About Me

"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Fela Kuti musical at NT in November

Ages ago I wrote this stuff about Fela the musical:

"In two minds about the news that the Broadway musical hit, Fela!, is coming to London this autumn.

I've loved Fela Kuti's music through four decades (first heard him in the early 70s, when UK rock gods started falling over each other to get a bit of authenticity by visiting Lagos).

Now he's going to be up there on the same billboards with the likes of Freddy Mercury, Abba, and Andrew Lloyd Weber - a curious fate for this tempestous musician and political activist.

Am I just being a snob? I mean, the fear that it won't live up to the reality of his music and stage presence is ridiculous isn't it? I don't like music biopics much (apart from those old Ken Russell BBC films on the likes of Delius) - but I do like the idea of Fela being brought to new audiences."

Since then I've seen the show. It was at Sadlers Wells, and it was astonishing. I never did see the real Fela, I never went to Lagos to visit the Shrine, the Kalakuta republic, I just have been deeply attracted to his music since - when?

I first heard Fela when a friend made me listen to the Ginger Baker/Fela Ransome Kuti recordings back in the early 70s. It was exciting stuff, but then so was Osibisa, and then along came Bob Marley and I was totally absorbed in Jamaican music for the next 10 years or so. Apart from a wee bit of Ian Dury, and a lot of jazz, and the Clash, PiL, Robert Wyatt  and Jah Wobble.

Partly thanks to John Peel, but even more thanks to another radio man, Charlie Gillett, I  started again listening to wider ranges of stuff. Gillett's show on BBC Radio London was a beautiful thing. He was so mild, modest, and engagingly knowledgable, he out-Peeled Peel for me.

 Thanks to him, African, specifically South African,  music, re-entered my airspace in the early 80s, and then thanks also to repeated visits to a Kentish Town pub where the great (and now late) Dudu Pukwana's band – Zila – had a regular slot. This music was just so crazily, beautifully, infectiously hot and full of human charm, and this coming form a band of exiles who'd been forced out of their own country by hatred and death-threats.

The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, District Six, Hugh Masekela, Paul simon's stuff - and the way  UK musicians like the Specials, Robert Wyatt etc, signed up to anti-Apartheid with the whole of their musical as well as political souls  - that music was powerful, joyful and even quite dangerous, in the best sense.

And then we had the Bundhu Boys,  etc etc....I needed to get back to the Nigerian sounds but there was just too much else of beauty around. Rare groove revivals, James Brown. Funk, punk, Rip Rig and Panic. All that Cuban and Brazilian stuff too, and the rise of Soca. Those were good times to love music in London, or anywhere else I am sure.

Fela was there all along BUT stupidly  I only really got back into him in 1983 or so, when, on the last evening of that year's Notting Hill Carnival, as the southern quarter of the crowd of revellers surged back up Portobello towards the tube and the buses, as we surged past pyramids of empty Red Stripe tins and coconut shells, there was one last sound system - not really a sound system, just an indoors hi-fi set up on a trestle table outdoors,  two small but good speakers and a deck and a big amp, and a girl dj/citizen swaying around, selling her last few tins of lager, with Shuffering and Smiling playing off vinyl at maximum volume, and that stream of going-home pople were stopping their going and starting again to dance, and Fela sort of led it all, a big last street dance at the 1983 Notting Hill carnival.

Anyone else who witnessed this please remind me. Maybe I was just too tired and stoned and runk and dreaming to have any accurate memories.

Meat ! Murder! (Most Fowl!)

I should not read the Evening Standard. I am developing a town version of the middle-england Mail reader's "disgusted of tunbridge wells" etc.

Yesterday I read a letter by some  posh fellow moaning about the very last remnants of real life near Kings Cross (the bookies' shops across the road). I thought, "Fuck!" They really do want to turn all of London - ALL of London - into a Guardian readers' wet dream of perfectly tasteful, safe, fragrant, "quarters" or should that be "quartiers" or "arondissements".  Please, leave a little of the dirty mucky seedy  London that some of us need as much as we need air and water.

Today I read of plans to "gut" the market halls of Smithfields to build more offices.

"Low-rise", they say.

It makes me love the hulking stumps of  the square mile. London has already lost any battle over skylines and heights. The best recent buildings are the gherkin and the shard, they both have character and intelligence and poise and grace. The worst are those  tastefully scaled excresences around St Pauls, etc. They do not immediately offend the eye, but when you try walking around them you get that sense of gloom, the ghastly touch of HRH Chas his self. The beautiful medieval streets have gone. You  might as well be walking in Croydon, not in what should be absolute heart of the city of London.

