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The Culture Interview – Louise Kleboe, singer


10 Minute Read

Louise Kleboe is a singer and composer, plus she plays piano and guitar. She was born in Cornwall and was brought up in the Orkney Islands. She currently lives in Clerkenwell, London. Her voice is operatic and her attitude and singing have been compared to Kate Bush. She opened the Glastonbury Festival in 2017 and 2019, she will be doing so again online this year. Check glastonburyfestivals.co.uk Her new album Verdant is released this week. You can pre-order it here.

 

You were brought up in the Orkneys, how did that affect your singing?

The weather and landscape there are tumultuous, unpredictable, like a wild barbaric symphony. My dad found a guitar in a skip and did it up. When I was 10, I got a book from Kirkwall Library and taught myself guitar. I loved that massive guitar. I performed my first song that I composed “Wild and Free” at the Orkney Folk Festival and on St Magnus Day celebrations in front of thousands of people. When I was 11 years old I was totally unselfconscious!! Sir Peter Maxwell Davis worked with our school music department, I was his glockenspiel player of choice!! His music was ultra-modern, atonal…it really fitted that unforgiving, stormy world. I was surrounded by folk music, the hundred violins, accordions & guitars of the Orkney Strathspey and Reel Society…what a sound!! Pure Cape Breton energy. The song “The Oyster Catcher” is about this time and it features that rhythmic violin loop that conjures up the call of a sea bird lost to the wind and it has the youthful exuberance and determination that we can change this desperate trajectory. People on Orkney care about each other and care about art and music and are leaders in alternative energies, wind power, solar power, tidal power. I did my first recording there in Attic studios at age 12.

When did you discover you had such a powerful voice?

Then when we moved to Cornwall, my teacher Mr Bosustow heard those early Orkney recordings and offered to teach me classical singing for free. I lived in a single-parent household now with two younger siblings and I was a young carer for my disabled parent and we were very poor. I could never have afforded private singing lessons. At this time of being a young carer, I had very low self-esteem and the singing lessons really helped me feel better about myself and process the difficulties and trauma I was going through. I was asked to sing with some famous jazz bands in the Bude Jazz Festival which was a brilliant lesson in improvisation and thinking on my feet!! Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald became my heroes.

And you studied music at Trinity, how did this influence your trajectory?

Studying singing at Trinity College of Music was a shock after a very deprived existence in Cornwall. Suddenly I could buy a Mars bar whenever I wanted. It was so exciting being introduced to musical theory and exploring polyphony in the hallowed company of Monteverdi and the Jazz/Opera of Gershwin.

I generally hung out with the guitarists…they were more laid back. Know what I mean?

How did you partner up with Alfie Thomas musically? I love the combination of that punk accordion and your soaring voice.

I left college early to become a full-time carer for my disabled parent. After a while and with no opportunities or time to pursue a career in opera, I decided to give up singing altogether. The vicar of the local church asked me to do just one more concert before I quit, a solo spot in a carol concert in the Regents Park Housing Estate. Alfie was dragged in by his little daughter. He heard me sing and later wrote a song for me called “Stillness”. He said that I create stillness around me when I sing. He was writing music for film at the time and our shared love of Shostakovich clinched the deal!! Alfie has an unusual mix of punk-folk attitude (he was in urban-folk outfit Band of Holy Joy) and orchestral sensibility. We clicked immediately, we formed a band “Society of Imaginary Friends” where punk accordion meets opera/blues to explosive effect and have written two full-length operas together.

Tell me about opening Glastonbury in 2017 and this year online?

Glastonbury 2017 was my first experience of singing at the incredible opening ceremony in the green field, although I had previously performed on the amazing Arcadia Spectacular giant Spider stage as “voice of the spider” at Glastonbury Festival 2011. The Opening Ceremony in 2017 was a magical evening, a hot sultry Solstice night. So special, my first experience of working with that incredible team of fire dancers, choirs,  druids,  drummers, sacred women, the Native American  “Water Protectors” of Standing Rock and pyro-mystics and the atmosphere of the 65,000 joyous people. It is always a wild journey that starts in January when we are asked to write and perform the music and songs for the next ceremony. Everything associated with the Glastonbury Festival is extreme and super-charged. It is a Sun Festival and is very male in nature. The opening ceremony in the Green Field balances this extrovert male energy with female energy with gentleness, love, healing and compassion. It’s the opposite of the corporate music industry side of Glasto and has its roots firmly in the original free festival.

It has been an honour to have been part of the Green Fields team in 2017, 2019 and now this year sadly in lockdown but still vibrant and energised. I think the online 2020 opening ceremony will be very powerful and emotional. I am singing “We’re a Real Force of Nature” and this message feels so strong and true in the performances and messages from all involved. Normally people don’t get to see the fire dancers or any of the participants close up so hopefully, this lockdown version will be a real treat.

What was the process of creating your new album Verdant like?

You won’t believe this but “Verdant” grew out of me moving my studio (Laptop, Speakers, Table) from the bedroom to the front room of my flat in Camden. I was going down a very dark cul-de-sac with my next album. Then my friend Carol who knows about these things told me to move the music production area to a more positive energetic space and suddenly the songs started to flow…the concept finally crystallised when I was moon-bathing in that incredible May Flower Full Moon.

Alfie and I have been heavily involved in the Green/Environmentalist movement for many years. We wrote music for Franny Armstrong’s film “The Age of Stupid” and are painfully aware of time rapidly running out for the earth and for our children and all of the living creatures of this amazing planet. Verdant starts dreamy and shifts into anger and desperation but is determined and hopeful in the end.

Do you and Alfie write the songs together?

Most songs are 50/50 collaborations. We are both composers and lyric writers and swap roles all over the shop. But I am the one who is most careful about LEVELS when recording, mixing and mastering!! Alfie’s punk side means he always has the knobs rammed up to 11!!

How do your politics affect your lyrics?

I am passionate about what is happening in the world. It seems to me that we are being led down the garden path by a bunch of criminal, ignorant, narcissistic psychopaths upholding a man-made economic system that works against the planet, society, equality and love. Sadly it sometimes feels like I am shouting in the wilderness or just into a social bubble. We have never been more isolated than this time of social networking. But I can’t keep silent about the madness that we are descending into.

You’ve also made soundtrack music for films?

People often describe our music as being “cinematic”. We write music for film. It’s an exciting process because the image becomes the voice with the music in the supporting role. It is a different skill I love to explore. I love the film scores of Bernard Herrmann, John Williams and Nino Rota. Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s score for DEVS was great and we are currently loving Adem Ilhan’s score for the hilarious “Avenue 5”. It’s a really healthy art form at the moment. I’ve got to tell you about my proud moment when I recently won the “Best Sound Design” award at the Southampton International Film Festival for the film Night light.

Tell me about a couple of the songs on the new album – Virus and The Garden?

Our song “The Virus” from “Verdant” is a twisted operatic duet between myself and the amazing tenor David Pisaro who sang the part of Bill Gates in our rock opera “RAm”. He has a brilliant messianic, almost psychotic edge to his voice. The Virus is a premonition. We recorded it in Autumn 2019 secretly in a church over the road (someone left the doors open). No sign of COVID yet. I sing with trepidation about the virus leading to the death of truth and David comes back at me saying that the virus is his crowning moment as God of Earth. It is quite crazy how reality has just caught up with the song!!

