Saturday, June 25, 2016


 My dear friend David Powell died recently, in his 80s, and, seven days ago, his family and friends convened to raise a glass to a much-loved passionate old-school socialist, skilled journalist and author - amongst his works being a fine biography of  Thomas Paine. 

As I recall, David and Rachel moved to Lewes, one of the only places in the UK where there is a house Paine lived in, so that David could write the book.

 I'd just arrived in town in summer 1985, coincident with the book's launch. I discovered Paine through David's work and then I discovered David. We hooked up and, he confided in his desire to restart Tom Paine's Headstrong Club in the town He told me he had been trying for years to get it started. Together, with help from other, we sorted out all the basics in a few weeks and had a very atmospheric launch in January 1987 on the 250th anniversary of Paine's birth. As you can see, we made the front page of the Sussex Express & County Herald. Photo from left: Rachel & David Powell, Prof Bernard Crick  and a goofy-looking John May (then 36). Its a classic.

THE GENERALIST has written more on Paine than on virtually any other individual. Given the latest political developments, he seems the right man to return to. 

This Previous Post  TOM PAINE IN LEWES  [June 21st 2005] is extensive

As I sat last week sorting through my many memories of David and the Headstrong Years - having a Chinese meal with Michael Foot, the excitement of listening to Trevor Griffiths read from his screenplay for what was going to be a Richard Attenborough epic on Paine, planting a Tree of Liberty in the town (its a big  copper beech now) in Paine's memory and then getting hammered with the Highways tree crew who did all the hard work, launching the first major site on the internet for Tom Paine in an event at the Houses of Parliament.

Needless to say I've archived all the correspondence and clippings and it was great to find some new material about earlier events and links to Paine in Lewes.

This clipping from the local paper of the time [Sussex Express] is dated sometime in 1964. The national Thomas Paine Society was founded in 1963 and they came to Lewes to hold their first Annual General Meeting. 

This photo shows the Mayor of Lewes (Councillor A.C. Barber) and three of the prominent TPS officials, two of which are named as Christopher Brunel (Chairman) and Robert Morrell (Hon. Sec). Who is who and who is the Third Man remains to be revealed. 

Interestingly the clipping's extensive article reveals an earlier tribute to Paine in the town: 'Mr Brunel recalled that a banquet was held at the White Hart in June 1904, in honour of Paine's connection with the town and a number of prominent men were present.' 

Further information comes from this March 1969 issue of Sussex Life. It reads: 'Lewes remembered him on the 150th anniversary of his death (1959) when the then Mayor, Dr. Patrick Nicholl, sent greetings cables to the Mayor of New York and the Mayor of Paris.'

At the TPS meting in 1964, it was reportedly stated that ' a statue of Paine in the town might be erected.' That hasn't happened yet. It would be hard to rival the golden figure of Paine in Thetford, which I happened to visit many years ago now. The statue on the right is, according to 'Rouser' in the Sussex Express [22nd Oct 1999) is the only statue to Paine in France, at the Parc Monsouris, near the Sorbonne, in Paris. David was reported to be planning to bring it to Lewes.

llustration: Julian Bell

Friday, June 24, 2016


These three titles seem to fit together well, being as they each explore US subcultural activity and are published outside the mainstream by informed enthusiasts. 

The most recently published (2015) is 'The Record Store of the Mind' by Josh Rosenthal who established and runs the very excellent Tompkins Square indie record label based in San Fran following a gold-plated career at Columbia Records. 

THE GENERALIST was first contacted by Josh after he'd read my review of a great musical night in Brighton featuring the legendary Michael Chapman and the  younger guitar wunderkind William Tyler back in April 2011. I followed this up with a post on the TS label itself and reviewed four albums. His label specialises in what Greil Marcus calls "old weird American music" and new cult Americana and folk artists.

 He's got great style and taste which have already earned him seven Grammy nominations to date. T. Bone Burnett rightly points out that Josh runs in a lineage that includes the musicologist, record producer and pioneer writer on the blues Samuel Charters (2015 obit here) and Harry Smith, a star-crossed genius generalist perhaps best known for his influential 'Anthology of American Folk Music', This extraordinary six-album set, released in 1952 on Folkways Records, comprises 84 American folk, blues and country music recordings on 78s issued between 1927 to 1932. It blew Bob Dylan's mind and every other folk, blues and country musician who heard it. It blew my mind too and remains the most expensive record purchase I've ever made but worth it ten times over. I digress.

