Last year I started work on a second book about East London, this one to focus on the words, memories and stories of people who live or have lived there. Whereas the first book covered a long time span and concentrated on what we now know as Newham, the follow up covers a wider area and a narrower time-frame. Progress with this project has slowed down considerably due to a more pressing concern (check the Forthcoming section for news of this) but it is something I intend to carry on with.
One of the first interviews was carried out in late July 2013, with Keith and Hazel Albarn, who welcomed me into their home and talked for over two hours. They were not only generous hosts, but excellent conversationalists and I was able to capture a wide range of recollections about their living in Leytonstone in the late sixties and seventies, as well as their role at the heart of the original sixties scene that was centred around Carnaby Street. A few days previously I had emailed a request to see some photographs of this time and before we began the interview Hazel commented that it had been a rather odd experience delving so deeply into their own past, looking through these old photographs, and revisiting, as she put it, “another life.” While tea was made and a plate was piled with biscuits, Keith gathered together some of these images, together with various posters and flyers, which he pulled out at various points in the interview. Settled round the kitchen table, the din of Hackney locked outside, I started the tape rolling...
NF: Have you been back to Leytonstone since you left?
KA/HA: Oh yeah
HA: I sometimes get on the 56 and go up to Hollow Ponds
NF: So do you now about the fire the other day?
HA: No I didn't know. I remember in 76, we used to take Damon up there to see the fire engines cos the fire engines used to stay all the time up there, night and day. So that was great excitement, watching the fire engines up there; just waiting for the next one (fire)....it's so lovely, and so underused, other than people running, kids on bicycles and dog walkers, but on the whole it doesn't get used; people are frightened of Hollow Ponds...
NF: I think the local people use it. The trouble is, at night it's so dark up there and there's certain areas where people get up to naughty things...
HA: I think it's lovely Hollow Ponds, particularly when it's frosty, when the ponds are frozen because there's that one little pond that the kids can go on cos it's not so deep. I know cos they (kids) used to go in it. It was a job to keep them out of it when it wasn't frozen.
NF: How did you end up being in Leytonstone? I know you were in Nottingham for a while weren't you?
KA: We met as students in Nottingham. We came down to London for the last lap of our studies, Hazel in Kingston, me in Hammersmith, and we sort of shacked up then, and then we had a flat in Emperor's Gate, overlooking New Cromwell Road air terminal, which was very glam [laughs] for a very short while.
HA: It was rented.
KA: It was rented yeah...and then it was kids-ville really, and we needed more space -
HA: We didn't have children then.
KA: No -
HA: Our whole house was a studio Keith, for a start -
KA: Yeah, it was, okay...but that was basically we...we were needing more space. You're right [to Hazel] it was a studio first, children second, yes...so we moved into this largish terrace, as you know, it was quite big, Fillebrook Road this was...so its' garden was between Fillebrook Road and Grove Green Road, as it was then.
HA: There was a synagogue down the end of the road, I think it's still there isn't it?
KA: If you're coming into that area from Grove Green Road, and just before Fillebrook Road you go under a railway bridge, very sharp right angled turn, then you take the first turning on the left, and then first right to Fillebrook Road, and it's that corner...it's only a small synagogue...So we were operating from there (the house on Fillebrook Road) for some time, and there was a councillor opposite, and she took exception to our curtains which were cut paper ones, because we hadn't got very much money actually, we really hadn't, and then later on there was another objection...but a lot of our friends were long-haired as well, it being the sixties and Leytonstone hadn't quite caught up, so they were quite convinced we were running a club in the cellar [laughs].
HA: Well, there were coloured lights in the house...they really weren't tuned in at all...
NF: They thought it was a bit wild?
HA: It wasn't really wild, it was just that...
NF: It was a bit wild for them?
KA: Yeah. [looks through a stack of photographs for one showing the curtains]
HA: You were only 20 minutes from Holborn, and if you had kids you had the forest, it was great. They (Damon and Jessica) both went to George Tomlinson...
KA: [showing photo of the paper curtains] That's all...but that was enough. Plus our friends.
HA: [explaining the cuts in the paper curtains]. We just slashed it. It gave us a bit of privacy initially.
KA: Mind you, the other neighbours from the other side, cos I was doing my fibre-glass things at the time, [shows photo of garden with spherical fibre-glass pod construction], that was my workshop which was bright blue, and then we were trying out bits of the furniture...
NF: So the neighbours must have wondered if a spaceship had landed I suppose?
KA: Yes, it was referred to as the spaceship. An eighteen foot-long bright blue pill.
NF: Is that Ekstikit?
KA: Yes. That was early days.
HA: [showing another photograph]. So that was our front room. See what I mean? [about how interior design is still quite similar all this time later].