“The Garden” is a question about where exactly we humans fit in, in the great scheme of things. What kind of animal am I?

I hear lots of different influences from traditional folk songs to Indian drums?

Our ears are open and we paint with a very broad palette, we have worked with some of the world’s greatest musicians on “Verdant”. For example Anselmo Netto, Brazil’s master of percussion, Kiranpal Singh’s delicate waterfall of sound from his Santoor and Tabla and Oxhy, a brilliant young producer/ composer who created beats for one of our tracks.

You finished the album during lockdown in the woods. How was that?

Our friend very kindly offered her cabin in the woods just before lockdown so that we could carry on recording at a reduced pitch of anxiety. It was an amazing offer as Alfie has diabetes and would be vulnerable if he caught COVID. If you listen closely there is the sound of birds singing on vocal tracks. We drink coffee, we eat things but the joy is missing. The taste has evaporated. The tragedy is always there in the background and the knowledge of a huge climate Crisis around the corner, it feels very biblical – pestilence and then famine.  It’s a very important lesson about priorities. Nature has finally had a rest from us humans, which is so wonderful. We saw otters and a huge snake side-winding by the door…birds of prey…the insect population is healthy, especially the ticks!!  Spooky, beautiful and precious and undeniably “Verdant” but for how long? We need Nature but Nature doesn’t need us.

You’ve been compared to Kate Bush and Grace Jones in the Telegraph?

Yes, I have often been compared to Kate Bush and I find the comparison a great compliment. Although I don’t think our voices are really that similar as my voice is deeper. I suppose she has a folk edge and classical leanings and she isn’t afraid of departing from musical norms. So we are similar in that way.  Grace Jones? She is a stylish and a formidable presence on stage with massive charisma…so…OK !! Wow !! Both wonderful comparisons, which make me happy.

Book Review: Dear Life – A Doctor’s Story of Love & Loss


1 Minute Read

Reviewed by Asanga Judge

Dr Rachel Clarke is a specialist in palliative medicine. She has often been in the media during the Covid-19 crisis talking clearly about what is needed in terms of provision of PPE, perspectives and compassion.

Asanga Judge is a former GP.

I am not easily moved to tears, so the fact it happened to me repeatedly when I was reading this book is a mark of Rachel Clarke’s profound compassion towards her patients, in her capacity as a palliative care specialist running a hospice for terminally ill patients.

As a reaction to some of the awful experiences she had during her early medical career, for instance, people dying in terrifying and undignified circumstances, she decided that she intended to do everything she could to make her patients’ last days comfortable, peaceful and fulfilling.

One example was Ellie, in her early 20s with aggressively metastatic breast cancer that was causing her organs to shut down rapidly. She desperately wanted to get married with her family and friends present. She asked Rachel, ‘Can you keep me well enough to make it to Thursday?’ – that was in two days’ time. Rachel knew all she could do was to promise to try. She used all her medical skills to keep Ellie alive for the next two days and then to give her enough strength to manage the ceremony. As the final moments of the ceremony took place – Ellie was momentarily transformed ‘from a dying woman to a luminous young bride on her wedding day – radiant, ecstatic. Her cancer vanishes. And everyone sees it, everyone feels it – the world falling away until only one thing remains: two 20somethings getting married with beaming smiles. Ellie dies the next day, held by James and still wearing her dress of white chiffon.’

‘Living does not stop because one is dying.’

I have selected this quote from the end of the book because I think it creates a very welcome and inspiring picture of how the life of dying people in this type of palliative care is not typical of the generally held view of hospices. They are still viewed as places to die rather than places to live well until you die. And even in today’s progressive climate of death cafes and end of life doulas, there is still reluctance in our society to discuss the subject of dying.

‘If there is a difference between people who know they are dying and the rest of us, it is simply this: the terminally ill know their time is running out, while we live as though we have all the time in the world. Their urgency propels them to do the things they want to do, reach out to those they love and savour the moments of life still left to them. In a hospice, therefore, there is more of what matters: more love, more strength, more kindness, more smiles, more dignity, more joy, more grace, more compassion – than you could ever imagine. I work in a world that thrums with life. My patients teach me all I need to know about living.’ Rachel Clarke.

For me, one of the most important issues dealt with here is how fear and misunderstanding around death and dying, cause a lot of anxiety and potential, yet avoidable, suffering. That simple listening and communication around each person’s individual circumstances are at least, if not more, important than the use of sedatives and analgesics. Death remains a taboo even for doctors. And I speak here as one of the profession myself. Traditional medical teaching has always been focused on the ability to cure illness. Palliative care was, and still is among the profession as a whole, associated with failure. Because of this, the subject of caring for the dying patient has been woefully neglected in the teaching schedule.

Rachel Clarke also explains how for most people in a hospice their final days pass very much in the same way: gradually sleeping more and slipping into deeper unconsciousness. I imagine that prior knowledge of this, which many may not have, would be a blessed comfort. It was for me.

I cannot over-emphasize how much I was affected and inspired by this book. It even motivated me to discuss my own death with my daughter and let her know about practical matters such as my financial arrangements, which she found useful as well an indication that I was looking after her for the future. I am almost 77.

I think everyone should read it.

How My Wife and I Persuaded Sir Karl Jenkins To Play At Our Village Church


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Peter Harrison, 81, tells the story of how he and his wife, Vivien, 78, set up a fantastically successful series of classical music concerts. In their local village church. Sir Karl Jenkins, the classical composer is bringing the world premiere of his new work there on November 29th.

This is the story of an unexpected later-life vocation that has transformed my life. Alongside my wife Vivien, I am the co-founder of registered charity Grayshott Concerts, a classical music concert series established in 2004. I have no musical qualifications, but the sheer joy of sharing live classical music with others and creating a legacy for my community has culminated this year in bringing the world premiere of the new work by Sir Karl Jenkins, the world’s most-performed living composer, to a small village on the Hampshire-Surrey borders.

In 2003, our daughter married at our local village church, St Luke’s in Grayshott. We wanted a choir to perform during the service and lead the singing, not least as St Luke’s is a relatively large church and a big space to fill. I had been a chorister at school and university, and evidently had more important duties to perform on the day as the father of the bride, but we successfully recruited a host of singing locals and the ceremony was beautiful.

The following year, the church was appealing for funds and we rallied the same choir to put on a paid performance. The result? £3,500 raised for the church and much local acclaim which prompted people to ask us when the next concert would be, and so Grayshott Concerts was born.

The marketeer in me could see that there was clearly an appetite for high-quality classical performance in the very local area, but my musical knowledge and education are limited. I had sung in amateur choirs since my school days and have always enjoyed listening to classical music but have never played an instrument or performed myself, nor has my wife. We are however great believers in the power of positivity and take an “If you don’t ask, you don’t get” approach to most challenges.

Having decided to create an ongoing programme of classical concerts, we needed to find performers to fit the bill. As a starting point, Vivien and I compiled a wish list of our personal favourites. And then went about tracking them down to ask them to forego more familiar venues like the Royal Albert Hall to instead come and perform at our village church!

Amazingly, several of them said yes! Along came London Mozart Players, Chloe Hanslip, Howard Shelley, Tasmin Little, Alison Balsom, Nicola Benedetti, The Sixteen Choir and others. Sir Karl Jenkins had been on our list for some time, so when we learned that he would be visiting the area one particular weekend, we engineered a meeting where we could quickly tell him about our concerts and ask him to get involved.

