Never Trust A Hippy

The Drinker’s bathroom, 23 March 2021.

A few weeks ago I posted some accounts of domestic life with Keith Moon, which essentially consisted of all-day drinking and practical jokes. Moon made it to 32, overdosing on medication intended to combat his excessive drinking. In an earlier era, Charlie Parker managed to make it to 34, despite conducting his life as though it were an experiment in existential chaos. But anyone reading Graeme Thomson’s recent biography of the Anglo/Scots singer/songwriter John Martyn will wonder how this errant near-genius managed to make it to 60. (He died in 2009.) Booze runs through Thomson’s book like a flood from an exploding brewery and Martyn’s life story is a trajectory from the precocious teenager of his first LPs to the bloated, wheelchair-bound alcoholic who lost a leg to drink. (Martyn’s long goodbye to his leg was covered by the BBC in a 2005 documentary. I heard – anecdotally – that Martyn’s friend and collaborator Danny Thompson described John’s leg-loss as ‘a bit of a wake-up call‘.) Musically, Martyn had gone from sixties folk guitar merchant to seventies rock experimentalist, pioneering what became known – decades later – as ‘trip-hop’, before an association with Phil Collins led him into an eighties wilderness of jazz-funk and bad suits. (He made music to the end but his glory days ended around 1981.)

I read Thomson’s biography as a sort of part-time Martyn fan, a position that seems to be fairly standard for those interested in his work. He was nothing if not erratic and after he started making records with the Pope of Cheese even some of his most loyal fans drifted away. It seems that Martyn and Collins bonded over the ends of their respective marriages, but in John’s case he doesn’t seem to have connected cause and effect. John had been married to another singer-songwriter, Beverley Martyn née Kutner, and the pair started their marriage as a starry folk duo, before John sidelined Beverley’s career, leaving her to look after the kids whilst he went on a series of Rabelaisian tours in the company of bassist Danny Thompson. When he was at home, John’s behaviour became increasingly paranoid and threatening, eventually forcing Beverley to flee in fear for her life. Beverley’s take on this now is remarkably forgiving; she identifies the key flaw in Martyn’s personality as misogyny deriving from a lack of maternal contact in childhood. His parents separated when he was an infant and John was mostly brought up in Glasgow in the care of his father and grandmother; his mother re-married and stayed in Surrey. Contact with his mother seems to have been distant, although he spent summers with her at various addresses around Kingston-on-Thames, an environment he characterised as a riverside paradise, a stark contrast to the streetscapes of sixties Glasgow. (One early song testifies to his love of London’s riverine suburbia as well as projecting an aching image of parental abandonment.)

Whatever the underlying reason, Martyn was serially dreadful to the women in his life, frequently hitting them or absorbing them into his own addictions. (A later girlfriend proudly says that she had done kickboxing in her youth, so ‘he never landed a punch on me.’) He abandoned his children in infancy, and, when he finally did make contact with his teenage son, took him on tour, whereupon the kid acquired a heroin habit. Even other musicians are described as being wary of Martyn at the bar, or ducking his company in a social setting (he developed a John Belushi-like tendency to out-stay his welcome). The chaos increased as the musical output deteriorated and some of the vignettes in Thomson’s book offer startling testimony of a life in freefall. There are dark mutterings of ‘nightmarish’ benders on tour, with stops at every roadside bar, and indications that people started to turn up to his gigs just to see what state he was in (a situation undoubtedly fostered by his legendary appearance at the Mean Fiddler in 1987, when he went on stage three hours late, sang one song, threw up, and left). And the Glaswegian hard-man persona he developed would have tried anyone’s patience. At one point he gets beaten up by nameless men wielding an iron bar, another time he gets stabbed with his own knife during an altercation in Chicago. But he had the constitution of an ox and, gradually, came to resemble one. He returned to the jazz-folk milieu of his earlier career and managed to claw back a degree of personal and professional respectability, although the drinking remained heavy to the end. He expired a few weeks before he was due to receive an OBE, but he lived long enough to get a Radio 2 Lifetime Achievement Award, shunted out in his wheelchair a receive a mantelpiece trophy, a message from Eric Clapton and a kiss from Phil Collins.

