Denmark Street, The Rolling Stones, Vince Taylor And Denis Nilsen

If you haven’t got round to checking out Rob Baker’s Nickel in the Machine blog yet, you are missing out –  it’s a fascinating trip around the murkier side of the celebrities and demi monde that inhabited twentieth century London. In his day job Rob is a TV producer, but is concentrating more and more on writing, having recently launched The London Project in an interactive version for the iPad, and he is also currently researching and writing a book about Teddy Boys. Get more of Rob’s daily updates of vintage goodies on twitter @robnitm


Denmark Street – The Kinks

Down the way from the Tottenham Court Road
Just round the corner from old Soho
There’s a place where the publishers go
If you dont know which way to go
Just open your ears and follow your nose
Cos the street is shakin from the tapping of toes
You can hear that music play anytime on any day
Every rhythm, every way
You got to a publisher and play him your song
He says i hate your music and you hair is too long
But I’ll sign you up because I’d hate to be wrong

Regent Sound Studios is a shop in Denmark Street just off the north end of Charing Cross Road and these days mostly sells Fender guitars, but a lovely reconstructed sign above the window illustrates its former life as a tiny but famous recording studio. In November 1963 The Rolling Stones made some demo recordings there, mostly new songs they had recently been practising and playing during their nationwide tour. The band so loved the sound of the primitive, cramped studio, with  egg-cartons as soundproofing and curtains on the wall to deaden the sound, that they became the first band to use the studio to record their master recordings, in a bid to get away from the major record company studios with their strait-laced tie-wearing producers.

In January 1964 they started to record their first LP, eventually to be called, simply, The Rolling Stones. The studio was so small that there was hardly any definition between the instruments and the band could hardly avoid putting down on tape an exciting approximation of their live sound of the time.

Mick Jagger in the cramped recording studio December 1963

In February they started recording their future single ‘Not Fade Away’, a cover of Buddy Holly’s original. They were in the middle of a grueling tour and the group were tired, fractious and hardly speaking to each other – and they’d almost given up working out how to record the song. Their manager Andrew Oldham phoned his friend Gene Pitney – the American music star, who was currently in London, for inspiration. Gene Pitney was currently having a huge hit in the UK and the US with 24 Hours From Tulsa.


Gene Pitney in London February 1963

Gene Pitney and the producer Phil Spector suddenly turned up at the studio along with several bottles of inspiring brandy. Unsurprisingly the mood turned much for the better and the recording of Not Fade Away and its subsequent b side ‘Little By Little’ were at last recorded. Phil Spector is listed as playing the maracas on both the recordings but his instrument was actually an empty cognac bottle hit with a Half-Crown coin.

It’s worth noting that in early 1964 Phil Spector was at the absolute height of his fame and in the preceding year had produced ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ and ‘Then He Kissed Me’ by The Crystals and ‘Be My Baby’ and ‘Baby, I Love You’ by The Ronettes – undoubtedly some of the greatest pop records ever made. The self-confidence of twenty year old Andrew Oldham who had decided upon himself to produce the Rolling Stones’ first recordings must have been phenomenal. Oldham himself said of his early career as a producer – “I didn’t have to be technically proficient. I didn’t play an instrument, wasn’t an engineer or a technician, but I had a vision.” Soon after, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger returned Gene Pitney’s favour and wrote ‘That Girl Belonged To Yesterday’ for him. It was their first song to become successful in America and Pitney’s endorsement certainly didn’t hinder them finding favour there.

Andrew Loog Oldham in Denmark Street 1964

Denmark Street had been a musical street since the late 19th century, with music publishers finding a place next to London’s West End theatres. Both the UK’s famous music magazines, Melody Maker at number 19 and the New Music Express at number 5, started publishing in there. At number 20 Elton John- (then in 1965 simply plain old Reg Dwight), worked as an office boy for one of the large music publishers, Mills Music. He was paid just £5 per week and couldn’t have dreamt that within just eight years he would apparently be responsible for an incredible 2% of the world’s entire record sales. A few years before superstardom Elton also recorded at Regent Sound studios when he churned out an unknown number of soundalike recordings for Woolworth’s own label Embassy Records.

In 1965 the American folk-singer Paul Simon walked into Mills Music proudly presenting two new songs he had recently written, The Sound of Silence and Homeward Bound. Unfortunately homeward bound was exactly where the man responsible for listening to new music sent him when he rejected the songs for being uncommercial and complicated. We can only hope that occasionally he and the man at Decca records who first auditioned The Beatles would meet up at their local pub, shake their heads sadly and wonder what might have been. Simon, after the rejection, decided to start his own publishing company called Charing Cross Music and has subsequently, and sensibly, kept the rights to all his music ever since.

