Sunday, 28 April 2013

But where's my hover car? What the past futurists got right... and wrong...

So we’re now way past the year 2000, but I still haven’t got my hover car, my interplanetary holidays or my clothes made of milk. Yes, that was a prediction, so where are they? To solve this mystery, Retro LadyLand is travelling back in time to discover what the scientists of the past predicted for today, and how much did they actually get wrong... and right!

Henry C. Nicholas wrote an article for Greenville, Mississippi's 'Delta Democrat-Times' in 1952, entitled "Cheer Up!World Will Be Wonderful Fifty Years from Now!" Well is it??
His predictions range from medical: that scientists would have cured most of mankind’s diseases and that the average human will live will be the grand old age of 100, to scientific, that the world would be circled by many man-made moons, and that interstellar travel would be as common as 2 weeks in Benidorm.

He also predicted that there would be an increase in the world's wealth and prosperity, that water would be taken from the sea, purified and used to hydrate desert areas, creating what he termed ‘garden spots’ and helping increase a food supply that he believed "would increase 50 times over".

He further supposed that, due to a more relaxed attitude to birth control by both society and the church, over-population will cease to be a problem, thus leading to world peace. He even hinted at government control over childbirth, which seems ludicrous until one’s mind turns to China and its one child policy.

Although he did get an awful lot wrong, he did get a couple of things right, if not completely spot on. He predicted that solar energy would be popular, which indeed it is, he also said that there would not be another World War, again correct, but two lucky guesses are not enough to convince me that this man was a visionary.

The long running Popular Mechanics had its ideas too, some so ludicrous that they’re laughable, and some bang on!

My favourite is the waterproof house that - when dirty - the housewife can just aim a hose at and let all the dirt just drain away to a plug hole situated in the middle of the room. An interesting concept, yes, but not really a very practical one. They also hinted at new "synthetic, waterproof materials" that would withstand the hose, but plastic furniture on a hot day with bare thighs? Not for me.

But if waterproof furniture doesn’t float your boat, why not try a 'pneumatic suite', which can be stored away in the walls and brought out when needed. Not quite accurate, fold-away furniture is very popular though and, thanks to your local IKEA, is found in most homes, and no industrial machinery is needed to open it.

In 1935 Americans predicted that by 1955 more than half of all families in the future would be living in trailers. The last recorded statistic shows that the percentage of trailer-dwellers currently stands at only 7%, and the owners? Well, I don’t think America's trailer park community are quite the modern families that they envisioned.

Predicted kitchens of the future were astonishing affairs, with domed cooking stoves and self-cleaning appliances – a notion that is more or less correct, but why would we need a fancy kitchen if we were all going to be eating food in pill-form anyway?

It was also predicted that powdered grass would be added to foods to make it go further,sounds ludicrous doesn’t it? Humans eating grass?! But hold on a minute…

But enough of the nit picking, some prophecies were actually pretty exact. For the house, the microwave was predicted, as wasthe frozen meal. Houses were going to be built around technology and not the other way around, and now one only has to watch an episode of Grand Designs to see that they got that one right. 1940's scientists predicted the push button phone, andin ’54 it was predicted that TV's would be thin enough to hang on the wall, and that Joe Public would be able to create a whole indoor cinema experience in his own home, which was again spot on.

Other electronic predictions may not have the same names as we have today, but you cannot deny the similarities to today’s internet capabilities. The 'weather predicting machine': an idea from the 50s, the 1938 prediction that newspapers would be delivered by fax, and most prophetic, the claim that “...wristwatches in the year 2000 will be used for more than time measurement. They will be total communications centers, containing devices not only for accurate timing but also for voice and vision communication and recording—they’ll even contain simple miniaturized computers.” Spooky.

In the 20’s a prediction for the clothes material of choice was not silk, not cotton, not even a synthetic blend… no, it was Asbestos! Thank god that didn’t happen, just imagine the consequences. They even predicted clothing made of milk. Laughable you'd think...

But what about the classic idea of flying cars and jet packs? In 1951 a popular idea was that everyone would own their own personal helicopters in lieu of cars, but the “Flying Fan Vehicle” (pictured left) quickly replaced that ludicrous idea(!). In fact Futurists of the day predicted that these would be ready for the householder by the early 70's. So where’s mine again?

