May 21, 2016 by John Wilcock
Chapter Twenty-one (continued):
Once I started to take my camera on the road, to set off “on location”, a wealth of opportunities presented themselves. On my next visit to England I visted one of my favorite friends, William Shawcross, the celebrated journalist who has been a sympathetic supporter of my activities. William, son of a former attorney general, is the author of books about Cambodia, Dubcek, the Shah of Iran, and various “warlords and peacekeepers”. In recent years he has earned plaudits as a superlative war correspondent visiting most of the contemporary trouble zones and turning in pithy reports. When I was having lunch with him one day at his London apartment, he got a call from the Daily Mail asking for 1,000 words on some event of the day and almost before finishing his meal he had drafted the report and within an hour would be emailing it to the newspaper, just the kind of knowledgeable and instantly reliable writer on which the London tabloids had come to rely.
Our paths first crossed when he was working on his biography of Rupert Murdoch and hired me as one of his researchers about the already notorious Aussie publisher. I did interviews for the book in Australia as well as in England and the U.S, and stayed at William’s Tudor mansion in Sussex which, as you might guess, was suitably historic outside although vastly comfortable inside.
Next I traveled five hours by train and half an hour by taxi to the remote fishing village of St. Mawes in Cornwall—Britain’s “last colony, (whose) foreignness is palpable” wrote columnist Jonathan Meades—and the site of the classy Hotel Tresanton which William and his wife Olga had converted into a five star getaway. Olga, the daughter of Sir Charles Forte whose former company operated Britain’s most extensive hotel chain, eschewed “corporate standardization” and converted a decaying old hostelry into a locale that attracted the likes of Pierce Brosnan, Dame Maggie Smith, Kate Winslett, and Prince Charles and Camilla.
After 16 years experience of hotel management working for the Forte chain, she cast aside the inevitable piped music, coffee-makers, tasseled lamps, and trouser presses which are the usual fixture of traditional English hotels. What she put in place were a cinema, bar, sitting room, children’s garden, playroom, and conference facilities. Sitting on the wooden-decked terrace of the restaurant, diners gaze across the bay to the lighthouse whose image is reproduced on all hotel stationery and towels.
Unless you want to sail on Falmouth Bay, windsurf, or go fishing, there’s blessedly little to do in St. Mawes except hang out in one of the pubs, but first stop on my walk was to videotape the circular fortress nearby, built by Henry VIII to repel invaders who might have been tempted to drop anchor in the wide bay.
As a general rule, I avoided visiting museums for my program partly because I’d seen so many during my years of writing travel books, but mainly because they are rarely photogenic. One exception, however, was a visit to Eden Prison camp in Yorkshire in which, during World War II, captured German prisoners were incarcerated but now—for an entrance fee—offered tourists a chance to study the experience. A local coal merchant, Stan Johnson, bought fenced-off POW Camp 83, restored the huts and guard towers and reopened it to tourists.
At its peak the camp held more than 1,000 prisoners in double rows of bunks, 64 to a hut with other huts devoted to kitchen, hospital, laundry and recreation hall in which prisoners built a stage. In addition to entertainers and playwrights, among them were doctors, dentists, tailors, and cobblers. There was even a magazine, Pflug Schar (Plowshare) which commented slyly on the occasional romances that bloomed between local girls and prisoners. More than 800 marriages of such couples took place throughout England, the first one of which was at Eden Camp.
On the whole life was pretty cushy for prisoners, most of them picked up by truck each morning to work on nearby farms. Discipline was lax and there were plenty of chances to fraternize. One former internee, Eilers Cremer, recalled; “I’d put a kit bag on my bunk, cover it with a blanket, put an oilskin over my prison uniform and go under the wire. Easy. Next morning my girl friend would drive me back in time for roll call. I thought a lot of this place and it’s good to see it brought back to life”.
Cremer, who stayed in England after his release, eventually married another English lady and now lives in York where he works as an engineer. Prisoners were treated well, he says. “We worked hard but local people were good to us. Occasionally slipping us a packet of fags (cigarettes) when we were out on the farms. Later on, as things wound down, we were even invited to Sunday lunch and Christmas parties”.
All this didn’t sound at all like what I had imagined life as a prisoner of war to be but it must have been true because after the war an astonishing 20,000 prisoners chose to stay in Britain. As I arrived to visit the camp I was told that five former prisoners had been tracked down and invited to the camp’s reopening.
Project director Ron Beamish told me: “It’s true the camp brings back dismal memories for some of the older visitors but we try to explain to people what it’s like before they come. We’re not glorifying war here, just bringing it back to reality”.
He added that at least for children he hoped it would be an educational experience. Youngsters could explore an army assault course, climbing nets, swinging along horizontal ladders and negotiating a narrow escape tunnel on their hands and knees.
“We did a trial run for seven to nine year olds and they loved it. In fact they reacted better than the adults. The camp brings history back to life. Teachers say it is better for their pupils than 1,000 hours in the classroom. We’re not on a Star Wars budget here. We’re not using computers, but simple gadgets engineered to produce the right impression. We’re freezing moments of war and adding life to them, presenting the stay in a 3-dimensional way and asking people to come and eavesdrop on history. I think that’s something it’s very important for the younger generation to know about”.