At number 9 in the Street, the Giaconda Cafe was a mod hang-out and this was where David Bowie met his first backing band – the Lower Third, and it was where he met Vince Taylor, the failed ‘leather rocker’. Vince’s real name was Brian Holden and he is known mostly these days for recording, as Vince Taylor and his Playboys, ‘Brand New Cadillac’, a song later of course covered by The Clash on London Calling. He had moved to France earlier in the decade and had become a leather-clad rocker and Elvis-like hero to French audiences. Taylor eventually became the inspiration for Bowie’s famous alter ego –

“I met (Vince Taylor) a few times in the mid-Sixties and I went to a few parties with him. He was out of his gourd. Totally flipped. The guy was not playing with a full deck at all. He used to carry maps of Europe around with him, and I remember him opening a map outside Charing Cross tube station, putting it on the pavement and kneeling down with a magnifying glass. He pointed out all the sites where UFOs were going to land. He was the inspiration for Ziggy. Vince Taylor was a rock n roll star from the Sixties who was slowly going crazy. Finally, he fired his band and went on-stage one night in a white sheet. He told the audience to rejoice, that he was Jesus. They put him away.”

By June 1972, the month that Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album was released, Vince Taylor had managed to rebuild his career in France and brought out an album called “Vince is Alive, Well and Rocking in Paris” sadly not many people noticed he was still alive, let alone well and rocking, and after spending much of his life in prisons, psychiatric institutions and pretty much continually ‘out of his gourd’ he died in 1991 in Switzerland at the age of 52.

In the seventies the Giaconda snack bar became a punk hang-out with groups such as The Clash and The Slits wasting their hours drinking tea. A few doors down from the cafe the Sex Pistols rehearsed and lived in a grotty flat above a shop at number 6 (they eventually left after struggling to find the measly £4 weekly rent). To this day Denmark Street is still obviously part of the music industry but is now almost completely dominated by musical instrument shops (an exception is the excellent but tiny 12 Bar Club music venue) and the Giaconda Cafe is now just an average Indian Restaurant called Spice Spice. Although possibly I’m wrong and it’s so good they named it twice.

I’m not sure if Denis Nilson, the infamous serial killer who murdered at least fifteen men in his flat in North London, had a musical note in his body but for some time in the late 1970s and early 80s he worked at the Job Centre at 1 Denmark Street. In 1980 (which would have been right in the middle of his killing spree), he offered to help with the food for the office Christmas party and brought along a huge saucepan. Former colleagues only realised during the trial that this was the same saucepan that had been used to boil the heads of several of his victims.

Noseybonk presents: Confessions of a Radio 1 Disc Jockey

Noseybonk can see you

Well-loved DJ and fundraiser Kenny Bovril passed away peacefully in his sleep last year. However, a private document, discovered only after his death, has fallen into the hands of Noseybonk. It reveals a dark secret hidden for decades…

Pamela Smethwick, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Pa Mel La: the tips of the lips meet twice to kiss, once quick, then slow, before the tongue lingers lovingly on the palate. Pa. Meh. Lla. She was Pam, plain Pam, in the morning. She was Pammy in slacks. She was Ms Smethwick on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Pamela.

She should, of course, have been my downfall. But here I am, a free man, beloved, beknighted and mouldering peacefully in my grave. You are reading this because my sins are now known; it matters nothing to my dead conscience.

Since I’m in the mood for confessing, let me own that I was not always Kenny Bovril, popular Radio 1 Disc Jockey. Hoping for a soldier or a saint or a solicitor, my mother bestowed on me the upstanding name of Alfred James Arthur Xavier. Her hopes were wholly dashed: I became an academic. Yet perhaps she must shoulder a share of the blame for her accidental acronym, because I took to the Ancients, with the accent on the Greek.

As an Oxford don I was a dismal failure and unpopular to boot: ever in combat with porters and, especially, librarians. One particularly violent contretemps with a dunce at the Bodleian (who, thinking the entire works of Galen marginal to the study of the ancient world, shipped them all off to Swindon) landed me in hot water. As it turned out, my Professorial colleagues were in no mood to rescue me from boiling. They disapproved, you see, of my little soirees, and in particular the guests who came to my quarters on drizzly afternoons or foggy, foggy nights. Insufferable old fuddy-duddies! They frowned not upon the gender, nor the race, nor even the quantity; but upon the age, as if love were a game of numbers! Inevitably, I fled.

My reincarnation as Kenny ‘Bovvers’ Bovril – clucking clown, spinner of discs, warbler of drivel – was as improbable as it was strategically brilliant. Who could have known it was old A.J.A.X. behind that preposterous fringe and curly beard? What former student could guess it was the Prof himself, chirping inanities about The Sweet and Gilbert O’Sullivan between 11am and 1pm, Monday to Thursday? God knows I detested pop music! But, mes amis, I consoled myself thus: like Oxford, it was a means to an end. Every step I have taken, every leap into the darkness, each degradation I have suffered – all has been at the service of one master: my exquisite peccadillo. In that sense, I have been pure.