But my favourite, and seemingly most ridiculous prediction, was the 1905 prognostication that - by the year 2000 - people would be able to communicate with one another via the Electric Handshake: a machine thatwould allow two people to converse while separated by hundreds of miles, but with the added ability to be able to "feel the pressure of their hand whilst talking". Seems crazy? Well, it’s not quite a hand shake, but have a look at ‘Kissinger’ and see how close they were to being right?

They even predicted that, although the world would be a much better place in the year 2000, there would still be a few people bemoaning the passing of the “good old days”. 

My God, they even predicted Retro LadyLand…

Sunday, 21 April 2013

A Murder for Pleasure - An interview with the King

I drove my Bentley up the long graveled drive, the house loomed like a monster waiting to feed and the distance beat of a jive band played melodically. I had been invited to stay with Sir Frederick Worthington-Bogmoor for the weekend and a grand party and I was late, so would have to quickly make my excuses and change in my room. I had just returned from a shooting weekend in the Lake District where the groundskeeper had been shot. It turned out he was having a salacious affair with the mistress of the house, so I’d had to stay an extra day and solve the crime.

Looking down, I suddenly noticed my foot beginning to tap. I couldn't help myself. I parked my car in front of the house and felt the music draw me in like the Pied Piper’s enchantment.

I entered the great hall and was greeted by a tall man in a dark suit and white gloves. "My name is Chapman, madam," he spoke in a monotone drawl, "May I take your bags?" I gave him my luggage, and then enquired as to where that incredible beat was coming from; my foot was still tapping and now I found my hips began joining in too. "That, madam, is your entertainment for the evening, that is King Pleasure and the Biscuit Boys." He spoke with an air of pride, this band must be a big deal I thought.

I elected to miss seeing my room and headed straight to the ballroom where the band were playing. My tweed, pearls and dried blood weren't exactly the perfect choice for the jive, but they would have to do. My head joined my feet and hips now, I was ready to dance my nylons off.

As I entered, I saw them. A six-piece band, dressed up to the nines in zoot suits, with slicked back hair and twinkles in their eyes. The lead singer was a man who gave me a thrill that I hadn’t felt for years. His voice made me want to kick of my sensible leather brogues, let down my tightly pinned bun and get shimmying. They were hypnotic. The song finished, I waited for another, the band started playing while the King excused himself to wet his whistle, I didn't blame him, and the way he belted out those tunes and blew that sax.

I was happily swaying to the beat, taking in those smooth tunes, when suddenly…


A blood-curdling scream came from upstairs. The music stopped, conversation was interrupted, and someone dropped a glass.

We heard a slam, then a rush of heavy footsteps clumsily descending the staircase. We all listened intently, frozen in fear, as the footsteps continued down the hall. Suddenly the doors to the ballroom were flung open and Lily, the young day maid burst into the room.

"It's the madam!" she shouted, "She's been m..m...m..m...murdered!"

There was confusion and panic. Ladies swooned, gentlemen sucked furiously on their pipes, but I was in my element. Quick as a flash I jumped up on stage and cleared my throat.

"Ahhhem! Please can everyone calm down," I started, when I suddenly aware of a hand clinging on to my arm. It was King Pleasure. I couldn't believe it, and I’ll have to admit a tingle I had long since forgotten resurfaced, and my cheeks flushed.

I continued with my speech.

"Please, let's just hear what this young lady has to say, shall we?“

"She's fainted," came a call from the door, "But we have smelling salts"  

After she had come around, Lily started talking. She had just taken Lady Worthington-Bogmoor’s tea to her boudoir, but as she entered, she had noticed her Ladyship on the bed… a knife in her back!

"We must go up and see," I said, The King was still holding on tight, I looked at him and with my biggest doe-eyes I said, "Would you come with me, King. May I call you King?”

“My dear, please. Call me Your Majesty!” he replied.

As we walked down the hall and ascended the long staircase, I thought it was time to get to know this King Pleasure man and his music, so I decided to ask him some questions.

“Are you really a king? The king of swing?”
“Singer, swinger, saxophonist, showman and side splitter. A King of cool, that likes to play the fool.”

