My wife Hattie and I had two visitors this New Year. One, my brother Simon, was very welcome indeed. The other, his exotic friend, Omicron Variant, was not.
Simon flew in from Los Angeles on the 30th December, eventually arriving via a gruelling six hour transit stop in Dallas that involved, much to his horror, mingling with a massive crowd of hundreds of New Year’s travellers.
Though he, like us, is double vaxxed, boosted and tested negative multiple times both before and after his flight to the UK, by January 4th the almost inevitable had happened. He and I were both positive and effectively under voluntary house arrest.
Happily our symptoms were relatively mild – not much more than a bit of a cough and cold – but it meant that what for Simon was supposed to be a five day flying visit planned between TV lighting jobs in California, became a two week stay durng which we couldn’t go anywhere or see anyone.
It definiteky wasn’t what we had planned. We read, we wrote, we watched TV and caught up on years of conversation. We also gazed longingly at the world beyond our windows while working our way through a couple of boxes of lateral flow tests and waited to be officially declared contagion free.
Simon finally managed to fly back to California with a clean bill of health on January 12th, arriving just in time to supervise the start of the new series of the US version of The Masked Singer for which he is lighting designer.
We later worked out that it was the first time for more than 50 years that Simon and I had spent so long in each other’s company. Ths last time was during the school and college holidays in 1970 when we spent a long and lazy summer with our parents in Hong Kong and Macau.
What wonderful news! Bournemouths Palace Court Theatre is poised to become a town centre performance venue again. For the past 35 years the striking art deco building has served as a Christian centre but long before that it was arguably Bournemouth’s favourite theatre.Now it has been bought by the town’s Arts University and there are multi-million pound plans to restore it as teaching, performance and rehearsal space.
I’ve had a peep inside and can tell you that not only is the original architecture stunning but the building still contains a near perfect 1930s theatre just waiting to be revitalised. In its hey day the venue, which opened in Hinton Road in 1931 was the place to see and be seen.
As The Palace Court Theatre and The Playhouse, it featured many well known performers. By the 1950s and 60s it was home to a vibrant repertory company whose members included Sheila Hancock, Vivien Merchant and Merchant’s then new husband, Harold Pinter who at the time performed under the stage name of David Baron.
The year was 1956 and Pinter’s transition from actor to influential playwright was developing fast. Indeed those who knew him at the time say that during the rep season he spent he was experimenting and writing new material. His first plays were performed to critical acclaim in the next two years.
I wonder how many people remember Cumberland Clark – writer, critic, Shakespearian scholar and, inexplicably, one of the worst poets to ever wreak havoc on the English language?
Almost exactly 80 years ago the extraordinary literary crimes that he so gleefully committed were finally brought to an end when a wartime enemy air raid scored a direct hit on his Bournemouth flat. Both Clark and his loyal housekeeper Miss Kathleen Donnelly were killed.
Though London born and well-travelled, Bournemouth was Cumberland Clark’s adopted home. He loved the town and in the final decades of his life he eulogised it endlessly, churning out ghastly doggerel that made a mockery of his classical education and previous serious literary endeavours.
The Bournemouth Songbook, which he first privately published in 1929, contained more than 150 ‘songs’ in verse so plodding that you have to marvel at his endless determination to find a rhyme, however awful it might be.
How about such dubious gems as:-
For many years I’ve held a brief
For Bournemouth’s Golden Sands
Indeed A1 in my belief
Are Bournemouth’s Golden Sands
You lie on your back from ten till one,
And get well baked by the genial sun;
And then turn over when you’re done
On Bournemouth’s Golden Sands.
The bathing at Bournemouth is good
Which appeals to the holiday creature
Among seaside joys this has stood
As by far the most popular features
There’s nothing the sport to supplant
It’s joy for each person who swims
And gives to those people who can’t
A chance to exhibit their limbs
When in Bournemouth if you’ve got
A notion that you would like a yacht
And your cash is quite a lot
Go and buy one on the spot
Folks will point and say ‘Big Pot’
Simply tons of money, what?
A millionaire he is. Great Scot!
And all that kind of tommy rot
Why he penned these outrageously constructed ‘songs’ which also often extolled the virtues of neighbouring towns and villages, remains a mystery.
Cumberland Clark was essentially an erudite and well read man who for reasons best known to himself delighted in reinventing himself as Bournemouth’s very own answer to William McGonagall. Maybe he was just having fun. Whatever the reason, he was a splendid eccentric, immaculately dressed and, I am told, prone to standing on street corners and striking impressive poses.
