the column of lasting insignificance...
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By the time we got back to England, eight countries already behind us, we had agreed to compile a little brochure of helpful hints, a sort of Theory & Practice of Travel Writing beginning with a reminder to check that your passport was up to date and that you hadn't forgotten to include a plug and a 100-watt light bulb for all the hotel rooms where the light was too dim to read.
“Scissors, stapler, Band-aids, Swiss army knife, Scotch tape, flashlights, batteries...” Mez began.
“...Tiger Balm, the single indispensable remedy for absolutely anything” I added. “Oh, and a pack of cards or dominoes so you can play with your driver over lunch”.
Mez laughed. “You sit there and actually play games with your guides?”
“Of course,” I said. “You need to have lots of little things to give away because people get bored and it's good to have something with which to fill the blank moments. A token gift, however trivial, is good for communication. I've often found balloons are handy—for children or cats to play with when you're in somebody's home; the cats leap all around when they encounter balloons and everybody loves it.
“Or you can inflate a balloon and toss it behind you on a long-distance bus. Forty people on a long trip and they're all bored. Foreign coins are also a useful trinket to give away as a souvenir. They cost next to nothing but they're a gesture of goodwill.”
Mez said that one thing she'd learned on this trip was how much time it saved to address all your postcards at once and write them as you go along. “I've also bought lots of little items as souvenirs” she said. “Things people haven't seen; something representative of the country that's light, portable, and cheap”.
I noted that another essential for a travel writer was to always have some emergency food rations: a small plastic bottle of frozen water that would stay cold for half a day; processed cheese, foil-wrapped bread, a can of sardines. “I could enumerate a number of occasions when I've arrived at a Japanese ryokan at nine o'clock at night”, I said, “nobody speaking English, no shop for miles, raw eggs and seaweed offered to a famished traveler who hasn't eaten for eight hours”.
“As it happened,” I said, “a certain amount of spartan deprivation could be helpful because one of the essential qualities of a travel writer was the ability to see the commonplace in a new light.”
Ancient stones seemed to be everywhere we looked. We'd been impressed in Brittany by the eleven parallel rows outside Carnac that stretched for fully 1,000 yards, culminating in an impressive semicircle just outside the town. It looked like an advancing army—“fatal, invincible, eternal, marching, and growing as it marched” as Gerald Hawkins described it in Stonehenge Decoded. And, of course, Stonehenge itself was still a wonderful experience even in the early '70s although today it has become little more than an overcrowded, overregulated theme park.
But then, after a restful but unrewarding vigil beside Loch Ness, we discovered—at Scotland's furthest northern tip, the crowning glory of them all—Callanish. What makes this site so dramatic is its isolation, high on a hilltop with jagged, grey stones etched against a bleak, blue grey sky. A few cottages dot the surrounding countryside but otherwise the grim, empty landscape is desolate. The breeze rarely abates but the keening cry of an occasional circling gull can be heard above the shallow loch which always looks cold and menacing. All around are barren, rocky hills stretching for miles, which appear to be waiting as they have for centuries.
Nobody has satisfactorily explained Callanish, which may well be the “winged temple” referred to by Herodotus. That brilliant engineer and mathematician Professor Alexander Thom believed it was designed as a lunar observatory and the astronomer Boyd Somerville, who surveyed the site in 1912, found it to be astronomically aligned like so many of the other megalithic sites. In his Islands of Western Scotland, W.H. Murray estimates that Callanish was built about 200 years after Stonehenge and argues that it is too elaborate to be merely a seasonal calendar but might have been used for sun worship or fertility rites. Many other stone circles, he wrote, were known in Gaelic as Bel Beachd (“the circle of Bel”), the Celtic sun god, and Beltane was still being observed in remote areas of Scotland.
When we left we were still pondering over two questions: was the sun ever to be seen in these dour, grey skies and how many worshippers could possibly be gathered together in this remote, unwelcoming place?
English social mores had certainly changed over the years. I read in the paper that the names new owners were giving their homes had shifted from the once-proud Algernon’s Lodge or Weaver’s Cottage to the more captious, grittier Costaplenti, Stillowin, Stoneybroke or Grotti Cottage. And deep in the Hampshire countryside, those innocent rural parish hall shows—where once the art was by the vicar’s wife and the local art school—had been infiltrated. All the old naff favorites, from topless dancers to wave-lashed seashores, were turning up, the product apparently of hot-art sweatshops in Hong Kong. Or so the tabloids explained. (There’s always some unlikely story like this making the rounds, which, as often as not, turns out to be true).