I suppose this book has rattled me a little. I am old enough not to care too much about the personal failings of artists I admire, but when a documented wife-beater and delinquent father is quoted saying ‘quite literally, the most important things to me are my childrens’ smile and my woman’s love, one is inclined to think that clubbing with an iron bar was too good for him. Even without the gruesome personal life, John Martyn made an art form out of disappointment. He was consistently inconsistent and this applies to his most celebrated record, Solid Air. He was often twee and crass within the framework of the same LP. But, at least some of the time, it was worth putting up with the dross for the bits that were really visionary and unlike anything by anyone else. As a live act he was best encountered as a solo turn, playing his acoustic guitar through an Echoplex machine to create his own personal orchestra. I saw him a few times and was lucky enough to attend a small charity concert he gave in 1980 in Bourne Hall, Ewell, near the happier scenes of his youth. In front of an audience that consisted of every hippy left in Surrey, he played a sentimental and good-natured set, concluding with a haunting version of his greatest song. So … all right. Some forgiveness is in order. RIP.


George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, sporting facial hair that would pass muster in Hoxton and Dalston today.

At the bottom of Villiers Street, just next to Gordon’s Wine Bar, is a set of steps leading down to Watergate Walk, a pathway that cuts through to the Adelphi and doubles as a sort of pub garden for Gordon’s. If, lockdown notwithstanding, you fancy taking your glass of vintage Madeira outside you will find yourself staring at a marooned fragment of the lost riverside landscape that once characterized this area. This is York Watergate, a richly rusticated Renaissance structure, a stately gateway to nowhere. It was built in the 1620s as a private dock for York House, a mega-luxe townhouse that once stood on this spot: a relic of an era when the Strand was a district of palaces and a private water frontage a prerequisite for every Jacobean plutocrat (the 17th century equivalent of your own helicopter pad).

The Watergate was added to York House by George Villiers, the flamboyant, corrupt and generally ghastly 1st Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham had taken possession of the mansion after engineering the political demise of its previous owner, philosopher Francis Bacon, which seems to have been fairly characteristic behaviour on the Duke’s part. Buckingham pulled down Bacon’s beloved home (which had existed in various guises for several hundred years) and rebuilt York House in a manner more fitting to his own extrovert sensibility, furnishing it with luxuries and fine art. Despite his abrasive and thrusting unpleasantness, Buckingham was an inescapable personality in the courts of James 1st and Charles 1st, his considerable influence attributed to King James’s fondness for his profile. Whether or not the relationship between King and courtier was a full-blown affair is a matter of scholarly debate, but here’s James writing to Buckingham:

The Lord of Heaven send you a sweet and blithe wakening, all kind of comfort in your sanctified bed, and bless the fruits thereof that I may have sweet bedchamber boys to play me with, and this is my daily prayer, sweet heart.

Buckingham was a conspicuously terrible diplomat – the Spanish ambassador to London called for his execution following a mission to Madrid – a compulsive intriguer and an unsuccessful military leader, none of which hindered his political advancement. Buckingham continued his career under Charles 1st and York Watergate is festooned with carved anchors to advertise his status as an admiral, despite the fact that he oversaw one of the worst naval disasters of the era: a botched 1627 raid against the French at La Rochelle in which he lost 4,000 out of his 7,000 men. Drenched, as we would now say, in Teflon, Buckingham’s unstoppable progress was finally ended the following year, when a disgruntled soldier called Felton stabbed him to death in a Portsmouth pub. Buckingham’s unpopularity was such that his assassination was widely celebrated and Felton was acclaimed as a folk hero. During the Commonwealth York House belonged to Cromwell’s associate Thomas Fairfax, a period that saw the mansion stripped of its pictures, sold off because they offended Puritan sensibilities. After the Restoration York House was occupied by another Buckingham, the 2nd Duke and another George, who by means of smart dynastic gamesmanship happened to be married to Fairfax’s daughter (and sole heir).

George Villiers, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, by Peter Lely. (National Portrait Gallery.)

George Jnr. proved to be no less reckless than his father; in fact, he was a sort of cartoon image of the Restoration rake: vastly rich and vastly profiligate, lecherous and bisexual, a lethal duellist and a minor poet of skill. The 2nd Duke ingratiated himself with the restored king and pursued a life of pristinely aggressive hedonism. One episode concerned Buckingham’s mistress, the Countess of Shrewsbury, who he had installed at another, up-river, Thames-side mansion. None of this played well with the Countess’s husband the Earl of Shrewsbury, who naively objected to the appropriation of his wife. Buckingham challenged the Shrewsbury to a duel, placing Shrewsbury at a considerable disadvantage, since the Duke’s skill with the epee was very widely admired. The duel took place in Barnes, perhaps the only exciting thing that has ever happened in Barnes, and – predictably – resulted in the deaths of Shrewsbury and another of his party, skewered on the end of Buckingham’s sword. Pepys reports on all this, drily noting that the countess is: ‘a whore to the Duke of Buckingham’ and that the Duke himself ‘is a fellow of no more sobriety than to fight about a whore’. (The Duchess of Shrewsbury had form. In 1662 two of her previous lovers fought a duel over her, leaving one seriously wounded and his ‘second’ stone dead.)

