Sunday, January 25, 2015

Wild in the Country

The Beatles were a big part of my childhood. Not my youth – that was Bowie, Lou Reed and punk – but my childhood. Being born in the same year as their debut hit single, and having sisters much older than me, the sound of the Fab Four inevitably drifted through our small council house day and night in my early years. My two oldest sisters even saw The Beatles live at Lewisham Odeon in 1963; they said they could not hear a note for all the screaming going on around them – not them, of course: too cool. I also recall collecting bubble gum cards with stills from the 1968 animated film, Yellow Submarine, and sneaking in to my sisters’ room to gaze at the Magical Mystery Tour double EP, which I was not supposed to touch under any circumstances. I never played I Am the Walrus or The Fool on the Hill but I was fascinated by the artwork of the gatefold sleeve and the colour booklet that came with it. When the writer and broadcaster Stuart Maconie says that anyone who professes to not like The Beatles is lying and affecting a pose, he is probably right. I do not dislike The Beatles but it was never my music – it belonged to my big sisters and it still does.

As a consequence, I have never thought too much about the mop-tops down the years until I was recently alerted to a local connection at my end by Sussex Sedition’s Somerset correspondent, Andrew Brooke. Reading the Hunter Davies biography of the band, he discovered that their manager, Brian Epstein, had owned a house - Kingsley Hill - in Warbleton, just near Heathfield in East Sussex. Epstein had bought his country retreat in February 1967 and, in May of that year, hosted a lavish party at the house to celebrate the imminent release of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Heart Club Band album. John Lennon’s then wife, Cynthia, recalled: “John and I travelled down in the Rolls with a group of friends. On the journey everyone took LSD and I, against my better judgment but carried away by the jolly atmosphere in the car, decided to join in.” At the party, Cynthia had a bad trip – “upstairs I found an open bedroom window and contemplated jumping out” - but John, George and press officer Derek Taylor spent most of the time in Lennon’s psychedelic Rolls Royce listening to Procul Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale over and over again. Paul McCartney was the only Beatle not to attend the party.

There were other similarly drug-fuelled parties at Kingsley Hill in the following months that year, but the summer of love came to an abrupt end in the dog days of August. Epstein had invited friends down to Kingsley Hill for the Bank Holiday weekend but returned to London early when some guests, specifically invited for recreational purposes, failed to turn up. But he phoned Kingsley Hill the next day to say he would be travelling back down by train and needed to be picked up from Uckfield Station. He never arrived, however, and was found dead in his London home a few days later from an overdose of barbiturates. He was 32.

There is not much to see at Kingsley Hill today. The trim hedges and white five-bar gate bearing the house name give no clue to its place in the Beatles legend; but it is a joy to know that at one time, as the good folk of Warbleton went about their honest business, the loveable Beatles were holding court in a den of hedonism behind such a respectable frontage.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Blot on the Landscape

In Edgar Allan Poe's 1840 short story, The Man of the Crowd, an unnamed narrator follows a man on foot through the streets of London. His quarry constantly immerses himself into the crowded labyrinthine streets, seemingly walking with purpose but without apparent destination. People-watching from a cafe, the narrator is first attracted to the man as the only member of the crowd he cannot categorise: "a countenance which at once arrested and absorbed my whole attention, on account of the absolute idiosyncrasy of his expression". He follows him from early evening until the following morning, observing the onward march and constant doubling-back of his relentless search for the most populated areas, whether in the sophisticated heart of the city or the outlying slums. Exhausted by his following of "the decrepit old man", the narrator concludes his pursuit observing, "he refuses to be alone; he is the man of the crowd".

Twenty years later, it was Charles Baudelaire, in The Painter of Modern Life, who defined the flaneur as the idling urban walker, "at the centre of the world, yet hidden from the world". Baudelaire recognised the urban spectator/spectacle who "everywhere rejoices in his incognito" but is, at the same time, "the lover of life who makes the whole world his family". If this idea resulted in the image of a Parisian dandy, with top hat and elaborate walking cane, then it finally fell to Walter Benjamin, the early 20th century German Marxist literary critic, to credibly determine the flaneur as the pedestrian private investigator of the city, as restless and inquisitive as Poe's man of the crowd.

When I lived, worked and studied in London I did a lot of walking: whether to get from A to B more interestingly, to kill time or out of the sheer boredom of being skint, I have at various times explored and wandered the streets of Vauxhall, Westminster, Soho, Bloomsbury, the Old Kent Road, the Harrow Road and latterly, with sleeping babies in pushchairs, the Thames between Deptford and Woolwich. Whilst never claiming to be a flaneur, staying above ground and on foot gave me a sense of the geography of the city which, on my rare returns, I realise I have never lost.

When writer Iain Sinclair published his seminal work, Lights Out for the Territory, at the back end of the 20th century, it seemed as if the flaneur had returned to London as the psychogeographer. And I felt my abstract wanderings were legitimised by Sinclair’s exploration of the urban landscape and his attention to the details of the secrets of the city. His chapter on one of my local parks at the time, Maryon Park in Charlton, location of key scenes from Antonioni’s 1966 film, Blow-Up, made me feel less of a bore for constantly going on about it to anyone who would listen.

Leaving London 10 years ago, I quickly realised that - to paraphrase Springsteeen - it’s hard to be a flaneur in the countryside. I do plenty of walking on the Downs and the coast, but once you leave the designated footpaths you cannot always walk where you want to – get orf moi land! – and you tend to arouse suspicion if you wander around without a dog. My wife thinks I am mad if I ever go walking and do not take the long-legged dog with me but sometimes, and you will have to forgive me here, I want to be alone. Once, walking through the out-of-the-way hamlet of Brownbread Street on my way to Harry H. Corbett’s grave in Penhurst, I was regarded all the way through by several pairs of narrowed eyes. Being a stranger, not dressed for walking and lacking a crowd to hide me from the world, I was suspect. And everybody drives in the countryside; the only reason for a pedestrian to be on country lanes is if their car has broken down.

