Thursday, 4 August 2016

The Peanuts Club - a small part of the counter-culture

Richard Wilcocks in 1964        Photo by Gordon Stevens
I have put up this blog partly because there seems to be just a tiny amount of information about the club in books on the Sixties or online - I think it made a significant contribution to the counter-culture of the time - and partly because I would like you, if you were there, to share your anecdotes and observations. It is unfinished: after I have found a few more yellowing documents and retrieved a few more memories, I shall add to it. Perhaps you would like to put me right on something, or add something I missed. I am trawling things up from half a century ago, after all, and I did not keep much of a diary at the time. I would quite like to hear what you think even if you were not there. Email me here - or use the comment facility at the bottom of this post.

Sixties Counter-culture

I do not remember exactly when I first set foot in the Peanuts Club. I would guess it was at some time in 1963, when I was eighteen and much involved, along with most of my friends and acquaintances, with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. I lived in Romford, Essex, with my mother, who travelled to work every weekday at A. Jacobs & Sons in the Mile End Road in London. I was frequently in the big city as well, working in short-term jobs for various employment agencies as I marked time before applying to go to university, attending demonstrations and rallies in places like Trafalgar Square and listening to folk music, jazz or poetry in various pubs and clubs. One of these was the Peanuts.

The Kings Arms Bishopsgate

It was above the Kings Arms in Bishopsgate - the one that was demolished by developers that is, not the characterless replacement with the same name at the base of an office block - on the corner of Pindar Street just behind Liverpool Street railway station, just over half an hour from Romford. There was folk music on Saturday evenings, poetry and jazz on Sundays. You went straight up the stairs through the side entrance, paid, then entered a large room with a white sheet hanging at its end, behind the performers. On this was painted a large black ‘Ban The Bomb’ symbol, nowadays usually described as a ‘Peace Symbol’. Most, though not all, of the people there were supporters of one kind or another, and they came from far and wide. Most wore badges – often the CND one next to a black and white Anti-Apartheid badge. Stubs of candles dribbling wax, stuck in Chianti bottles, burned on each of about a dozen tables. The club dated from 1962, when the Labour Party leader, Hugh Gaitskell, had been booed and heckled at a May Day rally in Queen’s Park, Glasgow, after he had defended the Polaris nuclear missile system (now known as Trident) based at Faslane.  He had described the hecklers as pro-Soviet “Peanuts”.

Jimmy Johns the founder

This had led to the formation of the club, at first just a folk music venue, by Jimmy Johns, a staunch CND supporter (and Vice-Chairman of the East London Society of Arts) who became its amiable compere. He was an effective organiser who could sing all the choruses, tell jokes, call for quiet (not always effectively) and introduce guests with appropriate panache. I sometimes sang well-known items (usually unaccompanied) on the Saturdays and read my poetry on the Sundays. Jimmy worked as an artist for some government agency which put out illustrated material making people aware of what would now be known as Health and Safety issues. His line drawings recorded various accidents: he once showed me a folder of some particularly hideous ones - accidents that is - all meticulous. A local man (born in Poplar), he lived not far from the club in Stepney with his wife Maria before moving to Writtle, near Chelmsford. 

Georg Buchne and Club Voltaire, Frankfurt

I was in a group with Jimmy which visited West Germany to join a march (‘Der Ostermarsch’) and rally in Hofheim, near Frankfurt in 1964, organized by the German equivalent of CND. We went on stage to sing at the concert afterwards as well, though I think the Germans took the singing more seriously than us. The visit could have been suggested by a young German visitor to the Peanuts - Georg Buchne - who became fascinated by London's East End after encountering the plays of Arnold Wesker, especially 'Roots', which he admired. I stayed with Georg soon afterwards at his home in Darmstadt-Eberstadt where he lived with wife Else and son Ronnie - named after a character in 'Roots'. The following year in August and September, I stayed with Georg and family again, and with his help I researched and wrote an article on the (then) proposed German Emergency Acts (Deutsche Notstandsgesetze) which were fiercely opposed by a number of factions, including the German student movement. He took me to a new club in nearby Frankfurt which he considered to be the equivalent of the Peanuts. I was already in correspondence with one of its founders - Paul-Gerhard Hübsch - and had met him in Oberursel. It was called the Club Voltaire, and it is still there after all these years, described as 'a haven for poets, musicians, activists, and other liberal types'. I read my poetry and sang various songs there. The 'Notstandswart' artwork like a Rorschach test on the front of this programme was from an exhibition by Karlheinz Schuster:

