My most popular post has been The Mystery of Subterranean Selfridges wherein I excavate the widespread rumour that there exists beneath the famous Selfridges department store on Oxford Street a row of well-preserved Victorian shops complete with cobbled street. The conclusion I have drawn, is that it is an ingenious and charming piece of modern folklore in the form of a prank perpetrated by the late Sex Pistols manager, performer and clothes designer Malcolm McLaren through the medium of his Channel 4 film The Ghosts of Oxford Street see here. The post and its various addenda can be found here.
I hadn't realised that McLaren's interest in Oxford Street went as far back as 1970 when he chose to make a film about the tawdry commercial thoroughfare as an art project at Goldsmith's College, when he was known as Malcolm Edwards; it was known as the Oxford Street film.
According to Jon Savage's definitive 1991 Sex Pistols history (see also Music For Pleasure post below for The Damned) England's Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock: 'Due to lack of money and lack of conceptual focus, Oxford Street drifted along for eighteen months before being left unfinished....when it came to shooting, Malcolm involved a variety of his friends at various points, Jamie Reid was used as cameraman and Helen [Mininberg] as assistant director. They worked around Oxford Street: the shot list includes many shop facades and exteriors, as well as close-ups of advertisements and human gestures of frustration and incorporate hostility. They were hampered by the fact that hardly any of the stores would allow them access: only Selfridges let them in.' (p.40) The project was hugely influenced by McLaren's interest in the ideas of the Situationist International (too much to go into here, see England's Dreaming and Greil Marcus Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (1989).
Reading King Mob Echo: From Gordon Riots to Situationists and Sex Pistols by Tom Vague (2000) on Saturday reminded me of a notorious incident at Christmas 1968 at Selfridges when a member of British Situationist offshoot King Mob dressed as Father Christmas and accompanied by fellow Mob members walked into the store and started taking toys off the shelves and giving them to grateful children. 'Not long afterwards,' Richard Neville wrote in Playpower (1970), 'shoppers were treated to the spectacle of police confiscating toys from small children and arresting Santa Claus.' A flyer saying IT WAS MEANT TO BE GREAT BUT IT'S HORRIBLE was also handed out (see pic above).
In England's Dreaming McLaren claimed to be part of this protest: 'We were all handing out the toys and the kids were running off. The store detectives and the police started to pounce: I ran off into the lift. There's just me and this old lady: the doors start to open and I can just see all these police. I grab the old lady really tight and walk through like I'm helping her. As soon as I got out of the store, I belted out of there.' (p.34) But, he later admitted:'That was organised by Christopher Gray and the Wise twins were involved as well. I never actually went to it but I heard of it.In those days nobody would tell you how things were going to work. There was all this rumour and hype. So, no I was never involved as such.' (King Mob Echo p.47)
Nevertheless McLaren definitely had previous as far as Selfridges was concerned.
To quote again from England's Dreaming (p.36): 'The libertarian currents of the late 1960s shaped the lives of many of those that they touched: for Malcolm McLaren and his associates, like Fred Vermorel and Jamie Reid life would never be the same. In those currents they could swim, and select a language for their multiple angers, resentments and ideals. It was largely through the SI's (Situationist International) influence that they developed a taste for a new media practice - manifestos, broadsheets, montages, pranks, disinformation - which would give form to their gut feeling that things could be moved, if not irreversibly changed.'
Incidentally, Guy Debord's Situationists were also interested in the Limehouse area of East London and held a meeting there. Limehouse was of course the haunt of Sax Rohmer's fiendish Fu Manchu and a piece on this cultural crossover appears in the book I edited with Phil Baker: Lord of Strange Deaths. See also here and here.
I've been watching a large number of Hammer and other classic British (and a few American) horror films recently, most of them online. I may write more about these in a later post. I was astonished by how many films are now freely available online (whatever the legal situation of them being there), many in very good quality versions - others are of a quality or in a format that is unwatchable and detrimental to the film.
I used Jonathan Rigby's English Gothic as my guide, and pretty readable and reliable it is - he was rather more effusive about some films than I would be, but that's his opinion and his area of interest/obsession. The ones I enjoyed most (and they are easy to locate online) were: Tam Linn (The Devil's Window), Kiss of the Vampire, Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter, The Shout, Horror Express, The House That Dripped Blood and City of the Dead. I enjoyed the much-derided Blood Beast Terror more than I should have, but Cry of the Banshee, set in the 17th century, disappointingly didn't actually feature a banshee at all and included a witch screaming to reveal a mouth full of fillings and Sally Geeson being shot with a gun probably last seen in the hands of Billy the Kid. This being the early 1970s, no opportunity is lost to expose the breasts of the female members of the cast. (It does, however, feature opening credits by the young Terry Gilliam, which are better than the film itself).
