In January, I had one of the most memorable dinners so far this year. Documentary film-maker Jill Nicholls invited me to dinner with three women who had worked on Spare Rib, the Feminist magazine from the early seventies. Jill herself was one of them, having worked there not too long after leaving university. She was joined by Marsha Rowe who co-founded the mag as well as co-founding Virago Publishing. I first met Marsha somewhere back in the mists of sixties’ dreamtime, but it was probably through Richard Neville or just casually in the Oz office as she worked for Oz originally in Sydney and then in London. The fourth person at the table was Marion Fudger, who now goes under a married name. I had not seen Marion since 1978 when she was the bass player with the Art Attacks and also touring with the Feminist rock band the Sadista Sisters. I attempted to manage her, in particular her songwriting side, but I was too busy writing for NME to give her the attention needed. I had toured Europe with a number of bands, but I thanks to Marion, the Sadista Sisters gave them all a run for their money as far as bad behaviour on the road goes. In Amersfoort I returned one day to find the glass front door of our hotel had been smashed to pieces. Marion had run right through it, presumably carrying her Rickenbacker which was heavy enough to use as a battering ram. Or maybe she just didn’t see it and was running at speed. Wonderful days and wonderful to see her again after 45 years.
When I mentioned the dinner to friends, some thought I might have been intimidated but, on the contrary, I was flattered to be asked and encountered no ideas that were in any way counter to my own. I have thought of myself as a Feminist ever since I got together with Ann Buchanan in 1970. She opened doors for men, stood up when they entered the room, poured their drinks and challenged every received stereotype that came up. We even alternated buying the birth control supplies. We spent a lot of time with Claudia Dreifus, who was an energetic champion of early 1970’s New York Feminism, whom I knew because we both wrote for the East Village Other, (EVO) the first New York underground newspaper.
I was contacted by Joe Daniel, the nephew of Frank Norman, to see if I would be interested in writing an introduction to a new edition Frank’s book Soho Night and Day, that had been out of print for 50 years. It is a classic of the period, more autobiography than guidebook, with photographs by the as-yet unknown Jeffrey Bernard. It captures the spirit of Soho in the Sixties, with inciteful portraits of Gaston Berlemont, Muriel Belcher and other Soho celebs no longer with us. This was an excuse to read, or re-read, all of Frank’s books: Bang To Rights; The Guntz; Stand On Me; Banana Boy and Norman’s London. I didn’t go as far as to read his novels though I think I have them all and read them at the time. Of course he is best known for Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be. And, as Jeffrey took the pictures, it was also time to revisit Low Life; More Low Life; Jeffrey Bernard Is Still Unwell; Reach For The Ground and Just The One, Graham Lord’s wonderful biography of Jeff Bernard, to see if there were any references to making the book. There were. Jeffrey lost his entire advance in ten minutes at the roulette wheel. The estate is administered by Geraldine Norman, Frank’s widow, who it turns out has lived just a few streets away from me in Fitzrovia for 40 years. We now have lunch regularly and reminisce about the Colony and Soho in the old days, as well as discuss art, and her special area of expertise which is identifying fakes. She is Advisor to the State Hermitage Museum in Russia, the subject of many of her books, a position which is, of course, a bit problematic after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but art often leads the way to reconciliation so we must try and be positive.
There were several interesting art shows in February. Jill Nicholls and I attended the Women in Abstract Art show at the Whitechapel which reminded me of the big Surrealist show recently. Fascinating though it was to discover that there were Surrealist groups in countries all over the world, their obscurity was no surprise because, though they were of great academic interest, they just weren’t very good. Same with the women abstract painters. All the show did ultimately was prove that Lee Krasner, Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning and the ‘Ninth Street Women’ were by far the best. The show opened with Helen Frankenthaler and closed with Joan Mitchell, the two greatest of the group. Some of the others, from across the globe were of interest, but paled against the New York giants.
The other show was ‘Spain and the Hispanic World at the Royal Academy’ that I went to twice: with Suzy Treister and Richard Grayson, then again with Vanessa Vie who is Spanish and who was delighted to find a Juan Carreno de Miranda, a 17th century painter from Asturias, where she was born. The Hispanic Society Museum and Library in New York closed for renovations and highlights from their collection were on show at the RA. Rather than just a collection of pictures, Archer M Huntington, who assembled the collection a century ago, included decorative arts, maps and other artifacts showing Spanish life and culture. One of my favourite pictures was there: Goya’s ‘Portrait of the Duchess of Alba’ (1797) pointing at Goya’s name, ‘Solo Goya’ – ‘Only Goya’, written in the sand at her (surprisingly small) feet. Was she the model for his ‘Naked Maja’? Sadly, probably not, though there is a strong resemblance, but she was the highest aristocrat in the land and he was just an honourable member of her household. The social distance between them was impenetrable.
Peter Weibel died on the first of March. I wish I had known him better. For 24 years he presented cutting-edge shows at ZKM, the Centre for Art and Media, Karlsruhe. I first met him when Udo Breger put on a huge William Burroughs show there that I was involved with and again when Tom Neurath and I went over to give a talk on ‘Swinging London’ – of all things. I had lunch with Tom only two weeks before Peter died, and we had been speaking about him. I first heard of him back in 1968 when I had loved how outraged people had been at his performance piece with his partner and fellow artist Valie Export, described as ‘…on a balmy afternoon Valie Export led Peter Weibel by a dog’s leash on all fours along Kärntnerstrasse. Walking like this means succumbing to the way of the world, proclaiming the negative utopia of the upright backbone in our animal community. This film produces reality, recreates it from the rough tapestry of ideologies.’ Here’s a picture of Peter, Tom Neurath, and I in Karlsruhe and of Peter going for a walk.