NF: That must have seemed pretty far-out for the average person in Leytonstone at the time.
HA: If the telephone engineers and people like that came round, then they would say, “You know they've got silver in there, the whole room is silver!” ….A lot of the stuff we just created ourselves, I mean that chair [in the photo] is a classic, was a treasure, used until we fell through it.
KA: That was proper furniture [laughs]. Most of it I built.
NF: What about your neighbours on either side, did you get on with them?
HA: They were fine. There was an Indian family on one side and they were absolutely fine, they were friendly, and the other side they were great, weren't they [to Keith].
KA: They were actually.
HA: Very friendly, no problems.
NF: I know someone who baby-sat for your kids.
KA: Really? [surprised]
NF: Her surname's Collins I think, Shirley?
HA: Oh, Sheila! She used to live in our house.
HA:You know where she is now?
NF: A retired actors' home
HA: Yeah she's up in North London, I went to see her recently. I've got a picture of her on my phone [begins locating picture stored on phone]. She's amazing.
KA: She's quite a character.
HA: She's born and bred Leytonstone.
KA: She was a great character. She was in and out of work as all actresses are, and actors, but she always managed to keep a bit of secretarial connection, so she would drop out of a job, onto a secretarial job, back onto the stage, bit of television, an advert and so on.
HA: She always used to do things; she did play reading in the library, it's a very nice library there [Leytonstone].
NF: Do other people who lived there stick in your memory? How long were you there for, was it about ten years?
KA: Yeah ten..ten years weren't we?
HA: I should think something like that. Well, Damon was nine when we moved out so I would say it's more like twelve years.
KA: One thing that changed – which is not what you're asking at all – but one thing that did change was when Walthamstow borough...they chose to really close down all small businesses, and there were quite a few down Grove Green Road, cycle repair places, cobblers, all the usual things in that sort of area. And very well used they were, it wasn't to do with anything other than 'tidying it up', and that was also part of the pressure on us – they didn't like the idea that we might be working there [at home] – I mean, artists were not approved of really. I think it did a lot of damage to the general feel of the place. Took a lot of the fun out of it. But people-wise (getting back to original question)..?
HA: To be honest we didn't...Jonathan Ross, he went to George Tomlinson. Famous people, none really.
NF: I was thinking more of people you just knew when you were there.
HA: Well...Kieren and Angela – the Levis's, are still there.
KA: He's a writer now. He used to be very much into IT and developments with BT.
HA: She's taught English.
KA: They live on Teesdale Road.
NF: The impression I get is that people who have lived there for a long time are happy to stay there.
HA: Well I think the forest has a lot to do with it.
KA: The Fillebrook Road strip was under huge pressure with the council buying up properties the other end of Fillebrook Road for the road developments, so a lot of stuff was going and I think a lot of people moved out, who could move out, then, before the big development took place.
NF: But the thing about the small businesses (being closed), was that a separate thing (from the road development that led to the A12)?
KA: It was quite separate. It was well before...I mean they may have had longer term plans that we didn't know about, but in terms of public debate, or local paper or whatever in relation to future planning, the road thing came up later. This was earlier on, shortly after we had moved in, and that was 66,67...68?
HA: Earlier than that.
KA: It was before the seventies, towards the seventies that they made that decision (to close down the small businesses)
HA: 65 (when they moved in)...
KA: Well, you're better with dates than me...But I mean, as far as we were concerned we were doing an awful lot of dashing in and out of London because we were working in the West End.
HA: That was it. It was really a base and it wasn't until we had kids that we started to actually really make contact with the place – we didn't really have contact with anybody until Damon was born and then Jessica. But once you start going to the schools and things like that...
KA: I mean before we left the only other people that we really had anything much to do with were people who were work-related and the other side of my work was Walthamstow Tech where I was teaching at the art school, and the new Dean towards the end of our stay there ended up by being our next door neighbour, in fact took over from the Indian family. And Hazel's sister married him.
HA: Oh no, no, we've got that wrong...
KA: How do you mean love?
HA: The Indian family bought from him. Now I remember there was another family in for a start...First of all there was a family in there that we didn't have much to do with, but I now remember them complaining when Keith's brother was staying and their little boy was crying all night. I remember them coming round and complaining. I remember saying, “I can't do anything. It's not my child. My child was fast asleep thank you.” [laughs]. And then the Dean, Peter bought it, and when he sold then the Indian family moved in.
KA: Was it that way round?
HA: Yeah, it was, I think you'll find.
NF: It's ironic because now they are desperate to get small businesses in there [Leytonstone]
KA: I bet they are actually.
NF: I imagine the High Street was quite different when you were there?
HA: It was. Sainsbury's was an ordinary shop, it wasn't a...
