Will Alsop 1947 – 2018

Will_Alsop

 

My father-in-law Will Alsop died yesterday. I’m writing a more formal obituary of him, but here are a few personal thoughts and reminiscences. 

As The Teddy Bears once sang, ‘to know him is to love him’, and a very great  number of people both knew and loved Will Alsop. He had a sense of vitality and bonhomie that infected everything he did, whether it was his architecture, his painting or his life with family and friends. Being ‘the life and soul of the party’ can often be an imposition, a sense of having to play a part, but for Will, any room that had him in was instantly a brighter, warmer and friendlier place.

His work will, of course, endure for many years to come. Nobody who has been to the Peckham Library, to the North Greenwich tube station, to the Sharp Centre for OCAD in Toronto or the Blizard Building at QMU – to name but a tiny handful of his buildings – could walk away without feeling a sense both of awe and amusement at the playful and inquisitive sensibility that they displayed. This is equally true of his art. I’m writing this in a house festooned with his pictures – although, it seems now, not enough of them. His sensibility has always been a colourful, maximalist one; no wonder that he briefly rejoiced in the nickname ‘Mr Blobby’, although, unlike his unloved predecessor, there is little chance that he will end up a forgotten memory.

Yet it is the man behind the work that I want to celebrate. The first time that I met Will was on an early date with his daughter. I came crashing downstairs in the elegant flat that he lived in with his wife, Sheila, and most potential fathers-in-law would have been horrified by the dishevelled young(ish) man in front of them. Will was not one of those. Instead, he poured me a glass of excellent red wine, lit a cigarette, and talked to me about Philip Larkin for twenty minutes. He later pronounced me ‘very amusing’, which was Will parlance for, I think, ‘I like him.’

And thereafter, I became part of the family, a state of affairs enhanced when I married his daughter Nancy in 2015. I shared countless Christmases, Easters, Sunday lunches and family birthdays with him, as well as many a jolly occasion when a bottle of red would appear – he seldom needed an excuse – and mirth would be unconfined. I can think of no more fitting description of him than to say, as Hamlet did of Yorick, that he was ‘a fellow of infinite jest.’ Everything that he did, or said, was seldom without a humorous tinge; he was a man who was constantly amused by the vagaries and absurdities of everyday life, sometimes not without anger, but always with a wry compassion that made him the most human, as well as humane, of artists.

If there are memories of him that I treasure, of good fellowship and great kindness, let me share a few scattered recollections now, before writing this produces too great an emotional toll. I remember, at his house in Norfolk, him appearing with a gleam in his eye from his studio at around six o’clock, and a cry of ‘right! Who’s for a drink?’ In the white shirts he habitually wore, a ‘Will Alsop’ trademark was the spot of ink in the lapel pocked, a legacy of the pens that he consistently carried. I remember things he would say – any gathering of people was always ‘girls’, regardless of age or sex, and it was always ‘nighty-poo’, never ‘goodnight’. I remember the time that he greeted me once by bunny-hopping across a car park, and then, as my incredulous expression gave away my surprise, compounded it by saying ‘D’ye fancy me now?’ I remember his culinary tastes: gammon with parsley sauce, pork pie and trifle. And, of course, I remember his chosen tastes in drink; red wine all year round, strong gin and tonics in summer and very decent-sized measures of whisky in winter. With Will, thirst was seldom an option.

And yet, underneath the charisma and great generosity lay another man, one of enormous kindness and empathy and sensitivity. I remember my wedding day, and his scarcely concealed emotion at walking his beautiful daughter up the aisle. I remember his father of the bride speech, where, with his perfect comic timing and deadpan wit, he had an audience in hearty laughter virtually from the outset – but also paid tribute to Nancy, typically, by saying of her that ‘she is the kindest person I know.’  I remember the day after his first granddaughter, Rose, was born, when he and I sat in a Brighton pub together, toasting the baby’s head – figuratively speaking – and he spoke with a rare, almost fierce emotion, imploring me to be an ever-present part of the little girl’s life and speaking candidly of his own regrets, that his extraordinarily successful and diverse career had led him to spend more time away from his family than he would have liked.

He dealt with his final illness with typical equanimity. I remember being in the hospital room shortly after he was diagnosed, and rather than cursing or breaking down, he simply asked me to buy him a copy of the Times so that he could do the crossword. It was a time towards the end full of friends and family, as his life was. For a man who never went out of his way to shine in the full blaze of publicity, he was and remains hugely popular; the enormous turn out at his 70thbirthday party last year was testament to that, and, as any evening involving Will Alsop should be, it was one hell of a party.

He was a great fan of Bob Dylan, and it seems appropriate now to remember him by Dylan’s words in ‘Forever Young’- which is how, in his quest for fun, knowledge and life, he will always be for me.

