The Shakespeare’s Head

July 13, 2011

At 29 Great Marlborough Street, W1 (but most often approached by Carnaby Street, where it’s situated on a corner where the street meets Fouberts Place) stands The Shakespeare’s Head.

The sign outside the pub claims the inn was established on the site in 1735 and was named after the owners, Thomas and John Shakespeare, who claimed to be distant relations of their famous namesake. Nothing of the original establishment remains – the building which stands today is late nineteenth-century (albeit in a Tudor style) – and there are serious doubts over whether it has any connection even with Shakespeare’s descendants. After all, The Shakespeare’s Head is a fairly common pub name in London – others can be found in Holborn, the City, Kingsway, Finsbury and Forest Hill.

It’s likely Thomas and John Shakespeare form part of a colourful story about the pub’s origins, and one which has been stated with increasing conviction over the years. The presence of the claim on a nicely-painted board outside the pub certainly helps attract the passing tourists ambling down Carnaby Street, but it doesn’t make the story any more likely to be true.

What the pub does have, however, is one of London’s most charming Shakespeare statues.

There are others dotted around the capital – Leicester Square, Westminster Abbey, on the front of City of London school, a bust in the churchyard of St Mary Aldermanbury – but none with the playfulness of the one which peers out from a window-like recess of the pub.

There’s just something perfectly realised about the position of the body. While the face is cold and fixed, the stance of the body really conveys him casually examining the crowds below – a fixed moment where the greatest playright of all time is half-looking for inspiration in the throng that passes outside his window.

I have no idea whether the bust has always been painted in these cold colours, but there’s more than a touch of “zombie Shakespeare” about the hue (a zombie Shakespeare made an appearance in The Simpsons’ 1992 Halloween special Treehouse of Horror III, looking surprisingly similar to the pub’s statue.)

The sign outside also claims the bust lost a hand in World War 2 “when a bomb dropped nearby.”

While the bust is definitely one hand down, I’m inclined to take everything that sign says with a pinch of salt.

Currently standing behind a barricade of steel as the buildings behind it are levelled for redevelopment, the LIFFE Futures Trader statue on Walbrook, EC4 must be one of London’s least loveable pieces of public art.

Sculpted in 1996 by Stephen Melton, a plaque set into the ground reads: “LIFFE Trader. Unveiled by Christine Mackenzie Cohen, Chairman of the Trees, Gardens and Open Spaces Sub-Committee 1st October 1997”.  That dry dedication wouldn’t be out of place in 1970s East Berlin, were it not for the fact the statue is an unalloyed celebration of Capitalism.

LIFFE is the London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange, and the type of trader the statue represents – the garishly-jacketed men who stood on the floor of the Stock Exchange, wildly gesticulating and signalling – is an open outcry dealer. Two years after the statue was unveiled, most of the “colourful and loud-mouthed traders” (as the BBC put it) were laid off, replaced by electronic systems through 1999 and 2000.

Tony Blair visits LIFFE traders in 1997 (Guardian)

I understand why it’s there – it commemorates the last three decades of the area’s relationship with banks, futures markets, stocks and shares. And why shouldn’t statues be made of the ordinary man, instead of just long-dead generals and monarchs? Why not commemorate a specific job at a specific moment in time with a representation of a typical Londoner from the area? It all makes sense.

The problem with the statue is that it immortalises one of the worst types of Londoner. It’s a celebration of the type of person who only values London as a place to make money.

When I first saw the statue, I didn’t think it was of a Londoner – I thought he probably lives in Guildford, where he has an inexpensive sports car and a wife who he wants to cheat on, but hasn’t yet managed to. He gets off the train at Waterloo with a hangover, heads straight to the office, goes out to a Pret at lunchtime, and is back on the Waterloo train at half six, probably making loud phone calls in a crowded carriage. The only cultural place he’s been to is Madame Tussaud’s when he was at school; the only meal he’s ever had in London is a curry round the back of the office with some of the other Futures Traders, where they got drunk and mildly racist when the bill came.

