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My next project, on Crouch End: men can multi-task, honestly!!

I have previously mentioned my intention to produce a history of the London Musicians Collective, and hope to make it a bit more than just a dry ‘history’; more of a ‘story’ really, with a plot and characterisation to do justice to this most interesting of organisations, and to the vicissitudes that it suffered, over its 32-year history.

My second project, one that I have been incubating, like a fussy hen, over the past couple of years (but put on the back burner by my work on early free improv), is a study of the re-gentrification (and its implications and effects) of the area that myself and my family (my wife and our three children) have lived in for the past 25 years. This refers back to my last blog about Iain Sinclair, and his various studies of Hackney. Not that I have any intention of trying to imitate the un-imitatable, or indeed any reputable historian. I remain a gentleman (I hope) amateur. Sinclair’s unique style and versification remain a cynosure for me.

 What I would like to do is offer a take on an geographical (as well as psycho-geographical) area that has re-invented itself or, more accurately, returned to its previous original incarnation as an upper-middle-class enclave, as have also previously, over the years, several other ‘gentrified’ areas like Notting Hill Gate and Highbury, although both of these are somewhat grander, and even more stuffy, than the uber-suburb of Crouch End, which is now ineluctably associated with Bob Dylan, Will Self and Stephen King, for Christ’s sake!

There is surprisingly, little of any non-article substance written about Gentrification in London (or that I can find, at least). Its undoubted benefits and its undoubted horrors, perhaps best represented by areas of Hackney, for example. I went on a walk with a mate in Victoria Park the other weekend, a park previously untrod by myself and my usual escort, Romeo the Jack Russell. What I was particularly taken with in this outing, was an area which has been named by, presumably, estate agents and their groupies, Victoria Village. Just like Crouch End Village,  (wherever that might be), a notional rural arcadium that exists to validate the gas-guzzling 4 x, 4′s and the multiple bucolic coffee outlets, frequented by the ‘yummy mummies’ (say what?) who drive these things, and their ‘partners’, and lap-toppers of all sexes. This ‘oasis’, as I think these sort of conclaves tend to called, is proximate to the already shape-shifting Hackney Wick, which is as bizarre, for those of us with long memories, as what has become the new Broadway Market and London Fields, which were previously semi-dangerous Wild East outposts that have now become places that one can only aspire to live in - as Linda Grant once quoted her mother as saying, “Hackney is where you come from, not where you went to”. 

Ditto Crouch End, in a more minor key? It’s funny to consider the staid, conservative-minded and largely Conservative-voting community that set up these ‘villages’ back in the day, the largely non - conformist Victorian suburb-creating creators of these suburbs, and which still largely constitute, whatever their liberal (with a small ‘l’) views might be, the modern dwellers of these essentially conservative ‘enclaves’. Hence the predominance of multiple bars (not bars that sell booze) over their windows, and the sophisticated alarm systems that infest these homes, to protect themselves from their untrustworthy fellow-villagers. Shame, that. Particularly noticeable around Columbia Road Flower Market, I’m afraid, petal! These properties look like they are setting into a war zone, which perhaps they are.

So, my intention is to try to produce a piece on this phenomenon that is both informative and interesting - an extended version.perhaps. of the infamous Crap Towns piss-take, which described Crouch End with the following priceless encomiums:

“The Tyranny of Pesto”

“The Clock Tower That Thinks Its Glastonbury Tor”

“The Obsession With Property” 

“The Rootless Residents Who Think They’re Locals”  

“The Parking, the Papers, the Smell, the Hill, the Horror”…the Horror

All cruel but true, I’m afraid. And I should know. After all, I’m a 62-year old Baby Boomer, who lucked into the property boom at the right time, who is both appalled by, and secretly (not any more!) gratified by this unearned income that the hypertrophied property market has provided. And I’m from the West Midlands, to boot. 

Mea culpa, Colonel Kurtz, mea culpa...

