It was a real pleasure to speak about jazz and the pursuit of pleasure at Two Temple Place last night. A wonderful audience in a perfect setting, surrounded by vivid and evocative relics of the Jazz Age. Thanks to everybody who came along, and everybody who helped make it possible.
Britain at large wasn’t ready for the arrival of jazz in 1918, but the music took hold in a cluster of West End sites – some exclusive, some underground, and all dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure. I’ll be talking about where jazz took hold as part of Two Temple Place’s Rhythm and Reaction: The Age of Jazz in Britain exhibition programme: Monday 26 March, 1830-1930.
To my surprise and delight, I came out of an antiques market yesterday with a copy of Play Pictorial magazine that had been waiting who knows how many years for me to happen upon it. The featured play is Freedom of the Seas, in which Billie Carleton appeared the night before her death in November 1918 from what the ensuing inquest ruled to be a cocaine overdose. She was the female lead, but the cast’s other actress had the livelier part.
Carleton played an old-fashioned kind of young woman – as she seems to have done in her life offstage. ‘I fancied somehow that a woman could only find happiness with the love of a strong man who dominated her,’ her character says, and eventually does.
The other woman on the stage presents a much more modern image of womanhood – dressed for action in oilskins, trained as a wireless operator and serving, it turns out, as a Secret Service agent. She was played by Marion Lorne (who was married to the play’s author Walter Hackett).
Lorne achieved her greatest fame much later in her career with a character who also possessed special and secret abilities – Aunt Clara in the 1960s TV series Bewitched. But although the show was subversive in its own fluffy way, Clara’s enchanting niece Samantha being the real power in her suburban dream-home marriage, empowerment wasn’t extended to the older woman. As far as the scriptwriters were concerned, old meant confused, and that was comedy in those days.
On the other hand, Lorne’s career trajectory defied the obstacles that the entertainment industry puts in older women’s way. It started before the first world war and peaked more than twenty years after the second.
A hundred years ago this month, there were no illegal drugs in Britain. A hundred years ago next month, the unauthorised possession of cocaine was made an offence under wartime emergency regulations. This was the beginning of the prohibition regime under which drugs have been controlled ever since.
The ban came after a florid panic, centred on the West End of London, about the use of cocaine by prostitutes and soldiers. To mark the centenary, I’m tweeting on-this-day headlines and quotes.
The first is today’s story from the London Evening News: ‘Practically unknown a few years ago, cocaine-taking has spread like wildfire in all classes of the community.’
Honoured and grateful to presenter-about-town Matthew Sweet and impresario-producer Phil Tinline for the opportunity to make my debut as a variety turn at the BBC’s Maida Vale studios last night. Matthew compered his Palace of Great War Varieties, a freewheeling tour through the popular culture of the First World War, with his usual aplomb and a stock of jokes a hundred years old. It’ll be broadcast as Radio 3’s Sunday Feature on December 28 from 6.45 to 7.30pm.
I learned a huge amount from fellow contributors Fern Riddell, Helen Brooks, Ian Christie and Neil Brand about music hall, theatre of different stripes and cinema … and was quite carried away by their enthusiasm, a tremendous demonstration of how the period can still speak to us and fire our imaginations.
And what did I bring to the show? Clubs, drugs and a brief tour of the West End finishing at the scene of London’s first cocaine bust, outside what is now the Ivy. Matthew and I took in Ciro’s nightclub, or rather the National Portrait Gallery archive which now occupies the building, and gazed at photos of its former splendour while standing on what was once the dance floor – boards trodden later in the club’s history by Audrey Hepburn, who danced and sang there in 1950.
Patti Smith turned her show at the Cadogan Hall in London into a William Burroughs celebration on the 100th anniversary of his birth. As she reminisced about loitering in the Chelsea Hotel lobby in order to pounce on him when he left the bar next door (‘My dear, I’m homosexual,’ he had to explain) it struck me that she’s just three degrees of separation from Reggie de Veulle, the louche anti-hero of Dope Girls.
It goes like this: In London during the First World War Reggie knew (and maybe bought cocaine from) the mysterious Don Kimfull, who I believe was ‘Joseph Dean’, the legendary proprietor of Dean’s Bar in Tangier, who met (and took a dislike to) William Burroughs, who became friends with Patti Smith in New York.
Oh, and she did ‘Birdland’ like it had just come to her, in a vision.
I rather like the idea that as it heads into its third decade, Dope Girls has taken a form that the people it’s about wouldn’t recognise. But if you’d like a traditional paper copy, just order it online – here, for example – and the system will run one off for you.