But how did I get away with it? you ask, feigning querulous outrage like the tiresome prig you really are. Well, consider the times. The past is another country, and at Radio 1 in 1977 we did things very differently there. Weird was safe, old was young, youth was everything, but age had power. What a cast of ghouls we were, flouching around those brown corridors, guzzling Hofmeister and Nescafe, flashing our chest-hair at the soggy receptionists. The Hairy Cornflake. ‘Fluff’ Freeman, Kid Jensen. Gits the lot of them. Think of the conversations I had to grin through! Paul ‘Yawnsville’ Gambuccini, rabbiting on and on about the ‘achievements’ of pop musicians as if they were Tudor Monarchs! John Peel and his wretched bald patch. And don’t get me started on Blackburn.

Dear God, the phoney Cockney-cum-Mid-Atlantic accent I had to adopt! The catchphrases I had to coin, mirthless ejaculations of nothingness, spat gobbets of imbecility. Strike a light, sister!… Pull the other one, it’s got a bell on the end!… It ain’t over yet, Chuckie-Pig! Doubtless that last is on my gravestone, and sod all about the PhD in Hellenistic Poetry.

So you see I have suffered for my sins. But oh! the magic of the dressing rooms, with Linda, with Sharon, with Pamela…. And at the Beeb I could hide in plainest view.

I was suspected from the off. The other Jockeys at Radio 1 were as concupiscent a gaggle of old goats as you’ll find anywhere in the bordellos of Broadcasting House, but they had their lines in the sand, I suppose. Like the Oxford Dons, they frowned but no more. It was the culture, the gentleman’s club. Eyebrows were raised hither and thither. Hints and flashes…

…At an aftershow party I express a preference for nylons over bobby socks….


…A private DJ bash one night at the National Gallery: the other DJs purr at the cherubs, I linger lovingly at Rubens’s fat trio of Goddesses….


…A sixteen year-old beauty from the typing pool brings her mother in one day: I  am witnessed paying undue attention…

I was not quite alone at the BBC in my peculiar predilection for grown women. DLT was partial to German wenches in their thirties. Bruno Brookes liked ‘em old. We knew each other by sight, fellow travellers on the forbidden path. But at free-wheelin’ Radio 1 a man could not openly declare his lust for buxom forty five-year old divorcees in sensible shoes. And that, mes amis, is precisely what Pamela Smethwick was – an innocent maid with two kids and a hefty mortgage – whom, God forgive me, I enticed into my sickly orange dressing room with promises of tea and bourbon biscuits and a full recitation of my catchphrases. Strike a light, sister, you don’t get too many of those to the pound!

It was Savile who caught us canoodling between sips. Bursting in was just one of his myriad horrible habits. Now then, now then, he croaked automatically. A grin of purest evil spliced with disgust slithered across his goblin features. It was no use pretending. Tumescent and filled at last with the rage of frustrated decades, I leapt across the room to silence him.

But I reckoned without his uncanny strength: the wiry little bastard was a professional wrestler, and soon had me expertly bent in a half-nelson. Pamela was screaming fit to wake the dead (of which I, now I come to think of it, am one, and so is he. We shall not wake). He had me over a barrel. There was no choice: a deal had to be struck. I’ll keep your little secret, leered the rotten old troll. And you’ll help me keep mine.

And so I did, my friends. Until now, when it’s too late for you or anyone else to do a sweet little thing about it. That was my sin. I never got my knighthood, but the scrawny satanic marathonist got his, and what can you do to him now? Tear down his gravestone? Go ahead, you have my blessing. Do your worst.

It’s all over now, Chuckie-Pig…

Professor Kenny Bovril (deceased)

Noseybonk’s book Blogmanship: How to Win Arguments on the Internet Without Really Knowing What You are Talking About, is available to buy as an eBook from Amazon or as a PDF direct from The Dabbler.



Cartoon by The Spine. Noseybonk can see you.

Vacancy at The Dabbler! Would you like to be the Editor of our Book Club?

The Dabbler Book Club currently has approximately 1000 members, who receive a monthly email newsletter and are entered into regular free draws to win new books, along with various other goodies and freebies.

Now we’re looking for someone to take the Club to the next level and become Dabbler Book Club Editor. Are you that person? Or is that person someone you know?

One very important point: you will not be paid! The Dabbler is a labour of love for its editors and writers and what little monies we do get in via the League of Dabblers are ploughed back into the running costs of a traffic-heavy site. (That’s partly why we need someone to help us run the Book Club).

