'The Life of Riley'
My luck was in at the Oxfam bookshop in Kentish Town this morning - I came away with this fine first edition of Anthony Cronin's lively, comic account of life in Dublin and Camden Town, The Life of Riley. It's from 1964, part of the remarkable boom in novels, and especially London novels, which stretched from mid-fifties to mid-sixties. At £20, Oxfam got a decent price - but I'm very happy to have such a nice copy.
The jacket design is by Margaret Eastoe, about whom I have been able to find out very little beyond that she illustrated quite a few books in French, and about France, in the early 1960s.
The cover notes say of this ribald tale: 'Of The Life of Riley it might be said that it's as refreshing and titillating as the froth on a pint of Guinness, or perhaps as strong and inebriating as a tumblerful of the best Irish whiskey.' So as you will have gathered, there's an ample dash of the Celtic about this book.
The Johnny Cash cash machine in Camden
The scaffolding's up at 88 Parkway. The home of the petite, retrobeat 'Sounds that Swing' record store. But fear not, the best visual pun in north London is not about to get covered up.
If you have been along Parkway dozens of times and have never stopped to admire Johnny Cash, well, shame on you. Why is it special? Well, first of all you don't expect an ATM on the outside of a second-hand record store. But more than that, there's a lovely touch of mischief in garlanding a cash machine with an outsize portrait of Johnny Cash.
Neil, who runs 'Sounds that Swing' and the associated 'No Hit Records', says they had the cash point put it in to take a bit of the strain off paying the monthly shop rent. "It said in big bold letters above the machine ‘CASH’ so we thought, what about if we put the words Johnny above it and a picture of Mr Cash. I cut a piece of ply wood and got our very talented artist mate Ski Williams to knock up a picture of JC and the rest is history. It’s amazing how many people don’t notice it though."
As you can see, it's a really good likeness of 'The Man in Black' - not surprising, as Ski Williams has quite a reputation as a designer of record sleeves and similar, with a particular taste for that psychedelic style of lettering which I associate with West Coat bands of a certain vintage.
That scaffolding, though, is because the flats above need a bit of attention. Johnny Cash is safe - the record store, now almost twenty years old, is still swinging. Its bestseller? Stormy Gayle's 1959 'Flipsville'. And here it is ...
'Fresh Garbage' revisited
The Fresh Garbage editorial committee reconvened yesterday for the first time in almost forty years. Well, sort of. Here's the story.
Forty years ago this month, I pitched up at Keble College, Oxford as a fresh-faced, naive undergraduate. Yesterday, seven of us from Keble at about that time, mates all those years ago, gathered in Oxford - a reunion of sorts. Four of us shared a house at Old Woodstock - and while I only stayed a year there before heading to Warwick as a postgrad, others stayed on quite a lot longer.
I hadn't met some of my old friends since I left Keble. So it was quite an event. We all recognised each other straight off - a relief all round! - and we all got on really well. We took a walk round Woodstock and Blenheim Park ... then a wander round Keble ... a couple of pints at the Jericho Tavern (the Jericho pubs we used to patronise, the Crown, the Globe and the Carpenters' Arms, are all long gone), and an Indian at The Standard on Walton Street, spiritual successor to the late lamented Uddin's.
One of our number brought along a scrolled photo of the entire College in 1974 - I'm fairly sure taken in my first term. Another brought copies of 'Fresh Garbage', the duplicated, occasionally legible, occasional publication of the Keble Left Caucus, and of 'Strumpet', the slightly more sophisticated (but less lively) University-wide left weekly of that time.
Quite a blast from the past. Fresh Garbage got its name from a song on Spirit's first album. (And as a bonus track for getting this far, I've posted below a YouTube video of the original Spirit line-up performing the number on French TV in 1970).
I gave all my copies of 'Fresh Garbage' to the Warwick University archive, where they have been salted away and catalogued with a reverence which is both humbling and concerning, (it was after all about the most ephemeral publication you could imagine with a circulation of, I'd guess, under a hundred). But it was nice to see and read a couple of copies of our neo-adolescent political handiwork - and even nicer to touch base with old comrades.
The only thing we didn't quite manage is a passable photo of the seven of us. We'll have to do better next time!
'Curious Kentish Town'
Currently at the printers, and in the shops in under a month - Curious Kentish Town, a copiously illustrated 92-page book about thirty or so places in and around NW5 and the unlikely stories attached to them. There's more details here - and the map below indicates the range of locations featured ... and you can get more of a clue from the titles of the various entries posted below the map.
There will be a launch - we hope at Owl bookshop on November 10th. Watch this space!