If you need offices, please build them super-high, do some more shards, get all those offices up off the ground, shoot them up into massive syringes into the sky. The old meat market?  I would rather die than see it turn into yet another Covent Garden, but that at least seems a way to keep the shape, to feed the greed of developers, and to bring in the spenders. And I am going to die soon anyway!

SO -  leave Smithfields to the meat-men and clubbers and the very rich advertising folk of Clerkenwell who - much as we might not like them awfully - at least want somewhere interestingly blasted to stumble home through after a heavy night out.

For good god's sake, PLEASE don't make Smithfields into yet another Broadgate/ St Pauls/Spitalfields festival of blandness.


Sunday, 11 November 2012

Angela Carter , a street in Clapham, and a homesick Japanese novelist

It's almost 30 years since I moved to this street. It was January 1985 - a very cold January. My father had just died, I was recovering from the funeral and all that fallout, and at exactly the same time I realised I was living in the same street as one of my favourite writers.

Clapham was a dirt cheap place to lodge
 when Soseki came here in the 1900s.
Two of the many often bewildered
 Japanese literary pilgrims photograph
 his Blue Plaque.
I remember going to buy a Sunday paper. I got back to my new  front door and realised, with a strangely un-panicked realisation, that I had forgotten my keys. There was snow blowing all around, settling lightly now. I was simply thrilled to have a new flat in what seemed to me at the time, a rather lovely street, wide and lined with beautiful, gaunt trees. And I no longer had a father.

Luckily the house was in scaffolding. I scaled the three or four ladders, I climbed over the parapet onto the roof, and  slithered down a drainpipe onto my own roof terrace and in through the bathroom window (I am too fat to do that now).

I made some coffee and started reading this plump bundle of newsprint. In the colour supplement, Ian McEwan was writing about visiting Angela Carter. As I read it I realised he was describing my own street. How the  terraced houses crowded together as if for mutual protection as they approached the social border of Wandsworth Road. How hers was one of those last houses before the badlands of the Battersea marshes and their sprawling estates.

How her famous visitors sauntered down the road, looking at house numbers, wondering, where on earth does she live?

I encountered her a few times in the newsagents, but I was a fan, awestruck, struck dumb, mumbling nonsense. "Hi. Keep well, it's freezing out there ...", etc.  Never daring to say how much I loved her writing.

After that I was always watching. I was so proud to have such a wonderful near neighbour. I found out all I could about her, and soon realised she was (like me) an aboriginal south Londoner.  She had even worked as a junior reporter for the Croydon Advertiser (I tried to get work experience there, they sent me away).

This amazing woman with her commanding presence, that face,  that beaming smile, the extraordinary cloud of grey hair, and then - not , as I remember, so long after, her child, the baby in the pushchair, the shy man who I imagined was her husband....

Soon after this, I discovered that another well-known writer had lived even closer. The Japanese novelist, Natsume Sōseki, had been sent to London as a young man, and had found miserable lodgings - about six doors up from where Angela Carter lived. Opposite  the house where he endured a foul
English winter is a small museum devoted to his works.  In the summer,  Soseki fans (usually middle-aged Japanese couples, or younger, often solitary, students) would arrive in The Chase to visit the museum, and to photograph the blue plaque. Often, I would see them looking puzzled,  and think, should I volunteer some information? Offer them tea? Then think, well, they will soon find what they seek - and the last thing they want is inadequate help from some bumbling, clumsy Englishman.

The Blue Plaque was added about five years ago, a crumb of comfort to those Soseki followers whose plans to erect a statue of the writer on Clapham Common had been thrown out after a particularly mean-minded and xenophobic campaign by the so-called "Friends of Clapham Common".

Angela Carter lived in Japan in her 20s, and I assume she was well aware of this connection. But was it a coincidence that she moved  into this street? As much as Soseki loathed London, and especially loathed Clapham, so Angela Carter seemed to feel at home here.

I wonder how she'd feel now, about this street, dominated as it is by super-rich city types with their Range Rovers and Aston Martins, their royal connections, their street parties for the queen's jubilee and the wedding of william and kate. I wish she was still around to ask, because now, having shed that vile false modesty and shyness of the hobbledehoy, I would ask her too.