‘May you build a ladder up to the stars

And climb on every rung

May you stay

Forever young

May your hands always be busy

May your feet always be swift

May you have a strong foundation

When the winds of changes shift

May your heart always be joyful

And your song always be sung

May you stay

Forever young’.

 

William Allen Alsop, OBE, RA, 12 December 1947 – 12 May 2018

 

 

The Rake’s Progress

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Something new, for 2018…feel free to pledge here.

“Mad” Jack Mytton often rode his pet bear into the drawing room to shock his dinner guests.

Sebastian Horsley slept with a loaded pistol by his bed to deter uninvited prostitutes and debt collectors.

Vivian “the real Withnail” Mackerell’s unquenchable thirst saw him inject his stomach with sherry when he became unable to take liquids down his throat.

When Tallulah Bankhead met Joan Crawford, she promised her, “Darling, you’re divine. I’ve had an affair with your husband. You’ll be next.”

Harold Davidson, the “Prostitute’s Padre”, met an untimely demise courtesy of a lion in a travelling show in Blackpool.

The critic Kenneth Tynan, a noted flagellant, once found himself at the wrong end of a vodka enema.

From historical biographer Alexander Larman (yours truly) and The Chap founder Gustav Temple, The Rake’s Progress will be a comprehensive and splendidly entertaining look at twenty men and women who all, in different ways, can be described as “rakes”.

The Rake has drifted in and out of every decade since man first realised he could choose between good and evil, but we shall start with Lord Rochester in the 17th century. Concise chronological biographies of our subjects will address questions of social, sexual and sartorial propriety, with tongue in cheek and brain firmly engaged. The rakes will be defined by their occupations – “the Imperial Rake”, “the Hollywood Rake”, “the Occult Rake” – but, as we shall see, an occupation and a life are two quite distinct things.

From Lord Byron to Mata Hari, Gustave Flaubert to Tallulah Bankhead and Kenneth Tynan to Amy Winehouse, our cast of characters could not be more diverse, save in their being united by unconventional actions and reputations. Some are still (unfairly) pilloried today. Others have had their full eccentricities all but airbrushed from history. We will bring our international cast of emperors, poets, prostitutes and demi-mondaines to life, and follow their progress through life and history.

This will be neither a prurient nor a tasteless book. The likes of Harvey Weinstein – definitely not a rake – will be omitted, as will other purely unpleasant characters. Rather than make moral judgements, we present our cast of rakes as recognisable human beings, and ask what leads someone to embrace a lifestyle so completely contra mundum. The rake is the fall guy or gal for every suppressed sin, indulgence and reckless extravagance that the rest of us are too cautious to express. They burn out in a blaze of glory, usually before their time, and leave a trail of fascinating anecdotes in their wake, many of which we will recount in this book.

The Rake’s Progress will end with “the last rake”, Sebastian Horsley, who also qualifies as “the narcotic rake” and “the dandy rake”. Both of us were close friends with Sebastian, who has somewhat passed into Soho legend since his death in 2010. Using previously unseen material, we will ensure that Horsley is once again elevated, or lowered, into the brilliant and eclectic company that he strove to walk amongst in life.

Feeling a tremendous rakehell, and not liking myself much for it, and feeling rather a good chap for not liking myself much for it, and not liking myself at all for feeling rather a good chap.” Sir Kingsley Amis

Byron’s Women & Restoration – THE TOUR

It’s been too long, as ever, but I like to wait before I have cold, hard (or warm, soft) news to tantalise you all with before rambling on. So, anyway, here we are. My new book Byron’s Women is published by Head of Zeus on September 8th, and I was lucky enough to see the first copies today. It looks, as all their books do, sensational. I don’t think I’m speaking immodestly when I say it’s my best so far – I love the others dearly but this one feels somehow more grown-up and more ‘relevant’. It’s been a labour of love – if at times a rather shocking one – and I can’t wait to discuss it with you.

Anyway, I’m ‘on tour’ – as it were – in September and October discussing both Byron and Restoration in various guises. Here is the current schedule, which I will amend or change as needs be…

15th September - Byron’s Women launch, Daunt Marylebone, London

19th September - Fire! Fire! discussion at Museum of London

22nd September – The Society Club, 3 Cheshire Street, London

Mid-Oct (date tbc) – Waterstones Brighton

21st Oct – Harrogate History Festival – discussing Restoration

24th Oct (tbc) – Blackwells Oxford

Further dates to be announced!