His words were alien to my ears, but I liked them! What a side splitter even was, I had no idea but I wanted to know. I continued with my questioning. So, you’re one of the original swing bands and one of the best! How did you get started? 
“Busking back in the early 80’s on the streets of Walsall. We then entered a Birmingham Markets Busking competition and won. One of the judges had his own record company, Big Bear Records and he started getting us gigs in local bars and colleges. It just took off from there, with the gigs getting further and further afield until we were playing festivals all over the world.”

His music had flowed like hot soup on a cold evening, and I was hungry for it. I had only a small taste so wanted to know more, so I asked him if he could describe his band and its music.
“We are a six piece jump band. Playing a mixture of early R&B, Blues, Swing, Boogie Woogie, Jazz and good ol’ Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

The detective in me started working, “Do I detect a midlands accent?” I enquired.
“Ah yes, the Black Country accent. A hard working world of faggots and peas and Staffordshire bull terriers!”
I recalled a murder I had heard about in Birmingham, A woman had poisoned her husband’s faggots, I suppose disguising the taste of the poison wasn’t hard to do. The case was solved by a mentor of mine, which got me thinking. “So, I find you inspiring your majesty, but who inspires you?” 
“My family and friends. It’s them I write songs about. I’ve just finished writing a new album, which we are now starting to rehearse and have written four songs for a Christmas EP. I’m also an oil painter, which makes me take a second look at everything. I look everywhere for inspiration and find it everywhere. The world is such an awe inspiring, amazing place.”

Before I knew it, we were by the door to the mistress of the house’s room. It was shut, that must have been the slam we heard, and my suspicions grew. Why would someone shut the door after fleeing a room in blind panic? I turned the handle, and nervously entered.

His majesty and I looked toward the bed and there she was: splayed out, face first like a drunken dinner date, but with a large kitchen knife sticking out of her back. One thing was certain, she was most certainly dead. I shut the door again to catch my thoughts, I needed idle chit-chat to steady myself, so I carried on with my questioning.

“So, When did you first realise that you had made it?”

“I think if you get to do what you’ve always dreamt of doing and get paid for it, then you are truly fortunate and have made it in the best possible sense.”

“I bet you've had a crazy career, what has the highlight been?”

“To travel the world seeing so many wonderful places and meeting so many wonderful people. To meet and play with many of my musical heroes such as Cab Calloway, Ray Charles and B.B. King.”

“Wow!” I started, but before I could continue, Sir Frederick interrupted with a loud “Ahem! I thought we were here to find out about my murdered wife!" He spoke with a pipe in his mouth and a calm demeanor. Suspicious I thought, but politeness prevailed. I apologised and re-entered the room.

What had happened in here? I surveyed the evidence, it was a nice room, beautifully decorated, silk bedding, large windows, framed by heavy, decorative curtains, there was a beautifully crafted glass chandelier above the bed, and by the dressing table sat an old gramophone; the familiar crack, crack, crack of vinyl still turning but at an end. I removed the needle from the record, and placed it back in its holder.

I needed tea and perhaps something a little stronger, I couldn’t gather any more evidence from the scene, the windows were tightly shut and nothing else disturbed, it was time to start asking questions to some of the others, rather than just to King Pleasure. Although, maybe we would have time for one or two more…

I’d noticed that there had been a recent surge of jive and swing bands of late, I wondered if he found it suffocating? And was he proud that they are still considered one of the best?
“There are many great bands around and many that come and go. We have worked hard to stay together and stay on top of our game.”

“One of the guests let slip that you've been through one or two band members. Have they always left happy? Or have you any juicy stories to tell?” 

“Nearly all past band members have left on great terms, simply wishing to settle down or follow a new musical direction. There have been one or two sackings and walk-outs and three punch ups in nearly 30 years. Not bad!”

Not bad either I thought, I had gone through 15 assistants in the past 6 years, mostly because they kept on being murdered, or arrested for murder, but still…

 Go on…tell us your best showbiz story? I prodded.

“I once wrestled Oliver Reed in a Maltese bar after a fourteen hour drinkathon!”

He was an interesting man, I could have talked for hours but we had a job to do. I gathered everyone back in the ballroom.

One thing was for sure, at that time of the murder only four people had been absent from the room. The maid Lily, Chapman the butler, his Lordship Sir Frederick and of course the victim. So who was the murderer? Answers were needed.

