Books:Shock Value – A Tasteful book about Bad Taste (1981 reprinted 2005) – Excellent on the making, funding and marketing of the early films.
Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters (1983, 2003) – Chapter 9. Original Baltimore magazine article researching into what happened to the Buddy Deane Show dancers (the basis of the 1988 film Hairspray)
Role Models (2010) – Waters’ list of inspiration figures has a particularly good chapter on Outsider Porn & amateur porn filmmaker Bobby Garcia. Interesting to see who actually made money out of his work.
Pink Flamingos and Other Filth (1988, 2005) – screenplays for Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living and the unmade sequel Flamingos Forever. Waters’ trademark combination of high brow but also observational prose with a trash aethestic.
Making money from independent film/video:
Smosh wiki listing - Concise history of the website from 2005 beginning to the most subscribed You Tube Channel in 2013.
Smosh – How it came secure ¢30 million dollar investment this year
In one of those re-assess-your-life columns that is the staple of women’s lifestyle magazines you buy in your 20s, I once read that you should write your obituary as if you died tomorrow to force you to confront what you’d actually done with your life so far and whether you needed to change your direction.
I never really got round to it. Who does in their twenties? But then a couple of decades on, the onset of Winter has started to feel marked by funerals coming round for real — increasingly of parents, older relatives and sometimes friends.
My aunt Archana wasn’t really an aunt. In the tradition of the great Asian aunty she was a friend of my parents. And I got to know her third hand — when her daughter Rita started coming home to ours after school every day while Archana was still at work, and became from primary school to this day, my sister’s best friend. She didn’t define herself by a career, though talking to her friends at the funeral I appreciated all the more my parents’ remarkable generation of young pioneers who came from India in the 1960s, set up home in a strange and sometimes hostile land, and took on whatever work they had to, to make ends meet.
Archana Aunty worked in quality control at the nearby Decca TV & record player plant. It changed hands but she stayed there for 20 years. until redundancy forced her to find another job to keep things going. Rita says she was tired out by the long hours and conditions. But her prime love was making a welcoming home. Archana Aunty would have me and my sister round to her cosy semi off the A3, just off the Kingston by-pass, to play. She had fascinating Kays mail order clothing catalogues to leaf through and, most delightfully, served up traditional Bengali specialities followed by branded Western freezer desserts that my mother specifically considered too decadent or fancy to buy for our own home — Arctic Roll and most memorably Viennetta which, as a result, I still consider the height of sophistication.
I didn’t see Archana Aunty as much as I got older. But I remember turning to her as my ever reliable back up mum, when my own mother and sister were both away (now this is a confession). She was the person I rang for emergency help in tying the pleats on my sari the right way ahead of going to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen. I went round with the tin of irreplacable giant nappy pins my mother had saved since the 1970s specially to secure the folded pleats to avoid a diplomatic incident if one should accidentally tread on the fabric. (So much for the garment that famously has no holes and no fastenings). And after several goes and the odd near miss with the point of the pin, I left for the Palace secure in every sense of the word. Talking to my sister while writing this I found out she used to do the sari-securing for Rita and every one of Rita’s friends at their weddings.
30 years on these memories still have incredible power. To a modern child I probably sound like a Monty Python Victorian remembering an exaggerated pre-electric simplicity. But in an age when we are constantly curating our own recent pasts — describing our achievements in updating Linked In and Facebook professional profiles and “About” pages on personal blogs, — trying to mix professional achievements with quirky “likes” and “dislikes’” — I wonder whether we can still truly value the intangible achievements of those who shaped us without leaving any of the visible modern markers of “professional” success?
Perhaps this is the kind of obit one should think about. Were you the person all your daughter’s friends turned to to secure their saris with nappy pins? What could the modern equivalent be? An article I once read (and also ignored) by a professional successful woman about combining career and motherhood, recommended dumping activities that weren’t cost-effective “quality” parent-child bonding time. By that logic sitting in a darkened room not talking probably would be a fail. But I hope my children and their friends might remember the woman who loved taking them to black and white 50s science fiction films in the cinema about incredible shrinking men and giant radioactive ants. “And you know?” I hope they might say. “We were surprised to find we got genuinely scared. And she loved that.”
This article first appeared in The Big Issue magazine.
“The King – the President – is dead. The King has a brother. The brother hates the Vice-President. You have a really Shakespearean struggle for power here.”
