Archive for March, 2008

Chinatown, George Melly, Kate Meyrick and the Brilliant Chang

Saturday, March 15th, 2008

Happening 44 and the Psychedelic Nudist Colony

Soft Machine fans in 1967

I’ve got an old and trusty blackened wok at home bought over 20 years ago for £4.50 in a Chinese Supermarket called Loon Fung situated at 44 Gerrard Street – the main thoroughfare of Europe’s biggest Chinatown in London’s West End. I, and I’m sure most of the, it has to be said, slightly grumpy staff certainly didn’t know the extraordinary musical history the building had. Incidentally the original Chinatown in London was actually at Limehouse in the East End but for various reasons the Chinese community slowly de-camped to the West End centring around a few streets between Leicester Square and Shaftesbury Avenue. After the war it was a particularly seedy area at the edge of Soho but the rents were practically at peppercorn rates which suited the new Chinese restaurants that sprang up around the area.

Gerrard Street in the late sixties
In 1967, after being a bit of a dingy old strip joint, 44 Gerrard Street became known as Happening 44 – a trendy psychedelic club run by Jack Braceland, one of the earliest light show artists in the UK who’d worked on some of the early shows of Pink Floyd amongst others.
His light shows featured hand-assembled wet slides and Aldis projectors. His company called Five Acre Lights was actually named after a psychedelic nudist colony he ran with his wife at Five Acre Woods near Watford – which in reality, was a number of caravans in a sea of mud and a club house that featured a ‘trip machine’ and where Pink Floyd once played a gig on Guy Fawkes night in 1966. Braceland was a middle-aged, slightly weird beatnik character but for the relatively short while Happening 44 existed, it featured such bands as the Social Deviants and Soft Machine.
Soft Machine in 1967
Happening 44 also put on some of the earliest gigs of Fairport Convention – the folk-rock band that would soon become one of the most influential bands in the country. The band had recently placed adverts in the Melody Maker, presumably read by Jack Braceland, which read:

‘Friday; Fairport Convention stays home tonight. Saturday; Fairport stays home again, patiently waiting for bookings’.

Alas Happening 44 closed down within a few months of opening and Jack Braceland went back to his Watford nudist colony, and presumably his ‘trip machine’, and was never really heard of again.

Soft Machine 1967

Fairport Convention in 1967/68
King Of The Ravers and B-Bombs

Mick Mulligan and George Melly – Photograph by Terry Cryer
In the early fifties and fifteen years before Happening 44, 44 Gerrard Street housed The West End Jazz Club run by George Melly and the trumpeter Mick Mulligan, and it was here that the first ‘all night raves’ were held and, improbably, also where the term ‘all night rave’ was coined.
The word ‘rave’ (as in to ‘live it up’) was invented by Mulligan and took several forms: other than the verb ‘to rave’, there was the noun meaning a party where you raved, and finally a ‘raver’ – someone who raved as much as possible. A newspaper at one point called Mick Mulligan the ‘King of The Ravers’. George Melly wrote once that the original all night raves that had attracted beatniks, Soho layabouts and art school students, were an enormous social success but a financial loss.

In his autobiography Owning Up Melly described the end of a typical rave: “At seven a.m. the band played its final number and we’d all crawl up out of the sweat-scented cellar into the empty streets of a Sunday morning in the West End. Hysterical with lack of sleep, accompanied by a plump art student, her pale cheeks smeared with the night’s mascara, I’d catch the Chelsea bus and try to read the Observer through prickling red eyeballs as we swayed along Piccadilly, down Sloane Street, and into the King’s Road. Then a bath, one of those delirious fucks that only happen on the edge of complete fatigue, and a long sleep until it was time to get up and face the journey to Cook’s Ferry or whatever jazz club we were playing that evening.”

All all-night ravers, from whatever era, need a drug that keeps them awake. The drug of choice that allowed George and his fellow ravers to last the course was Benzedrine taken from broken up inhalers.
The Benzedrine inhaler was intended as a decongestant, but you could break it open, remove the paper strip inside and soak the strip in a cup of coffee or tea. This was called a ‘B-Bomb’ and the preparation got so popular the manufacturers had to withdraw the inhaler from over the counter use in the early fifties.

