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9 October 2019updated 26 Jul 2021 6:24am

Philip Norman’s Diary: Jimi Hendrix in London, the babying of Britain and Corbyn’s unlikely restaurant chain

Although Jimi was born in Seattle, his story is as much a fable of mid-1960s London as that of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones.

By Philip Norman

My constant companion during these past months of book-writing has been Angel, a community radio station for older listeners serving West Sussex, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, but with fans all over Britain and as far away as Canada.

Styling itself “the home of pure nostalgia”, it offers a variety of popular music available on no commercial station, from Edwardian music-hall through jazz and Hollywood musicals to hardcore R&B. Its principal fare, however, is Fifties pop, the era of Johnnie Ray, Frankie Laine, and the Ink Spots when rock ’n’ roll was born, well ahead of Bill Haley and Elvis Presley.

Its volunteer DJs, about half of them women, are in their seventies, eighties and even nineties. Some tend to over-chattiness about their grandchildren or ailments but most are refreshingly taciturn, simply naming the tune, then playing it. The few commercials – for things like stair-lifts and foot clinics – are interspersed with charity appeals, warnings about telephone scammers or promo spots by vintage celebrities such as Ann Widdecombe and Marty Wilde.

Its programming is delightfully eccentric with frequent repeats of shows by presenters now deceased (known as Angel’s Angels), or of Christmas-themed ones in the middle of summer and vice versa. Now and again, it suddenly goes silent, usually meaning the presenter has switched off the studio by mistake.

You can find it on FM 89.3 MHz next to BBC Radio 2 or online.

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See it, say it, sorted

London’s Underground may be Europe’s grimiest and most expensive mass transit system but for many years it was the most literate. The signage, in that lovely lean typeface exclusive to itself, was always a model of clarity and brevity. The PA system was seldom employed other than to warn of disruption due to what was tactfully described as “a person under a train”.

When I first acquired a publisher in Holland, he spent most of our introductory lunch raving about the Tube’s aesthetic.

“I love what it says along the edge of the platforms… Mind the gap,” he told me in all sincerity. “It’s so beautifully succinct. In Dutch, we would need about 80 words to say the same thing.”

But the Twittering verbosity of our age has done for those haiku poets of the Underground; the warning has been expanded to “Mind the gap between the train and the platform edge”. So now there’s no possibility of confusing it with other gaps that may be around.

For me, nothing better illustrates the babying of Britain – that’s to say being treated in public announcements, and so many other ways, as if we’re little children in constant need of saving from ourselves.

Tube and rail stations alike broadcast an incessant stream of nanny-ish nagging, often from several different voices: “Because of the inclement weather, surfaces may be slippery. Please take care and do not run…” “Stand fully on the escalators [on the blue footprints provided], hold the hand-rail and keep clear of the side-brushes…” “If you feel unwell, speak to a member of staff…” “In hot weather, please be sure to carry a bottle of water…”

One accepts the need for regular security announcements in such crowded places. But the one to be heard on station platforms and trains all over the country is peculiarly annoying: “If you see something that doesn’t look right, text the British Transport Police. We’ll sort it. See it. Say it. Sorted.”

What’s achingly absent from this urgent message is any sense of urgency. “Something that doesn’t look right” merely suggests some social gaffe such as wearing brown shoes with a blue suit or eating peas off a knife. Suspect bags or packages, as we know, are not so effortlessly “sorted”. And that clunky “See it, say it…” slogan undermines the whole thing, telling us we don’t have to worry when we so patently do.

A hussar tunic and fish and chips

The book I’ve been writing is a biography of Jimi Hendrix, the unsurpassed maestro of the solid-body electric guitar whose mysterious, lonely death aged only 27 took place in a Notting Hill basement in September 1970.

Although Jimi was born in Seattle, his story is as much a fable of mid-1960s London as that of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. In America the virulent racism of that era had kept him in obscurity, confined to the so-called Chitlin’ Circuit of segregated theatres and clubs. It was moving to London and receiving the homage of British guitar superheroes such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Pete Townshend that unlocked his genius. Indeed, this stunningly beautiful young man with his mushroom-cloud Afro and Victorian hussar-tunic became thoroughly anglicised, living on Brook Street, Mayfair, in a flat next to a house once occupied by George Frideric Handel, and embracing British culture – warm beer, fish and chips, and Coronation Street.

Pop musicians who make it big can turn into long-haired facsimiles of the nastier Roman emperors, but that was never the case with Jimi. He remained shy and polite – unrecognisable as the showman who would play his guitar with his teeth as if fellating it, lie it flat to make Voodoo passes over it and dry-hump it, then douse it with petrol and set it on fire.

A successful partnership

These days it’s probably un-PC to make fun of malapropists, but I can’t help it: the images they inadvertently create can be so deliciously surreal. The one in my family recently came out with a beauty while grasping for the names of London’s most successful restaurateur partnership, Chris Corbin and Jeremy King.

“You know,” she said. “It’s one of those Jeremy Corbyn and Stephen King restaurants.”

Philip Norman’s biography of Jimi Hendrix will be published in 2020

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This article appears in the 09 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The fantasy of global Britain