Robert Caro, Lyndon B Johnson’s biographer talking to me about the assassination. It seemed timely to re-post this: re-assessing Kennedy’s Vice President and successor, based on my BBC R3 interview with Caro and journalist Michael Goldfarb about events around the 1963 assassination in Caro’s book The Passage Of Power. You can listen to the discussion here. (It starts 27 minutes 17 sec in).
Which US President won an election with the largest ever popular majority? Lyndon Baines Johnson, who took 61% of the vote in 1964. He went from powerful Senate majority leader to powerless and humiliated Vice President to towering statesman in 6 years. This is the story related in Robert Caro’s new book on LBJ. The Passage of Power, is the 4th volume in his biography, covering the most remarkable period in his life — from 1958 to 1964, through the 1960 presidential election, John F Kennedy’s presidency and assassination through to the passage of landmark Civil Rights legislation. It was warnings against Johnson’s plan to try to push through such bold legislation that prompted his famous riposte, “What the hell’s the Presidency for?”.
When Caro embarked on the biography, in the 1970s, LBJ, who had died in 1973, was a huge figure in American politics. Nearly 40 years on, as the myth around the Kennedys has continued to grow, and fascination with Tricky Dicky (Nixon) endures in popular culture, Caro has observed his subject shrink and disappear from the national memory. The timing of the book is a fascinating reminder of what we forgot to remember and of lessons for modern American politics. Caro says the more he researched LBJ, the less he believed the adage that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. “Power reveals,” he believes. Johnson, in his view, revealed himself in office to be a man who seized the opportunity to make America a fairer nation.
With Dr Martin Luther King
LBJ spent time in great poverty in Texas. He picked cotton as a child. His education was limited to a Texas teacher training college, which he had to leave early, and he held a job teaching Mexican American children. He was acutely aware of being the least educated person in JFK’s government. While he often voted with other Southern Democrats against Civil Rights while in the Senate, when it came to the chance to change his nation, he proved powerfully committed to desegregation.
But only after LBJ found his own presidential ambition apparently destroyed. Brought on board as Vice Presidential candidate to secure JFK’s victory, he was sidelined after the election and humiliated. A national joke. Caro reminds us how the TV show Candid Camera went out voxpopping New Yorkers about who Johnson was — not one knew.
Regarded as a great reader of men, who was king of the Senate for a decade, Caro says LBJ totally misread John Kennedy. Intimidated by the cultured and brilliant Kennedy brothers (Bobby was Attorney-General) and their East coast privileged circle in cabinet (LBJ called them the “Harvards”) Caro argues LBJ failed to appreciate the greatness of JFK. So a moving part of the book is Caro’s detailed account of John Kennedy’s remarkable heroism in World War Two. When the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolds, it is the Kennedy brothers who calmly restrain the overwhelming urge to bomb. LBJ was among those — when he wasn’t excluded from discussions — who talked tough.
For Goldfarb, who was 11 when the assassination took place, there was a new level of horror in reading the detail of how close America came to launching a nuclear war. For those too young to remember the loss of innocence of that time, the book has rather chilling detail about the scale of vote rigging and corruption that Johnson exploited to secure that narrow 1960 Democrat victory.
Taking the oath of office on Airforce One, with Jacqueline Kennedy to his right
Caro will say of the assassination conspiracies only that “I am convinced LBJ had nothing to do with the assassination” and that the Warren Commission was set up in good faith. But in the book he explores the idea that Robert Kennedy was crippled with guilt, believing the murder was “blowback” for either CIA attempts on Castro’s life, or Robert Kennedy’s own campaign as Attorney-General against the mafia and organised crime.
What dominates this volume though, is LBJ’s mutual hatred of Robert Kennedy which is explored in fascinating detail. There is a Shakespearean power in the telling of the drama that unfolds; their personal battles and the assassination in Dallas which is movingly chronicled. Caro reveals how isolated LBJ was in those first few hours and days, setting up his own government from scratch. But, in an account that cannot help but force a comparison with Shakespeare’s Richard III, he successfully woos each of President Kennedy’s heartbroken Cabinet within hours of the killing, telling each one — many who hated him — “I need you more than he did.”
Although his political voting record would mostly suggest otherwise, Johnson, as Senate Majority leader had pushed through the first modern Civil Rights bill in 1957. After JFK’s assassination he prioritised a major Civil Rights bill, to abolish segregation and enable Black Americans to vote, with the declaration “What the hell’s the Presidency for?”