In March I went to Rome. I had always wanted to go to Rome, but something always prevented it. Back in 1966, my then wife Sue and I travelled to Northern Italy, spending time in Pisa, Lucca, Milano, Venice and Firenze. But we dawdled and spent so much time in the Scuola Grande di San Roca – I am constantly amazed by Tintoretto’s masterpiece – and the Accademia in Venice – I returned several days in a row to see ‘The Tempest’ by Giorgione, Byron’s favourite painting, that by the time we reached Firenze we only had a week left and spent much of it in the Uffizi with no time left to travel further south.
The same applied in 1969 where we spent so much time with our friends Nanda Pivano – translator of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs into Italian – and her husband, designer and architect Ettore Sottsass – future founder of the Memphis Group of designers – that we got no further than that. I’d never been anywhere like their apartment on the via Manzoni where even a cup of coffee had to ordered from the Grand Hotel et de Milan across the street and waiters in long white aprons appeared to serve lunch and dinner. There was no need to consult a menu – though there was one – we just asked for anything we wanted. Nanda recommended the fish en papillot, cooked in a paper bag, which was slashed opened with much ceremony. Ettore had another apartment, the same size, on the floor below that was devoted entirely to plan chests containing tens of thousands of examples of graphic design, from film posters to the printed bibs you wear in a lobster joint.
I arrived in Rome on March 3rd and stayed with my friend Valerie who was taking a nine-month sabbatical and had swapped her flat – a couple of doors down from me in London – for a similar flat in Rome just south of the Vatican walls. To walk or bus into town you had to cross the tourist lines in St Peter’s Square, just as I have to cross Oxford Street’s teaming crowds to get into Soho. If I had to choose just one building in Rome it would be The Pantheon, the design model for so much Western architecture – more or less any building with columns, a dome and pediments over the windows and columns has its origin with this building. I have several books on it, so it was wonderful to finally give light and colour, scale and acoustics to my image of it. Rebuilt from a previous structure by Hadrian in 126 AD, it’s been mucked around with a lot by the Catholic Church, of course, who, among other violations, robbed it of its bronze to make Bernini’s ghastly Baroque canopy or ciborium in St. Peter’s. (Other sources say most of the bronze, taken from the portico ceiling of the Pantheon, was used to make canon.) However, it’s still one of the best-preserved Roman buildings and its coffered concrete dome is a wonder to see. The central oculus is open to the weather and provides the only light to the interior. It is apparently still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome after standing for 2,000 years and it has now been confirmed that the giant bronze doors are original.
We naturally visited the Spanish steps. It was also great to see Tragan’s Column in the clear Roman sunlight. I was only familiar with it from the dusty plaster cast in the Cast Courts of the Victoria & Albert Museum. There is still some debate over what use the column was intended for as it would have originally had its view blocked by two libraries, thus limiting its function as a triumphal feature, despite its position at the head of the Forum. We may never know. Before the restoration of the Cast Courts in the V&A, the pedestal, a sizeable room, had an admirable use: it was where staff members would sneak off to for a quick fuck.
We visited Michelangelo’s Campidoglio, the model for so many public squares. Here is a picture of Valerie on the steps to the Sala della Protomoteca leading from it. I wanted to see just the most important things as to see everything would take a year. I restricted myself to Roman structures with a few exceptions, such as the churches containing Caravaggios, of which there are many.
The other exception was of course the Vatican Museum. By booking online and paying an extra five euros you can avoid the long queues and walk straight in, at least you could in March. I was delighted to find that their Egyptian galleries consisted mostly of statues of Sekhmet, my favourite goddess. Though they had nothing to match the British Museum or the Louvre, they had a wide variety of examples. She’s a cat, with a sun disk on her head. At one point she almost destroyed humanity and was only stopped when Ra dyed beer with red ochre and poured it on the earth. Mistaking it for blood she became so drunk that she gave up and went home. They’ve also got some more realistic cats. It’s a good collection. They’ve even got a Francis Bacon Pope, but he’s not screaming.
I managed to spend an hour in the Sistine Chapel while thousands of tour groups trudged through, led by bored tour leaders with flags on sticks or funny hats, followed by Americans or Japanese who photographed everything, not knowing if it was a Raphael or a Michelangelo, as a loudspeaker shouted at everyone to be quiet. ‘Silencio, this is a sacred place,’ he yelled. There are seats at the sides and the end which are easy to get if you wait a few minutes for someone to move. Then you can raise your eyes above the crowds, and they miraculously disappear in the face of the beautiful ceiling. 10,000 square feet of Michelangelo takes a while to examine. It is a great deal harder to distinguish and admire the Botticellis that are among the frescos on the side walls because you must push your way through the crowds.
It was not all museums and churches, there was a lot of sitting outside cafes and bars, even an ice-cream, my first in about 25 years. The market was fantastic, and I made saltimbocca. I was restrained because, thanks to Brexit, I was unable to bring back any of the delicacies. As usual, even the most mundane supermarket was ten times better than anything you can buy in Britain (and the same goes for France and Spain).
Rome is famous for its offal and has developed a whole cuisine to deal with it. Valerie’s favourite offal restaurant was Agustarella, where the eccentric spelling of the English translation made the food all the more appealing. I naturally plumbed for ‘Pajata arrosto (grilled viel entrails)’ as a main that were delicious.