When, one day in the autumn of 1964, New York oddball, trickster and sometime photographer Dorothy Podber turned up at The Factory, Andy Warhol’s studio in midtown Manhattan, no one seemed very surprised.
After all 32-year-old Podber, a friend of Warhol’s house photographer Billy Name, seemed to fit right in with the Factory crowd.
She was certainly weird enough. She hung out with the ‘mole people’, the homeless activists who lived in the disused subway tunnels and sewers beneath the city. Of course, that didn’t faze Andy Warhol. Crazy creatives were good for business. The more the merrier.
What happened next however changed the course of art history and is still having repercussions nearly 60 years later. Podber, dressed to the nines and accompanied by her dog, Carmen Miranda, spotted a stack of recently completed Marilyn Monroe paintings of varying colours leaning against the studio wall.
Indicating her camera, she politely asked Warhol if she could shoot them. He agreed and, carefully putting on a pair of gloves, she reached into her bag, pulled out a small revolver and fired straight into the stack hitting Marilyn bang between the eyes.
A horrified Warhol watched as she walked out of studio and inspected the damage. He quickly let it be known that Podber woud not be welcome at The Factory again. Four of his five Marilyns had been in that pile. One red, one orange and two blue. They would become known as The Shot Marilyns and, with their bizarre provenance, gradually spiralled in price.
So it was that earlier this month Shot Sage Blue Marilyn was auctioned by Christie’s in New York and sold for $195 million, the highest price ever paid at auction for a work by an American artist. The purchaser was international art dealer Larry Gagosian, thought to have been buying on behalf of an as yet unnamed purchaser.
At the time of Podber’s impromptu attack, which she later claimed was a Happening, a work of performance art, Warhol’s star was beginning to the rise – his Campbells Soup cans had already brought him major publicity – but his Marilyn Monroe paintings had yet to acquire their iconic status. He had decided to produce them after the shock of Monroe’s apparent suicide in 1962 provided him with a one-stop cocktail of his favourite subjects – scandal, death and glamour. He based the image on a publicity shot of the actress used for the 1953 film Niagara.
Had he sold them at the time they would have fetched no more than a few hundred dollars. He may even have given them away. Three years later, in 1967, prices were rising and the soon to become famous and very rich art collector Peter Brandt paid $5,000 dollars for the other Shot Blue Marilyn. He was just 20-years-old at the time and it was the start of a multi-million dollar collection of art.
Warhol’s reputation was on the up and prices were rising at astonishing speed. Although he was undoubtedly a shrewd operator, quite how much Andy Warhol managed to manipulate his own artistic destiny is unclear. There has been inevitable speculation that he knew that Podber was going to shoot the paintings and perhaps even paid her to do so. I think not. No one could have predicted the eventual outcome and if Warhol had merely wanted to generate publicity, a bullet through just one painting would have done the trick.
I think the biggest mistake people make when hearing that a painting has sold for nearly $200 million is to imagine that it really must be of unsurpassed quality. ‘A Mona Lisa for the 21st Century’ screamed one headline.
Sadly at this level, art sales have more to do with the prestige of a small circle of obscenely wealthy dealers and collectors who almost certainly care more about the saleability of work than its actual quality.
At times of stock market volatility, the top-end of the art world provides a lucrative refuge for a certain type of investor by keeping the prices ludicrously high. It’s got little to do with art though.
A sad letter arrived the other day telling us that Julia Berlin, the lovely widow of my old friend the artist and writer Sven Berlin, died last summer. It came from a firm of solicitors in Penzance who had found our last Christmas card to her while preparing to wrap up the Berlin estate.
I felt guilty and shocked that we had no idea that Julia was no longer with us but I suppose that was the nature of our relationship. Since Sven’s death in 1999 we exchanged annual Christmas cards with her and occasionally visited the little cottage outside Wimborne that they had shared but we would often go months without making contact.
Lockdown and the covid restrictions made things more difficult and when there was no card from Julia last Christmas it seemed like just one of those things. We now of course know that there will be no more fascinating and fun chats over tea but we will always treasure memories of their friendship.
Sven and Julia really were an extraordinary couple, a pair of bohemians from another age. She was his third wife and 33 years his junior. They turned heads with their unconventional lifestyle, colourful clothes and free-living attitudes.
By the time they arrived in Wimborne in the mid-1970s, Sven was already both famous and controversial as a writer, painter and sculptor. A leading and sometimes mercurial figure in the immediate pre and post-war art world of St Ives in Cornwall, he made many friends but also rather too many enemies, There were clashes with some big egos, not least those artistic king-pins of the era, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson.
Years later he would speak with enormous fondness of his time in St Ives and his friendship with painters like Bryan Wynter and John Wells. But he also expressed sadness and anger about his clashes with small-town busy-bodies and the powerful and controlling presence of Nicholson and Hepworth.
These irritants and Sven’s uncompromising and stubborn nature would eventually lead to a devastating fall from grace when he decided to vent his spleen in a book. The Dark Monarch was a barely fictionalised account of the reasons why, after establishing himself as one of the town’s leading lights back in the 1940s, he was finally driven away by those he viewed as small-minded and mean-spirited. It reinvented St Ives as ‘Cuckoo Town’ where no one could live without “being gutted like a herring and spread out in the sun…for all to see.”
Originally published in 1962, The Dark Monarch was withdrawn from circulation within weeks of publication amid a hail of writs. Little had been done to disguise the identity of the characters. For instance, the poet Arthur Caddick was presented as Eldred Haddock. Several of those involved were so outraged by their portrayal that they took legal action. Sven refused to make even minor changes. It cost him a small fortune. He was left, in his own inimitable words: “bleeding from every pocket”.
Ironically The Dark Monarch would, with the passage of time, also be the focus of the major exhibition at Tate St Ives in 2010 that finally, a decade after his death, showed that Sven Berlin would always be regarded as a key figure in the history of the famous Cornish art colony.
With all the main litigants dead and special permission from Julia, they even republished the book complete with Sven’s original secret key to exactly who was who.
Watching Prime Minister Boris Johnson trying to squirm his way out of trouble last week was a thoroughly unedifying sight. Abandoned by increasing numbers of Tory MPs in the wake of relentless and continuing Partygate revelations and of course that fixed penalty fine from the Metropolitan Police, he has proved a pathetic and desperate sight.
Having been given a right going over during Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, a battered and unbelieved Johnson legged it to India on the pretext of doing post-Brexit trade deals.
This smokescreen didn’t impress the UK journalists who were far more interested in demanding answers about Partygate and pressing Johnson on whether his number is finally up.
Boris looked haunted and, as he frantically tried to justify his position, he blurted out the usual list of non-achievements designed to make him look good: “I’m absolutely determined to get on and deliver on the pledges we made to the people of this country in 2019…” he burbled. A list swiftly followed “…building 40 more hospitals, putting 20,000 more police on the street, 50,000 more nurses.… and getting on with our agenda of fixing social care, as we did.”
Good Lord, what twisting of the truth. What empty promises. The fact is there won’t be 40 more hospitals and there is little chance of the other targets being reached either. But the claim that sticks in my craw is the boast of “fixing social care, as we did” No you didn’t, Johnson, you lying oaf.
Ask my parents, both in their nineties and living in a care home. Joyce and Ken are old, frail and suffering from multiple health issues. Their decline was relatively swift. They didn’t see it coming. Now Ken is suffering from advancing Alzheimer’s and Joyce cannot walk, has compromised eyesight, very poor hearing and severe arthritis in both hands.
They cannot look after themselves. The only answer is residential care and that costs, boy does it cost. I had no idea what was in store when the Powers of Attorney forms I signed many years ago suddenly needed to be activated and, as their only blood relative in this country, I committed to managing their affairs.
I watched in disbelief as the fees poured in. My mum and dad’s bill, which has just gone up by nine per cent, costs them well over £6,000-a-month EACH. There are additional charges too for hairdressing, chiropody, the dentist, optician, transport for hospital visits and additional clothing. It amounts to around £155,000-a-year and they are not eligible for any grants or benefits except for a monthly payment from the Department of Work and Pensions of £240 each in Attendance Allowance.
Each month I look on helplessly as huge sums are transferred from their account. My parents are, or perhaps I should say were, comfortably off but were not multi-millionaires and this level of expense is neither sustainable nor fair. I should stress that none of this is the fault of the care home which does a wonderful job in the face of its own spiralling bills. It is the fault of the system.
But here is the rub. In 2019 as he entered Downing Street, Boris Johnson promised that no one would have to sell their home to fund their care home fees. Guess what? That’s exactly what I had to do to ensure that my parents would be able to afford long-term care.
There is supposed to be a cap being introduced in 2023 that will limit the care bills that have to be paid. But promises are routinely broken by this government and after Brexit, the pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the cost of living crisis I can’t help feeling that, come 2023, Boris Johnson or more likely his successor, will kick that particular can even further down the road. Not that the cap is going to help my parents much. By mid-2023 they will already have spent around £500,000 of their own money on care home fees.
Putting the lovely house they had lived in for the past 27 years on the market was heartbreaking. Clearing treasured possessions with so many memories was truly hurtful. Ironically my dad is protected from the anguish of realising that life as he knew it is over by the cruelty of the very disease that is destroying his mind. The tragic fact is that he really doesn’t know anything anymore. This lovely, gentle, intelligent man who once travelled widely, had a rich and interesting life and loved art, books and the theatre has no memory of the world he once enjoyed so much. I miss our conversations so very much..
My mum is not so ‘lucky’. She is very aware of everything that has happened to her and fully understands what has been lost and why. Fortunately, I have her blessing as well as the support of my wider family for the steps I have had to take. She has been extraordinarily understanding, wise and loving and often tells me how guilty she feels to have caused me so much extra work . Yet I know that the experiences of the past two or three years have been devastating for her.
Initially, being taken from her home and separated from her husband after 71 years of devoted marriage pitched her into a state of extreme shock. She was terribly ill for several weeks. But she’s a survivor and being a strong and determined woman, she rallied and is now setting her sights on her 100th birthday. “I’ve only got four and a bit years to do,” she told me recently. “It’s not a prison sentence, mum,” I replied. But on reflection I realise that it probably feels very much like that to her.
The sad fact is that my mum and dad now have such drastically different needs that they cannot even share a room. They live a floor apart. Dad is in a specialist dementia unit while mum needs nursing care. They do get together on most days for tea but dad can often become agitated and sometimes he simply demands to go back to his room. Mum knows that this uncharacteristic and unpredictable behaviour is caused by his illness but it doesn’t make it any easier. She is 95 years old and has lost everything.