However, lack of money aside, there are benefits:

  • you’ll get sent a lot of free books by eager publishers
  • you’ll make lots of contacts in the publishing world, including editors, authors and PR bods – great for the CV
  • you’ll get to wield surprising influence and power in matters bookish
  • you’ll get to play a major role in the exciting growth of The Dabbler and meet lots of interesting people
  • you can do it from home at hours that suit you.

Therefore the role might suit:

  • a student, graduate or other thrusting young person who wants to get into publishing, PR or marketing and gain some invaluable experience and top-end contacts
  • a book-lover with time on his or her hands, possibly retired, possibly between jobs, possibly just needing a new hobby.

What it will involve:

  • liaising with publishers to select regular book choices
  • publicising and growing the book club membership
  • discovering and working with book reviewers, including up-and-coming authors
  • interviewing authors – most likely by email
  • helping write the monthly or special email newsletters
  • running competitions
  • exploring sponsorship opportunities
  • other exciting ideas that you come up with
  • some admin, mostly managing the members’ list and posting out books.

It’ll probably take you a few hours a week to cover the basics. Beyond that, it’s up to you how much time you want to spend developing the Book Club – but the more enthusiastic you are, the better.

Ideally you will be:

  • a reader of The Dabbler, so you get what we’re about
  • very keen on books old and new, including fiction
  • interested in blogging and social media (include relevant links in your application)
  • a nice person, not mad, though mildly eccentric is okay
  • based in the UK – and willing to (very occasionally) travel to London

Deadline is 30 November 2012.

If you or someone you know (your partner, son or daughter, aunt, grandfather, second cousin etc) might be interested in becoming The Dabbler’s Book Club Editor, email Brit at explaining why you think you’re right  for the job. Important: please put  ‘Editor Job’ in the email’s subject line, and please allow a few weeks for a reply.

The Sonnets of William Matthews

Nige discovers an overlooked gem – the poet William Matthews, who wrote sonnets about basketball, getting old and office life…

Opening Don Paterson’s anthology 101 Sonnets at random, I came across this beauty, by William Matthews, an American poet I had never encountered before (he died in his 50s in 1997, having never been fashionable). This sonnet, loosely Miltonic, vividly evokes (for me anyway) that awful bleak loneliness of the adolescent male (the boy ‘in molt’). It’s simply, often monosyllabically worded, but exquisitely crafted, and towards the end the conversational tone rises into a higher register – ‘for I knew none by name among that hazy company’ could be Edward Thomas – bringing the sonnet to a strong, sad finish.


CHEAP SEATS, the Cincinnati Gardens, Professional Basketball, 1959

The less we paid, the more we climbed. Tendrils
of smoke lazed just as high and hung there, blue,
particulate, the opposite of dew.
We saw the whole court from up there. Few girls
had come, few wives, numerous boys in molt
like me. Our heroes leapt and surged and looped
and two nights out of three, like us, they’d lose.
But ‘like us’ is wrong: we had no result
three nights out of three: so we had heroes.
And ‘we’ is wrong, for I knew none by name
among that hazy company unless
I brought her with me. This was loneliness
with noise, unlike the kind I had at home
with no clocks running down, and mirrors.


Intrigued by this, I dug out a couple more Matthews sonnets. Here’s one taking a Continue reading

Girls Allowed – Four Great Female Composers

Is serious music a man’s game? Not necessarily, says Mahlerman…

Back in 2006 Nicholas Kenyon, then Controller BBC Proms, received an unmerciful kicking in the press and elsewhere for not including a single work by a woman in that season’s programmes.  And even when the compositions of women do appear, they represent a very small proportion of the whole, and are dotted about rather in the manner of an afterthought: an arriere pensee perhaps?  Is this fair?  Are women composers, to put it bluntly, any good?  The pugnacious Thea Musgrave, happily still with us, was in no doubt  – ‘Music is a human art not a sexual one.  Sex is no more important than eye colour’.  And on another occasion: ‘Yes, I am a woman – and I am a composer….but rarely at the same time’.  It is a bigger and more multi-faceted question than we can deal with here but, for myself, when I hear almost anything by, say, Beethoven, it seems to me to be intensely masculine.  However, listening to Chopin, or even some Mozart, I am less sure of my ground.   The greatest ‘put-down’ in musical history came from the father of both Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, Abraham, in a letter to Fanny: ‘Perhaps for Felix music will become a profession, while for you it will always remain but an ornament; never can and should it become the foundation of your existence’.

