Summers In The Dark

David Hemmings, Nikon in hand, prowls Maryon Park in search of … what? ‘Blow Up’, 1966.

The abrupt blooming of London after a November-like May has produced a palpable frisson of excitement in the city, all that pent-up energy seeking release from Covid morbidity. Suddenly, London is beautiful again. It’s the kind of weather that makes you want to put on a pair of white strides, grab a Nikon and a velvet jacket, jump into a vintage Rolls, and drive around town in search of nothing in particular.

Directed by the austere Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni (a man who didn’t do jokes), Blow Up features David Hemmings playing fashion photographer ‘Thomas’ abstractedly investigating a murder he may or may not have photographed. Thomas is a composite figure, a confection drawing on contemporary fashion photographers John French and John Cowan (whose studio doubles as Thomas’s in the film), as well as more obvious models like Donovan and Bailey. The film is a remarkable time capsule of London in 1965. Unlikely spots in Peckham, Woolwich, Stockwell, and the bomb-scarred City are rendered significant and hypnotic, whilst groovy goings on ‘up West’ look deeply silly. The piazza of the Economist Building on St James’s St., a prime example of 1960s Brutalism, is buzzed by a Land Rover full of mimes, who then proceed to drive across London in a vastly irritating form of ‘happening’ (a distant echo of the Bright Young Things who capered so pointlessly in the West End of the 1920s). Or that scene in ‘Ricky Tick’s club (a real club but the interior is a sound stage at Elstree) wherein The Yardbirds pretend to be The Who – Jeff Beck smashing his guitar on film as he never did on stage – before a zombified crowd. This vignette is only slightly more comic when you discover that the lone female dancer in the stripy leggings is the young Janet Street Porter. 

Hemmings/Thomas at the wheel of a Silver Cloud Mk.III. According to IMDb, this vehicle once belonged to Jimmy Savile. I prefer to think that this is not true.

Blow Up is often considered an indigenous product but this is false. Like many key films of the 1960s, it was a result of Britain’s sudden contemporary resonance and shitloads of American money. This is a point worth emphasising. An Italian director and production team, backed by MGM, chose London as an emblem of an international cultural moment. And their other choices were shrewd. A Spanish literary source, a story by Julio Cortazar, was adapted by Edward Bond; they commissioned a jazz score from the young Herbie Hancock; and Don McCullin supplied Thomas’s photographs. (McCullin is as British as they come, but he specialised in global warfare, not fashion.) The Yardbirds onscreen line-up included both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, but the band weren’t first choice. Antonioni wanted The Velvet Underground, before they even had a record deal, because he’d seen them in New York as house band for Warhol’s Factory. (The Velvets couldn’t get UK work permits.)

Blow Up was a touchstone for generations of photographers who wanted the lifestyle shown in the film. Hemmings floats around London in his achingly beautiful Silver Cloud convertible, occasionally retrieving his Nikon from the glove box to photograph tramps and strangers in parks, returning to his period-perfect studio on Pottery Lane, W11, for a fashion shoot with Veruschka and erotic encounters with the likes of Jane Birkin and Vanessa Redgrave. That side of it has been comprehensively sent-up (Austin Powers etc.), but the best thing about Blow-Up is its luminous depiction of odd, forgotten corners of London and its feeling for the atmosphere of the city. I can’t think of another film that conveys the sound of London in the summer: the soughing of trees in a park, of footsteps in city streets. It took an Italian auteur with no local knowledge to make a film with such an authentic sense of place. Nearly sixty years on, the film’s London locations have acquired their own folklore: the red houses Thomas drives past in Stockwell, the calm and green of Maryon Park in permanently unfashionable Charlton (Antonioni ordered that park grass be painted green), the dawn over Chelsea Embankment as Thomas leaves a Cheyne Walk party, and so on. (Ian Sinclair devoted a fair bit of Lights Out For The Territory to Antonioni’s treatment of south London.) And the fascination of seeing – or not seeing.  The centrepiece of the film is a 45-minute sequence shadowing Thomas in his studio, obsessively, silently, poring over huge prints, before returning to the darkroom to make yet another ‘blow-up’ to explain what he saw in Maryon Park.  Any photographer will tell you that the level of detail he pulls out of that negative is impossible, but it doesn’t matter: this scene captures better than any other the romance of working in a darkroom, of taking a tiny slice of time and making it something you can hold in your hand. What you make of it after that is up to you.

