Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
Whilst attending the launch of the Essex Book Festival in Chelmsford Library the other day, my eye was drawn to a small exhibition of unusual photographs. The portraits were of Miss Fanny Park and Miss Stella Boulton, who, in 1870 shocked and scandalised English society. The girls, both of them part-time actresses and also part-time prostitutes, were actually young men, Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton. The two female impersonators happened to be performing in Chelmsford when the photographic studies – which belong to the Essex Records Office – were taken. England it seems, even in the suffocating bombazine folds of the mid-Victorian era, has always retained a liking for drag acts. “Most Englishmen don't need to be asked twice to put on women's clothes.” a grinning Mick Jagger once remarked.
In April of 1870, however, having made a particularly brazen display of themselves at London's Strand Theatre by ogling and 'chirruping' at the men in the stalls, Fanny and Stella were arrested by the Metropolitan Police, who on May 8th subjected them to a show-trial at Westminster Hall.
There followed some humiliating, intimate examinations conducted by a police surgeon. After the prosecution failed to establish that any actual illegal acts had taken place, it not being an offence merely for a man to dress as a woman, the two young men were acquitted. Since the prosecuting authorities were judged to have been over-assiduous in their examinations, the matter, even in those starchy days, constituted a perceived breach of human rights. Fanny and Stella's subsequent acquittal was greeted with popular acclaim. After this victory, the pair disappeared from the public gaze. Their story, the subject of a recently-published book by Neil McKenna, Fanny and Stella, makes for an interesting and still-shocking read.
One striking thing about Wivenhoe, the town where I've lived for many decades, is its long-established acceptance of gay people. When, few years ago, my cherished young daughter's video tape of The Wizard of Oz became jammed and tangled in the player, within minutes, I was able to purloin a replacement copy from a neighbour. That, I suppose, is the gold standard. In this place, you really wouldn't have to go more than a couple of doors down the road to find a copy of that particular film – or Priscilla Queen of the Desert come to that. There's even an affectionate local joke which runs:” The burglars round here? They don't nick anything, they just break in and criticise your soft furnishings.”
Wivenhoe, like Brighton to the south and Hebden Bridge to the north was familiar with gay culture before certain other towns in the UK were. Less flamboyant than Brighton, Wivenhoe doesn't possess a gay community or 'scene' as such, although, it's fair to say that there's probably a larger than average number of same-sex couples living here.
There's no Gay Pride march here either. There'd probably be more likelihood of seeing an Accountancy Pride march. Almost above anything else, Wivenhoe is an academic town and most academics as we know have all the sartorial panache of... well, you remember 1970s Open University TV presenters, don't you? So move along please, there's nothing to see here. The village of Ardleigh, in fact, recently put up a more impressive show than Wivenhoe when a local pub landlord successfully fought the council for his right to fly a Gay Pride flag from the building.
The Fanny and Stella story, subtitled The Young Men Who Shocked England remains interesting. For it demonstrates, if nothing else, that gay rights have undergone a long trip in order to arrive at their current station. For instance, the majority of us no longer errantly associate homosexuality with paedophilia, or transvestism, as may have been the case only decades ago. If Fanny and Stella were to walk into a Wivenhoe pub today, there'd possibly be a small frisson of excitement but there'd be no longer be any outright condemnation.
When, during the 1860s, they toured Essex, Miss Park and Miss Boulton played to market town assembly rooms or performed in the drawing rooms of private houses. Something in the English psyche likes and has always liked these aspects of the showbiz demi-monde. Its popularity endurs and is reflected in our affection for certain characters, such as those introduced by TV's Little Britain: The only gay in the village, or Emily “I am a lady.” Howard, for instance.
Meanwhile, a new battlefront has opened up and war is currently raging over whether same sex marriages should be allowed to take place in churches. I confess that I can't quite see the Church's problem here. It's like looking at a cartoon of a bride hammering on a studded door, with a caption reading, “How much longer are you going to be in that closet?” From the Church's point of view, it's not as if the barbarian's at the gate: he's already in the living room, sat at the sewing machine and running up new curtains. Personally, I tend to subscribe to Robert Louis Stevenson's view of marriage as: “A type of friendship recognised by the police.” Quite apart from this, even if I were gay and of the marrying kind, I wouldn't want to be married by any authority so reluctant to conduct the ceremony. It's all a bit of a rum old do, I reckon.
