I managed to get to France several times in the summer of 2021 which was wonderful. Contrary to what the right-wing British press said, there were no food shortages at all in France, and there still aren’t. The French spend twice as much on food as the British and eat less than half as much processed food, so the quality and quantity even in a provincial supermarket is still far higher even than Selfridges Food Hall or Waitrose can provide and, of course, at a much cheaper price. I love shopping in the street markets in Paris because you can buy so many things that are impossible to find in Britain even in high-end shops. Yes, I know, why don’t I go and live there? I would if I could, but Paris rent is even more expensive than London. Also, my friends are mostly here. But if there was such a thing as a European passport, I’d willingly burn my British one. So many of friends are lucky enough to be entitled to an Irish passport and so are able to travel freely to the Continent for as long as they want: even my brother-in-law and his children have got theirs. My old friend Simon Caulkin received his French passport and was saluted at the border and congratulated when the immigration control first saw it.
In France our old friends Paul and Polly Timberlake and Roslyn Hope and Gordon Stewart had noticed how sad and grubby the house was looking after being closed for 18 months due to lockdown. They spent three days ridding the furniture of mould, throwing out mouldy carpets, cleaning and tidying up the terrace so that when Theo and I arrived it looked welcoming. What marvellous friends to have!
I spent most of my time sorting through Rosemary’s papers. She was a travel writer and the author of a number of travel guides to France, including the AA Guide and the National Geographic Guide. These needed to be regularly updated and so she kept a huge reference library of clippings, press packs and local flyers, arranged by region. They took up five four-drawer file cabinets. When the internet came in, she stop clipping but this huge mass of 20-25-year old papers remained. I had to go through them all as there were, inevitably, photographs, diaries, manuscripts, and letters among the redundant papers. I even found a letter from Martha Gelhorn, whom Rosemary once interviewed. I asked other travel journalists and a couple of institutions if they wanted the collection but no-one did, so I began to recycle them. Clearing out the possessions of your dead partner is an emotionally stressful job, and I could only do about three hours a day, but I got at least half of it done.
Theo could only stay a week because of work, but then my friends, the artists Suzy Triester and Richard Grayson came to stay and cheered me up. We cooked, visited the local sights, and drank a few bottles of the local wine. Here they are exploring the jungle garden.
I returned to London via Paris, where I stayed with Catherine and Steve in SuPi, as trendy folk call Sud Pigalle. Catherine, who teaches fine art at the Sorbonne, suggested that we go out to Clamart to see the house designed and built by Sophie Taeuber-Arp for her and Jean Arp to live in. I was very pleased to do this because at that very moment there was a huge Sophie Taeuber-Arp show in London at Tate Modern that I had not yet seen. Most of the items on display in the house were by Arp, as her stuff was mostly in London at the Tate show, but it was great to see the same rectangular compositions used in the windows and proportions of her house as she used in her paintings, tapestries, furniture, and interior designs. I have always liked her work and thought that, particularly as she was a founder member of the Dadaists, she had been unfairly overlooked by art historians who concentrated, as usual, on the men. These are some of Arp’s sculptures in the room that was once her studio. Catherine and I also visited the Rodin Museum, which of course brought back memories of visiting it with Rosemary a couple of years before. I do like Rodin and Maribel and I spent hours at the Tate Rodin show back in July.
Paris was great as usual. I have been a member of the College de ‘pataphysique since 1965, but I had never visited the site of the first production of Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry. This time I did. The weather was fine, so we also explored the Cemetery de Montmartre. It was a shock to suddenly come upon the grave of Jeanne Moreau as I hadn’t known that she had died. (31 July 2017). I had always loved her work, particularly Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962), of course. I was at art college when it came out and we all saw it and wanted to live that way. Les Amants (1959) and Lift to the Scaffold (1958), both by Louis Malle, were also hugely influential on we teenage art students.
I particularly liked the grave of Henri Murger, whose Scènes de la vie bohème,  first turned me on to the idea of the Bohemian life (I read it in translation when I was 15.) I’ve just about managed to live that way ever since. Thanks Henri!
I did a number of TV documentaries during the summer. Yet another one on John Lennon, thanks to my old friend Keith Badman; one with Nick Broomfield, whom I liked and whose work I have always liked, about the downside of the sixties, concentrating on Robert Fraser and Brian Jones; and one of Michael X for BBC Studios, which was shown on Sky, but which I haven’t seen because I don’t subscribe to Sky. There was also one about the Camden Music Scene which inevitably focussed on Amy Winehouse, though my part was about the Roundhouse in the sixties. So a legend in my own lunchtime, yet. Actually, I usually try and avoid drinking at lunchtime.
I took the number 12 to the Dulwich Picture Gallery – the full length of the route – to see their show of Helen Frankenthaler’s woodcuts. I have always liked her work, and even wrote the essay accompanying my NDD exam on her, back in 1963 at art school. I always thought her colour wash pictures were superior to most of the other abstract expressionists, but they got all the attention, because of course, she was a woman, and AbEx was all about the big macho gesture. I spent all afternoon there. Wonderful works.
