Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Rear window

Reading the cookery writer David Lebovitz' description of cooking in his minute 'cuisine americaine' in his Paris apartment reminds me of the tiny little kitchen in my Parisian flat, not much bigger than a chambre de bonne (maid's room) in the 20th arrondissement where I lived for 6 years.
Sloping roof, a chipped sink, barely enough room for a fridge. I only had a two ring camping gaz stove and a combination microwave. Desperate for a garden or some outside space, my teenager's father and I used to barbeque on the little fireplace. I remember on a hot July day, grilling fresh sardines with mint leaves and swigging vino verde, hovering by the rather grand marble mantelpiece.
We grew herbs in the box perched outside the window overshadowed by the terrible 'vis à vis' view. 'Overlooked' would be an understated English term for it. I knew everything about my neighbour opposite: when he was alone, the joyful moment when he found a girlfriend, the sadness when she left, his routine, the time he got up, when he shaved or bathed, when he got home from work. The veritable metro/boulot/dodo. Life in Paris is not all romance. And yet we never exchanged a word.
One night, the floor below us, we heard some screaming. Looking down, we saw with alarm that a lady was trying to jump out of her kitchen window. Her husband was holding her back. She was five floors up. (1)
Later that year, while squeezed into the two person lift, we met the husband. (It's hard to avoid someones glance in that close proximity). He informed us that his wife had jumped in front of a metro at Porte de Lilas, scene of Serge Gainsbourg's classic song of the dreary quotidienne 'Le Poinçonneur de lilas'.

I cooked some pretty good meals in that kitchen nonetheless. We dazzled our Parisian friends with home-made pasta, gratins, cassoulets (without meat) and something they knew nothing about: Indian food. We did discover some authentic Tamil Nadu restaurants down the street to the right hand side of Gard du Nord, on the Rue du Faubourg St-Denis, but in general Indian food in France is just wrong. The French try to turn it into a formal, course by course, meal.
Other favourite haunts included:
  •  the Arabic cafés on Avenue de Ménilmontant, where they served sweet fresh mint leaf tea with a sprinkling of pine nuts, now a favourite drink at home 
  • Chartier; the food is not great but very cheap. The Art Nouveau room is glorious and the waiters are delightfully rude, scrawling your bill on the paper tablecloths. 
  • Au pied de cochon, in Les Halles, another beautiful interior, but being mid-range in price, I only went there when my mother took me.
Most of my friends were French but I had one American girl friend who taught me, in addition, how to cook Mexican food with a measure of accuracy.

(1) Suicide statistics are pretty bad in Paris. Especially for the Japanese. Interesting article on 'altruistic' suicide here.

100 things to do before you die

This list is doing the rounds: how many have you done?

1. Started my own blog- yes
2. Slept under the stars- many times.
3. Played in a band- samba bands
4. Visited Hawaii-no 
5. Watched a meteor shower- in the Jordanian desert.
6. Given more than I can afford to charity- don't think so.
7. Been to Disneyland/World- yes
8. Climbed a mountain- yes
9. Held a praying mantis- no
10. Sung a solo- never
11. Bungee jumped - and I never, ever, ever will
12. Visited Paris- lived there 6 years.
13. Watched lightning at sea- yes, exhilarating ride on a catamaran through a storm.
14. Taught myself an art from scratch- yes, pottery, mosaics, drawing, painting.
15. Adopted a child- no.
16. Had food poisoning- yes. Terrible when you don't know what end it's gonna come out of.
17. Walked to the top of the Statue of Liberty- yes, years ago. 
18. Grown my own vegetables- yes
19. Seen the Mona Lisa- yes
20. Slept on an overnight train- oh yes, one of my favourites.
21. Had a pillow fight- yes
22. Hitchhiked- yes. Worst hitch was a week in the same town in Tibet. Best hitch was a house on the back of a lorry in Patagonia, spent 3 days in it.
23. Taken a sick day when you’re not ill - who hasn't?
24. Built a snow fort- no, never enough snow here.
25. Held a lamb- yes.
26. Gone skinny dipping- yes.
27. Run a Marathon- no, and it's still an ambition.
28. Ridden in a gondola in Venice- yes.
29. Seen a total eclipse- yes, Portsmouth 1998 and several partial ones.
30. Watched a sunrise or sunset- yes
31. Hit a home run - no
32. Been on a cruise- yes, tacky one around the Caribbean.
33. Seen Niagara Falls in person- yes, when I was 15.
34. Visited the birthplace of my ancestors- yes, Minori south of Naples when I was 8.
35. Seen an Amish community- yes, they live near my cousin in Pennsylvania.
36. Taught myself a new language- yes, French, Spanish and some others.
37. Had enough money to be truly satisfied- money is never truly satisfying. 
38. Seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa in person- at least twice.
39. Gone rock climbing- yes
40. Seen Michelangelo’s David- yes
41. Sung karaoke- no, bit nervous
42. Seen Old Faithful geyser erupt- no
43. Bought a stranger a meal at a restaurant- can't remember
44. Visited Africa- yes
45. Walked on a beach by moonlight- yes
46. Been transported in an ambulance- yes, when I punctured my leg trying to break into a swimming pool at night. 
47. Had my portrait painted- yes by my mother who is a talented artist. 
48. Gone deep sea fishing- no
49. Seen the Sistine Chapel in person- yes
50. Been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris- yes
51. Gone scuba diving or snorkeling- yes, have advanced and nitrox certifications. 
52. Kissed in the rain- yes, well I am English.
53. Played in the mud- yes
54. Gone to a drive-in theater- yes
55. Been in a movie- yes, was in the Clash movie 'Rude boy' and another film called 'Bloody Kids' by Stephen Poliakoff.
56. Visited the Great Wall of China- no
57. Started a business- yes
58. Taken a martial arts class- no
59. Visited Russia- yes, but merely a stop-over
60. Served at a soup kitchen- yes 
61. Sold Girl Scout cookies- no, but was a brownie 
62. Went Whale Watching- yes in Argentina and North America 
63. Got flowers for no reason- no
64. Donated blood, platelets or plasma- yes
65. Gone sky diving- no
66. Visited a Nazi Concentration Camp- no, that's on my list
67. Bounced a check- no 
68. Flown in a helicopter- yes
69. Saved a favorite childhood toy- yes
70. Visited the Lincoln Memorial- don't think so
71. Eaten caviar- yes 
72. Pieced a quilt- yes, at school
73. Stood in Times Square- yes
74. Toured the Everglades- not yet
75. Been fired from a job- several times
76. Seen the Changing of the Guard in London- yes
77. Broken a bone- yes, toes?
78. Been on a speeding motorcycle- no
79. Seen the Grand Canyon in person- yes 
80. Published a book- no
81. Visited the Vatican- yes
82. Bought a brand-new car- no
83. Walked in Jerusalem- no
84. Had my picture in the newspaper- many times. Best was in The News of the World, when I was pictured with my teddyboy boyfriend saying 'Punk and ted find love' and that we were bringing the warring tribes together. Famous for, oooh, a week?
85. Read the entire Bible- no
86. Visited the White House- outside only
87. Killed and prepared an animal for eating- does a mussel count?
88. Had chickenpox- yes
89. Saved someone’s life- not sure
90. Sat on a jury- no, but really want to.
91. Met someone famous- yes, slept with some too.
92. Joined a book club- yes
93. Lost a loved one- yes 
94. Had a baby- yes
95. Seen the Alamo in person- no
96. Swam in the Great Salt Lake- no, but bathed in the dead sea.
97. Been involved in a law suit- unfortunately yes.
98. Owned a cell phone- doh.
99. Been stung by a bee- was stung by hundreds as a kid.
100. Ridden an elephant- no