"Where were you at the time of the murder?” I asked his Lordship

"I was in my room, tying my bow tie, I always have trouble with them," he said, shifting his eyes suspiciously. I noted his clip-on tie, hmmm…

"Where were you at the time of the murder?" I asked Chapman

"I was in your room, delivering your luggage and straightening the bed linen," he spoke with the tone of a man lying to save himself. Why would he need to straighten a bed that hadn’t even been slept in, I thought? Hmmm…

"Where were you at the time of the murder?" I asked the maid.

"I was in the kitchen, making tea! I didn't do it, honest I didn't! Tell her Frederick! If you truly love me! Tell her, for the sake of the baby!" she screamed, cradling her belly and staring wide-eyed at Sir Frederick.

So, the maid and his Lordship. Now there was a motive.

"You stupid girl" cried Chapman, "Now they know everything!"

"You knew!?" exclaimed Lily.

"Yes, he knew," confessed his Lordship  "And he's been blackmailing me for months! He said he would tell her Ladyship if I didn't pay him."

"She already knew," Chapman spoke with disdain, "She's known for months, but I couldn't let you know that, or I would never have got paid."

This was all very interesting, but I had to continue with my questioning.

I turned to King Pleasure. I knew it was an odd line of questioning, but I just had to ask.

"Do you like any 'modern' music, your majesty?" I asked.

I always hear things I like. I recently bought the album ‘See’ by Pete Williams of Dexy’s fame. Absolutely brilliant.

"I hardly see how this is relevant," came a comment from the crowd.

"I know what I'm doing!” I spoke sternly. “So your majesty, just one more thing. It seems that a lot of contemporary musicians - Amy Winehouse, Plan B - are using stylistic influences from the past in their music, how do you feel about this cross-era style? Love it? Or are you a purist?"

“I used to be such a purist, but now love the fact that such influences can be heard heavily in so much contemporary music. Caro Emerald and Richard Hawley are great favourites.”

That was fun, and very interesting, but for now I had to establish a motive and solve this murder. I hadn't eaten since lunch and the game-hen on the menu did sound delicious.

"So, why would anyone want to murder her Ladyship?" I asked to myself. They could have all have done it, and they all had motives to get rid of her. So who did?

I mulled it over. As much as I hated to admit it, there was only one person who had a real motive for this particular murder, and I gathered everyone around.

"I know who the murderer was. There is one person in this room who had both opportunity and motive. It was... It was..."

I paused for dramatic effect. Everyone leant forward in anticipation.

"The murderer…was King Pleasure!"

The crowd gasped, "But why? How?"

"During the song ‘Blues From The Booze’, The King disappeared offstage, claiming to be in need of a glass of water. It was then that he slipped silently upstairs. Covered by the sound of the music, he entered Lady Worthington-Bogmoor’s room and stabbed her! My suspicions arose when he returned and clutched my sleeve in the exact spot where my jacket was already bloody, thus rubbing any evidence off, and onto me."

"But why?" asked his Lordship. "Why would you do this? What possible motive would you have?"

"Now that conundrum was answered when I entered the room of the deceased and found this!!" I held up the undisputable evidence, the evidence that would see The King go down for a long time.

A Spandau Ballet album!

Everyone in the room gasped. Women fainted once again, but this time the gentlemen’s pipe-sucking was joined by a chorus of moustache twisting and harrumphs.

"I couldn't let her do it... I just couldn't!" King Pleasure pleaded, "They're… They’re…New Romantic!!"

I approached The King. "Just one more question," I said. "If you could create your ultimate band, who would you have - dead or alive?"

He answered with an air of calm.

“As much as I’d love to gig with Elvis etc. I’d really just like to put on a gig with everyone who’s ever been a Biscuit Boy. A big band of all the members, past and present. It would be one hell of a party afterwards!”

There were a lot of unanswered questions: the door, his Lordship’s clip-on tie, Chapman’s excuses, maybe they were relevant, then again, maybe not. My thoughts were interrupted by the familiar wail of police sirens coming up the drive. King Pleasure was a brilliant man and an incredible musician, and I would never forget our encounter, however murderous it had been.... 