KA: Bearman's was the superstore, the nearest you'd get to one; it was a sort of Debenham's.
HA: Grove Green Road I don't think has changed much actually. I don't think that's changed much at all.
KA: Leytonstone High Road was, you know, motor car sales, uhm...a pretty grotty road really.
HA: There seemed no point to go very far down it really.
KA: It was pretty tatty and the pubs were pretty grotty.
NF: I was going to ask if you ever ventured into any of the pubs?
KA: There was one opposite Bearman's...that was pretty grotty...I used to occasionally go into that if I'd met somebody off the train.
HA: We didn't have that much to do with the social side of Leytonstone to be honest...the forest, the school, home, odd friends, and then we went into town (West End) and the people we socialised with were generated from our activities in London...
KA: The McVey's did we know them then?
HA: Danny? Yeah.
KA: Well Danny, and the Russell family...and they moved to Hackney...
HA: Tony McVey, Danny's brother, stayed. He's on Walworth Road...drummer...
KA: He was the drummer at the Royal Shakespeare Company...
HA: Percussion for Royal Shakespeare.
NF: Now it's getting quite popular, Leytonstone, and it seems that at the time, when you were there, it was an area you could go that was a bit cheaper.
KA: Oh yeah.
HA: I tell you, the first time I went to Leytonstone, we went to see some friends there, and I said to Keith, “There is one place I am never going to move to, and that is Leytonstone, and I said exactly the same when we went to see some friends in Colchester [Keith laughs]. “I'm never going to go to Colchester. Both places I ended up living. For a very large proportion of my life, so there you go, never say never.” It didn't appear...either place didn't appear tantalising [laughs]. Nice way to put it!
KA: It was in a way the first step out the East End...
HA: ...Mmmm [agreeing]
KA: ...but without any real identity, because those that had made it that far really wanted to go to Loughton, or Ilford, or Romford, or whatever, and it didn't really have any sense of identity, or even physical centre...
HA: Oh, David Beckham [suddenly remembering people who have lived there]...
NF: I suppose for yourselves it was really convenient for work.
HA: Yes it was...
KA: It was the Central line...
HA: Twenty minutes and you were in London, and we were only a few minutes from the station.
NF: What about Stratford at that time then?
HA: Well Stratford is Joan (Littlewood).
KA: Stratford was interesting in the sense that you'd got this little theatre which was a focus, but it was still surrounded by terrace housing, and when we were doing events or whatever with Joan's permission, in or around the theatre, the tenants and owners of these terraced houses used to come out onto their doorsteps to watch us all making fools of ourselves.
HA: [Indicates poster for Kingly Street advertising an event at the theatre]. That was an event day.
KA: Well you imagine very, very straight up-and-down East End terraced housing, and all this West End stuff came out in this...long-haired, music...and people...
HA: On roller skates...
KA: Rollerskating round the streets, poets declaiming, campery and rock and roll...
NF: It was an odd place to have such an avant-garde theatre.
KA: Oh yes, very...
NF: And that's what makes it so fascinating...
HA: But she (Joan) liked this tough environment, and she...I remember her saying to me...cos she had loads of kids off the streets selling ice-creams, and she said, “I know they're nicking things from me but I don't care, I've got plenty, it doesn't matter to me. If you got on with her she was an amazing woman really. I mean I haven't met anyone like her. She was a huge mentor for me, and it was very sad when Gerry died. I did work for a bit after that but I had Damon then... I was three months pregnant when I was doing Mrs. Wilson...
KA: They either hated her or loved her.
NF: So how did you come to working there in the first place?
HA: Well it was through that (Mrs. Wilson's Diary)...
KA: Yeah...I had a lot of press at the time, and Joan had got this idea about the Fun Palace on the South Bank. I was building, or doing things on a smaller scale which she felt were related to the idea of the Fun Palace, so first of all she sort of pulled a group of people in, and it used to be Sunday evenings, and there'd be Cedric Price, and Richard Rogers,and [laughs] myself, and, I can't remember, there was someone else as well...planning this huge fun palace, which was going to be like the South Bank in one room, one space. So that's how it started and then to try that idea out, from our perspective, we suggested that we could do some stuff around the streets, and in the theatre. So that's how it started. An then Hazel got involved, doing that...
HA: Doing that...I got through Keith the job of painting and designing look of bar in theatre. She came in one night when I was working late and said I want you to do Mrs. Wilson, cos you can see a sort of flow-through from the way I approached Mrs.Wilson's Diary. That was from a big projection of kids' drawings. I went into a local school and got some kids' drawings and took slides then projected them.
NF: Where you there when Barney Platts-Mills was filming?