Some of these things I have done merely because I live in Europe.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Iris, Violet and other fleurs du mal

Facebook. People slag it off. But the most magical thing has just happened to me via Facebook. Through the profile of a friend, I saw a long lost name from way back, Pleasant Gehman. And through her, I saw the name of my best friend, when I lived in Los Angeles, Iris Berry. For years I have wondered if Iris were still alive. During the years that I lived in L.A. she, influenced by the likes of Chuck E. Weiss (1), became a heroin (2) addict. Although to be fair, I remember a conversation at Cantors deli (3) where he tried to warn her off.
One mutual friend and her lover at the time, Jules Bates, a talented and successful photographer, who had employed me as a photographer at the L.A. Weekly, had already died on a motorbike, strung out on heroin. (I think I was the last person to speak to him). 
Iris has one of the most beautiful faces I have ever seen: heart shaped, the palest blue eyes (which looked even paler when her pupils were 'pinned' on heroin), black hair and white skin. A California punk Snow White. We met soon after I arrived and eventually had apartments in the same building off Hollywood boulevard. Hollywood boulevard was rough at the time, you'd hear gunshots every night. 
I had a huge and cheap studio but was driven out by rats, rapists and a free-basing building manager who would let himself into my flat whenever he felt like it. The rapist was always 'passing' my door and finally broke in one night. I was sleeping in an alcove and saw a silhouette creeping around. In that brief moment when I had to ponder my options, I learnt a great deal about myself, I'm a fighter, not a victim. I sprang up and screamed with all my might like a 'fury'. He panicked and made up some excuse that my door was left ajar. Confused by the hour, I wondered whether to believe him. He left. 
Months later, when I had returned to London, Iris called and told me that this guy was wanted in another state for rape.
Around the same time, a young woman was found dead upstairs, her body bloated, undiscovered for days.
I never slept in that apartment again. Hollywood seediness got a bit too real, rather too James Ellroy. Instead I moved in with an opera singer friend of mine who taught me all about Maria Callas (oh that exquisite animal sound). 
On another floor lived Violet, another blue-eyed beauty who introduced herself as a photographer and a film director. She was going out with this older man, an actor, who turned out to be Anthony Kiedis' dad 'Blackie'. I briefly dated Anthony, an intense brown-eyed and compact young man,  who will be familiar to those of you who are fans of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. 
Violet, it emerged, was involved in porn movies and was trying to transform her career to behind the camera rather than in front of it. Her brother was a bit of a psycho who also tried to batter my door down one night. Scary times. (4)
Iris was the LA 'it' girl of the underground scene. Everybody knew her. She had endless boyfriends and adorers, Charles Bukowski, the band 'X', even Jodie Foster (5). Iris took me under her wing, sometimes taking me to see her Jewish parents in the valley. They'd always make me feel at home, feeding me and providing a link to normality and family life.
We spent all night in clubs. Garage music had just arrived, as had hip-hop and rap 'White lines'. I worked the graveyard shift in photo labs, getting the bus home at 4 am then going straight out. My attitude was, you can sleep when you are dead. I did have a car when I first lived in Los Angeles, but after it broke down, I got the bus everywhere for 2 years. I know Los Angeles. I learnt about it the hard way. From the bus window I saw a prostitute running away from her pimps across a busy Sunset Boulevard. They caught her and bashed in her head in broad daylight with baseball bats. Nobody did a thing. Nobody moved. 
Sundays, forcing myself out of a lonely black fog, you know the kind that starts before you have even opened your eyes, I would wander the streets taking pictures of tramps, the old, the shabbily glamorous, the 1930's architecture, the steak houses, the observatory where James Dean was filmed (6), the blacks in hair rollers, the kids on roller blades, the beach, the rooftops, the gigs. Photographs looked amazing, courtesy of the wonderful filter the orange smog provided. 
I became an aerobics obsessive, spending my time at the Hollywood YMCA and the Jane Fonda studio. I exercised 4 hours a day, to stave away the homesickness. I was so tired I could barely climb stairs. There were other women like me, who would not go out, because they might eat or drink, or get tired which would make them eat or drink. They wondered why they were single. In a city where perfection is the norm, anything ordinary feels inadequate. 
On a later visit to Los Angeles, in 1986, I stayed with Iris who was living with Pleasant. Jet lagged, my friend Elissa and I woke up in the middle of the night. A 'kid from Fame', one of the dancers, was visiting, still partying from the night before. He introduced us to this new drug 'Ecstasy'. Never a big drugs taker, I thought what the hell. Fantastic stuff, Elissa and I went straight out shopping, as soon as it was light, hitting all the most expensive boutiques on Melrose Avenue. Not a good idea. I spent a fortune.  It will be no surprise to learn that I looked damn good in everything.
Iris Berry, it turns out, is alive and well and an actress, published writer and poet. She's alive, I'm so pleased. 
(1) Chuck E. Weiss of the song 'Chuck E's in love' by Rikki Lee Jones. We often hung out with Chuck at Cantors deli, open 24/7, specialities...'kasha and bows', lox and coca-cola floats.

