19 May 2016

Home Sweet Home

Accommodation Wanted


Jon Wynne-Tyson 1951

In the throes of a housing crisis, a little book like this opens a window onto a lost world. It was a world where ordinary people were far more likely to be paying a rent than a mortgage, where having somewhere to live was more important than acquiring an asset, and where a landlady was a woman in the basement with curlers and a mop rather than someone in a business suit building a buy-to-let portfolio. Back then, a significant part of the housing mix was the lodgings or digs.

Reading through Jon Wynne-Tyson's grimly humorous advice, I kept having recurring visions of Tony Hancock’s monumental modernist sculpture plunging through Mrs Crevatte’s floor in his film The Rebel. There is something about the prevalence of lodging houses ruled by martinet landladies and tenanted by a population of interesting but rootless people that seems to fit perfectly with the creative atmosphere of 1950s London. I’m sure I’m wrong, but I like to think that everyone who was anyone, from Frank Auerbach to John Osborne, lived in lodgings.

Partly it’s because they imply a certain degree of righteous poverty for the artistic and the maverick to kick against. They are the London equivalent of the Parisian garret. Accordingly, Wynne-Tyson paints a picture of a quite visceral existence. The great universal, daily threats to any individual’s life – cold, hunger, squalor – are barely mitigated by constant battles with bathroom geysers and metered gas fires. Even what he describes as "the place of absolute necessity", if it is not actually down the garden, involves barked knuckles as you perform the "essential gestures" in its cramped space, or constant interruption from briskly rattled door handles.

The Khazi is also the place where the landlady gives freest rein to her urge to display notices of instruction and moral improvement. As well as regulations governing what may or may not be flushed down the pan, "pleas for the most obvious sanitary behaviour" cover every wall along with lithographed texts from the Bible. In fact, as much as being a guide to getting, surviving and leaving accommodation, this is a book about how to get the better of landladies.

Initially, you will simply want the landlady to offer you a room, but every phone call replying to a small ad in the paper or shop window will get the terse reply "S’gone!" Several strategies are suggested to get round this. These include writing to a landlady about a current lodger in the hope of provoking a vacancy – "The person calling himself/herself Stooks is well known for carryings-on. You know what I mean. Have you ever thought what a nasty face he/she has got…I would lock your door if I were you." Or you could try wooing a landlady, so long as you "avoid anything under eighty-five and taller than 4 ft. 10 ins."

Once installed in your room, it quickly becomes apparent that a life of any richness can only be lived by subterfuge. Returning home after 11, receiving a phone call, having a girlfriend or boyfriend, owning a pet and even heating yourself in winter all require some kind of ingenious deception to get around the woman in the basement.

It may be that this constant need to break rules is what gives this era of lodging-house life its Bohemian feel. The landladies are pictured as representing a particular brand of British morality that found its expression in papers like the News of the World. Attempting to get on with their lives in the face of rigidly enforced respectability, and beneath a barrage of tutting and pursed lips, the tenants cannot help but be rebels.

Even Mrs. Collins, the landlady in Ken Russell’s short 1960 film A House in Bayswater, who seems to have had a far from insular life herself, takes the phone off the hook after 12pm and is not available to anyone after 11 – “even if they knocked the house down, I wouldn’t answer the door.” Accommodation Wanted has a couple of ways to deal with that particular situation, which include making an alliance with the landlady’s son or daughter if she has one, or using a ladder.

Among the tenants in the Bayswater house are a photographer (David Hurn, who went on to become a member of Magnum), a painter, a dance teacher and a couple who work in the wine trade. Wynne-Tyson includes a section on what kind of lodgers can be found in the different parts of the capital. In the northern districts of Hampstead and Highgate are the musical, literary and artistic types. Around Tooting and Clapham are the sporty ones, while Dalston, Stepney and other eastern outposts are "the land of cheaper lodgings and no nonsense".