HA: No [sounds unaware that he was there – maybe before her time there?]. I was three months pregnant when Mrs. Wilson's Diary opened. Then I did a little bit of extra work – I made a coat for The Marie Lloyd Story or...who did Marie Lloyd?...anyway, I did a few bits and pieces for her, I designed a few posters for her. And then I had Damon and I can't remember how long after that was when Gerry went on that unfortunate trip on his boat and that was it. And then she disappeared really, she cut herself off from most people.
KA: Yes she did. It absolutely finished her.
NF: I was going to ask you about the Fun Palace. One of the prospective venues was down by Three Mills. Looking at it from this distance it seems like a pretty crazy idea in terms of it ever happening, but maybe that was the sixties optimism?
KA: Oh it was, it was huge optimism. That scheme (Fun Palace) introduced me to Three Mills, and when she was looking at Three Mills... that was one of the ones we used to discuss. There were two problems with that, and it was't until I got involved setting up my version of something – not a fun palace – this was a sort of alternative art school and all very eco, which is a crazy place to do it but it's a good place to do it because it was crazy. And the oast houses, and Three Mills itself – fantastic building. But it was going to be a quite a big public place, as hers would have been, even more so, and it's one of the ironies that although we raised some money towards it, and the plans were all beginning to firm up, and we'd got people renting spaces to finance it. And we couldn't sort the sewerage, and there we were, parked next door to the biggest sewerage outfall in Europe, but we had to pump ours up into it, and that was gonna cost an absolute fortune, even though we were virtually sitting on it! And it wrecked the project. Nobody was going to give us money. It was hardly good PR to say, “Yes, we're the sponsors of the sewerage system.” And Newham wouldn't play ball at that point. But the Fun Palace scheme moved from there (to the South Bank). But mine were on a slightly smaller level (than Joan and Cedric's) and slightly more bizarre buildings. One ended up on the West coast of Scotland.
HA: Have you seen it?
NF: Yes. I saw scans on the internet, from a design magazine of the time with comments on the web site from people who remember it and also from someone who worked on it and said at one point they found a bit of it in the sea.
HA: That's right. Not that I was there.
KA: Well the local authority caused some embarrassment to me because quite shortly after it opened, television – Tomorrow's World – went up there to do a feature on it and they's done features on a few mad things we had done previously [laughs], so I knew that particular producer. So I got a telephone call that night from this guy, who was Canadian - “Hi Keith,” he said, “This is way out man, but could you just explain the aquariums?”
So I said, “Aquariums?” And they'd taken out...there was a big dome area of the structure and they'd cleared out all the stuff, the lights and God knows what, and put in aquariums. I was absolutely gobsmacked. I just thought, I don'y know what to do, I mean, it's theirs. They did get what they wanted in the sense of a lot of publicity.
HA; I remember walking down to the station in Leytonstone and seeing a big poster on the passageway beneath the road, for Girvan...
KA: Which nobody had heard of anyway.
NF: What was it like at Kingly Street?
HA: What's really sad is that they're developing all that area [Kingly Court – Hazel and Keith had just done an interview for Carnaby Street anniversary celebration] so all the little people, the little restaurants are all not able to do anything, so what they are trying to do is go right back into the past and find out what was interesting in all these little areas before they developed them, and then odd photographs appear...
KA: Hazel and I did an exhibition at what was then called The Artist's Own Gallery, and shortly after that, to cut a long story short, there was a lot of interest in what we were doing, and I was obsessed with the idea of how we relate to the environment and so on, so as far as I was concerned I was an environmental sculptor, and that meant the taking over of this gallery which was two-storey with offices above, and we turned the ground floor into a sort of walk-round sensory...madhouse really...lots of different noises, heat, temperature, funny floors, all that sort of thing. What was nice about it was that - this was then no longer The Artist's Own Gallery, this was 26 Kingly Street – anyhow the people from Hamley's, whose offices backed on to Kingly Street, little offices, and people who worked in cafes and whatnot used to come and have their lunch in this thing...I mean this was absolutely mad – because it wasn't art with a capital 'A', this was early sixties, well mid-sixties and there were pockets of this sort of thing going on but it hadn't become...
HA: It was early sixties really...
KA: It was but it wasn't clear to people around what was going on. We'd got links with San Francisco, Amsterdam and God knows where, fairly quickly, and this was the sixties gang, and it was a small group really, relatively, I mean... fifty people? Not that they all spoke to each other by any means [laughs]
HA: Mainly Keith anyway. Keith and Ian Knight...Ian's dead now.
KA:[finds and shows various photographs of the gallery at the time and how they transformed the interior] Ian was a stage designer who joined us...
HA: That's how we all got together, working in the West End theatres, prop-making, scene-painting...
