Ken and Nina: capering and japing continued

One great advantage of blogging over publishing in print is that you can correct yourself at no cost!

Bob Hoskins is driving a lorry in the Ken Campbell Roadshow

I am now far enough into Jeff Merrifield’s book on Ken Campbell’s career to realize that a) doing his thing in front of drunken 20-somethings at the Spitz was not a patch on his antics with the Ken Campbell Roadshow, with which he took performance into pubs and clubs that weren’t expecting it and b) his relationship with both Forteanism and the Fortean Times was more profound and longer-lasting than I’d characterized it. Read Paul Sieveking’s obit from the FT here.

Nina Conti and the free monkey

I also watched Nina Conti’s film on her adventures in self-help-land accompanied (mostly) by monkey. Nina’s site is back up, so here’s a link to that. I’m afraid I’m slightly too late to hook you into the iplayer version of Make Me Happy: A Monkey’s Search for Happiness, but it was every bit as good as her film on Ken. She pursued various alternative and esoteric theories promising enlightenment, including: tarot reading, eating raw food, naked yoga, laughter yoga and, erm, wearing a turban. She found the laughter yoga particularly excruciating, being entirely unable to force the jollies: I felt uncomfortable with her on this one.

She then went on a retreat to a smart baronial house in Scotland for a primal therapy weekend. This involved lots of shrieking and talking about her mother, but it was also when things got really interesting, because the three people who ran it decided to kidnap monkey after a conflab at which they agreed that his presence was stopping Nina from fully participating. This was a pretty hardcore move, and the honest portrayal of what followed was the making of the film. Nina was upset and angry, but without monkey she did indeed seem to get more out of the subsequent activities, including a rebirthing and death ceremony. The decision to steal him was kind of vindicated. Kind of, because despite its effectiveness the cruelty of this act showed up the bullying self-importance that is at the heart of what self-help gurus do: this makes you better, do what I do! In the end, reunited with monkey, Nina and family reckoned that the positive effects lasted no more than a week before reality returned.

I can’t give you that to watch, but please watch this slice of joy that my kids have been making me play for them every morning before school this week.

Nina Conti and Ken Campbell

I keep spending hours writing long posts and being dissatisfied with them. I have in the pipeline a review essay on Alex Niven’s Folk Opposition that has prompted various tangential musings, separate posts inspired by thinking about the folk tradition including one on stand-up comedy and another on Jeremy Deller; I’ve been tapping away at one on Ivan Seal’s painting for about 8 months but want to think a bit more about memory before pushing the button on that; a third on a Barthesian reading of a photograph my daughter took worries me by being too personal. I’m not happy with any of them yet and life keeps getting in the way of completing them to satisfaction.

Nina Conti, Granny, Monkey and Owl

But that intervening life throws up more interesting stuff. I watched Nina Conti’s documentary on her relationship with Ken Campbell and her quest to take his ventriloquist’s dummies to the ConVENTion in the US and to donate a dummy to Venthaven. It was a wonderful film: moving, hilariously funny, weird, psychologically honest. The kind of person Ken was came through in brief clips and in Nina’s remembrances: intensely charismatic, wildly inspirational and instinctively wayward, not to mention a gifted performer and storyteller himself.

Ken and Doris
Ken and Doris (I nicked this one from Jeff Merrifield’s site – go there!)

I had the privilege of meeting Ken when I promoted two nights of electronic music and performance in 2004-5: WACK was an off-shoot of WERK, south London techno nights hosted by Po-Ski (Darren Cunningham (@ctress_a) and Gavin Weale (@gavinweale)). Gavin, Rod Stanley (@rodstanley) and I proposed a sideshoot outlet for wonky electronic music with a humorous lilt: we called it clowncore (I wonder why it never took off?). Skam records band Wevie Stonder played live. Joe Muggs compered as the louche performance poet Rimmington Snuffporn. Raf Rundell of the Two Bears DJed one time; Matt Wand of Hot Air records another. There were nitrous balloons. The brilliant Simon Munnery did one gig and Ken was a natural choice for the other.

Personal highlights included Adverse Camber’s interactive cheese slalom; huffing nitrous balloons with Simon and Joe; and the artist Hayley Newman turning up on Matt’s guestlist with a plus several of hearing-impaired people she’d been working with. My spasmodic attempts at improvised signing and distress at being ethically compromised on the guest-list were profoundly unimpressive to all present. Sadly, Wack occurred in the pre-camera-phone days and we were all too disorganized to take any photos, so the thing has just kind of evaporated away in terms of documentation.

Before Ken had gone on I’d seen him come into the venue and wander out again. I was concerned none of us had made contact with him, so I ran out after him down the street in Spittalfields. He raised a quizzical eyebrow: “Did you think I was scarpering?” he asked. No, no of course not, I lied. We had a brief chat and he said he was just going for a cup of tea somewhere a bit calmer. Sure enough he was back on stage on cue and gave a quite brilliant performance; the crowd didn’t really know what to make of an interruption into the music for spoken word: many kept talking while we shushed them loudly. He did some science material that I’d heard him do during his Fortean Times Unconvention appearance in 2002, musing on series of stacked quantum universes. I think he kind of enjoyed it, but the point was that he’d been interested in doing it in the first place. It wasn’t a standard public speaking sell. May we all be this game in our sixties.

I saw Ken do his thing a couple of other times: at the above-mentioned Unconvention. Forteans were a natural and welcoming audience for Ken, a crowd comprising many who’d come from the same quirky British bit of the sixties counterculture. I also saw him do his Jackie Chan eulogy at the ICA, and dragged my wife along to that one. I have a copy of his King Mob CD, Wol Wantok (crikey! I didn’t realise it was worth that!) about his adventures in pidgin English. Track this down if you can, it’s a joyous thing. I’ve spent the past week searching out all the Ken stuff online I can and here are some links for those interested. As I type the postman has knocked and a parcel has arrived from Jeff Merrifield with a copy of SEEKER! Ken Campbell and His Five Amazing Lives (I think this is a version of his PhD on Ken’s work but with the addition of foreword and forethought from Jim Broadbent and Sylvester McCoy respectively) and a DVD of performances from the Drill Hall in 2006.

Joyous mischief, capering, erudite tinkering in the trickster tradition and the exhumation of long-dead performance traditions or wildly unpopular forms; these are not activities supported by many in the market-oriented 21st century. It seems to me a very viable form of opposition to cultural dominants to keep Ken’s ideas alive, to participate in them ourselves. Supporting those like Nina Conti who are active continuers is a start – kudos to Christopher Guest for producing her documentary on Ken – I see from her wikipedia page that Nina and Monkey were in For Your Consideration. Buying stuff direct from people like Jeff Merrifield is another way to go: support the self-publisher and the amazon-outsider! A bit of am-dram tomfoolery wouldn’t go amiss. Anyone in Sarf London fancy putting on a Campbell play? I have a script for Old King Cole knocking about somewhere.