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.
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