Saturday, April 23, 2011



Source: TheArtsCatalyst


The remarkable force of nature that was Ken Campbell, who died of a heart attack on 31st August 2008, is celebrated in this excellent and immensely readable biography by Michael Coveney which is stuffed with remarkable and almost unbelievable antics and anecdotes about this mercurial figure. He is now widely recognised as the grandad of fringe theatre in Britain. He started dreaming up plays at an early age and, in a lifetime of controlled manic activity, transformed the lives of virtually every actor who came into his orbit. His legacy is not only a wealth of inspired and canny nonsense but also an approach to theatre that broke all the rules.

He is most famous for his remarkable productions of the Illuminatus trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Neil Oram’s The Warp, listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest theatrical production ever staged (22 hours) but these are the tip of a very large iceberg of activity that spanned decades.

As an actor, his roles included everything from playing Long John Silver in an aquatic version of Treasure Island at Stoke-on-Trent (during which he shared a flat with two dwarves), to appearances in Fawlty Towers,  the seminal Law and Order tv series by G.F.Newman, A Fish Called Wanda and Derek Jarman’s version of The Tempest.

But his greatest achievements and work was in his own mapcap productions, conjured out of his fecund mind and realised with zero budgets, featuring remarkable sets made from salvaged scraps. His sheer brio, manic energy and forceful comic manner somehow brought the impossible to life.

He was, by all accounts, a powerful challenging force of nature with tremendous discipline. A great believer in improvisation, he set out to create new kinds of theatre that were the complete antithesis of conventional establishment productions. He pushed his actors to reach out beyond the stereotyped and mannered performance to discover new uncharted territory.

I didn’t know that he was up for the Doctor Who role, the other contender being Sylvester McCoy, who got the job. McCoy was one of Campbell’s acolytes who rose to fame through working with Ken with an act that involved stuffing ferrets down his trousers – an activity that captured Britain’s imagination and was widely imitated.

The wonderfulness of the man comes over strongly from the fond memories of his friends, family, lovers and colleagues. He was obviously a handful, particularly in his alcoholic phases but he genuinely believed that the work he was doing was for the good of man and the collective soul of mankind.

Ken probably felt more at home in St John’s, Newfoundland than anywhere else on earth, a place which provided him with an endless fund of real-life weirdness as grist to his fertile mind.

His oddest production  may have been a version of Macbeth, entitled ‘Makbed blong Willum Sekspia.’spoken entirely in the pidgin Englush of the Solomon Islands.

He hated the Arts Council and government subsidies for theatre, television, spin doctors, surveillance and celebrity cults. He loved Charles Fort, Phillip K. Dick, hoaxes, sheds, Ken Dodd, ventriloquism and dogs, which he tried to get into every production.

A Luddite and technophobe, he was finally persuaded to go out and buy a computer. He ended in the pet shop next door buying an African grey parrot instead, which he then began to teach to speak her own biography.

His one-man shows in the later part of his life were, Campbell insisted, not so much stand-up comedy but rather ‘sit-down tragedy in which he stood up a lot.’

Michael Covener, one of Campbell’s consistent champions as theatre critic of several national newspapers, says  his shows ‘were mostly a celebration of his own interests, enthusiasms and delight in strangeness. ‘I have a desire to be astounded’ he once said…and that desire governed how he lived his life, as much as the work he achieved.’

His book does great service in drawing together Campbell’s remarkable range of achievements into a readable narrative that is both inspiring and hilarious. The historical background about the rise of fringe theatre which Campbell made such a major contribution to, is equally fascinating.

He writes: ‘It was always Ken Campbell’s supposition that our everyday lives  would be much improved by knowing a bit more about what took us beyond them and might be bigger than us and beyond our comprehension.’

At his funeral, various speeches by Campbell himself were played, including one that reminded the assembled throng that ‘funeral’ was an anagram of ‘real fun’.