(2) Iris and I went to see Nico perform at the Whisky Agogo. Iris breathlessly informed me that she and Nico shared the same dealer. Fame eh?

(3) I once saw a frumpily dressed woman in the Cantors queue. When she turned, I saw it was Bette Midler, lining up just like everybody else. A few months later, at a party, I spotted an attractive young man on the other side of the food table. To get his attention, I did something rather out of character, I threw a piece of food at him. He became incredibly angry screaming 'That's what I do. That's my job' over and over again. I thought at first he was joking. I tried to escape but he pursued me all around the party, throwing food at me. In the end, it got so frightening I had to leave. I later found out that he was a performance artist named Harry Kipper née Martin Von Haselberg, who threw food as part of his act. He married Bette Midler.

(4) I had Pluto going over my ascendant and was attracting the dark side. Fortunately, with a well-aspected natal Pluto, I came out of it unscathed. 

(5) Strange synchronicity: Iris and Jodie Foster looked very alike. Jodie's most famous role up to that point was 'Iris' the child prostitute in 'Taxi Driver'. Jodie became a regular at a fashionable Tex-Mex restaurant where Iris waitressed. She was entranced by Iris. It was obvious to everyone in the know, even back then, that Jodie Foster was gay. I waitressed later in the same restaurant. On the try-out night, I bumped into Suggs of Madness and his wife. Disconcerted and somewhat embarrassed, I screwed up so badly, I never got the job.

(6) East of Eden.

Monday, 29 December 2008


Browsing some food blogs this morning I feel, um I can only describe it as, seethingly jealous. Why? These bloggers seem to be irritatingly rich, able to dine at fine restaurants every week. 
One of the main reasons I want a boyfriend/husband/partner/solvent shag is so that they can take me to good restaurants. I can't afford them myself, being a basically broke single mum.
Like buying sexy underwear it would practically be a present to themselves, taking me to good restaurants, because I would go straight home and try to recreate what we had eaten. 
So...any offers?
Mind you I've gone up about 3 sizes during Christmas, to the point that my tights will no longer stay up, rolling inexorably downwards over my bulging tummy throughout the day ending up somewhere around my crotch. So, if you don't mind me yanking my tights up throughout the meal, I'm game.
Otherwise let's face it, I'm never going to be able to eat at El Bulli, The Fat Duck, Claridges, Nobu and the rest. A deprived palate...maybe I should start a tonguesinneed appeal.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Baked vacherin cheese in its wooden box

Vacherin cheese
I bought a Vacherin cheese, which is in season now. Talk about an easy cheese fondue style supper!
Take the lid of the wooden box, wrap the bottom in tin foil. 
Pour a glass of white wine in the cheese, stud it with some garlic cloves if you wish.
Put it in the oven for 15-20 minutes (roasting oven in the Aga).
We ate this, scooping out the delicious creamy interior with a wooden spoon, dripping it over toasted Puglia loaf, with a plum tomato and basil salad, some parsley pesto and silverskin onions. We drank a South African township white wine which contrasted nicely, biting through the creaminess of the Vacherin.
A memorable meal. 

Boxing day

brinjal bhaji
Went to a gay couple's house, friends of my sister, for Boxing day. They had their parents there. I was told they were doing curry. I assumed it would be turkey curry (yuk). So I took other ingredients.

Brinjal Bhaji recipe:

Small aubergines - split lengthways in quarters for quick cooking.

Mustard Seeds- a handful
Can coconut milk
Creamed coconut block- about 2 or 3 inches of it.
Tin of organic tomatoes
Tomato purée- a squirt
Tamarind paste - 1 teaspoon
Coriander and cumin, ground.
I fried the aubergines in olive oil, then added the mustard seeds, and heated them till they popped. 
Then gradually I added everything else. It turned out pretty good.

Things were fairly jolly during the meal. We did have a Liza with a Z singalong (I know the whole album off by heart). Then conversation became a little strained. So sister-woman started a game of charades. One set of parents refused point-blank to play. They sat in the corner.
Later, when they left, in vino veritas, having had too many caipirinha's to drink, (which is when my accidental rimming joke occurred as in 'this drink needs rimming, er, I mean the glass, with sugar', the parents did not look amused, the gay guys looked uncomfortable) I said to their son:
"Your parents are peculiar aren't they? Not joining in and everything".
He got angry and said "You are out of order. You don't even know them. How dare you!"
Note to self: never be with anybody else's family at Christmas. If you can't handle your own, you almost certainly can't handle theirs. 

