Saturday, 21 November 2015

A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE WITH SOME DANISH STUDENTS

We met on the steps of the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus at the exact spot where 46 years earlier Skinheads and Hippies got close.

What is life about when you are 16 years old and still at school? You are an adult but your experience is mainly  that of a child.  Emotions can fly high. Moods swing so violently you are sick inside and your brain swims and spins. You have very strong thoughts, about, everything. So many questions and no answers yet. What can you do? Probably one thing is to get more and more new experiences, of the good kind, although maybe some mistakes along the way are inevitable.

So there I was the other day, rushing from Waterloo Station to Piccadilly Circus to meet up with Morten and his students, over from Denmark for a week. A group of eleven 16 year olds who have never been out of Copenhagen before. How all this came about was when I met Morten at my brother, Michael’s sixtieth birthday party at Sostrup Slot a few weeks ago. He is the step father of Philip, my niece Clara’s husband. At the event for Michael the two of us got talking. Morten told me  he was teaching his students about youth culture and that he was bringing them to London for a few days. I told him that I have had experience of taking tours in London and I offered to take him and his students on a 1960’s Pop cultural tour. I had in mind, SOHO, the site of the Marquee Club in Wardour Street, the 2i’s cafĂ© , Carnaby Street and Jimi Hendrix’s flat in Brook Street. That was our initial agenda. I added to and refined the walk later. Morten, sounded interested and a few e-mails later we had set up the walk and agreed a more detailed agenda.

On my way on the undergound to meet Morten and his students.

I got to Piccadilly Circus early and so had time for a coffee in  Starbucks in Vigo Street, just off Regents Street. That also gave me time to pop round the corner from Vigo Street into Savile Row and check that I could get a good 4G signal on my I phone outside of number 3 Savile Row. That would be important later. There are always parked cars in Savile Row which is a bit of a pain. When I arrived at Eros’s Statue a few minutes early, we had arranged  to meet at 10am, Morton and his students were already there. They were looking towards the giant,lit up, computerised advertising signs looking out over Piccadilly Circus and I approached from behind and muttered to some of the students ,”Hi I am Tony.” They exclaimed ,”Hi!” in surprise.They had obviously heard of my name and were expecting me.  I told them not to say anything and I approached Morton from behind  saying ,”Hi!!” as I did so. He spun round and gave me a hug. The students, some of them sitting on the steps leading up to Eros’s statute, smiled. They probably thought I was mad. Anyway, I made a point of shaking each by the hand, smiling and getting eye contact, whether they were sitting on the steps or standing around. I introduced myself and tried to catch their names.  I realised that their English was not good. That surprised me because I have got used to Danes being virtually fluent in English. Morten then introduced me to his  two wonderful colleagues. 

Piccadilly Circus with Eros boarded up unfortunately on a grey day.

The first thing I did was to get my black folder out and show them a picture taken by Terry Spencer in 1969 of a group of Skinheads walking past a group of Hippies sitting on the same steps that they were sitting on. The buildings in the picture were the same buildings that were behind them at that moment.  It was like looking into a mirror and seeing the past and linking now and then, two events separated by 46 years. I wonder if it did give the students a link with the past?
I started to talk, maybe too quickly. I was fired up and ready to talk about the  different youth cultural groups from the sixties. The picture was my in. Who were skinheads? So I talked about the changes to society after the second world war. I talked about working class culture and how skinheads, often a violent minority, developed. I wanted to talk about links with what freedom means then and now and how the arguments and discussions always continue. They couldn’t all understand me. Some were paying great attention. Two lads to my left were facing the other way.  If they wanted to connect with what we were doing in their own time that was fine with me. Some were better at speaking English than others and I was assured they all understood more English than perhaps they could speak. Morton and his two lovely lady colleagues interjected once in a while and translated what I had said into Danish. A few students would then ask questions in Danish which were relayed to me in English. I tried to answer and my answers were relayed back. The students seemed to require less interpretation as we went along. Maybe they got used to my voice and could pick up my English more readily. They began to ask me questions and talk to me directly. We began to have a laugh!!!! I tried not to be too intense about the themes and topics that arose. As we continued I spoke more briefly and only went into detail if I felt some were interested and wanted more.

A little dark in Great Windmill Street with the lap dancing club of the Raymonds Review Bar  ahead.