Hats off to a unique soul, sadly missed.












Top Left: Front and back covers of 1971 edition.  Top Right: Front and back covers of 1972 edition.   Bottom: Front and back covers of 1974 edition, published in conjunction with Wildwood House. It would be interesting to know who all of the people on the back cover are.

Knock on the door Sunday afternoon and it was Nick at the door with a carrier bag containing three copies of Alternative London,  which once belonged to his brother.

One of the bibles of the underground culture in the 1970s, Alternative London was originated and produced by the remarkable Nicholas Saunders (bottom left in the last picture).

See PREVIOUS POST: ALTERNATIVE SOCIETY 1970s: Nicholas Saunders, an obituary by Flora Maxwell Stuart in The Independent

In Memoriam/Nicholas Saunders (1938-1998) by Nicholas Albery [The Guardian/5th Feb 1998]

Nicholas Albery (1948-2001) was his friend and collaborator. See PREVIOUS POST: ALTERNATIVE SOCIETY 1970s: FEEDBACK to access a range of links that connect these two men. Both died in car accidents.

These editions  and others in more detail:




First edition: published 1 December 1970

Alternative London  was featured as one of a series of articles on Book Covers in the Financial Times. The article was by Edwin Heathcote (pub 13th Dec 2010).  He claims the image on the left is the cover of the first edition. The image on the right, listed in Flickr as being the same edition, is the back cover.

ALTERNATIVE LONDON3903Second edition: Published 1 November 1971

The first page reads: This book is packed with information on how to get the most out of London for the least money….It tells you how to survive –then thrive…It doesn’t push a way of life but gives access to ways of expressing your individuality in a sincere way.’

A few pages later it records that 148 people sent in suggestions and they were all sent a free copy. Saunders says: ‘This book is not written from theory, nor is it an outside observer’s view. The law, organisations and activities are described the way we experience them – not how they should be or would like to be.’

ALTERNATIVE LONDON901Third edition: Published 12 May 1972

This has Alternative London on smaller type, the main title being ‘Survival Guide for Strangers’. In this edition, Nicholas Saunders has Georgie Downes credited as his Assistant. He defines the work as follows:

The book is for young people coming to London who want to take part in the new culture rather than to be the observers of tourist attractions. Its by the young people who produce Alternative London – so its not theoretical but a practical guide to avoiding the pitfalls and how tto get out of them. We haven’t tried to be comprehensive, but have selected a few of the best and cheapest things – a lot are free. Nor have we glamorised London. This is as you find it.’

ALTERNATIVE LONDON5905Fourth edition: Published 1 Feb 1974

This edition was put together by a team who form the bottom row in the picture. They are, from right to left:

Nicholas Saunders (writer & editor); Jenny Potter (research and checking), Roger Hall (layout and paste-up), Nicholas Lumsden (IBM typesetting), Tammy Cole (diagrammatic illustrations); Malcolm Carter (title pages and cover).

This edition also gives the sales (or print-runs) of the various editions: First Edition/50,000 copies; Second Edition/52,300 copies; Third edition/ 50,000 copies; Fourth Edition/38,000 copies.

ALTERNATIVE LONDON7908 5th Edition: Published by Wildwood House on 25th August 1977.

The cover has an unusual credit: ‘Cover design by Marilyn, stitched by Kaye.’This edition is essentially the same as the previous one but with an Appendix which contains a substantial number of updates and changes, work carried out by Steve Barron. [Thanks to Dave for ferreting out his old copy]

 This is the cover of the 1982 edition from Amazon. It  is listed as the 6th Edition, published by Otherwise Press. The credits read Nicholas Saunders (author), Georganne Downes (Editor), Kathy Holme (Editor), Max Handley (Editor)

There is not a great deal on the Internet about Alternative London. Here are a couple:

Alternative London is one of the best books of all time on

Wikipedia entry on Saunders

imageSaunders also travelled the country to produce Alternative England and Wales, a large-format volume of 368 pp, which he published himself in Hardcover on 7th July 1975. A paperback version appeared in September that year.