He also said yes! In 2007 he became our Patron and since then we have commissioned him to write several works including The Healer: A Cantata for St Luke to celebrate our tenth anniversary in 2014. He has also composed a shorter piece for Shoshanah Sievers, a young and very talented local violinist that we have supported since the age of six with opportunities to give public performances.

From two performances that first year, the programme has grown to include five or six every year, and every event has been a sell-out. This has encouraged us to stage bigger concerts with major works including symphonies, oratorios and operas. We have also invested in staging and a permanent lighting rig and screen systems in the church. But of course, none of that comes cheap so, alongside the visible activity of promoting the concerts, Vivien and I have invested a huge amount of time in securing additional funding from individual and corporate sponsors and grants.

Unsurprisingly, by 2009 Grayshott Concerts was taking up so much of our time that we decided to wind up our business in order to concentrate fully on it. In 2011, Grayshott Concerts became a registered charity so we now work with a board of trustees, which has enabled us to benefit not only from a wider pool of volunteers to manage the programme but also claim tax benefits through Gift Aid. It’s been a fantastic opportunity to bring the local community of all ages more closely together through the joy of music.

We have invited children from the local primary school to sing at several concerts (including the Karl Jenkins compositions), and members of our house orchestra, the London Mozart Players, regularly visit the local care home to entertain residents in between rehearsals. We’ve also extended the social aspect of the concerts by adding on pre-concert suppers, hosted at a nearby restaurant which has always sponsored every event.

This year we are celebrating the 15th anniversary of Grayshott Concerts. Quite a milestone, and one that we are tremendously excited to be marking with the world premiere of Sir Karl’s newest work, Miserere: Songs of Mercy and Redemption, on 29th November. We have managed to recreate the exact line-up of performers featured on the newly-released CD including Polyphony Choir, Britten Sinfonia Orchestra, international counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, cellist Abel Selaocoe, former Royal Harpist Catrin Finch and percussionist Zands Duggan, conducted by Stephen Layton.

As with all of our concerts and events, it’s a sell-out – in fact, it’s our fastest selling performance to date with all tickets selling out in just two days. And that will take some beating.

The Yeastie Girlz Interview


9 Minute Read

SERENA CONSTANCE interviews with Cammie Toloui, co-founder of 80s feminist rap band, the Yeastie Girlz. 

It’s a muggy Friday night in August, and on the spur of the moment, I’ve made it to the last Haiku Hands UK tour gig in the intimate venue above the Hope and Ruin bar in Brighton. I’m not disappointed by the energy these three Australian female rappers (sisters Claire and Mie Nakazawa, with Beatrice Lewis) unleashed into a mixed audience of all ages. I can still bump, grind and squat at the front with great energy. Just the tonic I needed after a stressful week, though my thighs are groaning the next day. 

Coming out of the Peaches mould of electro hip hop and dance-pop, Haiku Hands are a feisty act with lyrics full of attitude and girl power. They get the whole crowd dancing. Together with their local Brighton support act, rapper Boudicca, the show contains a sense of energetic empowerment in these uncertain times, when modern pressures on young women are affecting their mental health more than ever. We need girl bands like this.

On the walk home, I’m thinking about the history of female singers in hip-hop, rap, and other genres. Before Haiku Hands, Peaches and Pussy Riot, when I was a teenager in the early to mid-80s, I was riding the wave of post-punk and new wave bands fronted by women with attitude, who were blazing a trail through a sexist, male-dominated industry. On the UK music scene, The Slits and the Au Pairs made me feel strong. They were singing about the reality of sex and female bodies from a women’s perspective, not through the male gaze. Hell yeah! Their music is still as powerful today with Peaches and Pussy Riot taking the genre further.

In 1987, the year I started university, hip hop was big but so male. I remember going to see the Beastie Boys and Run DMC at the Brixton Academy, on their infamous tour featuring a giant inflatable penis and caged female strippers. (Peaches does it so much better with her feminist twist.) On the other side of the Atlantic, three young women at Berkeley were performing their response to the white male hip hop explosion. Although I hadn’t heard of the Yeastie Girlz at the time (too busy raving in fields), I met one of the founding members, Cammie Toloui, when she stood up to rap at a monthly Sunday gathering of Guerrilla Poets in Lewes, performing an acapella Yeast Power.  As she had the whole pub crowd cheering, I realised just how relevant her music and lyrics are for women now as they were thirty years ago.

Cammie is a professional photographer, as well as a rapper, and also runs a massage treatment centre in Lewes. I wanted to know more of Cammie’s story, so caught up with her for an interview in her studio, on how the DIY band ethos of the Yeastie Girlz emerged.

“I was a teenager growing up in the San Francisco bay area. In the town of Berkeley, there was a magazine called MAXIMUMROCKNROLL and the editors had found a great venue on Gilman Street for young bands to play. We would all volunteer to help run the nights, and it was an incredible community. Not long after it opened, there was a big 4th July music festival; the trouble was all the bands were boys. My friend Jane came up to me and Joyce and said we have to do something about this. There are just too many boys on stage. Usually female bands were lumped all together in one line up, instead of integrating and mixing us up. Jane sat down and quickly wrote this rap Yeast Power. In between bands, we just jumped on stage, grabbed the mic, shouting “we’ve just written this song and want you to listen”:

We’re the Yeastie Girlz and we’ve got yeast power, we don’t shave our armpits and we don’t shower…

“We were terrified, but we sang it and jumped off the stage. It was so scary but kind of exciting too. We were 18, fresh out of high school. We’d sing as a bit of a joke, standing around the club, from time to time. Then the editor of MAXIMUMROCKNROLL was going to put out a 7 inch EP of all the bands that performed at Gilman Street and included us. We recorded as an acapella rap, it was about the lyrics and the attitude. Then the name came up; the Beastie Boys had just burst onto the scene but their songs were kind of rapey, so we said we’re the Yeastie Girlz.  We started to write more songs and add to the performance. We’d get speculums and explain to the women in the audience how to use them.”

This made me think of Annie Sprinkle’s sex-positive feminist performances where she’d use a speculum on herself and invite the audience to look at her cervix.  I asked Cammie more about this part of their act:

“ I wanted to educate. I’d worked out you could play the cardboard tube of a tampon applicator as an instrument, so I figured out how to play songs such as Iron Man on it. I’d get on stage and play this thing, sometimes throwing a whole bunch out into the mostly male audience. It was very feminist; we’d be teaching women how to defend themselves too.  Most of the guys would be totally embarrassed, as we’d be singing about our periods, cunnilingus, yeast infections and so on. We were throwing it back into the faces of these punk guys who thought they were so tough; we’d freak them out! Most were great, but some just couldn’t handle it. However, the club was very open-minded; we wanted to talk to women but also shock the guys!

“In 1988 we went on tour as a joke; Joyce had moved to a squat in Amsterdam and Jayne moved to New York. I asked my friend Kate to join the band. We went over to Amsterdam separately and did European tours with Joyce; we’d just show up, no music, just our voices. Most people didn’t know what we were singing about but occasionally they would because of the international reach of MAXIMUMROCKNROLL. We were trying to sell our demo tape too, so we dipped tampons into fake blood and put them in with the tapes so people would have to pull them out. We were really challenging guys’ attitudes to women and our bodily functions.

