The column of lasting insignificance…
May 7, 2016 by John Wilcock
THE VILLAGE of Portmeirion in Northern Wales looks exactly like the movie set it has become, although built for an entirely different reason. It became known to the world through the allegorical British television series (1967) The Prisoner, which quickly earned cult status on both sides of the Atlantic. Among the 200,000 yearly visitors have been many American viewers who viewed it as a fantasy land, albeit one offering images that remained almost photographically in the memory.
Architect and author, Clough (later Sir Clough) Williams-Ellis began building it in 1927 and kept at it until a few years before his death at 95 in 1978. This mélange of romantic styles was inspired, he said, by a childhood visit to Portofino. The AA’s Book of English Villages called Portmeirion “an extraordinary masterpiece-cum folly” and noted “a tasteful extravaganza of romantic buildings, exotic plants and warm Mediterranean colors set against the brooding grandeur of Snowdonia”. Movie makers and TV (Brideshead Revisited have been here as well as the MadMen for Renault Cars and the Wales Tourist Board.
Portmeirion’s founder said he’d always dreamed of building such a place and, convinced that only an island would be suitable, learned to sail, spending “years as an amateur sailor”. He scoured the coasts of the British Isles for his ideal site, “like a seabird seeking a nesting place. When, the unforeseen availability of this perfect setting—almost on my own doorstep—suddenly settled my problem in to a miracle”. He’d found his Shangri La. “It was still a neglected wilderness, long abandoned by those romantics who had realized the unique appeal and possibilities of this favored promontory”. Sadly, their “grandiose landscaping and improvement enthusiasm” which had resulted in “sorrowful bankruptcy…”
Williams-Ellis had both taught and written books about architecture with the aim, he said, of correcting “uninterested and uninformed popular” to get support for architecture, planning, landscaping, the use of color and… design generally”.
Clearing the forested site, he agonized over felling trees (“no good tree is ever molested without very good reason”) until he was convinced that it stood in the path of a necessary building. The village's car park is literally a park, with as many trees as parking spaces. What he termed the “free and easy” building procedure was possible because he was proprietor, client, architect, builder, and paymaster. “It was all pretty sketchy”, Most offers of architectural refugees to his “home for fallen buildings” could not be resisted.
He’d worked on country houses and here, in 1925, movies were in their infancy. Sir Clough’s uncanny eye for the visually arresting made him the ideal set designer for a medium that was still to be invented.
From the moment that actor Patrick McGoohan, playing a secret agent whose desertion has made his kidnap inevitable, awakens in Portmeirion, the viewer is as awed an as mystified as he is. What is this place? It was impossible to guess from the architecture; for every possibility failed to fit.
Sir Clough's taste was uniquely eclectic but “Italianate” was the general verdict for this jumbled collection of domes, turrets, terraces, spires, colonnades, piazzas, and campaniles. Sandstone Renaissance Gothic jostles for attention with English thatched roof and French provincial styles. A magnificent statue of Hercules is anointed with plaques celebrating various wondrous summers (as rare in England as vintage wines)… a head of Mercury adorns a pre-war petrol pump… gilded Siamese dancers sit atop piazza columns)… the foot of the campanile displays a baroque Italian doorway)… the stone boat, a concrete reproduction of Sir Clough's 1920s ketch, the Amis Réunis which was wrecked by strong gales, is ‘anchored’ permanently by the shore.
A woodland path leads from the Town Hall with its 17th century barrel-vaulted ceiling and Jacobean mullioned window to the Playhouse, built to be Portmeirion's opera house and used for dances, fashion shows, conventions, and musical performances. A 20-minute slide show runs continuously here all day narrated by Sir Clough.
Naturally, I loved the place at first sight, and although I had never seen even one of the 17 episodes of The Prisoner many of which were directed by McGoohan himself while portraying the eponymous hero trying to make sense of his imprisonment, the management lent me the tapes. So, delightfully, I was able to video a scene from the screen and then go outside (often in the rain—this was Wales, after all) and film the real thing.
The structure of the The Prisoner saga bears a resemblance to Alice in Wonderland, even to segments where the participants go underground by descending a shaft that might be compared to a deep, vertical rabbit hole. Many of the things that happen can't be understood rationally but make perfect sense on the level of the daffy lunacy of dream sequences where people and things change surrealistically.
Hints of chess and Shakespearian drama underpin stories operating on so many intellectual levels that the series has been used as the basis for college courses examining “some of the crucial questions in the survival game humanity is playing”.