Self-aware and opinionated he was particularly fond of encouraging the attention of young women. He would acknowledge them with a cheeky wink and a twirl of his snow-white moustache.
His intentions seem to have been quite innocent and it is said that waitresses would fight to serve at his table because by lavishing a little extra attention on him they would be guaranteed a generous tip.
Poor Cumberland Clark he was eternally optimistic and at the outbreak of World War II, by then in his late 70s, he produced a patriotic and morale-boosting collection called War Songs of the Allies. It included the following verse:
Let the bombs bounce round about us
And the shells go whizzing by
Down in our air raid shelter
We’ll be cosy, you and I
Sadly when the bombs and shells did fall on Cumberland Clark’s flat in St Stephens Road in Central Bournemouth in April 1941, he was not protected by the safety of an air-raid shelter but fast asleep in bed.
At least there is striking memorial to his memory. He made sure of that. Not only did he design an impressively over-the-top monument complete with guardian angle but he had it in place in the Bournemouth East Cemetery a full six years before his death. “So that there will be no bother or anxiety to fall back on relatives or friends” he told the local press.
He had it inscribed too with the words ‘Sacred to the memory of Cumberland Clark, poet, historian, dramatist … The longer I live the more do I turn to Christianity as the one hope of salvation, the one faith for the soul of man, the one comfort in distress, and the one and only power that can save the world.’
Nothing if not thorough, Cumberland Clark left £500 to the NSPCC on the condition that they maintained his grave. He also told the minister at his local church that he didn’t care if everything else he had written was lost but he wanted his self-penned epitaph to remain.
So far it does and seems well kept even though the words are becoming a little worn by age and gradually harder to decipher.
How long will his legacy endure? There used to be a Cumberland Clark Memorial Society that held an annual dinner in his honour but that seems to have petered out around a decade ago. Unless of course you know better.
A curious one this. Back in the 1990s oddball conman Alan Conway pitched up in Bournemouth claiming to be the reclusive American film director Stanley Kubrick. He looked and sounded nothing like Kubrick and yet people, including several prominent entertainers, fell for it. Eventually a movie emerged and so did this magazine article. When I asked one of Conway’s victims, the singer and impressionist Joe Longthorne about his encounter with the bogus Kubrick and how Conway fooled everyone – except perhaps Dora Bryan. He wasn’t keen to talk about it. Both Conway and Longthorne are no longer with us. But it remains a fascinating story. This piece was originally written in 2004.
By Jeremy Miles
Singer and impressionist Joe Longthorne has seen it all. In a roller coaster career that started when he was just a teenager he has experienced adulation and despair. At the height of his fame he was mobbed by thousands of adoring fans but a combination of business troubles and a life-threatening illness came close to destroying him.
Now, having battled his way back from adversity, he’s smiling again. As he prepared to bring his latest UK tour to Bournemouth’s Pier Theatre on Friday he told me: “I feel better now than I have done for 10 years.” He says that years of suffering from the debilitating disease lymphoma was finally resolved by a bone-marrow transplant. I was incredibly lucky they found a match within seven days…It made a huge difference.”
His bankruptcy – he was once so desperate for funds that he begged fans to send him lottery tickets – is also well and truly behind him. “I’m free as a bird now,” he told me happily. He’s philosophical about the difficulties he found himself in “I had too much too young. I didn’t have a clue, but that’s showbusiness.
“I once received a £50,000 bill from an accountant for ‘bits and bobs’. There are always conmen around. Every third person in showbusiness gets done one way or another, its just one of those things…”
Curiously perhaps Joe, 53, still can’t bring himself to talk about the one conman who was so convincing that he persuaded him that he was the world-famous film director Stanley Kubrick. Back in the early 1990s Alan Conway, a nondescript former burglar from Middlesex, duped dozens of people into believing he was the reclusive and rarely photographed American movie-maker.
So spectacular was his success that, following his death some years later, his escapades were made into the film Colour Me Kubrick with John Malkovich as the unlikely conman. The film, which Longthorne refused to have any involvement with, won lavish praise at Cannes but bizarrely went straight to DVD.
Ironically the Conway-Kubrick episode actually started for Joe Longthorne right here in Bournemouth. It was during one of Joe’s summer seasons that the town’s one-time theatres publicity officer Tony Hardman got a call from a friend saying that Kubrick was in town and staying at the four star Carlton Hotel.
Hardman was invited to meet the bogus movie man and in a story that gets stranger by the minute was so impressed that he decided to introduce the charismatic director to his current house guest, the actress Dora Bryan. He then took them both to see Joe at the Bournemouth International Centre.