Covid hasn’t helped. Until last week my wife and I hadn’t seen either of my parents without being required to wear a mass of PPE – a mask, gloves and plastic apron. For the first time, on Good Friday, we managed to dispose of the masks, gloves and apron by having tea with them in an outdoor area. We still had to make an appointment and present a negative covid test before being allowed in. I’m not complaining. I want my parents and their fellow residents to be safe but it is an indication of how complicated a simple family visit can be.
I suspect this is not something that Boris Johnson could even begin to understand. As we all now know he makes the rules and if they don’t suit, he simply breaks them without a second thought. At the time of the controversial Downing Street and Whitehall parties, my poor mum and dad – sick, frightened and in failing health – were facing the final few months in their own home, under strict lockdown. In June 2020 they celebrated, if that is the word, their 70th wedding anniversary with their live-in carer. A big tea party had been planned but government covid regulations meant that invitations had to be cancelled and we, their son and daughter-in-law, weren’t even allowed in their house. We had to toast them through the patio window and even then had risked being pulled over by the police for travelling 65 miles to their home.
This brings me yet again to the shameful incompetent wretch that is our Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The fact is that he imposed rules on the entire population, enforced them with a proverbial rod of iron and yet when he broke those rules himself he not only tried to deny it but he lied and lied and lied about it. That is completely indefensible. He’s not fit to be Prime Minister. He has to go
We shouldn’t be surprised of course. Even when he was at Eton College his housemaster and classics teacher Martin Hammond wrote: “Boris really has adopted a disgracefully cavalier attitude to his classical studies . . . Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility (and surprised at the same time that he was not appointed Captain of the School for next half): I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”
This widely leaked comment, taken from a 1982 school report and sent to Johnson’s father, should have been a warning for, sure enough, once he entered the world of work, Boris Johnson soon lived up to his reputation.
He lied as a journalist and he lied as a politician. He was fired twice for lying even before he became Prime Minister. Back in the 80s, he was sacked from The Times and in 2004 the then Tory Party leader Michael Howard dismissed him as shadow arts minister and party vice-chairman after he lied about an extramarital affair.
Another warning came from journalist and military historian Sir Max Hastings who employed Johnson as his Brussels correspondent when he was editing the Daily Telegraph back in the 1980s.
Writing in 2019 Hastings was horrified and scathing about Johnson becoming Prime Minister. He described him as a cavorting charlatan who was unfit for office and “cared for no interest save his own fame and gratification.”
Three years later it looks as though Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson has finally run out of runway. I do hope so because I despise everything he represents. There should be no place in modern politics for greedy, self-serving politicians whose sense of privilege, wealth and entitlement is such that it eclipses decency, empathy and concern for anyone but themselves.
My wife Hattie and I had two visitors this New Year. One, my brother Simon, was very welcome indeed. The other, his exotic friend, Omicron Variant, was not.
Simon flew in from Los Angeles on the 30th December, eventually arriving via a gruelling six hour transit stop in Dallas that involved, much to his horror, mingling with a massive crowd of hundreds of New Year’s travellers.
Though he, like us, is double vaxxed, boosted and tested negative multiple times both before and after his flight to the UK, by January 4th the almost inevitable had happened. He and I were both positive and effectively under voluntary house arrest.
Happily our symptoms were relatively mild – not much more than a bit of a cough and cold – but it meant that what for Simon was supposed to be a five day flying visit planned between TV lighting jobs in California, became a two week stay durng which we couldn’t go anywhere or see anyone.
It definiteky wasn’t what we had planned. We read, we wrote, we watched TV and caught up on years of conversation. We also gazed longingly at the world beyond our windows while working our way through a couple of boxes of lateral flow tests and waited to be officially declared contagion free.
Simon finally managed to fly back to California with a clean bill of health on January 12th, arriving just in time to supervise the start of the new series of the US version of The Masked Singer for which he is lighting designer.
We later worked out that it was the first time for more than 50 years that Simon and I had spent so long in each other’s company. Ths last time was during the school and college holidays in 1970 when we spent a long and lazy summer with our parents in Hong Kong and Macau.
He preached peace, love and understanding and campaigned tirelessly for truth and social justice. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel prize winning peace laureate who has died aged 90, was a truly remarkable man.
Not only did he help end the scourge of Apartheid in South Africa – an extraordinary feat in itself – but he battled on to achieve reconciliation between opposing factions. His intellect, tenacity and humour were crucial elements in the ongoing fight for what is right.For almost 10 years I had the privilege to work regularly with the Tutu Foundation UK and learnt a lot about Desmond Tutu or Arch as he was invariably known.
This curious encounter between me – a confirmed atheist – and the world of this man of God occurred like so many other things in my life through a curious chapter of happy accidents. I’m so glad I did. It didn’t make me a believer but it enabled me to witness at relatively close quarters, a charismatic man who was kind, compassionate and caring but certainly no pushover.
Arch could be tough and fearless when required and was always prepared to speak his mind but he aso had an innate ability to weigh up an argument. He could deliver a devastating criticism often skilfully levened by his wonderful wit.
By nature Arch was excitable and emotional but his really was the voice of reason. Desmond Tutu made a very real difference to our world..
Magnifique! Fantastique! Ooh la la! Panto has returned to Lighthouse in Poole. This magical version of Beauty and the Beast has a decidedly Gallic flavour, is the first Lighthouse panto produced entirely in-house and it works like a dream.
Under the assured direction of its writer and star – Cbeebies legend Chris Jarvis – we find the time-honoured fairytale shuttling gloriously between Paris and Dorset.
With music and dance that starts with the La Marseillaise-tinged All You Need is Love and ends with a joyous can can, it is a marvellously family friendly production whic tells of beautiful Belle (Alice Rose Fletcher) and the handsome Prince Valentin (Wade Lewin). Brought together by Cupid (an excellent Tom Mann) they are cursed by evil enchantress Nightshade played with relish amid a hail of boos and hisses by soap star Michelle Collins.
With the couple banished to a haunted castle and Valentin turned into a hideous beast, it is down to Belle’s father, Marzipan (Ross Ericson), her sister Souffle (Georgia Grant-Anderson) and Chris Jarvis’s wonderful Dame, Betty Bonbons, to rescue them.
Their mission finds them battling with adversity, coping with cheerful chaos and, with assistance from Cupid, helping true love finally battle over evil. With the Prince and Belle freed from Nightshade’s curse, Betty Bonbon getting together with Marzipan and the sulphurously horrible Nightshade suddenly turned into a goody two shoes, there is nothing not to love.
It’s a great pantomime with a very strong cast and full of traditional slapstick and sass, including a riotous prop-laden 12 days of Christmas. There’s a contemporary twist or two and loads of topical humour and music. It’s a covid safe theatre too with state of the art air-con and strict protocols in place.
Chris Jarvis has been playing panto for nearly 30 years and it shows. He is a master of the craft and a brilliant children’s entertainer. Better still, after decades of playing Buttons, Simple Simon or Jack, with a variety of beanstalks, he is now in his 50s and has decided the time has finally come to play the Dame. Believe me the flamboyant Betty Bonbon has been worth waiting for.
Beauty and the Beast runs at Lighthouse, Poole, until New Year’s Eve. Do yourself a favour and snap up tickets for your family.
It is no coincidence that the opening exhibition at Bournemouth’s huge new contemporary art gallery is called Big Medicine. The town centre is ailing and badly needs a shot in its metaphorical arm.
The 15,000 square foot privately-funded gallery, called appropriately enough GIANT, covers the entirety of the second floor of the old Debenham’s building in The Square. It is part of a much needed plan to inject some life, creativity and culture back into the badly run-down shopping centre.
Big Medicine, which opened last night, does the job admirably. Curated by Bournemouth artist Stuart Semple, the exhibition and the GIANT gallery space is part of the first phase of a project that will see the old building reborn as Bobby’s which was for many years a much-loved and historic retail landmark in the town
The free show features the work of major international artists like Jake and Dinos Chapman, Jim Lambie, Gavin Turk, Gary Card, Nicky Carvell, Paola Ciarska, Eva Cremers, Chad Person, Anthony Rodinone and Paul Trefry.
Not only are the works truly thought-provoking, like the Chapman brothers suicide vests cast in bronze and sometimes loaded with art materials but the whole exhibition is world-class. How wonderful that it has been brought to Bournemouth a town that has so much going for it but in recent years has been branded “a cultural desert”.
Meanwhile the GIANT gallery also has a dedicated Project Space which is featuring Why We Shout – the Art of Protest. Curated by Lee Cavaliere, director of VOMA, the world’s first virtual museum in association with Greenpeace, it examines ways in which contemporary artists respond and contribute to protest and activism.
With works by Banksy, US feminist Martha Rosler, Turner-Prize winner Jeremy Deller, Hong Kong activist-artist Kacey Wong, trans photographer Bex Wade and others it covers climate change, environmental struggles, the illegal rave scene of the 90s, LGBTQ + issues and much more.
It’s good to hear that two years after shooting and then being left on the covid shelf as release dates came and went, the film Brighton finally gets a digital release tomorrow.
Based on a Steven Berkoff play, it stars Phil Davis and Larry Lamb as a pair of ageing and decidedly non-PC East London rockers returning to Brighton – the battleground of their clashes with sixties mods – for the first time in 40 years.
It also features flashbacks to their youth with up and coming Dorset film and TV actor Jamie Bacon playing the young version of the Larry Lamb character.
“It was so enjoyable,” he told me. “Being able to watch really experienced actors like Larry and Phil at work was such a privilege. You can learn a huge amount from people like that.”
Sounds like a great movie. Can’t wait!
For Jamie’s full story go to my January 2020 interview with him on these pages.
I am so sorry to see that the wonderful Shelley Theatre in Boscombe has decided not to reopen this summer. Fans of the excellent London Repertory Players will be particularly concerned. The pandemic robbed them of the 2020 season but it was hoped that those plays would be back at the Shelley this summer. Sadly it wasn’t to be.
But fear not. All is not lost. The Players and their ever resourceful director Vernon Thompson have been approached by the Tivoli Theatre in Wimborne. The result is that one of the company’s productions – Ira Levin’s Deathtrap -will be staged at The Tivoli this summer with performances from Wednesday 28th to Saturday 31st July.