Look at the smirk on his face. His big phone, on which he’s halfway through trying to get some charlie sorted for the weekend. His unravelled tie, hinting that he’s had a couple of jars already. The sideways glance he’s giving, as if following the arse of every woman who walks by.  And the fact that even though he’s making money by the fistful, he still has to wear a badge with his name on it, just the same as if he worked in Asda.

Just round the corner from the LIFFE trader is the London Stone, one of the capital’s oldest, most mysterious relics which is now stuck into the front of a deserted office block.  When I was there, about a dozen people took photographs of the statue. The statue is 14 years old. None of the people walking past the London Stone even glanced at it.

And that’s what this statue represents to me. The triumph of money over heritage, and the ordinary over the curious.

While the property at 134 Drummond Street might not look like the place where a revolution would start, what went on inside the building during the 1950s completely changed life in Britain.

Simply put, without it, most of us would never have eaten a curry at home.

In 1956, a Gujurati-born Indian named Lazmishankar G. Pathak left Kenya for Britain. Pathak took the only job he could find – working in the sewers – while his wife Santagaury stayed at home with their six children in Queens Crescent, Kentish Town.

It was in their tiny kitchen that Santagaury started making traditional Indian sweets and snacks to sell to their newly-arrived fellow immigrants, hungry for an authentic taste of home. While the cooking started as an attempt to top up the family’s funds, it didn’t take long for the food to prove so popular that the Pathaks started to struggle to meet the demand.

After a couple of years of selling foods made in their house (their 10-year-son Kirit working as the delivery boy), they opened an Indian grocery behind Euston station in 1958, in the working-class Drummond Street.

In 1962, they changed the name of the shop from Pathak’s to Patak’s – the pronounciation was easier for English tongues. The Pathaks began expanding into pickles (which LG claimed to have invented one day to stop the fruits and vegetables he had over-ordered from being wasted) and pastes of spice and oil, enabling people to quickly produce their own authentic-tasting curries when they arrived home after a long day at work.

By 1978, their products were being stocked by the major supermarkets (where, in the grey days of the late 1970s, they would have seemed unimaginably exotic and unfamiliar to most shoppers), and by the time LG Pathak died in 1997, his firm was become a massive success and a firm favourite amongst the British public. His children eventually sold the family company to Associated British Foods in 2007 for a whopping £200 million.

Patak’s Lime Pickle. I would happily eat this with every single meal.

The London writer Geoffrey Fletcher visited and sketched the Drummond Street shop in 1968, some years before Pataks outgrew its humble origins (and sadly the more elaborate stone facade that once crowned the shop window.)

In Geoffrey Fletcher’s London, he describes a trip inside:

where, in addition to a bewildering assortment of spices, curries and sugar candy, are fresh vegetables flown in from India. Indian sweetmeats, ruinous to the figure but otherwise eminently desirable, are a speciality. These include Rose Halwa, flavoured with roses, and Almond Halwa, and there are two kinds of Barfi – the delicious green made out of pistachio nuts and the plain yellow. There is also the triangular vegetable savory, Samosa, rather like a Cornish paasty, a couple of which with a mug of tea form the Indian working-man’s dinner. Altogether the street has become an Indian suburb.

Today, Patak’s is no longer based in London – they moved out to Lancashire, where they operate the largest Indian food factory in the world – but Drummond Street is still full of the Indian restaurants which came in Patak’s wake.

Every third shopfront seems to be occupied by an Indian restaurant – the Diwana (a veteran vegetarian institution, full with locals on the night I ate there), the Ravi Shankar (opened in 1982, according to its advertising board), The Massala Hut, the Shah, Sizzling Bombay, Drummond Villa Tandoori, Chutneys…a staggering number of Indian food-sellers in such an otherwise short and easily missed street.

The firm’s recent TV ad campaign – starring LG’s son Kirit, the former delivery boy who is now the chairman – had the strapline “Patak’s: Why Britain Loves Curry.” Well, this unassuming shop front in an unlovely stretch of Euston is where that love affair started.

