The first album I ever bought - apart from cheapo assembled chart hits and that sort of thing - was 'Death Walks Behind You' by Atomic Rooster. It was released in September 1970, when I was fourteen, and charted in a minor sort of way. I still have the record, as you can see.
I'm not quite sure why I bought it. The heavier side of hard rock is not my thing, and death metal - which Atomic Rooster was edging towards (put it this way, not many of their numbers are happy ones) - is absolutely not me. Perhaps it was the William Blake artwork on the cover.
The motive force behind the band was the keyboard player, Vincent Crane - he's in the middle. John Cann, the guitarist on the left, also wrote quite a few of their numbers. Paul Hammond was the drummer.
As you#ll have spotted, this morose band photo was taken in a burial ground. Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, all three of these seminal members of the band are dead.
I never saw Atomic Rooster at the time. They were on the bill of a festival I went to, but if I saw them I remember nothing about their set.
But Atomic Rooster goes on, after a fashion, fronted by Pete French whose association with the band dates back to 1971. I went to see them at the cellar that is the 100 Club on Oxford Street last night - this is them performing the group's biggest hit 'Devil's Answer' (which reached number 4 in the charts back in 1971).
So it's taken me more than half-a-century to catch Atomic Rooster live! And if you want to know what they were like in their heyday, this is the band in the Crane/Cann era playing 'Tomorrow Night' on Top of the Pops back in February 1971.
The band played 'Tomorrow Night' last night - it's taken me 20,000 tomorrows to catch up with them.
This is a snippet about that remarkable institution, the Bush House Club, the subterranean bar which was a focus of life in the BBC World Service back in the day when we were based in The Strand. But first, the context ...
I am working on an oral history of the British New Left and for that I recently spoke on Zoom to Salima Hashmi, one of Pakistan's best regarded artists and academics and a prominent progressive public intellectual. She spent much of the 1960s in the UK - first studying at an art college in Bath and later teaching while her husband was enrolled at the LSE. Her mother, Alys Faiz, was an English leftist; her father, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, was a widely revered Urdu poet and a progressive journalist.
During my conversation with Salima, she mentioned that during the Sixties she briefly worked at Bush House and that her father loved the Bush Club. With her permission, I'm posting here an extract from what she told me.
'[Faiz's] favourite haunt [when in London] was the BBC Club. So he’d be found at the BBC Club in the evenings, inevitably –
'Was that Bush House?
'Yes, that was Bush House. I used to do a programme there for – the Urdu programme for children, which was called Shaheen Club. I used to do that weekly – or perhaps it was fortnightly. I think weekly. And I started the Shaheen Club. They decided that I should have a shaheen, a falcon, on my hand. BBC took me off to this farm somewhere in Dorset, someone who used to rear falcons, and I had this photograph taken of a falcon sitting on my hand. Also for a while, I did a disco music programme also – pop music, also in Urdu, which the BBC thought was a good idea so I did that for a bit.
'But certainly Bush House was very much the haunt of a large number of leftists or fellow travellers who would congregate there every evening, many of them after they finished their programmes and they used to move downstairs. So - you met all kinds of people, not just Pakistanis but people from all over the world really from the various programmes who used to come there, and quite a few Indians who knew my father and used to have long discussions there.'
You can't get grander than the great hall at the Guildhall in the City of London. It's where the Lord Mayor's Banquet is staged. And the other day was the venue for India's Republic Day celebrations.
Quite a statement to celebrate India escaping colonial apron strings and becoming a republic in a building so commemorative of Empre.
Take this - the over-grand classical style memorial to Nelson ...
However you look at it, it's in your face.
The great hall was built in about 1440 and was titivated up a couple of hundred years later after the Great Fire of London.
And of course if there's a Nelson commemoration, then Wellington can't be far away ...
Wellington of course was a prime minister, but he commanded an army in action so he was familiar with the battlefield.
You can't say the same for Pitt the Younger. But yes, he's here too ...
And there's more - a mausoleum of empire! The Guildhall's guilty secret.
My Musical Back Pages
So, during the pandemic I rediscovered vinyl. With generous domestic encouragement, I got a half decent deck which I could plug into our TV soundbar, and retrieved what was left of my record collection from the loft.
And I've now (just about) played them all - only a few dozen albums, but it's taken me months to get through them in a rather haphazard fashion.
Quite a bit of my vinyl has vanished over the decades - lent, taken, sold, lost. And after the vinyl era, I have bought lots of CDs. It's not that my musical tastes simply got frozen in time in 1973. Honest!
A few of the albums fell flat. But more gave real delight - not simply nostalgia, though there's plenty of that, but fine music too.
On this post, I'm sharing a selection of my musical back pages - a vinyl blast from the distant past!
The oldest building in Islington
Canonbury Tower is by quite a comfortable margin the oldest building in Islington.
It's early Tudor and was constructed by 1532 - though bits of it are a little later. The building was designed as a rural retreat for the canons of St Bartholomew's priory in Smithfield (hence Canons' Burgh from which comes Canonbury).
I had the privilege today of a tour round, organised by Islington Guided Walks. The building is privately owned - by the Marquess of Northampton - and I couldn't photograph the two splendid, wood panelled rooms which are the highlights of the interior (though there are some photos on the Wikipedia page).
But the outside is the real joy - once part of a much bigger suite of buildings and designed with quasi-regal panache.