KA: So the work that we did to sort of fund it ranged from – as did the sixties; people look at the sixties as the sort of hippy era, but of course, yes, there was the hippy era but at the same time there was a design thing that was beginning to be big-time, you know, Mary Quant were all coming out, the Italian coming in, Joe Columbo came out of that period, the fashion industry suddenly took off with Biba and, you know, so although they did relate the people who were running those things were living on two different planets, and you'd got Middle Earth and the clubs were also split between the end if you like of our period of trad jazz and suddenly you were psychedelic rock and I had feet in both camps, so we got Vidal Sassoon – Hazel did some work for him, I nearly did some work for Mary. So you were fringing that and pretty deep in events – there's a link between Joan Littlewood interested in happenings [shows photo] that was a plan of the.. '65 that was...[shows more photographs of 26 Kingly Street, including exteriors] Cat Stevens had an office above. That was the middle of that environment – I used to walk through it and see what was going on and there would be people sitting in it having their sandwiches [getting back to point about the local workers having their lunch in the gallery] which was fun. But then in the basement there would be some strange things going on, or we would have things going on at night, with ladies in foam and that sort of thing. [shows photo of Alexandra Palace concert – Pink Floyd etc]. That was Alexandra Palace, we were involved in that.
NF: What was it you did for that? Was it props and stuff.
KA/HA: No. That was more Ian Knight. He was actually involved in it and it was a nightmare, a bloody nightmare. I was fringing it because we were co-directors...I mean there were ten thousand people turned up when the expectation was fifteen hundred. There were no loos, there were a lot more drugs than anybody realised. We were doing paper things as well [referring to paper sculptures and objects that they were working on at Kingly Street].
HA: I didn't like the blackness of it [the gallery space] so I did an environment with sand on the floor and we had really bright lights, and day-glo and what not, but basically you could take off the costumes and masks and put them on and walk around in them.
KA: And Mark Boyle and his light show, that was on in the gallery once, and we took him to the south of France with some of these characters, and the Soft Machine.
NA: So this whole thing, that became a bit of a cliché in the end, in the late sixties and seventies, the psychedelic lights and everything – you were pretty much there at the beginning of all that?
HA/KA: Oh yeah definitely.
KA: We were designing the lights at one stage, and for Pink Floyd who were at the church down in Notting Hill Gate.
HA: Well it hasn't changed that much really, when you look back...
NF: Have you seen the Discover Centre in Stratford [describes it, suggesting that 50 years later the same ideas have filtered down, or that what goes around comes around...]
HA: It does. I mean...this furniture [indicating the furniture in their flat] is Keith's, cos Keith's father was an architect. This [indicates table and chairs] is Alverato...
KA: 1933 you're sitting on
HA: It's extraordinary. We inherited all this furniture...we thought it was going to go a lot further. It has digitally...
NF: When you say “it” what do you mean?
HA: Well the whole feel...design...the whole feel of it. It's all gone into virtual. That's how I feel anyway. It's all virtual now, the actual tangible reality doesn't seem to have – I mean, obviously it has because buildings are amazing but...
KA: There were lots of things there that we predicted as happening physically, which still are really only fiction, but now can be in a virtual reality, or we ware getting to the point where they will be in a virtual reality. I think the virtual reality [pause] was something that we didn't really see coming because the nearest we got to that was psychotropic drugs. We misjudged things, and of course the biggest myth of all was we were busily working away and thinking, “hell, what are we gonna do when everyone has all this leisure? That's the big big thing.” [referring to the then current theory of a future of much leisure time for all].
HA: [taking up theme] “Everybody's gonna have so much leisure, so much...”
KA: Everybody's working harder now [laughs]
HA: We're the last generation that will be able to enjoy old age.
KA: They'll turn the tap off for you [laughs]
HA: They'll be keeping everybody working till 75 you know.
NF: You said something earlier when you were talking about Kingly Street and what's there now and the way things change, and it seems that...well, you seem quite interested in environment. If you look back at places like Kingly Street and Leytonstone, and Stratford they've obviously changed but is it for better or worse?
HA: I think it's an opinion really. In lots of ways it's changed for the better, but with like everything, they've lost something.
KA: There's always a price to pay.
HA: When we went back to Kingly Street a couple of months ago and it was a little Italian restaurant, rather poor, it wasn't a very good one, but he was gonna have to move because he couldn't afford the rents because they were smartening everything up, all the rents were going up, and this is what's gonna happen to this area to [meaning part of Hackney where they live], like Broadway Market, all these people that built it up they're gonna be squeezed out...
KA: The corporate firms will move in...
HA: It's when those boring corporate things....[tails off]...but then our grandchildren love Westfield and such like.