I kept a scrapbook with all the comments and material we created. All our memorabilia is now in a feminist archive at Harvard. 

“By the late 80s, we’d split, as everybody had moved and were focused on different things. Then in 1991 we were contacted by a band called Consolidated. They were an indy dance band and wanted us to feature on their album. They sent us their music and we thought yeah, we could do ‘You Suck’ to this one. We recorded in the studio – me, Kate and Wendy O.  It became a dance hit, even to this day people tell me they’ve heard it or we get some royalties from radio airplay. “

I ask Cammie where she saw Yeastie Girlz within the feminist history of rap and dance music.

“We were pre-Riot Grrl and there were lots of female punk bands before us that set the stage; we weren’t breaking totally new ground, but every movement since has pushed it forward. To talk about your pussy, your periods and yeast infections was new. I look at other bands now like Pussy Riot and think wow, it’s really evolved. At the time, with what we were doing, we’d really taken the subject to a new level.”

As women, we have come a long way in terms of openly discussing periods and our power over our own bodies. with movements such as the campaign to end period poverty and group performances by artists within the Menstranauts collective founded by Dr Marisa Carnesky. I asked Cammie if she’d be performing more Yeastie Girlz:

“We’ve occasionally performed over the years, sometimes sitting down to write new songs. Now that all of us are going through perimenopause or are in menopause, we’ve got lots more to sing about. I feel there are people who are writing and performing about this now. For instance, whenever I see Pussy Riot – not that they are menopausal, but they are even more forceful and radical – I have so much respect for them; they are incredible. I look at them and think the world doesn’t really need the Yeastie Girlz anymore! I’d like to think the three of  us would get together to write a couple of menopause songs – that would be hilarious.” 

I wonder what Cammie’s now older wiser menopausal self would now say to her 18-year-old self. She laughs:

“Go girl! I don’t have any regrets. I’ve lived a full life as I could. We started the Yeastie Girlz when I was 18, but then in 1991, I became a peep show dancer at the feminist strip club The Lusty Lady in San Francisco. I was studying photojournalism at Uni and really needed more money to fund all the costs involved. I didn’t expect to stay as long as I did there – three years – but the work turned into a photojournalism project. I was documenting clients who agreed to be photographed. In fact, more people know me for the photos that came out of the Lusty Lady, as I’ve exhibited in galleries and museums all over the world.”

Having danced briefly at the Raymond Revue Bar in Soho back in 1998 – the now-defunct club had just celebrated its 40th anniversary – I became interested in sex-positive, feminist performers such as Annie Sprinkle. Co-incidentally I also have a copy of The Lusty Lady by Erika Langley on my bookshelf. I ask Cammie how receptive Lewes is to this aspect of her creative career:  

“I did a presentation with photos from the Lusty Lady era at the Westgate Chapel in Lewes. The audience was really surprised and enthusiastic, and I’ve had lots of positive feedback. I think people here see me as a mild-mannered massage therapist; they don’t tend to see me as a Yeastie Girl or a Lusty Lady!”

I’m glad that Cammie has stepped out of her Yeastie Girlz closet, and am looking forward to her latest creative project. You can view her photos at www.cammiet.com and find more about her current photography service. 

The Culture Interview: Lucy O’Brien – Writer & Academic


11 Minute Read

Lucy O’Brien, 58, is a writer and academic. She has written for NME and City Limits as well as the Guardian etc. She has published various books including Madonna: Like an Icon. She has just updated and re-released her biography of Dusty Springfield – Dusty.

What attracted you to writing this biography of Dusty in the first place in the late 80s?

I interviewed Dusty in 1988 when Phonogram released The Silver Collection, a sumptuous greatest hits album. I’ve interviewed quite a few musicians and artists and she stood out – for her Goonish humour and her original responses. She didn’t trot out a PR spiel, and she thought carefully about each question I asked. I think that summed up her approach to life and music. She never sang the obvious, and she made each song her own. The angle I took with the piece was that Dusty was ‘Queen of the Mods’. She had a cool mod sensibility, and was a regular on the 60s pop show Ready Steady Go!

I did the interview for City Limits magazine, and shortly after it was published an editor at Sidgwick & Jackson wrote to me saying, ‘Would you like to do a biography of Dusty?’ I jumped at the chance. I hadn’t published a book at that point, and it was a great opportunity.

Can you tell us something about that initial undertaking and the process around it?

Ooh, it felt arduous at first. I’d never written a book before…but then I realised that it was like a string of articles put together as chapters, with a linking theme. The next challenge was tracking down interviewees, people who knew her and had worked with her. In the late 80s there was no internet, so I had to use a lot of snail mail, do a lot of phone calls and face-to-face interviews. I also spent time in the US, travelling to New York, Memphis, Nashville and LA, interviewing friends and musicians she had worked with. There was a mystery around her at that point, because she moved to America in 1970 and disappeared from the scene. No one really knew what had happened to her…and I had to somehow piece the story together. All I had to go on was a trickle of articles in back issues of NME, and some press around the time she visited the UK for a ‘comeback’ tour in 1978. It was like doing detective work.

How has Dusty’s image changed now in this LBGTQ-aware era? 

She has become an LGBTQ icon. She was in the closet as a lesbian in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Being out and gay on the pop scene was tantamount to commercial suicide (and to an extent it still is). She had to invent boyfriends and live a life in public that felt artificial. In private she had a very active love life and used to go to lesbian clubs like Gateways, and had a legion of gay male admirers, some of whom used to enjoy dressing up in her gowns!

What did you find challenging about the writing of it?

The main challenge in the late 80s was what I couldn’t put into the book. It was read by lawyers, and I couldn’t write about Dusty’s lesbianism. I could only hint that she was bisexual, because she had said once or twice during interviews ‘I’m just as easily swayed by a woman as a man.’

I loved writing about her music, her childhood, the 1960s pop scene, and all her soulful influences. But I had to be careful when discussing her mental health issues and her drug use – she hadn’t talked about these things in our interview, and they were not in the public domain.

Would it have been different writing it now with the internet?

Writing a biography now is a very different process – it takes half the time. You can get in touch with people much more quickly via the internet, you can do Skype interviews, and there is SO much more information at your fingertips. However, you still have to fact check. And there is no substitute for physically travelling to a place and breathing in the air and absorbing the atmosphere, and talking to people face to face. Old-fashioned physical research gives you much more emotional information about a person’s life. The internet is very flat, gossipy and superficial. For instance, I learned so much about Dusty’s experience recording Dusty in Memphis when I actually went to the rundown studio in Memphis where she recorded it. And feeling the close-knit cameraderie of the Nashville music scene, or, by contrast, the alienation of those sun-baked LA freeways.

Tell us something about the interviews you did? For instance, with Pat Rhodes her longstanding assistant? Or others that stand out? 

I loved meeting her 1960s manager Vic Billings – he was a camp impresario of the old school, a real gent, and hilariously funny. Also her Philips producer Ivor Raymonde, (whose son Simon was part of that amazing post-punk band Cocteau Twins). Ivor was dashing, dedicated, and very good at explaining why Dusty stood out from the other 1960s beat girls like Lulu and Cilla Black.