At the end of the 12th Century when the building of Chartres Cathedral began, a sickly girl was born to a family of minor German nobility three hundred miles away in Bermersheim in the Rhineland.  When she died almost 81 years later, the Cathedral had been completed, and this waif had become one of the most important figures in the history of the Middle Ages, the ‘greatest woman of her time’.  Her name was Hildegard von Bingen.  Her polymathic skills as a mystic and philosopher were quickly recognized, as was her prose and poetry – but it was her musical skills as a monophonic composer of genius, living in an age when musical notation was relatively new, that has made her name in Europe and America over the last 30 years, and allowed us to hear her visionary music pretty much as she would have done over 800 years ago.  Here, the mesmerizing De Sancta – O Splendidissima Gemma, Antiphona for soprano with recorders, violin and lirone, a multi-stringed instrument similar to a viol, and used to produce the distinctive ‘drone effect’.


Born in revolutionary Petrograd in 1919, it is not immediately obvious that Galina Ustvolskaya should appear on the same page as Hildegard von Bingen, but a closer inspection might reveal that although the tools and the methods  show no links, both women were heading in much the same direction.  A pupil of Dimitri Shostakovitch, she fell under his influence as a young woman, but the master soon realized that his charge was something rather special, and in a later letter to her he stated that – ‘it is not you who are influenced by me; rather it is I who am influenced by you’   He went further, proposing marriage to the young woman when his first wife Nina died.  She turned him down.  I struggle to describe her music.  She is unquestionably a modernist – but her music is predominantly tonal.  There are huge and violent dynamic contrasts, cluster chords, and stark dissonance;  quadruple forte and quintuple pianissimo abound. And yet you never sense that this woman is striving for effect, more that she is simply unwilling to compromise on her extreme vision.  Here she is in 1958, a period of relative aural-calm,  in the closing pages of her Symphonic Poem No 1 (Lights in the Steppe).



Ustvolskaya died in 2007 at nearly 88.  Her Tatar countrywoman Sofia Gubaidulina is still breathing God’s air in her early eighties, and urgently productive.  Her Johannes-Passion premiered in 2000, has been called the greatest work of Christian piety in our age and, having heard it several times (once live), I am happy to fall into line behind that statement.  Following de Lassus, Byrd, Schutz and Bach would, you imagine, be quite a daunting prospect, but this woman did not flinch, producing a Continue reading

Creepy and Freaky: Alcatraz

Alcatraz Island emerged from a bank of fog and I suddenly realized why it’s known as The Rock. Stories of ancient curses, military fortresses and its designation as a National Park are not why visitors flock by the ferry-load to this tourist attraction in the Bay of San Francisco. The reputation of the former Federal Penitentiary as one of America’s most notorious prisons from 1934-1963 is what attracts more than 1.3 million people to this curiously fascinating relic each year.

Once on the island and in the thrall of a personal audio-guide, I was transported far away from the queuing tracksuits and baseball caps by a soundtrack narrated by former inmates and guards. Despite legions of tramping trainers, an eerie emptiness pervades the corridors. I kept looking over my shoulder, but no one was there.

The peeling walls harbour a stronghold of iron bars and bedsteads: Cell upon cell of three storey incarceration. On one side of the main prison building sunlight floods in, though the likes of Al Capone and Robert Stroud (aka The Birdman of Alcatraz) would have been lucky to catch glimpses of the outside world from the tiny slits that masquerade as windows. Alcatraz housed over 1500 of the USA’s most troublesome citizens – those whom other prisons wanted done with. People like Alvin ‘Creepy Karpis’ Karpavicz, who spent more time on Alcatraz than any other inmate, from August 1936 until April 1962.

Apart from the regulation bed, bog and prison rulebook, the caged inhabitants had limited space for personal items – though some crocheted their own blankets, painted or wrote poetry.  A sparsely furnished library of around 15,000 volumes (mainly philosophy, fiction and educational books) and concrete exercise yard were seen as sufficient reward for well-behaved inmates. Rehabilitation was unheard of – this was all about punishment.  Isolation in D Block – ‘the treatment unit’ – was reserved for unusually dangerous or violent inmates. Men were confined to their cells for 24 hours a day for up to several years, depending upon the offence.  The six closed-front cells were used for the most severe disciplinary problems. Treatment in ‘the Hole’ sometimes included total darkness and a restricted diet.  This usually lasted for several days, but never more than 19.

Attempts to break free from confinement (as seen in films) are largely fictitious.  The few who managed to escape their cells were either shot by guards, or in the case of five infamous prisoners, presumed drowned…  This being the subject of Escape from Alcatraz, where the prisoners in question chipped their way through cell walls and escaped up a service shaft onto the roof, never to be seen again.

The guards’ and prison warden’s offices had views over the bay to San Francisco, as well as fridges full of Coca Cola. There’s a tiny window, through which visitors could see a convict – and a hole (perhaps illegal?) which looks just about big enough for rubbing noses. The glass is cracked.  Kitchen knives were housed in a way that made it obvious if one were missing  – and tear gas canisters were mounted on the canteen ceiling, though these remained unused until their removal upon the prison’s closure in 1963.