He also authored (and self-published) E for Ecstasy with Liz Heron, illustrated by Ginny Wade (April 1993), Ecstasy and the Dance Culture ( Sept 1995), Ecstasy: Dance, Trance and Transformation, with Rick Doblin (1996) and Ecstasy Reconsidered (April 1997)

E for Ecstasy

Ecstasy Reconsidered





These are the covers of the complete run of The Beast magazine, published in the early 1980s. I created the magazine with the help of Michael Marten and designer Mikki Rain. It was one of the first animal liberation magazines in the world which, as time went on, also incorporated stories about nuclear issues, deforestation and other related matters before returning to an all-animal issue for the final one. Interested to hear from any Beast readers out there.

SEE PREVIOUS POST: The Beast Meets Planet Chicken


Exclusive first-time publication of  these photos of Tree News’ greatest fans. (To be honest I asked them if they wouldn’t mind holding the mag for a photo.) All were obliging. 

From left to right: Jarvis Cocker, photographed when Pulp played a concert at Bedgebury Pinetum; Bill Oddie and David Attenborough, photographed at the launch of the BBC Series ‘The Blue Planet’.
I was Editor-in-Chief of Tree News for five years. The magazine was funded by Felix Dennis and is owned by the Tree Council. Here are the covers of the issues that I produced, aided by Fiona Anderson, with brilliant design work by Jimmy Egerton.


 2011 International Year of the   Forests
 Kurt Jackson’s Forest Gardens
 World of Trees: New Oldest Tree
 Death of Urban Trees
 Tony Tyler Tribute: Tolkein &Trees
 World of Trees
 Robert Lamb: Tree Campaigner  Creative Conservationist

Tuesday, April 12, 2011



image image

Source: Global Heritage Fund

One of the most intriguing forms of vernacular building I discovered when researching and writing my book -  ‘Handmade Houses: The World of Vernacular Architecture’ [Thames & Hudson UK]; ‘Buildings Without Architects: A Global Guide to Everyday Architecture’ [Rizzoli US] – were the tulou of China – large defensive structures built of rammed earth, designed to accommodate and protect a whole village of one family clan -  which are located in the mountainous areas of western Fujian province.

The trigger for this post was a recent New York Times  article by Edward Wong - ‘Monuments to Clan Life Are Losing Their Appeal’

Tulou (the name means literally ‘earthen building’) were built by the ethnic Hakka and Minnan people from the 13th to the 20th C . In recent times, the clan traditions have lost their cohesion and many of the tulou inhabitants are moving out to modern apartments.

There is international concern to try and preserve the existing tulou. The Chinese authorities are encouraging tourism in the area but, according to Wong, ‘they have done little to systematically preserve the buildings or modernize them so people will continue living in them.’


In 2008 UNESCO declared a group of 46 tulou, spread over 120km of south-west Fujian province, a World Heritage site. They defined their ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ as follows:

‘The Fujian Tulou are the most representative and best preserved examples of the tulou of the mountainous regions of south-eastern China. The large, technically sophisticated and dramatic earthen defensive buildings, built between the 13th and 20th centuries, in their highly sensitive setting in fertile mountain valleys, are an extraordinary reflection of a communal response to settlement which has persisted over time. The tulou, and their extensive associated documentary archives, reflect the emergence, innovation, and development of an outstanding art of earthen building over seven centuries. The elaborate compartmentalised interiors, some with highly decorated surfaces, met both their communities’ physical and spiritual needs and reflect in an extraordinary way the development of a sophisticated society in a remote and potentially hostile environment. The relationship of the massive buildings to their landscape embodies both Feng Shui principles and ideas of landscape beauty and harmony.’

I feel duty bound to correct my own book, in which it states ‘UNESCO has estimated that 20,000 tulou survive on 46 main sites’. The 46 figure should refer to individual structures (as above, also see below).