It will play at 7.30pm each evening plus two 2.30pm matinees on Thursday and Saturday. Featuring LRP favourites including Victoria Porter, Al Wadlan and Claire Fisher, the production already looks like a sure-fire success.
Deathtrap is perfect London Rep’ material. Originally written in the 1970s by Rosemary’s Baby author Ira Levin. It focuses on a washed playwright desperate to rediscover his talent and repeat his past success. When a student brings him a brilliant self-penned play he hatches a murderous plot to claim it as his own.
Deathtrap held the record for the longest running comedy thriller on Broadway and is considered a classic of the genre. It was also adapted as a 1980s film with Christopher Reeve, Michael Caine, Dyan Cannon and Sidney Bruhl.
This summer’s London Repertory Players’ production is going to be a must-see. Book tickets at the Tivoli Theatre on 01202 885566.
What wonderful news! Bournemouths Palace Court Theatre is poised to become a town centre performance venue again. For the past 35 years the striking art deco building has served as a Christian centre but long before that it was arguably Bournemouth’s favourite theatre.Now it has been bought by the town’s Arts University and there are multi-million pound plans to restore it as teaching, performance and rehearsal space.
I’ve had a peep inside and can tell you that not only is the original architecture stunning but the building still contains a near perfect 1930s theatre just waiting to be revitalised. In its hey day the venue, which opened in Hinton Road in 1931 was the place to see and be seen.
As The Palace Court Theatre and The Playhouse, it featured many well known performers. By the 1950s and 60s it was home to a vibrant repertory company whose members included Sheila Hancock, Vivien Merchant and Merchant’s then new husband, Harold Pinter who at the time performed under the stage name of David Baron.
The year was 1956 and Pinter’s transition from actor to influential playwright was developing fast. Indeed those who knew him at the time say that during the rep season he spent he was experimenting and writing new material. His first plays were performed to critical acclaim in the next two years.
I wonder how many people remember Cumberland Clark – writer, critic, Shakespearian scholar and, inexplicably, one of the worst poets to ever wreak havoc on the English language?
Almost exactly 80 years ago the extraordinary literary crimes that he so gleefully committed were finally brought to an end when a wartime enemy air raid scored a direct hit on his Bournemouth flat. Both Clark and his loyal housekeeper Miss Kathleen Donnelly were killed.
Though London born and well-travelled, Bournemouth was Cumberland Clark’s adopted home. He loved the town and in the final decades of his life he eulogised it endlessly, churning out ghastly doggerel that made a mockery of his classical education and previous serious literary endeavours.
The Bournemouth Songbook, which he first privately published in 1929, contained more than 150 ‘songs’ in verse so plodding that you have to marvel at his endless determination to find a rhyme, however awful it might be.
How about such dubious gems as:-
For many years I’ve held a brief
For Bournemouth’s Golden Sands
Indeed A1 in my belief
Are Bournemouth’s Golden Sands
You lie on your back from ten till one,
And get well baked by the genial sun;
And then turn over when you’re done
On Bournemouth’s Golden Sands.
The bathing at Bournemouth is good
Which appeals to the holiday creature
Among seaside joys this has stood
As by far the most popular features
There’s nothing the sport to supplant
It’s joy for each person who swims
And gives to those people who can’t
A chance to exhibit their limbs
When in Bournemouth if you’ve got
A notion that you would like a yacht
And your cash is quite a lot
Go and buy one on the spot
Folks will point and say ‘Big Pot’
Simply tons of money, what?
A millionaire he is. Great Scot!
And all that kind of tommy rot
Why he penned these outrageously constructed ‘songs’ which also often extolled the virtues of neighbouring towns and villages, remains a mystery.
Cumberland Clark was essentially an erudite and well read man who for reasons best known to himself delighted in reinventing himself as Bournemouth’s very own answer to William McGonagall. Maybe he was just having fun. Whatever the reason, he was a splendid eccentric, immaculately dressed and, I am told, prone to standing on street corners and striking impressive poses.
Self-aware and opinionated he was particularly fond of encouraging the attention of young women. He would acknowledge them with a cheeky wink and a twirl of his snow-white moustache.
His intentions seem to have been quite innocent and it is said that waitresses would fight to serve at his table because by lavishing a little extra attention on him they would be guaranteed a generous tip.
Poor Cumberland Clark he was eternally optimistic and at the outbreak of World War II, by then in his late 70s, he produced a patriotic and morale-boosting collection called War Songs of the Allies. It included the following verse:
Let the bombs bounce round about us
And the shells go whizzing by
Down in our air raid shelter
We’ll be cosy, you and I
Sadly when the bombs and shells did fall on Cumberland Clark’s flat in St Stephens Road in Central Bournemouth in April 1941, he was not protected by the safety of an air-raid shelter but fast asleep in bed.
At least there is striking memorial to his memory. He made sure of that. Not only did he design an impressively over-the-top monument complete with guardian angle but he had it in place in the Bournemouth East Cemetery a full six years before his death. “So that there will be no bother or anxiety to fall back on relatives or friends” he told the local press.
He had it inscribed too with the words ‘Sacred to the memory of Cumberland Clark, poet, historian, dramatist … The longer I live the more do I turn to Christianity as the one hope of salvation, the one faith for the soul of man, the one comfort in distress, and the one and only power that can save the world.’
Nothing if not thorough, Cumberland Clark left £500 to the NSPCC on the condition that they maintained his grave. He also told the minister at his local church that he didn’t care if everything else he had written was lost but he wanted his self-penned epitaph to remain.
So far it does and seems well kept even though the words are becoming a little worn by age and gradually harder to decipher.
How long will his legacy endure? There used to be a Cumberland Clark Memorial Society that held an annual dinner in his honour but that seems to have petered out around a decade ago. Unless of course you know better.
They don’t make ‘em like Colonel John Blashford Snell anymore. This larger than life soldier and explorer has done it all. He made the first descent of the Blue Nile, crossed the Darién Gap,drove from Alaska to Cape Horn and pioneered the navigation of the Congo River.
Oh yes and he also blew up a village fish pond in Kent in a bid to destroy a monster which had been munching its way through thousands of valuable goldfish.
I know because I was there. Forty four years ago to this very day I was a young reporter on the Kentish Gazette in Canterbury. I had been despatched to the nearby village of Ickham after the newsdesk heard that the British Army was rolling into the Garden of England in pursuit of a rogue fish that had been causing havoc in a local goldfish breeder’s pond. There were even rumours that the aquatic killer – instantly nicknamed Jaws – had been deliberately bred by the Russians.
To be honest I didn’t believe a word of it but, if nothing else, it was a morning out and had the makings of a cracking little tale. Imagine my astonishment when I arrived in Ickham to find a large pond in the grounds of a posh country-manor care home surrounded by a team of Army frogmen and explosives experts. The Colonel – known universally as Blashers – was directing operations. They really did pull out all the stops. An armoured car, complete with machine gun, sat incongruously on the adjacent ‘Darling Buds of May’ lawn.
The owner of both the care home and pond, a former trawler skipper turned goldfish breeder called Alf Leggett, was making it clear to anyone who would listen that blowing up his pond was fine by him. There had been 3,000 goldfish in its murky waters just a few weeks ago but now so few were left that their death by friendly fire was a small price to pay for the demise of the dreaded Jaws.
The Army press office, sensing some positive publicity plus the opportunity for an exercise, had put the word around and gradually the UK media – always game for a quirky yarn – started arriving in the village. By the time Blashers gave the order to detonate the charges half of Fleet Street and a couple of TV crews were preparing to witness the demise of Jaws. The resulting explosion sent a plume of water, pondweed, fish, frogs and heaven knows what else at least 50 feet in the air and swamped the assembled press. Someone made a joke about a ‘newt-tron bomb’ and Alf Legget looked on in delight.
Had Jaws been exterminated? No one knew. And gradually it dawned on us that Mr Leggett wasn’t particularly concerned. He had a 30 or 40 strong press pack in his back garden and as Blashers and his men started to pack up their kit, he invited the reporters into the care home for Champagne and a good look around. Before long brochures were being handed out and details of the perceived delights of the care facility were being bandied around,.
Viewed from the perspective of 2021 this story offers a curious snapshot of an era. A time when the British Army was still big enough to enjoy a bit of fun, when newspapers could afford to send multiple reporters and photographers on jobs that took them away for days at a time and business people believed that no effort was too great in the pursuit of publicity.
But what of the killer fish? Well, a couple of days later two men from the Southern Water Board clambered into a rowing boat and set out across the pond clutching a fishing net and an electric prod. They eventually found a large perch which was stunned, slightly damaged and possibly rather hungry. It was removed and released into nearby reservoir but not before having it’s photograph taken. The caption simply read ‘Jaws’.
Two huge Harris Hawks outside sculptor Geoffrey Dashwood’s Hampshire home
Here’s another one I did earlier. Well several years back actually. Probably around 2012. It was written for the now long-gone Compass Magazine and offered an intriguing insight into the curious world of New Forest sculptor Geoffrey Dashwood. Thought it was worth revisiting.
By Jeremy Miles
Internationally renowned wildlife sculptor Geoffrey Dashwood is an anomaly in an art world full of pretensions and psycho-babble. His works – stunning sculptures of birds – sell across the world, often for tens of thousands of pounds, yet he would rather have teeth pulled than have to play the gallery game. He prefers to work remotely at his home deep in the Hampshire countryside outside Ringwood. Perched on the edge of an escarpment with views for 30 miles across Hampshire and Dorset, it’s an otherworldly place.
Surrounded by monumental bronze sculptures – a one-and-half ton,12 foot tall Peregrine falcon dominates the entrance – the Dashwood home is a marvel to behold. As you walk across the lawn there are are two huge Harris hawks, a barn owl, a tern, a great crested grebe and a frog. A massive Mandarin drake sits on a plinth in the middle of a pond: “We built the pond for the sculpture rather than the other way around,” says the 66-year-old artist matter-of-factly.
Nestling amidst ancient forest, the natural setting of this house is astonishing too. He points to a huge gnarled old oak which is believed to be 700 years old. “Incredible to think that that was an acorn in about 1300,” he says.
The site is even believed to have been used for beacons warning of the approach of the Spanish Armada. Dashwood has lived there with his wife Val and three sons Leo, Max and James for 17 years. He says he really can’t imagine being anywhere else.