Oscar Tapper and East London Arts Magazine

It was through Jimmy Johns that I met Oscar Tapper, who was connected with Toynbee Hall, a friend of Joan Littlewood, the author of a history of the Stratford Theatre Royal and founder-editor of the East London Arts Magazine. He was businesslike and eloquent, a large bear of a secondary school teacher who had been an actor. He volunteered his time for various causes, and wrote a play entitled 'Jack the Knife'. He commissioned me to write a poem and a couple of reviews for the ELAM magazine (though he was not particularly interested in the poetry performed at the Peanuts) and once introduced me fleetingly to Abraham Stencl (or Sztencl) who, I was told, wrote poetry in Yiddish and edited a magazine devoted to it.

Jimmy Johns and Oscar Tapper in elam, winter 1966 (issue 3/1)

The Peanuts Club on the Folk Circuit

As with most folk clubs, energy and nerve were the main requirements from those performing in front of the tables, and those sitting around them with glasses of beer were usually indulgently mellow, eager to sing along when required, which was encouraging for those who lacked confidence. Some of the singers and musicians were of the highest order. Most of the big names in the folk world passed through at some time. I shall mention a few. I remember a magical Saturday evening with the McPeake Family from Belfast (I have been singing “Will Ye Go Lassie Go” ever since), the deep, rich bass voice of Martin Winsor (“Johnny I hardly knew you”), the charismatic Redd Sullivan, an excellent cockney music-hall singer and sea shanty specialist, whose rendering of  “Green and Yeller – Henry My Son” was memorably hilarious and the ebullient Scot, Alex Campbell. The Peanuts was on the circuit, and all of the artists also appeared at other, more prestigious folk clubs like the Troubadour (where Winsor and Sulllivan presided) and Les Cousins of course. “We shall overcome,” was always sung at the end of the evening. The struggle for Civil Rights in the United States was in all minds, along with a fear of possible extinction caused by nuclear weapons.

I guess the photo dates from the Sixties
Paul Simon and Kathy Chitty

Paul Simon sang at the Peanuts a few times, his sweet, earnest voice and American accent seducing his listeners into rapt attention. I remember 'Scarborough Fair' and 'Hello darkness my old friend' in particular, both specially coined for us in London, or so it seemed. He also sang at the folk club at the Railway Inn, in Brentwood, Essex, run by Dave McCausland and at the White Swan in Romford’s marketplace, which was run by Vince J. Docherty. I visited both of these on occasion, and knew many of the regulars well -– which included one Kathy Chitty, who sat behind the table at the door of the Brentwood club, a shy elf-girl taking admission money. Paul and Kathy fell in love, as is very well known. He would board the train from Liverpool Street after Peanuts sessions to get homeward bound back to Brentwood, where he lived with the McCausland family for a few months. It was the same one I took to return to Romford, which is on the way.

Del Foley and Ilford Libertarians

Also on the way to Brentwood is Ilford. A contingent from that suburb patronized the Peanuts regularly, especially in 1966, some of them members of the Ilford Libertarians and readers of Solidarity, a loose group of mostly young men which was broadly anarchist, and which had made a name for itself by invading the local council chamber with leaflets on the futility of Civil Defence and which leafleted local secondary school children urging them to demand an end to authoritarian school regimes. One of its members, Del Foley, got sick of the ritual singing of “We shall overcome” one Saturday, heckling and yelling his own words – “We shall come all over” – which caused a kerfuffle and ended with his expulsion. In 1967, he was one of those arrested when the Committee of 100 (offshoot of CND committed to non-violent direct action) occupied the Greek Embassy briefly after Greece was taken over by a group of colonels in a military coup. The protestors were all peaceful, gaining entrance by trickery, but the judge sentenced Del to six months in prison.