There's a distinct feel that Wynne-Tyson had direct experience of what he was talking about, though it may have been recalled from his past as he was twenty-seven when this book was published and married to his first wife Joan Stanton, who did the neat little drawings. As a literary type - he founded the Centaur press in 1954 - he was certainly acquainted with plenty of bohemians. 

Among them was the poet John Gawsworth, who seems to have spent most of his life ensconced in the pubs of Bayswater and Notting Hill. Gawsworth was also known as King Juan I of Redonda - a tiny Caribbean island that emerged as a micronation in the 1880s under its first king, the fantasy writer M P Shiel. Gawsworth was renowned for bestowing dukedoms, earldoms and even, some say, the crown itself on anyone who would buy him a pint. So when he died in 1970, the succession became the subject of heated debate. One of the leading candidates, though, was John Wynne-Tyson who had acted as Gawsworth's literary executor and, somewhat reluctantly, took on the role of King Juan II.

In spite of the controversy and the disapproval of rival claimants, Wynne-Tyson actually visited the island in 1979 accompanied by a publisher of M P Shiel's works. Once there, he climbed the summit and raised a flag made from a pair of pyjamas. Perhaps, having tasted the life described in Accommodation Wanted, he felt right at home on an island characterised by its spartan environment, lack of fresh water and plentiful deposits of guano.

18 May 2016

Roll up for the Wonder Horse



Milbourne Christopher 1970

Mediums, dowsers, fire-walkers and clairvoyants all appear in Milbourne Christopher's 1970s look at the unexplained and fraudulent, along with a sagacious Goose, several learned pigs and this horse...
Anyone wanting to predict whether we are likely to see Donald Trump installed as leader of the free world could do worse than to seek out the services of a horse like the one called Lady, who amazed passing motorists in rural Virginia during the 1930s with her powers of prediction. Lady was able to answer questions and make predictions by using her nose to manipulate large cards with letters on them that were attached to a metal framework devised by her owner Claudia Fonda.
As well as giving advice in the form of answers to personal questions of love and marriage, Lady was also adept at predicting sporting results, including horse races. In 1932, she hit national headlines by predicting the success of Franklin D Roosevelt in the Presidential election even before he had won the Democratic nomination.
Fonda charged a modest fee for consultations with her precocious horse, which must have helped out in the days of the Great Depression and beyond. Lady lived to a grand old age and had one other nationwide hit in 1952, when she was credited with pinpointing the whereabouts of a missing 4-year old boy. The link between the words Lady nuzzled out and the place where the boy’s body was actually found was tenuous enough for sceptics to dismiss her talents. But believers insisted that Lady was a glowing example of an animal possessing Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP).
The story of the fortune-telling horse appears, along with many other tales of mediums, dowsers, poltergeists and the like in a book called Seers, Psychics and ESP that appeared in 1970. It was written by Milbourne Christopher who was himself a well-known illusionist and president of the Society of American Magicians.
In 1956, when Lady was 32 years old, Christopher was asked if he would accompany a reporter on the Saturday Evening Post who was going to do a story on the wonder horse. Christopher agreed on condition that he could go under an assumed name. When they got to Virginia, they were taken to see Lady in her barn with the contraption that she used for choosing letters all set up. Claudia Fonda stood to one side with a riding crop in her hand and invited them to ask questions.
Christopher asked the horse, ‘What is my name?’ Lady dutifully nudged at the relevant levers with her weary old nose to spell out the name ‘BANKS’ that Christopher had chosen for his pseudonym. He then asked ‘When will my brother come back from Europe’, to which Lady replied ‘SUMMER’. And this was strange because Milbourne Christopher had no brother.
As a historian of magic and illusion as well as a practitioner in his own right, it was clear to Christopher that Lady had been trained to respond to very subtle prompts from his owner. Fonda appeared to use tiny movements of the rod she was holding to get the horse to nudge the right letters and numbers on the contraption she had invented.
Christopher had come across this sort of thing many times before in his researches. The name he had chosen on his visit to Virginia was a reference to John Banks who, in the 17th century, exhibited a horse called Morocco, which had a remarkable ability to answer questions by stamping his hoof. And it wasn’t just horses. Down the centuries there have been talking cats and dogs, mathematically gifted mynah birds, a goose who could do card tricks and any number of learned pigs – including the one owned by a Mr. Nicholson who toured Scotland in 1787 accompanied also by a turtle that could fetch things on command, a hare that would beat on a drum and six turkey cocks who performed country dances.
All of them would have been given meticulous training to bring out their supposed talents. In 1805, WilliamFrederick Pinchbeck revealed some of the tricks of the trade after several years promoting his own psychic porker. In his book The Expositor; or Many Mysteries Unravelled he set out a series of lessons so that anyone could train up their own “Pig of Knowledge”. Perhaps because of guilt at his years of deception, he said that he wanted the book to “oppose the idea of any supernatural agency” in these phenomena. Which is all very well, but it doesn’t explain how Lady (or Claudia Fonda) managed to predict F D Roosevelt’s victory or the many sporting results they apparently got bang on.

