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.