Those of you that luxuriate in the warmth of high summer, spare a thought for Mr Pussy who has a fur coat surgically attached and spends his languorous days stretched out upon the floor in a heat-induced stupor. As the sun reaches its zenith, his activity declines and he seeks the deep shadow, the cooling breeze and the bare wooden floor to stretch out and fall into a deep trance that can transport him far away to the loss of his physical being. Mr Pussy’s refined nature is such that even these testing conditions provide an opportunity for him to show grace, transcending dreamy resignation to explore an area of meditation of which he is the supreme proponent.
In the early morning and late afternoon, you will see him on the first floor window sill here in Spitalfields, taking advantage of the draught of air through the house. With his aristocratic attitude, Mr Pussy seeks amusement in watching the passersby from his high vantage point on the street frontage and enjoys lapping water from his dish on the kitchen window sill at the back of the house, where in the evenings he also likes to look down upon the foxes gambolling in the yard.
Whereas in winter it is Mr Pussy’s custom to curl up in a ball to exclude drafts, in these balmy days he prefers to stretch out to maximize the air flow around his body. There is a familiar sequence to his actions, as particular as stages in yoga. Finding a sympathetic location with the advantage of cross currents and shade from direct light, at first Mr Pussy will sit to consider the suitability of the circumstance before rolling onto his side and releasing the muscles in his limbs, revealing that he is irrevocably set upon the path of total relaxation.
Delighting in the sensuous moment, Mr Pussy stretches out to his maximum length of over three feet long, curling his spine and splaying his legs at angles, creating an impression of the frozen moment of a leap, just like those wooden horses on fairground rides. Extending every muscle and toe, his glinting claws unsheath and his eyes widen gleaming gold, until the stretch reaches it full extent and subsides in the manner of a wave upon the ocean, as Mr Pussy slackens his limbs to lie peacefully with heavy lids descending.
In this position that resembles a carcass on the floor, Mr Pussy can undertake his journey into dreams, apparent by his twitching eyelids and limbs as he runs through the dark forest of his feline unconscious where prey are to be found in abundance. Vulnerable as an infant, sometimes Mr Pussy cries to himself in his dream, an internal murmur of indeterminate emotion, evoking a mysterious fantasy that I can never be party to. It is somewhere beyond thought or language. I can only wonder if his arcadia is like that in Paolo Uccello’s “Hunt in the Forest” or whether Mr Pussy’s dreamscape resembles the watermeadows of the River Exe, the location of his youthful safaris.
There is another stage, beyond dreams, signalled when Mr Pussy rolls onto his back with his front paws distended like a child in the womb, almost in prayer. His back legs splayed to either side, his head tilts back, his jaw loosens and his mouth opens a little, just sufficient to release his shallow breath – and Mr Pussy is gone. Silent and inanimate, he looks like a baby and yet very old at the same time. The heat relaxes Mr Pussy’s connection to the world and he falls, he lets himself go far away on a spiritual odyssey. It is somewhere deep and somewhere cool, he is out of his body, released from the fur coat at last.
Startled upon awakening from his trance, like a deep-sea diver ascending too quickly, Mr Pussy squints at me as he recovers recognition, giving his brains a good shake, now the heat of the day has subsided. Lolloping down the stairs, still loose-limbed, he strolls out of the house into the garden and takes a dust bath under a tree, spending the next hour washing it out and thereby cleansing the sticky perspiration from his fur.
Regrettably the climatic conditions that subdue Mr Pussy by day, also enliven him by night. At first light, when the dawn chorus commences, he stands on the floor at my bedside, scratches a little and calls to me. I waken to discover two golden eyes filling my field of vision. I roll over at my peril, because this will provoke Mr Pussy to walk to the end of the bed and scratch my toes sticking out under the sheet, causing me to wake again with a cry of pain. Having no choice but to rise, accepting his forceful invitation to appreciate the manifold joys of early morning in high summer in Spitalfields, it is not an entirely unwelcome obligation.