Hardman says that though Bryan was suspicious – “I think she was unconvinced ” – Joe was incredibly excited and invited Kubrick backstage. He says that the effect Conway’s presence had on people who believed they were talking to the director of 2001 A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket was extraordinary. “They started to bow and scrape, no doubt expecting parts in whatever his next film was going to be.”
While Conway, a long-time fantasist, seemed perfectly prepared to pay his way Hardman says he was soon staying in plush hotels at the expense of others. “He allowed people to convince themselves that he was Stanley Kubrick and then they started footing the bill for things.”
As Hardman would later discover Conway looked nothing like the real Kubrick but he somehow had a way of making people believe his lies. Among those putting their hand in their pocket was Joe and according to Hardman it wasn’t long before the con-man was driving around in Longthorne’s Rolls Royce.
Having been given short shrift by Joe, the makers of the movie Colour Me Kubrick turned to Jim Davidson, another entertainer who had fallen for the Conway hoax, to play the celebrity victim. Cast drastically against type, Davidson played an ageing and extremely camp singer called Lee Pratt. The character he stresses, somewhat unconvincingly, was in no way based on Longthorne. “Lee Pratt is complete crap and Joe is one of the best stage performers in the business,” says Davidson, adding that Longthorne was also just one of many people who were conned by the appropriately named Conway. “There were plenty of others.”
Davidson maintains that the film shows how Conway prayed on people’s vanity. “I met him and I certainly didn’t suss him straight away. He got me on the hook. He said: “So are you Jim Davidson the comedian and I’m thinking ‘That’s amazing, Stanley Kubrick knows who I am’. This is what the film is all about. How we all wanted Stanley Kubrick as our mate.”
Longthorne starts briefly to discuss the same subject and tells me that for a while he really believed that Conway was Kubrick. “I’m an impersonator. I naturally observe people. And I would never have guessed that that man wasn’t from Brooklyn.”
He suddenly realises where the conversation is going: “We’d better stop this or I’ll have to get on to the lawyers,” he tells me, adding with a laugh: “Or maybe not, they’re far too dear.”
Pioneering Bournemouth-born architect Elisabeth Scott was a talent to be reckoned with. In 1919, at the age of 21, she became one of the first women allowed to study at London’s prestigious male dominated Architectural Association.
Where can you find the grave of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley and the charred remains of the heart of her husband, the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley? What about the birthplace of the man who wrote the music for the nation’s favourite hymn Jerusalem?
The answer is Bournemouth which may sound surprising but these are just two ‘hidden secrets’ from a town that most people regard as little more than a popular seaside resort. Appearances, and reputations, can be deceptive though. For a place that didn’t even exist until 200 years ago Bournemouth is home to an astonishing number of fascinating historical facts.
To prove the point photographer, social historian and walking guide Hattie Miles (who also happens to be my wife) has teamed up with Hotter Shoes to present a self-guided walk that reveals the town’s often hidden histories. Starting from the Hotter shop in Old Christchurch Road, the walk covers just a small area of the centre of town, takes around an hour but is extraordinarily rich in amazing stories from the recent and distant past.
This week I joined a select group of bloggers to road-test the walk with Hattie reading from the script that normally provides the phone or tablet text for self-guided walkers. It was a real eye-opener shining a light on the history and heritage of this popular tourist destination.
The fact is that Bournemouth probably wouldn’t even have existed had it not been for a romantic gesture by well-to-do army captain Lewis Tregonwell. He built the town’s first housein 1812 because his wife, grieving over the death of their child, loved the location by the sea.
Until then Bournemouth had been an area of largely untamed heathland on the road between the ancient borough’s of Christchurch and Poole. Tregonwell saw its potential and bought 8.5 acres of land in what is now the centre of town. He paid the princely sum of £179.11 shillings. Initially development was slow but the arrival of the railway and Bournemouth’s growing reputation as a health spa soon led to rapid expansion.
Look above the shops to upper storey level and the evidence of past times and passing events from war-time bombings to multiple changes of use are plain to see. We found the smallest shop in town occupied by a man who has effectively run a thriving business from a cupboard under the stairs for the past 40 years. We discovered a stained glass window in the back of a clothes shop and the hidden mansion built as a home for the original Mr W.H.Smith. There was also a poignant moment for me as we took in the full art-deco grandeur of the purpose-built 1930s newspaper headquarters of the Bournemouth Echo. I worked there for more than 20 years and have many happy memories of news stories, features, good friends and great characters. It looks a little careworn these days but is still the paper’s headquarters. In its hey-day the building teemed with people – reporters, photographers, sub-editors, printers, plate-makers, advertising staff. Forty years ago its editorial staff included ITN’s Mark Austin, TV and radio presenter Anne Diamond and a young American sub-editor called Bill Bryson whose breakthrough book Notes From A Small Island would contain quite a lengthy description of life in Bournemouth and his memories of the Echo. Times change and the newspaper office is a lot quieter now but the history remains.