Despite what it looks like in these photos, the shop is still operating as a grocery today – I just happened to snap the shopfront after the owners had locked up for the night. In fact, 134 Drummond Street is still being used in much the same way as it was in 1958, when an enterprising Indian gentleman moved in and completely changed the way an entire nation ate.

Edit: Here’s a photo of the shop during the day, still looking largely the same as when Geoffrey Fletcher visited in 1968.

Shalamar of Clapham

July 5, 2011

As a North Londoner, walking back from Clapham Common is a disorientating experience. It’s like a foreign county; wide roads, great flat heaths, people with accents different to mine, and seemingly-popular fast food restaurants I’ve never heard of.

Shalamar is a tiny fast-food restaurant close to Clapham Common tube station, which, as the bag announces, has been open since 1972. The KFC-inspired bag promises “chicken and Jacs”, but what Jacs are, I’ve no idea. A search online brings up just one relevant link – and it’s only someone else asking what on earth Jacs are.

The person on the bag isn’t Shalamar, but the owner, Mr. Shahid Latif. Looking rather like a benevolent dictator from the 1970s, his face beams out like a Middle Eastern Colonel Saunders – looking rather like, according to one blogger on fast-food, “the love child of Christopher Lee, Borat and Salvador Dali.”

It seems a shame that more independent shops don’t produce this type of personal bag – but I suppose, like this example, it must be a bit strange to walk round your neighbourhood and constantly spot your own face discarded at bus stops.

 

As a long-time comics fan, there’s nothing I enjoy more than conjuring up mental images of how comic shops used to be. When I was nine-years-old, the original Forbidden Planet comic shop at 23 Denmark Street was simply the most magical place on earth.

I only have to see a glimpse of the Brian Bolland artwork which used to adorn the plastic bags (and the associated t-shirt my dad bought me on one trip) and I’m straight back to the uneven wooden floor, the smell of pulp paper, the shafts of light streaming through the dust which hung in the air, and the vague unease of my mum as the till rang through each 75p I’d spent on the recent releases.

A price sticker from the original Forbidden Planet

The store first opened in 1978, the third of the dedicated comics shops in London following Dark They Were And Golden Eyed in Soho and Weird Fantasy in New Cross.

The original Forbidden Planet was owned by Nick Laundau, a former sub-editor of 1970s British comics 2000AD and the war title Battle. He went on to establish Titan Entertainment, a company distributing imported the US comics which were previously only sporadically available at  British newsagents.

The old FP makes a cameo in 2000AD…

And Marvel’s The New Mutants Annual 2 with art by Alan Davis

There’s no better example of how American comic books were distributed in the UK prior to the 1970s than with the knowledge that most arrived in the country as ballast inside American ships. It’s a commonly told tale that when the ships docked in Manchester during the 1940s, the ballast was purchased by two brothers who wanted the American newspapers inside to sell on to fish and chip shops as wrappers. Any comic books they found would be diverted to a market stall and sold from there (the two Mancunian brothers later went on to found World Publishing, a successful children’s book imprint which finally closed in 2003.)

Today, Laundau is no longer the owner of the Forbidden Planet chain, but remains with Titan Books, now a vast publishing company specialising in TV tie-in books and magazines.

23 Denmark Street, formerly Forbidden Planet 1, today

Just round the corner from the original shop on St Giles High Street was FP2, which, despite it’s claim in the poster above to be “the cinema and television shop”, I recall being stuffed full to bursting with sci-fi novels.

The two shops combined and moved round the corner to New Oxford Street in the early 1990s, forming the country’s first Comics and Sci-Fi Megastore.

Forbidden Planet ad from Deadline issue 18 (May 1990)

It was a boom time for the comics shop – a new generation’s rediscovery of the Star Wars films and the announcement of an upcoming prequel, a mania for TV hits like the X-Files, and a runaway speculator’s market of limited edition comics and cover variants, meant that comics and pop culture had never been more mainstream.

X-Files-era boom for the Megastore, c.1995

Blinded by the record profits that the mania for collecting generated, the comic companies made a terrible mistake; they forgot to make their comics any good. While they would happily produce six different front cover designs for every single issue, they completely forgot to deliver the goods inside the covers.