CND March from Aldermaston to London

Mike Osborne Trio

The poetry and jazz side of things began in early 1964, I am guessing. Alto-sax man Mike Osborne with either a trio or a quartet was more or less the resident, and Mike Westbrook turned up frequently to swell the band, sometimes with others. The dominant influence was Ornette Coleman, but certainly not the only one – Mike Osborne was an original. He was still playing at the Peanuts in the early Seventies. Band members usually included South African-born Henry Miller (bass), Alan Jackson (drums), John Mumford (trombone) and occasionally Lionel Grigson (piano).

The poetry was added a little later, I think, given a substantial slot in the middle while the musicians rested. Poets were seldom officially booked – they just turned up – but there were regulars, including Jeff Nuttall, Tom McGrath, Bill Butler, Keith Musgrove and Heather Richardson. Bob Cobbing, George Macbeth, AdrianMitchell, Joe Shearns, John Moore, Calvin Hernton, Mike Horovitz and Pete Brown all contributed readings at various times. There were always chances for anyone to read, but as there was usually no microphone it could not be described as "open mic".

The Poets' Workhouse

In 1966, a loose organisation named 'The Poets' Workhouse' was formed which organised occasional special events, like for example the one on 29 May which was for Havering's 'Poetry One' group, consisting of Chris Briggs, Colin Fry and Tom Corbett. The only really large event organised by the Poets' Workhouse was not at the Peanuts but at St Pancras Town Hall on the Euston Road (now known as Camden Town Hall) on 25 April, when folk music, poetry and jazz all came together for a benefit gig - see the poster.

Poster produced by Housman's Bookshop

The outrageous Jeff Nuttall

Jeff Nuttall I counted as a friend, and to a certain extent as an erratic mentor twelve years older than me: I was in awe of him, an energetic mass of joyful good humour, playfulness, amusing obscenity (depending on your definition) and word skills with an underlying deadly seriousness, a man who was naturally attracted to the outrageous. He drew, painted and sculpted, played the cornet and self-published, I was to discover. He was usually free with his (sometimes incoherent) opinions and words of wisdom, sometimes delivering fascinating diatribes on art and artists. He worshipped Picasso, was impressed by artists like Edvard Munch, Francis Bacon, Egon Schiele and Giuseppe Arcimbaldo, thought that the words of a poem are like musical notes, not much use unless performed, and that all artists should be active, engaged and absolutely honest, possibly even psychotic, resisting commercial pressures and generally opposing the Machine and the Establishment. Reading poetry was almost the same thing as playing a cornet.

He was annoyed at any attempt to categorise (he would say pigeonhole) his work, and described himself as an anarchist, but was not connected with any group, and did not refer to any anarchist theorists or historical figures like Kropotkin, though I believe he did some reading-up before he wrote the book he will be known by in the future - 'Bomb Culture' (1968). For him, the word meant that he was a wildly independent creative spirit. Jeff disliked folk music intensely, and asked me why I bothered with it. I did not mention that I also had a soft spot for opera, having performed with Essex Youth Opera a year or two previously, and that I had played the whole of Wagner's 'Siegfried' and Mozart's 'Magic Flute' on the record player at home, having borrowed the LPs from the library: that would have been so uncool.