A disturbing vision of life for disturbed people is immortalized on this small island – through buildings, bullet holes, blood stains and the strange sensation of simply being there.

Dabbler Diary: Skunk and Fox

The BBC’s Savile-Newsnight dégringolade, as horrible as it is, offers up an interesting case study to students of management. Is there a symptom of bureaucratic degradation that the corporation is not exhibiting?

We have: the proliferation of managers but a lack of management; the presence of people whose job title begins with the responsibility-lite ‘Deputy'; the tolerance of dubious behaviour and worse as it’s too much bother to do otherwise; the promotion of the incompetent into management non-jobs as the easiest way to extract them from the important roles; the studied avoidance of knowledge in case it turns out to compromise; the right thing being defined by procedure rather than morality; decisions being made by default; not to mention, the widespread wearing of chinos.

This strikes me as very much a post-Hutton BBC – one where everything must be done to avoid erroneous acts of commission, even at the risk of committing ones of omission. Yes, A Gilligan was recklessly wrong in the detail of his Today programme two-way on Iraqi WMDs. But I’d prefer a journalistic organisation that was willing to take risks to get things out into the open than one that wriggled to keep its bonce below the battlements. Especially when it’s an organisation that can put together something as superb as this week’s Panorama.


The wider Savile problem seems to me to be another good argument for the reform of our libel laws. What with the US’s First Amendment protections, I wonder whether an American version of Jimmy Savile is less likely?

You can support libel reform here.


Over on ITV, I watched a few minutes of last Sunday’s Downton Abbey. Most peculiar: actors going out of their way to make it obvious they were acting. It was as if everything was in scare quotes – the dialogue was really too implausible for even the cast to credit it. To adapt Harrison Ford’s comment on George Lucas’s scripts: “you can type this shit but you sure can’t say it”, or at least you can’t with an entirely straight face.

I imagine everyone must be in on the Downton Abbey joke now. In this sense, it’s jumped the shark – knowingness deprives it of unintended humour. This is in contrast to the imperishable Howards Way, which succeeded in maintaining its pretensions to quality drama whilst missing by a hilarious mile (if you want to confirm this you can – it’s all on YouTube, starting here.


It’s not just editors at the BBC who are in trouble. I feel bound to offer some sort of exculpation of my fellow editor’s admission of micturative guilt back in his Monday diary. If such did happen – and I doubt that it did – it occurred into the shrubbery of a small strip of park rather than against a neighbours hedge. I can be certain of this as there are no domestic hedges in Angel.

Of course, and as so often at The Dabbler, we were partaking in a great literary tradition. Indeed, two of my favourite poets, Thomas Hardy and RS Thomas, were skilled and enthusiastic al fresco piddlers.


Whilst I (innocently) go around my business in the streets of London I’m sometimes struck by a musky aroma, usually whilst passing through some dark, leafy corner. At first sniff I’ve been assuming it’s a waft of skunky dope smoke – but it’s actually the scent of dog fox, something I always associate with holes in hedges. It’s a bit disorientating.

Dabbler Diary is brought to you by Glengoyne single malt whisky – the Dabbler’s choice.


This week, Frank pays tribute to an old colleague…

For the best part of twenty years, I worked in an office. I don’t know if local government has changed since the turn of the century, but in my time it seemed to be a haven for the most bewildering collection of oddballs. There was, of course, the expected bevy of middle-class leftie revolutionaries who treated working-class people with loathing and contempt and spent their entire time “building the struggle” rather than doing any of the actual work they were paid – often handsomely – to do. The “struggle” was always taking place in far flung countries of which they knew nothing, Nicaragua or Grenada for example, though it necessitated calling for strike action every few weeks. At least they had not yet developed a weird fixation with Israel and the Palestinians, which I suspect consumes most of them nowadays.

But there were other, far more outré, nutters, slumped over desks or leaping out from behind filing cabinets or patrolling the streets of the borough. There was a young hothead admin assistant who held the unshakeable conviction that Joseph Heller had written a novel entitled Catch-69 and looked with pitying condescension on those who tried to correct him. There was an Iranian quantity surveyor, the spit and image of Christopher Lee in the garb of a dapper undertaker, who I swear did not cast a shadow. There was a paper pusher, obsessed with Viennese psychoanalysts, much given to explaining that he had “done everything”, sexually, without ever going into any detail of what “everything” might consist, and who was constantly on the verge of tears. There was the thespian refuse collector, who worked as a dustman between acting jobs, who had not actually had an acting job for twenty years, yet retained the mien and deportment and voice of Albert Finney in The Dresser. There was the evangelical Christian architect who would be found kneeling in prayer in the middle of the lobby, so visitors had to skirt around him on their way to the reception desk. There was the bluestocking temp who smoked a pipe, and there was the frazzled touch typist who handed in a forty-page report without noticing that it was forty pages of gibberish, having begun her typing session with her fingertips one key to the left of where they ought to have been, and who threatened to take out a formal grievance if she was asked to retype it, shouting her head off with such vituperation that no one dared to give her any more work for a week, so she sat happily manicuring her nails and reading magazines. And there was Nigel.