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Ladies Time with Lucille Needles

Good afternoon and welcome to Cooking with Rita, I'm your host, Rita Cooking and today on cooking with Rita, I have the pleasure to have with me one - if not the - finest vintage stylists and hairdressers working today, and may I say one of the most stylish women I have ever met; Lucille Needles.

Ready to do some baking then? Today we're going to make some lovely little fairy cakes. So if you could just pop your pinny on dear, that's right, and wash your hands... I can just imagine all the muck those hands get on them from running them threw all that hair dear... That reminds me, check for lice!

Righty oh,  have you baked before dear? Yes, good… Ok then I’ll start the cakes, you pop the oven on to Gas Mark 4.

So dear, I couldn’t help but notice your perfectly coiffered hair and elegant attire, so what came first? The look, or the hairdressing?

"It all started with a circle skirt….sounds rather like a song, no?! But yes, the look came first. A vast quantity of original numbers followed that first skirt I purchased from Oxfam. Back then, I never thought I could EVER look like those broads on the front of peekaboo magazine. Once I learnt how to wear highwaists and bullet bras without looking like a fancy dress victim and braved the negative and somewhat bizarre comments I’d get thrown at me in the street (this was before Vintage became ‘fashionable’) I used to sit myself down in front of my mirror armed with hair pins and hairspray, and not move until I resembled Betty Grable. Some nights I was there a lonnnggg time. It’s alright doing a Victory roll, but getting  the perfect fluffy curls after brushing out pincurls is an art. Which I have now mastered."

You certainly have, I must get some tips after we finish, I have terrible trouble getting my perm to hold, I went out on a blustery day and came back looking akin to Kieth Harris! Now, can you see dear, I’m now adding the 30z of  butter to a saucepan to melt, that's it... Now can you measure me out 9oz of caster sugar dear, the scales are on the side there… there… no to your left… a bit more… that’s it… Have you been drinking dear? I swear I could smell sherry went you came in...

Thank you, that took some doing, now we’re going to add this and while I mix in the 2fl oz of sunflour oil, 1oz of arrowroot and vanilla extract and while you give it a jolly good whisk, I’ll ask who inspires you on both fronts, style and hairdressing?  

"My first Assessor and hairdresser ‘Mum’ is who I have to thank for the hairdresser etiquette which you don’t get taught in college. She took me under her wing and I learnt the little extras that can make the difference between a haircut and a complete experience. Now it’s ingrained into me and I make sure every client has the best experience possible whenever the Lucille’s Locks mobile shows up at their door.

Style wise, there are 3 key women who I regard as the ‘supergroup’  These are; DVT, Carmen Miranda and Diana Dors. They are your go to whenever you are having a fashion nightmare. I find myself thinking,  “what would Diana do??” As well as this trio  I like to surround myself by inspiration. For example, I am sat with my laptop writing this interview nestled between a bookcase of showgirl DVDs, a large framed photograph of ballet dancers and my art deco dresser."  

 You’ve only got to pick up an old photo from 20s-50s and you can be certain that the lady will have a hairstyle to make you swoon. (The men too!) So in that sense, I guess I get my hair inspiration from complete strangers, who I cannot name."

Swoon dear? I haven’t swooned since I started the menopause! Right let's get this whipped. That’s it dear, get stuck in, well done, good wrist action my girl. Ok, so now add the eggs, 4 of them, then the 2 ½ floz of cream and 3 ½ fl oz of milk and give it a good whisk again. Good girl, best way of getting rid of those bingo wings is a bloody good whisk! 
Now dear, when you sat down at the beginning there I noticed something on your leg. Have you been drawing on yourself?

"I haven’t, but somebody else has! That Lucille Ball you see poking out from under my tea dress is from the best tattoo artist in the world,  although I am heavily biased as he happens to be my other half! If you were to cheekily lift my skirt higher, you would see more of his work mingled in with flowers, feathers, fans, birds, butterflies collected from various artists along our travels. Wherever we visit we try and get a little something significant of our stay."

Well it looks simply divine on you, but if you don’t mind, I think I’ll stick to postcards and crosswords. Anyway how’s the mixture doing?

Oooh lovely! Perfect consistency, but, oh no, you’ve got some mix on your lovely dress, and shoes, on your eyebrows and oh - hair! Oh crikey darling, you seemed to have got it everywhere! Look, you go and get cleaned up and I’ll sift the 10 ½ oz flour and 3tsp baking powder and gradually mix it in.