Caro points out all JFK’s core “dream” bills — civil rights, federal education funding and tax cuts — looked doomed to failure, until LBJ used his masterful knowledge of the Senate’s workings to get them through. It looks now like a rare window of opportunity in a gridlocked system which has continued to kill legislation. Witness the mauling of Obama’s healthcare reforms. Johnson’s State of the Union address (see link above), in which he promised a War on Poverty is a remarkable piece of oratory. His own background meant, argues Caro, that he instinctively identified with the poor and the dispossessed.
Caro describes the period as “a time of violent hope”. In our age of the e-petition and the small scale of the Occupy Wall St protests, the book is worth reading for a reminder of the scale and bravery of the protests that made the headlines, to create the national mood that shamed America into pushing through the laws. Rabbis, priests, preachers, students and local African Americans of all ages who volunteered, getting training on how to deal with a police beating.
Johnson followed up the Civil Rights bill with the essential Voting Rights Bill 1965. There was a federal boost for educating the poorest, Medicare, Medicaid, setting up PBS and NPR — despite threatening and blackmailing Texan media owners in Houston and Dallas to sack reporters or drop investigations into his own financially corrupt dealings around media ownership and advertising. Interestingly it worked then. LBJ was to be the only Democratic presidential candidate The Houston Chronicle backed till Barack Obama. One feels the Press has become rather more free since 1963.
It was Kennedy and then Johnson who initiated taping of conversations and phone calls; Johnson on a significant scale, helping provide records for Caro’s detailed reconstruction of key meetings. Caro relates how, on moving into the White House one of Johnson’s daughters was relieved to find the White House phone system means her father couldn’t listen in on all her calls, as he used to at home.
It was Johnson who pioneered the relaxed and deliberately lowbrow “authentic’” American presidential style that has dominated the office ever since. Harvard-educated, Connecticut blue blood, George W Bush’s re-invention as a real cowboy owes everything to LBJ’s Texan barbecue hoe down for West Germany’s Chancellor Erhard over Christmas 1963. Johnson was the real deal and made a virtue of his difference from the elegant French cuisine and European-style of the Kennedys.
Reading the book from our perspective, long after the novel power of television defined Kennedy’s election, presidency and assassination, the corrosive effect of the media soundbite on political culture, in Britain as much as in the United States is freshly apparent. Perhaps the greatest puzzle about Johnson for our age is that he comes across as mostly a deeply unlikeable man, who perhaps only because of his intimate knowledge of the Senate’s dark arts, was able to push through into law the now cherished liberation of civil rights.
The shadow of Vietnam hangs over the book from the start and will occupy Caro’s next volume. It’s a developing problem in the early 60s. Caro says President Johnson was the man whose time in office was bookmarked by two famous protest slogans; the first that marked his zenith — “We Shall Overcome” and the second “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” — that destroyed his hoped-for legacy in the War on Poverty and marked his doom.
There’s a very famous scene in one of John Waters’ early films Female Trouble (1974) when a well meaning Aunt Ida tries to coax her straight nephew Gator into become gay. “I worry that you’ll work in an office, have children, celebrate wedding anniversaries. The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life.”
Gay audiences cheered it in cinemas – but like his most famous heroine, Hairspray’s Tracy Turnblad, Waters has always been against segregation; by race, gender or sexuality:
“What I wanted was bohemia…The first time I went to a gay bar was in Washington and it was called the chicken hut and there were telephones on the tables and everyone had on little fluffy sweaters. It was very 50s gay. And the phone would ring and they’d say, hi you look v cute, can I buy you a drink? And I thought you know, I might be queer, but I’m not this. I wanted bohemia, which was mixed. I’m still against separatism. I hate separatism… There won’t be any gay bars eventually.”
Waters says he worries that homosexuality remains taboo for too many non-middle class families and in an surprising part of the interview, talks about both the trauma of losing 70 percent of his gay friends to AIDS within a period of about five years, but also how none of his friends went to Vietnam:
“When I was in the 60s I went down the draft board to have to go to Vietnam I knew how to get out of it. All the other people on that bus probably went to Vietnam and many of them died. Those people on the bus probably didn’t know anyone who died of AIDS. So I’m not sure that every generation doesn’t have some terrible thing that happens. (Pauses) And it was different..I didn’t know anyone that died in Vietnam. No one. And I grew up in the height of it. And that was because everyone I knew, knew how to get out of it.”