The Grim Reaper's dance card was rather full last month. I bring back my own memories of two of his choices, to include, a few snippets which their obituaries mightn't have mentioned.
Firstly, George 'Shadow' Morton the American record producer died last week, aged 72. Shadow Morton was chiefly famous for producing and writing 1960s Shangri-Las hits such as Leader of the Pack, Remember (Walking in the Sand) and others. Leader of the Pack was actually banned by the BBC when it was first released. A BBC ban of course, has long been accepted as a hallmark, almost an acknolwedgement of a great record. So far as pop music is concerned, the BBC continue to specialise in staying two steps behind the times. The week before last, for instance, they held a slightly-odd celebration of the release of the first Beatles debut album, Please Please Me , recorded some 50 years ago in one bracing 12-hour session.
The Beeb thought it might be a wizard wheeze, to get some current music stars to attempt to recreate the same feat. The musicians involved managed to turn out surprisingly mediocre versions, considering the long drum-roll which preceded their efforts. Two obvious faults ruined the hang of this particular collarless jacket. The first, was that at the time of making Please Please Me, the Beatles were all in their feisty early twenties and still ravenous for a fame which was not yet theirs. This factor endowed their music with a raw edge. Such verve was impossible to reproduce by the luminaries selected for the job, many of them now well into the embonpoint of their own middle-age. The chief problem, however, was an almost total absence of those chewy original harmonies which had set the Beatles so far ahead of the rest of the pack. The result was that the Beeb's Beatles 'tribute' was unsalvageably naff, which only left your man here in Essex, once again, to sigh, “Why-oh-why?”
Shadow Morton, meanwhile, in his own way a record producer every bit as good as Phil Spector, is now another scratch on the Great Celestial Run-out groove. George wasn't afraid to push a mad idea when he found one. Quite apart from this, he reportedly stalked around the studio in a cape, keeping his young charges suitably in awe of him. He also understood exactly how epic a teenage heartache ought to sound. Listen again to Remember, Walking In The Sand or the heart-weary Past, Present and Future.
Early British beat- boom records were abolutely fine of course, but their American counterparts always sounded so huge by comparison. If George Morton felt that a flock of seagulls needed to be heard on a song in order to press a point home, then on they went.
In Essex, with England's third largest coastline, those seagulls must have resonated with every teenager who came within earshot of them. The record was a massive UK hit., Perhaps George Morton didn't invent the seed drill or discover Penicillin, but I reckon that dubbing loads of echoey seagulls onto a Shangri-las disc has to come a close third. The two main things which I learned from Morton, once I was let loose in a recording studio unsupervised, were
a) If it's a stupid idea, at least try it and
b) If there's an echo button, use it.
This brings me neatly to the Reaper's next dance partner. If you liked your pop music sung with an English accent and a psychedelic twist, then Kevin Ayers was your man. Kevin Ayers, founder member of Soft Machine, friend of the late Syd Barrett and the man who gave a 16 year-old Mike Oldfield his first job as a guitarist, died last week aged 68. Kevin Ayers was a charmed man from a charmed time. A pop singer of flaxen-haired, pouting loveliness, he sang in a well-spoken, crushed velvet baritone. He was, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s everyone's favourite art-rocker. Women of artistic inclinations, now of a certain age, would sigh and fasten their hands upon their Biba blouses at very mention of his name. Ayers, reportedly helped to fracture Richard Branson's first marriage. He also made some brilliant records which, though largely ignored by the mainstream were loved by sufficient pop dissidents to support his bohemian lifestyle.
In 1974, he, along with Brian Eno, Nico and John Cale of the Velvet Underground, recorded a never-to-be-repeated live concert at the Albert Hall. One of the songs included, was the achingly lovely May I? This became the soundtrack for a foolish dalliance during my 21st summer, with a French-Corsican femme fatale, who used your poor correspondent cruelly before leaving him for an American pilot.
Anyway, never mind my old war wounds, back to Kevin Ayers, who, having deserted his music fame, some years ago, died in France last week. I thought that someone on the East Anglian old enough to remember him, ought to mention it, because I know that there are readers out there, who will feel as wistful and sad about it as I do.
As if the losses of George Shadow Morton and Kevin Ayers were not enough, the actor Richard Briers left the company last week too. My colleague Andrew Clarke paid a perfect tribute to him last Friday. There's nothing really that I can add to it but to say that I don't know of anyone who didn't give a genuinely heartfelt sigh upon hearing the news of his death. Bad week, all in all.