By the mid-fifties 44 Gerrard Street had become a folk club originally called The Good Earth but after the success of Lonnie Donnegan’s Rock Island Line it became the 44 Skiffle Club run by John Hasted – one of the earliest champions of skiffle which he saw as a form of teenage urban folk music. The house band was known as John Hasted’s Skiffle and Folksong Group and featured the young folk singer Shirley Collins. It’s easy today to be bemused about these clubs based around, as in George Melly’s case trad jazz and with Hasted skiffle and folk music, but these were the first youth movements based around music in this country. It wasn’t rock and roll that was the soundtrack for the first teenagers. Not in London anyway. Nor were they the first drug-takers in the capital.

The 43 Club – Useful For Early Breakfasts

At number 43 Gerrard Street in the 1920s there was situated an infamous nightclub run by an Irish woman called Kate Meyrick. She was famous back in Ireland for being the first woman to ride a bicycle, but in London she was well-known for running a string of nightclubs and evading the strict licensing laws whilst doing so. The most famous of which was the ’43 Club’ in Gerrard Street. It attracted bohemians like the artists Augustus John and Jacob Epstein and writers such as JB Priestley and Joseph Conrad as well as a good sprinkling of gangsters and aristocrats.
Tallulah Bankhead who often performed in London during the 1920s described the club as “useful for early breakfasts” and when asked “what time breakfast would be then?” she replied “about 10pm”. Tallulah Bankhead often admitted to her liking of cocaine and the ’43 Club’ was said to be the centre of drug dealing in the West End of London – the advantage for dealers, during the many police raids on the club, of a hidden escape route to Newport Place was obvious.
Corrupting The Womanhood of this Country

The most notorious cocaine dealer in London during the 1920s was a man known as ‘Brilliant Chang’ – his name is still used as slang for cocaine to this day.

In 1918 a popular young actress called Billie Carleton was found dead in her bed by her maid after attending the Victory ball at the Albert Hall. At her bedside was a gold box containing cocaine given to her by her boyfriend , the costume designer Reggie de Veuille. He had bought the drug from a Scottish woman called Ada and her Chinese husband Lau Ping You. Ada and de Veuille (the prosecution attempted to paint the worst possible picture and described him as ‘somewhat in foreign appearance and accent with an effeminate face and mincing little smile…’) were sentenced to five and eight months hard labour respectively but Lau Ping You escaped with just a £10 fine. The involvement of a Chinese man, however, whipped the press into a frenzy and the newspaper Pictorial News ran a series of pieces on the East End’s ‘Yellow Peril’. Very soon another Chinese man called ‘Brilliant’ Chang was brought to the forefront. Chang was a former Limehouse marine contractor but now ran a restaurant called ‘Shanghai’ in the same part of the East End. Limehouse was London’s original Chinatown but although the population reached its peak just after the First World War the population was probably only around 300 people.

The original Chinatown in Limehouse during the 1920s

The Pictorial News said that Chang ‘dispensed Chinese delicacies and the drugs and vices of the Orient.’ The paper continued that Chang ‘demanded payment for his drugs in kind’ and further enlightened its readers advising that women ‘who retained sufficent decency and pride of race’ turn down ‘this fellow with lips thin and cruel tightly drawn across even yellow teeth’. This description of Chang seems to have come directly from a Sax Rohmer Fu Manchu novel – literature that didn’t exactly help the Chinese immigrant community’s cause and stoked Londoners fears of drugs, foriegners and crime – “Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government—which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.”

In 1922, Freda Kempton, a young nightclub dancer was found dead after an overdose of cocaine and the press soon found out that Chang had been with her the night before. He told the Coroner at her inquest ‘she was a friend of mine but I know nothing about the cocaine. It is all a mystery to me.’

According to the coroner there was no proof that he was linked to the death , but the police were convinced that he was. They raided his restaurant in 1924 and found a large quantity of the drug. He was jailed for 18 months and subsequently deported. The judge told him ‘It is you and men like you who are corrupting the womanhood of this country.’ While The Empire News wrote ‘Mothers would be well advised to keep their daughters as far away as they can from Chinese laundries and other places where the yellow men congregate.’

The Daily Telegraph reported a few years later that Chang had gone ‘blind and ended his days, not in luxury and rich silks, but as a sightless worker in a little kitchen garden.’

The womaniser and drug dealer ‘Brilliant’ Chang

In the thirties, probably encouraged by the atmosphere of ‘yellow peril’ hysteria whipped up by the popular press, the local council decided to clear the ‘slum area’ around Limehouse and many of the Chinese shops, restaurants and gambling dens were swept away. This, and the extensive bombing of the area during the Second World War encouraged the gradual migration of Chinatown from the East End to the West End.