I also remember interviewing the Dusty In Memphis producers – Jerry Wexler (so articulate, yet a little exasperated with Dusty), Arif Mardin (he drove me through Manhattan in his enormous station wagon and talked about Dusty’s instinct for soul music), and Tom Dowd (who gave me funny anecdotes about her tottering into the studio with her beehive and gown ‘made up like a Southern lady’). Sadly, all of those wonderful people have passed away, so I’m thankful I was able to capture their words and memories.

Dusty’s assistant Pat Rhodes was also helpful, giving me insight into Dusty’s childhood – her vivacious, slightly unhinged Irish mother, her shy, lumbering father, and brother Tom, who formed folk act the Springfields with Dusty in the late 1950s. Pat was a constant in Dusty’s life, and she has been really supportive of the book, at each stage.

This publication is updated – could you tell us something about that?

What’s good with this publication is I have been able to use some of the interview material that was out of bounds in the first edition. I can be much more frank about her lesbian relationships, and her struggles with mental health and addiction. It’s enabled me to go into her story in greater depth, and really explore the full impact of her legacy. I was able to interview her former lover Julie Felix, who told me a lot about the tensions of their secret relationship in the 1960s. I also talked to Pat, and Dusty’s close friend, the singer Simon Bell, about the last five years of Dusty’s life after she got the cancer diagnosis. They both spent a lot of time caring for her, staying at her house in Henley. It was reassuring to know that Dusty’s dry wit and humour stayed with her to the end.

And I interviewed playwright and TV scriptwriter Jonathan Harvey, who wrote the recent Dusty musical. He gave me a fresh perspective on her music, her psychological struggles, and her legacy as a gay icon.

Was there anything that shocked you when researching Dusty or Mary O’Brien’s life? 

I never forget talking to Brooks Arthur, producer of Dusty’s ill-fated, unreleased 1973 album Longing. ‘She wasn’t handling her New York trip very well. Something had begun to tumble,’ he said to me in an interview for the first edition of my book. He was hushed and close to tears when he talked about how she attempted suicide. He had to take her to hospital, and was devastated that he couldn’t take ‘good enough care of her.’ I was also shocked when talking to her US manager Howard Portugais, about how she tumbled so badly through drink and drug use, that she ended up with no money, living in a ‘halfway house’ in LA. I had no idea things had got that bad. I felt enormous sympathy for her, and realised then what a fragile character she was.

Did you understand Dusty’s mental health problems any better at the end of this research? 

Yes…that she was a bit like Amy Winehouse in the way she had to fight personal demons just to sing. She was her own worst critic, and had such a harsh opinion of herself. Yet she created such vulnerable, beautiful music. So much more is understood now about mental health. Many musicians struggle with it, and the music industry, with its punishing schedules of touring and promotion, can make someone’s mental health much worse. Dusty suffered from having to hide her true sexuality, and she battled anxiety and depression. However, as Jonathan Harvey says, what’s so inspiring about Dusty’s story is how in the end she made a brilliantly successful comeback with the Pet Shop Boys. And although she died young at 59, she found happiness and peace of mind at the end of her life.

I hadn’t realised what happened to her in South Africa and how she took that stand that made her controversial at the time, she wouldn’t play to segregated audiences in 1964? Good on her. Max Bygraves wasn’t too pleased!

Yes, Dusty was close friends with the Motown crew, particularly Martha Reeves. She was a huge supporter of the civil rights struggle, and was utterly opposed to playing to segregated audiences. However, Dusty really paid for that – many of her peers (like Max Bygraves) criticised her, saying she shouldn’t mix politics with showbusiness. A question was even raised in Parliament, asking whether a pop star should get involved and speak out against apartheid. Times really have changed.

And what about that beehive? What did it represent for her?

Dusty modelled her look on drag queens. She was never particularly comfortable being a typical girl, so she created a style that was hyper-feminine and over-the-top, with the panda-eye make up and the huge beehive. The queens loved it. I explore this in the book, how there was a split between the real-life Mary O’Brien and the stage persona Dusty Springfield. After a while, though, this split triggered a psychological crisis, and Dusty felt dominated by the alter ego she had created.

And the Lady? Her reputation wasn’t always great with musicians? And she was known to throw things around in her dressing room?

Dusty had a fiery temper. She had a ‘difficult reputation’, but many argue in the book that she had this reputation just because she was a woman making demands in the studio, and not accepting second best from the musicians she worked with. She was a hard taskmaster…and she fell out with a few musicians – notably jazz drummer Buddy Rich. They got into an argument and she whacked him round the head, sending his toupe flying.

She also liked to release tension by throwing food and crockery around her dressing room. She says that she always cleared it up!

Why did she disappear in the 70s in the US?

Dusty adored US soul music, and wanted to perform and record in America. She was also fascinated by American culture and Hollywood films, so moving to the US in the 70s was like the fulfilment of a childhood dream. Unfortunately it was also her undoing. The US music industry then was still very segregated, and they couldn’t understand or market a white English woman singing soul music. Also, as her backing singer Doris Troy said, there was a lot of cocaine around – ‘the devil’s dandruff was rulin’.’

And did she ever find a good gay relationship or was her family Catholicism always at play in the background? 

Dusty was inhibited by her Catholic upbringing, and found it hard to form lasting relationships. However, she had a long-term lover in the 1960s, artist-singer Norma Tanega. And she lived with a number of lovely women in LA. Pat says that towards the end of her life Dusty was single, and more devoted to her cats. It was simpler that way.

How was your interview with her in the late 80s?

I really enjoyed talking to Dusty. She was an original thinker with a nice turn-of-phrase. I always remember her talking about how being a female performer involved ‘such a lot of upkeep. All those hair extensions…’ And she enthused about Sinead O’Connor saying, ‘Where were women like her in my day? She’s young, Irish and so talented.’ She was analytical, and she KNEW her music. I would love to have known her as a friend, and to have her perspective on pop music now.

Dusty: The Classic Biography, by Lucy O’Brien is out on August 22nd

* Lucy is featured with writer Julie Hammil at The Rock N Roll Book Club event ‘Madonna and Dusty: Icons of Song’, London Dublin Castle, on September 4th. For tickets and info: https://www.wegottickets.com/event/476707

On Reading


4 Minute Read

Mish Aminoff Moon, 61, is a photographer and a member of AoA. Here she describes what she does. She was born in London into a tight-knit Persian Jewish Community and brought up in a multilingual household which alternated between English, Farsi and Hebrew.

‘When I’m walking around a city and suddenly notice something that sparks my interest, I feel a combination of freedom, concentration, stimulation and harmony. There’s a choice be made, to take a photograph of this image regardless of whether or not I think it will work. That is part of the freedom: the experimenting.  My eye and approach are influenced by a love of art history and painting. Prior to studying Photographic Theory & Practice at The University of Westminster, I graduated in History of Art at Sussex University but my interest  – as evidenced in my old diaries – started much earlier. As a young teenager going to art galleries and museums was a gateway into an exciting world. I now believe I can experience the exciting, the beautiful, and ultimately my quest for seeing art on my everyday wanderings.’

This project is about reading. She found a photo of her maternal grandfather reading after work on his balcony in Tel Aviv and the project progressed from there.