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With his weathered features, grizzled beard, sea captain’s cap and denim bib overalls, Silhouette Artist Matyas Selmeczi looks like he has just stepped off a boat and out of another century. For several years now, Matyas has been a fixture in Spitalfields and is to be found at the entrance to the Backyard Market off Brick Lane each Saturday and Sunday, where Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien & I paid him a visit last weekend.
Such is his gentle, unassuming personality that it is possible you may not have noticed Matyas sitting in his booth, yet I urge you to seek him out because this man is possessed of a talent that verges on the magical. With intense concentration, he can slice through a piece of paper with a pair of scissors to produce a lifelike portrait in silhouette in less than three minutes, and he does this all day.
Once his subject sits in front of him looking straight ahead, Matyas takes a single considered glance at the profile and then begins to cut a line through the paper, looking up just a couple of times without pausing in his work, until – hey presto! – a likeness is produced. The medium is seemingly so simple and the effect so evocative.
Silhouettes were invented in France in the eighteenth century and named after Etienne de Silhouette, a finance minister who was a notorious cheapskate. These inexpensive portraits became commonplace across Europe until they were surpassed by the age of photography and when you meet Matyas, you know that he is the latest in a long line of silhouette artists on the streets of London through the centuries.
In spite of photography, silhouettes retain their currency today as vehicles to capture and convey human personality in ways that are distinctive in their own right. And for less than a tenner, getting your silhouette done is both a souvenir to cherish and an unforgettable piece of theatre.
“I have always been able to draw and I trained as an architect in St Petersburg. When my daughter was eight years old, I tried to teach her to draw but it was too early and she would cry. A pair of scissors were on the table so I picked them up and cut her silhouette to make her smile – that was my very first. When she was twelve, I was able to teach my daughter to draw and now she has become an architect.
In 2009, I was working in Budapest as an architect, but there was a crash in Hungary so I came to London. I found there was also a crash here, so I couldn’t get a job and I decided to do silhouettes instead. The first two years were hard but interesting. I did not know anything, I started in Trafalgar Sq. A friendly policeman explained that I could not charge, instead I had to ask for donations.
Then I was on the South Bank for two years and I used to have a line of people waiting to have their silhouettes done. In winter it was very hard, I had gloves and put my hands in my pockets to keep them warm so I was ready to work, but it was very windy and the wind blew away my easel and folding chair.
So four years ago, I came to Brick Lane where I can charge money but I have to pay rent, and I’ve been here every weekend since, and I am in Camden from Wednesday to Friday. On Monday and Tuesday, I am free to do my own drawing and painting.
To draw a portrait you start from the brow and draw the profile but with a silhouette you begin with the neck. It is like a drawing but you only make one line and you cannot make any mistake in the middle. It is like a shadow or a ghost. It takes me three minutes but it is not hard for me.
I like to do father and son, mother and daughter and it is very interesting to see the similarities and the differences, and how the profile changes over time.
Anybody can take photographs but silhouettes require skill. It is not really an art but a beautiful craft. You must have good eyes and very good hands.
The first time I saw a silhouette being cut was in Milos Forman’s ‘Ragtime.’ In the first few minutes of the film, you are in the Jewish quarter of New York and you see a silhouette artist on the street.
Once on the South Bank, I had a very old lady at the end of the queue watching me and I thought she had no money, so I offered to cut her silhouette for free – but she said, ‘No, I am a silhouette artist.’
She had come to this country as a child with her family from Vienna in the thirties escaping Hitler and cut silhouettes on the streets of London. Her name was Inge Ravilson and she was eighty-eight years old. She invited me to her home, and I visited her and we drank tea.
We became friends. She was wonderful and she taught me her tricks. She could cut a silhouette very fast, in one minute, and she told me I am too slow but my work is more characterful, so I was very proud. I know I am not the best, but she told me I am good and she gave me her scissors. That’s good enough for me.”
Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien
Matyas Selmeczi can be found in Spitalfields every weekend and at Camden Lock each Wednesday to Friday. He is also available for parties, weddings and events.
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As part of this summer’s celebration of forty years of punk, I interviewed New Yorker Danny Fields at Leila’s Cafe last week about his enduring relationship with London and the crucial events of July 1976. The feature is accompanied by Danny’s photographs of The Ramones.