Chalke Valley

I’m delighted to be speaking at the premier history festival, Chalke Valley, at the end of the month. I’ll be (mainly) discussing Restoration, all things to do with 1666, and probably Lord Rochester, but there’ll be plenty of other things in there as well. I’m talking at 8.45pm, so expect a suitably oiled-up crowd. Never fear, I can take it.

If you’d like to come and heckle me, details are at www.cvhf.org.uk. It should be a good evening…

BYRON’S WOMEN

I’m delighted to announce the imminent publication of my third book, BYRON’S WOMEN, which will be out in September. It’s a non-fiction account of the nine most significant women in Lord Byron’s life, and a pretty damning portrait of one of England’s great poets. It’s shocking, sexy, sad and hopefully rather surprising.

(‘Didn’t he just publish a book? Something about the Restoration?’ ‘Be quiet! Publisher’s deadlines and all that.’)

I am RIDICULOUSLY proud of it. It’s been a pleasure to write, and to edit, and now I just hope that you enjoy it as much as I did.

Further updates to come…

Restoration – publicity and appearances

The publication of my second book, Restoration: The Year Of The Great Fire, is very nearly upon us. It’s a shift away from the literary/historical biography of Blazing Star towards a blend of social and narrative history, focusing on the year 1666 and the goings-on that occurred then. I hope it’s accessible, interesting and enjoyable.

If you want to get a flavour for it, an edited version of the introduction can be found at the Head of Zeus website, and I’ve written a piece for Discover Britain about ‘10 things you never knew about the Restoration‘, as well as another for Country & Town House about ‘why the Restoration era is still relevant today‘. There’s also a feature in this month’s Britain magazine about the wicked goings-on in Restoration London, and a couple more to come as well. I’ll update this as and when they appear.

The first review has now appeared in The Times - have a read (if you can get through the paywall) here. And Thom Cuell, aka The Workshy Fop, has written perceptively and sympathetically about it here.

The Daily Express described it as ‘an excellent, wide-ranging book about a period of history that contains far more of interest than simply the Great Fire.’ Have a read of the piece here.

I’m going to be doing some talks over the next few months about the book – the one I’m most looking forward to is an appearance at Britain’s leading history festival, Chalke Valley. Tickets are on sale at the end of the month and no doubt will be a hot property…

As ever, drop me a line if you would like any further information, to suggest a public appearance or to ask for a signed copy.

 

RIP David Bowie

The greatest popular musician of the past few decades has died this morning. David Bowie, for many – including me – the reason why it all made sense – is an incalculable loss to music, to the world in general and, of course, to those who knew and loved him. The achievements go without saying – we’ll always have the albums and the songs. But there was more. On a wet, grim Monday morning, with ‘Where Are We Now’ on, loudly, a few thoughts about the man formerly known as Davy Jones.

- He was GREAT. It’s something that is routinely said of so many people, but in Bowie’s case, it was actually true. He was an innovator in every single aspect of his life and work. Even when something didn’t work (the art was never up to much, and Tin Machine has rightly been confined to the dustbin of memory), he grinned, made a self-deprecating joke and moved on. And there was always something round the corner.

- He never lost it. I hope that the reaction to Blackstar was a comfort to him in his final days. Even if I preferred his ‘other’ comeback album, The Next Day, it represented an artist at the peak of his questing, penetrating journey to make sense of the world. And there are a few songs on it – the title track; Lazarus; Dollar Days – that I think will join the canon before very long. For an artist to have recorded a dozen indelible songs is a rare achievement. In Bowie’s case, I think that you have around 50, and that’s before you get onto the gems that people forget.

- He was hilariously funny, a surprisingly rare attribute in people that famous and talented. Just the other day, I was reading the Proust questionnaire, and his answers (while inevitably guarded) are genuinely laugh-out-loud amusing. ‘With which historical figure do you most identify?

- I was lucky enough to see him three-and-a-bit times. Manchester, 2o02 – ferocious, angry and intense (and that was just my neighbour) – probably the first time that I thought of him as a rock star rather than a slightly fey, camp musician – Hallo Spaceboy, I’m Afraid Of Americans and Let’s Dance were big, stomping monoliths of sound and vision. Wembley, 2003 – a longer, more introspective set, with a few end-of-pier moments (pretending to sulk when anyone sang along to the chorus of All The Young Dudes) but also encompassing high drama, such as his fantastic 1996 song ‘The Motel’. Isle Of Wight, 2004 – England had just lost a World Cup match, and the mood might have got fractious. But again managed, with a wonderfully inclusive and varied set, to lighten the mood, while still throwing in an extraordinarily dramatic Station To Station. Albert Hall, 2006 – for what it’s worth, his last performance in Britain. An utterly unexpected cameo at a David Gilmour concert, doing ‘Arnold Layne’ and ‘Comfortably Numb’. He was perfect for the former, and as for the latter, he was entirely wrong for it as written – far too dramatic and histrionic – but made it wonderful nonetheless. And that was my lot.