BY THIS TIME, I had been taking my video camera with me everywhere, clocking up something like 700 half-hour shows which, technically speaking, would definitely be classified as “amateur”, although once that had been taken into account were pretty interesting. To start with I was loath to run any segment longer than 30 seconds and even my interviews rarely exceeded a minute or two.
I was anxious to proselytize. I told my friend Stan that I’d like to turn everybody into a video producer.
Stan: Then they’ll become celebrities and beautiful women and handsome men will seek them out.
What they will become, I emphasized, is immortal.
Stan: Uh, huh, immortal, wow that beats being a celebrity. How would making a video make you immortal?
If somebody films you or you’re in a film, I explained, it’s sort of a limited immortality, it’s being around after you’re dead. It might be for a small amount of time, or for a hell of a long time. Look at films that were made a century ago; they’re still around. So by being on film, you’re buying yourself at least a century’s worth of immortality—unless somebody erases the tape. In a manner of speaking, anybody who is on film is immortal.
Right from the beginning I realized that it wasn’t necessary to think in terms of perfect editing or even taking out all the glitches. One of the first things I learned from watching Warhol make movies was that if you want to do something, you just do it. You don’t need to read books or take courses, you just do it.
What the audience would like to see on the screen in front of them is something interesting. They care less about whether it’s technically perfect or done by professionals, than whether it’s interesting enough to retain their attention. Professionals in any field need for everything to be “faultless”. Because their definition of what creative art is, and what’s acceptable to the world, is something that is familiarly slick. Everybody who doesn’t believe that, is a fan of stuff that seems more natural. They begin to accept that maybe the ‘mistakes’ aren’t necessarily mistakes. I think it was George Braque who said “Things merely are…”
When I moved away from live shows, I realized I couldn’t afford to do television the way professional television was done. And the only way would be to do 28 minutes, edit in the camera as I went along, and that 28 minutes would be the show. I kept a log of everything, and every time I put the camera off I’d know what I had so far and when I picked it up again and I’d tape something that was very different. I found it very similar to writing my column which usually consists of short items, one after the other.
The traditional 3-dot column has somewhere between 12 and 30 items in it, depending on whether your items, in this case segments, are a few words or two sentences, a few seconds or a minute or two. In either case you must choreograph these items in such a manner that they go up and down and up and down and level out and start off again—like rushing down a river. When you put together a show, the simplest thing to do is to follow that format and think in terms of getting lots of short things which in turn compels you to think of what order these things are going to be. These can vary from a 90-second interview (very close up, with the face filling the screen) to something that’s five seconds, like a license plate. You don’t just show a license plate for 5 seconds; you have to go from something onto the license plate so the whole thing is 5 seconds.
And, apart from the things you happen to notice while continuing your visual diary, you’ve got to include certain ingredients. It might be an animal or animals, a sign with visible words on it in any language or a signpost: something that can be absorbed by the viewer in three seconds. You’ve got to have yourself on camera at least at the beginning and the end. With a camera you can hold at arm’s length looking into the miniature screen you interrupt several times during the show to make a comment. This basically acts as punctuation.
The most useful tool you can have is the simple capacity to fade, which unfortunately in modern cameras is now so complicated and so hidden inside the cameras inner workings that you can no longer just merely fade out of a scene by pressing a button and fade in the same way. Now you have to literally open the screen go to the menu, pick out the fades, decide which one you would want and then fade. All of which is ridiculous if you are trying to edit a scene. A simple fade is invaluable when you’re editing as you go along because that serves as your punctuation. And if you do actually do some primitive editing later, it’s obviously much easier to cut into and out of a fade rather than into straight picture.
Once you have a pattern for your show, all you really need is either titles on the camera or a card you can carry around with you that has a title on it, on which you focus at the start of the show. Also, remember that if you interview somebody, you don’t start by asking who they are, getting all the background and then starting the interview. You go right into the center of some kind of controversy, argument, something they’re obliged to comment on unrehearsed. It’s best to provoke or challenge them with your opening statement and then just wing it from there.
Unless it’s absolutely fascinating, never do an interview for more than a minute and a half. Always do close-up with an occasional pull back, but nearly always literally close-up, forehead to chin basically. Another valuable thing is what Jackie Gleason used to call traveling music. Supposing you’re in Granada and you’re going to Seville then I take eight seconds of blurry stuff from the train. right? It’s only relevance is to show you’re changing locations.
As the Malaysian Airlines jet swoops over the hinterlands of Kuala Lumpur, the terrain is filled with endless acres of palm oil trees, a legacy of the British occupation and for years the bane of healthy eaters who eschew its chloresterol product for lighter oils. But now Swedish scientists have shown the practicality of its conversion into diesel.
The Brits turned over the country to the Malaysians themselves in 1955 and I am here, along other visitors invited by the tourist office, to acclaim Independence Day, celebrated every August 31.