Despite his international reputation and prices that range from £2,000 to £250,000, he eschews most private views and even tries to avoid discussing works with potential buyers. “I’m a rebellious old sod,”he told me as we looked around the huge studio and home gallery that he has built in a barn just yards from his front door. Sucking on a liquorice paper roll-up and swearing like a proverbial trooper, he warmed to his theme. “I don’t do commissions because to be honest I am too awkward and bloody-minded. They all too often end in tears because the person commissioning the piece and the artist have a different idea about the end result. So it’s very, very simple. I just do exactly what I want to do and then offer the work for sale.”
Chippy and uncompromising he may be but Geoffrey Dashwood’s prickly exterior clearly masks a sensitive soul who deeply cares that his work is an honest response to the natural world that he loves. Hampshire born and bred, he has a rare affinity with the New Forest and in his youth worked there as a keeper. Although he won a scholarship to art school in Southampton when he was just 15-years-old, he dropped out within weeks. “I hated it,” he says. The Forestry Commission provided the only job he could hang onto. “Basically I‘m absolutely unemployable,” he explains.
Doing artwork for forestry brochures provided some personal satisfaction. He seized the moment and left to go freelance. Amazingly Dashwood didn’t turn to sculpture until he was in his mid 30s. He modelled a tiny English partridge and loved the whole process. With a £5,000 loan from the kind of bank manager that doesn’t exist anymore he made a series of bronze castings and touted his work around upmarket outlets in London – Harrods, Aspreys, Garrards and the galleries of Cork Street.
Thinking about it now he says he’s amazed that he had the nerve to walk into such elitist emporiums and demand to see the bronze buyer. Somehow it paid off. He was on his way. Initially he concentrated on miniatures but then moved on to life-size and monumental sculptures. The one-man shows and international reputation soon followed.
He has successfully experimented with abstracting the fine detail of the birds down to studies of pure sculptural form. He has also explored the effects that can be achieved with multi-coloured patinas. He recalls eyebrows being raised when he asked at the foundry that he used what would happen if he splattered a mixture of all three commonly used chemicals – liver sulphate, ferric nitrate and cupric nitrate – on his bronzes.
“They were horrified. They said ‘You can’t do that’ and I just said ‘Oh yeah, and where’s the book that says I can’t?’ We went ahead and it was brilliant. It’s incredible that no one had ever done that before, but that’s the conservatism of the art world for you.”
He knows he’s been lucky, gaining a rare reputation and enjoying success despite a stubborn refusal to bend to the whims of either clients or art professionals.
“I’ve had a very self-indulgent life,” says Dashwood. “The extraordinary thing is that logically choosing to do this kind of sculpture should have involved a compromise between what I want to do and what the market price demands. I discovered that the more self-indulgent I became the more the market would rise to it.”
I FIRST met the best-selling fantasy author David A.Gemmell nearly 40 years ago. He was standing on my doorstep pretending to be John Wayne. He was also about to become the editor of the newspaper I worked for and had decided that a face-to-face meeting on home turf would be the perfect way to introduce himself to his new senior staff.
Whether this was a good idea or not, I don’t know. I found the idea of a new boss I’d never met before hammering on my front door and demanding a get-to-know-you session a little unsettling. Dave – never David in those days – was, I quickly worked out, far more scared by the encounter than I was.
He talked nineteen to the dozen about his great passions, the songs of Bob Dylan, the films of John Ford and his great hero Wayne. He would later have a framed picture of the movie star on his office wall. I don’t think he mentioned newspapers once. He certainly didn’t ask anything about me. He finally departed, moseying in classic style down my front path with the words “Walks off slowly into the sunset.” The fact that it was 10 O’clock at night and pitch dark didn’t appear to register.
A man with a rampantly overactive imagination and sense of romance, he was horrifyingly ill-equipped to deal with the day to day reality of editing a newspaper. If there was a meeting he didn’t want to attend he just wouldn’t turn up . I believe there was even a summons to court once that he conveniently mislaid.
When I worked with him in the early 1980s Gemmell spent a lot of time shut in his office endlessly reworking the manuscript of what would become his breakthrough novel Legend. As a journalist he was always an inspired writer. However he suffered the fate that so often awaits high-flyers in the newspaper business, promotion to a job that frankly he was never cut out to do. Gemmell seemed singularly unsuited to the editor’s chair and the management was clearly alarmed at his lack of interest in actually editing the paper.
He was on borrowed time but it didn’t matter. Legend was a huge success and a string of best sellers followed. When he eventually got his marching orders, Gemmell was already a publishing sensation. Today, 15 years after his untimely death from heart disease, there are still websites devoted to his work and a great many fans for whom he will always be regarded as a towering talent among authors.
I can’t say that his work actually had any significant literary merit but it was certainly commercially successful. My memory of Dave Gemmell will be of a maverick newspaperman who worked out how to use his talents as a tabloid hack to become a hard-hitting and successful novelist. It can’t have been easy. It was a path that many had tried and failed to follow before.
As a colleague and a boss he was talented, fun and fascinatingly unpredictable. He was also a little crazy and, behind the wheel of a car, positively dangerous. For the best part of a year or so he would drive me weekly across southern England to stone-sub the paper. I’m still not sure how we survived.
Happily we did and I have good memories of the times we spent together. Dave even paid me the dubious compliment of having me killed on page 255 of his 1986 novel Waylander. In interviews he has said that he based his characters on real people. He even claimed that he was eventually sacked from the newspaper for using thinly disguised versions of company staff as characters in his book. I hope not because I am immortalised as a young soldier called Milis. In the space of a page and a half Gemmell has me swapping tall stories about the local whores before I get three arrows in my back and have my throat cut by a marauding invader. It must have been something I said?
Oh the perils of being misunderstood on social media! It’s happened to all of us and usually it’s a minor matter and easily resolved.
But a couple of weeks back the harmless and well-meaning folk of the Wimborne Militia had their Facebook pages deleted after being inexplicably mistaken by an over-zealous algorithm for a bunch of alt-right thugs.
Nothing could be further from the truth of course. The Militia are a group of historic re-enactors who dress in 17th century military costume and are familiar sight at fetes, parades and festivals in the ancient Dorset market town.
It seems they became unwittingly caught up in Facebook’s creditable bid to root out far right extremists and conspiracy theorists operating militia groups mainly in America. Thankfully Facebook realised its error and the accounts were quickly reinstated.
Militia leader, gently eccentric Wimborne Town Crier Chris Brown told the BBC: “I wouldn’t want us to be associated with some of those violent people over there carrying round guns and talking about open rebellion – we talk about peace and community understanding.”
Indeed he always has. I remember Chris once telling me that back in the early 1970s he was far too much of a hippy to become a serious biker even though his Norton Dominator 650 SS was the envy of the local motorcycle gangs.
“They loved looking at my bike but I used to wear crushed velvet jackets and I don’t think they could really deal with that. Anyway, I could never have been a Hells Angel or whatever. I hate aggression and I’m vegetarian so biting the head off a live chicken would be out of the question.”
Peacenik Chris has also done his bit at a variety of very non aggressive music festivals appearing on stage with Texan psychedelic visionaries The Polyphonic Spree at Glastonbury, Leeds and Reading.
He also worked as a volunteer backstage marshal at Glastonbury for a number of years and has the dubious distinction of once trying to ban Bob Dylan from his own dressing room.
“I was told that no one but Dylan was allowed in so when this strange looking bloke turned up and knocked on the door I told him to go away. He fixed me with this really weird stare and just said: ‘Do you know who I am?’
“ I said; ‘I haven’t got a clue mate but no one but Bob Dylan comes in here.’ “Then he just stared at me and I realised that he had an eight foot security man with him. I thought ‘Oh yeah, I know who you are.’
Dylan, he says, was rather distant and aloof.
Closer to home Chris has had a number of other rock ’n’ roll encounters. Not least the day when Bob Geldof, in town for a gig at the Tivoli Theatre, was ‘volunteered’ to conduct a planting ceremony at the then brand new Wimborne physic garden. As he planted a rosemary bush, Chris and the Militia fired a celebratory round of musket fire.
A curious one this. Back in the 1990s oddball conman Alan Conway pitched up in Bournemouth claiming to be the reclusive American film director Stanley Kubrick. He looked and sounded nothing like Kubrick and yet people, including several prominent entertainers, fell for it. Eventually a movie emerged and so did this magazine article. When I asked one of Conway’s victims, the singer and impressionist Joe Longthorne about his encounter with the bogus Kubrick and how Conway fooled everyone – except perhaps Dora Bryan. He wasn’t keen to talk about it. Both Conway and Longthorne are no longer with us. But it remains a fascinating story. This piece was originally written in 2004.
By Jeremy Miles
Singer and impressionist Joe Longthorne has seen it all. In a roller coaster career that started when he was just a teenager he has experienced adulation and despair. At the height of his fame he was mobbed by thousands of adoring fans but a combination of business troubles and a life-threatening illness came close to destroying him.
Now, having battled his way back from adversity, he’s smiling again. As he prepared to bring his latest UK tour to Bournemouth’s Pier Theatre on Friday he told me: “I feel better now than I have done for 10 years.” He says that years of suffering from the debilitating disease lymphoma was finally resolved by a bone-marrow transplant. I was incredibly lucky they found a match within seven days…It made a huge difference.”
His bankruptcy – he was once so desperate for funds that he begged fans to send him lottery tickets – is also well and truly behind him. “I’m free as a bird now,” he told me happily. He’s philosophical about the difficulties he found himself in “I had too much too young. I didn’t have a clue, but that’s showbusiness.
“I once received a £50,000 bill from an accountant for ‘bits and bobs’. There are always conmen around. Every third person in showbusiness gets done one way or another, its just one of those things…”
Curiously perhaps Joe, 53, still can’t bring himself to talk about the one conman who was so convincing that he persuaded him that he was the world-famous film director Stanley Kubrick. Back in the early 1990s Alan Conway, a nondescript former burglar from Middlesex, duped dozens of people into believing he was the reclusive and rarely photographed American movie-maker.
So spectacular was his success that, following his death some years later, his escapades were made into the film Colour Me Kubrick with John Malkovich as the unlikely conman. The film, which Longthorne refused to have any involvement with, won lavish praise at Cannes but bizarrely went straight to DVD.
Ironically the Conway-Kubrick episode actually started for Joe Longthorne right here in Bournemouth. It was during one of Joe’s summer seasons that the town’s one-time theatres publicity officer Tony Hardman got a call from a friend saying that Kubrick was in town and staying at the four star Carlton Hotel.