Looking through old photos from before I was born I found another informal photograph of family members reading newspapers.  Here are Matt and Pauline reading their papers in the back garden  in Stamford Hill, circa early 1950s:

However, the tendency was that reading matter was used as props in formal studio portraiture. Below, my father in 1930:

Another relative – my father’s cousin Haji-Ben who was based in Milan – with an open book as a prop. His direct gaze and grown-up cross-legged position contribute to the quasi adult composure of the portrait:

And below another studio portrait of my aunt Hannah, this time hand-coloured, with a large open picture book as a prop. I can’t make out the illustration, but it seems like a grand scale documentary image, not what I’d expect from the context!

A posed photograph of me in my bedroom when i was about 3 or 4, taken by my father. This was part of a series of photos he took of me in my room; one at my dressing table, another chatting on a toy phone.  I find it interesting that the bookshelf in my room is filled with his old Penguin paperbacks, possibly deemed unsuitable for display in any other part of the house?

When my own children were born I took lots of photographs documenting their everyday experiences and family life; I was interested in capturing moments that I considered significant. The photograph below was taken in 1990 after a particularly sleepless night; Rafi finally asleep on his father’s right thigh and an open book in Josh’s left hand:

And one from the mid-90s of Josh reading one of his old Tintin books to the boys:

Dan occupying himself reading the Zelda manual on our regular Sunday morning brunch outings to Bar Italia in Soho

Some more from Bar Italia – my mother used to say that I always had a book on me everywhere I went. Nowadays it tends to be a Kindle, but here’s proof that it was a habit that continued into adulthood.  A portrait of me framed on the mirrored wall, part of a semi-permanent wall display of “regulars” at Bar Italia. I don’t remember the name of the photographer but I remember posing for her back in 2009. Here I am taking a photo of the portrait of me with my book, sitting at the bar counter:

The photo below was taken outside Bar Italia; I like it because if you look carefully you can see a luminous image of a man with long white hair – looking like a biblical representation of God in sunglasses. It happens to be the Brazilian musical Hermeto Pascoal, who is rather amazing, and definitely a jazz master if not a god!

Travelling further afield, here’s another café reader, taken the other week in a February sun-drenched Campo Santo Stefano in Venice:

And at this Tel Aviv café back in 2014,  a Hebrew newspaper is used to block out the bright February sun:

On the first day of my first trip to Japan in 2006 I was excited to snap a detail of my Manga-reading fellow passenger on the Tokyo Metro:

I took that trip with my younger son Dan who was 13 at the time. The photo below was taken one night  by Dan –  I’m reading a book by Haruki Murakami, in my new Japanese glasses:

I like the parallel activity of these bespectacled book browsers in a Parisian gallery shop:

Next up are a couple of images taken on London Underground. I loved the intimacy of this elderly couple sharing their art magazine:

This dapper gentleman in a corduroy suit and coordinating tan accessories was reading a book called The Tao of Physics:

Next a couple of diary-like images, the first documenting my ora dell’aperitivo ritual, complete with Campari, pistachio nuts and tapas like snacks and obscure Kyrgyz-translated book:

And on a relaxed Saturday morning my husband Stephen gets some tips on power from GQ magazine:

The story behind Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag


11 Minute Read

Ollie Moore is 58 and a saxophonist who used to be in the very funky Pigbag. Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag was No 3 in the singles chart in April 1982. Here he explains how it all happened. Let’s go down this 70s and 80s lane…

It’s important to say that the song was written collectively, as that was always the way we worked as a band so everyone had an equal input to the music that evolved.
I think it’s fair to say that Pigbag, the band, and Papa’s got a brand new Pigbag were inseparable in many people’s view.

I will endeavour to explain my part in how this tune came to be.

As I am the only remaining member to live in Bristol, this is entirely from my perspective and, inevitably, this is linked to how my career in music started.
My father wanted me to learn the clarinet whilst at Bristol Grammar School, and my Uncle, who played clarinet in the London Symphony Orchestra, sourced a reasonable student model for me to play. I still remember the pleasing smell of the instrument in its furry case with its cork and woodiness.

Ollie MooreOllie Moore

Any pleasant associations with this intriguing instrument were soon to be dashed by an abusive, bad-tempered teacher called Mr Stone. I was 12 years old.

He was a lumbering figure of a man who stood at about six foot three and wore a suit several sizes too small for him. He also drove a three-wheeled Reliant Robin car, in which he looked ridiculous. A bulging leather briefcase completed the dishevelled look.

He would ‘correct’ my mistakes with a thrust of the base of the clarinet upwards against my teeth. If I made a squeak or played a wrong note, his face bulged and turned puce in colour, as if he were about to burst a blood vessel, as he spat angry words in disgust at my incompetence.

Consequently after a few lessons with this monstrous man, I stopped going altogether.

I didn’t tell my father who was Head of Music at BBC Bristol until the end of term.
My parents were divorced by the time I reached 18. The family house was sold and I went to live with my father, who had bought a flat in Clifton.

It was now 1979. I had finished an intensive one year A level course in Birmingham, where I had lived with my grandmother, in her large house where she rented out rooms to overseas students plus an Indian family who lived at the top in a self contained flat. It was very multicultural, and she was featured in an article in the BIrmingham Mail, where she was described as Mrs United Nations. This was 1970s Birmingham where the English population weren’t very tolerant of ‘foreigners’.

So I was now back in Bristol, armed with three O level passes, two of which I had already!

So I now had an O level in Law. Let’s just say I did a lot of socialising and didn’t quite knuckle down to study, despite my dear Gran’s best efforts.

I sold my year old motorcycle, which I had saved up to buy, as the insurance had risen drastically, and bought a car for £95. I then bought a Martin Tenor saxophone in silver from the music store in Hotwells. It cost £240. I was over the moon and excited about learning how to play it…BY MYSELF!

I had already met Simon Underwood, bass player with the Pop Group. At their gigs. I knew the lead singer, Mark Stewart, as we had been at the same school together. Simon was becoming disillusioned with the band, and the inevitable clashes, personal and musical, had come to the fore. It was time for him to move on.
He was becoming more and more interested in jazz and world music, and was eager to experiment in that direction. He shared a lot of this music and I was eager to lap it up. I ended up buying a lot of records from him and from Tony’s record store at Focus in Clifton village. Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Don Cherry, Fela Kuti, Chico Freeman, Funkadelic, James Brown, and of course, the totally out there Sun Ra and his Arkestra.

Unfortunately, my father wasn’t very keen on me playing the sax in his flat, and I had several complaints from an elderly retired Austrian doctor, who lived in the flat below.

A toilet roll stuffed down the bell of the saxophone wasn’t a very effective mute. Luckily, I was able to move in with old school friend Rich Beal, artist, singer and songwriter with Head and Pregnant. It was a tiny room at the top of the house in Regent St, Clifton.

Friends who lived in a basement flat let me use their cellar to practice, so there was of not so much likelihood of upsetting the neighbours.

This was just a temporary move until I moved into a squat in Hotwells. This was called Trinity Rooms and was a great place (and free!) to live, as there was a rehearsal room there where we could play pretty much whenever we wanted.
It also had an empty church hall out the back with a great natural reverb echo.
My first band was called Fish Food, featuring the now sadly departed, hugely talented and eccentric singer/poet Andy Fairley, who went on to record with the mighty Adrian Sherwood and On U Sound. Howard Purse was on guitar, Daniel Swan, former Cortinas drummer, also featured. The Cortinas were the first proper punk band I ever saw. They supported the Damned at Malvern Winter Gardens in 1976. They were riveting.