Josh's first book on the TS label gives you a great flavour of the man himself and is packed with his arcane knowledge and savvy. His constant enthusiasm for searching our rare, cult and forgotten music is exemplary and in several chapters we follows his life journey that led him found his label, There's some great lists of mouth-watering records, a chapter on the stand-out gigs he's seen which is damn impressive and, the bulk of the book - profiles of unsung artists who deserve wider recognition, such as Ron Davies, who wrote songs with Gram Parsons, and 'penned It Ain't Easy' which Bowie recorded on 'Hunky Dory in 1971. My favourite chapters were an appreciation of Harvey Mandel and 'Obscure Giants of Acoustic Guitar.' Favourites for entirely selfish reasons.

Harvey Mandel has always been important because of his instrumental album 'Christo Redentor' featuring a stellar group of session musicians and released in the UK in the spring/summer of 1969. 'Wade in The Water' was the song of those halcyon days. Also lucky enough to see him play with Canned Heat at the Dome in Brighton. Josh's essay has  encouraged me to track down other Mandel albums as yet unheard.

The Obscure Giants leads off with the great Jon Fahey, a seminal  figure whose 'Blind Joe Death' record is a must. Fahey had an encyclopaedic knowledge of early American music and his own stuff haunts me still. Met him in Brighton when he was supporting 'Pentangle'. He was slightly the worse for wear that night and it led me to conducting one of my strangest interviews when he insisted I keep asking him questions while he was having a dump in the artist's backstage toilets.

This small chunky rather creased second-hand copy is the 2008 sccond edition of Stephen Duncombe's 'Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture' published by Microcosm Publishing in Portland, Oregon. Duncombe has quite a rap sheet.. A life-long political activist, he co-founded a community based advocacy group in the Lower East Side of  Manhattan and working as an organizer for the NYC chapter of the international direct action group, Reclaim the Streets.  He is currently co-founder and co-director of the Center for Artistic Activism, a research and training institute that helps activists to think more like artists and artists to think more like activists.  He is also Professor of Media and Culture at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study and the Department of Media, Culture and Communications at the Steinhardt School of New York University. Amongst his other books are the 'Cultural Resistance Reader; White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race'.

Its a wonderful and absorbing and detailed study of largely American fanzines. It began when Stehen stayed at a friend's apartment in Boston and came across a scattered collection of zines. He writes:
'I was awestruck. Somehow these little smudged pamphlets carried within them the honesty, kindness, anger, the beautiful inarticulate articulateness, the uncompromising life that I had discovered (and lost) in music, then  later radical politics, years ago. Against the studied hipness of music and style magazines, the pabulum of mass newsweeklies, and the posturing of academic journals, here was something completely different. 
'In zines, everyday oddballs were speaking plainly about themselves and our society with an honest sincerity, a revealing intimacy, and a healthy "fuck you" to sanctioned authority — for no money and no recognition, writing for an audience of like-minded misfits. Later I picked up a thick journal crammed with zine reviews called 'Factsheet Five', leafed through their listings, and sent off for hundreds of zines. I discovered tens of thousands more at the zine archive housed in the New York State Library. I even began to publish my own zine and traded mine for others. As I dug through mountains of these piquant publications, a whole world that I had known nothing about opened up to me. It was incredibly varied: zines came in more shapes, styles, subjects, and qualities than one would imagine. But there was something remarkable that bound together this new world I had stumbled upon: a radically democratic and participatory ideal of what culture and society might be... ought to be.'

Duncombe argues that 'zines and underground culture offer up an alternative, a way of understanding and acting in the world that operates with different rules and upon different values than those of consumer capitalism. It is an alternative fraught with contradictions and limitations...but also possibilities. 

The book concludes that zines still matter in the digital age. 'Self-publishing may have been democratized with the rise of the internet, but within the zine scene Do-It-Yourself is more than just a publishing practice. It is an entire way of thinking, being and creating; a shared ideal of what culture, community, and creativity could be. It is this subterranean vision that needs to be nurtured...and shared. Zines do this, and that's why they matter. They are, still, notes from the underground.'