Friday, 26 December 2008

Christmas Day

First year with my Aga.
Peeled, topped and tailed carrots, parsnips, potatoes, sweet potatoes. Parboil. 
Slice red onions.
Put carrots, sweet potatoes in one tray, added olive oil, cinnamon and maple syrup.
Put potatoes, parsnips and red onion in another tray. Add garlic, olive oil, a tin of tomatoes, salt, bay leaves.
I put the two trays in the baking oven along with a gratin dauphinoise for my teenager.
Then myself, sister-woman and my teenager got dressed up and went to the pub(1) The Black Lion on Kilburn High Road. It is a beautiful Victorian pub, all gilt embossed ceilings and etched glass. It also has bed and breakfast like the taverns of yore. 
They were open for Christmas day, for lunch. They have been booked out for two months. Kindly they gave my sister and I free glasses of Cava, even though we were not eating lunch. 
Then we moved onto Brondesage, a chavvy sports bar normally populated by Eastern Europeans, where I had an amusing evening a couple of months ago with a fellow blogger who claims to be gay. (At the bar, on that occasion, I met a beautiful gay man and introduced him to the blogger. The gay man flirted outrageously with the blogger who suddenly looked rather nervous. After each snog, the gay man would whisper to me confidentially "NOT gay".)
Today my sister and I knocked back a couple of shots of Jagermeister liqueur, which is dark brown, sweet and slightly medicinal tasting. I noticed on the menu they had veggie burger with bacon and cheese topping. Slightly defeats the object does it not?
I talked to the bar staff who were still only being paid minimum wage despite working on Christmas day.
Sister-woman, teenager and I staggered home. The dinner was cooked. 
So drunk my kidneys hurt, I then fucked up the pavlova I intended to make, by putting in the yolks too. I wondered why it took so long to stiffen.
So I had to turn it into a cherry clafoutis. Which was a bit crap. "A kind of cherry omelette" said my sister.

I also did some garlic mushrooms.
Knocked back a bottle of Prosecco.
Living room: movies, snoring on sofa. I dimly hear the noise my phone makes when it receives texts. I awoke and realise my sister has been texting my friends with dirty messages, saying stuff like "I want your hairy flaps". I then had to text them all to explain that it wasn't me.

(1) Going to the pub on Christmas Day was an experiment. A friend from Liverpool told me that up North, they all go to the pub on Christmas Day. As we were few we thought it would make things feel jollier. Trouble is, most pubs in London are not open.

Christmas Eve

Last night:
I finally made the perfect...

Margarita cocktail:
3 capfuls of tequila
1 capful of cointreau
1 1/2 limes squeezed
Prior to this, wet the rim of your glass with the lime and place upside down in a saucer of salt, thereby rimming the glass.
Put ice in glass.
Add mix above.
Perfect. Drank 3 on the trot.

Linguine Vongole recipe:
Fry shallots, bay leaves, in olive oil.
Add garlic, like a bulbs worth.
Then chop up flat leaf parsley and add.
Meanwhile, you have rinsed your fresh clams, discarding any that will not close under running fresh water.
Add white wine, half a bottle to your sauce, then the clams.
Then add your cooked linguine or bavetti, al dente, to the sauce.
Mix and service with ground black pepper.
Drink rest of white wine.

For dessert a gooey chocolate pudding, courtesy of Nigella
Melt dark chocolate in a bain-marie.
Whisk 4 eggs, flour, salt, sugar, vanilla essence.
Add cooled melted chocolate to mixture.
Pour into little moulds.
Bake in the oven for 10 minutes. Roasting oven of an Aga.
The puddings are gooey on the inside and slightly spongy on the outside. 
Serve with creme fraiche or vanilla ice-cream.

Then we go to the church at the end of my road. My teenager won't come because she is sulking in her bedroom. Sister-woman and I arrive late for the service and sit at the back. But the vicar says "you've missed the best bits" to us from the pulpit. My sister shouts out, "Well, do it again".
We sing carols 'Come all ye faithful', 'We three kings', 'Silent night'. We have such beautiful carols in Britain. I only go to church once a year, basically to sing carols.
I go up to receive communion. I say a little prayer.
On the way out the vicar clasps my hands. I've met him a few times. He lives opposite me. "You should come more often", he pressurises. 
"Well, I'm not a Christian and I don't believe in God. I just come to sing carols."
As we walk out my sister says: "That was rude, why do you have to shove it down his throat?"
I'm thinking, I just wanted to make it clear. I've had these conversations with him before and I don't want to give him hope. In fact every time I do go to church, the more preposterous Christianity appears to me. Do I really want to worship a young man in his 20's and 30's? I simply cannot relate to this religion.
I slightly wish my sister would go away. Bossy cow.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Emma Watson's dress

The teen's shoes

My teenager has just come back from two days at my parents. She rocked up there in complete Victoriana, a ruffly white dress ("It's dirty." "I know, it's supposed to be."), little lace-up boots, and a black and white leg o' mutton sleeve coat. The little match girl indeed.
Of course my parents are horrified. My dad spent the whole two days sighing. My mum, who possesses a rapier wit, said cruelly that my teenager looked like Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen. To make matters worse, the 'perfect cousin', all meek manners and Christian values, same age as my daughter, was there.
"I told them that they didn't have to buy me anything, that I'm not celebrating Christmas. Grandpa and Grandma hate me now", says my teenager.
"They don't really you know. It's me they hate. They are just expressing their annoyance with me through you."
She is very happy however because they bought her Emma Watson's(1) dress and shoes from a vintage shop. The dress was made by Emma Watson's mother. It is rather lovely. 
"So what happened with your friend the other night?" I ask, referring to the sleepover.
"Well she just annoys me. She's really depressed. I'm really depressed but I don't like other people so I don't cry about it. It's all second layer stuff anyway."
My teenager has this theory: most problems fit into 'second layer stuff'. This includes love problems, money problems, housing, education, body issues, politics, health. She, on the other hand, only worries about 'first layer problems', which are existential: Why are we here? Are we even here? What is the nature of consciousness? That type of stuff.