Hardman was invited to meet the bogus movie man and in a story that gets stranger by the minute was so impressed that he decided to introduce the charismatic director to his current house guest, the actress Dora Bryan. He then took them both to see Joe at the Bournemouth International Centre.
Hardman says that though Bryan was suspicious – “I think she was unconvinced ” – Joe was incredibly excited and invited Kubrick backstage. He says that the effect Conway’s presence had on people who believed they were talking to the director of 2001 A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket was extraordinary. “They started to bow and scrape, no doubt expecting parts in whatever his next film was going to be.”
While Conway, a long-time fantasist, seemed perfectly prepared to pay his way Hardman says he was soon staying in plush hotels at the expense of others. “He allowed people to convince themselves that he was Stanley Kubrick and then they started footing the bill for things.”
As Hardman would later discover Conway looked nothing like the real Kubrick but he somehow had a way of making people believe his lies. Among those putting their hand in their pocket was Joe and according to Hardman it wasn’t long before the con-man was driving around in Longthorne’s Rolls Royce.
Having been given short shrift by Joe, the makers of the movie Colour Me Kubrick turned to Jim Davidson, another entertainer who had fallen for the Conway hoax, to play the celebrity victim. Cast drastically against type, Davidson played an ageing and extremely camp singer called Lee Pratt. The character he stresses, somewhat unconvincingly, was in no way based on Longthorne. “Lee Pratt is complete crap and Joe is one of the best stage performers in the business,” says Davidson, adding that Longthorne was also just one of many people who were conned by the appropriately named Conway. “There were plenty of others.”
Davidson maintains that the film shows how Conway prayed on people’s vanity. “I met him and I certainly didn’t suss him straight away. He got me on the hook. He said: “So are you Jim Davidson the comedian and I’m thinking ‘That’s amazing, Stanley Kubrick knows who I am’. This is what the film is all about. How we all wanted Stanley Kubrick as our mate.”
Longthorne starts briefly to discuss the same subject and tells me that for a while he really believed that Conway was Kubrick. “I’m an impersonator. I naturally observe people. And I would never have guessed that that man wasn’t from Brooklyn.”
He suddenly realises where the conversation is going: “We’d better stop this or I’ll have to get on to the lawyers,” he tells me, adding with a laugh: “Or maybe not, they’re far too dear.”
Among war photographers Tim Page is a legend. He is part of that lunatic elite who cruised into Vietnam and surfed through the whole crazy, horrifying nightmare on a high-roller of drugs, adrenalin and rock n roll. Other members of the Press Corp thought him completely mad. He pushed his luck to the absolute limit, was wounded again and again, but kept returning with pictures that no one else could possibly have got.
He took insane risks but at the same time achieved a documentation of the war that will stand forever as a historic testament to its terror, sadness, brutality and awful glory. Working as a freelance for UPI, his photographs were received with relish by huge news corporations like Time Life who published hundreds of them. In return for the incredible pictures they received, they pandered to this Mad Brits’s apparent need for a near-suicidal work schedule and lifestyle.
The first time he was flown back to their office in Danang still clutching his precious film. He received a hero’s welcome. Page’s physical involvement with the war effectively ended at precisely 2.02pm on April 19, 1969. That was the time showing on his shattered wristwatch when he was pulled out of the carnage that resulted when the platoon he was patrolling with walked slap into a booby-trap mine.
A soldier just a few steps in front him was blown to pieces after stepping on a 105mm shell hidden under leaves on the jungle trail. Page was felled by the shrapnel and with a hole in the base of his brain the size of a grapefruit, medics were convinced that he was fatally wounded and announced that he probably had no more than 20 minutes to live. Astonishingly he not only survived but refused to believe the prognosis when doctors told him that he would be permanently paralysed down the left side. Over the next decade he literally forced himself to learn to walk again.
When I ran into Page in the mid 1980s he was living in London and working again. I wrote a piece when he visited the Metropole Arts Centre in Folkestone to show his famous Nam pictures.There was also a telling collection of photographs taken in a post-war America that was rapidly gaining an unenviable reputation for the heartless treatment of its physically and mentally damaged veterans.
Talking of his experiences and taking questions from the small audience, it was clear that Page remains an extraordinarily driven individual. The craziness was still there but somehow offset by an inner-peace and an unwavering sense of purpose. Page the adrenalin junkie who got off on the thrill and dangers of war and grown into a man with a mission – to tell the unpalatable truth about political regimes.
I met him once before, on the edge of a jungle in Sri Lanka. He was holed up in a tiny wooden shack on the coast with a large woman, tripping on acid, smoking dope and listening to Buddhist chants on a clapped out old tape-recorder. It was a strange evening. We had both been covering the Esala Perahera – the torchlit parade of dozens of decorated elephants and exotic dancers. This psychedelic carnival that meanders through the ancient city of Kandy honouring a mysterious relic that is said to be the tooth of the Buddha himself, is a heady mix of sights and sounds. Perfumed with incense and the smell of burning copra the Perahera is like nothing else on earth. I was writing a never tio be pub listed book and Page was being Page
After a stampede of frightened elephants some years earlier camera’s with flashguns had been banned at the Perahera but sitting in his jungle shack, Page showed me a letter he had acquired, apparently from the President himself, giving him special dispensation to use a flashgun. I wasn’t sure that I believed him but in the context of our long and long, rambling conversation it seemed to make sense. We covered much ground discussing the psychology of elephants, the mystical ability of the BiC biro to dematerialise at will, the special quality of light at 5.00am and why Page still needed to travel.
Frankly he seemed both as whacked out as the journalist and counter-culture fanboy within me could have hoped for. He was also in pretty bad physical shape and if I’m honest I really didn’t think he’d live for much longer. I was very wrong on that count. To this day Tim Page is very much a going concern living in Australia and still, giving lectures and holding exhibitions across the world.
Of course our encounter happened 40 years ago. I was 30 and though I was a veteran of CND marches and thought of myself as a peacenik, I was very much in thrall to the glamour of war. After all I had grown up surrounded by so many books and movies about battles and adventures under fire. From Bridge on the River Kwai to the Dambusters, Reach for the Sky to The Great Escape. It was really exciting.
When I was a teenager in the late 1960s my parents moved to Hong Kong. I spent a couple of amazing summer holidays at their old colonial apartment high on The Peak overlooking the city and harbour, a strategic stop off point for troops being shipped in an out the Vietnam war.
Those steamy hot evenings spent hanging out on their balcony listening to Hendrix or The Doors while surveying the teeming city below; the days spent hitting the strangely exotic streets full of bar girls, swaggering young American servicemen and the inevitable chancers, dealers and pimps who followed them around. It’s a memory that is seared into my brain.
Tim Page was part of that Crazy Asian madness that I was witnessing from the sidelines when as a 17-year-old in 1968 I was trying to make sense of what was happening to these American boys – soldiers and sailors, many of them barely older than me. The fear, the bravado, the sense that they had seen so much in such a short space of time was tangible..
Fast forward 13 years and I’m working as a journalist, travelling around Sri Lanka and have added Apocalypse Now to my list of favourite films. Running into Page, who was at least partly the inspiration for Dennis Hopper’s renegade photographer gone-rogue, is pretty exciting.
Even more thrilling is the fact that he seemed perfectly happy to chat. I’m a fairly confident individual but I have no doubt that had I approached him in a similar manner – “You’re Tim Page, aren’t you?” in an urban setting in the UK our conversation would have been embarrassingly brief. Somehow just being in an Asian jungle had bestowed me with a degree of credibility.
It was back in 2004 that I met Graham Rankin, enthusiast for and restorer of all things vintage. I was on the trail of a wonderful old Steinway piano once played by the classical greats. Neglected and in disrepair and by now more than 100 years old, it found its way to the remarkable Mr Rankin. When I turned up at his door I soon discovered that keyboard instruments were just one of his many passions. This is the story that emerged.
Words Jeremy Miles Pictures: Hattie Miles
SHE is almost 103 years old and during a long and eventful life may have felt the caress of Rachmaninov, Bartok and Stravinsky. No, we are not talking about some geriatric classical groupie. The “she” in question is a magnificent Steinway model D Concert Grand found gathering dust backstage at Bournemouth’s now closed Winter Gardens.
But how long this huge and imposing instrument was in Bournemouth, who played her and which concerts she featured in remains unclear. That she was played by the great, the good and possibly the legendary is beyond doubt. For the Steinway Model D is the Rolls Royce of pianos and revered throughout the classical world. That those who played her included some or all of the above named musical A list is a distinct possibility. They all appeared at the Winter Gardens. But so far the old lady has kept her secrets.
Now the man who found her, bought her and is currently planning to return her to her former performing glory is determined to fill in the gaps in this grand old piano’s history. Graham Rankin, a builder and restorer of everything from antique instruments to vintage cars, knows that the piano was built at Steinway’s workshops in Hamburg, The company’s archives show that the instrument, registration number 104793, was first shipped new from Germany in November 1901.
What happened to it then, who played it and how long it was before it arrived at the Winter Gardens remains a mystery. “It would be very interesting to find out the background to the instrument,” says Graham. “I would love to publish a history with photographs so that its story can be kept for posterity.”
So far his inquiries have led to a number of dead ends. Many people connected with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra which for many years used the Winter Gardens as its headquarters know the instrument well but no one seems to know exactly where it came from or when. Far from frustrating its new owner, this lack of information simply inspires Graham Rankin to make greater efforts to find out. “I enjoy a challenge,” he says. I am soon discover that this is possibly the understatement of the century.
A bright earnest man with sparkling eyes and a bristling moustache, he is an extraordinary enthusiast. In little over an hour in his company I was treated to fascinating insights into subjects as varied as turn of the century land speed records, the history of the pipe organ, the sound quality of the vintage gramophone horn, church turret clocks, historic timber-framed buildings and much, much more. And I’m sure that that only scratched the surface of Graham Rankin’s fascinating world.
He lives with his wife Mary-Anne in a huge and beautiful barn conversion on farmland that was once the estate of Jane Austen’s brother at Chawton in Hampshire. It’s an idyllic setting and big enough to house a collection of workshops and storerooms where he can work on a variety of strange and usually vaguely mechanical projects.
He greets us on arrival summoned from a nearby work room by an industrial sounding claxon he has wired to his front doorbell. We head for the music room but I’m stopped in my tracks on the way by the sight of a huge old car. “Oh that,” says Graham “That’s a 1905 Fiat that they were going to produce to challenge the land speed record.”