He also discusses frankly his use of drugs – his Dreamlanders bonding through pot and LSD (he doesn’t recommend it now); the joys of Douglas Sirk films and his work discipline. His screenplays are rich with word play and the savouring of transgressive or period jargon from the 1950s: retard, mulatto, high yellow, Negro, skag. Favourite lines include: Mount me if you must, but not a kiss.” (Mink Stole protesting a sexually harassing traffic cop in Desperate Living). And: “Don’t you know it’s bad luck to let retarded people into your house?” (Divine’s evil mother in Polyester).
Watching the first 10 minutes of Female Trouble (1974) – is a fascinating alternative version of Hairspray. Divine (complete with 5 o’clock shadow) plays the 15 year old “hairhopper” getting into trouble in class for her outrageous beehive before attacking her parents for failing to give her cha-cha heels for Christmas.
“Originally Divine was going to play Tracy as well as her mother like in The Parent Trap. And would any of this happened if New Line had let me get my way?”
Waters was talking there about the commercial failure of Cry Baby with Johnny Depp – his Hollywood commission after the success of Hairspray. Perhaps there’s a part of Waters that misses the non-PG fun of his early films.
Fruitcake – his children’s screenplay – was due to start production in 2009 but stalled. Though he still would like to make it, with Johnny Knoxville committed to playing the father. But in the meantime there are books to write, lectures to give, his photographic art to make and trials to follow. The crime reporter in me recognizes a kindred spirit. Talking while we waiting outside the studio to record I found him erudite and thoughtful about the facts and ethical issues in various disturbing cases we’d both covered or been following: OJ Simpson, to Ariel Castro, Jimmy Saville to Hackgate.
So what is this avowedly avid book reader and art collector reading at the moment: The new Norman Mailer biography, the new Donna Tartt novel and he admits a “trashy” new book about River Phoenix’s death at the Viper Room, that “I’m ashamed to say I’m reading.”
In my interview you’ll hear Waters talk about watching Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk with his friend David Lochary. This is a thoughtful piece about the actor who died tragically young: The mystery of David Lochary
I have been pre-occupied with offence these past few weeks. Preparing to interview the Pope of Trash (copyright William Burroughs) ahead of his Nov 8th appearance at Liverpool’s Homotopia festival, I have been starting each day with a John Waters film. On day one I finished watching Pink Flamingos – sex involving chickens, castration, cannibalism and most famously dog turd eating – and then turned on the radio while I had lunch (vegetarian cocktail sausages, by coincidence). And I found myself feeling genuinely offended for the first time that day.
Radio 4’s Round Britain Quiz, that bastion of middleclass cryptic crossword- obsessive, unashamedly top-of-the-class contestants, began with a throwaway reference to the setting: “Hello and welcome to our rural interrogation centre in North Yorkshire for another session of cerebral waterboarding.”
I felt a bit sick. And it wasn’t the cocktail sausage I was finishing off. Was this PC- gone-mad in my head? How did I square my discomfort at a throwaway line with the joy of Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition sketches? Was it about the passage of time? Anyway Britain’s history of Hitler jokes was part of the war spirit and hasn’t demeaned the truth about the Holocaust since.
Perhaps my unease lay in where it was said and why. In the early 2000s innocent citizens found themselves snatched at airport transit gates at the behest of British and American security services, and tortured for months in compliant Middle Eastern regimes. Men like Canadian software engineer Maher Arar who was snatched at JFK airport in 2002 on his way home from holiday, transported to Syria where he was tortured for nearly a year as a suspected Al-Qaeda operative, and then released without charge. His appalling story inspired the 2007 film Extraordinary Rendition with Meryl Streep. He’s still waiting for an apology from the US government.
So back in my kitchen, listening to the radio, I think the offence came from the lack of thought about it. The nagging sense that no one would have broadcast that flippant line if they could ever imagine something like that happening to themselves.
So now the Advertising Standards Authority’s decision to ban a government billboard campaign aimed at illegal immigrants as misleading but not offensive is intriguing. As with the waterboarding joke, perhaps rural Yorkshire will not have been offended by this. The billboard was driven on lorries around areas of London known to have many illegal immigrants. It said: ”Go home or face arrest. 106 arrests in your area last week.”
The ASA’s ruling upheld the complaint of inaccuracy. That 106 figure was well dodgy. The ASA “acknowledged that the phrase “GO HOME” was reminiscent of slogans used in the past to attack immigrants to the UK, but that in that context it was generally used as a standalone phrase or accompanied by racially derogatory language.” They suggested that different wording, such as “RETURN” rather than “GO” HOME might have helped avoid concern. “However, we concluded that the poster was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence or distress.”