As the writing and artwork inside the comics plummeted, so too did the numbers of readers. Copies which were once highly prized collectables became impossible to shift from the shelves. The speculators and collectors all retreated, and many of the smaller comic companies who’d been riding those waves folded almost instantly. It’s no surprise that, of the dozen or so mainstream comic shops operating in London at this time, all but the Forbidden Planet have since shut up shop.

Site of the former Forbidden Planet Megastore, 71 New Oxford Street

Now pretty much the sole vendor in town, Forbidden Planet moved to its present, even larger location at 179 Shaftesbury Avenue in 2003.

I like the shop, but I can’t imagine it excites the minds of ten-year-olds like the original did mine. It’s very white, clean and tidy – a far cry from the sense I used to get of hunting for buried treasure in the scruffy old shop located down a rather insalubrious side street.

In fact, with all the silent men in their forties flipping morosely through leaflets, it looks a little bit like a private medical facility where all the health information pamphlets star Spiderman.

There’s still a shop in London that conjures up the wonder of the early 1980s comic shops, however; the Comic and Book Exchange in Notting Hill.

Everything about it is as perfect a relic of 1980s comic shops as you could ever imagine. The floor is dirty, the strip lighting flickers, and most importantly, it smells of cheap paper.

The racks are full to bursting with stuff you’ve never heard of, you can find amazing bargains, the signs are all handwritten, and the vast majority of their stock harks back to a time when comics had lurid, over-the-top covers created solely to encourage kids to pick them up.

It’s odd that the last place to go when you get nostalgic for Forbidden Planet would be Forbidden Planet. While FP might be the last of the London comic book stores to survive, the Notting Hill Book and Comic Exchange is the only one in London that feels like stepping back to the modern industry’s very earliest days.

Sound Tour of London

May 25, 2011

Years ago, I picked up this single in a charity shop  – but sadly just the sleeve. With no record inside, the actual recording of Sound Town: London – The West End remains a tantalising mystery. It’s undated, but the inclusion of the BT Tower (which was completed in 1964) on the sleeve means it was released in the mid-1960s at the earliest.

Produced by Travelsound of 1-14 Canfield Gardens, NW6 (a couple of roads away from Finchley Road tube station), the record celebrates “the sounds that are London. A small treasure of knowledge this – it will enrich you in many ways, help you to understand the people of this Island. You will then be able to say, “nice to know you.””

I’d always presumed it would consist of field recordings of noises, ambient sound or conversations – a prototype art project – but looking at the back, one T.Z. Kurkowski is credited with the script, which was read by Ian Clark, a registered British Travel Association guide. In some ways, it’s an early prototype of many of the modern London walking tours you can currently download through iTunes, where someone takes you on a walk in real time, their commentary running over the sounds of the roads they’re walking down and the sights they stop outside.

The track ‘Speaker’s Corner at Marble Arch’ is the one I’m keenest to hear – for something which has been running for so many years, it’s shocking how meagre a selection of recordings seem to have been made at Speaker’s Corner. In recent years, it seems to have fallen off the list of  tourist destinations, but having wandered over a few months back, it’s as full of racists, cranks and End-Is-Nigh-ers as ever.

A second record – Sound Tour of London – The City – was also released at the same time, but neither return any results on the internet whatsoever. It seems I’m never going to get to hear this thing…

High above 105-109 Oxford Street sit a trio of London’s oddest statues.

Three stone rodents.

At first glance, they look a bit like rats, but the wide flat tail sported by the one on the right identifies them as beavers.

The one at the very top also comes with a scroll, bearing the initial ‘H’.

105-109 Oxford Street was formerly the premises of Henry Heath’s Hat Factory, and his name and profession are still spelled out in a brick facade on the back of the old factory, which can be seen from Berwick Street.

According to the firm’s own publicity in 1879, Heath’s hat factory dated back to the reign of George IV (1820-1830) and they guaranteed “1st , Their Quality; 2nd Excellence of Finish; 3rd Style.”