The first gig I played was at the Granary in Bristol on Welsh Back. A band called Double Vision were playing, featuring Melanie Dicks on vocals (Bristol City manager Alan Dicks’ daughter!). Rob Merrill was on drums. I ended up on stage with Mark Stewart who was singing a version of Max Romeo’s Chase the devil. I had been playing sax for about 3 months now! A little while later, I hitched up to Hitchin in Hertfordshire and played with the Pop Group. On this occasion they had two drummers, Bruce Smith and Brian Nevill who later joined Pigbag after Chip had left in 1982.

By this time, my dedication to practice and playing had paid off and I was quite proficient at navigating the full range of the horn.  Although later in the summer of 1982, Pigbag played at Bracknell Jazz Festival on the same stage as jazz heroes Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell with Nana Vasconcelos.
A subsequent review in the Guardian described my saxophone tone as like being in an Iron foundry!

In the spring of 1980, I was jamming with Simon, and we had been put in touch with some guys in Cheltenham who had heard that Simon had left the Pop Group and asked if he would be interested in playing with them. We would go up to Cheltenham and play in a place called Beech House in a room with black walls. Sadly early recordings of these sessions were lost from an Akai reel to reel tape recorder.

These sessions were where Papa was born and it would go on for about 20 minutes in a frenzy of percussion, including frying pans and horns!

The band was James Johnstone and Chip Carpenter, who were in a punk band called Hardware. Roger Freeman was on timbales and percussion and Chris Hamlin on congas and clarinet. Myself and Simon Underwood. Chris Lee was on trumpet.
After a few months in the summer, I decided to head off to France to look for an adventure while working picking fruit. I took the saxophone with me. Janine Rainforth’s father – Janine would go on to form Maximum Joy – had a house near Avignon and there was a possibility of some work. It didn’t work out. I don’t think he was overly impressed with our work ethic.

I returned some six weeks later on the day the Pop Group played their last gig at a huge CND rally in Trafalgar Square on 26/10/1980. Coming back to Bristol things had moved on and Pigbag had played their first gig supporting the Slits at Romeo and Juliet’s. Fortunately I was welcomed back to the fold.

Dick O Dell had approached Simon with a view to managing us and he wanted to record Papa.

We rehearsed at Janine’s dad’s house in a village outside Keynsham, called Burnett, near Bristol.

I remember that it was the day that John Lennon was shot and killed in New York by Mark Chapman. 8th December 1980.

My first gig with the band was at a Bristol Recorder event at the Anson Rooms at Bristol University. We were supposed to be top of the bill.
But the other acts, including the Electric Guitars, played over their allocated times and we were left with 20 minutes before the curfew. The porters turned the power off and we carried on acoustically, banging frying pans and blasting away on the horns for a good 20 minutes longer.

We continued rehearsing with a view to arranging Papa to around 3 and a half minutes. This took place in Cheltenham and we were booked in to the studio in Berry St. Studios in Clerkenwell, London. This was March of 1981. Legendary film- maker and documenter of the punk movement Don Letts was there with his video camera.

He filmed us as we recorded it. Unfortunately, the story goes that he didn’t actually have any film in the camera. I’ve never seen any footage.

As we were still raw, rough, self-taught musicians high on energy, we didn’t have a grasp of bar lengths and sections so when it came to recording the solos it was decided that Roger would stand in front of us with a stopwatch and after one minute of free blowing he signalled us to end!

Dick O Dell, in what turned out to be a very shrewd move, withheld the release after a year or so of regularly selling 1000 or so singles weekly and attaining top position in the independent charts of the time. The strategy worked, and in the summer of 1982, the single entered the top 40 playlist and Radio 1 had to give it airplay. The pre-order sales had built up over six weeks or so. At that time, the chart positions were based on weekly sales. We got to number 30, then number 9, then number 3. We were denied the number 1 slot by Bucks Fizz and Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder with Ebony and Ivory.

I remember it well, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, on the green outside my flat, listening to the radio, hearing the chart countdown. Happy times.

I’d particularly like to thank my clarinet teacher, Mr Stone because my experience with him directly led to me teaching myself the sax.

At work, a few days ago, one of my colleagues introduced me to two other workers at Bristol docks.  ‘Do you know who this is? Do you remember Pigbag?’  ‘Yeah’, one of the guys, who was about my age, replied. ‘My mate was the only one who could dance to that song.’

There had been some discussion about whether or not we should do TOTPs. We were concerned about ‘selling out’. Fortunately we decided to do it. Roger Freeman wasn’t happy though, as he claimed we had told him that he couldn’t wear his donkey jacket, which he always wore. He decided not to appear and subsequently left the band.

That was a shame. He is a very talented musician and taught himself trombone in a short space of time. He played a solo on the 12 inch extended version of the song.
My only regret now is that we didn’t include the single on our debut album.
Our reasoning was that we wanted people to hear new material as we felt we had moved on since recording Papa and people could hear it by buying the single.

One of my most enduring memories was supporting the Specials at the Rainbow in Finsbury Park – later to become infamous as a mosque where the radical Muslim Abu Hamsa made his hate speeches. The Specials had just written Ghost town and were playing it in the sound check with the great late Rico Rodriguez on trombone. Wafts of ganja smoke drifted out from the open door of the dressing room as the legendary trombonist warmed up on his instrument.

We were very nervous to be playing in front of a huge crowd of mods and Skinheads and ended up playing at nearly twice the tempo. Jerry Dammers was grinning at the side of the stage, encouraging us on. We were on for about 25 minutes.
After a couple of numbers one of the youths at the front shouted ‘Oi, what’s the name of the band? The single wasn’t in the charts at this time.James Johnstone guitarist, percussionist and keyboards player, leant forward and politely said; ‘Pigbag. What? Pigshit?’

We were then met with chants of ‘PIGSHIT’ after each number. I think they enjoyed it really though…

The Culture Interview: Jenny Gordon – Artist


6 Minute Read

Jenny Gordon is an artist and filmmaker who has a son called Gabriel Bisset-Smith. She is black and her son is white. Or they are both mixed race? Her son has written a lively play Whitewash about race, skin colour and gentrification. It’s on at the Soho Theatre in London until July 27th. Book here – https://sohotheatre.com/

How did Whitewash evolve? 

Basically through situations and conversations my son and I have had over the years revolving aroundrace and the differences of our skin colour. Then, he decided that he wanted to make them into a play that explores mixed raced identity and housing in London.

Could you explain the name – I guess it’s a play on words re London and race, and also something to do with white privilege?

Yeah, it has a few different meaning really, like the word itself. It’s to do with the white privilege of the main character but also the whitewashing of London.

Advantages of Age | The Advantages of Age

Were you actually involved before your son wrote it?

It is based on our life and his upbringing so in a way yes. And he has been involved with my housing situation which has been part of the motivation to write this!

Did he interview you in order to use your experience?

He didn’t have to interview me because we have an on-going dialogue.

How do you feel about being at the centre of this play?

Initially I found it quite stressful as I’m very private about my personal life so it was odd having people think the play is real when it’s just inspired by some real events. But I’m getting use to it now.

And has it affected your relationship with your son, Gabriel?