Danny Fields by Sarah Ainslie
The Gentle Author – When did you first come to London?
Danny Fields – In 1958. I was nineteen, I had just graduated from college and I had a book called ‘Europe on Five Dollars a Day.’ One pound was $2.80 then, it had been devalued from almost five dollars. So literally, I had five dollars a day for food and lodging, not for party time or cocktails, but yeah I was nineteen and I stayed in Russell Sq.
The Gentle Author – Why did you come here?
Danny Fields – It was the grand tour. I had finished college, I was about to go to law school but first you had to go to Europe: London, Amsterdam, Munich, Rome, Venice, Florence… I’m sure I left somewhere out… Paris, of course.
The Gentle Author – What was your impression of London at that time?
Danny Fields – It was overwhelmingly beautiful. It was London! My mother’s family was from Yorkshire, from Leeds. She was the youngest of six children and the only one who was born in the United States – her brothers and sisters were all born here, so I always felt a little bit British in my blood and I’m a great anglophile.
It was way better than the United States, more civilized and the people speak better, and they’re just smarter and prettier, and the whole place is way more wonderful than dreary pathetic America… which has good natural scenery, let’s be honest.
The Gentle Author – What did you enjoy in London?
Danny Fields – I stood in front of Buckingham Palace and then I went to the Royal Parks. I enjoyed cramming in as many of the ‘must-sees’ as one could. Especially, the Elgin Marbles. The forty or fifty times I’ve been here since, that’s the one must-see for me. When I see the Iosius, the river god lying there on the pediment from the Parthenon, then I know I’m here in London and I’m happy.
The Gentle Author - So after that first visit, when did you return?
Danny Fields – I started coming back regularly in the seventies when I began working in the music business. One would come then on trips and junkets, record companies would fly reporters and journalists first class to London to see a new band. In those days, the record companies were immensely rich. I don’t even remember the details, it was just: ‘Do you want to go to Copenhagen?’ ‘Oh sure!’
The Gentle Author – Do you remember any of those bands?
Danny Fields – No, I don’t remember any because they all sucked! I only remember the city. But forty years ago this week, I came as manager with The Ramones to play the Roundhouse and apparently made some kind of vibration in the existing musical plasma in this country. It was meaningful in ways that I didn’t realise until much later, because we were only here for three days.
The Ramones played at the Roundhouse on the Friday night and sold it out, which was remarkable. It proved that this amateurish do-it-yourself band, who were not musically virtuosic, not blessed with the gift of knowing anything about music, but with a power all their own, were viable commercially.
The promoters saw that and it became the catalyst for the creation of bands here that weren’t even invented yet, those still toying with the idea of becoming a band, perhaps getting together and playing but were not good enough.
The first afternoon we were here Paul Simonon of The Clash, which became the greatest of the British bands in ensuing years, came into the dressing room and asked, ‘How do you guys do it? You must be really good, because we just aren’t good enough to play in public.’ Johnny Ramone said, ‘You haven’t seen us – we stink! We can’t play, we just put it on and we’re fast and loud.’ It was the velocity of the music that was a revelation to musicians here. ‘Wow, they like it when we play fast!’ The Ramones liked playing fast because no one noticed when they hit a wrong note. ‘Don’t ever tune up in between songs it’s not sexy – just shoot that rocket and keep it moving.’
You don’t tell a rocket to stop, it’s got to keep going or it’s going to fall. The same thing happens in the mind of an audience when a band starts playing. The Ramones, as another musician said of them, ‘you could not slide a cigarette paper between two of their songs.’ One song ended and the next song began before you knew it, so there was no disruption of the moment and that became definitive for Punk Rock.
The Ramones got called ‘Punk.’ I don’t know how we became ‘Punk,’ but it’s a very handy term. It has such scene stealing tendencies. Four letter words are great, they last a long time, they’re easy and then they become umbrella terms, covering fashion and politics. Punk has lasted now for forty years and it’s not going away. The death of Punk is predicted frequently but this year is the year of Punk in London. There’s Punk tattoos and Punk ballet and Women in Punk, an entire year sponsored by the Mayor’s Office and the National Lottery. So it occurred to me that London is trying to own Punk Rock, which they should because anything exciting to do with Rock ‘n’ Roll since the late fifties was born here, I mean except for Elvis.