We moved on to Shaftesbury Avenue. We negotiated the crossing from the Eros statue to the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue, some red double decker buses going past. Cars and cyclists darted by. We crossed at a red crossing light. One of the teachers said to me. “I have noticed English people often cross when the figure is red.” I replied,” If there are no cars coming we tend to cross. Maybe we shouldn’t,” and we both laughed. There are road works at the start of Shaftesbury Avenue so our next act was to cross again to the left hand pavement, the SOHO side of Shaftesbury Avenue .That was the side we wanted to be on anyway. I mentioned the theatres and that this was called the West End.
Within a short few steps we turned left down, Great Windmill Street. In front of us was the unlit neon sign, Raymonds Revue Bar, looking lifeless and glassy, sprawling down the side of a glum looking blackened wall. A sign on the side of the theatre read, “The Festival of Erotica.” I had warned Morten that we would be walking through SOHO on the way to some of the sites on our itinerary and told him about the sort of things to expect. He said it was no problem.

“The students all come from run down parts of Copenhagen and they are used to seeing signs for the seedy aspects of Copenhagen.”

 Danish people are more open about sex than the British. I was expecting giggles and comments but nobody even made a murmur or thought anything of it. Well they kept it to themselves if they did. Maybe they couldn’t read what it said. There was a picture of a nude woman stretched out length ways showing her naked curves but this didn’t draw any comment either. I was a little relieved. I didn’t want to discuss, erotica. We went on past the SOHO bookshop which sells pornography and the word SEX was lit up in the window in large neon letters. Why is the word SEX always lit up large and glowing red? We passed a steel shuttered and padlocked club that announced a certain type of entertainment. The exterior was grimy and stained. I am sure it looks much more inviting at night in the garishly lit thoroughfare. 

Graffitti in SOHO.

We reached Wardour Street and turned sharply right and then immediately left into Old Compton Street. On our right was the Hoi Vietnamese restaurant with its green plaque commemorating the 2i’s  Coffee Bar. I waited until all the students and their teachers had caught up.

 “This is the birthplace of British Rock and Roll,"

 I said. There was no response until one girl with a big beaming smile announced in a loud husky voice, the poor thing was suffering from a sore throat, “Rock and Roll!!” and everybody laughed. “Yes!!! I said, probably more enthusiastically than I intended. I had just got a positive reaction after all. I told them about Tommy Steele, The Vipers, Hank Marvin and Cliff Richards. An awed silence ensued.  We walked back into Wardour Street with parked cars, hurrying vans and  down at heel looking individuals going in and out of local cafes and newsagents, dry cleaners and a myriad of scruffy looking local establishments. We walked a few yards to where a large skip was situated at the side of the road, scaffolding to one side, men in hard builder’s helmets and hustle and bustle all around. I asked the students to stop and stand back to let pedestrians go by. We put our backs to the skip full of rubble and I got everybody to look up. A green plaque read,
 “Keith Moon 1946 to 1978. Legendary Rock Drummer with The Who, performed here with The Who in the 1960’s.”

This was the entrance to The Marquee in Wardour Street, the most important location in the world for Rock music. Anybody who was anybody performed here.

We were at the site of the, Marquee Club. Now for me this was one of those moments. I can be standing in a load of shit, but if a place has resonances I feel that thrill, a chill going down my spine, a sort of connection with history. It’s almost orgasmic. We were standing on a spot, in a place that is probably the most important place in Rock history, in the world. The very ground we were standing on has supported the bodily, mental and spiritual forms of the greatest musicians the world has ever known. I am going to make a list now, a little like a religious litany but these names must be said, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Animals, Yes, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Cream, The Who, Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, Genesis…. I could go on and on. I hope you get my drift. This place, standing there amongst the detritus of builder’s rubble, is the Mecca of Rock. Morten, who is a part time musician and has his own band back in Copenhagen was in awe, as I was too. The two other teachers showed reverence and understanding and the students, well, they just shuffled and looked tired. 

"Whats The Story Morning Glory." Photographed in Berwick Street near  Wardour Street.