From my very first day I observed a country that is sleek, modern, clean and bustling in a way that made most American cities look downright old-fashioned. Supermarkets stock everything: British and U.S. items, Malaysian, Chinese (the population is about 35% Chinese), Indian (10%), Filipino etc. “All of Asia is here” is one of the country’s slogans, and it’s true. Almost everybody speaks English—mandatory in the schools—an 30 different ethnic groups mingle without noticeable friction in a way that America once lauded as a melting pot.
One of Malaysia’s official schemes is the Silver Hair Program which encourages people of capital (at least $50,000 plus $20,000 in annual income) to retire here to take advantage of high living standards, the lowest cost of living in Asia, a warm, sunny climate and good air connections with the rest of the world.
Saturday: Up at an unearthly 5:30am to secure our VIP seats, along with 5,000 other guests, at the Merdeka Parade. A spectacular event with elaborate floats, a cheering section—decked out in colors to collectively represent the Malaysian flag, swaying ululating in tune with the bands—an aerial flyover by jet planes, and 12,000 colorfully garbed, flag-waving marchers who take at least an hour to pass by. As guests we’re all wearing identical navy blue shirts to present a uniform appearance. After lunch, a city tour includes a look at the glittering Petronas Twin Towers—at 1,483 ft., the world’s tallest buildings—from whose 73rd floor international competitors will again skydive next month. Inside, a glorious atrium soars up six floors, all lined with classy restaurants, a food court offering dozens of cuisines, world-famous shops, and a branch of Japan’s great Kinokuniya bookstore as big as a football field. By late afternoon we’re back at the airport for our flight across the South China Sea to Borneo, the huge island to the east that Malaysia shares with Indonesia.
Sunday: The country was in an uproar today because a group of Malaysians visiting Indonesia had been arrested for not carrying their passports while in a hotel lobby. This was widely regarded as being payback for Malaysia’s ongoing campaign to deport illegal immigrants (mostly Indonesian and Filipino). Illegals are the subject of indignant letters in the papers every morning, but what catches the foreigner’s eye is that these impoverished immigrants are usually given a few strokes of the rotan (cane) before being shipped out. One politician has just declared that this punishment should also be inflicted on husbands who desert their wives. Although bleeding hearts are astounded that such practices still exist, this pitiless writer thinks it’s punishment that the U.S. should import—not for helpless illegals who aren’t doing any harm, but for people who commit violent crimes. A dose of their own medicine would be not only cheaper than jail time but also probably more effective.
Monday: After a two-hour drive from Kota Kinabalu we reach Mt. Kinabalu itself, studying from below its 13,455 ft. peak which only occasionally emerges from drifting clouds. It’s a popular two-day climb but we merely visit the museum, have lunch, and stop at a couple of roadside markets on the way back at which I get my first look at the spiky durian. This famous fruit, which mercifully is not cut open, is so notorious for its foul odor that many hotels won’t even allow it on the premises. “Smells like hell, tastes like heaven” is the verdict of Malaysians, who readily savor a flavor that the Columbian Encyclopedia describes as “banana, caramel and vanilla with a slight onion tang”.
Tuesday: Here in the northernmost state of Sabah the biggest attraction is the Sepilok Orang Utan sanctuary where the cute simians gather in a clearing in the jungle (in which hides the world’s largest flower, the rafflesia) each day at feeding time (bananas). Then it’s on to the vast caves where the nests of little birds are harvested to make birds’ nest soup (an expensive delicacy, if you like bird spit). Finally, after a long bumpy drive, we reach the river on whose banks sit a charming lodge at the edge of the rainforest. At this glorious oasis in the wilderness we are invited to stay overnight but I have the misfortune to be with a group of travel agents who express horror at the idea of staying in a room without air conditioning. (Travel agents and travel writers should never be mixed). So it’s back to Sandakans.
Wednesday: Much discussion on the return to KL about Penang’s edict that only Muslims can make policy for that state. “Even in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world, policies are made based on the ruling government ideologues,” declares Mentri Besar. “So why should it be different in an Islamic state?” Malaysia, though officially a Muslim country, applies Muslim law relatively benignly, but what worries some people is that at least two of the country’s nine states are planning to introduce hudud the strictest application of sharia law, resulting in the sort of draconian practices seen in some African states—hands amputated for theft, women stoned to death for adultery, etc. The current issue of Far Eastern Economic Review, in a piece entitled “The Case for Islamic Law” quotes opposition leader Hadi Awang, head of Pas (the Islamic Party of Malaysia) describing hudud as “amazing”, something that would reduce crime because “people become terrified”. The Review comments that Pas has “painted the ruling party (Umno) into a corner and set the stage for a vicious cycle of religious one-upmanship”.
Thursday: A quick round of shopping (things are really cheap) and we begin our 20-hour flight back, with a stopover at Taipei. Malaysian Airlines is terrific with first-rate food, gracious service and, in luxurious club class, seats that tip back to allow genuine sleep. Thank you Malaysia; I’ll definitely be back someday.
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.”