Punk is an idea that it changes its hue and dimensions, but elements of it were started by The Ramones. They were poor kids from New York who came here on July 4th 1976, which – ironically – was also the Bicentennial of the American Revolution when the American colonies fired George III. It was like a Brexit in reverse: Britain got fired. Then, two hundred years later, four guys from the former colonies, now the United States (an unfortunate agglomeration of areas) came here and triggered Punk.
The Gentle Author – Why had The Ramones not made it in America yet? Why did it happen in London?
Danny Fields – It’s much smaller and denser here, geographically, whereas America’s so spread out. There’s all those time zones but here something can happen instantly. Whether you were in Belfast or Cornwall or Edinburgh you read the New Musical Express and the music weeklies had immense influence. There were brilliant people writing for them, and bands-that-wanted-to-be-bands were reading them and dreaming – everyone at once. John Peel was playing the music on Radio One, so you could have the igniting of an entire culture in an instant, which you couldn’t have in America.
The Ramones were struggling to get into Cincinnati before they took London by storm, yet when they came back to America it was as it was when we left – very few places to play. Meanwhile, here’s another irony, the whole of America knew what was happening with the Sex Pistols, that they were trouble and they vomited wherever they went. The shenanigans of the Sex Pistols at that time – it was a watershed moment when these drunks went on a TV show and said a dirty word – they went from coverage in the music section to front page news.
The Gentle Author - As manager, did you feel vindicated by the success of The Ramones in London?
Danny Fields – Oh no, it was too astonishing. As manager, I was still struggling to get them into Cincinatti. Of course, I loved their music, but it was hard.
The Ramones came to London with an exotic musical aura. There was interest here in the downtown New York scene and British music weeklies sent reporters to cover what was going on at CBGBs. So that was glamorous and it was why thousands of people turned up at the Roundhouse. The band played for more people that one night in the Roundhouse on July 4th than they had played for in their entire two year career until then. I expected nothing to come of this except a trip to London. This was a delightful surprise, kind of like – ‘Pinch me, did two thousand people really come? Oh my God!’ In the photos, you can see the astonishment of the band. ‘It’s us!’
It was the London heat wave of July ’76 but there was no air-conditioning anywhere. Business men were walking down Piccadilly in wife-beater shirts and there were no ice cubes. The band couldn’t believe it, because we were used to totally air-conditioned New York in the summer. But we had an air-conditioned room at the Holiday Inn in Camden, so all the kids came back and stayed at our hotel and there were wild sex romps. That was just a little extra something. We did not ask for the heat wave but it was part of it. I’m sure it was part of it. So little of it you can plan. You book the hotel rooms and the venue, but then ‘Who’s there?’ and ‘What do they think?’ and ‘Do they want more of you?’ and all that. There’s no planning for that, just wishing.
The Gentle Author - Why do you keep coming back to London?
Danny Fields – I love it, especially the history. I’m a great fan of the Royal family (not as human beings, except for the Queen!) because they’re so hilarious and wonderful, and you can trace the history of civilization by the British monarchy.
Oh it’s just, yes, there’s an affinity… there’s no word for it but I know it when I see it, and I feel it in London. It feels correct and right and civilized here, far more civilized than America. We have New York which is a little oasis of civilization – but Britain is totally civilized wherever you go.
London is the busiest city I’ve ever been, except maybe Tokyo. The people are so creative, everybody here looks self-invented, not cookie-cutter identities, they all have a personal style. I love everything about it as a culture. I love the National Gallery and I love the Tate and I love the neighbourhoods and I love Bloomsbury and the squares. We don’t have anything so perfect as London. What a perfect idea of a city, it’s just punctuated by green, beautiful green spaces. Yet to think that it was pulverized between 1940 and 1945. Some of my favourite movies of all time were made here in the thirties and forties, and my favourite actors and actresses are from here. Even Middlemarch is from here – the best book of all time! I have no problems, it’s quite the perfect civilization. I can’t imagine the human race has come up with anything better than London.