These Crap Towns guys deserve an award  (Sam and Dan, I believe, as opposed to Sam and Dave?) - never has the sheer pomposity and self-regard of these ‘gentrified’ areas been better skewered and barbecued on their own self-congratulationary rhetoric. I am currently favouring The Tyranny of Pesto as a working title for my book on the subject. I could never have thought of such an apposite title, even if I had been offered an army of monkeys and typewriters.But perhaps this is only an inverse snobbery? Aaaarhgh, please help me with my copyright anxieties…!!!!

A Little Bit of Deep Topography

There will be some of you out there who will know the origin of the above expression, which was coined by writer and psycho-geographer Nick Papadimitriou, who, among many other things, did a lot of the research for Will Self’s 2006 The Book of Dave. The frustratingly inconsistent Self aspires to the sort of depth that Papadimitiou brings to his very obsessive detailing of Greater London’s palimpsests, but doesn’t really make it (Great Apes remains his best book, for me at least, a very fine extended conceit and satire). Which brings me to the point of tonight’s blog, the new book by the mighty Iain Sinclair, who I referenced in a recent blog about Jewish London writers from the middle of the last century. Returning to Sinclair from the latter group could be compared to re-listening to Eric Dolphy after a brief immersion in Oliver Lake, or to Ornette Coleman, after a light diet of his namesake Steve. The real deal, after very impressive lesser lights have been sampled.

Those who don’t know Sinclair could start by having a go at 1997′s Lights Out For The Territory or 2002′s London Orbital, both psycho-geographical (if we must use that term) classics; dense, digressive, arcane and allusive in the extreme, but laminar in the same way as AMM are laminar (although music is one of the arts that Sinclair doesn’t appear that interested in). Oddly, though, a Sinclair quote adorns the back cover of the first edition of Ben Watson’s much-pilloried book on Derek Bailey - a rather odd choice in the circumstances, as he says “I feel profoundly unqualified to promote a text about which I have no specialist knowledge, and for which I have no innate sympathy”. Which is perhaps why Watson chose him, I wonder?  Sinclair does appear to like Watson’s way of going about things, though, “I’m prepared to follow him, even to places where I wouldn’t under other circumstances go”. Now there’s a true friend!!

The Last London, for that is the title of the new book, purports to be Sinclair’s last book about the city he has lived in for the past 50 years (in Hackney, near Haggerston Park, to be specific, which location is featured prominently in the book’s pages). It’s a typically tough-to-digest piece of work, needing time to chew on its particular fat and to fully appreciate and relish the many referential conceits, laced with acidic humour and a general tone of ‘the best is behind us’. But there is no faux or retro-manic wistfulness here, Sinclair is about as sentimental as John Lydon. Just to give a sample of what I like about his writing, and what generally inspires me to either to go to for the first time or revisit places/spaces in London (on page 21):

 “After following the Regents Canal to the Islington tunnel (which represents a unavoidable break in the canal walk), down a twitchy rule of coffee outlets, blocks of balconied flats, warehouse conversions, mosquito swarms of pinging cyclists, I loped downhill towards Kings Cross and the diesel-reef of Euston Road mainline stations…Slogging past the stations, buffeted by mad heads-down soliloquists, bruised by invalid carriages, blocked by strings of unlicensed children and dogs, family units confused in tourist hell, deafened by sirens and the fret of cyclists hammering on white vans or sharing obscenities with U-turning cabbies, I was convinced that the city had reached the limits of human tolerance. We were supposed to be choking on fumes, but the cocktail of familiar pollution fed my frenzy: the cheapest high in town”.

Out and about in Sinclair’s London: one to rival Hogarth. My next blog will describe one of my intended aims, to study a small piece of London topography using my own ‘methods’.

The Duke in the 1960s - as great as he ever was

I received an e-mail circular from The Vortex Jazz Cafe today. Firstly, it told me that I had missed a sold-out two-day residency from tenor sax titan David Murray, which was news to me. I really think that the venue should sort out its publicity more effectively - even if this particular gig was sold out, I have also attended events that have been half-full (at best), even though the featured artists have been world-class, due to rather sub-standard publicity. Of course, I would have been there to see Murray, one of the greatest of the 70s/80s modern jazz players, but the fact that such an important artist could play without any significant accompanying publicity is both annoying and tragic, as I’m sure that Murray could have played there over a week without any empty seats. The Vortex must up its game a bit in this area, even though it is undoubtedly one of the treasures of our capital city.

