One of my favourite times in London was circa 2000 when I lived in West Hampstead, at 13 Ravenshaw street, with Jula the bellydancer and her many cats and dogs. The window of my little first floor bedroom looked out over the garden onto a patch of wilderness and a railway line beyond, the metropolitan line trains screetching into the station from 5am every morning. I spent 18 months or so of my life there, reading the many old books that were on shelves all through the house (an early edition of Poe with illustrations by Harry Clarke was a particular favourite), and composing many of my early songs sitting with my tanglewood guitar or meditating on my narrow bed (a bed that was far too hard and narrow for entertaining girlfriends).
When not walking or bussing into town to work a shift at the theatre, I explored the surrounding suburbs, seeking out the seclusion of nearby churchyards and the stunning Edwardian lunacy of the West Heath pergola. One way of getting to the Heath proper meant walking through Hampstead village and one of my favourite walks was up Frognal Lane then on to Church Row beside St-John-at-Hampstead, perhaps pausing to linger among the graves where Constable is buried, then down into the village, through the crowds along Flask Walk then Well Walk (past nice pubs, and I had such a memorable lunch at The Flask pub with nana and grandpa when they visited me in London, grandpa loved it) and into the Heath where many times I would just sit and meditate till dusk under the big red oak that grows on the side of the path a little way over towards the viaduct pond.
I was reminded of all this recently because I have been trying to play and record some Nick Drake songs, but particularly Parasite (here’s my final mashup which includes a bit of Nick’s voice which is gloriously posh), where the line “sailing downstairs to the northern line” perhaps references the deep spiral stairs down to the tube at Hampstead, where Nick was I think staying for a time, in fact there exist some versions of Parasite on demo tapes which were recorded by Nick’s friend Brian Wells at Hampstead.
Nick was born in Bangor, Burma which brings me to another connection I made recently with this corner of the Heath, Eric Blair or George Orwell, who lived there 35 years earlier, in 1935 at the very end of Parliament Hill, just around the corner from #1 pond, and also lived and worked at a bookshop nearby. Eric of course was born in India, and was a policeman in Burma for five years, before he decided to become a writer. I was reading his biography before christmas, he keeps coming up with talk these days about totalitarianism. Having just finally finished 4 years of Sanskrit the British/Indian connection interests me. Perhaps I’ll continue with Sanskrit, journey back to India, or back to Hampstead to walk those lanes again. Both Orwell and Drake died before their fame was anywhere near what it is today, Orwell from tuberculosis at 46, Drake from an overdose of sleeping pills, which I think could have been accidental. They both struggled to make their art against the odds and never really knew that it would be shared so widely now.
I was first introduced to Five Leaves Left when I was living in West Hampstead, by my sweet flatmate Gem (who was also a songwriter and guitarist and released her own first album about then). At the time I didn’t know the full Nick Drake story, his tragedy, or really apprecciate that his songs were so complex with their unusual tunings and fingerstyle, which i was still a way off from mastering. Now, looking back I identify myself at that age with him, playing guitar, thinking my thoughts, wand’ring the Heath alone. Except that i was clean (almost puritan – i once found a bag of weed that Arthur Smith left in the green room at the theatre and rather than smoke it, i threw it in the bin!!). Also of course i didn’t go on to have any success at all, nor to find any personal tragedy, thankfully. But then this is perhaps because unlike Nick who although on the outskirts of it, was indeed part of a movement bigger than himself (the 1960s British folk revival), my own inner world and art was disconnected from the world around me of the early 2000s, britpop or whatever, instead i was still sniffing out for the scent of the long departed 1960s and early 70s, 35 odd years before.
When I look at a concert poster from 1970 alongside Nick Drake it has Pentangle (Jansch is another guitarist i’ve tried to emulate), the incredible string band (who inspired David Godman), Pink Floyd (who were in their Atom Heart Mother phase, my favourite). Of course Drake’s performances were mostly failures due to stage fright, just like my own single live performance at a pub in Islington. But it was a world that i think i would have fit into somehow. When i encountered Michael Horovitz a couple of years later, he took me back to all that, it was still alive in his crazy disordered Notting Hill flat, in his clothing, his rememberances and his talk. He told me about his friend Davy Graham and gave me one of his CDs, but at the time i still didn’t quite get it, it still didn’t all click, and only now i begin to understand. “Better late”, but perhaps all this is as timeless as ever. A flicker in the long history of outsiders missing each other in London.
One final thought. I’ve recently discovered I’m living near to a Buddhist temple that seems to have its main links going towards the Burmese Buddhist tradition, with an enormous golden Buddha statue at its heart. It has a beautiful shrine shrine around the back with a collection of interesting Buddha statues in different styles, burning incense and candles. In his essay on shooting an elephant Orwell noted that when in Burma he’d half like to stick a bayonet into the guts of the Buddhist monks who made his life hell there as a agent of British tyranny. It’s a complex question of how his experience of being the agent of authoritarian rule in Burma ultimately informed his politics, and I don’t know if he held onto his feelings towards the monks in later years. But the tradition of Buddhist monks sticking it to authority continues today in Burma, and one prominent dissident U Gambira apparently has now found asylum in Australia. And just today I was reading about the links between Buddhism and Shaivism in southeast Asia… the links go on.. but that’s material for another post.