The Daily Mirror speculated that my opinions about England might be interesting after a 20-year absence, and offered me $350 for such an essay. They clearly felt the results were too anodyne and at first declined to pay although they eventually forked over $80 as a kill fee. In the unpublished piece I had written that the English were still so formal they wore collar and tie at the seaside and viewed with disdain people who’d bought cars on the Continent to get foreign plates so they could drive around without getting tickets. To do this would be second nature to an American, I suggested, but many Brits were shocked by such unethical behavior.
I asked why Britain was still restricted to three television channels when an obvious improvement would be to allow them as many commercial channels as technologically possible, siphoning off 10% of all their revenues to finance the BBC. (Then they wouldn’t need that unfair and unpopular license fee). I decried the long hassle that major companies put you through to replace simple parts (I’ve always believed that The customer is always wrong is a fundamental English belief) and asked why, if the English loved dogs so much, they made it so difficult for visitors to bring one in. (It’s because they’re foreign dogs, a friend explained).
When I bitched to Bronx-born Amber about how we’d have to miss some London party because there were no late trains, she shrewdly suggested that the reason why the underground shut down so early was so that the working class peasants won’t be too tired to get up and work.
IN LONDON, I met Clark Siewert, an expatriate Texan who said he had been impressed by my Japan book many years before. He was now publishing his London Travel Letter for up-market American subscribers, the kind who came often to Europe for shopping, theatre, and gourmet pursuits. Clark invited me to write a monthly column, John Wilcock’s Britain, in which I checked out such crowd-pleasers as medieval banquets, farm weekends, Hampton Court, canal boat excursions, and the kind of trashy gossip that seemed to cut the snotty Bloomsbury intellectuals down to size.
My most interesting assignment from Siewert was to attend one of the very earliest “Murder Weekends”, then being run by their originator, Joy Swift. She had gotten the inspiration as a means of attracting off-season visitors to the northern hotel chain for which she worked, and it had proved successful enough to cross the Atlantic and was about to be imitated by tour operators in other countries.
The weekend I attended, in the rambling Victorian Royal Albion Hotel at the coastal resort of Brighton—the home of peers, queers, and racketeers, as the old saw had it—was billed as the 20th annual reunion of Made In Heaven, a lonely hearts society to which everybody was obliged to claim a connection.
So strict was this injunction that, upon requesting news about ‘the Murder Weekend’ at the hotel’s reception desk, I was frostily informed that they knew of no such function and it was only when I muttered the magic words ‘Made in Heaven’ that I was directed to the opening cocktail party, already in progress. Suffice it to say that the fiction was maintained by everybody, all of the time, and my own efforts to identify fellow press people (I knew there were some) were continually rebuffed.
Everybody had chosen their role, and whether claiming to be a successful marriage broker or cupid’s victim was all the same; nobody would step out of character for an instant. Unwilling or, in truth unable, to play a part, I was soon floundering in doubt and suspicion, although what followed was one of the most fascinating weekends I have ever experienced. Notwithstanding my own stubborn refusal to be anything other than a reporter covering the event, the “cast” and audience were inseparable, every event ambiguous. During the post-dinner dancing, one woman suddenly slumped to the floor so unexpectedly that it could have been real; in fact, even though programmed to expect the unexpected, most of us were stunned, especially when an ambulance, sirens hooting, arrived to remove her and bulletins about her progress began to appear on the notice board.
It became obvious that she was one of the ‘actors’ but now she was gone, leaving everybody unsure who the other participants still were; unsurprisingly since (as it later transcribed) they had all been trained to obfuscate and mislead.
Then another ‘murder’. A blood-smeared body was discovered in the next room with nobody quite sure who might have been in that room at the same time. Excited discussions, speculation, questions, questions, questions. Everybody was chattering excitedly at once but the fact that everybody present was an ‘actor’ by definition had by then muddied the waters to such an extent that it was hard to find a reliable co-inquisitor with whom to strip away the pretenses and establish some basics.
Nor was anybody immune from questioning, even the role of this innocent reporter attracting suspicion, a suspicion greatly enhanced by my own brief absence the next morning. I had taken advantage of being in the area to visit and interview Paula Lennon, the widow of John Lennon’s father. This explanation however was greeted with understandable disbelief even though it was true. (I had been doing research for Albert Goldman’s biography of John Lennon.)
Later that day, for the press at least, some of the mystery was solved. Joy Swift herself turned up to hold a secret backstage press conference attended by myself, the three other genuine reporters and the eight-member cast. That left 28 other participants who were still being kept in the dark.
“When I first came up with the idea I knew it had to be realistic” Ms. Swift explained, “because if it wasn’t, people would be merely onlookers and resist getting involved. There’s no rubbish. All the clues relate to what really happened and, although I rewrite it, as it’s happening to shift people’s attention, I never cheat by changing the ending. There’s only one person who lies, the murderer.