Project sTigma

I wrote an article on the installation which Jeff contributed to - Project sTigma - in the basement of Better Books in 1965, and contributed to several issues of Jeff’s randomly extraordinary ‘My Own Mag’, once or twice unintentionally: he regarded any letter to him as a potential submission. I fell out with him for a short while at one stage because my youthful first love, Priscilla Beecham, was sufficiently attracted by him to leave me, shortly before the Commonwealth Arts Festival in Cardiff in September 1965 - see the paragraph below. Bill Harpe was the broad-minded organiser of this, and seems to have invited everybody he could think of. Jeff certainly spread the word, so I hitched down to Wales to join about twenty others sleeping on the floor of his allocated room in the Park Hotel. I remember a confrontation in a crowded Cardiff pub during which I attempted loudly to persuade Priscilla to stay with me, but she was attached to him for the next twelve years or so as muse, collaborator and lover, appearing with him in Performance Art pieces under the name Rose MacGuire after she moved to Leeds in the Seventies. I was living in Leeds as well, and was in touch with her, a kind of lost sister.

Jeff Nuttall 

Tom McGrath

Tom McGrath I remember from intense conversations rather than from what he performed. After recently discovering the poetry of Rimbaud and staying in Paris for a while, I was eager to talk with Tom about the symbolists, Baudelaire and so on, about whom he knew more than me. He was an editor for ‘Peace News’ and published a few of my articles and poems, later joining the group responsible for ‘International Times’, before sickening of the London scene, where he had become hooked on heroin. He dumped the smack successfully and returned to Scotland, where he thrived.

Bill Butler

The tall, good-humoured Bill Butler always seemed to be amused by me – probably for reasons different to the ones I imagined. I connected him with Better Books on the Charing Cross Road, where I had first met him, the place where I had heard Allen Ginsberg read in 1965 shortly before the famous, hastily-convened poetry gathering in the Albert Hall. Bill was one of the managers of Better Books. I remember that he once recommended I should look into the work of William Carlos Williams, to extend my limited knowledge of American literature. On one Sunday evening, we both read friendly parodies of each other's work: he wrote one based on my prose poem 'Ham Sandwiches' which began "He comes! He comes with cracker crumbs!" It's a shame I did not ask him for a printed copy. Mine was entitled simply 'Parody for BB'. There were references in it to Icarus, falling from the skies and swans, which featured in one of Bill's poems. The reference to Icarus now seems like a sinister foreshadowing, because of Bill's terrible fall a few years later. Although current profiles of Bill describe him as an 'occultist' (he wrote a guide to the meanings of tarot cards in the Seventies) I never heard him speaking about anything in that area. He left the London scene for Brighton with his partner Mike to run the amazing, ill-fated Unicorn Bookshop in the same year, which stocked books and magazines unavailable anywhere else, and which was at the centre of a ludicrous but nasty obscenity trial in 1968, which cost Bill dear.

George MacBeth

The poet and BBC radio producer George MacBeth visited the Peanuts several times, and stood out, an Apollonian surrounded by Dionysians, unruffled. His work was sublimely well-structured, witty and formal, though he was unafraid of experimentation. He heard me reading and expressed his interest in one of my poems - 'The Yellow Peril'. I was invited to come to the BBC to record it for his show ‘The Poet’s Voice’ on the Third Programme (now Radio 3), which I did. I mentioned this to Adrian Mitchell, who gave me a kind of warning: “Do you know he’s an admirer of Gabriele D’Annunzio? He might just be a bit of a fascist.” In a library, I looked up D’Annunzio in an encyclopaedia, but could not find any translations of his poems. He might have been a bit of a fascist before his time, but George was certainly not one. Both Mitchell and MacBeth were amongst the performers in the Albert Hall in 1965. I read 'The Yellow Peril', retitled as 'Destructive Poem' at the Destruction in Art Symposium in September 1966. Yoko Ono was there as well: afterwards, she asked me what was destructive about the poem and I replied, “It’s about racism. That’s pretty destructive.” She seemed happy with that.