The e-mail also featured a clip of Duke Ellington playing, in a trio, a tune called Blues For Jean Miro (also called The Shepherd, according to a YouTube wiseacre). The clip is particularly noteworthy, as it has a certain Jean Miro in attendance, listening attentively to the blues named in his honour, surrounded by examples of his artwork, in the garden of the Foundation Maeght in the modern art museum at Saint-Jean de Venice, not far from Nice, in SE France. This particular venue will be well known to free improv fans for its association with live albums by Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor, both entitled Nuits de la Foundation Maeght, noisy and intense workouts both. Apparently, neither Ellington nor Miro could communicate with each other in their respective languages, so it was left to the music to provide the connection. It was a great success by the look of it, and it is a wonderful moment, to see such great artists together, enjoying the moment,

Ellington is joined by John Lamb (looking very cool, I must say) on bass and Sam Woodyard on brushes and snare drum, brushstrokes that must have surely been appreciated by the most masterfully restrained of painters himself? Blues For Jean Miro is also a reminder of Ellington’s keyboard chops, if one was ever in danger of forgetting these. Like his album with modernists Charles Mingus and Max Roach, in 1962′s Money Jungle, it is a delightfully funky and joyful,blues, in which The Duke seems to be enjoying himself immensely, and to which Miro also seems to ‘grooving’, if that is the right word, in an admittedly restrained, yet respectful, way. How many other examples are there of two absolute masters of their respective art forms engaged in a beyond-words dialogue in an informal setting? It would have been wonderful to have been present at the one meeting of James Joyce and Marcel Proust, even though it was, allegedly, a bit of an anti-climax. Perhaps the incredible combined forces of Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Diaghilev and Erik Satie in the 1917 ballet Parade, at a stretch?

This clip only lasts about five minutes, but it is a remarkable record of two geniuses connecting over something elemental and essential. And in a random e-mail, as well. Thank you, The Vortex. Just please try to advertise yourself in a more assertive way in future!!

Literary East Enders

I usually blog about music-related matters, with the occasional look at films and books that allude to left field music (as in my most recent blog, on the recent Coltrane biopic). This one is thus a bit of a departure, as it concerns a group of novels/novelists that have absolutely nothing to do with music, but who have been occupying my reading time (a major part of my waking life, along with listening to music and walking the mutt) over the last few weeks.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Iain Sinclair here, who pointed my way towards these novelists, in various of his own works of Hackney-based literature. He has frequently described this group of Jewish East End writers, who were creating in the immediate pre- and post-World War 2 periods, and formed a sort of precursor to the ‘Angry Young Men’ or ‘kitchen sink’ writers from the north of England, who emerged (and were severally filmed) in the late 50s and into the early 60s. The latter’s protagonists tended to be existential anti-heroes, amoral and troubled, with dodgy attitudes towards both women and employers, and ‘The Establishment’ generally, before the full technicolour riot of The Swinging Sixties blossomed. The heroes of their Literary East End predecessors were surprisingly similar, and Hollywood certainly took an interest in some of them at the time, such were the power of the plots and characterisation involved.

Out of print for several decades, many of these books have been recently republished by Five Leaves (as in the Nick Drake track), Black Spring and New London imprints. The historic referents are to the publisher John Lehmann, who promoted these authors, and published them in very distinctive jackets, drawn by John Minton, a slumming toff from the Royal College of Art. Blogs are too short a form to go into these novels and their pleasures in any detail, but these are the ones that I have enjoyed recently, and which give an insight into a period which tends to be forgotten, in our 1960s-and-beyond obsessions: Alexander Baron and his great trilogy From The City, From The Plough (especially relevant in the wake of the recent film blockbuster Dunkirk), The Lowlife (in particular, with its gambling-addicted existentialist anti-hero, Harryboy Boas, which is the sort of name that Martin Amis would kill to invent) and King Dido (very depressing, however); Roland Camberton, somewhat of an enigma, who only produced Scamp and the great Rain On The Pavements, and then promptly disappeared: Bernard Kops’s The World Is A Wedding; the marvelously-titled Wide Boys Never Work (apparently the first use of the expression), by Robert Westerby, which is a kind of Hackney Brighton Rock, full of rackateers, used car salesmen, gamblers, tarts and hoods, back before these sort of sub-cultures had been labelled and lionised by social and cultural theorists. All are thoroughly enjoyable ‘B-novels’, and describe a world that both Amis fils and Will Self can only re-imagine, to lesser and lesser returns.