Long stretches do indeed appear to be actual dreams and one episode concludes with a recumbent figure shaking himself awake and arising from a table obviously having dreamed the foregoing series of incidents. Significantly, however, it is not the Prisoner himself who is shown having had the dream but one of his captors. Another episode, all of which takes place outside the Village in London's busy streets, ends with the Prisoner closing the book from which he has been reading to his children, the obvious message being that the foregoing is just a story..
Among the early visitors to Portmeirion were George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. Bertrand Russell wrote one of his books while staying in the hotel around 1933 and Noel Coward wrote Blithe Spirit while he was in residence during one week in 1941. Sir Clough, who called himself “a building animal” had once confessed in his typically flowery style: “All my life I had consciously to fight down my innate inordinate craving for gorgeous elaboration, regal splendor and even more opulent display lest vulgar profusion should overwhelm my basic sense of fitness and propriety”.
Frank Lloyd Wright visited Portmeirion in the 1950s and, recounted Sir Clough, “to my profound astonishment he took it without a blink, seeming instantly to see the point of all my willful pleasantries, the calculated naiveties, eye traps, forced and faked perspectives, heretical constructions and all the rest of it.”
“Why I do believe you married an architect” FLW told Sir Clough's wife.
PATRICK MCGOOHAN had discovered the unique village while playing in a 1950s spy drama, Danger Man, in five episodes of which it stood in for Italy, Austria, and China. As The Prisoner, McGoohan plays “Number Six”, objecting strenuously and continuously to being classified merely as a number and not a name. (“Number One” is never seen but it is implied that allegorically it is everybody's own alter ego). McGoohan wrote and directed many of the 17 programs himself in three episodes of which Leo McKern (now better known as “Rumpole of the Bailey”) played the key role of Number Two. Other major UK stars made guest appearances: Peter Bowles, Eric Portman, Paul Eddington, and Donald Sinden.
McGoohan originally envisioned seven episodes for the series but ITV tycoon Lew Grade gave him the go-ahead without an argument and later asked him to do as many more installments as he could come up with. One of the more persistent arguments among fans is in which order they should best be shown.
One icon of the Village was a “penny farthing” bicycle (one large wheel, one small one), appearing on taxies, the village flag and canned foods in the shop. McGoohan liked “this symbol of gentility, of another age. I thought it was an ironic symbol of progress. The feeling is that we are going too fast—we don't have time to assimilate as much as we should. Every year one has to learn quicker and quicker, because there is so much information pouring out in every direction. So that was a symbol of progress to me. I wish we could go a bit slower but we can't.
I think we should pull back and consolidate the things we have discovered, as opposed to tearing off at faster speeds in bigger aircraft, the Concorde for instance, which crosses the Atlantic two hours faster. I don't see any merit in that at all. I think progress is the biggest enemy on earth—apart from oneself”.The ambiguous program never became any easier to understand and at the conclusion of the final installment—which didn't seem to “explain” anything—viewers were enraged.
They flooded the ATV studio switchboard with angry calls, hammered on McGoohan's door and screamed at his children coming home from school.
“We had to go and hide in Wales for a couple of weeks, in the hills with no telephones or any contact with the outside world” he recalls. “The reason it was confusing and that they were disappointed, I think, is because they expected the ending to be similar to a (James) Bond thing and of course it wasn’t about that at all. It was about the most evil human being, human essence, and that is ourselves. It is within each of us, that is the most dangerous thing on earth, is what is within us. And so therefore that's what I made Number One—one's self, an image of himself, which he was trying to beat”.
McGoohan, now 80, and living in the US, has never returned to Portmeirion although he is credited with being the Society’s honorary chairman. He rarely gives interviews and has always declined to ‘explain’ The Prisoner, preferring for people to think it out for themselves and interpret in their own way.
The Prisoner was filmed in color but shown on TV in black and white—“a collection of futuristic ideas, unique images, symbolism, and mystery” wrote Max Hora. The series still pops up occasionally on cable television and rumors have surfaced through the years about a $50 million movie for which McGoohan is said to have written the script. In April 2008, it was reported that AMC and Britain’s ITV were about to shoot a remake of The Prisoner—six one-hour episodes—in Cape Town with Sir Ian McKellen playing the mysterious Number Two and James Caviezel reprising the McGoohan role.