It turns out that the monster car never actually made it into production but that Graham got hold of the original design drawings and, nearly a century after it was originally conceived, is building it himself. Nearby in the same workshop is another vintage Fiat which he says he dragged from a bog in Ireland. It was a complete wreck and hadn’t been driven since 1913. Graham spent years restoring the vehicle to working order and in 1993 drove her again for the first time in 80 years. He doesn’t limit himself to Fiats however, elsewhere around his home I notice a Bugatti and a Vauxhall. I’m sure there are others too.
After all this the music room, where he intends to install the Steinway Model D, threatens to be something of an anti-climax. Not a bit of it. Not only is it housed on the upper floor of a magnificently converted barn complete with vast oak beams hewn from a single tree in the 15th century but pride of place is taken by an astonishning pipe organ. Another of Graham’s rescue projects, the 1876 two manual Sweetland was salvaged from a church in Bath.
It arrived in Chawton and was stripped down to 125,000 pieces before being painstakingly reassembled. Now with its 600 pipes in pefect working order, it has pride of place at concerts that the Rankins occasionally host. He gives me a demonstration of its capabilities, lifting the lid of a nearby carved oak chest to reveal a mini-mixing desk “we need this because of the flat acoustic in here” he explains. Flicking a couple of switches, he pulls out various stops before hitting the keys causing the Sweetland to swell into magnificent musical life.
As we make our way to the workshop where the Steinway is currently stored Graham takes us through his lounge. It’s hard not to notice the vintage gramophone with its huge conical sound horn that dominates one corner of the room. This is another passion. After finding a classic EMG Senior Gramophone, Graham was determined to locate an original horn to go with it. He was extraordinarily successful, tracking down the very first horn of its type complete with a “number one” embossed on it’s side. However the near impossibility of finding any other properly constructed gramophone horns, particularly ones made from applique mache (“the only material that produces the proper sound quality,” says Graham), has led him to build his own protype and examine the prospect of manufacturing them himself.
“Who exactly are you going to sell them to?” I ask. “Hmm, good question!” he replies before offering a demonstration of what he calls the “holographic sound” produced by the EMG and its magnificent horn. He selected a Mozart opera from a pile of old 78s and then rummaging in a box found a needle. “Burmese thorns,” he explained. “The only thing to use.” The result was indeed extremely impressive.
The Winter Gardens grand may well have been played on one or more of Graham’s old 78s, certainly its battered casing shows scars where microphones have been attached for recording sessions. It is currently stored in a room that in many ways gives clues to passions to be found in the rest of the Rankin household. It sits alongside a couple vintage cars, a turret clock, one of Graham’s monster gramophone horns and an old bicycle that looks as though Mary Poppins herself left it there.
Despite its scuffed and scratched casing and a cracked soundboard, the instrument is in remarkably good condition and even more or less in tune. It’s acquisition is something of a dream come true for Graham who has longed to own a Steinway Model D ever since playing one in a dealers showroom several years ago.“It was marvellous I decided there and then that nothing less would do, such was the joy of that instrument.”
Then he discovered the price and sat down – a decent Model D can cost £100,000. He started hunting for a good second hand instrument and eventually found himself at the Winter Gardens. However the piano they showed him dated fom the mid 1950s and Graham felt that it had suffered from being manufactured during a period of post war austerity. “My assessment was that the quality was not all that it might have been” he says. He rejected the idea of buying and was about to leave when he noticed a second Model D covered in dustsheets.
Undoubtedly much older but dating from one of Steinway’s finest manufacturing eras, the piano instantly appealed. Negotiations were soon underway and last summer, after offering a bid by sealed tender, Graham was its new owner. He is currently assessing how far to take the restoration process. “I am thinking very carefully before even touching it,” he explains. “It is vital that we find the correct balance between musical excellence and cosmetic appearance. The last thing I want is do anything to it that will effect the quality or character of its sound.” In the meantime he hopes that anyone with memories of or information about the Steinway will contact him.
As Abdullah swung the rattling wreck that had once been a car across six lanes of traffic, death or serious injury seemed a certainty. Incredibly, as if by magic, a path opened up before us and we passed unscathed though the honking, seething, fume belching nightmare that passes for rush hour on the roads of Cairo.
We had found Abdullah the previous evening when we hailed his taxi near our hotel. After a couple of near-death experiences on the roads around the city, he had seemed an oasis of calm and common sense in a trade that seemed to be populated by the crazed and the kamikaze.
We had booked him for a day. At around £17 for ‘Wherever you want for as long as you want” it had seemed like a good deal. Now we had just watched our lives pass before us, we weren’t quite so sure.
Abdullah glanced over his shoulder at us cowering on the back seat. A smile flickered across his world-weary face. “In Cairo driving is tough. It is not an easy city,” he explained with a resigned nod.
After this blindingly obvious observation he went on to tell us that he had been driving a taxi around Cairo for 35 years. It doesn’t get any easier,” he added with a shrug.
That was it. If he’d survived that long the the chances were he would make it through another day. Yes I know what the other logical theory is but there are times when you really don’t have any choice but to be optimistic.
We continued happily with our day out, convincing ourselves that in Abdullah’s care we must be protected by some sort of divine force-field.
Certainly his car had survived against all odds. It appeared to have once been a big old eight seat Peugeot but some er modifications had taken place. It had also led a life that had left it looking like something that in this country you might find dumped in a disused quarry.
The inside door handles had been torn off, the gear stick was just a metallic stump and the dashboard was dead. The speedometer bounced loosely up and down and the clock had frozen sometime in the diim distant pass at 544,679 kilometres.
However our optimism was rewarded and nine hours later we were returned safely to our hotel after a day in which we had taken in everything from the Egyptian Museum and the breathtaking treasures of Tutankhamun to the mysterious alleyways and atmospheric markets of the old city.
We explored a marvellous array of Islamic mosques and Coptic Christian churches and of course The Citadel. Sitting high above the city this medieval fortification was the seat of Egyptian government and the official residence of its rulers for nearly 700 years until the 19th century.
There had also been a surreal visit to The Cairo Tower, an impressive landmark constructed back in the late 1950s and early 60s. From its revolving restaurant some 500 feet up we had a panoramic view of the city as we enjoyed tea and cake and were slowly jerked around in circles.
A hapless waiter meanwhile was using a lot of energy trying to stand on a chair to change a lightbulb. Unfortunately his chair was firmly planted on the static floor while the troublesome lightbulb was attached to the revolving section of the ceiling.
Our trip to Cairo came as part of a travel feature based around a Nile Cruise.After a fascinating eight days sailing from Luxor to Aswan and back with visits to tombs and temples and a journey along The Nile that offered astounding scenery, we had flown north to Cairo for three nights at the Pyramids Park Hotel.
Located some 23 kilometres from the centre of the city, it sits amid lushly landscaped grounds on land reclaimed from the desert. As its name suggests, it’s dead handy for the Pyramids and Sphinx which we visited as a seperate trip from our taxi adventure.
Standing by the great Pyramids and scanning the horizon you realise how fast the ever-developing city of Cairo is advancing on this historic site that just a few years ago was miles from the urban sprawl.
As Abdullha said, Cairo is not an easy city. However it is a fascinating one and I am sure that, despite the huge number of things we crammed into our two-and-a-half days there, we barely scratched the surface.
After leaving Cairo we flew back to the tranquility of Luxor and four nights in the comfort of the luxurious Sonesta St George Hotel.
Nestling on the banks of The Nile, it proved a perfect location for recharging our batteries, making return trips to the temples we had seen on our cruise and exploring markets and museums.
In death, as in life, they are shoulder to shoulder. Thirteen First World War brothers in arms buried side by side in a wooded valley in Northern France. Brave young soldiers from the Dorsetshire Regiment, cut-down in a vicious hail of mud, blood and bullets on 8th May 1916 as a ferocious German bombardment gave […]
World War I battlefields – Northern France and Belgium
(Originally published October 2014)
Words by Jeremy Miles Pictures by Hattie Miles
In death, as in life, they are shoulder to shoulder. Thirteen First World War brothers in arms buried side by side in a wooded valley in Northern France. Brave young soldiers from the Dorsetshire Regiment, cut-down in a vicious hail of mud, blood and bullets on 8th May 1916 as a ferocious German bombardment gave way to an infantry raid.
In the gunfire and desperate hand-to-hand combat that followed the daring dozen and their 19-year-old commanding officer were slaughtered – shot, bayoneted, blown to pieces. The violence of the deaths of these men – Privates Stretton, Painter, Cottom, Barrow, Cavley, Haynes, Sergent and Matthews. Lance Corporals Keeping, Eaton, Wells and Greenway and 2nd Lieutenant Vere Talbot Bayley, the teenage subaltern who led them, was appalling. It is particularly sobering to think that Bayly was barely a year out of Sherborne School.
SOMEWHERE between the Nazi concentration camp in the Czech Republic and the site of the old Stalin monument in Budapest, we floated through a fairy-tale world of castles and cathedrals and, yes, schnitzel with noodles and whiskers on kittens.
Sailing down the mighty Danube – Europe’s second longest river – provides the discerning traveller with a huge mixture of experiences. Astonishing sights, beautiful scenery and a troubling but necessary history lesson.
For this great waterway (which isn’t blue by the way, more a grubby, yellowy brown) cuts a majestic swathe through Central Europe and an ever-changing world. One minute it can be Christmas every day and Julie Andrews’ voice floats on the Alpine breeze, the next offers stark reminders of totalitarian monsters, hatred and death.
We started our Avalon Waterways tour firmly on dry land with a three-day break in Prague, staying in the five-star luxury of the Hilton Hotel. This is the hotel of choice for visiting presidents and rock stars, and no wonder.
It was here that we met our fellow passengers and our excellent and entertaining cruise director – the wonderfully named Dragan who, with his shaved head and theatrically sinister Austrian accent, resembled a Bond villain.
Happily his intentions proved entirely positive and for the next 11 days, both aboard our cruise vessel, the MV Poetry, and at his desk in the Hilton foyer, he would prove an unflappable Mr Fix-it.
It was from Prague that we took an optional tour to the Terezin concentration camp, a sinister holding station that played a crucial role in Hitler’s “Final Solution”. Disguised, in an extraordinary wartime propaganda exercise, as a health spa, Terezin proved a place of starvation, punishment and disease where thousands died. It was also a halfway house to the gas chambers.
Though the spectre of the Second World War and the subsequent Communist stranglehold on Eastern Europe cast its shadow across our entire journey, it also shed light on the sense of survival that inhabits so much of mainland Europe.