Finally we come to 'What Was The Hipster: A Sociological Investigation', published in 2010 by the n+1 Foundation, New York. The teaser on the back reads, in part. 
'Who was the turn-of-the-century hipster? Who is free enough of the hipster taint to write the history without contempt or nostalgia....A panel of writers invited the public to join an investigation into the rise and fall of the contemporary hipster. Their debate took place at the New School University in New York City and was followed by articles, responses and essays, all printed here for the first time.'
The book works almost like a parody of an academic conference on one aspect of street culture, with a range of cultural views on who, what, when and why hipster is. You''ll find it amusing and infuriating but there's humour there and references back to the hipster movement of the '50s, as captured in Norman Mailer's classic essay 'The White Negro.,' 

This extract is from a position paper entitled 'Positions' by Mark Grief. It includes three efforts to define WHAT WAS THE HIPSTER? 

'Definition 3, and the one with which I think I might get the most traction. The "hipster" is the name for what we might call the "hip consumer" or what Tom Frank used to call the "rebel consumer."
The hipster is by definition the person who does not create real art. If he or she produced real art, he could no longer be a hipster. It has long been noticed that the majority of people who frequent bohemia are what are sometimes called hangers-on or poseurs, art aficionados rather than art producers. 
The hipster is the cultural figure of the person, very possibly, who now understands consumer purchases within the familiar categories of mass consumption (but still restricted from others) — like the right vintage T-shirt, the right jeans, the right foods for that matter — to be a form of art.
What else might mark such a person off from the old and immemorial line of snobs and slummers is the puzzling part.
I take it that "hipster" as a name points to the fact that something has become even more drastic, or set apart, again, about these people's status as possessors of knowledge; and that, if we believe there is something essential about 1999 that lasts to the present, it is that the acquisition and display of taste before anyone else has also been radicalized, by the new forms of online capitalism; so that it is increasingly hard to possess, for example, popular music that everyone else can't also immediately possess after widespread internet use.
The 2009 hipster becomes the name for that person who is a savant at picking up the tiny changes of consumer distinction and who can afford to live in the remaining enclaves where such styles are picked up on the street rather than, or as well as, online. I suspect those definitions are wrong, but I offer them for what they're worth. I hope they will form a basis for conversation.'

Sunday, June 12, 2016


'The Salt of The Earth' must be one the remarkable documentaries ever made. A bold claim.
It's a film about the life of the Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado (now 72) which takes us to the ends of the earth and the end of ourselves. We travel over what feels like the entire world and go back in time as Salgado discovers villages that are still living in the medieval age and beautiful hunter-gatherer Amazonian Indians that are living in paleolithic times. There is some colour in the film but mostly it's in black and white, his chosen medium. His powerful monochrome images give even poverty, death and violence a certain beauty that he has received some criticism for. Wim Wenders and Salgado's eldest son Juliano were both going to make separate films but happily they joined forces to stunning effect,


The film opens with some of Salgado's most famous pictures, of Serra Pelada, one of the largest mines in the world (now abandoned), a vast hole dug by an estimated 100,000 gold miners, who carry the ore on their shoulders, climbing vertiginous ladders. There is no machinery, just the awesome sound of an anthill of men. Salgado comments: "When I reached the edge and heard the babble of 50,000 people in this huge hole, I felt it had returned to the beginning of mankind" These are the first pictures of his that Wenders saw which made him wonder who this photographer was.

Suddenly we're watching a small plane fly through rugged mountainous country and, as it swoops in to land, black and white changes to colour and we are in the West Papua Highlands, the Indonesian part of Papua New Guinea, to meet the Yali people. Its 2011 but the Yali are on BC time. Salgado seems perfectly at home and the tribes people seem unpased by the presence of this strange bald-headed figure with his monstrous camera..
Salgado and his seven sisters grew up on a remote farm in the state of Minos Gerais in the north-east of Brazil. It was near the biggest mining region on the planet and he remembers the endless trains carrying iron ore. When he started his studies in Aimores, then a small town now a city, he met his lifelong partner Lelia. It was love at first sight. They moved to Sao Paulo where they got married and Salgado graduated with his masters degree from the city's University. The brutal military dictatorship in Brazil at that time, drove the couple to London where Salgado worked as an economist for the International Coffee Organisation and travelled regularly to Africa.