Another film that I finally got to see was Bulldog Jack, previously hard to track down. You can watch it here. As with the other film that I had written about in one of my books, without being able to actually see it at the time, The Ghosts of Oxford Street (see earlier post) - what I had read about it and used for my research was not strictly accurate; it's always a problem having to rely on other people's accounts and reviews.
Bulldog Jack is a moderately entertaining adventure with Jack Hulbert, standing in for an injured Drummond (the James Bond of his period), attempting to thwart a gang of counterfeiters holed up in a disused underground station called Bloomsbury. The impressive cast also features Fay Wray (of King Kong fame) as the damsel in distress and Ralph Richardson (looking like Henry Spencer of Eraserhead, with a moustache) as the criminal mastermind. It's better than I was expecting and the final scene aboard a runaway tube train (probably not the first of its kind, certainly emulated many times since - one thinks of Speed for example) is pretty exciting.
The abandoned tube station, while obviously a set, is realistic and atmospheric and there is the inevitable walk along a tube tunnel to reach it, avoiding trains on the way. One detail that I had repeated in Subterranean City and elsewhere, taken from books on abandoned stations, was that there was a secret entrance to the station in an opening mummy case in the British Museum, enabling the criminal gang to gain access to the treasures and replace some valuable jewels with copies. Having seen the film it is clear that it is not a mummy at all, but the stone sarcophagus of a monarch, probably Elizabeth I, the lid of which rises up vertically on jacks. Hulbert manages to get into the passage by jamming it with a conveniently placed block of stone.
Horror films with memorable tube settings are: Creep, Death Line, American Werewolf in London and of course my all-time favourite Quatermass and the Pit. Honourable mentions for conspiracy thriller Hidden City for its imaginative underground locations and the Dr Who story Web of Fear.
I announced the imminent publication by Strange Attractor of Christopher Josiffe's book about the remarkable case of Gef the Talking Mongoose some months ago. Finally, it will be published next month. There will be a launch (thanks to London Fortean Society) at Conway Hall on Tuesday 6 June. See here.
Much as I would like to go, I probably won't be able to. However, I am trying to arrange a talk by the author at Westminster Reference Library for June or July, where copies will also be available to buy.
THIS FREE EVENT CAN NOW BE BOOKED THROUGH EVENTBRITE HERE
Gef, of course, is yet another sensational case associated with Harry Price (see posts passim). I'm not writing a book about Price, by the way, he just seems to crop up in most of the research I do these days.
Talking of which, today I found a very useful and diligently researched site dedicated to the lesser-known initiates of the Golden Dawn. See here. Unsurprisingly, Sax Rohmer (Arthur Sarsfield Ward) does not appear in the list, despite claims that he was a member.
Apologies for the paucity of posts recently, much time has been spent revising and updating one of my previous books for re-publication (hopefully) later this year, with some accompanying promotional events. Having a copy of Hart's Rules on your desk can be a mixed blessing when going through earlier work with a fine tooth comb. Also, more time needs to be spent promoting Accumulator Press. More news here in the next few weeks.
I've just read Smashing It Up, a Decade of Chaos with The Damned, an excellent biography of the neglected punk pioneers by Kieron Tyler. Here's what Peter Doggett thinks of it:
'The Story of The Damned has been the black hole at the heart of the British punk scene - until now. In Smashing It Up Kieron Tyler's meticulous research, in-depth interviews, and intelligent perspective has unearthed a saga as compelling and ridiculous as any in British rock history. His chronicle of a band in a state of permanent artistic and emotional tumult not only gives The Damned their due at last, but forces us to rethink much of the accepted history of punk itself.' Peter Doggett, author of Electric Shock: From the Gramopohone to the iPhone, 125 Years of Pop Music.
The author will be talking about his book on the evening of Friday 7 July at Westminster Reference Library, 35 St Martin's St, London, WC2H 7HP.
BOOKING FOR THIS FREE EVENT IS NOW OPEN ON EVENTBRITE here
Here's a review of the new release from English Heretic. I'm hoping to do another event with them later this year.
Author of Subterranean City, Beneath the Streets of London, London's Coffee Houses, Decadent London, The Folklore of London, Subterranean City (Revised and Expanded Edition), Netherwood, Last Resort of Aleister Crowley, Lord of Strange Deaths, the Fiendish World of Sax Rohmer; Secret Tunnels in England, Folklore and Fact