Boarding the Poetry at Nuremberg, scene of the Nazi War Trials, we set off on a truly remarkable trip that would take us through a dizzying mix of picture postcard scenery, including ancient castles and historic cathedrals.
Climbing through a series of spectacular locks from the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal to the river proper, we sailed to historic ports like Regensburg, Passau and Melk, gliding through the rising mist of the beautiful Wachau Valley to Vienna and then on to Budapest.
Every stop provided jaw-on-the-floor sights, amazing Baroque architecture, solid silver altars, art treasures, winding cobbled streets and history – social, religious and political – stretching back over centuries.
It wasn’t all high-culture and self-improvement, though. In Salzburg we were treated to an insight into the home city of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and also a dedicated Sound of Music movie tour. To the accompaniment of a singalong soundtrack, we visited the original film locations and heard how, while they love Julie Andrews, the locals are still not too keen on Christopher Plummer, who got all moody on set, hated the children, insisted on staying in a separate hotel and later dismissed the famous musical as “The Sound of Mucus”.
As well as sightseeing, our journey offered opportunities too for shopping and the chance to sample Bavarian beers, specialist sausages, gingerbread… the list went on.
The catering aboard the Poetry – three meals a day and quality wine with dinner each night – was so good there was barely room for an alfresco Bratwurste for elevenses.
The ship was a state- of-the-art river cruiser. Supremely comfortable and beautifully run by a friendly and mainly Hungarian, crew. Entertainment was provided nightly and we quickly found convivial dining and drinking companions. Our 125 fellow passengers included doctors, lawyers, a vet, a petroleum geologist, a sculptor, an economics lecturer and even a couple who hire out private jet aircraft to celebrity clients. It just shows that it’s good to pull out of life’s fast-lane once in a while. I can’t think of a better way of doing it.
The sun is rising over the oasis and I have just woken up in Kate Winslett’s bed. It doesn’t get much better than this. We’re in Morocco on the edge of the great Sahara desert enjoying the eccentric delights of the inimitable Hotel Kasbah Tizimi and even though the delectable Miss Winslett has not been here for 15 long years, it is gorgeous.
She stayed here in 1995 while filming Hideous Kinky and fell in love with the place – there’s a framed, handwritten note in the foyer to prove it. Now we’re here too and as a special upgrade we’ve been given her room.
With a palm-fringed pool just steps away, it is tempting not to go anywhere but there is so much to see and do that soon we are heading for the nearby desert village of Rissani. We visit the mausoleum of Moulay Ali Sharif, founder of the Alawite dynasty who ruled here 400 years ago and stroll past a bustling livestock market to the souk where traders haggle over pungent and colourful spices.
In the afternoon we climb into a hired 4X4 and, with driver Yusef at the wheel, are soon off-road and heading 50 kilometers into the desert. An hour or so later we are in a goatskin tent sipping mint tea with Berber tribespeople and preparing to ride camels across the majestic sand dunes at sunset. The perfect end to the perfect day and just one of the many memorable moments enjoyed by my wife, photographer Hattie Miles, and I on a recent Highlights of Morocco tour, a comprehensive ten day journey that does exactly what it says on the tin.
Starting from Marrakech we boarded a coach and headed first to Casablanca and then along the coast to Rabat, Meknes and Fez. Picking up local guides along the way there were visits to Royal Palaces, ancient mosques and colourful markets.There were also comfortable hotels, and breakfast and dinner was included most days. Our fellow travellers included a dentist, an oil worker, an Israeli artist, an urban planning boss and a globe-trotting, ballroom dancing psychiatric nurse. Plenty of fascinating conversation there. They weren’t the kind of people you’d expect to find on a coach holiday but the general concensus was that it was a most agreeable way of seeing a lot in a short space of time.
At Casablanca there was a chance to visit the huge ultra-modern Hassan II Mosque which towers over the seafront with its 200 meter high minaret. It can hold 25,000 worshippers, has an electric roof, a glass floor and a laser beam that points to Mecca. Meanwhile a tour of the magnificent Chella Gardens with its Roman ruins and nesting storks near Rabat offered a reminder of Morocco’s long and intriguing history.
At Fez ancient and modern combine. There are swish continental style tree-lined boulevards but in parts of the city life continues much as it has for hundreds of years. The 6,000 alleyways that wind through the old Medina must be the ultimate maze. We headed south, travelling through the Middle Atlas Mountains and the spectacular Ziz Valley to our Sahara hotel at Erfoud. From there we made our way through the stunning terrain of the Dades Valley to the oasis resort of Ouarzazat.
Finally it was time to return to Marrakesh but before driving across the High Atlas through the 7,414 foot high Tizi-n-Tichkas Pass we visited Ait-Benhaddou, the setting for many films including Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator. It was here that a cheery little man called Ali offered to take us to his primitive hillside home. His battered stone house is part of a settlement that dates back nearly a thousand years. His family sleep on bed-rolls on the bare floor, the ‘kitchen’ is basically a hole-in-the-wall oven and until recently water had to be collected by donkey and pannier from a well four kilometers away. The village now has the ultimate in mod-cons – several standpipes.
Ali’s local claim to fame is that he worked as an extra on Gladiator. The contrast between his life in rugged, rural Morocco and the luxury lavished on the multi-million dollar world of the Hollywood film industry could not be greater. It comes as little surprise though when we hear that at least one factor in director Ridley Scott’s decision to repeatedly use Morocco as a location for his films is that he can shoot for nine solid weeks in places like Ait-Benhaddou for the price of a few days in the USA.
It’s a sobering thought and as we arrived back in Morocco’s fabled ‘pink city’ Marrakech where we had opted for a two day extension we couldn’t help but notice the huge amount of development as the metropolis grows and modernises. Morocco’s ancient beautiful heart still beats loudly but the chasm between the haves and have nots is widening. Now is the time to visit, while this astonishing country is still real.
FOR someone whose earliest memories are of torture and genocide Sothy laughs a great deal. The cheery 32-year-old works as a freelance tour guide helping to establish Cambodia on the tourist map.
He specialises in taking English and American travellers to Angkor Wat and other ancient temples near his home town of Siem Reap. His informative lectures about the kingdoms, wars and civilisations of the past are punctuated with little jokes and he always seems to have a ready smile.
Yet despite his cheerful demeanour and relatively tender years Sothy is a survivor of Pol Pot’s brutal regime, the crazed dictatorship that, in the mid to late 1970s, saw literally millions starved, beaten, interrogated, tortured and put to death.
Sothy was only a child when the Khmer Rouge came for his mother.
Accused of trying to exchange a shirt for a bowl of rice, she was thrown in jail. They took the boy too. And, with his mother’s screams echoing in his ears, Sothy was stripped naked, tied to a tree and smothered in ants.
He remembers the fear and confusion and he remembers the sores that festered until he was half crazy but he can recall little else. Three months later they were released.
“My mother says I cried all the time,” he told me. “That I had a big head and a little skinny body but when I ask her about it she cries.too” He says he doesn’t know why they were spared but there’s a haunted look in his eyes as he talks about it.
Cambodia is a fascinating, beautiful and rewarding country to visit. It’s magnificent emples are its main attraction but tourists are also confronted with the ghosts of the all too recent recent past and the legacy of Pol Pot’s insane Maoist-Leninist experiment.
We had arrived in this beautiful but battered country at the end of a fascinating 10 day, top-to-toe tour of Vietnam with the holiday company Archers Direct. That trip had taken us from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City in the south. With knowledegable guides and extremely comfortable accomodation, it was a great way to see a fascinating part of the world.
Touching down in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh at the start of a three night Kingdom of Cambodia extension to our holiday we found oureslves embarking on an eye-opening experience. The first thing you realise is how extraordinarily poor the place is. The escalator at the airport (one of only two, we were told, in the entire country ) is a prime destination for family outings. Not surprising perhaps. For when a schoolteacher is lucky to earn US$25 a month, a ride on a moving staircase must represent a rare and affordable luxury
Next stop was the Genocide Museum – a thought-provoking guided tour of Pol Pot’s feared S21 secret prison. Housed in an unremarkable looking former Secondary School building, it still boasts the iron bedsteads that they manacled the prisoners and a gruesome variety of instruments of torture that led to the deaths of almost all who were taken there. Of the 14,000 plus men, women and children dragged through the doors of S21 only seven emerged alive. Inside the old schoolrooms the dead are still present in the form of hundreds, maybe thousands of prison photographs. The victims – Pol Pot’s supposed political enemies – each hold a number. Their crime was being educated, able to read, inclined to question. Some were tortured and executed simply because they wore glasses. Others because they had nicely manicured nails. They were beaten to death. Bullets were deemed too expensive to waste on mere prisoners.
Around both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap the notorious Killing Fields are easy to find. They are not, as I had naively imagined, remote, discreet and distant but right there on the edge of town. In fact those same fields – the last resting place of literally hundreds of thousands of innocent victims – are now sprouting four and five star hotels: a cash crop to feed the burgeoning tourist industry.
Such information can of course prove disquieting to holidaymakers who simply believe they are jetting into an, until recently, hard to visit place to see some old and interesting temples. And so it should. I was impressed and proud of the fact that the party we were with embraced the fascinating and salutary history lesson that was Cambodia with enthusiasm and intelligence.
The temples too of course were quite amazing. Lavishly carved and dating back a thousand years or more the most impressive are clustered around the ancient Khmer capital of Angkor.
There was the magnificent jewel in Cambodia’s tourism crown – the towering, beautiful and well-ordered Angkor Wat – so much bigger than we had imagined – in fact an entire city five miles in circumference. But there were many other treasures too, like the massive carved heads and huge gateways at Angkor Thom and the Bayon with its bas reliefs showing ancient battles, real and mythological. Best of all perhaps was Ta Prohm which is still half-consumed by the jungle. It’s ravaged walls and tower’s entwined in the roots of giant self-seeded banyan trees.
Cambodia offers astonishing sights, including some places that even the locals have been unable to access for years. Away from the tourist trail, the country is still heavily mined. Hidden explosives continue to claim between 600 and 700 lives a year and until very recently travel in the leading carriage of the local trains was free of charge because it doubled as a minesweeper.
In Vietnam they also bear scars of terrible times but, while what they call The American War is far from forgotten, this is clearly a young, vibrant country looking to the future. Sure ageing hippies can still find The Doors and Jimi Hendrix on countless juke boxes and you can buy “battle scarred” Zippo lighters, scuffed and battered and bearing such legends as “When I die bury me face down so the whole world can kiss my ass.” It’s tourism though, not history.