NF: [talking about the changes to Stratford]. I don't know much about architecture but it just seems like a complete free-for-all, just a monstrosity really, a wasted opportunity.
KA: Oh terrible waste, terrible. With my interest in that I really, really gnash my teeth in despair, because on one level you've got quite restricted planning regulations for any modest development , but any large one, because money is sloshing around and backhanders, then anything can be built, and you just get piles of tat, which are gonna cost a fortune to get rid of. And they won't last, they're not even very well built. Very insensitive to people's real needs and....yeah, they'll look tired and tatty very quickly.
NF: [describes how City creeping slowly East and currently taking over Shoreditch and Spitalfields]
HA: I think it needs something new, something completely new to entertain really. I don't know where it's going to come from but it does...
KA: I think there are pressures...I think there will be a time very shortly when the infrastructure, which is in a pretty poor state, boring things like sewers and things...it won't take much to tip London over the edge...climate change, whatever....I think there will either be technology there to rescue us, or if there isn't one way or another there is gonna be a big change, and that will also relate I think to the whole financial system which, thank God is beginning to show its cracks, but we're gonna hurt like crazy as those cracks widen. And we have no democracy now because capitalism is global and the power is in the hands of the BPs and, you know, the drug companies, whatever makes money, fracking, whatever. Unless we regain some control over that, or democracy....well I'm not even very confident that the human race is capable of dealing with it [laughs] to be absolutely honest. Maybe technology of some sort but I think it we'll have to mutate really. I think there's really, really deep problems that we are so far from addressing on the human nature level. I mean we all moan about buildings or this or that but at heart there's a lot of greed. We all do it, I mean I'm no innocent in this. We (human race) have made terrible mistakes, and continue to do so. And the same mistakes, day in, day out. We give a bit of time to the issues but we're all locked-in.
NF: It's something I think of increasingly now I've got two young children.
NF: There was something in your exhibition that caught my eye [describes written manifesto-like piece] and I was really interested in it.
KA: [surprised] Oh, were you?
NF: It seemed, sort of central to your ideas.
KA: It is, kind of like a digest really. I'm sort of working on that....that was just the sweepings off my desk, I'm not pretending that I'm polished. But I've been spending so long working with the dangers and delights of pattern, and the issues around the human race and its approach to its environment....you know, you are learning new things and it was very difficult to get them down into a serious simple statement and that was my first draft really, which I thought I would slide in there...I congratulate you, you must have been looking quite hard[laughs].
NF: I was hoping it would be on the website.
KA: I've got to tweak it before it goes on the website. But it will go on.
NF: [to Hazel] And do you share an interest in pattern?
HA: Uhm...shall I tell you, I... I mean first of all I had a huge problem with maths, geometry, algebra, I mean I'm like primary school level really. So to a certain extent I've always...I've sort of sat back and my work's very different, very, very different, and we've both sort of enjoyed our own way of working.
KA: We're complimentary. That means we are two sides of the coin
HA: Yeah, I worked with Keith at Kingly Street and then when Damon was 3 and I had Jessica I was very ill, I had a burst appendix and nearly died. So when I actually got out – I was in Whipps Cross – it was enough for me to just look after my children for a couple of years. I was so weak. I had to learn to walk again and everything, and so I spent some time with my parents in Lincolnshire. So, in a way I sort of lost touch because Keith went on to Islam Mathematica, the 'Dutch thing'...
KA: Well I had two big exhibitions. One was Art and Illusion and one was...
HA: Well I did work a bit on Art and Illusion...
KA: I was really quite privileged in both cases, both were very steep learning curves because I was working with top-brass expertise [laughs] trying to make sense of it for the public...and for me first! So there was Illusion in Art and Nature at the ICA, which was a big exhibition, some real heavyweights to work with, and then there was the World of Islam festival and they were literally one after the other. And the World of Islam Festival then went to Rotterdam, so it was a very intense period, and when Hazel was convalescing I'd finished one book for Thames & Hudson – The Language of Pattern – related to the World of Islam, and then Diagrams...
HA:But I belonged to that era when there was no way I would have someone else looking after my children until they were ready to be looked after at play school or school. I didn't have a nanny or do any of that sort of business. I just looked after my kids. It's such a wonderful experience. I was always there when they came home from school. I did special-needs for four or five years at the Somerfield Centre, Leyton Green. I loved that very much. Then we moved out to Colchester.
KA: And that was a very different life.
HA: Yes, that's what I said [when introduced before interview started]. This is a different life.
NF: Does Colchester also now seem like a different life?
HA: Absolutely. We wanted to move out for the kids, because we lived there (Leytonstone) and there was traffic zooming round Fillebrook Road...
NF: Was it as bad as people say then? (before they built the A12 extension)
HA: Yes it was.