But although Buckingham was one of the richest shits in England he was permanently short of cash, and in 1672 he flogged York House to a developer for £30,000, who promptly pulled it down and built streets upon the site. One typically egocentric condition that Buckingham insisted on in the Deed of Sale was the provision that his name and full title should be commemorated in the new development: hence George Street, Villiers Street, Duke Street, Buckingham Street and – wait for it – Of Alley. (In a nice turn of history, Pepys ended up living in one of the houses on the site, 12 Buckingham St.; but don’t go looking for Of Alley, it has been re-christened York Place.) After that, Buckingham, continued to lose money, fell out with Charles II, spent a spell as a prisoner in the Tower, and died, without heir and in reduced circumstances, in 1687. Anyway, as you sip your hypothetical glass of Madeira in that hypothetical future when you are allowed to visit Gordon’s pub garden, indeed any pub garden, you can stare at the sole survivor of York House and wonder which of London’s contemporary landmarks is due a similar fate.

York Watergate today. Photo: Valentine Hamms.

As fate would have it, the 2nd Duke’s much re-built country seat, Cliveden (in Buckinghamshire, naturally), became the pivotal venue for The Profumo Affair, another salacious collision of power and socially transgressive sexual relations; but that’s fun for another time.

See also: The Poor Wee Drinkur.

Chez Mick, Aston, Davies and Harold

Cast and author of The Caretaker on set: Alan Bates (Mick), Harold Pinter, Robert Shaw (Aston) and Donald Pleasance (Davies), front. Photo by the great Bill Brandt.

From The Caretaker by Harold Pinter:

DAVIES: I got plenty of references. All I got to do is to go down to Sidcup tomorrow. I got all the references I want down there.

MICK: Whereʼs that?

DAVIES: Sidcup. He ainʼt only got my references down there, he got all my papers down there. I know that place like the back of my hand. Iʼm going down there anyway, see what I mean, I got to get down there or Iʼm done.

MICK: So we can always get hold of these references if we want them.

DAVIES: Iʼll be down there any day, I tell you. I was going to go down today, but Iʼm … Iʼm waiting for the weather to break.

This poignant little exchange from Pinterʼs play has become so familiar that Sidcup has forever after been associated with surreal suburban promise; a place of deliverance for the pitiful tramp Davies. Pinterʼs choice of Sidcup as the place of Daviesʼs dreams was not random: it was the HQ of the Royal Artillery during the post-war period, so Pinter is implicitly giving Davies a military history. Not that it matters: the notion of the dreary Kent suburb of Sidcup as a land of milk and honey is as cruelly inappropriate as Eric Idleʼs appropriation of Purley as a hotbed of vice in Monty Pythonʼs ʻNudgeʼ sketch.

According to Michael Billington, Pinter based the play on scenes he witnessed at a house in Chiswick where the author and his young family were living in the late 1950s. The landlordʼs brother – Austin, who became ‘Aston’ in the play – was the caretaker of the flat the Pinters were renting, and one day: ʻAustin brought a tramp heʼd met in a cafe back to the house and the tramp stayed for two or three weeks. Pinter knew the tramp very slightly and then one day he looked through an open door and saw Austin with his back to the tramp gazing out into the garden and the tramp busy putting stuff back into some kind of grubby hold-all, obviously being given his marching orders. All this matters because it then becomes the bones of the plot of The Caretaker.ʼ (Pinter at the BBC.) Elsewhere Pinter said that a man who lived in a house in Worthing, where Pinter and his wife Vivien Merchant briefly lived circa 1960, was another inspiration: a man who had suffered a medical ʻinterventionʼ to cure his mental disturbances, and whose pristine purpose in life was the construction of a shed in the garden, which is Astonʼs firmly-stated goal in The Caretaker. However, there seems to be some evidence that the real-world inspiration for Aston achieved his aim, whereas the dream shed of Pinterʼs character inhabits the same realm of fantasy as Daviesʼs plan to go to Sidcup.