"What are your friend's 'second layer problems'?", I ask patiently.

"Well she's not very attractive, not very intelligent, her mum has made her live in a foreign country, and she's always crying about losing her dads."
"Her dad...z?" I emphasize the plural. 
"Yeah her real dad and her step-dad died. But that was years ago! She's still going on about it", says my teenager wearily.
"Hmm to lose one dad is unfortunate, to lose two is carelessness", I paraphrase.
We both snicker nastily.

(1) Emma Watson is of course the actress who plays Hermione in the Harry Potter films. My teenager is a Harrypotterologist.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Saturnalia, Winter Solstice.

As I described in a previous post, on the 23rd of every month, there is a little ritual at the Crossbones gates of the outcast's cemetary in Red Cross Way, Southwark.
It starts at 7pm. A bell is rung. Around 30 people are there. One is a black taxi driver called Mick. His cab is parked opposite.
How come you know about this? I ask him.
Well, I was just driving past one day and noticed all these people. I'm interested in London history so I thought I would come. I'm into alternative lifestyles he said meaningfully.
Oh another sub, I thought.
Each person was given a candle. Incense is burnt, offerings are given. The gates have a plaque commemorating the cemetary, placed there by Southwark council. Ribbons, notices, poems, and a bone are tied to the gates.
John Constable channelling John Crow reads a poem then a prayer, hands outstretched. People call out the names of the dead, people they know, who have recently 'passed'. 
Passersby gawp, police cars patrol by slowly.
One old man talks off climbing over the gates into the secret garden in the middle of the night.
He says: You will see things there you wouldn't believe. Ghosts. This place is very special. I brought a friend who was in great pain with her teeth and gums. She was cured by coming here. Before my very eyes.
Bottles of gin are sprinkled around the gates, the odour of juniper rises from the pavement, reminiscent of the only comfort these poor women had.  We then sing pagan carols. 

Friday, 19 December 2008

The Getty Library

Mao Tse Tung and Lana Turner, cheek by jowl in the archives.

This print is worth thousands, because of the Picture Post label and the stamps on the back.

The alchemy of conservation

Prints of the royal family by a now unheard of, female photographer, awaiting to be flattened and placed in an archival paper album.

A reticulated glass negative.

The reticulated print of Eva Peron, and next to it, the restored image.

Legendary names

Daguerrotypes set in beautiful little gold frames

Photographic miniatures, tintypes. At that time, there were many competing technologies.

A panoramic of San Franscisco, before the earthquake.

The Man Ray print. Man Ray was considered a minor photographer before the 1980's.

I was lucky enough to get a tour of the Getty/Hulton archives this week. The library where I have my rock/pop images, Redferns, has been sold to Getty. David Redfern, the legendary jazz photographer, has finally retired.
It was in some ways like a trip down memory lane. My father had a massive photo library with royal weddings and the Balcombe Street seige, sometimes on 5 x 4 glass plates. I felt a comforting sense of nostalgia as I walked through the stacked shelves, jammed neatly with boxes, their spines sporting historic names and events, hand written in felt tip. The whiff of cardboard, the scent of chemicals, fixer and silver celluloid plunges me into the past.
Matt, who gave us the tour, explained that even in the 1980's, newspapers such as the Daily Express were simply chucking out their film and print libraries. Getty, fortunately agreed to store them. Now the Daily Express are kicking themselves. Some of the prints alone are worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Probably their most valuable print, kept in a special vault of historic prints, is a Man Ray, which lay for years unidentified in a box. One sold recently for 1.25 million.
There are now serious collectors of photography, such as Elton John and Brad Pitt.
A photographer's back catalogue is his or her pension. The problem today is of course, how to preserve digital photography. Matt said that at recent conferences on the subject, the experts from Kodak had to admit, somewhat ruefully, that the only guarantee of preserving digital images for the future, is to print them out. Yes, we still need hard copies. And nobody is printing anything out nowadays, things are shared and sent via a smoke whisp of electrical pixels. A silver gelatine print, we know, will last 150 years.
We were also showed the conservation room, filled with archival paper, various chemicals in bottles, tweezers and microscopes. It was like CSI for photographers. On various surfaces were curled up postcard size prints of the royal family taken in the 1940's by a now unknown female photographer. These are almost reportage style pictures of the Queen and Princess Margaret at home.
Getty conservation team consists of one man only: he has to be creative. Given glass plates of Eva Peron, which had been ruined by reticulation (1), he painstakingly soaked each plate in a solution, floated off the thin membrane of silver gelatine containing the image, and placed it carefully on a new pane of glass. Each plate took 5 hours.
Matt also talked of his time working in the BBC library where two old ladies who had worked there for around 40 years confessed that they threw away 19th century prints that they considered 'saucy'.
The Getty library was formed by John Paul Getty II, who did something useful with his money, donating to the National Gallery and the British Film Institute.
Speaking of the Getty family, I'll always remember as a child being touched by the tragic plight and angelic countenance of John Paul Getty III, who was kidnapped by Italians who cut off his ear and sent it in an envelope to extort a ransom from his billionnaire grandfather John Paul Getty I. The latter refused to pay the ransom saying that if he paid for this grandchild, then all the others would be at risk also. Harsh but true, although one can scarcely imagine the damage caused by this experience to Jean Paul Getty III.