Flying into Vietnam via Bangkok, our journey started in Hanoi, a bustling city with quite literally a million mopeds. Having learnt to cross the road – an art that requires courage, blind-faith and and the acquisition of a deep sense of fatalism, we spent a couple of happy days exploring street markets and stalls, temples and tourist sites.
We then drove briefly north towards the Chinese border for a sailing trip among the towering limestone pillars, rocky outcrops and caves of Halong Bay.
After an overnight stay we flew down to Da Nang – base for a huge US military presence during the war and still a magnet for veterans revisiting their past. We spent a couple of days in the idyllic and ancient riverside town of Hoi An where tailoring is a speciality – they’ll knock you up a perfect suit, shirt, dress, you name it in next to no time – we also ate perhaps the best croissants of our lives – an indication of the culinary impact left by years of French rule.
We drove form Hoi An to the ancient capital of Hue. Packed with history and war damage, it delivered some haunting images, not least the shattered remains of its astonishing 16th century Citadel most of which was smashed to dust and rubble by American troops during the Tet offensive in 1968.
“What a pity!” said our guide. Ironically this had been the exact phrase used by a previous guide back in Hanoi when informing us that Uncle Ho was not receiving visitors in his mausoleum because his mummified body was undergoing “technical maintenance”. It all seemed a rather undignified for fate for a man who specifically asked that he should be cremated.
We did however get the chance to visit the Presidential Palace and the “simple house” in its grounds where Ho Chi Minh, president from 1954 to 1969 and leader of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam through the height of the war, chose to live.
He claimed that it proved he was truly a man of the people. I’m not so sure . While based on a traditional peasant stilt house, it is relatively spacious and very attractive with lots of highly polished wood and a pleasing open-plan design. If it hadn’t been for the special shelf for Ho’s tin hat and hotline telephone and the padded door next to his bed leading to the bomb bunker it wouldn’t have looked out of place in Homes and Gardens.
Finally we flew to the vibrant and buzzing melting-pot that bears his name. Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as the locals still insist on calling it, is a brilliant, bustling metropolis full of sights, sounds and sensations. To reach them required more death-defying road crossing. It really is difficult to get your head around the concept of stepping in front of 70 or 80 motorcycles which you know are not going to stop. The instruction was “Just walk slowly and they’ll go round you” Astonishingly they do.
In 10 days in Vietnam we saw a beautiful country, wonderful street-life, pagodas and palaces. We enjoyed river trips and the hospitality of gentle friendly people, wonderful food and of course many reminders of a war-ravaged past. In Ho Chi Minh City we spent an afternoon at the diplomatically renamed War Remnants Museum (it used to be called The War Crimes Museum). After viewing, among other horrors, exhibits and first hand accounts relating to the My Lai massacre there was something particularly chilling about returning to a very comfortable four star hotel switching on CNN and seeing footage of an American Marine casually blowing away a wounded and unarmed insurgent in Falluja. Nothing, it would seem, changes. Just the names and the places.
Want a wonderfully weird thing to do in the Hampshire countryside? Try a visit to Selborne and the 18th century home and garden of naturalist, author, gardener and parish priest Gilbert White. You might know it. It’s a fascinating place and, as its name suggests, devoted to the story of the Rev White’s life-long investigation of the natural world and his enduring influence on botanists and naturalists right up to the present day.
Although visitors must wear masks and social distancing is rigidly adhered to we didn’t need to book. They just sell 50 tickets in the morning and 50 in the afternoon. First come, first served basis.
Bizarrely this it appears that this country house museum wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the Family Trust of polar explorer Captain Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates. I may be wrong but it appears to bankroll the entire project in return for using the upstairs as their own Oates Museum.
The result is a pairing of two rather chaotically curated displays which appear to occasionally and inexplicably overlap. Hence, you wander into Gilbert White’s perfectly appointed 18th century English front parlour with its Queen Ann and Chippendale style furniture and suddenly find yourself confronted by a couple of rather misplaced taxidermy specimens – a penguin and a decidedly moth-eaten impala. The latter bears a notice saying ‘Please don’t touch. I’m losing my hair’. Though there is no explanation, the creature appears be a reference to the intrepid travels of Captain Oates’ Uncle Frank who has a room or two upstairs devoted to his pioneering expeditions to ‘Darkest Africa’ the last of which sadly proved fatal.
They weren’t a lucky family, the Oates. Most of the upper floors are devoted to Captain Oates famed role in Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated 1912 expedition to the South Pole. ‘I’m going outside. I may be sometime‘ and all that. Never mind thanks to Oates extraordinary act of self-sacrifice and Gilbert White’s intriguing house.
Downstairs the house – the odd penguin or impala aside – is a wonderful celebration of Gilbert White’s life-long investigation of the natural world as displayed through his house and wonderful 19th century garden. We learn of his fascination with all living creatures including a recording showing how he might have praised his prized collection of cockroaches to his horrified housekeeper.
There is no doubting his influence on natural science over the last 200 plus years. His book The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne was originally published in 1889 and has never been out of print.
The famously free-spirited Durrell family probably didn’t realise it at the time but when they ditched their digs in dank 1930s Bournemouth and headed for the sunshine of Corfu they were writing a little piece of history.
Widow Louisa and her children Larry, Margo, Leslie and Gerry spent only a few idyllic years on the Greek Island but it was long enough to sow the seeds of a legacy that lives large to this day.
Eighty years later millions tuned in each week to watch The Durrells, the good-hearted ITV drama series based on their exploits. What many don’t know is that by the 1950s and 60s the family was firmly back in Bournemouth.
Gerald was finding fame as a pioneering naturalist, conservationist and best-selling author and would go on to establish the famous Jersey Zoo and Durrell Wildlife Trust.
Eldest brother Larry meanwhile had become literary superstar, Lawrence Durrell, author of The Alexandria Quartet. Fans of the TV show will not be surprised that Leslie made a rather less spectacular impact. Always the most vulnerable of the siblings, he was living over a Bournemouth off-licence with his gun collection and lurching from one failed business venture to the next.
But what of sister Margo? In TV version of The Durrells she is a force of nature, a scatty, fun-loving teenager determined to make her presence felt amidst the creative chaos of her brothers. By all accounts it was a fairly accurate reading of her character. For the real Margo was loved by everyone and remained at the hub of the Durrell family for the rest of her life. She died aged 87 in 2007.
Despite being charismatic, joyful to know and leading an extraordinary life, she never sought the limelight and as a result was rather eclipsed in the public-eye by her famous brothers.
In the 1960s she quietly set about redressing the balance by penning her own fascinating memoir. It was called, of course, Whatever Happened to Margo? It remained unpublished for nearly 30 years until her granddaughter Tracy Breeze found the dusty manuscript covered in handwritten corrections hidden away in a drawer in Margo’s Bournemouth home.
Tracy laboriously retyped it and, in 1995, Whatever Happened to Margo? finally arrived on the nation’s bookshelves. It was a fascinating, rather madcap tale. It was well received but by the time The Durrells hit the small screen it had been out of print for years. Two years ago Penguin republished Margo’s book to coincide with the final season of the Tv series and no one was more delighted than Tracy, the daughter of Gerry Breeze the elder of Margo’s two sons.
At the time she told me. “I loved my nan. She was such an amazing person and we were incredibly close because she actually brought me up from the age of 11 when my mother died.” She remembers Margo being open-minded, adventurous and above all lots of fun. “She was the heart and soul of the family.”
In the opening episode of that last season of The Durrells, mother Louisa describes Margo as having “a mind like a roomful of starlings.” Was she really that scatterbrained? Tracy didn’t hesitate. “No, free-spirited would be a more accurate term.” The Tv show, she admitted, was a little exaggerated but she loved it, telling me: “The impact it’s having on the Durrell family is fantastic. It’s helping to sell Uncle Gerry’s books and promoting the Jersey zoo which is continuing his work with endangered species. For me that ticks all the boxes. As for seeing my grandmother portrayed as a teenager, that’s absolutely fine. It just makes me smile.”
Whatever Happened to Margo? lifts the lid on what happened after the family left Corfu. It finds Margo, now in her late 20s, returning to post-war Bournemouth in 1947. Her marriage to a dashing RAF pilot, Jack Breeze, is sadly over and she has two small children to bring up. She spends an inheritance on buying a substantial property in the Bournemouth suburb of Charminster with the intention of running a boarding house.
It doesn’t quite turn out the way she’s planned. She will soon have brother Gerald keeping a small menagerie of exotic animals in her back garden and several chimpanzees and a six foot python as house pets.
As for the paying tenants? Her boundless good nature finds her acting as landlady to a stream of characters who are guaranteed get the net curtains of Charminster twitching like mad. There’s a painter of nudes and a pair of glamorous nurses whose revolving gentleman callers lead to suspicions that she is running a brothel.
Tracy remembered the house, at 51 St Albans Avenue, well recalling that Margo’s open-mindedness and live and let live philosophy meant everyone was welcome. “She would probably have taken in the tenants that other people were turning away. She just accepted everyone for who they were. The Durrells were all very down earth despite coming from a privileged background. One minute Uncle Gerry would be talking to Princess Diana and the next he’d be asking the dustman in for a cup of tea. There were no barriers.”
Tracy insists that growing up as a member of the Durrell family just seemed normal to her. “As a child I don’t think I realised how special it was. You just accept things, but I was very lucky indeed to be brought up by my nan. She was my best friend and we had great adventures. We even went back to Corfu which she had always felt such strong connection to.”
Margo was described at her funeral by Gerry’s widow, Lee Durrell director of the Durrell Wildlife Trust, as “One of a kind who sparkled with her own special joie de vivre and enriched the lives of everyone around her with an aura of happy serenity and a marvellous sense of fun.”
Her friends and family in Bournemouth knew Margo as a woman who loved reading, art exhibitions, walking by the sea and visiting churches. Needless to say this latter interest crossed all faiths. Even though she was a chanting Buddhist she worked for a time as an enthusiastic guide to Christchurch Priory.
She also somehow found time to write another book. The manuscript tells of a time when her children had grown up and she was looking for another adventure. She answered a small ad in the local newspaper took a job with the crew of a Greek cruise line sailing the Caribbean. Her second memoir is called Growing Old Disgracefully and now Tracy is hoping to find a publisher for that too. Watch this space.