (Alabama Chrome) describes Jim White's music as "outsider art, bluegrass style" and that sounds to me like a very good assessment  although it is not all bluegrass, there is a lot more to it than that.

His first album, released in 1997, had the strange title of "The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong Eyed Jesus." A title like that is enough to make everyone sit up and take notice and some details of the effect the album had is explained lower down the page before the final video, 'Christmas Day' which is from the film and was also on the album No Such Place.

I first came across his music in 2001 when I bought the album "No Such Place." Can't remember how or why it came to my attention but I'm glad it did because the music is very different as well as being very good. The difficulty with choosing these songs was wondering what to leave out!

In 2003 the BBC commissioned a documentary based on the 'Wrong Eyed Jesus' album. Why the BBC and not an American producer is a mystery. The film is currently on the BBC iPlayer (I think it is still available) If not then it can be found on YouTube and it is worth watching.

"Searching for The Wrong-Eyed Jesus" is a captivating and compelling road trip through the creative spirit of the Southern U.S. Director Andrew Douglas's film follows "Alt Country" singer Jim White through a gritty terrain of churches, prisons, truck stops, biker bars and coal mines. This is a journey through a very real contemporary Southern U.S., a world of marginalised white people and their unique and home-made society. Along the way are road-side encounters with modern musical mavericks including The Handsome Family, Johnny Dowd, 16 Horsepower and David Johansen; old time banjo player Lee sexton; rockabilly and mountain Gospel churches - and novelist Harry Crews telling grisly stories down a dirt track.

It is a collage of stories and testimonies, almost invariably of sudden death, sin and redemption: Heaven and Hell, with no middle ground. And all the while a strange Southern Jesus looms in the background. Jim White reflects upon what it is about this baffling place that inspires musicians and writers, or as he puts it "trying to find the gold tooth in God's crooked smile."

It is an elegy to and a requiem for a world we have all lost.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Alderney: secret WWII Channel Island nerve gas launching base?

Former London Times journalist Guy Walters' thriller "The Occupation" (2004) describes the development by the Nazis of missile launching batteries on the island of Alderney, which was just a few miles off the coast of NW France. According to the plot, when fully ready the site would be capable of saturation-bombing London at the rate of 300 rockets an hour.

The Daily Mail published an article on the Alderney fortress last year - "Hitler's British Death Island", 5 May 2017 - reporting that at least 40,000 imported slaves were killed in the process of constructing the site, which according to former military officers Richard Kemp and John Weigold was to target the southwestern coast of Britain from Weymouth to Plymouth with sarin-filled warheads.

However the newspaper's claims were swiftly contradicted by the Aldernese historian Trevor Davenport. Even the Mail's story admits that such a project would have been against the Germans' policy regarding V1 emplacements, as being more vulnerable to naval gunfire and commando raids than mainland installations.

The real underground tunnels can be seen here:

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Curiouser and Curiouser, by Wiggia

I have for reasons unknown other than a curious mind been drawn to items - buildings, whatever - that are out of the ordinary or have a strange fascination. Items like follies that are built for no other reason than they can, relics of the past in all forms and downright peculiar and baffling. Most apart from the follies have history of value or purpose for when they were built and some still fulfil or could the original function.

The industrial revolution has left many engineering marvels that are still with us and some still working. Anyone who has travelled on the canals will have come across the likes of the Anderton Lift or the remains of the Foxton Inclined Plane, a method of boat lift that did away with slow and cumbersome locks - the story is seen here:

The Foxton Inclined plane was a prototype for many similar examples, many of which are still in operation elsewhere in Europe, and modern versions of boatlifts using the same ballast principle are also working on the big canals in Belgium, for example.

On a more basic level I was taken by my uncle when visiting with my cousin to see the strange Trinity three-way bridge at Crowland in the Fens. Now stuck on a traffic island, it originally spanned the river Welland and a tributary that was later re-routed, leaving this very curious structure from the 1300s just, well, sitting there. It was an ingenious way of spanning the rivers and saved building three separate bridges and provided much joy to me as a child rushing up and down the different exits and entrances.

Trinity Bridge, Crowland, Lincolnshire

I have written before about some of these oddities but always as individual items.

Another is the almshouses in Clapton, east London that had the smallest (claimed) consecrated chapel in the country. Sadly the almshouses have now been sold off and turned into small houses, including the chapel. I lived nearby and this was always a place to stop and wonder at. No one I know ever got in to see the chapel which was a shame, but it was there. My great grandfather lived in the house the other side of the road behind the chapel, so I saw a lot of the place.