(1) Reticulation can also be used deliberately and creatively.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Gary Lachman 'Politics and the Occult'

Gary Lachman

Treadwells sells interesting magazines such as 'Dark Nights', a quarterly for vampires.

Along with Julian Cope and Andrew Collins, writing about the esoteric seems to be a popular career move for ex-pop stars. Gary Lachman, then known as Gary Valentine, used to be a guitarist with Blondie and Iggy Pop. 
Monday night he gave a short talk at the intimate bookshop 'Treadwells' in Covent Garden(1) (which looks like it's been there forever but is actually quite recent), to launch his latest book 'Politics and the Occult'.
Inspired by the occult historian James Webb's book 'The Occult Establishment', Lachman wanted to explore the impact of modernity on the occult revival of the 19th century.
The main trouble with the talk was Lachman's extensive and sometimes obscure knowledge. He gabbled out names which frankly I had never heard of before. Therefore I was too shy to ask questions but afterwards discovered that some other people were equally ignorant. 

He began by illustrating links between the occult and the Left in the 19th century:
"we had  Annie Besant, and the Fabian Society. After the Russian Revolution there were also Steiner groups. The English socialist Edward Carpenter, in the 1920's, was the pioneer of what became known in the 60's as 'dropping out' and also popularised sandals. Carpenter was a proponent of gay rights and a big influence on Ouspensky."
The link between the occult and politics moved generally rightwards after World War I. It became associated with the far Right and Anti-Semitism, a kind of "spiritual racism". In 1919 there began a French organisation called  Les Veilleurs 'The Watchers' led by René Schwaller de Lubicz, Egyptologist and alchemist. This underground esoteric group, interested in Aryans, heraldry and hierarchy, and with dodgy views on race, had a dress code, brown shirts and jodphurs. It is rumoured that Rudolf Hess was a member and that he got some of his ideas on haute couture from The Watchers.
An audience member quipped: "before Himmler got Hugo Boss involved..."
There is a fundamental clash between conservatism which values folklore, tradition and the occult and the Left which vaunts modernity and considers all unscientific belief to be 'the opiate of the people'.
An audience member asked: "Where would you class modern American neo-paganism?". I assume he was talking about people like Starhawk, an American witch who is heavily involved with the ecological and anti-capitalist movement whom I met at the Gleneagles Anti-G8 camp. (2).
Lachman did not have the space to deal with that in his book:
"You mean the yippies, Jerry Rubin, 'Just do it'? Did you know that during the 1967 anti-war march, they tried to levitate the Pentagon?"
Lachman admitted that despite his own interest in the occult, he is a product of modernity
"I buy cheap paperbacks at chain stores, only available because of modern mass production".
Today the 'bible belt' in the U.S. continues this link between the occult and politics; Lachman remarked:
"with the departure of Bush, we now have Palin. It is occult belief the idea that angels will descend...the whole American cult about the apocalypse 'The Rapture' and The Order of Archangel Michael (which originally came from Roumania in the 1920's)."
"The extremes of Left and Right meet and hate the modern world. The elite school of intellectuals such as Adorno on the Left called the gnostic world the 'nadir of sterility'. 
Scientific meaning is always pitted against religious meaning and neither work."
There is a neurotic need for the occult in it's widest sense, that is anything 'supernatural'.
The modern view, states Lachman, which is
"you are on your own, there's nobody out there, as Nietzche (who has been variously adopted by the Left as well as the Right) describes, it is troubling to us. "
Lastly Lachman mentioned occultism in the context of feminism, citing the interesting example with reference to recent events, of Victoria Woodhull, an American spiritualist, who in 1872, ran for president with a black man, Frederick Douglass, as her running mate. She spent election night in jail. Lachman remarks that:
"the powers that be were not too happy with 'Mrs Satan' as she was known."

(1) Treadwells is around the corner from the divine perfumier 'Penhaligon'. (Steve Wilson of the O.T.O remarked at the event  that the creation of perfume originated within alchemy.) That small section of London, not far from the British Museum, contains many esoteric bookshops: Atlantis, the Astrology Shop, Watkins, Mysteries, New World.
(2) Starhawk and her 'sisters' protected the camp and protestors with invisibility spells.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

'Standing with Stones' film/talk, Synergy Centre.

Huddled up on sofas in the Synergy Centre.

Director Michael Bott, geomancer Sean and moderator.