Home, Parker


The titled first lady of the Swinging 60s bows out 

For all the swirling paisley, the drugs and occasional nudity, there was something essentially conservative about the Swinging 60s. Its true that the Beatles were four ordinary Scouse lads, the Mods were working-class kids who just wanted to show they were as good as anyone else and Hendrix was a drifter from the deep waters of black American music washed up in London. But the core iconography – the clothes, the look, the product – was generated by children of the aristocracy rebelling against the tedium of their own privileged backgrounds.
Tracing their lineage back to Bazaar, the shop opened by Mary Quant and Alexander Plunket Greene on the King’s Road in Chelsea back in the 50s, young aristocrats featured prominently in the decade of Sergeant Pepper and David Bailey. Partying along with Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong Jones were a whole tribe of public schoolboys and debutantes just emerging into young adult life with their independent means and agreeably expectant titles.
If anything, the tales of rebellion and high-profile outrage that fed the tabloids and the society journals alike only served to pick out the sons and daughters of the wealthy as key movers of the decade’s swing. Even the murderous satire of films like If did nothing to undermine a classic 1960s type that began to find expression in fiction and TV drama with characters like Emma Peel and the supermarionette, Lady Penelope.

Sylvia Anderson, who died last week, created her upper-class protagonist because she was trying to help build the appeal of Thunderbirds for a potential American audience. As far as she could see, the Americans thought of the English as “either cockneys or posh ladies in stately homes”. As it turned out, TV boss Lew Grade was unable to secure a deal that would put the show onto American networks, but Anderson’s attempt to chime with that audience left us with a classic 60s icon.
Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward was educated at Rodean and a Swiss finishing school. She lives in the family mansion with her governess and dodgy cockney chauffeur Parker for company. She dresses in the latest styles from Carnaby Street and the King’s Road and she owns a sheep farm in Bonga Bonga, Australia. Bored by the social life expected of one in her station, she did not trip out on hallucinogens or strip off for a bit of body painting. Instead, she became a secret agent with an organisation dedicated to protecting humankind from evil megalomaniacs.

Although Thunderbirds ceased production in 1966 and the supermarionation puppeteers turned their attention to Joe 90 and Captain Scarlet, Lady Penelope lived on in various guises, including a weekly comic that gave rise to this annual from 1969. The photo-leather cover design gives it the feel of a royal wedding album, but that is about as classy as it gets. Inside, it’s a confused mix of comic strips, stills from the shows and features aimed at a teenage girl audience. There are pieces on cooking and unusual jobs for young ladies, a half-hearted puzzles page and a generous serving of pop with appearances from the Beatles, the Bee Gees and the Monkees (who get their own comic strip adventure). 

The annual has a rather tired, end-of-decade feel, as if it is marking time while the aristocratic zest of the 60s waits to hand over to the horrors of glam rock and tank tops. Lady Penelope has a couple of adventures where she unmasks a concert pianist as a thief and nearly gets run over by a caterpillar truck, but really, there's a sense of the tail lights of a pink Rolls Royce diminishing as a cockney voice asks 'where to m'Lady?'