At the rear, you get a glimpse of what would have been the courtyard, complete with a mulberry tree planted, so we're told, by Sir Francis Bacon 400 years ago. That may be a bit of a tale, but it's certainly true that Bacon lived here.
The gardens of Canonbury Tower were long since built on - and very stylishly too. But the two octagonal pavilions at the end of the grounds survive - and have been adapted as part of later structures.
You can see one of them here - the ground floor brickwork is quite probably the original sixteenth century construction.
The tower itself is basically a staircase, leading to a small flat roof which commands spectacular views. Take a look!
This is facing south towards the City, with the Shard in the distance ...
... and here we're looking out west towards Islington's Upper Street ...
... this view is looking to the north-west. You have Union Chapel on the left of the photo, and on the skyline to the right is Hampstead Heath and Highgate hill ...
... and to the east, you have on the right, an adjoining building which is in part of Tudor construction and is now a school.
But it's the view overlooking central London which is the most striking, especially with the sky as it was this morning!
A shopfront for Malta
The ancient walled city of Valletta, the capital of Malta, boasts fine Baroque architecture, the most ornate cathedral I have ever seen, imposing maritime forts and beautiful small gardens.
But explore the maze of streets, and tucked away you find quite a few traditional family-run shops with old style shopfronts.
So let me introduce you to another side of one of Europe's most beautiful cities.
Introducing Saint Agatha
This holy trinity of suffering saints adorns the ancient Maltese city of Mdina, an ancient walled city - largely Baroque in architecture - which has a population of under 300. It remains the seat of the Catholic archdiocese of Malta, and has seven churches - most of them still in use.
Of our saints, this post is about the one on the right - St Agatha.
She is a Sicilian 'virgin' martyr from the mid-third century. The story goes that she resisted the advances of the local Roman governor, who then informed on her as a Christian. She was tortured and imprisoned, and died in jail.
At one time during her religious persecution, Agatha and some friends escaped from Sicily to Malta, and stayed in a small crypt in Rabat (adjoining Mdina). She only spent a short time in Malta, but that accounts for the particular reverence of her on the Maltese islands. The church that the statues in Mdina overlook is dedicated to St Agatha.
She is one of Malta's patron saints and it is said that her intercession saved the island from Turkish invasion in the mid-sixteenth century.
Squeamish readers should perhaps stop here. The story of St Agatha's sufferings is not pleasant; and the manner in which they have been represented in sacred art is excruciating.
According to the church, St Agatha's tortures extended to the cutting off of her breasts with tongs. (I did warn you!) This is depicted in the painting above and in stained glass in Rouen cathedral in France.
These are, as you can see, fairly graphic. But even they are nothing compared to the Mdina statue.
Agatha is the patron saint of rape victims, breast cancer patients, wet nurses, and (due to the shape of her severed breasts!) bellfounders.
This painting shows her in jail before the tongs were applied -
But if you think that we have now plumbed the depth of the meeting ground between the macabre and the sacred, I have to inform you that in religious art of the early modern period, St Agatha was often represnted carring her breasts on a salver.
And indeed there is a custom in some localities of Southern Europe of marking the feast of St Agatha - it's the 5th February, since you ask - by making breast-shaped pastries or buns. These are sometimes called the Minne di Sant'Agata ("Breasts of St. Agatha") or Minni di Virgini ("Breasts of the virgin"). Those shown here come from Sicily.
What better way to mark the New Year than a walk through our splendid capital city. I went today with friends from the Greenwich Observatory - where this panoramic view was taken - over to Wapping on the other side of the river.
And we made our way across the Thames not on the water, or above the water, but below the riverbed.
The Royal Observatory at Greenwich marks the meridian line and gave its name to GMT, Greenwich Mean Time.
The slopes leading up to the Observatory were also the location, on 15 February 1894, of an explosion in which a 26-year-old Frenchman, Martial Bourdin, died. He was, it seems, a 'propaganda-by-the-deed' anarchist carrying a bomb which exploded prematurely. He may have intended blowing up the Observatory.
This was the incident which Joseph Conrad transposed in to fiction in one of his greatest novels, The Secret Agent, published in 1907.
In the centre of Greenwich, there's the entrance to one of London's most curious transport arteries. The Greenwich Foot Tunnel under the Thames was commissioned by the London County Council and opened in 1902.
The tunnel stretches for 370 metres below the Thames at a depth of fifteen metres. It's open 24 hours a day - as is a similar foot tunnel a little further out in Woolwich - and is used by about 4,000 people daily.
I'm surprised the foot tunnel isn't much busier - it's spacious and well lit and not in the least spooky. Honest!
On the north side of the river, you surface on the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs - once a maritime area of shipyards and wharves, and still bearing some reminders of its glory days.
The SS Great Eastern - the largest ship of its time - was built and (eventually) launched here in the 1850s.
And there are other reminders of the area's maritime past
Among the architecturally more intriguing buildings is a former Presbyterian church at Millwall, built in the 1850s and closed for worship in the 1970s, which is now The Space, an arts and performance venue.
It's a bit cluttered in design but at least it stands out!
As you head up the west side of the Isle of Dogs and pass Canary Wharf, you reach Limehouse, and the magic of Narrow Street and its riverside tavern, The Grapes - and there are steps down to Ratcliff 'Beach'.
But our destination was a little further west, the excellent, and historic, Prospect of Whitby at Wapping.
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