Hattie knows her stuff. For 24 years she also worked on the Echo as a photographer. It’s the kind of job that gives you a front-seat view of historic changes as they happen. She’s put her knowledge to good use and for the past two years has run the town’s popular guided ‘walkingtalks’ tours. The Hotter shoes connection started a long time ago when she began wearing them for her photographic work. Comfortable and practical footwear is an essential part of the photographers kit, particularly when the job often requires you to be on your feet all day. Hattie found that Hotter shoes were not only comfortable, but supported her feet well. No surprise then that she still wears them for her guided walks.
We bloggers were also kitted out with Hotter shoes and, I promise this is not merely PR guff, I really liked mine.To be honest I had never considered wearing Hotter shoes before. I suppose I thought they just did slippers and comfy shoes for old folk with corns and bunions. What did I know? Things have moved on apace in recent years. They now not only do comfort but very stylish designs too. My Hotter walking shoes – named, rather alarmingly I felt, Thor, after the hammer-wielding Norse God of thunder and lightning – are light, strong, very comfortable, waterproofed with Gore-Tex and not only feel great but look good too. I can hardly believe I’m saying this. I sound like an advert but it’s absolutely true.
I am reminded of a sketch that the comedian Jasper Carrot used to do 25 odd years ago based on the observation that, on reaching a certain age, the average British bloke would be walking past a branch of Dunn & Co, the long-gone gentlemen’s outfitter that used to specialise in dull, sensible clothing, and find himself thinking: ‘You know what? That beige car-coat is really rather nice.’
Is my new found love of Hotter just a 2016 version of the Dunn & Co car-coat syndrome? I’ve looked very carefully and have worn my Thor shoes a number of times over the past week and I am certain they really are as good as I think.
Curiously our Bournemouth walk took us past the shop that 25 years ago was the Bournemouth branch of Dunn & Co. It’s now a flagship store for High Street cosmetics giant Lush, a company which was started locally by Mark and Mo Constantine.
They still live in nearby Poole, still own the business and have done rather well for themselves. Indeed they were listed in last year’s Sunday Times Rich List as the 28th richest husband-and-wife team in Britain, worth £205 million. There you go. Another fascinating fact.
The fevered imagination of author and poet Robert Louis Stevenson shocked and thrilled late Victorian Society. His Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – said to have been written during a six day cocaine binge – appalled and excited readers in equal measure.
For nearly 130 years this psychological thriller – originally published as a novella in 1886 – has been revisited again and again on stage, screen and the written page. For decades there have been Hollywood movies, theatre productions, TV and radio plays and regular documentaries examining the Jekyll and Hyde phenomenon.
Author and naturalist Gerald Durrell found fame in the 1950s and 60s as the outspoken, larger-than-life best-selling writer who went on to establish the pioneering Jersey Zoo. Known these days as the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, it is revered by conservationists across the world. It is also one of the biggest tourist attractions in the Channel Island’s.
However had a few local government big-wigs taken a more enlightened view 50 odd years ago, the zoo may well have found a home right here in Dorset. For Durrell, author of nearly 40 books including worldwide best sellers like My Family and Other Animals, originally wanted to establish his groundbreaking captive breeding programme at Upton House near Poole.
Sadly the local authority felt it was an unsuitable use for the grand Georgian property and the project was strangled by red tape. An environmental campaigner years ahead of his time, Durrell had been determined to start work on a project that would save threatened species from extinction.
By the late 1950s he had amassed a bewildering collection of animals in the back garden of his sister Margo’s home in the Bournemouth suburb of Charminster. He was already a well-known author and well on the way to establishing the project he named The Stationary Ark. He would have loved it to have been at Upton which has beautiful parkland and even its own island in Poole Harbour, but stymied by council bureaucracy, he lost patience and took his life’s work to the Channel Islands instead. Margo’s son, Gerry Breeze, describes the loss of the zoo to the local area as “a tragedy.”
Now 68 and still living just a half-a-mile from his childhood home, young Gerry used to feed and clean the animals in the back garden while his uncle was off on his globe-trotting expeditions He would later help build the cages for the Jersey Zoo and lived and worked there for a while, looking after the reptile house. Gerry – a seventh dan karate expert – invited me into his happily chaotic home, where Japanese and African masks adorn the garden walls, kiwi fruit grow in abundance and he still studies is beloved reptiles. It is a typically Durrell-like environment. Although as Gerry himself unwittingly pointed out this isn’t always obvious when viewed from the inside.