An arse stiffening freezing afternoon at the Synergy Centre, Camberwell but this was alleviated by the beautiful photography of director Michael Bott and enthusiastic commentary of presenter Rupert Soskin for the film 'Standing with Stones'. (1)The dynamic Raga Woods organised the event.(2)
The film followed the route, starting from the Lands End peninsula of Cornwall to John O'Groats and the Orkney Islands, of the thousands of standing stones scattered throughout Britain. Whilst Britain has the most concentrated amount of stone circles, cists, dolmens, cairns, cursus, long barrows, menhirs in the world, these sites are global. I went with a Swedish friend who informed me that there are even stone circles in Scandinavia. We can find them on the Atlantic coast of Europe, the Mediterranean, South and North America. 
The film was perhaps a little long, being rather encyclopedic. Bott explained that he had a hard time editing out locations, they were all so interesting. Highlights include The Chestnuts in Addington, Kent, (imagine having Stonehenge in your private garden), a computer generated image of what Woodhenge would have looked like, possibly a stadium for spectacles, Stanton Drew, Belas Knap, The Rollright Stones; in Wales, Anglesey (where the remains of an ancient stew containing eel, rabbit, snake, frog and toad have been discovered in a fire pit), Tinkinswood and Castleruddery; in Ireland, New Grange, a fantastic interior but a "1970's piece of nonsense" on the outside; on the Isle of Man, Tynwald, the world's oldest parliament (where there is a procession every July 5th); in Scotland, Kilmarten Glen, a lunar observatory, The Recumbents, Grampian, (location of highest number of stone circles using recumbent stones), Clara Cairns, which should be seen, like Stonehenge, at the Winter solstice.
Callanish, on the isle of Lewes in the Outer Hebrides was the favourite, partly because, synchronistically, they happened to arrive at the time of a lunar eclipse. This was the one where they felt the most
"energetic power. But we were completely manic when working. It was not medidative." admits Bott.
Sean is a dowser, maker of stone circles and one of the organisers of Megalithomania, an annual conference in Glastonbury.
Sean concurs: "I went to Callanish in 1998. The air is thin. I felt on top of the world. So pristine. Salmon are jumping out of the loch. There are strange birds. I've never had so many synchronicities in my life as I did there. If you believe in the planetary grid, there is a U.V.G. point at  Callanish. It possesses all 5 platonic solids in it's geometry."
Legend has it that 'black men' came to the island and built Callanish. It is implausible that the islanders built it by themselves. 
Being a Londoner, I was surprised to hear of The London Stone, which is part of a bigger stone, broken in the 18th century. It's now in a glass box jutting out of a shop in the city. There are various legends connected with it; it was once a pillar of Brutus' palace, once part of a stone circle. All distances to London are based on the location of this stone. 
Evidently Stonehenge and Avebury are the most famous stone circles, partly because they are the largest. Size matters. Wiltshire was the capital of pre-historic Britain. 
The first person to revive Modern interest in stone circles was William Stukeley, who inspired William Blake. Stukely posited the idea that stone circles were connected with the Druid religion, however dating shows that the Druids came afterwards. Nevertheless the stones and the sites upon which they sit have continued throughout the ages to be considered significant places of wonder; churches were often sited in the same place. 
Bott and Soskin began the project 8 years ago, spent 3 years filming, travelling 8000 miles, the length of the British Isles through all sorts of weather (very evident in the film), cramped together in a campervan. Surprisingly they are still good friends.
At the end of the film the geomancer Sean and the director Michael Bott answered questions from the audience. There was a clear divide between the historians, the scientists, the healers, the anthropologists and the psychic questers
Sean has built two circles: a stone circle for the Big Green Gathering, which he claimed affected the weather and a wood henge at The Sunrise festival. To do this he
"tunes into the land, looks at the horizon, energy and alignments. I try to bring a maximum amount of feeling. It can affect the landscape up to ten miles away."
The farmer of the Big Green Gathering land is farming based on experiments done in the United States, where it has been seen that crop yields and seed germination improve around stone circles.
Bott said that his inspiration for the film was ex-Teardrop Explodes musician Julian Cope's book 'The Modern Antiquarian'.
"That's the bible" he says.

(1) Soskin lives at Rennes-le-chateau and is the son of Henry Lincoln who with Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh wrote The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail.

(2)I met Raga Woods years ago at a conference by the National Council of One Parent Families. She created the single parent group Gingerbread.

Friday, 12 December 2008


Many of the staff at Pogo do not have English as a first language. Sweet little sign to help them write up the menu on the board. Sometimes I like misspelling though... I loved the variations the word 'porridge' had on menus in India. Also seen in India: 'craps' for crepes, 'child beer' for 'chilled beer'. 

Wednesday, 10 December 2008


The kid that attempted suicide has gone back to school. My daughter said that nobody has any sympathy with him.
"Nobody gets it" she complains "none of them have E.Q."
When she talks to other kids about his unhappiness (and their possible role in it) they say things like
"Well, he's irritating isn't he?"
Or  "if he wasn't such a twat..."
A friend's son told me that this kid doesn't know how to handle himself with girls.
"He's immature." says this 14 year old boy "If he wants to chat to a girl he will go up and tell her a dirty joke. Of course the girls don't want to know."
"Many men never grow out of that" I remark. "How to handle yourself with the opposite sex is a life-long problem. Don't be so harsh on him."
 As for the kid himself, his main concern is that people do not think he is an Emo. 

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Neil Spencer: the year ahead.

Neil Spencer, ex-editor of the New Musical Express and Observer astrology columnist, gave this year's lecture at the Astrological Lodge about the year ahead. 
Neil asserted that astrologers spend much of their time looking at the past rather than the future. He, like me, is a strong believer in astrology as a tool of prediction. There are other schools such as the Centre of Psychological Astrology (founded by Liz Greene) that eschew the 'fairground' aspect of mere prediction, preferring to delve into the psyche. I disagree. Meat and potatoes stuff, let's have more of it. Put your money where your mouth is. 
This high risk approach can of course lead to mistakes.  A year ago Neil, thinking about this year's Neptune-governed Olympics, predicted that:
Nobody's going to be able to breath, the air quality is going to be a problem.
But actually the Olympics in China were a huge success. For Neptune can also symbolise idealism and fantasy.
Neil says: Astrologically, next year is an exciting one. Neptune is a big player in 2009.
Neil looked at some of last year's predictions; holding a 'hindsight' competition, giving points, Eurovision Song Contest style, for accuracy and bravery and subtracting points for fence-sitting.
  • Jonathan Cainer on Jules Holland's Hootenanny show: "Next year we will have our first female president".  Nul points for accuracy but un point for prediction.
  • Mountain Astrologer magazine: Wrong on McCain, wrong on Obama. As for the presidency, some fluff about "only time can tell". Nul points.
  • Henry Weingarten, financial astrologer, predicted on September 8th, profit for the market, in the same week that Lehman brothers collapsed, and the market dived.  Wrong!
  • Bernard Eccles, for same period predicted optimism but did say 'Don't owe any money'. Un point for final remark, nul points for wrong prediction.
  • In the Astrological Association journal, Roy Gillett got it right. 
  • Maggie Hyde, Company of astrologers, on the 15th March 2008, nailed it: 'How to survive the financial mid-winter'
This year's themes are Pluto in Capricorn, the Saturn/Uranus conjunction, the fact that the 3 collective planets in the last quartile (the collective) part of the zodiac, the Jupiter/Neptune conjunction in Aquarius. 

