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Counter-culture club

Diary’s locked-down ramblings take in HG Wells’ sitting room overlooking Regent’s Park, before crossing Abbey Road and going on to The Guild of Transcultural Studies

10 April, 2020 — By The Xtra Diary

Dave Tomlin at the, ahem, Guild of Transcultural Studies

AS regular perusers of this Diary are already well aware during this spell of residing in Lockdown London, your correspondent has been clutching your gloved mitt and taking the air on a virtual meander through the streets, stopping off to ponder those who have trod these pavements in times gone by.

We signed off last week standing outside 221b Baker Street, the fictitious home of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s sleuth Sherlock Holmes. It is from here we shall take our journey up once more…

While Holmes may have only been a figment of Doyle’s imagination, the street was home to the very real author, HG Wells.
He lived in the grand Chiltern Court, which is on the northern end of the street and overlooks Regent’s Park.

While Wells is, of course, known for his science fiction tomes, his Fabian politics, his advocation of Free Love and vegetarianism, he had a perhaps surprising penchant for playing with toy soldiers, considering his avowed pacifism. He wrote two books based on the games he had invented for his children on the carpets of the sitting room of his home in Chiltern Court – Floor Games (1912) and Little Wars (1913). The second volume was packed full of rules to follow, making him the father of modern war gaming and thus even more beloved by geeks and nerds who have enjoyed his marvellous novels.

He can also been spotted on the cover of The Beatles’ seminal 1967 album, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

While we are in this general area, both physically and figuratively, let us swerve north-east and head to St John’s Wood, and Cavendish Avenue, to be precise. It is here Paul McCartney bought a house in 1965 for £40,000 from Dr Desmond O’Neill. It was close enough to Abbey Road for him to be able stroll to work each day, and he was also partial to walking the neighbour­hood’s leafy streets late at night with his big shaggy Old English sheepdog Martha, for whom he wrote the song Martha My Dear.

London billboard for Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’s 50th anniversary. Photo: Kreepin Deth

And it was while out walking Martha, accompanied by Beatles’ biographer Hunter Davies, one spring morning that Paul revealed how they had penned the Sgt Pepper song Getting Better. It was a phrase used by a stand-in drummer Jimmie Nicholl, while the Beatles toured Australia in 1964. When asked how he was getting on, standing-in for a sick Ringo, he’d always reply: “It’s getting better.”

Now – while considering the Beatles and St John’s Wood, we must swing west to Abbey Road, where Getting Better was recorded.

We know that the lockdown has given Westminster Council the chance to re-paint the famous zebra crossing outside the studio, but let us step through the doors and recall an incident that occurred with John Lennon while the Beatles were making Sgt Pepper.

Producer George Martin was in the process of adding a piano lick to the song Lovely Rita – about the parking attendant who would book the Beatles when they parked illegally outside the studio – when John complained of feeling a bit rough.

Martin took him up on to the roof to get some fresh air, unaware that John had taken what he thought was an “upper” – but in fact it was a tab of Acid.

Paul, realising what had happened, rushed upstairs to rescue his friend before any accidents could occur.

The story goes that Paul found John perched precariously on the edge of the roof admiring the view and carefully began to entice him away – at which point John said: “Stop bloody fussing. I know I can’t effing fly, Paul – you know I’m effing scared of effing heights.”

Let us finish today’s walk by heading back east to another centre of counter-culture London – this time along Avenue Road, a 10-minute saunter from the Beatles’ studio.

It was here that the Cambodian government’s embassy was based – and when the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, its staff left their Avenue Road base in rather a hurry.

And what would become of such a magnificent, abandoned building in a desirous neighbourhood?

Why, it became the headquarters for The Guild of Transcultural Studies, a squat set up by counter-culture poet, writer artist and general happenings organiser Dave Tomlin.

In 1975, he had noticed the large number of telephone directories building up on the doorstep of the house on his daily constitutional – a sure-fire sign that a house was not occupied.

He crept round the side, clambered in – and it became his and many others’ home for nearly two decades.

He made a brass plaque proclaiming it was home to The Guild Of Transcultural Studies to give it some sense of respectability.

Artists, musicians and philosophers took rooms, while on the ground floor, the grand salon, once the haunt of ambassadors, politicians, business people and other such hob-nobbers, played host to far-out events.

And on that note, we’ll pick this story up next week – stay safe, stay home, dear readers.

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