Now on the computer, you have a very successful ‘blog’ is it? Where you  give wonderful hair tips and talk about your clothes… I also noted that you were selling some of your clothes online. Bit hard up are you, sweetness? Because I’m not paying you for this...

"I was pretty much forced to start a blog by friends and family and at first I felt so ridiculous typing away to an empty followers box.  Daily I’d read the blogs that popped up on my news read and thought of the ladies behind the computer as such idols and when my first comment came I squealed with joy and eagerly got onto writing my next post. My first celebrity moment came when I got recognised in a bar by a blog follower (who is now a good friend) and after that I got emails asking for interviews, clothing sent to me to be reviewed and even appeared in local newspapers."

Free clothing? Every young lady's dream!

OK, I’ll just fill the cupcake cases and pop them in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes, while we relax we a spot of tea. Pop the kettle on sweetness, you can handle that can’t you dear? So who are your best clients at the hairdressers then? Have you ever styled anyone famous?  

"All Lucille’s Locks Ladies are the best clients! No, honestly, I enjoy every single one. They each have different stories to tell me when I’m round and they keep me full of tea and biscuits. As for famous, well I have Carrie Anne the dita tribute burlesquer now on my books."

I’m sure you will dear, I’m very sure you will. So now, you have to tell me about your darling little co-star on your blog, she’s such a sweetheart! 

"I run the risk of sounding like a lady who would appear on a channel 4 documentary about being in love with their pet here, but what the hell - Inka is my pride and joy and my best friend. When my girlfriends come round, Inka is always included in any activity, earning her place as one of the ‘girls’.  I rescued her from a one-bedroomed flat when she was 2 years old."

Oh, that’s lovely dear! You know, I had a shih tzu name Daphne a few years back, I found her starving, living in a bin in the high street, oh yes, I took her home and fed her, washed her and gave her as much love as I could. Until she pee-ed on my Persian rug that is, I had to put her back after that, but you know what? Her bin was still there, so it wasn’t as if I was being cruel.

So does Inka like getting dressed up too?

"Well that depends on what she is getting dressed up for. She needs an occasion and some place to show off. Roads trips, pub lunches, photoshoots, blog appearances, bike rides and garden parties: Yes. Running circles around me and howling at strangers in Wollaton Park: No."

Anyway let’s get on with the frosting, I think we’ll rely on packets for this one sweetie, to save your blushes.  I thought we could add some pink food colouring to it to give it some pizzaz. Talking of pink, I couldn’t help noticing your… ahem… hair! How do you get it to do that dear?

"What you see on top of my head is my advertising. I’d never even think to leave the house without it looking perfect- who wants a hairdresser with bad hair??!"

Ok, time to take the cakes out and cool them before we add the frosting, so I’ve got time for one more question. Who, if it could be anyone in the world, who would you desperately like to re-style?

"Forget anyone famous, the streets are full of people I would like to drag to one side and whisper in their ear ‘let me help you!!’"

Well darling, it was an absolute pleasure to have met and baked with you, and I’m sure that stain will easily come out with a bit of lemon juice and an abrasive sponge.

So, goodbye ladies, from me and Ms Needles. Happy baking, next week I’ll be making a cheese soufflé with Dita Von Teese, let’s hope she’s good at folding eh?

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Burlington Bertie and Friends

Julie Andrews did it, Marlene Dietrich did it, even Barbara Streisand did it, so let’s do it, let’s dress like men… 

Call it experimentation, call it transgenderism, call it transvestisism, it can even be music hall act, women have been dressing as men since Egyptian times, perhaps even before. Maybe Mrs.Ugg tried on Mr.Ugg's fur and paraded round the cave, swinging a club and pretending to hunt. Women dress this way for many   reasons, some to fulfil a sexual desire, some to promote their sexuality, some even to fight and some simply for old fashioned entertainment, and during the 20th Century, when medical science was advancing at a rate of knots, for some dressing as men was just the first step.