I urge you to check some of these out, while they remain in print - they describe a world that has now disappeared, and one that was difficult for malcontents to find a context in which to define themselves. Then along came the likes of Colin Wilson in circa 1956, and it suddenly perhaps became a bit easier? Certainly, the fashionable nostalgie de la boue of the modern age will find its early expression in these pages.

Chasing Trane - In Vain?

I went to see Chasin Trane, the (fairly) new screen biography of John Coltrane, at the ICA last night. Afterwards, I engaged in a rather heated discussion with one of my mates about the emphasis in the film on Coltrane’s spirituality, which he found somewhat mawkish, but I found to be entirely appropriate in the circumstances, given both the role of religion in his upbringing and family, and in the way his self-confessed spiritual search vastly improved his music after he kicked junk and alcohol in 1957.

My mate put across the point that his withdrawal from substance use/misuse both allowed Trane’s gift to really thrive, and yet also surely contributed to his very early death at 40 years of age. He found the holy ramblings of the likes of Carlos Santana and a splendidly attired-in-red Sonny Rollins (now in his late 80s) a bit much (as did several tittering members of the audience, rather irritatingly, but then again it was the ICA). I opined that spirituality is as important a factor in understanding this music as it is in Albert Ayler’s case, and is an essentially unavoidable subject. The Church of John Coltrane in San Francisco is, rather oddly, not mentioned, even though some of the accompanying images suggest it.

As one would expect, there is some coruscating  live footage from the classic quartet, amplified by a sophisticated cinema sound system, which  is unarguably the high point of the movie, and should explain to the jazz neophyte what all the fuss is about. I could have done with a tad more discussion about the controversial Alice Coltrane/Rashied Ali/Pharoah Sanders period of 1965-7, and just how much shit Coltrane had to put up with as he was dying, for playing with his new grouping. Also some reflections as to why there has not been a single figure of equivalent unifying importance since his death 50 years ago (Miles’ last 20 years were too divisive for this honour) - this is surprising as, almost inevitably, Wynton Marsalis gets to have his say, as per usual, in his self-appointed role as jazz’s archivist. It’s also a momento mori to see how much Marsalis has aged since his pivotal role in Ken Burn’s Jazz. He remains as pompous and self-assured as ever though.

There are several talking heads throughout, some more interesting than others - as well as Marsalis, Santana and Rollins, we get a lot of Jimmy Heath for some reason, and rather less, unfortunately, of McCoy Tyner (the most well-placed of them all, I would have thought?); a rather enjoyable set of comments from the saxophonist ex-POTUS Bill Clinton (which just makes one weep even more about the current holder of that position, who has probably never heard of John Coltrane and would no doubt see him as Fake News, what’s more) and The Door’s John Densmore (who is surprisingly good). Alice Coltrane, Elvin Jones, Rashied Ali and Jimmy Garrison have all  passed, but it might have been nice to have heard from Sanders? The voice most missing, though, is Coltrane’s itself, although Denzil Washington ably fills this role. I’m not even sure if any recordings of Trane’s voice actually exist - probably not, presumably.

All in all, I thoroughly welcome and recommend this film - it’s not perfect, films like this rarely are. At 100 minutes, it’s exactly long enough. It should appeal both to the merely curious, and to the hardened pedant like myself. Just be prepared for a fair amount of spiritual exegesis with your horn ascensions!

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