According to the New York Times piece, a UNESCO museum in one of the tulou says there are 30,000 surviving tulou in Fujian Province of which 20,000 are in Yongding County.

These figures are questioned by Huang Hanmin, a Chinese tulou scholar, who says there are only 3,000, of which 1,100 are round and the rest square or rectangular.

This figure is also the one used by the Global Heritage Fund, a Californian-based preservation organisation. They say:

‘The Chinese State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) has identified many of the Fujian tulous as a National Cultural Heritage Protection Unit. Out of these, six tulou clusters and four tulou structures, consisting of a total of 46 tulou structures, were inscribed in 2008 by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

‘It is worth noting that given the large number of Fujian tulou, there are many tulou of great significance and in need of critical care that were excluded from the WHS nomination.

‘One such tulou is Shengwu lou. Shengwu lou is located in Pinghe County, which also houses Zhuangshang Dalou, the largest known Fujian tulou, and Juening lou, the largest known circular Fujian Tulou. ‘

They are concentrating their efforts on Shweng lou which Hanmin says is “the most exquisite tulou for its decorative arts.”

‘Polychrome paintings, clay sculptures, and woodcarvings can be seen inside the building, door and window panels, and walls and roof tiles. The building contains more than 600 pieces of carved wood elements, each featuring a unique design, and more than 100 pieces of clay sculpture and wall paintings. ‘

[Their site uses Google Earth: see location map here]


A Living Heritage: The Earthen Homes of Yongding County’, a travel piece also published by the New York Times in 2008

Rushenglou, Hongkeng village

‘Clan Homes in Fujian’ is an excellent detailed report by Jens Aaberg-Jørgensen. He says: ‘The circular tulou are something of a riddle, for apart from a few temples there are no other examples of circular buildings to be found in China.’

image AmoyMagic – Guide to Xiamen & Fujian’ by Sue Brown and Dr Bill

This site provides extra information on the fact that the Chinese tulou were mistaken by the US for missile silos.

According to this account a KH22 spy satellite had spotted 1,500 ‘unidentified huge mushroom-like buildings in Fujian province…which are extremely similar to nuclear equipment’ This report from the Department of National Defense reached the desk of President Ronald Reagan in 1985. A couple from the US New York Institute of Photography were dispatched to China later that year to pay an on-the-ground visit. They reported back to the CIA the true nature of the buildings. [The original story, they claim, was published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.  Will try and locate the title of the original piece]

Another short account on the same subject appears in ‘From The Earth’ and article about the tulou in City Weekend, a Shanghai Listings magazine, in 2007.

‘In 1986, at the height of nuclear tensions between Cold War superpowers, American satellites mandated by President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative stealthily drifted above southeast China. The resulting imagery shockingly revealed what appeared to be hundreds of missile silos scattered throughout the mountain ranges of Fujian province.

Fearing an impending nuclear attack at the hands of Red China, the U.S. Secretary of Defense immediately deployed a crack unit of C.I.A. spies into the P.R.C. to investigate. They returned to the Pentagon in hysterics reporting: “Those aren’t missiles, dumbass, those are mud!”


File:Zhenchenglou 4 rings.JPG

Chengqilou 承啟樓 nicknamed "the king of tulou", of Gaobei Tulou cluster 高北土樓群 at Gaotou village of Yongding County was built in 1709. Inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Site 1113-003 in 2008. It is massive rotunda tulou with four concentric rings surrounding an ancestral hall at the center, the outer ring is 62.6 meters in diameter and four storeys tall, 288 rooms, with 72 rooms on each level, circular corridor on 2nd to 4th floor, with four sets of staircases at cardinal points connecting ground to top floors… 15th generation Jiang clan with 57 families and 300 people live here. At its heyday, there were more than 80 family branches lived in Chengqilou.

Fujian Tulou on Wikipedia