Soon, my health completely restored, I was back in the U.S. but still devoted to travel, publishing chap books, or mini-mags as I chose to call them. Their content was again the weekly travel column, Nomad for which there was never a shortage of material. Even when I wasn't traveling, raw material would pour through the mailbox. A Guilford, Conn. firm sent me announcement of their postcard catalog. On offer were postcards from just about every tourist spot in the world which you could order, address (and presumably even write) before setting off, thus saving valuable time while in the country itself. Writing and addressing 50 postcards, the brochure estimated, took up four hours of the average traveler's vacation time. Tokyo department stores have a similar idea which is to cash in on the Japanese custom of sending friends specific local gifts associated with various resorts. By stocking the already wrapped souvenirs, customers could buy and then mail them without even setting foot outside the capital.
Nomad graded Amsterdam’s coffee shops; the best cheese pies in Athens, and why Greyhound buses in Australia were so superior to the American version. Best of all, from a subscriber's point of view, was that we offered impressive-looking free Nomad press cards, “good for what you can get away with”. And in some of the world's remoter outposts, our readers gleefully reported, you could get away with an awful lot.
We introduced The Strategic Traveler whose tactics may seem pretty obvious except for the fact that few inexperienced tourists planned anything in advance; things such as searching for a cheap bus to town outside the airport instead of leaping into a limousine or—if arriving by train with a lot of luggage—spending your first day in the nearest acceptable hotel to the station giving you time to look around for a better one while unencumbered.
Of course, the kind of budget traveler that I was always writing for needed such tips, although he soon got savvy enough to always carry a spare bath plug and look for the key of the sometimes-locked bathroom hanging on a hook in the maid's room down the hall.
Commissioned by the magazine HiLife, I went to check out Negril Beach Village in Jamaica, being met by Debo, a hostess whose T-shirt read HEDONISM. Round-the-clock nudity except in the dining room, hallucinogenic mushroom tea at Mother Brown's, late-night skinny dipping and a rousing disco were part of the advertised program and, she advised: “The time to sleep is between seven and eight in the morning”. As at Club Med, no money was in circulation, the currency being strings of plastic “sharks' teeth” hung around the neck and in some cases down to the ankles. Seeing me en route to the beach next morning, Debo cautioned; “There's a lot of sea urchins around. If you accidentally step on one and get the spines in your foot, the best thing is to piss on it or have someone else piss on it.” Failing that, she added helpfully, one could always go to the nurse and ask her for an ammonia solution. “Unless, of course you can get her to piss on it”.
The nude beach, a series of tiny coves masked with trees, were filled with guests reclining on plastic couches and gossiping maliciously about their fellow-guests. The conversation centered on why so many of the young people were not nudists and preferred the other beach. “They're all sitting over there talking about sex” ventured a hearty playboy wearing only a T-shirt, which read DIVERS DO IT DEEPER. “I'm just waiting for lobster night” he confided. “I figure I could grab half a dozen of them and store them in the ice dispenser outside my room”. In the evening, a score of macho types paraded in bulging shorts for the male beauty contest.
Coincidentally, the following day's Jamaica Star (“the people paper”) reported that the Miss Jamaica Pageant had been denounced by a group called the Committee of Women for Progress. This had been prompted by a letter signed by 17 contestants who claimed to have been treated “like heifers at a cattle auction”. Star columnist Vernon Witter was unsympathetic, labeling the protesters “joyless Marxists” whose motive was jealousy. “We stay glued to the TV to look at the girls but switch off when the Marxists trot out their canned gobbledygook” he wrote. “It's sheer envy, that's what it is”.
Negril Village, to which I walked along the beach carrying my clothes and plunging occasionally into the sea to cool off, was a tiny whistle stop with a handful of grubby shops including a welcome bicycle rental. On a rickety model ($7 a day plus $40 deposit) I set off for Rick's Cafe where the locals all gathered in the late afternoon. “There will never be another sunset like the one at Negril today” the sign read, and truly it was a spectacular sight.
It was obvious by the attitude of the nude beach crowd next day that they'd gotten to know each other more intimately. Led by a guy with a Pancho Villa moustache they were all clowning around, posing for suggestive Polaroid photos and making off-color remarks to each other. I felt more alienated than ever and set off for Negril in search of some ganja dealer I had been informed would be easy to find. He was indeed, standing at his gate smoking the largest spiff I'd ever seen, and after $10 changed hands I was in possession of a newspaper wrapped bundle the size of a baseball.
Walking back home I was accosted by four black hookers who closed around me, enmeshing me like a ship in the tangled weeds of the Sargasso Sea. All asked me where I was going in such a hurry and why didn't I stick around and have some fun? Yielding to the blandishments of the comely Lorraine, I followed her with some nervousness to her battered shack on the hill, furnished only with a dresser, two single beds, a chair and chamber pot. “Forty dollars for all night” she grinned. “Outrageous” I replied, “but OK”. (This was 1976).