Last week, as news broke of the discovery of the skeleton of King Richard III, history probably came its closest yet to being proclaimed the New Rock'n' Roll. For a brief moment it was off with the tweed jacket and on with the black leathers, as it ran out onto the stage, stuck its foot up on the wedge monitor and then, punching the air triumphantly, yelled: “Awraght! How ya doin' Leicester?”
Actually, that's not what happened at all, the announcement was: “It is the academic conclusion of the University of Leicester that beyond reasonable doubt, the individual exhumed at Greyfriars in September 2012, is indeed Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England.” There was a gasp, followed by a discreet hubbub from the waiting audience, who exhibited only as much excitement as their considerable decorum would allow.
Richard III's remains were found in a car park under which they had lain for well over 500 years. Such an overstay might normally have incurred a hefty fine. Luckily for Richard, his scoliotic skeleton confirmed that technically, he would have qualified for a blue disabled badge. Richard, as the Richard III Society have been attempting to prove to the world since 1924, was not quite the pantomime villain he's often made out to be. Nor did he meet his doom offering his kingdom for a horse; although, according to the recent food scandal headlines, he probably wouldn't have had to go too far down any High Street in order to locate the components for one.
Salient among the Leicester team who found Richard III, we are proud to say, was a local man, John Ashdown-Hill. Mr Ashdown-Hill, who lives at Lawford, is a linguist-turned-historian. He completed his history PhD as a mature student at the University of Essex and I have to say that his first book, Medieval Colchester's Lost Landmarks (2009) changed the way in which I saw the town.
Colchester, you see, is clinically obese with history. You will hear about Boadicea, the Romans, the Normans, the Civil War, the Flemish Weavers, William Gilberd and our post Napoleonic War military connections. What you generally won't hear much about, as Mr Ashdown-Hill asserts in his book, is medieval Colchester.
The medieval period wasn't just some passing clothing style or a music trend. The High to Late Medieval era ran roughly, from just after the Norman Conquest right up until to the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid 1530s. At almost five centuries, that's not far off the amount of time that Richard III's skeleton languished undiscovered under that Leicester car park.
The point is, that up until I'd read John Ashdown-Hill's book about medieval Colchester, for years if not decades, I'd cheerfully walked around the town as if I were sleepwalking. I never really noticed, for instance a certain jettied building in Trinity Street. Even more staggering, I never saw the carved wooden figures adorning the gates of the Red Lion pub in the High Street, even though I must have walked past them hundred of times. Over decades I'd strolled down West Stockwell Street, fuzzily admiring its general antiquity and yet, somehow, always missed its jutting medieval lines. I prided myself that I knew something of East Hill and St Botolphs, since I'd lived around there for a few years. Now, thanks to Mr Ashdown-Hill, I began to learn more. The old street names, for instance: Queen Street was once called South Street, whereas Vineyard Street used to be Bere, or Beris Street – probably because bear baiting had once gone on there.
When I first read Medieval Colchester's Lost Landmarks, it was like getting a new Colchester to walk around in. I'm not a historian myself, not even an amateur one. I just don't possess the required academic rigour. But I am a fan of history, almost a groupie lately, and the more I flirt with the subject, the more fathomless it becomes. History is populated by people who, after all, are only earlier editions of us. They felt the same pain, elation, and anger as we do. They harboured the same fears, vanities and petty jealousies. They were capable of the same villainies and kindnesses as we are. In many ways, therefore, their portraits are our own, albeit with very different backdrops and frames. The value of historians such as Mr Ashdown-Hill is that through their painstaking work, they help clear away some of the smears left by time on those portraits, so that we are able to see something of our past selves more clearly.
Colchester, we are frequently told, is a Roman town. This helps to obscure the fact that it's also very much a medieval town. Evidence of it remains all around us, evidence which many people, if they're anything like I once was, will pass daily without even noticing.
I expect that right now John Ashdown-Hill is justifiably chuffed about being a part of the team which turned up Richard III. But he's also the person who raised my awareness of medieval Colchester, which, once I'd begun to tune into it, would never look the same to me again.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised here, or think that there might be a lost king under a carpark near you. Medieval Colchester's Lost Landmarks by John Ashdown-Hill is published by Breedon Books.