“I tell my actors I want them to be as natural as possible. My main criteria are that they are really quick and intelligent, remember all their facts, communicate very well, and are chatty, because you can’t have introverts. Most guests step right into the story because people love creating new identities for themselves. I’d say eight or nine out of ten play the game and try to solve the murders but there are always one or two who try to trip us up and are quite determined to get one to say, ‘Okay, I’m an actor’”.
Did the actors get fed up with constant questioning? I asked. “No, because if people keep at you and at you, that’s what gets the adrenalin going. Guests have to be prepared to get as well as they give. It always amazes me how much the process breaks down inhibitions. ‘And who have you been sleeping with, Betsy?’ they ask. They’re incredible; they don’t care what they say”.
On Sunday morning, the detective inspector—guests knew at least that he was an actor—summoned us to an after breakfast meeting at which all would be explained. “Many of you” he begins, “are obviously pathological liars” and he revealed how he had satisfied his suspicions by searching the rooms of the more ostentatious guests. Among his discoveries, he claims, had been pornographic photos taken by a self-described ‘journalist’, specimen jars and rubber equipment, and evidence that one ‘couple’ had actually met for the first time at Victoria Station where the man had offered his pickup $25 to accompany him for the weekend. Everybody laughed at these disclosures, especially the embarrassed guests who were named.
NOT YET READY to leave Europe, I spent a day or two in Paris, which seemed very hospitable. There were ample supplies of hash among the lively artists and writers at the legendary Beat Hotel on Rue Git-le-Coeur, to which the painter Sam Middleton had introduced me. And always a free bunk upstairs for a visiting writer by George Whitman’s Shakespeare & Co. bookstore across from Notre Dame. And already becoming legendary was Jim Haynes, the American who'd been involved with the alternative society in Europe for as long as I had been in the U.S. He'd founded the offbeat Traverse Theatre, the all-purpose Arts Lab and helped to start London's International Times before making his Paris atelier a gathering place for virtually everybody on the cultural scene of three or four continents.
For years Jim's Sunday night parties have been open to anybody who wanted to attend (as long as they were among the first 60 to telephone that week and were willing to kick in 25 francs. Dishes such as boeuf Bourguignon or sometimes a visiting cook's specialty are copiously ladled out with piles of cheese and fresh fruits on the side. “The rule is eat and drink all you want, but talk, talk, talk” a recent visitor said. And Jim gets his guests talking by memorizing everybody's name and relentlessly introducing them to each other.
“I love talking to people”, he confessed, “meeting people, and when I travel, I always collect a lot of addresses which, more often than not, are of people who also want to meet other people. If there's a theme running through my life it has been introducing people to each other. The idea of a dancer from Moscow talking to a writer from Buenos Aires is a little like Noah's Ark. It's a total mixture of humanity”.
Next Jim took it a step further with his People to People books which are simply and functionally lists of names and addresses of people in Eastern European countries who are willing to act as guides and hosts to visitors—a bit like my old Travelers Directory from which, he says, is where he got the idea.
When I had first announced, in a 1960 Voice column, that I would be driving to Mexico I received invitations from several strategically placed readers to visit them en route and from this grew The Travelers' Directory, a listing initially of about 50 people all of whom received a copy. Members wrote their own entries offering varying degrees of hospitality, and the directory expanded for more than 20 years under various editors eventually containing 1,200 names spread over a dozen countries. In 1971, it earned a three-page feature in The New York Times which named some of its better-known listees—Marvin Kitman, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Paul Krassner, and Dave Dellinger. One commented: “There's a real camaraderie among Directory listees—the feeling of being in one family”.
As Jim and I talked about the underground press, he was not entirely uncritical. “Maybe I'm too tolerant” he said, “but then we have to have more tolerance. I think the underground is often as guilty of intolerance, slander, misquoting, not getting the facts straight—whatever facts are—as the so-called straight press. If only more people on both sides of the fence, the moving fence—it's moving all the time—would just be a bit more tolerant. if people wouldn't get uptight about each other all the time, putting people down. If people would just stop all rumors.
“Just don't listen to gossip about who's laying whom, or leaving whom, or buying what. Just say; 'Look man, we don't want to hear any more of your bad news. Give us some good news. In many ways the best medium, the first medium we are working in, is ourselves. People don't realize this. We are broadcasting stations, transmitting our attitudes to the world, philosophical, political, sexual, economic. You name it we're broadcasting it, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. We're never off the air. And it's up to us to transmit our beliefs.