A relief of George can be seen above one of the windows, with the date 1822 most likely referring to the firm’s establishment. Next to it is a young Queen Victoria, 1887 being the date the premises were rebuilt.

Henry Heath’s primary product was top hats, which were made using felted fur from “Beaver Otter, Rabbits, Hares and Musk Rats.”

A Henry Heath flyer from an 1884 exhibition

The firm was still advertising its products in 1931, but while they undoubtedly shut up shop due to the modern decline in hat-wearing, I’ve been unable to find out exactly when. If anyone knows, please drop me a line!

In the meantime, here’s a final shot of the beavers, who’ve been perched on the roof watching London change for the last 124 years.


It might be more proper to place a question mark at the end of that headline, but, according to Stephen Knight’s Jack The Ripper: The Final Solution (1985), 74 Brook Street, just two minutes away from Oxford Street and opposite Claridge’s, was once the home of London’s most infamous murderer.

Knight first identified the Victorian surgeon William Withey Gull (1816-1890) as Jack the Ripper in his book, and his hypothesis was later adopted by Alan Moore for the tremendous graphic novel From Hell (which was also a less tremendous film.)

Dr William Withey Gull, c.1860

Educated at Guy’s Hospital (where he remained throughout his professional career) Gull’s medical reputation has been entirely outstripped by the clamour of the Ripperologists. He coined the name ‘anorexia nervosa’, advanced understanding of paraplegia and Bright’s disease, argued that women should be encouraged to enter the field of medicine, and was known for his ceaseless work in treating patients at any time of day or night.

Gull’s surprisingly modern medical outlook was summed up in his Published Writings: “Never forget that it is not a pneumonia, but a pneumonic man who is your patient. Not a typhoid fever, but a typhoid man.”

In 1871, Gull became Physician-in-Ordinary to Queen Victoria’s son Albert (then Duke of Wales and later Edward VII) and successfully treated him for typhus. With nary a full-stop in sight, The Times reported on Gull’s work with the Prince in December 1871:

In Dr. Gull were combined energy that never tired, watchfulness that never flagged ; nursing so tender, ministry so minute, that in his functions he seemed to combine the duties of physician, dresser, dispenser, valet, nurse, – now arguing with the sick man in his delirium so softly and pleasantly that the parched lips opened to take the scanty nourishment on which depended the reserves of strength for the deadly fight when all else failed, now lifting the wasted body from bed to bed, now washing the worn frame with vinegar, with ever ready eye and ear and finger to mark any change and phase, to watch face and heart and pulse, and passing at times twelve or fourteen hours at that bedside.

Created a Baronet the following year (he took the title 1st Baronet of Brook Street), Gull was consequently appointed Physician Extraordinary and subsequently Physician-in-Ordinary to Victoria. It is not likely he ever treated the Queen; there were four Physicians-in-Ordinary and for all but one of them it was effectively an honorary position.

Gull died at 74 Brook Street in January 1890 after a series of strokes. The Times reported his death.

We regret to announce that Sir William Gull died at half-past 12 yesterday at his residence, 74, Brook-street, London, from paralysis. Sir William was seized with a severe attack of paralysis just over two years ago while staying at Urrard, Killiecrankie, and never sufficiently recovered to resume his practice.

On Monday morning, after breakfast, he pointed to his mouth as if unable to speak. His valet, who was in the room, did not quite understand what was amiss, but helped him into the sitting-room. Sir William then sat down on a chair and wrote on a piece of paper, “I have no speech.” The family were at once summoned, and Sir William was soon after removed to bed, where he received every attendance from Dr. Hermann Weber, an old friend, Dr. Charles D. Hood, his regular medical attendant, and Dr. Acland, his son-in-law.

The patient, however, soon lost consciousness, and lingered in this state until yesterday morning, when he quietly passed away in the presence of his family. The inquiries as to his state of health during the last two days have been unusually numerous, a constant stream of carriages drawing up at the door.

Gull was buried next to his mother and father’s graves in his childhood hometown of Thorpe-le-Soken in Essex.