The couple then moved to Paris where Salgado started to lose his interest in economics and instead began taking photos around 1970. On a trip to Niger in 1973, he found both his subject and his style. Lelia and his first son were to stay in Paris and she organised and promoted the sale of Salgado's pictures. Salgado himself set off for seven years to photograph a project called 'Other Americas'.

He made a striking figures at that time with a cascade of long blonde hair and a big beard. He was to travel to Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, climbing right up into the Andes to meet and photograph remarkable tribes and colonies of people: The Saraguros, for example, who are very religious but also get totally drunk. In the state of Oaxaca in Mexico he met the remarkable music-loving Mixe people who all play instruments, then the Tarahumara who are great runners.

On the completion of this long project and the birth of their second child who had Down's Syndrome, they left Europe to return to Lelia's home town in Brazil.
Salgado used the opportunity to spend over two years making journeys to he remote parts of NE Brazil where life and death are very close. He shows us babies in tiny coffins who, because they'd died before they were baptised, are buried with their eyes open in rented coffins. The suffering he saw there changed him.

Worse was to come. From 1984-86, Salgado travelled through the Sahel, working with Doctors Without Borders, in Ethiopia, Tigre and Mali. The vast refugee camps, the droughts and starvation, make his photos from this period difficult to look at.

From 1986-1991 he travelled in 30 countries for a project simply entitled 'Workers' which showed the harsh world of fishermen, steel workers, ship wreckers, car workers, tea pickers and, of course, the gold diggers.

In 1991 at the end of the First Gulf War, Saddam Hussein set fire to the Kuwaiti oilfields. He didn't want to leave this vast spectacle: 500 oil wells burning with teams of fire-fighters battlign to subdue titanic forces. His pictures show them as exhausted, oil-soaked hardly humans. Explosions damage Salgado's hearing. 

From 1993-1999 his focus was displaced people, refugees, all over the world.

In 1994, he went to Tanzania and witnessed the huge displacement of people fleeing the slaughter in Rwanda. He drove 150 kms into that country and there were dead bodies the whole way. His photos take us into the megacity of refugees, more than a million.

Then came Yugoslavia (1994-95). He reflects: "We humans are terrible animals - extremely violent."

Then came the heart of darkness: Congo (1994), Rwanda (1995), Congo (1997).
Two million displaced people. He says: "You felt the whole planet was covered by refugee tents."

These experiences took a toll on his soul. He no longer believed in humans: "We didn't deserve to live."

What saved him and healed him was Lelia's idea to replant the forest that had been lost on his family farm. In ten years, their Instituto Terra planted two and a half million trees and the area is now established as a National Park.

In that same period, Salgado embarked on his last great project: 'Genesis'. This time his eye concentrated on nature, a love letter to the planet, and on the unspoilt landscapes and tribes. 

He starts in the Galapagos islands with the other-worldly giant iguanas. One telling image of a iguana's clawed foot reminds him, he says, of the hand of a medieval knight. 

He sits in the jungle with the gorillas, learning that they will allow you there if you show them politeness and respect. He encounters a huge whale, touching its skin and seeing its tail 55m away, flap in response.

He tracks down and lives with the Nenets - the cowboys of Siberia. Eighteen people and 6,000 reindeer. They sleep with their lariats round their necks and wear boots made of silver fox skin that last them a lifetime.

His son captures footage of his journey to meet one of the remotest tribes in the Amazon: the Zolé. Naked with few adornments - the men sport giant plugs in their bottom lips - they stare unconcerned into Salgado's lens, composed and unafraid. The women are in charge and have four of five husbands for different purposes.

The film's message is at least half the world remains untouched. The destruction of nature can be reversed.

Salgado stares out at us like a spaceman. He has seen so much and has spent his life using his remarkable eyes to show us all aspects and extremes of human nature and nature itself. His astonishing endurance, his ability to find kinship with people around the planet, his deep humility and love of nature will touch your heart and spirit and restore your faith about what we can do to save our planet.