“We can't abstractedly say: 'When the revolution's won, we're going to be friendly. We're going to share, we're going to do this or that'. We've got to begin now, sharing, living, smiling, being courteous, being tolerant, helping people, doing it all the time and increasing the sensitivity level. When you hear somebody saying something nasty about somebody else, stop him. When you hear somebody being stupid, stop him”.
Manhattan Memories is available at amazon.com.
An updated A Guide to Occult Britain, complete with new illustrations, is also available at amazon.com.
comments? send an email to John Wilcock
also available on amazon.com...
National Weed (1974, issue #3)
Over the past year, my combined medical and support costs from a stroke I had in April 2014 have been more than $100,000. If you'd like to help, use the Paypal donate button, or better yet, buy my book, and thank you. —JW
- Complete column archives: 2006 - present
— Dear Readers...
— John Wilcock ... Marijuana, the symbolic center of the underground society
— John Wilcock ... From the Archives: Cuba Diary—Havana, April 2011
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Nineteen (continued)--Travels
— John Wilcock ... From the Archives: When you vote, don’t forget the Republican Paradox
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Eighteen--The Quest for Magic: Around Europe by VW bus;
Regarding armchair travelers;
Pisa's Leaning Tower;
The magical Alhambra
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Seventeen (continued)--London's Magical library;
In the Cannes
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Seventeen--The Sorcerer's Apprentice
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Sixteen--JW'S Secret Diary (continued)
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Sixteen--JW'S Secret Diary
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Fourteen (Part Two--Manhattan phone book, JW'S Secret Diary
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Fourteen--Party Circuit
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Thirteen--Figaro Diary, part two, Soho Saturday
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Thirteen--Figaro Diary, part one, Soho Saturday
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Twelve (continued)--Traveling with Nomad; SoHo Confidential
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Chapter Nine (continued)--Rip Torn on stardom… Robert Mitchum's gift; London: Julian Beck’s critique; Emmett Grogan and the Diggers; Greece: The Junta, Charlotte Rampling, and art hero Daniel Spoerri
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Chapter Nine--Bob Dylan in the Village, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, Richard Neville and OZ, What Does London Need Most?, The International Times
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Eight (continued)--Japan: a working honeymoon;
The Shinjuku Sutra
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Eight--Art Kunkin's LA Free Press; In LA with Hunter Thompson, Lenny Bruce; Visit by Warhol; Hakim Jamal plays god; The San Francisco 'Be-In'; Underground papers meet
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Six (continued)--Tom Forcade: smuggler supreme; That pathetic drug czar
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Six—The weed that changed the world--Confessions of a pot smoker
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Four—Into the '60s--London's underground press; Jean-Jacques Lebel burns US flag; Everybody's friend: Jim Haynes; Lenny Bruce and the kitchen tapes
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Three--The Village Voice (continued) --Lasting insignificance: the 3-dot column, ECHO and Larry Adler, Woody Allen plays classic nerd, A sample Village Square column
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Two--Steve Allen derides TV columnist; Marlene Dietrich--glamorous grandmother
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter One--Chatting with Marilyn Monroe
— Manhattan Memories: Introduction.
- column archives: 2006 - present
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February 12, 2015
It was the first handwritten letter I'd received in 5 years. Or maybe 10. Signed by John Wilcock, a man I'd never heard of, and postmarked Ojai, Calif., it was waiting for me when I returned from my São Paulo-to-New York summer trip. Mr. Wilcock wrote that he had been an assistant editor at The Times Travel section back in the 1950s, and had written the first editions of “Mexico on $5 a Day,” “Greece on $5 a Day” and “Japan on $5 a Day” for Arthur Frommer in the 1960s.
By George, I thought. This man was the original Frugal Traveler.
Forty years ago the second of my three books about magic was published, A Guide to Occult Britain (Sidgwick & Jackson) covering a wide range of sites from Stonehenge to Loch Ness and King Arthur country to the witches of Pendle Hill. It is now available as an eBook on amazon.com.
“A GOOD WAY to describe John Wilcock is to say that he is a talented bohemian counter-culture journalist who once played a major role in the emergence of America’s underground press. Born 1927 in Sheffield, England, he left school aged 16 to work on various newspapers in England, and on Toronto periodicals before moving to New York City. There in 1955 he became one of the five founders of the Village Voice in which he and co-founder Norman Mailer wrote weekly columns. Wilcock called his column “The Village Square”, an intended pun. He and young Mailer were not quite friends, although Wilcock was at times annoyed, but always amused, by Mailer’s monstrous ego.”
-From the preface of Manhattan Memories, by Martin Gardner