If his name was well-known in his lifetime, it was nothing compared to how famous it would become from the 1980s onwards. While a 72-year-old highly-respected baron doesn’t seem the most likely of serial killers, Stephen Knight’s hugely entertaining book argued that Gull was responsible for murdering  five women working as prostitutes in the East End in 1888 on the direct orders of the state.

To do justice to the entire murky web of probable presumptions, possibilities and perhapses which make up this conspiracy, there’s nothing as exhaustive and enjoyable as Alan Moore’s From Hell.

The interior of 74 Brook Street even makes an appearance towards the end of Moore’s book, when the medium Robert James Lees leads the police investigator Abbeline to the doctor’s front door. A tired, confused Gull confesses to his crimes. This was just artistic licence on Moore’s part – but considering the entire “William Gull was Jack the Ripper” theory depends almost entirely on artistic licence to keep it afloat, it’s an entirely fitting addition.

Surprisingly there is no plaque commemorating Gull’s time in the house, but there is one the other side of the road, on the house directly opposite 74 Brook Street.

The plaque is not dedicated to Dr Gull or Jack the Ripper, but commemorates some similarly grisly work that, even after all these years, still turns the stomach of all right-thinking people.

There’s a strange synchronicity with second-hand books. Two days ago, I’d finished all the books I had on the go, so randomly picked out one I’ve owned for years and not read for ages: WH Davies’ 1908 The Autobiography of a Super Tramp. While I know he’s not using the word in the modern way, I love the idea he thought of himself as a “super tramp”, as opposed to just an adequate one.

Davies was a Welshman born in 1871. Regarded as a delinquent, with expulsions from school and trouble keeping jobs, he spent much of his early life living rough in America. While there, he lost a leg while riding the trains with a fellow tramp (in a foreshadowing of the loss of limbs, the other tramp’s name was Three-Fingered Jack) and for the rest of his life sported a wooden one.

Destitute, he returned to England, where he lived in large doss houses in south-east London (including Southwark’s infamous Salvation Army hostel, known as The Ark) and sold shoe laces, saving his money with one single purpose: to self-publish his poetry.

In 1905, he sent his book of poems, entitled The Soul’s Destroyer, to George Bernard Shaw. “I get a gift of minor poetry once a week or so,” Shaw grumbled, but “before I had read three lines I perceived the author was a real poet.” Shaw was puzzled by what sort of man Davies was.

There were no author’s compliments, no publisher’s compliments, indeed no publisher in the ordinary channel of the trade in minor poetry. The author, as far as I could guess, had walked into a printer’s or stationer’s shop; handed in his manuscript; and ordered his book as he might have ordered a pair of boots. It was marked “price half a crown.” An accompanying letter asked me very civilly if I required a half-crown book of verses; and if so, would I please send the author the half-crown; if not, would I return the book. This was attractively simple and sensible.

Shaw bought eight copies, and when they were reviewed in a London newspaper, he discovered Davies was a tramp. Noting the review mentioned Davies had a manuscript of an autobiography, Shaw wrote back and offered to read it through. He was amazed by it.

All I have to say by way of recommendation of the book is that I have read it through from beginning to end, and would have read more of it had there been more to read…another effect of this book on me is to make me realise what a slave to convention I have been all my life. When I think of the way I worked tamely for my living during all of those years when Mr. Davies, a free knight of the highway, lived like a pet bird on titbits, I feel that I have been duped out of my natural liberty.

Having read the introduction to the autobiography two days ago, I’d started wondering what Davies’ poems were actually like. Today, browsing a small pile of old books in one of Finchley Central’s junk shops, I found a 1946 hardback of his collected work. That’s 48 hours between my wondering about them and subsequently having them in my hand. There’s a strange providence with second-hand books – somehow they start to find their way to you.

In all, Davies self-published fifty volumes of poetry, and this book collects all 636 of his poems.

He’s largely forgotten today – but his work’s not at all bad. Befitting his preoccupations as a tramp, Davies writes about outside spaces, his nights spent sleeping rough in the woods, his desire to have a house, about rogues who “come this day to borrow / A sum that’s promised but not paid tomorrow”, and portrays scenes of life from the lodging houses he frequented. One poem concerns a sailor in a doss-house shouting at his parrot for it’s foul language.

