I took part in a panel discussion to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the first reading of Howl, by Allen Ginsberg, which originally took place at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on 7 October 1955. The event was a part of the Cheltenham Festival of Literature which meant a return to Cheltenham, where I was born and spent much of my early childhood as well as spending two years at the art college there. I had been back a few times, when my father died in 1977 there was a wake at my Aunt Olive’s house, and I drove through it on the way to somewhere else in the early eighties, but on neither occasion did I set foot in the town centre. It was an exercise in nostalgia to return, as I hadn’t strolled down the Prom since 1963.
As a child, in the forties and early fifties, I spent a lot of time living with my aunt. I remember walking around the town centre, carefully avoiding the Imperial Gardens and Montpelier Square areas because anyone not dressed correctly – i.e., anyone who was not a member of the ‘gentry’ or ‘the quality’ as they called themselves, was not permitted to walk there, a ruling enforced by policeman who patrolled the streets. A rough guide to which areas were permitted and which not, was found in the street signs: the exclusive area had their street signs in white lettering on a black background, the rest of the town had black letters on white. Whether this was still really enforced by the early fifties I don’t know, but my aunt thought it was.
The Cadena Corner House
The most exclusive store in Cheltenham was Cavendish House, which occupied most of the lower part of the Promenade. I was shocked to see that it had been rebuilt, obviously in the sixties; the extravagant Victorian shop front replaced with a bland and boring sixties façade. I knew the Cadena Café was no longer there, that was already gone by the time I went to art college in Cheltenham, from 1959 to 1963. The Cadena Corner House was on the corner of the Prom with Imperial Square, across from the Gentlemen’s Club. It was a double height, Victorian institution with palm trees, uniformed waitresses and a string trio in evening dress who sawed their way through popular melodies. My aunt and I, all dressed up, would sometimes take morning coffee there; I had lemonade, being only ten years old. I once entered the Gentlemen’s Club. It was an accident. When my sister was born, in 1950, my old uncle Alban and I were sent to live with my aunt until life had settled down to a routine at home in Cirencester. My uncle, who even then must have been in his seventies, wearing a large flat cap, set out one day for a walk and he decided to show me the Town Hall. We had ascended the sweeping staircase and were just entering the library when a lackey approached us, incredulous that anyone of such uncouth, obviously working-class origin should be treading the Aubusson, and rapidly ejected us. The Town Hall was the much less grand edifice next door. The Town Hall is still there but the Club, a magnificent Victorian pile, has been torn down and replaced by a totally insensitive modern office block, completely out of keeping with the surrounding architecture, and which should never have been allowed to be built.
At the point the Promenade widens stands the Neptune Fountain, something that I loved as a child. There were no fountains in Cirencester whereas this was a magnificent affair with jets of water arching through the air, high above Neptune, standing with his trident, and with water spurting all over, soaking the two gentlemen blowing conches and the four life-size horses pulling Neptune’s chariot who appeared to be struggling to escape from a bath. In front and to the sides, numerous small, subsidiary fountains discouraged anyone from climbing over to balustrade and getting too close.
The Neptune Fountain on the Promenade.
The fountain stood next to the Regal Cinema, a late thirties, full-sized picture house, that has since been demolished to make way for the faux-Regency Royscot House, complete with columns and a balcony. It was at the Regal that I saw my first rock ‘n’ roll concert: Cliff Richard headlining the Oh Boy! touring show, and singing his big hit ‘Move It’ which reached number 2 in the charts. It must have been October or November 1958 and I was 15 years old. Cliff wore a pink sports jacket over a black shirt and a white tie and went through the whole gamut of rock ‘n’ roll stances which I already knew were a total imitation of Elvis Presley’s stage act: He had the haircut. He sneered at the audience and went up on one toe and wriggled his leg. He put one hand behind his head and stretched his other arm out and pointed which still shaking his leg. He was terrific, and it was his best ever record as well as his first. The other acts were a bunch of session musicians known as Lord Rockingham’s XI who were the house band for the Oh Boy! TV show and the Vernons Girls, the show’s house backing group. They were very glamorous with their short fringes and big skirts.
The Regal Cinema, Cheltenham, 1958
I was already a big fan of popular music. The first record I bought was “How High the Moon” by Les Paul and Mary Ford that was released in January 1951. I was given it as a belated 8th birthday present in about March or April that year. Records were hard to come by then and were only for sale through music shops, whose main source of income was still pianos and sheet music. There was usually a small rack of records at the back. Curry’s on Winchcomb Street didn’t recognise my description of it. I had heard it on the radio but didn’t know who it was by. I described it as ‘lots and lots of notes bubbling over a wall.’ No title, no artist.