About halfway through the night two of her roommates arrived undressed in the dark and went to sleep in the other bed. My own sleep was fitful, disturbed by the constant shouts for the apparently popular Lorraine and the occasional thud of fruit falling off adjoining trees onto the shack's tin roof. About 7am, the fourth roommate came home, ready to sleep in Lorraine's bed which I had just vacated. A long conversation ensued between them in a patois I didn't recognize and when I asked them what they were chattering about Lorraine said: “About our friend who lives next door. She has the clap and won't go to the doctor. the girls are trying to make her go. If she doesn't it is bad for all of us”.
Thirty hours later, sitting in the airport restaurant on standby for a flight back to New York, the waiter asked me if I knew anybody who would sponsor him as an immigrant to the US. I thought of suggesting he seek out one of the numerous blue-haired ladies I had noticed who were clearly there in search of young black studs but I kept my thoughts to myself and merely left him a big tip.
Manhattan Memories is available at amazon.com.
An updated A Guide to Occult Britain, complete with new illustrations, is also available at amazon.com.
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National Weed (1974, issue #3)
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
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 books, and thank you. —JW
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An authorized comic book biography of John Wilcock,
This IS a book-length comic series on John Wilcock. People who enjoy focusing on underground and alternative media are occasionally familiar with John's work, but most often the response is "who's that?" Outside of small press historians and collectors, John remains very unknown. Which makes no sense, the more you learn about him. We're very excited about the opportunity to tell his story. Art for THE STORY OF JOHN WILCOCK is by me and co-conspirator Scott Marshall. Story comes from an extended and ongoing year-long interview with Wilcock, himself. The focus is John's years in New York, roughly 1954-1971.
January 2, 2011
A way with Andy Warhol : John Wilcock recalls life in iconic pop artist's inner circle
During a journalism career that began when he was 16, John Wilcock has interviewed celebrities — Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Milton Berle, Steve Allen and Bob Dylan, to name a few — was part of enigmatic pop artist Andy Warhol's intimate circle in the 1960s, traveled to exotic locations all over the globe, has written dozens of books ranging from frugal travel to magic, was one of five founders (Norman Mailer was one of them) of the Village Voice and co-founded Interview magazine (still in circulation) with Mr. Warhol.
“The Return of the World's Worst Businessman”
John Wilcock is not what you would call a household name, and yet, he has had a measurable impact on art, journalism and culture-at-large over the last century. He co-founded Interview with Andy Warhol. He also was one of the co-founders of The Village Voice. He has written for countless print and online publications: Frommer’s, The Daily Mirror, The Daily Mail, The East Village Other, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, The Ojai Orange, etc. So why, one feels inclined to ask, is he relatively unknown? The answer seems simple: Wilcock has called himself “the world’s worst businessman.” This self-description makes sense because listening to him one hears the voice of a writer and a traveler and an enthusiast, not at all the voice of a businessman. In an age when it seems like everyone is all about business—art as a business, fashion as a business, everything as a business—it is refreshing to hear someone self-identify as “the world’s worst businessman.” It seems less like he has failed as a businessman and more like he has refused to become one. In addition to all his other accomplishments,...
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Jewcy Top 10 Art Books of 2010
This brilliant remake of a pop primary document is brought to you by John Wilcock, probably the Most Interesting Man in the World in the realm of writers. The Village Voice cofounder had also edited Warhol’s seminal mag Interview in the 70s. The fruit of the book is in the genius of its redesign. After 40 years out-of-print, the newly edited edition is “beautifully redesigned in a bright, Warholian palette” that surrounds a trail of Harry Shunk’s internationally Pop-art-informed camera as well as transcribed interviews with those closest to Warhol that ultimately make up an oral history of the artist’s Factory period. By looking at him through the scope of his peers, this book is the equivalent of Pittsburgh’s Warhol Museum in illuminating qualities of Warhol’s warped mirror on which our American culture was briefly reflected.
Monday, November 15, 2010
A Reader Comment from the recent New York Times Frugal Traveler post
Not only did John Wilcock shake up staid publishing in the USA, from the Village Voice to the East Village Other, his influence extended to several continents, including Australia & the UK, where - in his mild mannered way - he pushed the boundaries of image and speech. The counter culture was nothing but a dull puddle, until John kicked out the jams and ignited the Underground Press, which attracted absurd prosecutions, that of course boosted circulations. An unsung hero of the sixties,
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 Săo 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.
“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.”