The whole experience has been really positive for our relationship. We are always very supportive of each other as my son I are very close and we get on really well. I understand what he is doing and it’s been great collaborating with him as I did the painting for the show and he’s a dream to work with.

I noticed you refer to yourself as black and the publicity from the Soho theatre says mixed race?

I refer to myself as black but for the clarity of the story the publicity says mixed race.

How was it being a black mother with a white baby/son/child? In the public arena? And what does that say about us as a society?

When Gabriel was born the first thing I said to the doctor was  – ‘Is he going to go darker?’ and the answer was no. If I hadn’t seen him come out I would have thought they had made a mistake, so it took me a while to bond with him. He was very blond with ringlets and blue eyes and people always thought I was the nanny or minder, and sometimes people would argue with me that he couldn’t be my son.

It became very tiring so I just went with it, which made me take a step back. I didn’t really talk about it so I would just laugh it off but I think it had aneffect on me.

I’m not sure what it says about society but it madeit much harder if you were different in any way out of the norm. People thought they had a right to comment on it? Nowadays it’s probably more hidden.

Have we improved or gone backwards?

With Trump and the possibility of Boris Johnson becoming a Prime Minister, I feel that these are quite risky times and there is a feeling that we could be going backwards in terms of being a woman andrace.

There’s a lot of focus on white privilege these days? Is that good?

Yes, I think it’s a good thing that white people are made aware of their privilege. It’s been there forever but they are really only becoming aware of it now. And it means people like me have a clearerunderstanding of why we get shut out of opportunities.

How is it a love letter to London?

It celebrates what is great about this city. Clubbing, art, diversity and over the course of 30 years. But it also questions what’s happening to it.

How has your own attitude to race changed?

My attitude to race has changed for the better. It’s so much better for me now than when I wasgrowing up. I had a lot of racial abuse wherever I went. I had to be aware of which places that I couldgo to socialise, where I looked for work and education. Now it’s so much more cosmopolitan with so many more inter-racial relationships. I don’t suffer any open outward racism anymore.

What was it like being a young artist in the 80s and 90s in London? How did you survive?

I lived in Culross Buildings in Kings Cross, which could be a bit edgy, with drug addicts and prostitutes. I had a free studio in the same building as my flat and a communal hall where we would hold celebrations and parties. I would go for meetings with gallery owners and with quite a few of them I had bad experiences. I was invited for meetings on the basis of my paintings. However when they saw me, they kept me waiting for hours and then said my work was too controversial for their gallery. I found this experience to be very disheartening and as a result it made me less confident to promote myself as an artist in the ‘art world’.

I also had a part-time job working in a nursery where my kids went and I used to do a vintage stall down Portabello Road. Soho was my go-to-place for socialising at The French, Colony or Gerry’s.

We created a haven in the Victorian buildings and cobbled streets, which were used as film sets for films like Charlie Chaplin and Mike Leigh’s High Hopes. It was a really great artistic communitywhere you felt safe and protected as everyone looked out for each other.

Overall we could be more creative and less money-dependant. I had great support from family, friends and neighbours. It could be tough but we always had lots of fun and good memories of a London that no longer exists.

One of the themes in the play is social housing and how that is changing? I think you have personal experience of that?

I think social housing is coming to an end. It’s more like social cleansing, which I am experiencing myself at this point in my life. They are trying to redevelop where I am living now. It always starts with small damp issues which are never proven and leads to demolition and an uncertain future.

Is Whitewash also a celebration of London?

Yes but also a battle cry to try and save it!

 

Penny Pepper on her Naked Punk Tour


4 Minute Read

Penny Pepper, 59 – poet, performer and writer. She found her voice through writing for punk fanzines and is now on her Naked Punk tour. ‘Punk fired a freedom in me to start accepting myself, that I was okay as a human being, as a woman, as a creative, who could challenge the categories imposed on me. It is the energy that triggered my activism, and my passion for social justice and equality.’

It’s a sad moment when I realise I’ve forgotten to pack my favourite knickers, as I arrive in yet another hotel room, many miles from my Hastings home.

Where am I? I sometimes forget as hotels are my second home at least every four weeks. This time, oh yes. Bristol. The Naked Punk (me) will perform a spoken word set, plus extracts from my memoir, First In The World Somewhere. And at the iconic music store, Rough Trade, only one of four branches in the entire world, damn it!

Here I am, pushing 60. A wheelchair user with a personal assistant (the preferred term) who is my driver, back scrubber and all round right-hand woman. For most of my Naked Punk tour, this personal assistant has been Emma. We work together well, have a laugh together and sometimes a cry together. For instance when we arrived one night, at a Premier Inn in Hackney, London only to discover there was no parking. None at all.

Everything I might need at a hotel goes through a triple checking process on the phone in advance, but alas this far from foolproof. While a young person on reception does not equate with incompetence, it may equate with slow and confused service, especially if you are, gasp, unusual. Poor young things, well groomed and the epitome of polite; they rarely have a clue about the shower blockage or why your room has the wrong bed height – despite those phone calls. They can resolve internet problems though, mostly. Even if they do start by looking at you as if you’re their granny who has never heard of this inter-tweet-net thing.

There are desperate moments on the road. I wish I could at this point bring in the drugs, sex, and TVs being smashed through windows. But in reality, it’s pain killers, bad telly and ‘accessible’ wet rooms that tend to flood your entire room, bringing with it the delicate aroma of the local sewage plant.

I am a bit rock n’ roll in my approach to unpacking. Emma hangs up my clothes, but otherwise my method is to throw items THERE, on the desk below the TV. Here I leave everything from lipstick to Kitkats, note books to baby wipes, empty Dorito packets to a tissue box which is de rigeur. Oddly at home I teeter into OCD tidiness. On my road trip, meh. Let it sprawl and multiply. Earrings do the latter on the road, which I think has something to do with my self-inflicted visit to a local makers’ market. Or the mall.

My hotels are booked to be as close as they can be to the venue. This means less worry about the dreaded parking and makes me more relaxed for the important bit. But in Bristol, it means working out how to get off the noisy ring road, and avoid the Bear Pit roundabout subway where there is a sleepy gaggle of street folk. I lived in London for almost 30 years – I ain’t scared. But it smells bad and brings us out to another fuck of a noisy road. Emma solves it. We come out of the Hilton Cheap and into the posh mall.

Because I am a touch on the delicate side, I always rest the day before a gig. I don’t mean lying in bed being fanned, but I do relax. This time I chilled out by way of buying a hairpiece. Long and pink. Essential for mermaid days.

A gig brings a little tension into my stomach. I’m not nervous when I perform but I percolate the anticipation for hours in multifarious ways. There is the twitchy excitement, the fretting about time, and therefore the hours in the ‘green room’.

Once this was an empty classroom. Another time it had two rows of mirrors and I got to use HRM’s Queenie lift. Here in Bristol, it is actually in Rough Trade, a table set by the photo booth amid all the records. A little disconcerting as most of the walls are glass. At least I don’t need to do a costume change.

The gig goes well despite a scary ramp, which I shoot up from the audience. Next time I need to play some music to accompany my daring ascent. It’s a decent crowd and they respond with cheers, responses and applause throughout.

I glow and grin. Job done.

Next journey Wiltshire. Next gig, WOMAD JULY 26-28th. Get me.

For Penny’s tour dates – http://www.pennypepper.co.uk/upcoming-events/

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