Pluto in Cap: keywords: Absolute control/brute realism/battle for resources/meltdown and recasting of the economic system/implosion of patriarchy. 
"What Pluto does stays done."
The India chart has Pluto at 29.55 degrees. Mumbai...
On December 27th  '08 Mars will conjunct Pluto.

The Aquarian theme of '09: Jupiter heads into Aquarius on the 5th of January then whizzes quite quickly along to Neptune in Aquarius, then stays there, more or less for the rest of the year. "There's alot of music in there..." says Neil. 
Keywords: the audacity of hope/optimism as social capital/join the professionals (for Neil, Aquarius is the sign of professionalism), glamour and scandal, idealism and duplicity, hot air, airborne infection.
If you are born in 1962 you have hit the jackpot.
Blair, during his transiting Jupiter/Neptune opposition lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He chose the Neptune (deception) side of the opposition rather than Jupiter (truth).
Obama's inauguration on January 20th at midday. Jupiter will be on his midheaven. Kings dream about charts like this. It will be huge.
Every astrologer knew Reagan was into astrology when he chose the bizarre time of 12 minutes past midnight to be inaugurated as Governor of California, an electional chart with Jupiter on the MC.
Prince Charles elected Jupiter on the MC when he got married to Diana.
Roosevelt, another Aquarian, is the president most likely to be the role model for Obama, similar struggles, had an astrologer. 
Someone pipes up: "And Chiron is wedged between Jupiter and Neptune".
Neptune is experiencing the Neptune return of it's own discovery (around the same time as film and photography were invented which is why it rules them).
To continue the Aquarian theme, there will be 3 eclipses in Aquarius this year.
25th January: solar eclipse in Aquarius.
9 February: lunar eclipse in Aquarius.
3rd August: lunar eclipse in Aquarius.
Neil then asks with a slight sneer: "What's so great about the Age of Aquarius anyway?" 
I completely agree with him. Apart from the fact that The Age of Aquarius has got it's own theme tune, I think Aquarius get a good press from astrologers because so many of them are Aquarians themselves (I am). It's all bollocks.
He continues: "Early and late degrees dominate. Anyone who has stuff at 22,24, 25, 26 degrees check it out"
Uranus in Pisces over the last few years; keywords: wild water, liquid technology, radioactive seas, pirates on the high seas. 
The Johnny Depp 'Pirates of the Caribbean' franchise will run and run until Uranus moves into Aries.  (Apparently Russell Brand is mooted for the next one.)
Continuing the oceanic theme, we will have 2 new moons in Cancer: June 22nd conjunct Pluto and July 22nd, a total eclipse whose pathway will be over China and Indonesia.
Venus will be retrograde: 6/3 to 17/4  then 21/5.
Mayans didn't like Venus retrograde.
In 1993,2001,2009, Venus was previously retrograde in Aries.
Mars retrograde. Mars enters Leo on the 16th of October next year.
"Stay clear of Leos" is Neil's somewhat sweeping advice. 
November 15th 2009, Pluto square Saturn, taste of what is to come in 2012.
Labour party is an Aquarian party. They should benefit next year. Early election. But misplaced optimism... Saturn on their moon at Christmas '09. 
Nothing happening for Conservatives. Jupiter return. Chart: 12 November 1867. Midday. 
LibDem's: not good at all. Nick will be in trouble. Pluto going over their Capricorn planets.
We looked at various charts: The Fed, Gordon Brown, David Cameron (who will have the opportunity to show us whether he is just a charming Libran or whether he has a backbone too).
The U.K. 1801 Union chart: January 1st 1801, midday. Not only is the UK sun in Capricorn, but our moon is in Cancer. Double whammy.
It is, as I have mentioned before in this blog, the Saturn return of the Monetarist revolution in the early '80's. 
One person in the room shouts that "The Queen will abdicate in the next 4/5 months".
Neil looks approving of the kamikazi lunge at prediction but skeptical of the content. "The royals have a lot of fixed stuff" he states politely. (This is astrologese for 'no way will she abdicate, fixed sign people never give in').
Another person yells "She'll go on and on. 2015 more like."
Somebody else mentions: "Thailand has got Saturn at 1 degree Capricorn".
People nod knowingly. 
Neil says: "Cardinal signs often has to clean up the mess left behind by the mutable signs"
This is an astrological joke. People titter.
Another shouts out: "The shipping market has plunged".
Neil: "Does anybody see anything positive in this Jupiter/Neptune conjunction next year?"
I say:"Might get some good movies out of it?"
"Jupiter/Neptune is also adventure" states Neil, meaning it's not all gloom and doom. "It could also be even crazier internet stuff."
Somebody makes the connection between the last time Uranus was in Pisces "prohibition in the 1920's" but this time, it's the opposite, increased opening hours and public drunkeness.
The nodes also will change signs in August. The south node will go into Cancer, not good for the property market.
I'm sorry if this post only makes sense to astrologers. It is a code, a language. It is a relief when you can speak in shorthand to another astrologer. 
Afterwards we all went to the pub. I heard this conversation on the way out:
Ooh hello!
How are you?
Fine. We've got an eclipse on our mutual Sun's next year.
So we have.