I suppose I had this image in mind when I got my first job, at 17, working as a press photographer’s darkroom assistant. I remember 1979 as a beautiful summer, which sat oddly with the fact that I was spending most of it in the dark. Also, my employer was based in dusty, unlovely Streatham, not Notting Hill. And the romance of working in a darkroom is contingent on being in control of your working hours – like Thomas in Blow-Up, it’s best to work at night if you can – and choosing what it is you want to print. As a press hack’s dogsbody, I was entrusted with printing indifferent photographs of celebrities at events. (I once spent an entire day printing photographs of John Inman, a task with no attendant glamour whatsoever.) As luck would have it, my older brother lived in Balham, just a couple of stops away from Streatham, so I availed myself of his hospitality more than was really good for me. My brother was a loosely-employed actor in his mid-20s, using his free time to experiment with various kinds of home-brewing. Some of his preparations would have challenged the most grizzled of Fleet Street paps, so my virgin liver didn’t stand a chance. One hot evening saw us drinking lukewarm Holsten Pils in a ratty local pub, before heading back to his maisonette to attack whatever he had left in the flat: dregs of red wine, Pernod and, finally, fatally, his home-brewed mead. The next morning I gamely dragged myself to work and was immediately ordered to run off a dozen snaps of Joanna Lumley, looking radiant at some VIP do or other. Bravely, I stepped into the dark and turned on the red light. Despite the throbbing chaos in my head, I made a good start and got out a few prints; but before long the acrid smell of the fixing solution got to me and I was sick into the wash tray, all over the divine Ms Lumley, who didn’t deserve such an indignity. I was let go soon after that. David Hemmings I was not.

Can You Tell What It Is Yet?

Vincent Glanvill writes …

It was 1994 and Rolf Harris had been booked to play our university hall. The hall was a good-sized venue, if a little run down, having lost some of its lustre since its Edwardian heyday. I was a second-year student and Iʼd already helped organise a couple of gigs; weʼd load all the equipment into the hall and help set up, then weʼd watch the gig, drink some of the band’s rider and stay just sober enough to pack up and load out at the end. Nominally in charge was one Mark Connolly (NB: not real name). Connolly was rarely sober for the three years that I knew him. Despite this, he generally managed to function in the role, which included booking bands for gigs. And, on one occasion, Connolly outdid himself and managed to book Rolf, at that time one of the most sought-after acts on the university circuit. 

Rolf was, of course, a TV legend and this was years before Operation Yewtree uncovered his misdeeds and destroyed his reputation . Back then, he seemed like everyoneʼs favourite uncle. He could draw, and cry about dogs being ill, and, kind of, sing. Rolfʼs version of Led Zeppelinʼs Stairway to Heaven re-launched his singing career: an implausible hit that led to an invitation to play Glastonbury, and projected Rolf back into the zeitgeist. He embarked upon a subsequent tour and thatʼs where I met him.

Rolf arrived dressed in a sheepskin waistcoat, with signature goatee, glasses and toothy grin all in place. He greeted everyone and made sure he shook hands with each of us. We helped the band set up, then Rolf joined them to sound check. They played Jake the Peg and Two Little Boys followed by a song with a didgeridoo, only Rolf mimed playing the didgeridoo; the keyboard player made the sound instead. I felt a little betrayed by this but put it down to the problems of feedback that a resonant instrument can create.