 

- At times, I loathe social media, for its snobbishness, bitching and cliquey-ness. But on days like today, it’s terribly comforting. There is no warmer feeling than the certain knowledge that you’re not alone, and that a 69-year old man from Brixton meant as much to them as it meant to you. And that, my friends, is the best feeling of all.

- Everything after 2004 has been, if you like, ‘extra time’. After the heart attack he suffered, rumours – rumours which, today, have sadly been proved correct – surfaced about cancer, dementia, what have you. And then he returned triumphantly and dramatically with The Next Day in 2013. I watched the peerless video for Where Are We Now imagining that he was very ill, and then was relieved to hear that he wasn’t. And then illness, that great leveller of us all, claimed him from the middle of 2014. And yet he wouldn’t give up. He recorded a new album – which now, of course, will be regarded entirely differently, and its lyrics pored over for significance and meaning – appeared in videos, and co-wrote a musical. While desperately unwell.

 

I shall miss him, and his music, so very much. As I know everyone reading this will. If you can love someone you never met, and now never will meet, then that is what I felt for the Starman, Major Tom, the Thin White Duke, and a man who two were lucky enough to call ‘Dad’. The only consolation is that he dies knowing how much people cared about him, and that, for any of us, is the only crumb of comfort we can hope to have at the end.

David Bowie, 1947 – 2016.

2014 – a look back (and forwards…)

2014 has been, it’s fair to say, one of the more memorable years I’ve had in my life. No small part of this was because of the publication of my first book, Blazing Star, which was my attempt to deal with my fascination with the brilliant, seductive and much-misunderstood John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester. My adventures along the way have included being reviewed in virtually every title imaginable, from the Daily Mail to the London Review Of Books (and in the latter, by none other than Terry Eagleton); giving talks at some of my favourite bookshops to appreciative, erudite (and often far smarter than I) audiences; appearing on the radio; getting involved in a spat with an academic; and generally doing all I can to promote the life and work of a great man as best I can.

To this end, I’ve been delighted by some of the kindness and appreciation that readers have shown towards the book, not least Thom Cuell, aka The Workshy Fop, who not only wrote my favourite review, but very generously described it as one of his favourite non-fiction titles of the year. But thanks to everyone who’s contacted me by email, tweet, Facebook or in person to discuss the book – it has been a pleasure to talk to you all.

2015 promises to be no less busy. For starters, I have my second book coming out in the autumn – currently titled ‘Restoration: A Year In History’, which will explore English social history in 1666. Not that I’m done with the wicked Earl just yet; watch this space for further readings and appearances in the new year. And my current project, ‘Byron and Women’ is going well; as with Blazing Star, it’s an almost obscene amount of fun to write, and I hope that you’ll enjoy reading it when it eventually appears in the shops.

On that note, I wish you all a happy, bibulous Christmas and New Year, and hope that you celebrate in a manner that would make John Wilmot himself proud.

 

Original Man

Earlier in the year, I was approached by the fashion designer, Sewing Bee judge and all-round Renaissance man Patrick Grant to contribute some profiles to a book that he was putting together, Original Man. I’ve now seen the first digital copy of it and it looks absolutely fantastic, focusing on an eclectic range of unusual, brilliant and iconoclastic figures. If ever you’ve wondered what book can link Hemingway & Quentin Crisp, Orwell & Morrissey, and Shackleton & Jack Nicholson, you now have your answer. I’m proud to have been involved in something so stylish and unusual and expect it to fly off the shelves this Christmas.

Future appearances

I’m going to be heading out of London for my next two talks about Rochester and Blazing Star, to the rather appropriate settings of Woodstock and Oxford. I’m delighted to be talking at the excellent Woodstock Bookshop on October 13th at 7pm. The venue has particular resonance as it’s just around the corner from where Rochester both lived and died, at Woodstock Lodge. Then I’m, in a manner of speaking, coming home when I visit one of my favourite bookshops anywhere, Blackwell’s Oxford, the following evening for what promises to be a suitably highbrow/lowbrow look at the Earl and his life at university.

Londoners who haven’t yet been to a talk yet, fear not – I’m also lining up a pre-Halloween talk at Daunt Books in Chelsea, which should be suitably highbrow. And then hopefully there’ll be more to come next year.

I’m also being interviewed on the Irish radio station Talking History on October 5th in the evening – further information to follow as and when.

And many thanks to anyone who’s come along to one of the talks so far, tweeted me or generally supported the book – it’s been a pleasure to meet so many of you and I look forward to meeting plenty more!