However, at Dale, Forty & Co, on the Prom, a piano shop that stocked ‘more than 4,000 records from which to choose’ the assistant recognised what it was immediately and took it to a playing booth for us. In those days one expected to listen to the record before buying it and this later became a favourite Saturday afternoon occupation for my age group, taking a pile of records to a booth and playing them for as long as the shop owner was prepared to tolerate us: he usually got one sale from it, after hours of listening. Records were, of course, 78rpm and made of shellac. They were highly breakable. I played mine on a sit-up-and-beg gramophone that had to be wound up with a large handle every two or three plays and needed a new needle, ideally, after each record but we often used them for ten plays, keeping the old ones and sorting through them to find the sharpest. The volume on this machine, which had a cupboard beneath it in which to keep your records, was controlled by four swing shutters on the front. If they were closed completely the sound was quiet – and muffled – open a bit and it was fine. Wide open shutters meant that my rock ‘n’ records could be heard at the end of the road, or so the neighbours claimed. I didn’t have a record player at my parents’ house so my records remained in Cheltenham.
92 Alstone Lane
I arrived in Cheltenham for the Festival, registered as a participant and checked to make sure that the festival bookshop had my books. They did. After a meeting with a publisher I set off to see what remained of the Cheltenham of my youth. As I’ve said, the Regal Cinema has gone, and the Gentlemen’s Club, and the façade of Cavendish House. I walked over to 92 Alstone Lane, where my aunt lived. The house had not changed, the street is still scruffy and the land across the street remains empty. It was a railway goods yard when I was a child – bombed during the war – but that has gone; as have the big white wooden gates to the level crossing just down the street, which would bang together loudly when finally closed. There was a wooden gate, on a spring, that enabled pedestrians to cross, even when the gates were closed, and there were many close shaves as people made a last minute ruin for it to avoid waiting while a long freight train came through. Now the gates have been replaced by a barrier that simply lifts in the air. The old pre-war signal box, however, is still there and appears to be still in use.
Signal box, Alstone Lane
My aunt and uncle used to have a market garden, growing flowers, and when I was a kid I used to sometimes help pick the flowers and lay them in boxes: dahlias, lilies, Michaelmas daisies in September, and go in the lorry to St. James’s station and help load them into a goods van for overnight transport to London and Covent Garden flower market. There was a tea hut in the goods yard behind the station where the railway workers all sat around drinking tea from pint size china mugs. I remember there was a poster on the wall of a drawing of a lion with the caption: ‘The King of the Jungle drinks Adam’s ale,’ issued by the Temperance Society. The market garden was compulsorily purchased in the fifties and a council estate built over it.
8 Lansdown Crescent
I walked past the flat I Sue Crane and I had when I was at art college. It was on the top floor at 8 Lansdown Crescent. In the early sixties the building was partly condemned and the ground floor and first floor were boarded up as unsafe. A dustman lived below us and we were above him. In the vicious winter of 1962-3, the snow came in the roof and the water pipes all burst. Clearly a lot of work has been done on the crescent since then, but obviously some time ago. It looks a prime contender for gentrification, being so close to the Rotunda and Montpelier Gardens. I do remember the light in that top floor flat, it was superb, and there was a view out across Cheltenham to the Ladies College. I graduated with an NDD, National Diploma in Design, with painting as my subject – about as useless a degree as you could want. However, I did show my work in a number of group shows, both in Cheltenham and in London, and my first solo show was in the bar of the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham: abstracts in the manner of de Kooning. I no longer have the catalogue list, or any of the paintings, though a few of them sold, so may still exist. Another life.
Another building still standing is the Daffodil Cinema. Though it is now a restaurant, the Daffodil still looks much as it did 50 years ago. It was run by two old ladies, with an interest in new wave film. One would sell you the ticket for one shilling from the booth on the right hand side of the entrance – still there – and then she would run inside and tear it in half. The other was in charge of the projector. The cinema changed films twice a week and screened all the latest Nouvelle Vague releases by Godard, Rohmer, Truffaut, Chabrol, Varda and so on as well as films such as Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Antonioni’s L’Avventura, La Notte and so on. The audience included most of the staff and students of the art college as well as a good smattering of local Cheltonians. I understand that there is nothing like it in Cheltenham now.
The event itself was fun. I was interviewed on stage by broadcaster and jazz aficionado David Freeman about Allen Ginsberg: Howl, Allen’s ideas, the influence of the Beats, changes in sexual and social morality. A good long, wide-ranging talk with intelligent questioning from David that kept me on subject. This was followed after the break by an avant garde jazz setting of Howl – all of it – then, after another break, by 23-year-old poet Cecilia Knapp, who responded to Ginsberg’s Howl with one of her own, about her generation, their drug-problems, their dysfunctions, hopes and dreams, forcefully delivered from memory with no notes; a superb performance.