Given that legal immigrants can be among the most fiercely opposed to allowing illegal immigrants to stay, they may well be right. The worst of the Go Home chants and graffiti was in the 70s and 80s. 30 years on perhaps we should take comfort in the widespread outrage generated. Britons have moved on. Even Tommy Robinson has left the EDL. It has clearly given the Home Office food for thought.
All issues we discuss in tonight’s Night Waves. It’s a landmark special to mark the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking theatrical production of Oh What A Lovely War! — the satire with songs that JoanLittlewood created with her Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Our programme was recorded on the stage itself, with an audience that included some with great memories of seeing the original show and how it had transformed their view of war and history.
Recording on stage at the Theatre Royal Stratford East (l-r) Erica Whyman,Michael Billington,SamiraAhmed,David Kynaston,Murray Melvin (photo copyright: Samira Ahmed)
Original cast member and Theatre Royal Archivist Murray Melvin recalls watching Field Marshall Haig’s family lawyers in the audience on many nights, taking notes and looking for the tiniest aberration from the script as an excuse to shut down the production. (All Haig’s lines were things he’d actually said). And a night when the show toured in Paris, where De Gaulle’s recent return to power created an atmosphere of real tension as to whether they would be booed off stage.
Theatre critic Michael Billington was in the audience watching that first production as a young man and reminds us of the enthralling theatricality of the staging.
We hear archive from the late BBC producer Charles Chilton, who died only this year. His research into war graves and the mostly forgotten subversive trench songs of British soldiers was the basis of the show. Chilton’s father had been killed in the War when Chilton was only a few months old. When Chilton got a job as a messenger boy at the BBC in 1932, he found himself working with a number of severely disfigured war veterans, who’d been given back room jobs and was struck by the hidden and disappearing story of his father’s generation. Years later when he went to the Arras war cemetery in France to look for his father’s grave, Chilton discovered that his father was one of 30 thousand “officers and men” without one; their bodies never recovered, and their names carved on a memorial instead.
Historian David Kynaston places the production in its time: The new power of the satire boom challenging the political and military establishment. Just months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the nuclear disarmament movement was also strong, but the horrors of the Vietnam War were yet to come.
Oh What A Lovely War! was part of the angry rejection of the “heroic” version of the First World War written in the 1920s. New histories were consulted as part of the writing of the script.
Murray Melvin in the 1963 production (photo copyright Theatre Royal Stratford East)
The framing of the show within a Pierrot music hall setting, was to be deliberately alienating. Its use of a “news screen” to project real photographs of soldiers in the trenches was groundbreaking at the time. Interestingly on its transfer to the West End, the show was altered to end with a reprise of songs, that one critic felt let the audience feed on the very nostalgia, the production was challenging.
Murray Melvin (Sept 30th 2013) holding Theatre Workshop’s 1963 Evening Standard Award for Oh What A Lovely War! (photo copyright: Samira Ahmed)
OWALW played a significant role in the emergence of modern oral history writing. Audience members started to come up and share stories of their lost men. But could the modern success of the Tommy’s story in popular fiction be in danger of diverting attention from the politics of the war game? Some critics say the play looks very heavy handed with its focus on the arms dealing-profiteers. But it was an issue much reported on in Iraq and Afghanistan too. And the battle over the reputations of the First World War’s architects and generals continues to this day.
Should the BBC have given more attention and coverage to a mass protest rally over NHS changes outside Tory party Conference in Manchester on Sept 29th last weekend that attracted over 50,000 marchers?
The rally, organised by unions, was mentioned. But like other news programmes on other channels the BBC used a few seconds (16 seconds in fact) of footage of it as wallpaper within the top story about the conference on the main early evening and later bulletins. Should it have been a report in its own right? Especially given the prominence given to a Duck Tour boat fire on the Thames the same day? A significant number of viewers and participants thought so. The BBC received hundreds of complaints about the absence. Labour shadow health secretary Andy Burnham has complained by letter to the BBC Trust.
Newswatch will have a flavour of the more than one thousand complaints the Corporation received, and some of the viewers in the studio explaining their concerns. We asked BBC News for an interview to answer viewers in person. It’s the remit of the programme, set up after the Hutton inquiry, to be more transparent with viewers about newsmaking decision. But on this issue we were told “we’re not going to provide an interview for this one.”
On the day of the event the BBC News Channel’s chief political correspondent Norman Smith put out these tweets:
For clarity. I was stopped from filming “Live” for @BBCNews Channel from conf centre overlooking #nhs299 demo #cpc13
For even more clarity. (This is getting dull). Bar on filming #nhs299 demo at #cpc13 had nothing to do with Tory party.