 We walked on to Berwick Street. We had to stop here, because I have omitted to tell you, a student was feeling sick and feint back at the statue of Eros and had remained behind until she felt better. One of the teachers had phoned her on her i-phone and the student wanted to join us so the teacher returned to Piccadilly Circus to find her and bring her to where we were, in Berwick Street. So, Berwick Street. I got out my CD cover for the OASIS album, “What’s The Story Morning Glory.” The cover of the album shows the back of a white shirted gentleman striding down a street towards another white shirted gentleman. They are probably the Gallagher brothers.It is difficult to tell. There are  shops with a block of 1960’s flats in the distance. The album cover picture is of Berwick Street. We took a few moments passing round the album cover working out where we were standing in relation to the striding gentlemen in the picture and picked out the key buildings. While we waited some went into the local shops and bought sweets and in one case, painkillers. The poor girl,was suffering from lack of sleep and had headaches. One girl sank to the floor on her bottom and sat crouched with her back against a shop front as we waited. The teacher I stood with said to her in English, “You just want to go back to the hotel and put on make up to make yourself look good, don’t you?” The teacher turned to me and said that the girls like to spend time making themselves up. I looked at the crouching girl and said to her, “but you look lovely anyway.” At first she smiled back. Then it seemed to sink in what I had said,”Oh thank you.” She beamed even more. Then after a pause,” Thank you very much,” in an even more animated voice than at first and now she was really beaming and smiling at what I had said.    As we continued our walk Morten informed me that these teenagers all came from the rougher areas of Copenhagen and had all been school refusers. This was a chance to enable them to get exams so they could choose courses to do at further education colleges.  They were polite to me the whole day and at times they warmed to the walk and were appreciative and many were  interested in what we were seeing. They were moody and there were some arguments between them but they did what they were told. They were just normal teenagers. I have no idea what lives these students live. I have no idea what has happened to them in the past. I thought they were amazing though  and full of potential.

Carnaby Street.

From Berwick Street we walked on to Carnaby Street. The Christmas lights were hanging across the street and the arched Carnaby Street signs at both ends of the thoroughfare were festooned with Christmas lights and garlands. The street was looking festive. The shops are glossy and expensive looking. I pointed out the Dr Martins and Ben Sherman shops as being shops that might have been there in the  sixties. We recalled the Skinheads in the picture I had shown them and I pointed out they were all  wearing Dr Martins. I pointed out that I was actually wearing a pair of Dr Martins myself but it didn’t seem to get much of a reaction. A couple of the girls said that they liked Dr Martin’s boots. I am not sure they actually have any though. The boots are excessively expensive. I showed them a picture of an OZ magazine from the era. I recalled how I had seen, in the early 70’s, OZ magazines being sold in Carnaby Street. I mentioned how it was a subversive publication and that it challenged the norms of society and in some cases it advocated illegal practices and hence the editors Richard Neville, Richard Walsh and Martin Sharp ended up in prison. A quick mention of Charlie Hebdo, what is blasphemy and how our freedoms, especially of speech are often challenged. Morten assured me that what I was talking about might not mean much at the moment to them but all these things they could return to in the classroom. The students, would, after having time to reflect, be able to come back to all these subjects. I was doing my best to mention topics that might be of interest.

Number 3 Savile Row, the Apple Corp building.

Our next stop was Savile Row. We stood outside of number 3 Savile Row. I said,”Look up at the roof.” We all did. “That is where the Beetles , on the 30th January 1969, held a roof top concert that featured in a film called, Let It Be. “And so we all looked and , having 4G on my i-phone and also having previously checked I could get a signal from this spot, I played a Vimeo recording of the concert. We all stood round and listened to the Beetles as they appeared on that roof top and got themselves ready to play. We listed to, a rendition of Get Back and another of, Don’t Let me Down. I and one of the teachers started to dance to the music. One or two of the students nervously giggled and attempted to dance and then gave up. I told them a little of the Beetles history connected to the building. I mentioned the extra £2 million the Beetles had earned at the time  that would have gone to the taxman but instead was used to purchase the building which became, “Apple Corp.” The students didn’t get the innuendo sadly.  That title is definitely a John Lennon bit of humour I thought. Having said that, he probably didn’t think of it himself. I wonder if anybody knows who decided on the name?

The basement of number 3 Savile Row was turned into a recording studio.