Sangharakshita and William Blake

I was recently reminded, by poet and music journalist Steve Turner, that I had organized a special evening, on Guy Fawkes Night in 1965, with the Venerable Sangharakshita, who was (and is) a leading Buddhist monk of long-standing - and a prolific religious poet. My contact with him was the result of a brief conversation with Allen Ginsberg, who knew him. He lived at the Hampstead Buddhist Vihara on Haverstock Hill. I visited for a long conversation which ended with my spending the night on the floor there. I spoke about William Blake and he told me about the Pali scriptures and the Theravada school of Buddhism as practised in Tibet. I was able to relate to most of what he said, I think, even though my main knowledge of the subject came from reading a battered copy of Jack Kerouac’s ‘The Dharma Bums’ while hitching through France. I decided that Buddhists seemed to be a bit like Quakers, of whom there were plenty in the peace movement. He chose to read some of the poetry of the eleventh century Tibetan yogi and saint Ujetsun Milarepa at the Peanuts, and I contributed readings from William Blake. It went down well.

The 1965 Commonwealth Arts festival in Cardiff

This took place in the Jackson Hall and the Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre. There were contributions from all three of the 'Mersey Poets' - Brian Patten, Adrian Henri and Roger McGough - from Al Kaprow, Jeff Nuttall, and from a 'happenings' facilitator over from Paris - Jean-Jacques Lebel, who was on a similar wavelength to Jeff. Lebel instigated an event which involved everyone bringing an object they had found in the street to barter for another one (I dragged a small tree along, which I found ready cut-down near some building works), but what I remember most clearly is the pig.

Vietnam Pig

With the help of friends, he managed to borrow a large, black, Vietnamese pot-bellied porker from a zoo (what did he tell them?) and painted VIETNAM PIG in orange paint on its sides. It was somehow transported to a campus conference hall where it was put into a large cardboard box. Lebel was then asked to make a speech about the war in Vietnam and invited on to the stage. He said he was going to ask someone to speak for him, which was the signal for his friends to open the box. The pig shot out, running everywhere, squealing vigorously all the time, shitting, scattering chairs, jumping on tables and causing havoc. It escaped from the hall and then the campus, chased by people trying to catch it. It ended up by causing a traffic jam before it was rescued by the police and the fire brigade and taken home to the zoo. Lebel had made his point: the pig's squeals echoed the screams of the human beings under the napalm bombs dropped by the US Air Force in Vietnam.

Obviously, all of this is from my point of view, and I have inevitably left out people, incidents, references and much else. In addition, there were plenty of weeks when I was not there, notably when I was hitching around Europe and the old Yugoslavia. My connection with the Peanuts Club finished in the autumn of 1966, when I went up to Leeds to be a student at the University of Leeds.

I would love to read your memories -

Anonymous writes:
Around 1969-72 I used to get the train from Gloucester to London to go to the jazz sessions led by Mike Osborne, which I think were on Fridays. There was a blanket behind the stage with PEANUTS against a backdrop of badges. I ordered a half of bitter, found a table and settled in for the amazing music. Ozzie and Harry Miller and Louis Moholo were the core, with regular contributions from the likes of Alan Skidmore, Harry Beckett, Mongezi Feza, Marc Charig and visiting players like Noah Howard and Joachim Kuhn (there must have been a piano but I can't picture it). Amazing stuff. Then it was the milk train back to normalsville back in Gloucester!

Les Wilson writes:
I was one of the few who were not supporters of CND but am a folk fan and remember the club and time well. It was around the time of the Christine Keeler affair and that was often the theme of the verses of the regularly sung numbers like 'Cosher Bailey'.

 ‘About that Steven Ward,
Who lived just like a Lord,
On the earnings of a whore,
And the Minister of War.

Being at college in London I attended every term time weekend, but I don’t remember having to pay, just buying the beer. When I married in 1967 and spoke to my wife about Peanuts it turned out she used to go as well, but I do not recall ever seeing her there.

I attended the first Cambridge Folk festival as my parents lived nearby which featured the young Paul Simon who I believe was paid £10. Peggy Seeger was there and I remember her singing @Come and join the Union.’ In the week I used to go to a club in Loughton and later when my parents moved in Bedford. One of the most memorable ‘artists’ I saw there was Dominic Behan, brother of the famous Irish writer, Brendan Behan, both ardent supporters of the IRA. I still go to Cambridge when I can.

(Read about Christine Keeler here)