Friday, June 10, 2016


Book publishing used to be fun back in the old school days. We had a great hip agent - Abner Stein, the Man from New York City  - and we used to have lots of lunches which the publisher would pay for. The idea would be discussed over
many glasses of wine and a deal was made. Contracts followed and you just got on with it. Its not easy any more in the modern corporate publishing world which has lost its soul  There are, of course, a lot of great independent imprints but its a tough market out there.

Unbound, a crowd funding publishing site, offers some hand-picked authors the opportunity to pitch their ideas to an audience and raise the money to bring their book to reality. This re-invention of an old form of publishing - by subscription - is welcomed.

Crowd funding of any kind is, of course, a lot of hard work. It helps if you've got a big fan base. Here's one of the books currently on the Unbound site - 'The Pagoda Tree'which I happen to know a lot about. Australian-based Claire Scobie is a longtime friend and colleague who is trying to get her latest book published in the UK via Unbound. Claire is a very accomplished and successful writer and is also a first-rate journalist whose reporting on Tibet, East Timor and many other issues are testament to her skill and courage. 

She wrote a brilliant book called 'Last Seen in Lhasa', the true-life story of her friendship with a Tibetan nun which The Generalist reviewed in 2006This new book is a historical novel set in India in the 18th century, its main character being a temple dancer named Maya. A difficult thing to pull off and perhaps not something that I would normally read but Claire has spent a lot of time in India, has engaged in deep research and has the skill to bring the characters and historical situation to life. I enjoyed it.

As things stand, she has found 82%  of  the funding needed with four weeks to go.For other writers who might wish to try and follow this route, here is how Claire has structured her fund-raising efforts. Everyone who donates gets their name in the book and gains access to the writer's shed (a blog on the site). Then there are some further incentives and rewards to encourage you to support.

The funding levels run from £10 (digital e-book) to £3000 (corporate patron who gets special thanks and their name upfront plus signed copy and e-book) Claire is also offering Tailored Travel advice for India + signed hardback (£120), one-day creative writing workshops (£150), an offer for Small Book groups (£200) and more. Something to suit every size of pocket.

Good luck to Claire and authors everywhere.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016


This is one of the great books on Ali, a chunky 300pp delight created by George Lois, a famous American art director, designer, and author, and published by Taschen in 2006. Lois is best known for over 92 covers he designed for Esquire magazine from 1962 to  1972.. One of the most famous of all was Ali as St Sebastian, each arrow named for one of his enemies. Each double page is a striking image alongside an Ali quote or poem. Its imaginative and a testament also to the hit-it-off style and friendship between the two men. In the intro Lois writes:  

'Muhammad Ali was the heavyweight of everything: hype, PR, media, street theatre, black humour, moneymaking, politics, rap, the greats boxing champion ever, and certainly the superstar to end all superstars, the epitome of superstardom - The Greatest. A pugilistic jester whose verbal jabs made more headlines than his punches in the ring, his doggerel was an upscale version of street trash talk, the first time whites had ever heard such versifying - becoming the first rapper, the precursor to Tupac and Jay-Z. His first-person rhymes and rhythms extolling his hubris were hilarious hip-hop, decades before Run-D.M.C., Rakim and LL Cool J. His style, his desecrating mouth, his beautiful irrationality, his principled, even prophetic stand against the Vietnam War, all added to his credentials as a true-born slayer of authority. and the most beloved man of our times.'

Front cover of the Sunday Times magazine/September 9th 1974, in the lead-up to the 'Rumble In The Jungle'
[The Generalist Archive]

Two other of my favourite Ali Books: 'Muhammad Ali: The Glory Years' by Felix Dennis and Don Atyeo [Ebury Press.2002]. Packed with great black and whites and original interviews, documenting every Ali fight from 1960-1981.