During the mid seventies/early eighties we lived in Essex not far from Billericay. It was brought to my attention that there was a rather special hospital out near the village of East Hanningfield: it was a leper hospital. Hard to believe that something like that would exist in the UK but there it was, a few miles up the road. The hospital itself was just a series of low buildings, many of the prefabricated variety. The hospital still functioned up to ‘86 and although there was nothing remarkable about the place it did have its sad side: there existed on the other side of the road its own graveyard. Its history was quite interesting.The second part of this account is the best description I have found of the place.

Severalls Hospital had a reputation for being haunted. As a mental institution it was a rather foreboding place on the outskirts of Colchester. Despite being a mental hospital it did have some general wards and other facilities, and for better or worse I was sent there by my GP for a review of something I have now forgotten. I had no idea what the primary purpose of the place was but later when it closed all was revealed. Later after many years of dereliction, part was demolished and housing built on the site but certainly until recently - and maybe still - it was a decaying memorial to another age, and became the haunted relic of old. Many photographers have found a way in and many photographs have been taken of the eerie place, as examples show here.

The last place of interest in one that I came across on the south coast near Brighton just a couple of years back. Pure chance meant that someone had told me of a well that was very deep in the area, there is little to see other than capped top but the history is very interesting. The Woodingdean Well is the deepest hand dug well in the world, a quite astonishing achievement: the six-foot-wide well finished up deeper than the height of the Empire state building. It is difficult to believe that humans could dig something like that, and all initially to save money and employ people at the local workhouse: no benefits without work, it was that simple. So old young men and women, all with candles for light, embarked on this amazing project. It didn’t have the desired effect of saving money but they carried on regardless.

Woodingdean Well, Brighton and Hove, East Sussex

Depth and geological layers, Woodingdean Well
Humans of course are a rich source of the odd eccentric and downright loony. When I was in my late teens / early twenties I used to travel to work in central London by bus and tube. The tube I caught was Manor House station near Finsbury Park, and it was here that I saw what appeared to be a hoax. At first I laughed and forgot about it but the man involved was not indulging in a hoax, this was the real thing. As regular as clockwork with all the other commuters he would turn up on the platform dressed in a double-breasted raincoat, shirt and tie, hair slicked back and was to all intents and purposes a toned-down version of Arthur English (the post war comedian, if anyone can remember).

But there was a difference: in the middle of his forehead on a suction cup he had a kitchen tap - I do not make it up - and as he appeared every morning on the platform he would shout the words “Everyone is on the tap!” a reference in cockney to the phrase "tapped up" i.e. wanting something, usually for nothing. I have never found out what he was about but there he was, as regular as clockwork, getting on the tube with his tap on his forehead. He must have been going somewhere, perhaps to work, who knows? He may have been a plumber. The mystery was never solved.

Ras Prince Monolulu was an institution from the thirties on, a racing tipster who would not only frequent the tracks with his cry “I Got an 'Orse!” but also attended Petticoat Lane market on Sunday mornings in full regalia and shouting his lines as in this video:

and here with Groucho Marx on "You Bet Your Life" (from 15:56 on):

They don’t make em like that anymore…………...

Friday, August 17, 2018

FRIDAY MUSIC: Tuba Skinny, by JD

This week's music comes from the streets of New Orleans with Tuba Skinny.

Their leader, unofficially but musically everything seems to revolve around her, is cornet player Shaye Cohn. She also plays piano and violin among other things. She is also the granddaughter of Al Cohn who was one of a quartet of tenor sax players in the Woody Herman band.

Like? More here! -

Sunday, August 12, 2018

World War One: two snippets

From Phil Baker's biography of Dennis Wheatley:

"The RFC [Royal Flying Corps] was still in its infancy, having only just got past the stage of using hand-held revolvers in aeroplanes, but it was now rapidly expanding. In May 1915 it comprised only 166 planes in total, but within eighteen months it was losing fifty planes a week. Parachutes were not issued; senior Army staff believed pilots would try harder without them." (p.100)

"The man who commanded Wheatley's division, General Sir Oliver Nugent, had boasted that a double decker London omnibus would hold all the men he intended to bring home alive." (p.139)

Lest we forget.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Boxed in: BoJo opposes burqa ban, gets hounded by bien-pensants!

The controversy continues...