KA: You were just sort of locked-in.
HA: So we ended up in Colchester. A very nice house.
KA: And then for four years I commuted back into London because I was then head of Fine Art in what was then North East London Polytechnic. In Plaistow.
NF: Greengate. Yeah, I know that area from when I first moved to London.
KA: What, really? Yeah I was very heavily involved in North East London Poly...
HA: And then you took the job at the Institute.
KA: Yeah, and then this job came up. I mean four years of commuting from Colchester to Plaistow was not much fun.
HA: Well Keith was very good because he gave up quite a lot to move out for his kids and we had an idyllic life there...
KA: It was a very small arts school then. It had potential but not much substance. It was, as they say, challenging, but it was sort of oddly creative in a funny way because you had to turn this place round and get it operating. It quadrupled in size...
NF: And ironically Damon wrote songs moaning about living in Colchester.
KA: [laughs] Yes. Which was a bit embarrassing for me [still laughing]
HA: Well Damon had....he spent most of his time with Graham...both at Stanway...
KA: Used to rehearse in our garage...
HA: Yeah, we had them all rehearsing in our garage. It was... they were great, they just worked their way...I can remember running them somewhere and James Hibbings who was part of it was saying...some group had done really well and he said “wouldn't it be great if we were like that?”. And I said, “look someone's got to be there, why shouldn't it be you?”
KA: Damon never questioned it (succeeding).
HA: No, he never questioned...he's always had a huge amount of self-confidence in what he wanted to do...he's always very confident and he's always loved music. As a baby he used to play the mouth organ in the pram [laughs]. It was a sort of natural thing for him.
KA: It's that, Malcolm Gladwell's “10, 000 hours to be a genius”. There's a lot of truth in that. If you're prepared to really graft...
HA: Stay with your dreams, always stay with your dreams
KA...in a particular subject area, and really, really go for it there's a very good chance you'll crack it. Very few people can.
HA: I have a friend who I was at boarding school with and we used to do ballet together, and she wanted to be in the theatre, and she's still there (in the theatre). She's now in Charlie, she's one of the grandmothers.
NF: [to Keith] You worked at Walthamstow college as well?
KA: Yes. And the two places had a strange relationship, there was a sort of axis between Colchester and Walthamstow because I knew about Colchester when I was at Walthamstow – never dreamt that I'd have anything to do with the place but there you are. A lot of well-known staff worked at both places. Ian Dury was a student at Walthamstow and so on.
NF: The History Man – was that based on Colchester?
HA: Er was it? I don't think it was.
HA: Yeah, it was East Anglia.
NF: And then from Colchester...
HA: Back here yeah.
KA: Retired. A long time ago.
NF: And why did you choose here (Hackney)?
KA: Well I wanted to get back into London really.
NF: I mean as opposed to anywhere else in London?
HA: Well, our daughter, who is also an artist, lives in Green Lanes so we're in walking distance.
KA: She found this place.
HA: She had a little one. It's quite useful having your parents living near you you know.
KA: Both kids were in London, but Jessica in particular...
HA: She found this place..
KA: We had a lovely place out in Essex, but nevertheless moving from Essex into London there are financial...it's the wrong way round you know, and so what we had to sell just bought this really. We were selling a very old timber-framed building which just paid for this. Which is mad really. But at the same time Damon had purchased a farm down in Devon as a family retreat and so both of us therefore could afford to give up some space which we had in Essex cos we got it for free down in Devon, on the deal that we help look after the place when he's away. Which is most of the time. So we know commute between Devon and Hackney [laughs]. Which is quite bonkers but so...
NF: Do you think if it wasn't for your children you wouldn't have come back to London?
HA: I don't know...
KA: Hazel wouldn't have done.
HA: No, what I would have done...If Damon...hadn't got the place in Devon, I tell you exactly what I would have done, I would have bought somewhere that I could do a B&B on the Essex coast...
HA: And I'd have done B&B and, you know done my own work and just continued in the same why...
KA: I needed to..
HA: But I needed to get out of Ford Street (Colchester). It was too...I mean Damon, you know, there was press and all that sort of thing...
KA: Yeah, Christ...
HA: I just really wanted to get away...
KA: And I was locked-in to a lot of schemes I'd helped initiate, but didn't really wish to run, like artists studios and new arts centres, and God knows what, because that was part of the job as head of School of Art, or you know, I felt it was...locking it into the community, but it meant that if and when I retired I was gonna be lumbered with three or four trusts which...I'd had enough, I'd done my community duty thank-you. I wanted to get back to do my own thing. I would have been happy with joining with Hazel because I would have had studio space out there on the Essex coast, but I did fancy coming back to London.
HA: Hackney was obviously quite a different place. When we moved in...when did we move here? '98 I think?