Pinterʼs play has a timeless and universal quality, as evidenced by the extent and variety of its productions worldwide. But Pinter was a quintessentially London writer and when the play was filmed, in the early ’60s, when it was fresh, they opted for locations on Pinterʼs home turf: the shabby purlieus of Hackney, where Pinter had spent his childhood. The resulting film is a little masterpiece in itself, low-budget independent filmmaking of the highest order. An incongruous title card gives the game away: over a nocturnal shot of the house where the action takes place, the producers thank the individuals who made the production possible, including Noel Coward, Peter Sellers, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. They filmed in a large Victorian house, number 31 Downs Rd., a street slated for demolition that formed the northern side of Hackney Downs. The superb cast – Robert Shaw, Alan Bates and Donald Pleasance as Davies – had performed the play in the West End and on Broadway and knew those characters inside out; and the cinematography was by the great Nic Roeg, whose black and white visions were faithful to Pinterʼs wintry world (it helped that the film was shot early in 1963, during the bitterest winter for many years). Someone coined the phrase ʻthe black and white sixtiesʼ to define the pre- Beatles era, and this film is a quintessential product of that moment. (Two years later the director, Richard Donner, celebrated the sixties in full bloom by bringing What’s New Pussycat? to the screen, before a long, slow, retreat back to television.)

Aston and Davies with the inscrutable, symbolic (of what?) Buddha.

Looking at the film now, the location shooting gives it a documentary quality entirely separate from the dramatic material, yet perfectly in tune with it. Davies and Aston are glimpsed walking past the Hackney Empire on Mare Street, Mick drives his tatty van and stops to pick up Davies who is shivering on a bench by Clapton Common, taunting him with the promise of a lift to Sidcup (an addition to the play this, a bit of ‘opening out’). Because we know, nearly sixty years later, that Hackney would be one of the most sought-after places to live in London, these glimpses of a desolate, post-war suburb are weirdly dislocating. The play deals in the gulf between the charactersʼ delusions and a bleak attic room, and the film makes this contrast concrete. One of best speeches in the play occurs when Mick, Astonʼs younger and much sharper brother, an aspiring entrepreneur, looks around the dilapidated attic and describes the House and Garden vision of domestic luxe for 1963:

I could turn this place into a penthouse. For instance . . . this room. This room you could have as the kitchen. Right size, nice window, sun comes in. Iʼd have . . . Iʼd have teal-blue, copper and parchment linoleum squares. Iʼd have those colours re-echoed in the walls. Iʼd offset the kitchen units with charcoal grey worktops. […] You could put the dining room cross the landing, see? Yes. Venetian blinds on the window, cork floor, cork tiles. You could have an off-white pile linen rug, a table in . . . in afromosia teak veneer, sideboard with matt black drawers, curved chairs with cushioned seats, armchairs in oatmeal tweed, a beech-frame settee with a woven sea-grass seat, white topped heat- resistant coffee table, white tile surround. Yes. Then the bedroom. Whatʼs a bedroom? Itʼs a retreat. Itʼs a place to go for light and peace.

Mick goes on to detail a vision of roses on soft furnishings, and all the while Roegʼs roving camera clinically describes the awfulness of the room in the eaves. At other times in his career Pinter wrote plays where Mickʼs description of his dream flat might be the playwrightʼs description of the set. The phrase ʻthe weasel under the cocktail cabinetʼ is often used to describe those Pinter plays that take place in a well-heeled milieu, a phrase that begs the questions: (a) Do you actually know anyone who owns a cocktail cabinet?, and (b) Who brought that bloody animal into the house? For this reason alone, Iʼd say that The Caretaker has aged better than, say, The Collection.

Ironically, if that big and unloved house at 31 Downs Rd. had been spared demolition, it might now be decorated in a fashion similar to the one that Mick lovingly described. Hackney has been occupied by a new generation of thrusting young professionals with a taste for mid-century modern furnishings and an elderly Mick would have delighted in their company, no doubt purveying his Pinteresque small-talk over beers at The Star By Hackney Downs. And, what with the A102M, the Blackwall Tunnel and the A20 bypass, itʼs now a doddle to get to Sidcup from Hackney; although I donʼt fancy Daviesʼs chances of ever hitching a lift. As Mick comments when he gives him his marching orders, ‘to put the old tin lid on it, you stink from arsehole to breakfast time’.

At time of writing, you can see The Caretaker on YouTube, so allow me …