My old friend Michael Horovitz died on 7 July 2021. I first met him back in 1960, just before he left Oxford when I was still a teenager, 16 or 17, just arrived at art school. Through Mike and his magazine, New Departures, I discovered the work of Samuel Beckett, John Cage, Piero Heliczer, Cornelius Cardew, Paul Ableman, Robert Creeley, Raymond Queneau et al. I did already know the work of Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. In fact, a friend and I even hitch-hiked around the south coast with a copy of On the Road in my pocket during the summer of 1959, as you did in those days. Those first two issues of New Departures shaped my view of art and literature for life. At the art school I put on a Live New Departures show in 1960 and kept in touch with Mike and his co-conspirator Pete Brown, meeting up with them at readings, jazz concerts, parties, CND demos. Pete invited me to stay at his place in Camden whenever I was in London and so I became a part of the circle of friends and supporters surrounding Live New Departures.
Over the years Michael and I did a number of stage events together, many bookshop events, the Asian Literary Festival in Brick Lane where we discussed Allen Ginsberg’s Indian Journals, even an event to launch a new translation of Allen’s Kaddish at the musée d’art et histoire du Judaïsme (mahJ) in Paris. We were not close, more like fellow travellers but I was saddened when he died.
Michael’s apartment in Notting Hill was famously chaotic. He was a hoarder, a psychological condition that not only fills all available space with old newspapers but ensures that their owner grows very fond of them and resists efforts by others to help organise the space. Hoarders are not collectors; no attempt is made to organise books in order, or to keep them in good condition. Fortunately, his partner, Spanish poet, singer, and painter, Vanessa Vie, had begun a process of organisation a year or two before he died and much of the correspondence had been filed by her, and manuscripts gathered into bundles. Since then, I have been over a few times to help her organise the papers into an archive. Most of Michael’s activity was done under the collective umbrella of New Departures and thus given a number, as if it were a magazine. We have used that as the organising principle. Standard bibliographic form will be used on Michael’s books and periodical appearances and the correspondence put into alphabetic order. What we are doing is organising the papers enough to see what’s there so that they can go to a permanent home.
I was always more interested in Michael as an editor than as a poet, and in my youth he was certainly my mentor. He had an enormously wide vision and enthusiasm that encompassed poetry, plays, painting, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz and literature. He saw the connections and overlapping areas between all the arts, and I learned a lot from him about breaking down the artificial barriers between art forms. In this way he was an early post-modernist. He would have probably made a great teacher. He didn’t like the picture I used of him in this blog once before so here’s one from 2014 with Richard Adams and Jim Anderson, Mike on left.
In November, I made a new friend, albeit just for one day. Brazilian William Blake scholar Camila Oliveira came to interview me as she is writing about the connection between Blake and modern popular music. I produced an album of Allen Ginsberg singing Blake back in 1969 so I was an obvious interviewee. I was able to give a few new names, such as Tony Bennett, who recorded the whole of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience in his home studio. Allen and I met him in the VIP room of the Palladium in New York c1985 and heard all about it. She already had quite a list and since then she has found others. I love this new generation of intelligent, attractive women, travelling the globe. I can remember the early days of the women’s movement in New York and it seems to me that the confidence and assuredness that Camila has – what they were all aspiring to back in the early seventies – is now possible, at least for some. Anyway, here she is. I see her glass is empty.
This was brought to mind by reading Sheila Rowbotham’s latest book, Daring To Hope, My Life in the Seventies, (London: Verso 2021) where she chronicles the growth of the women’s movement in Britain. Her determination and energy in the face of what, let’s face it, seems to be the task of Sisyphus, is astonishing. Respect!
November 2021 seemed to be dominated by The Beatles. On the fifth Paul was interviewed with Paul Muldoon at the Royal Festival Hall about his new two-volume book of lyrics. I didn’t go but Theo went. The discussion was chaired by Samira Ahmed, who later emailed me to say that she used my Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now official biography as the source for some of her questions. I was flattered as I am a great admirer of her work. I was on one of her TV shows a few years ago and liked her very much. If only there were more like her at BBC.
Then, on November 16, there was a screening of a special 100-minute version of the Beatles Get Back TV documentary specially made for Apple by Peter Jackson. It was held at the Cinemax Cinema on Leicester Square, which was amazing because the screen is so large you can’t avoid being totally engulfed by the programme. Champagne was served in front of the screen, then we took our numbered seats and Paul McCartney came out to say a few words and introduce the film. As part of the presentation, Jackson ran all the footage of the Roof Top Concert, which was great to see. His electronic tweaking of the film makes it look as if it was filmed last week. After the show we all trotted round to Kettner’s on Romilly Street for a canapés and drinks, but it was so crowded it seemed like a Covid super-spreader, so after chatting to some friends from BBC and Apple we left. We finished up eating at the Academy Club on Lexington Street and chatting with Lucy. A nice Soho evening. I’ll write about the three part version of Get Back once I’ve seen it.
Looking at my diary, December leading to Christmas seems to be entirely food-related: pork cooked in milk, salt cod, octopus, crab, stuffed chicken thighs, stuffed squid… It wasn’t all me, fortunately. One lunchtime Maribel cooked a Spanish omelette. She chipped the raw, peeled potatoes the way her grandmother taught her in Andalusia: digging into the potato with the point of the knife instead of chopping them into cubes. That way they stay moist even though it takes a while to do, and it was the best Spanish omelette I’ve ever tasted, not dry at all.
Theo and I were meant to spend Christmas in Cambridge with our old friend Martha Stevns. She is Swiss and we always have fondu on Christmas Eve and goose on Christmas day. She also has a traditional Christmas tree with real candles (with a fire extinguisher standing by). We missed the previous year because of the Covid lockdown and missed it again this year because on the 22nd we came down with Covid. It was two weeks before I got a negative lateral flow test so that wiped out New Year as well. But here we are, going bravely into that New Year. Happy New Year!