1: Dust-up in Islip Street
2: "Hey Ho, Cook and Rowe"
3: The Caversham Road Shul
4: A Country Cottage
5: The Poets' Meeting House
6: Rocker's Newspaper Kiosk
7: A Celtic Saint
8: The Smiling Sun of Hargrave Park
9: 'Catering for Beanfeasts'
10: Borough Control
11: The Drapers' Ghost
12: The River in a Rusting Pipe
13: Ghana's Revolutionary President
14: The Great War in College Lane
15: St Martin's - still crazy after all these years
16: At Home with Karl Marx
17: The Secret Horse Tunnels of Camden Lock
18: The Artist Colony in Primrose Hill
19: Ready Money Drinking Fountain
20: Matilda the Absurd
21: A Bridge over Nothing
22: The Antidote to Blue Plaques
23: The Strangest of Poets
24: Two South African Revolutionaries
25: The Elephant House
26: When Baths were Baths
27: Find HOPE
28: Pianos for all the World
29: Protect and Survive
30: The Crimea Commemorated
31: Boris the Cat
'Ferry across the Yangon'
This morning 'From Our Own Correspondent' broadcast a piece based on a ferry journey I made while in Myanmar/Burma recently - and the historic resonance of that boat journey into Yangon/Rangoon. Here's the script, along with some of my photos:
CUE: Burma, now generally known as Myanmar, was once the arrival point for millions of migrants from India in particular – though after decades of economic and political isolation there are only occasional reminders of what a cosmopolitan city Rangoon, now Yangon, once was. Andrew Whitehead took to the water – a ferry across the Yangon river – to seek a sense of how the city has changed, and is changing once more:
The turning to the ferry jetty lies just opposite the Myanmar Port Authority’s imposing 1920s headquarters. The track funnels through food stalls, vegetable vendors, a tangle of cycle rickshaws, young men pushing bikes laden down with a live cargo of dazed upside-down chickens, and an endless press of pedestrians.
At first it feels like gridlock, but this is a well-rehearsed routine. You don’t have to wait too long, with two large boats perpetually plying to and fro on the fifteen-minute river crossing. The crowd quickly shuffles on board – and that’s when the bazaar really starts.
The ferry is a floating market. On both decks, vendors set up stalls on the floor, selling everything from cheap toys to cigarettes. Scores of peddlers, men and women, saunter between the packed benches – several bearing large wicker baskets full of tiny boiled eggs in speckled shells. Quails’ eggs, I discovered - a popular snack
‘Those eggs make you fat’, my neighbour warned. ‘Too much fat.’ He worked in the tourist trade and clearly wanted to practise his English.
Shortly after the boat set off, another young man – confident, articulate, and to my untutored ears persuasive – stood up and began to orate. An itinerant preacher, perhaps, or a political activist. No, my neighbour whispered, he’s selling medicine - a cream to clear the complexion.
Heading back across the river, I glimpsed a view which millions must have seen down the decades – and at a life-changing moment. The colonial-era rooftops of downtown Yangon, with the church-like tower of the Port Authority building standing proud.
It’s difficult to imagine now, but this once was on one of the world’s busiest migration routes. In the century before the Second World War, almost thirty-million people moved by boat across the Bay of Bengal, between India, Myanmar and Malaysia – with Rangoon, as it then was, a principal destination.
As Asia’s rivers go, the Yangon doesn’t have the mightiest of reputations. Not a match for the Yangtze or the Ganges, the Mekong or the Indus. Overshadowed nearer to home by the Irrawaddy, whose vast delta is Myanmar’s – and historically the region’s – rice bowl. But on its banks lay one of Asia’s most cosmopolitan cities.
It had a Jewish mayor a century back. An Armenian family set up what is still the city’s grandest hotel. There’s a Chinatown dating back to the 1850s. And South Indians came over in huge numbers. At the outbreak of the Second World war, the Burmese were a minority in their own capital.
Then there was a rupture – a profound break with the past. Japan’s wartime occupation of the country pro – then, after Burma’s gaining of independence from Britain in 1948, a succession of military-led, isolationist governments – changed all that. Many of the moneyed classes, particularly those of migrant stock, moved out. Patterns of migration across borders were disrupted beyond repair.
In the heart of Yangon, an old Armenian church and a synagogue set up by Baghdadi Jews are testament to two all-but-disappeared trading communities. They are still going, in buildings which speak of the wealth and influence those communities once enjoyed, but with congregations in single figures. Other places of worship established by migrants – mosques, Hindu mandirs, Methodist churches – are better patronised. The Indian-origin community is still evident, but diminished in numbers and even more in influence.
Myanmar’s long years of isolation have had the incidental benefit of conserving the city’s colonial architecture – often as dilapidated as it is splendid. It doesn’t have the antiquity or inspire the awe of the Shwedagon pagoda and the city’s other rich Buddhist heritage. It’s not quite a match for Calcutta’s older, grander remnants of Empire. But it is a more complete colonial city centre than survives perhaps anywhere else in Asia.
And not a MacDonalds or Starbucks in sight. There are some Japanese and Korean brand names making their mark – and some malls where donut shops are starting to compete with the street food – but Yangon is a city which has largely kept the world at bay for half-a-century.
The pace of change is quickening, however. In the wake of both a political and an economic opening-up, a new bout of mercantilism, of globalisation, is starting to make its mark in Myanmar. A new type of migrant is moving in. The diplomats, the development agency bosses, the business executives are more in evidence. Though these days, they don’t come by boat.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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