Back in the early 1980s, before fully fledged IT departments cut their chops, the embrace of “new technology” was done on an ad hoc basis. The department for which I worked decided to take on “someone who knew about computers”, as a permanent full-time employee, with a brief to act as a self-motivated technowhizz person. Nigel, who had a splendid interview technique, got the job, despite knowing next to nothing about computers, and caring even less. All he was really interested in was Hegel, the subject of the Ph.D. upon which he had embarked.

Some three months passed before Nigel’s manager noticed that there was no appreciable sign of progress towards his excitable vision of a computerised future. He assumed that Nigel, sitting at his (computerless) desk, deep in thought, making very – very – occasional notes of a few words on a scrap of paper, was summoning from his powerful brain ideas relevant to that future. But Nigel was thinking about Hegel, waiting to be given a specific task to perform. The manager decided to hold a meeting, to make it clear in no uncertain terms that he wanted Nigel to buck his ideas up and zip about the office identifying exciting computer possibilities. Before the meeting could take place, however, there was one of those addled and ill-thought out reorganisations that occurred with bewildering frequency. The manager vanished, was not replaced, and Nigel was left to cogitate about Hegel undisturbed.

He remained undisturbed for some years. Every now and then he would be slotted in to a new departmental structure, without his new boss having the time or inclination to work out what he actually did. He took to coming in to work very early, sitting and thinking, making those very occasional brief notes, and leaving straight after lunch. All this time, those of us who were his friends knew that the masterwork, the thesis on Hegel, was being written, though he did the writing at home, not in the office. And lo!, it came to pass that it was finished. Nigel asked a work colleague, who had a degree in political science, to type it up for him. One day, she came over to my desk to see me, with a worried look on her face.

“This thesis of Nigel’s is incomprehensible,” she said, “For one thing, it’s the only Ph.D. thesis I’ve ever seen that hasn’t got a single reference or footnote, or a bibliography. Secondly, I’ve read a good deal of philosophy and political science, and I have a horrible feeling this is gibberish.”

It was a view to be shared by Nigel’s doctoral supervisor, who was equally befuddled. Nigel, who had spent years on what he considered the definitive work on Hegel, and who had a fine temper when roused, dismissed his supervisor as an idiot. “He isn’t fit to lick my boots!” he shouted at me, one evening in the pub. Eventually they agreed that the thesis be shown to a mutually admired Hegelian, a man whose opinion Nigel respected. If he pronounced it twaddle, Nigel said he would accept the verdict.

Meanwhile, he had inherited some money from a distant relative he had never met, and bought a house. Shortly after moving in, he decided it needed refurbishment, including, puzzlingly, shifting one of the doors slightly to one side. (I never saw the house, so have no idea whether there was any sense in this, but I suspect not.) To carry out the work, Nigel employed some blokes he met one night in his local pub. They spent the next few weeks fleecing him. Seemingly every day, they demanded more cash for materials which were suddenly essential, while rarely doing any work on the house.

With a bunch of scallywags exploiting him, no doubt until every last penny of his inheritance was spent, and the impending thunderbolt of having his thesis dismissed as mumbo jumbo, perhaps it was a mercy Nigel didn’t live to see his financial and intellectual ruin. His lodger returned from a weekend away to find him dead in his bed. He had suffered a massive heart attack. He was forty-four years old. R.I.P.

Poor Show

The poor, as we know, are always with us – and consequently slang is rich indeed when it comes to poverty…

Slang, as we should expect, is democratic. It fears not neither does it favour. An equal opportunity employer with the unalloyed fervour of a local council job ad it extends its embrace without prejudice to race, colour, creed, those of differing physical and mental abilities and appearance. ‘PC gone mad’ I hear you saying. Well, up to a point Lord Copper. Yet since slang, as I seem never to tire of repeating, is human, like every human, it has its prejudices. Those it nurtures at the expense of others. Thus it is that we find that, counting the terms on offer, slang places the poor above the rich. It is salutary, in times like these, this world of one and ninety-nine per cent, to acknowledge this. So let us consider them.