Kate Meyrick, meanwhile, after several spells in Holloway prison due to repeated licensing laws offences and the bribing of policemen, died in 1933 – dance bands in the West End, apparently, fell silent for two minutes in tribute.


Belgravia, Brian Epstein and the traitor John Amery

Sunday, March 9th, 2008
‘Rough Trade’ and Illicit Encounters

Everywhere people stare
Each and every day
I can see them laugh at me
And I hear them say

Hey you’ve got to hide your love away
On the 27th August 1967 Brian Epstein, The Beatles’ manager was found dead in his bed at 24 Chapel Street – his London home in Belgravia, and practically a stones throw from the grounds of Buckingham Palace. He’d taken, what was most likely, an accidental overdose of Carbital – a popular sleeping pill of the time. Epstein had in the last few years become a heavy drug user and in fact during a lot of that summer Epstein had been staying at The Priory, the infamous rehab clinic – trying to cure his acute insomnia and growing addiction to amphetamines.

Earlier that week Epstein had met up with The Beatles, for what would be the final time, while they were recording Your Mother Should Know at The Chappell Recording Studios for the up-coming Magical Mystery Tour. He was then planning to spend the August Bank Holiday weekend at his country home at Kingsley Hill in Sussex with his friends Geoffrey Ellis and Peter Brown, and he did indeed drive down there with them on Friday 25th. However later that same evening he got upset when an expected group of rent boys failed to arrive, and he left his friends and drove back up to his home in Chapel Street.

Epstein had long known he was homosexual, although it was not publicly known until long after his death (which was just a month before homosexuality was legalised in England). While he was in the Army during National Service in 1956 he had a tailor make an officer’s uniform that he wore when cruising the bars of London. He was arrested one night at the Army and Navy Club in Piccadilly by the Military Police, ostensibly for impersonating an officer, and although Epstein managed to avoid a court martial he was discharged from the Army after a psychiatrist described him as ‘emotionally and mentally unfit’ – an obvious army euphemism for homosexuality at the time.
Epstein ended up studying at RADA but was again arrested for ‘persistent importuning’, however this time he was blackmailed by an ex-guardsman called Billy Connolly causing him to drop out of the drama college in the third term. There was even a rumour of a sexual encounter between John Lennon and Epstein during a holiday they had together in Barcelona in April 1963 although Lennon always denied this, telling Playboy in 1980, “It was never consummated, but we had a pretty intense relationship.” However Lennon’s friend Pete Shotton wrote in his book ‘The Beatles, Lennon And Me’ that Lennon gave in to Epstein “I let him toss me off, and that was it.” By the summer of 1967 Epstein was regularly taking a huge amount of recreational and prescribed drugs and was allowing his strong attraction to very ‘rough trade’ and illicit encounters with abusive and violent men to put him into situations where further blackmail was likely.

During the same August bank holiday that Brian Epstein was planning to spend at Kingsley Hill, The Beatles had travelled by train to Bangor in North Wales in the company of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It was there in Wales, on Sunday morning (and the very same day that the Sunday Express revealed that Pete Best, the Beatles’ former sacked drummer, was working in a bakery for 18 pounds a week) that they heard the shocking news of their managers’ death.
Epstein had telephoned Peter Brown at Kingsley Hill the day before at around 5pm, but apparently sounded groggy and Brown advised him to come back to Sussex by train and not risk driving. That was the last conversation anyone had with Brian Epstein. On Sunday morning his housekeeper arrived at his flat and got no response. She called a few of his friends and after a while they decided to break down the door to find Epstein lying dead in his bed. He was just 32 years old.
His death, at the inquest, was officially ruled accidental, caused probably by a gradual buildup of Carbitral in his system, and then mixed lethally with alcohol. He had taken six Carbitral pills in order to sleep, which was probably usual for Epstein, but meant that his tolerance had started to become deadly.
After his death, The Beatles quickly decided to manage themselves and within a week or so were recording I Am The Walrus. We can’t really tell what would have happened to the band if he had stayed alive but without the only manager they had ever known and his calming influence The Beatles grew apart and just over two years later they were no more.
The Death Of Brian Epstein
Brian Epstein interview
112 Eaton Square and the traitor John Amery

In 1942 during the Second World War a Harrow-educated English man called John Amery began making Nazi propaganda broadcasts from Berlin. At 112 Eaton Square in Belgravia his family, almost certainly, would have been listening intently to the wireless. What they heard would have been more than embarrassing for any family at the time, but it was especially so for this one, John Amery’s father Leo was a school friend of Winston Churchill’s and was currently the Secretary Of State for India and Burma in Churchill’s cabinet.