KA: Yeah, '98.
HA: It's changed hugely...
KA: And then in 2000 when I had cancer...that was an interesting period for me because it sort of reinforced in a funny way that I had changed my life, and nearly finished it [laughs]. But it did allow me to sort of think about the pattern business and begin to pull it together...
HA: Yeah, you spent hours on your computer...
KA: And because I was ill for quite a long time after the op, it was a way of working....I could read, I could do all those things....which proved to be..yeah, I mean it wasn't profitable exactly but it was worthwhile for me, part of my journey.
NF: [to Hazel] Do you miss being actively involved in creative things or do you still do them?
HA: Oh I still do it. I don't teach. When I came here...well, when I was in Colchester I was very much involved in teaching and doing workshops all over the place, and I exhibited in quite a few places as well, abroad and whatnot, and when I cam here Keith was ill almost straight away...
KA: And messed things up. She did a big show in Tokyo.
HA: Yes I did, and so I started to work with kids because it was slightly easier so I did a lot of workshops here.
NF: What sort of stuff?
HA: Well basically all to do with paper because I developed working hand-made paper, constructing in paper, because it's easy to work with and if you want to get known you've got to have some sort of label they can attach, and so I became somebody doing anything in paper. I mean Saatchi now has a...rather inferior...exhibition in paper at the moment, at his gallery, which is quite interesting.
NF: Do you find it frustrating, that you have to find a tag that they can latch on to?
HA: It does centre you, because paper is such a broad thing, you know...you can light it, it can be translucent, it can be strong, people can sit on it...[points to a pot she had made]. You can do anything in paper, anything. This was a Japanese box [hands over wonderfully crafted paper box]. There are so many aspects to it that you can never be bored working in paper...So I worked with schools..I was working quite a bit with the Francis Bardsley school in Romford. They've got a beautiful gallery there. I was working with...until my granddaughter was born and I had a two year grandchild and have been trying to keep Jessica going and I don't do a huge amount of work other than for myself, just messing about. But, I still work. I hope I work till I.....
KA: One is very lucky in having something that keeps you going. It might be a monkey on your back a lot of the time.
NF: [Shows Hazel photo of Hollow Ponds in snow.]
HA: It's so beautiful isn't it. I took the boys [grandchildren?] up one Sunday morning when it was so frosty...and it was absolutely gorgeous. I don't think they'd been on a frozen pond, and it was such an experience for them. This has happened for a long time. I remember taking our kids up to Bush Wood, with a picnic by the pond there in Bush Wood, and [to Keith] there was hardly anybody there was there? And I said, “look at all these flats, what are they doing? they're all watching videos or whatever in there, in the heat.”
[Later - after a brief photo session - talk turns to the 1980's and the increasing conservatism of the decade]
KA: That was a huge change. Teaching in art school...I mean, it was desperate – suddenly Thatcher's kids came through and the atmosphere just went [blows loud raspberry]. My staff were a bunch of neurotics within a year or two because they were at loss as to how to deal with these very different kids who were into a sort of...”well, you're being paid to get me a degree!So get me a degree.” “Well, how many hours am I supposed to work to get a degree?” It really was the attitude. Overnight. And jobs, it was all about jobs, and of course there's good aspects to that I suppose in one way but the pendulum just went [makes wooshing noise] to the other extreme. And we lost a lot of the fun.
HA: Whereas when we left college, I remember going back to Kingston and I was working in the Shakespeare exhibition and they were amazed, because if you didn't go to teacher training or you didn't go to the Royal College or The Academy or whatnot, “what the hell were you going to do?” They were amazed that I got a job and was working with theatre people. Extraordinary. My parents never thought I'd be able to earn any money.
KA: Don't get me wrong, I'm not defending what was there before but there were moves that could have gone in a much better direction.
NF: They threw the baby out with the bath water?
KA: They did, that sums it up.
HA: [talks about art school and the people there]. That's why I went to art school. To meet the sort of people I wanted to be with. Not that I told my father that.
KA: Yeah, he was pretty horrified with what you picked up [both laugh].
HA: Yes, it was a very different time.
(Hackney; 23 July 2013)
I could have talked to Keith and Hazel for much longer, and perhaps one day will be able to do a follow-up, but for those who want to know more I have included some links below.
A blog entry on the Girvan Fun Palace that includes extract from a 1969 Design Journal feature
Short (but great) British Pathe clip from 1968 showing mentally handicapped children playing on Keith's furniture on a London rooftop
Massage Parlours for Jaded Senses - a 1968 feature by Stephen K. Oberbeck that looks at the 'environmental art' of Keith Albarn
Keith's own Pattern and Belief website - a fascinating online environment exploring one of his life-long interests