Rolf took Connolly aside after the sound check and said, ʻI’m going to need some help.ʼ Connolly volunteered me. Rolf took me back to his dressing room and produced a beaten-up leather suitcase. ʻWe always start with Jake,ʼ he said. ʻItʼs since Newcastle.ʼ He took a prosthetic leg and arm out of the suitcase and showed them to me. ʻStudents – they want the leg as a prize. Iʼll finish the song and wander over to you in the wings. Iʼll hand them to you, you put them straight into the suitcase and lock it in the dressing room. Straight away. We canʼt have another Newcastle. We canʼt risk losing the leg.ʼ I nodded and told him not to worry. ʻWould you like a drink?ʼ ʼI offered. ʻJust spring water. Iʼm teetotal. Have been for yearsʼ, replied Rolf. ʻDonʼt mind me having one?ʼ I asked. ʻNo, no,ʼ came the reply. Great! I thought. Thereʼs a whole rider of booze out there and he doesnʼt drink!

Rolf and his band opened their set around 9:30pm with Jake the Peg. Rolf hopped about the stage singing to the inebriated crowd, who went wild as they sang along to the chorus. The song seemed to end quickly and Rolf shambled over to take off his Jake overcoat and pass me the arm and the leg. I packed them in the suitcase, which I then secured in the dressing room. Mission accomplished, I grabbed another cider and returned to the side of the stage to enjoy the rest of the show.

As I climbed the stairs to the wings, I could tell something was wrong. I couldnʼt see Rolf. I stood in the wings, stage right, as the bassist and keyboard player started gesturing for me to come on stage. Rolf was on his knees at the front and a woman in the audience had taken the mic stand off him and was singing Tie Me Kangaroo Down into the microphone. I froze for a second. Where was Security? I ran on stage, pulled the mic stand out of the audience and swung it back in Rolfʼs direction, the microphone swinging at Rolfʼs head. He ducked at the last minute, grabbed the mic and seamlessly joined in with the verse as I tightened-up the screws on the stand. I realised there was no security, it was just me. Connolly hadnʼt left any money in the budget to book them and rather than stay to help was off doing lines of coke in a dressing room.

Full of cider and yet solely in charge, I faced a fresh problem with each new song: stage invasions by both men and women, who I escorted back to their place in the pit; people throwing drinks at the stage, me having to mop them up; women throwing underwear at Rolf, which I threw back. It was relentless. When the band started playing Waltzing Matilda, a woman mounted the stage and headed straight for Rolf. I started to escort her away, but this time the band gestured for me to stop. Rolf turned to me and winked, ʻThis oneʼs OKʼ. He took her hand and put his arm around her waist. ʻLetʼs waltz,ʼ he said and they danced around the stage as the audience sang the song.

The band ended with an obligatory encore of Stairway to Heaven then left the stage. ʻThat was worse than Newcastle. Where was Security?ʼ Rolf said as he clambered down the stairs.ʼ I lied and blamed the management of the University, knowing that this was all Connollyʼs fault. ʻShall I wait outside? Do you want some time alone?ʼ I asked Rolf. ʻNo, stay, itʼs fine.ʼ As I was taking a piss in the dressing room toilet, the door left open because the light was broken, the band came in with Connolly. Connolly, all jokes and banter, was wearing a white polyester suit and looked like an extra from Scarface. ʻHey Rolf, could you draw a Rolfaroo for my baby daughter?ʼ Connolly asked. ʻIʼd be happy to,’ replied Rolf. He drew the character with practiced ease and gave the page from his drawing pad to Connolly. ʻWould you like me to draw something for you too?ʼ Rolf asked me. ‘Oh, no thanks, I said. Then changed my mind. ʻActually, could you draw something for my brother? Heʼs nine. He loves your show.ʼ Rolf started to write my brotherʼs name and I quickly said ʻAnd maybe for me as well …ʼ

There was a knock at the door. I went over to answer. An attractive student was standing with one of the roadies. ‘Can I speak with Rolf?ʼ she asked. I started to say no, when I was interrupted by the roadie: ʻTell them what you wantʼ. Rolf came to the door. ʻIʼd like you to draw a little face on theseʼ she said, pulling up her top and bra to unveil her breasts to Rolfʼs face. I stepped back as Rolf grabbed his marker pen and set to work. He drew the same toothy grin on the womanʼs breasts that he had on his face.

ʻYeah! Thatʼs rock and roll!ʼ said Connolly.

Vincent Glanvill in his nineties pomp.

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.