“When you’re growing up you just accept your family and the people around you as being normal,” he told me. “It was only years later that I realised what an extraordinary and interesting family I had.” Interesting indeed. Apart from Uncle Gerald there was also Uncle Larry (the writer Lawrence Durrell) and the gun-mad Uncle Leslie who used to keep a small armoury of weapons “including elephant guns, revolvers..everything” in the flat over the Bournemouth off-licence he ran with his wife Doris,
Then of course there was young Gerry’s mother, Margo – another charismatic character who would go on to write her own highly praised autobiography. The Durrell siblings are of course familiar from Gerald’s best-seller My Family and Other Animals. Although set on the Greek island of Corfu, the book actually opens on the precise cold, miserable, rainy day in Bournemouth that originally inspired the family to head for the sun.
His years in Corfu consolidated an interest in animals that had been growing since he was a toddler and collected wood-lice, earwigs… anything that crawled. He had already decided that school was an irksome business and had been removed from formal education after a single unhappy year. With private lessons and a freedom that few are privileged to enjoy, Gerald Durrell would go on to become a world-renowned expert in his field.
The man David Attenborough described as “magic” and whose Jersey project has saved entire species from extinction was not the easiest of people. He drank heavily, had a fearsome temper and didn’t suffer fools gladly.“He certainly had his moments.” Gerry Breeze told me. “He drank far too much and could swear like no one else I’ve ever heard. He was a remarkable man though. He used to go off on expeditions and bring all sorts back – we had monkeys, mongooses, snakes, birds, just about everything in that garden. I remember one day all the monkeys escaped. We found them as far away as Boscombe Gardens.”
“What on earth did the neighbours say?” I ask. “Not a lot.” replied Gerry. “The ones on the left used to grumble a bit but I don’t think they actually did anything.” The Durrell’s urban menagerie including a chimpanzee called Chumley who used to enjoy an occasional cigarette and drink. Thumbing through a dog-eared family album, Gerry finds a fading black and white picture. “Look there he is swinging on the curtains,” he chuckled. I can’t help noticing that Chumley is wearing clothes. “Gran used to make those,” explained Gerry. Looking at this handful of images that have now become history, he says he wishes he had taken more photographs. “I just didn’t realise how important it was at the time.”
Since Gerald Durrell’s death in 1995 at the age of 70, The Wildlife Conservation Trust has been run by his widow, Dr Lee Durrell. The couple met in the mid 1970s when the then recently divorced 53-year-old Gerald was on a lecture tour of America and Lee was a 27-year-old graduate student completing a PhD in animal communication. “I remember the moment he came into the room. It instantly seemed to light up. He was very high wattage person,” she tells me. Durrell was clearly taken by the young Memphis belle and the pair fell into deep conversation about Madagascan Lemurs. Two years later they were married.”
Lee believes that the loss and degradation of habitat is the biggest threat facing many of the world’s endangered species. Gerald, she says, may have been hard-drinking, volatile and in many ways a rather old fashioned character, but he was also a man of vision. He understood the threats facing the natural world long before most people had even given it a second thought. She gives an example “Gerry loved Corfu but when he went back in the 1950s and tourism was beginning to take off, he was appalled. He felt the Island was being ruined. He ranted and raved about it.Yet when he took me there in the 80s and tourism had more or less done its wicked thing. I thought it was magical. It’s a matter of perception.”
She now works tirelessly to promote the work of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. Encouraged by Gerry Breeze, she recently returned to Bournemouth, where she so often spent happy times with the extended Durrell family, to give a lecture at Talbot Heath School. It was the first of a series of illustrated talks which she hopes to give at locations around the UK and she was impressed by what she found.
“I spoke to the sixth form and it was so encouraging that the subjects they are studying in their science and geography classes are exactly the kind of things that we are working on. They knew all about biodiversity. They knew about the various world treaties and conventions that have been set up to regulate trade and protect different species, habitats and eco-systems. Twenty years ago you’d go into a school and the curriculum would be completely conventional. Now kids like these are really beginning to look at how the world actually works.”
*You can visit The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust at Les Augrès Manor, La Profonde Rue, Trinity, Jersey, Channel Islands JE3 5BP. For more information about how you can help their work protecting endangered species by becoming a Trust member go to www.durrell.org or telephone +44 (0) 1534 860000