The new issue of Private Eye magazine says overzealous security guards from a local firm, brought in by police to secure the inner cordon at the conference, were to blame. But the question remains: Why did the BBC comply or not make more effort to contest the ban? Could they not have sought to film from somewhere else? Was the event not worthy of coverage in its own right?
Crucially on a day when there were no high profile speeches or events, the coverage was focused on previewing what lay ahead; not actual news. And at a party conference where everything is as stage managed as possible by the organisers, the demo was an actual news event, involving members of the public, not politicians who tend to get plenty of airtime anyway. But not even a single vox pop with a demonstrator about why they were there made it on to a national bulletin.
An argument against a separate report might be that the NHS bill has passed and a demo won’t change it. But that’s not an argument that defines news. The rallies against mine closures back in the early 1990s didn’t change anything, but were covered because of the public opinion they represented. The same could be said of the anti-war rallies around the Iraq invasion. The numbers might also be a factor. But how is the decision made?
The editorial decision not to devote more airtime to the rally raises lots of questions worth debating. Not least because of concern, expressed by some of the angry viewers who contacted us and correspondents direct, that the BBC was being overly cautious out of fear, because of long term accusations from political groups (discussed on this recent edition of Newswatch) that it has an innate left wing bias.
There’s a wider of issue of how police and private security firms are exceeding their legal powers to block journalists from filming and accessing stories taking place around controlled events. How should organisations like the BBC respond to such pressures? Are they even aware of them or have too many journalists got used to and stopped contesting overly zealous security? I very much hope we can debate this on a future edition of Newswatch.
The BBC has given Newswatch this statement: “The BBC has covered the protests against government spending cuts and NHS changes that took place in Manchester, with coverage across all platforms on Sunday including the BBC News Channel, radio news, within the lead story on both the News at Six and News at Ten, and a full report on BBC News online.”
Haymarket shopping centre, Leicester 1974 (image by wikimapia.org)
Maybe you used to associate Leicester mainly with Joe Orton and the fetishistic possibilities of its hosiery and footwear industrial past. Oh, and the best Diwali celebrations outside of India, of course. But not any more.
When archaeologists at Leicester University identified the remains of Richard III they did more than solve a great historical mystery and draw attention to the importance and excitement of archaeology, to the value of diligent study and the achievements of their own institution.
It is a key part of the narrative that Richard III was found under a car park. For when his remains of a medieval monarch were respectfully uncovered and his reputation restored from the Tudor bias of Shakespeare’s version, Leicester, which had been only the second UK city to appoint a town planner in 1962, implicitly broke a link with that ignoble past of municipal town planning.
In the 50s and 60s regional councils all over the nation, in thrall to American urban design, forced their wretchedly provincial versions on us: dual carriageways through city centres (yes, Birmingham, I mean you) and concrete shopping malls (sorry Milton Keynes I tried to love you but I failed). Long unpleasant tunnels and passageways where muggers could lurk. The rain stained concrete that turned an especially British shade of damp grey-brown and provided the likes of JG Ballard and Stanley Kubrick with the settings for their dystopian fantasies.
Leicester’s elected City Mayor Peter Soulsby acknowledges the irony of how his city is reconnecting with its past: “Till the middle of 20th century the city thought of itself as a manufacturing place,” he says. “When a lot of those [factories] closed Leicester rather lost confidence and connection with its own history. And there was the physical separation with the inner ring road making way for the motor car. It left the modern shopping centre on one side and old historic city on the other side. [City planners] carved an underpass in the 1960s through the site of the Roman forum. They left the medieval castle hall and Norman castle motte and Saxon church and roman masonry on the wrong side of the ring road.”
My own home town, Kingston-Upon-Thames (a Royal borough no less) was carrying out that kind of vandalism well into the 80s and it’s captured in a Ladybird book. “In a Big Store” (1973) featured the grand department store Bentalls on the cover. Inside is a picture of the old medieval market place, still very much looking as it did 500 years ago, as an illustration of the old fashioned way of doing things.
The town took its name from the fact that several Anglo Saxon kings were crowned there. Now the reputed Coronation stone sits forlorn inside some Victorian railings. The ancient medieval market place is still there, with its halftimbered houses, gold statue of Queen Anne and a magnificent heritage listed oak carved Tudor staircase, (which endures inside a branch of Next). But a casual visitor would never know from the 3 and sometimes 4 lane carriageways that encircle it.