Transcript by Rachel Blaylock
Danny’s portrait of The Ramones in Washington Sq, Greenwich Village, New York
Dee Dee & Johnny Ramone at Heathrow Airport
The Ramones on Park Lane
Joey Ramone outside the Roundhouse
The Ramones play to 3,300 people at the Roundhouse on 4th July 1976
Dee Dee Ramone
Linda Clarke, Lee Black Childers, Nancy Spungen, Sid Vicious, Dee Dee Ramone
Stuart Keen, Tommy Ramone, Dee Dee Ramone, Keith Levene, Paul Simonon, Johnny Ramone
Danny Fields (right) and friends at the Bottom Line, New York 1978
Archive photographs copyright © Danny Fields
In her ongoing attempt to prevent eviction from her council flat, Viscountess Boudica of Bethnal Green is exhibiting her drawings for sale at The Society Club, 12 Ingestre Place, Soho, W1F 0JF. All readers of Spitalfields Life are invited to the opening next Wednesday 20th July 7-9pm. Drawings are priced at £40 each or you can click here to donate direct to the Viscountess’ fund.
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Do you wonder where Spitalfields Life Books come from? Perhaps you thought I keep them in my attic in Spitalfields and I climb a rickety ladder every time someone wants one? In fact, they have recently been coming from Central Books‘ magnificent agglomeration of old warehouses in Hackney Wick, which is the next best thing.
Yet the modern age has caught up with Central Books, which was founded by the Communist Party in 1940, and they are now moving to fancy new warehouse in Chadwell Heath opposite Nichols & Clarke, another emigrant from the East End. So, as they make preparations to leave their nineteenth century premises for good, I took this last opportunity for a ramble around to explore the forgotten corners of the lonely old book store with my camera.
Central Books’ headquarters is a tall building on Wallis Rd that was originally the Clarnico Chocolate Box Factory. It houses offices on the top floor, a packing room on the ground floor and three floors of bookshelves in between. During the Olympics and to bemusement of the staff, MI5 made frequent visits to this building which enjoys a unique view upon the site of the games.
Grafted onto this tower are a string of warehouses of differing ages, connected by yards that have been subsequently roofed over to create a curious architectural assemblage, in which former exterior walls become interior and you walk from early nineteenth into early twentieth century spaces. Before they became a book warehouse, all these structures were built for different purposes, some lost.
The largest warehouse has an elaborate wooden roof with rough hewn timbers which appears as much agricultural as industrial in style. This early nineteenth century barn-like space was once used for the manufacture of lace and, since the precise location is unknown, may be where the very first plastic – parkesine – was manufactured in the eighteen-sixties in Hackney Wick.
Central Books arrived here in 1990 from the Leathermarket in Bermondsey, yet the company began at the Communist Party HQ in King St, Covent Garden, in the thirties, before opening a shop in Red Lion Sq then Grays Inn Rd and expanding to thirty-two party shops across the country by 1945, distributed books produced by the USSR to the entire free world.
Yet when Bill Norris – who runs Central Books today – took over in 1984, the fortunes of the company had followed the decline of the Communist movement. Bill oversaw the transfer of ownership of Central Books to the workforce in the nineteen-nineties, as it cut its political ties and expanded to distribute a wide range of independent publishers.
Today, a small company like Central Books give a personal service that cannot be matched by corporate distributors yet, although the move to Chadwell Heath will increase efficiency, I shall miss the atmospheric old warehouses in Hackney Wick which have given my books a temporary home on their journey between the printer and the bookseller, on their way to you.
Announcement of the founding of Central Books by the Communist Party. Nowadays, Central Books distributes The Gentle Author’s London Album and Spitalfields Nippers but it was once quite different.
Central Books in 1961
Two buildings spliced together
Central Books occupy the former Clarnico Chocolate Box Factory
Retailers can order all Spitalfields Life Books wholesale direct from email@example.com
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