'The Tao of Ali' is a much more personal book on Ali the man, Long time since I read it but it has stuck with me. Here's a review from Publisher's Weekly:

To Miller, a contributing editor to Sport magazine, it seems as if Muhammad Ali has always been a part of his life--even as far back as January 1964, when the author ""had just turned twelve and was the shortest and skinniest and sickliest kid in town."" It was then that Miller first saw Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, on TV, in connection with his fight against Sonny Liston. Ali was, as always, supremely confident: ""I'm young and handsome and fast and pretty and can't possibly be beat,"" Miller heard the boxer say. For Miller, ""the voice was cooking with the cosmic.""
In this engaging blend of autobiography and portrait, Miller goes on to tell of meeting Ali in person, in 1975, at the boxer's training camp in Pennsylvania, where the writer sparred with the champ and took a punch that dazed him. Although Miller has met other boxing legends, Ali, he says, is in a class by himself--not only for his consummate skill and self-assurance but for other qualities as well, such as the quiet, sure, unmistakable way he befriends and enlivens others, seemingly relieving them at least in part of their troubles and worries. The author leaves no doubt that his admiration for and friendship with Ali has had a benevolent--perhaps salvational--effect on his own life. While the exact nature of Ali's effect on Miller remains unclear, the picture of Ali presented here offers many clues--the man Miller portrays so vividly is, though physically slowed by Parkinson's syndrome, full of charm, wit and religious fervor (""I've been everywhere in the world, seen everything, had everything a man can have. Don't none of it mean nothin'.... The only thing that matters is submitting to the will of God""). 

My generation were lucky enough to see the 'Rumble In The Jungle' live. If my memory serves me well, we were clustered round a small tv that was sitting on a large round table in our office in Ladbroke Grove. 'When Were Kings' is the fight and much more. Ali and Foreman went out to Mobutu's Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) for the fight which was one of Don King's first major boxing promotions. There was also going to be a concert featuring top flight musicians. In addition the media were there in force including such great writers as Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson. When Foreman hurt himself in training, the whole circus has to be postponed. The fight, which was meant to happen on Sept 25th was pushed back to October 30th.
The three-night-long music festival to hype the fight took place as scheduled (September 22–24) and is documented in the 2008 film'Soul Power'. It includes performances by James Brown, Celia Cruz and the Fania All-Stars, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba, The Spinners, Bill Withers, The Crusaders, and Manu Dibango. 

This Oscar winning film, directed by Leon Gast captures the whole story in brilliant style. I first went to see it on a big screen with my son Louis in a small hot cinema in London's West End one summer afternoon. My son  didn't know what the outcome of the fight was. Even though I knew, it was a amazing experience to see it again. 

William Klein is one cool cat - considered one of the great street photographers, former painter under Leger, also film-maker. His work in inspiring and exciting and this film which I discovered some years ago is stone cold brilliant. 

Imagine if Jean Luc Godard had made a boxing movie and you're getting close to this gem. Klein has a wonderful eye and real and natural untrained genius for creating images. The film goes from 1964 to 1974 and covers the two Sonny Liston fights and the Rumble in the Jungle. It's mainly in black and white but then effectively switches to colour when we reach Zaire.

We don't see the fights. The film opens with a swift montage from the first Liston/Ali encounter [which Klein made an earlier film about: Cassius, le grand (1964–65)] 
'Muhammad Ali: The Greatest' was realeased in 1969.

What we do see is everything surrounding the fights and the dramatic events in between. Klein takes his camera right up in there, close as you can get to people's faces and into the situation. Its visceral and totally real. This must be one of the greatest films to capture not only Ali - formidable, outspoken, dangerous, magnificent - but the real black experience in the South, which perhaps only a Jewish Frenchman born in New York could get. 

We meet the Louisville Syndicate, the white men funding Cassius Clay's early career and their casual racism. We go to Ali's training camp and The Beatles turn up. We see the frightening bulk of Sonny Liston and are taken inside sweaty dressing rooms where the fighters are being prepared for action.  

Klein captures the period between fights when Ali has an abdominal hernia and is out of action for six months. Its during this time that  joins the Black Muslims and changes his name to Muhammad Ali. At that time, Ali believed that the 22 million blacks in America should have their own homeland. Amazingly we see Malcolm X talking straight to Klein's camera and then see the aftermath of Malcolm X's assassination and the period when Ali is receiving death threats. The Africa we see is pulsating and, post the fight, is jumping with vivacious glee and crowds gleefully shouting the name of Ali. The film has cool soundtracks from modern jazz to afrobeat. This is The Greatest about The Greatest.

This fabulous larger-than-life bronze sculpture of Ali was produced by Marcus Cornish
and commissioned by the late Felix Dennis for his Garden of Heroes & Villains.
Photo: John May