Photo copyright: www.kingstonguardian.co.uk
Kingston’s riverside, just a couple of miles from Hampton Court, is an ugly scar. Look either side of beautiful Kingston Bridge and all views are blocked by towering Lego-style brick behemoths: bombastic luxury flats, a John Lewis that sits over and astride the road like a Transformer, a solicitors’ office block the colour of manure.
The 1930s grandeur of the Bentalls department store , captured in that Ladybird book was torn down in the 80s and rebuilt as the Bentall Centre mall. How appropriate that it was the inspiration for JG Ballard in his consumerist dystopiaKingdom Come. He was particularly taken by the audio-animatronic bears that used to greet visitors.
Leicester City Mayor Soulsby spent 30 years as councillor including time as Council leader before becoming a Labour MP and now the city’s first elected Mayor. He admits there is regret for the desecration for the past. “We can’t make it go away. But we can tame it.” The new plans for a Richard III permanent museum have just got planning permission and are part of a strategy to reintegrate the old and the new.
The ancient city of York, already brimming with tourism and heritage, is fighting via judicial review to bring Richard III’s remains to their Minster. But Leicester’s case has great moral virtue too. With its years of work by the University’s archaelogists, it’s not just about a physical reconnection, but a spiritual one too. Let’s hope other towns can take inspiration from it.
A version of this column first appeared in The Big Issue magazine.
My earliest registered nightmare (circa 1971): Coming downstairs in the dark to find the TV taken over by a ghost station, broadcasting horrors for the denizens of the night.
I didn’t know then of course, that one day there would be ITV3, where monstrosities of 70s cinema flicker in their nylon negligeed, muttonchop-sideburned, tombstone-toothed lechery in an eternal digital afterlife.
One afternoon, as a change from teaching them catchphrases from The Sweeney, I forced my children to watch some of the On The Buses oeuvre (Mutiny & Holiday) as a kind of feminist warning from history and watched their jaws drop in horror. And Bob Grant (Lothario conductor Jack) went to RADA, you know.
Operation Yewtree may have forced a re-assessment of the cop-a-feel culture of 70s light entertainment, but I’m not sure as a nation torn between No More Page 3 and TOWIE we know quite what to make of the sexual licentiousness of the decade. 70s sex star biopics are everywhere. Chris “Thor” Hemsworth as Formula 1 champion James Hunt (33 airhostesses bedded in a 2 week booze and fags marathon). Amanda Seyfried as Linda Lovelace (Deep Throat porn vamp or victim?) The terrific central performances in The Look of Love, just out on DVD, are somewhat swamped by endless irony-free photoshoot reconstructions with modern Lads’ Mag-style lovelies of Paul Raymond’s boundary-breaking Men Only magazine.
When what is most fascinating, surely, is the “erotica” industry’s weird radioactive presence in the culture of ordinary 70s British life.
My parents never went to the Raymond Revue Bar. But like many middleclass couples in the 70s did occasionally go to the Playboy Club in Mayfair for a posh night out with friends or business clients. The 8 year old me thought it was a boys’ school where grownups got to sip Babycham in the playground and go on the climbing frame at night.
Having opened the Pandora’s box of 70s memories there, too, is the Lamb’s Navy Rum Girl. She climbs out of the box and once the noxious fumes of high tar Rothmans and Hai Karate aftershave have cleared I take a long good look. Her long limbed, sultry-eyed lusciousness is still spilling out of a half zipped scuba suit or a weird Navy uniform leotard. Driving to school, walking to the bus stop, there she was on giant posters everywhere, intimidating me with her full-on sexy stare.
Mary Quant with Daisy and Havoc (right) 1974
Though like my dolls, Action Girl (Action Man’s shortlived 70s sister) and Mary Quant’s black catsuited Havoc, sometimes she was climbing into a helicopter, as if on a mission.
Was feminism somewhere in there – in dolls and media images, fighting it out with 70s ad man machismo in those loose-zipped catsuits? Madeleine Smith endures having her dress unzipped by a smirking Roger Moore with his magnetic watch (Live and Let Die 1974) but she confounds my schlocky expectations of Hammer’s Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973) with her rather fine acting. Shakespearean actor Louise Jameson delivers action, charm and superheroine integrity as Leela in Doctor Who even while the script writers tittered and found excuses to put her in Victorian underwear (The Talons of Weng Chiang 1977) as a change from the leather bikini.