After the broadcast Leo Amery immediately called Churchill who exclaimed ‘Good God. No one should be blamed for the aberrations of a grown-up son’. The next day Leo went to his lawyer to disinherit his traitorous son.

Leopold Amery in 1940

John Amery was born into undoubted privilege in 1912, but even by the age of five a teacher described him as “an extremely abnormal boy, with a fixed attitude of an abnormal type and a tendency to live inside himself”. When he was ten he was sent to his father’s school Harrow where he climbed out at night, visited nightclubs in London and lost his virginity when he was just 14. He was sanctioned at school for “moral breakdown” and when taken to a psychologist by his parents was told he had “no moral sense of right and wrong”.

He was eventually sent to a school in Switzerland but came back to England after contracting syphilis by prostituting himself to men.

At the age of twenty he had managed to receive 74 driving convictions, usually because if he was driving and fancied a drink, he’d just stop his car and leave it in the middle of the road.

At around this age he announced that he was going to marry a Una Eveline Wing whom he described as an actress, and very rich. However she was known to the police more as a common prostitute. As Avery was still to young to marry without parental permission he ran away to Paris, living by cadging money from family and friends. The couple eventually married in Greece, but soon after, Amery was arrested trying to buy diamonds with a bad cheque.

John Amery and Una Eveline Wing in 1932

He carried a gun at all times, and it wasn’t paranoia that made him terrified of creditors finding him. With him everywhere he also carried a childhood teddy bear who he would buy comics and drinks. It was known that he was making money as a male prostitute, but also liked masochistic sex with the female variety.

By 1936, when incidentally he was declared bankrupt for oweing £6000, he became obsessed with the Nazi cause, believing Communism the utter fault of the Jews. When the Second World War was announced Amery was in Spain where he had been gun-running on behalf of Franco and the fascists. MI6, however, believed him no threat to national security describing him as a drunk “dissipated, both physically and morally.”

John Amery arrested in 1936

In 1942 he visited Germany via Vichy France and Amery suggested that the Germans consider forming a British anti-Bolshevik legion. Adolf Hitler was impressed by Amery and allowed him to remain in Germany as a guest of the Reich and on November 19, 1942 he broadcasted to Britain saying “Listeners will wonder what an Englishman is doing on the German radio tonight. I come forward without any bias, but just simply as an Englishman-to say to you: a crime is being committed against civilisation!”

“You are being lied to, your patriotism, your love for our England is being exploited by people who for the most part hardly have any right to be English. Between you and peace lies only the Jew and his puppets.”

In late 1944, and after the Germans realised that he was nothing more than a drunk, he travelled to Italy to support the Italian dictator Mussolini, although it wasn’t long before he was captured by Italian partisans. A young British officer called Captain Alan Whicker (yes, believe it or not, that one) was sent to find him and when they met, Amery apparently said “Thank God you’re here. I thought they were going to shoot me.” He appeared more worried about the whereabouts of his beloved teddy bear and his wive’s furs than his destiny back home. He was brought back to England – dressed in full fascist costume including jackboots and he was charged with high treason, which as a crime, had only one penalty: death.

Leo Amery, like many Tory MPs after the war lost his seat and his son’s trial took place shortly after on November 28, 1945, in Court One at the Old Bailey.

John Amery shocked everyone, not least his family, by pleading guilty -basically a suicide plea. A witness in the court said: “He was like an insect that falls on a hot stove and is withered, and what he did felt like an act of cruelty to the whole court. It was quite clear that he was morally satisfied and that he was congratulating himself on having at last, at the end of his muddled and frustrated existence, achieved an act crystalline in its clarity.”

The judge summed up by saying: “John Amery, I am satisfied that you knew what you did and that you did it intentionally and deliberately after you had received warning from your fellow countrymen that the course you were pursuing amounted to high treason. They called you a traitor and you heard them, but in spite of that you continued in that course. You now stand a self-confessed traitor to your king and country, and you have forfeited your right to live.”

Amery was only the second man in history to plea guilty to treason and the trial lasted just eight minutes. Despite medical reports labelling him psychotic, he was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint in Wandsworth Prison at 9am on December 19, at the age of 33.

Amery apparently said to the infamous hangman “Mr Pierrepoint, I’ve always wanted to meet you, but not, of course, under these circumstances.”

Pierrepoint later claimed that as he tightened the noose, Amery was “the bravest man I ever met”.

The notice of Amery’s execution outside Wandsworth prison.