This not to say that slang accepts any special pleading on poverty’s behalf. Its attitude is that of the Victorian workhouse, where calculated cruelty was geared to render such hellholes ‘ineligible’: that is, somewhere one would never elect to enter. Like Dickens it embraces the phrase hard times, though it defines it as a cheap, poor quality fabric, which resembles heavy wool but is not much better than cotton shoddy and used for the cheapest of clothes; thus a hard times party, someone who wears worn-out or seedy clothes. Search on ‘poor’ or ‘impoverished’ and one finds a list of misery and failure. Slang borrows from standard English, as is often the way, but for once rarely bothers to tweak the meaning. The images are unrelenting and for the most part self-evident.

Perhaps the echt image is broke, the idea that creditors physically ‘break’ a debtor’s life.  It gives broke-ass, flat broke, stony broke and,  ironically, the broken brigade: aristocratic younger sons, impoverished through the inequalities of primogeniture, who are forced to live on their wits. Rhyming slang adds coal and coke and heart of oak. There is, of course, poor itself, usually in compounds: poor-ass and ass-poor, snot-poor, poor as piss, as skimmed piss or as wee-wee. Or as mud.

The leitmotifs are injury, deprivation, the inability in every sense to ‘work properly’: on one’s back or on the floor, beached, beat and beaten-out, bent, on the blink or the fritz, bunged, bushed and thus the punning in or at Bushey Park. Bust (and busted out), cleared out, cracked up, crampy, crashed, deadbeat, dingy, in the ditch, draggle-tailed, frisked, gritty, gutted, on the hocks (which links to hock, pawn but also the horse’s joint), knocked up, mumpy, n.b. (i.e. not a bean), short and with that suffering from a case of the Continue reading

The Surprising History of the Pledge of Allegiance

The Pledge of Allegiance, penned by a socialist who wished it to be accompanied with a Nazi-style salute? Surely not! Rita investigates…

I pledge allegiance to the Flag, of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, One Nation under God Indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for All.

My eldest grandson started kindergarten this fall.  He’s a precocious five-year-old, of course, and comes home every afternoon eager to show off what he learned at school.  One recent afternoon he solemnly placed his hand over his heart and recited The Pledge of Allegiance as they do every morning before class begins.  He tripped up a bit over the tongue twister “indivisible” but was otherwise word perfect.  I was surprised how moving I found this performance, as I’ve always had ambivalent feelings about patriotism.  Such a powerful emotion so easily manipulated for nefarious ends.  I admonished myself that no doubt German grandmothers in the 1930’s beamed proudly as their little ones recited Nazi Youth propaganda.  I remember that as university students in the 1960’s my friends and I would ostentatiously walk out of the theater at the end of a film while the National Anthem was playing.  (Do they still play it in English film theaters today I wonder?)  We were eager to demonstrate our rejection of the stuffy patriotism of our elders, the old world of duty and Empire.  But I’ve often looked back on that behavior with a feeling of shame.  Those middle-aged and elderly people who stood and sang the Anthem as we dismissively pushed past fought in World War II, survived the Blitz, endured the hardships of postwar austerity.  If not for them we might be living in a Nazi dictatorship instead of enjoying the benefits of expanded educational opportunity and the liberating youth culture of the Swinging Sixties.  Their sacrifice granted us the freedom to reject their values.

My skepticism endures, however, when it comes to American jingoistic fervor, in recent decades a primary tool of the right wing war-mongering classes.  In the mythology of American patriotism the Pledge of Allegiance has the status of a holy text carved in stone.  The Almighty himself handed it down to the Founding Fathers, probably on the hilltop at Monticello while slaves toiled in the fields below. The Stars and Stripes fluttering from his celestial robes, God pointed to the words “under God” highlighting His own primary jurisdiction over the new nation.  But the true story of the Pledge is really more surprising – it was written by a socialist in 1892 and included no mention of God until the 1950’s.

Francis Bellamy was a Baptist minister in Boston who espoused Christian Socialism, lecturing on such topics as “Socialism in the Bible.”  He became Vice-President of the Christian Society of Socialists, an offshoot of the Nationalist movement inspired by the work of his cousin Edward Bellamy, a novelist whose books are seldon read today.  But his 1887 novel Looking Backward was a bestseller in its time, named the third most popular work of nineteenth century American fiction after Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben Hur. A group of economists named it the second most influential economics text after Marx’s Das Capital.  Inspired by the labor unrest that culminated in the 1886 Haymarket Riots in Chicago, Looking Backward paints a utopian vision of a future classless society in which capitalism has been replaced by a government run economy for the equal benefit of all.  Enthusiastic readers founded the Nationalist movement, which became closely allied with the Fabian Society in England.

But socialism was still a suspect ideology in America.  Francis Bellamy eventually antagonized his congregation so much with socialist sermons that he was forced out of the ministry.  He went to work for The Youth’s Companion, a popular magazine whose Continue reading