So, on down Savile Row, marvelling at the smart suits, shoes and hats in the tailors windows. Wealth and quality, the very texture and weight of the cloth used to make the suits infects the feeling of Savile Row.  There were a few murmurs from the teachers about the smart suits as we wended our way. One lad was looking particularly grumpy and disaffected. It was difficult to get eye contact. I touched his arm and immediately got eye contact. I asked him, “Are you Ok?” He answered, “Yes, I am OK.” He certainly didn’t look it. As I touched his arm to get his attention the thought did occur to me that my gesture might go two ways. We walked on until we got to the back of St Georges Church, Hanover Square. I began to search my memory  for any Dickens connections here. It looked ancient and grimy but it had an elegant classical Greek Style with a pillared portico. A typical Wren 17th century style. It occurred to me that it was the sort of church where Dickens might have written about a starving pauper begging on the steps or where, in one of his novels, some child bride was married. Must check Dickens out for St Georges,Hanover Square.

23 Brook Street where Jimi Hendrix lived with his girlfriend Kathy Etchingham. The Jimmy Hendrix , George Frederik Handel Museum is undergoing renovation and a revamp at the moment.

We crossed the road by the corner of St George Street and Brook Street. Some scaffolding at the front of a building a little way down Brook Street showed me where the flat Jimi Hendrix lived in was located. Unfortunately the Georgian terrace is being renovated and the whole front of the building is covered in scaffolding at the moment. The builders had been kind enough though to display the London County Council Blue plaque with Hendrix’s name on the front of the scaffolding. My i-phone came in handy again and I played,”Hey Joe,” and some of the students huddled round to watch the video clip on my phone. Morton and I mentioned, Kathy Etchingham his girlfriend and something about Monterey and Woodstock and then moved on quickly. Everybody was getting tired now. I could sense they had had enough. The day before they had walked around London all day and here I was getting them to walk again.
One last place and then they could shop to their hearts content in Oxford Street. We made for the 100 Club at the top of Oxford Street, The British Museum end. After a quick discussion about The Who, The Stones and of course The Sex Pistols who performed at the 100 Club on a number of occasions, I stopped.

The 100 Club in Oxford Street where the Sex Pistols and many other bands have performed.

It was, it seemed, time to say goodbye. I had completed my walk with them. They  had put up with me admirably. Each one came and shook my hand and said thank you and smiled. I was quite touched. Maybe I had connected with them after all? Suddenly one or two of the quiet ones started to ask questions. One girl very animatedly started asking about Amy Winehouse. How did she get famous? What do you do to get famous? She had obviously been mulling things over. I tried to answer as best I could. I told her as far as I knew Amy Winehouse had started singing in pubs in Camden. She had a great talent and was discovered by record producers. I emphasised that you need talent. I asked the girl if she sang. She went coy and sounded shocked. Oh no, she couldn’t sing. A big lad, who had been quiet the whole day, then came up to me and asked which football team I supported. I told him, Southampton. He knew all about the position the Saints are now in the league and then proceeded to tell me everything he knew about London teams which was quite considerable. I was taken aback.

After this the students disappeared off down Oxford Street to do some shopping. Primark, was a target for some. Morten and his two colleagues invited me to lunch and we had a lovely Italian meal just off Oxford Street at a nearby Bella Pasta.

The WHO at The Marquee in 1967.

Analysing my contribution to the day, I must admit, it is difficult talking to a group of fourteen people on the crowded, busy streets of London. I am not sure how more professional guides do it. It is a skill I need to improve.  I think I talked to each and everyone of them. I tried to relate to everybody.I am not sure the topics interested everyone all the time. But as Morten said,  there were many subjects he could return to with them later.

I do hope this group of teenagers have something to think about in the future. Now,  they probably feel that they had to put up with me. I think all teenagers feel that life happens to them. I am sure they don't think that they are in control. There are a number of themes they can get to grips with, freedom of speech, fashions, the cultural meaning of music, youth cults, such as skinheads and hippies, religion, art and politics. However, all these subjects, although important and they need to think about them, are overshadowed by what is most important. They now have new experiences such as being in a different country. On this trip they have had to get on with each other. They have shown discipline, keeping to a timetable of events. They have had to combat their own feelings. They have seen a different world from that which they are used to. These kids, because they still are kids, need to be noticed, be made to feel important, listened to, smiled at and shown that what they think and have to say has value. I hope they have great ambitions. I hope each one of them finds something they really want to do.

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