“Nothing turns out to be so oppressive and unjust as a feeble government.” 
― Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

"Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth, and every other man has a right to knock him down for it."
  Samuel Johnson, quoted in Boswell's Tour to the Hebrides

Friday, August 10, 2018

FRIDAY MUSIC: Two Sisters (Ravi's Daughters), by JD

The late Ravi Shankar is remembered as one of the best-known proponents of the sitar in the second half of the 20th century and he influenced many other musicians throughout the world. He was also the father of two daughters who have also been successful in their very different musical careers:

Norah Jones was born in 1979 and became a jazz singer and pianist.

Anoushka Shankar was born in 1981 and followed her father in learning to play the sitar.

I suppose it was inevitable that these two half-sisters would eventually record together and with their father so here is a selection of their music, both individually and together.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

A "finest hour": Operation Pedestal

Mortally wounded, the Ohio staggers into Valletta

August 1942: Malta remained a thorn in the side of the enemy, who had been besieging the island since June 1940. Rommel had said in 1941 that unless Malta fell, North Africa would be lost to the Axis.

Disastrously, in September 1941 the US Embassy in Cairo had been secretly burgled by the Italians, who copied the code book; and the "Black Code" had also been cracked by the Germans soon after, so the enemy were reading translations of the American reports within hours of transmission.

In June 1942 two British supply convoys had been sent - Operations Vigorous and Harpoon - and owing in part to the intelligence intercepts were successfully attacked, with heavy losses to our side.

By the August, then, the situation in Malta was desperate, and another large convoy was put together under Operation Pedestal. As well as food and - crucially - fuel, the flotilla carried a squadron of Spitfires that took off once past Gibraltar and headed for the island via a circuitous route to evade trouble. These planes would be key not only to the defence of Malta but to future attacks on Axis forces in North Africa and Sicily.

Young Battle of Britain veteran and Pedestal participant Geoffrey Wellum noted that because of the need to carry extra fuel for the long flight, the Spitfires' ammunition was removed and replaced with rations of cigarettes - good for the defenders' morale!

The squadron got safely to Malta, and waited.

West of them in the Mediterranean, fourteen merchant ships and thirty-eight ships of war including four aircraft carriers came under an intense air and submarine attack that had begun even as the Spitfires were taking off. The Navy lost a carrier (the Eagle), two light cruisers and a destroyer, and nine merchant ships went down also.

But the Ohio* got through, carrying 10,000 tons of fuel oil and saving the island's capacity to defend itself. She only just managed to get into the Grand Harbour, severely damaged and with a destroyer lashed to either side of her, sinking even as her cargo was being pumped out, subsequently breaking into two and having to be towed out to sea and scuttled by naval gunfire.

Fourteen ships sunk, thirty-four aircraft destroyed, hundreds dead. But a gamble that paid off.

*Requisitioned from her resentful US owners after reaching the Clyde in Scotland. She had arrived there on 21 June 1942, only three days after the C-in-C of the Mediterranean Fleet, looking at the recent failures of Operations Vigorous and Harpoon, had cabled Churchill to advise against another attempt to breach the Malta blockade.

Friday, August 03, 2018

FRIDAY MUSIC: Tiddely-Prom, by JD

More from the BBC Proms:

This evening, 3rd August, on BBC4 it is the folk music of these islands which is the focus of attention. So a preview of some of the artists taking part, all of them first rate. No doubt there will be others but that is the great joy of the Proms, they always deliver delightful surprises and excellent music.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Starting again

In December 1933, an 18-year-old decided to change his life. He'd been thrown out of school before taking his examinations, was pointed in the direction of the Army but didn't have the money to keep up the expected lifestyle, tried door to door selling half-heartedly, faced the prospect of an office job that would have withered his artistic and inquisitive nature, was getting into bouts of drink and depression, and was toyed with by bohemians and bored upper-class women at London parties.

He set himself a challenge: to walk across Europe to Istanbul.

On the Channel crossing, he couldn't sleep. "It was," says his biographer*, "as if he were sloughing off the skin of his old self."

His name was Patrick "Paddy" Leigh Fermor; but for the next sixteen months he called himself by his middle name, Michael. And now we have all heard of him.

So what had he done? He had changed his social environment, getting away from family and friends  who "knew" him; and he changed himself, breaking out of the accumulating crust of life experience and habits that gradually suffocate one's growth.


*Artemis Cooper, "Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure", John Murray, 2012