In the spirit of Iain Sinclair’s 2002 book, London Orbital, in which he charts the former Victorian asylum buildings he encounters walking around the M25, I head off west from my home for the site of Hellingly Hospital, four miles away. Hellingly Hospital was a large asylum – so large it had its own railway - that treated psychiatric patients from 1903 until closure in 1994. The abandoned complex of buildings quickly fell to disrepair and vandalism and became something of a favourite with connoisseurs of derelict buildings. I had visited it once before when I first moved to Sussex and found the deserted and dilapidated Edwardian red-brick buildings, set amongst overgrown vegetation, a moving and melancholy sight.

A mile outside Herstmonceux, the footpath alongside the road ends and I have to negotiate a verge-less half-mile stretch of the national-speed-limit A271 with cars speeding towards me. Headlights flash me several times before I decide to leave the main road and take the Old Road at Magham Down before I am blinded or killed. I knew that most of the old hospital buildings had been demolished and the site is now a new housing development, Roebuck Park; but when I arrive at Hellingly, try as I might, I cannot seem to get to where the few remaining original hospital buildings, and a new secure unit, are. When I get home and consult a map, I realise that I should have just kept following the main route through the development; but I keep turning off and losing myself in deserted cul-de-sacs and closes of new homes. Every time a car passes me, I turn heads and I realise that there is no such thing as the rural flaneur: I am not the man of the crowd, I am a blot on the landscape.

Friday, January 2, 2015

In the Realm of the Unmentionable

I had intended to complete the East Sussex Coastal Culture Trail – Towner Gallery, De La Warr Pavilion, Jerwood Gallery – during the summer; but having been to Eastbourne and Bexhill, we never managed to take the kids down to Hastings to see the Quentin Bake exhibition at the Jerwood before the holidays ran out. Then, when the October half-term rolled around, Blake had been replaced by the Chapman brothers and a day out to the William Morris interiors at the National Trust’s Standen House seemed more appropriate.

However, on the final day of 2014, with the kids unravelling in the post-Christmas dog days, we headed down to the Rock-a-Nore area at the eastern end of Hastings for our first visit to the Jerwood Gallery. The gallery was opened in March 2012 and the black-tiled exterior and the low, clean lines of the structure blend in well with the surrounding Net Shops - tall black wooden sheds that house the fishermen’s gear.

The proposal for the gallery was not without opposition: many local residents felt that it would lead to gentrification of the area and the loss of a coach car park would adversely affect local commerce. With a hotel and apartment block having just been built nearby, there may be something in the former fear; but as for the latter, on the day we visited the gallery it seemed to have attracted plenty of people to the surrounding businesses.

Local residents also receive a 60% reduction in entrance prices to the Jerwood, which does not receive any public funding, and on the first Tuesday of each month admission is free between 4pm and 8pm. Relying on sponsorship, donations and admission income to run the gallery and exhibitions, I thought the £20 cost of a family ticket was good considering it was for two adults and three kids; four quid each for what we experienced was excellent value (so often at attractions family tickets only cover two children; it was a refreshing change for us that the outnumbered had been thought of).

As a gallery of contemporary British art, there is a notable permanent collection of sculpture and paintings featuring works by Elisabeth Frink, Lucien Freud, LS Lowry, Stanley Spencer and Walter Sickert. And there is much art with a local connection: Frank Brangwyn’s 1925, From My Window at Ditchling; Frank Truefitt’s Victorian watercolour, Hastings; John Piper’s snappily titled, Beach and Starfish Seven Sister's Cliff Eastbourne, from between the wars; and one of the kids was particularly drawn to the primary vibrancy of American Anglophile Alfred Cohen’s, Sunset Over Fairlight.

But it was the Chapman brothers’ exhibition, In the Realm of the Unmentionable, that was the talking point afterwards. Having grown up in Hastings and attended a local comprehensive school, Jake and Dinos Chapman were back in the town having followed a route that took in the Royal College of Art, Gilbert and George’s studio and a Turner Prize nomination. With a reputation for provocative art that deals with themes of identity and mortality, Jake Chapman’s recent declaration that it was a waste of time taking children to art galleries and the caveat at the entrance that some of the content could be unsuitable for children, we were slightly nervous about going in. We need not have worried: the kids were fascinated by the art and, although the seven-year-old pronounced some of it as “wrong”, they all slept well that night.

The centrepiece of the exhibition, The Sum of All Evil, is four glass cases arranged as a cross that contain a miniature landscape populated with toy Nazi soldiers, crucified Hitlers and Ronald McDonalds, mountains of corpses, and mutated and mutilated naked forms. The sheer scale and detail of this hellish vision is quite breath-taking; the kids could only tear themselves away when they noticed Family Portrait, a group of eyeless shop mannequins with their eyeballs in their hands. There are more conventional drawings and etchings on display but there is a sense, with their corruptions of traditional portraiture and join-the-dots drawings, that the brothers are happiest poking fun at the established art world. And when one of the rooms, with its ceiling lowered to a spine-bending five feet, contains only a dull fruit bowl still-life signed A.Hitler, the joke seems to be on all of us.

When we retired across the street for fish ‘n’ chips at the heaving Fish Hut, debate centred around one piece: The Sum of All Evil. The eleven-year-old said he found it “disturbing”, the ten-year-old said it was “cool” and the seven-year-old said, “who is Ronald McDonald?” We might have exposed our kids to some troubling images, but we must be doing something right.

In The Realm of the Unmentionable runs until Wednesday 7th January 2015.
Be quick, now.