Smith on the set of Frankenstein & the Monster From Hell. (Photo courtesy of the UK Peter Cushing Appreciation Society)
I saw Smith and Jamieson at recent Q and A screening events at the British Film Institute. Both seem to have survived the 70s in better shape than many of their male peers. Dignified, thoughtful in their answers exuding an almost zen-like calm, while Doctor Who script writers and Tom Baker apologized profusely and with sincere regret for boorish behaviour and “you wouldn’t get away with it now” attitudes. Women made the best of the roles there were, I sensed. Feminism was doing its longterm best, but in the short term it was this or no work. And 4 decades on, the men who used to run things have woken up and ruefully admitted, “it should have been better”.
I made my peace with the Lamb’s Navy Rum Girl, too. For several years from the mid 90s Caroline Munro was a near neighbour. As I negotiated my own early years of new motherhood, pushing a pram, I saw her almost every day; those unmistakeable exotic eyes on a middle aged mum: in the supermarket, walking her daughter to school, signing autographs on the street for bedazzled men. Perhaps she serves to remind us to be wary of sweeping judgments about decades and attitudes. For all the horrors that lurked within the 70s, many who were there did, after all, make their peace with it and grow up just fine.
A version of this piece first appeared in The Big Issue magazine.
The heat of a real summer does funny things to your memory. I find myself instinctively wanting to wear pastels, frosted eyeshadow, roll the sleeves up above my elbow and go to the cinema for the nth time, to see the young Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid cycling to school to face his tormentors to the sound of Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer”.
For the heat makes you remember those youthful years when term broke up and the long summer stretched ahead of you. When you felt insulted by the “back to school” uniform window displays in July, aimed at your parents. This is not a whinging column about working professionals trying to offload their spawn in expensive daycamps for the summer.
Nor a failure to acknowledge how the months ahead might feel different for the thousands of especially young people trying to find work. Even if you have work, the world of employment divides now into those with real jobs and paid holiday and the many more casuals. How to recapture the joys of an endless summer when the pressure is on to look for work or cover the shifts of those away?
It is an attempt to consider the value of that structureless time and how we can recapture the best of those carefree weeks and use them to renew and refresh ourselves.
What would you have back? Playing football in the park till it got too dark to see? (That one courtesy of BI editor Paul MacNamee). Staying up till late watching dodgy old movies and then sleeping into midday? Sitting on the porch just enjoying watching, smelling and listening to the pounding of a torrential summer rainstorm? Staying out late in the countryside with a telescope watching the constellations? (Those last two courtesy of a Polish taxi driver with fond memories of spending the summers on his grandparents’ farm).
If you can afford the time and cost, you could join the other 40somethings who’ve not had a holiday for years, I know a few, planning to go interrailing for the first time since their twenties. Why? It’s the chance for those serendipitous encounters that only arise from a lack of real planning. In my own time that included sharing a sleeper car from Vienna with an East German refugee family and listening to their story, in the summer of 1989 a few months before the Wall came down. And a few years later in 1994 being genuinely spooked Hammer Horror-style to spend a night all alone in the youth hostel built beneath Colditz Castle. (The staff didn’t see the point of staying there themselves for just one visitor). During the day I was escorted past the patients in the courtyard of Colditz Castle (it was still a mental asylum at the time). The guide showed me the escape tunnels they were still uncovering. The ingenious fake uniforms (cardboard belts and lino epaulettes!) and tools made by POWs just sat in a room, for the odd visitor like me to marvel at.
Perhaps the thing to do would be to revisit a place which has been transformed over the years by political and social change. Modern Germany remains strangely undervisited by Brits. The point of interrailing was to encounter a genuinely foreign world and open your mind to its possibilities.
A few ideas: Take a week. Even a day. Even if you can’t go away anywhere. Change what you listen to. Swap news/talk radio for music. Tune out of the daily routine. Plan 1 thing each day that you never get round to doing in your city. The art gallery, the museum. the pool in the evening when the kids have gone home. In London a £5 gallery ticket at the Proms or an early morning free wander around the Renaissance altar pieces in the Salisbury wing of the National Gallery.
Grab a pile of things you really want to read. It should be about knowing you have the time to pursue an interest to its limits till you run out of stuff to read on it. I’m not sure what the adult equivalent is of reading all 200+ Amar Chitra Katha comics of Indian mythology and history that I collected as a child. Actually I think it is re-reading them in full. The boxes are ready and waiting under my desk. I’m also now half way through the Buffy The Vampire Slayer box set.