With his autobiography a success, Davies was immediately accepted by London’s literary and artistic circles (albeit more for his unusual life story than his work.) He was painted by Augustus John and in 1916 had a bronze made of his head by Jacob Epstein.

WH Davies by Augustus John (National Museum of Wales)

In 1911, he was awarded a civil list pension of £50, which later increased to £100, and then £150. It meant he could live comfortably for the rest of his life and concentrate on his literary work. The same year, he coined his most recognisable (although often misquoted and rarely attributed) couplet in the poem Leisure:

What is this life if, full of care

We have no time to stand and stare…


A comfortable-looking Davies in 1913

In 1916, having lived for short periods in houses across London, Davies settled into a flat at 12 Great Russell Street (directly opposite the YMCA) with his pet toad, Jim.

He stayed at the flat until 1921 when he moved to 13 Avery Row, off Brook Street, in the smarter neighbour of Mayfair.

Davies’s flat in Avery Row was one of the dark brick properties on the left

During his time in London, Davies occupied himself by writing a second volume of autobiography entitled Later Days and giving readings of his work; fourteen of his readings for the BBC reside in their archives.

Marrying in 1925, Davies and his wife left London for Gloucester. He died in 1940, the doctors telling him that his heart was showing alarming signs of weakness, which they attributed to his dragging the extra weight of his wooden leg about.

In his introduction to the collected poems, his friend Osbert Sitwell called Davies an

extraordinary and memorable being, who, for all his humility, bore about him something of the primitive splendour and directness of the Elizabethan age: in which, as his appearance testified, he would have been equally at home. No one who knew him will, or ever could, forget him, even had he never written so many lovely poems, fresh and exquisite as flowers to keep his memory alive; and no one who knew him will ever be able to recall him without a smile of pleasure and regret.

Sir John Squire summed up his poetry with a lovely turn of phrase:

Mr. Davies is astonished at everything the rest of us take for granted. What to the rest of us is the first primrose of spring is to him the first primrose in all the world. In other words, he is pure poet.

Open editions of Davies’ The Autobiography Of A Supertramp can be read in full here.

In getting rid of all the stuff I’ve accumulated over the years, I came across this advert a couple of days ago in a British Planet Of The Apes weekly comic from 1975 – Stan Lee, live at the Camden Roundhouse.

He presented a slide-show, with tickets priced at 60p. I absolutely would love to see Stan Lee – I think as a writer, he’s one of the greats of the twentieth century. So many household names flowed out of his head in such a short span of time (about four years in the mid-60s, many of them in collaboration with the artists Jacky Kirby and Steve Ditko) – Spiderman, The Hulk, Thor, The X-Men, Iron Man, The Fantastic Four, Doctor Octopus (surely one of the greatest villain names ever?), Dr Doom, The Avengers, Daredevil, Dr Strange; the list just goes on and on.

It was about this time that the first comic shops started opening in London (one of the very first was Dark They Were And Golden Eyed, which moved around Soho throughout the seventies), but it’s sad to see how many of them have closed in the last decade. It’s a combination of the industry destroying itself in the 1990s by pandering to speculators and taking their eye off of stories, the growth of a few professionally-run shops (the Forbidden Planet was always number one by a long chalk, even when it was in a dusty, wooden-floored Denmark Street shop), and the fact that kids these days have more exciting things to do that open comics. They can play Fallout 3 for God’s sake, and given the choice between reading or killing mutant dogs, who can blame them?

I think Stan Lee might be the one single author whose work I’ve spent the longest time reading, and have enjoyed the most. He seems like a completely untortured, friendly, unpretentious genius, and he’s had more of an effect on global culture than pretty much anyone else in the last fifty years, and what’s more, in an entirely positive way.

I’d happily pay a lot more than 60p to see him do a slide show today. Hey, I’d pay more than 60p just to have him shout a trademark ‘Excelsior!’ right into my face.