As the 1900's ended and the 20th century was born, the music hall male impersonator was king - or queen - of the show. Male audience members respected them, and women saw them as a symbol of independence. Acts like Vesta Tilley, whose dedicated portrayal of dandies and fops such as her character 'Burlington Bertie', were the talk of the town. Her characterisation was so impeccable that she actually became a fashion icon for men.  Her response to this admiration - and to protect herself from criticism - was to swathe herself  in furs and decadent jewellery, which would be used assert her femininity when she was off stage, a little like a male drag act swigging pints and growing a beard between acts. Sadly by the end of the 20’s the art of the male impersonator had all but disappeared, and Tilley settled down with her M.P. husband and continued her life, dressing solely as a woman until she died aged 88. Her last performance as a man was in 1920, aged 56.

Vesta Tilley, like most documented cases of music hall male impersonators, was a heterosexual woman who entertained in ‘drag’. Their sexual leanings were never examined; proof of their heterosexuality was that they had a husband and offspring, but as we now know, this doesn't prove squat.

One morning in 1923, Surrey-born Valerie Baker left her home and her husband to start a new, and very different life. Armed with a full new wardrobe of suits, shirts, ties and collars, she - along with Elfrida Haward - checked into the Grand Hotel in Brighton as Sir Victor Barker Bart DSO and fiancée.  The two ‘married’ in 1932 and enjoyed an affluent life of good food, clothes and entertainment, until inevitably this new life was to catch up with them and Victor was arrested for bankruptcy. Held in a jail and forced to strip, he knew the game was up and his true gender was disclosed. He was eventually convicted of “knowingly and wilfully causing a false statement to be entered into a register of marriage”, and imprisoned in a women's jail. 

Sadly after this his life span out of control. He suffered from depression, was arrested for petty theft, took menial jobs, even appeared as a half-man, half-woman in a side show, but he never became Valerie again, and finally after a sad lonely existence he died aged 65, calling himself Geoffrey Norton, and was buried in an unmarked grave at his own request.

But not everyone was discovered and not everyone had it all bad. Undoubtedly the most famous half-man, half-woman circus sideshow act has to be the legendary Josephine Joseph. Cast in Tod Browning's classic 1932 film ‘Freaks’, she made her name by appearing as a human marvel, one side woman, the other man. Although she (or he) always claimed to be a hermaphrodite, the wide belief is that she was indeed a woman, as most of these attractions were. Their unusual physical appearance was achieved by shaving and tanning, but most effectively by toning up one side of the body, leaving the other side flabby, thus giving the appearance of fuller breasts and a more 'womanly silhouette'. It was a dedicated process, one that Josephine Joseph kept up her whole life, but it was an effective one,  and it is as a result of this dedication that - to this day - her true gender is still questioned.

During wartime many courageous women disguised themselves as men to fight for their country. Notably English war correspondent, Dorothy Lawrence, who bound her chest, dyed her skin with furniture polish and - with the help of some English and Scottish soldiers - became Private Denis Smith and fought alongside the chaps in World War 1. Wow... what a gal!

And then there is the incredible story of American Jazz musician Billy Tipton. This icon of the jazz scene was actually born Dorothy Lucille. Tipton would bind her breasts and appear as her alter ego ‘Billy’, but by 1940 she was living permanently as a man.

To cover his tracks and protect his 'lie', Tipton invented a story of a serious car accident that had damaged and disfigured his genitals, and said that he had to protect his bruised ribs by binding them thus allowing him to constrict and cover his breasts. He had many ‘heterosexual’ romances, eventually settling down with a nightclub dancer by the name of Kitty Kelly. The couple were very happy and, although never marrying, they adopted three sons and became the epitome of the model family. Involved with their local scouts and PTA, the pair lived a seemingly perfect life, until things went sour that is and in 1970 they parted ways. Tipton moved into a caravan, living in near poverty with a female former lover and his three sons.

It was only on his deathbed that anyone, most notably Kitty and his kids, discovered Billy's true gender. Kitty tried to keep the secret out of the papers and arranged for the body to be cremated, unluckily one of his sons - although dedicated and loving - was not so shy and went public with his father’s true identity causing a public outcry. 

So it is that sadly this great man, who entertained thousands during his career, is not remembered for his musical talent, his song writing or his piano playing, but for his choice of attire and what was in his trousers.

Amazingly in 1945, long before the first successful male to female transition, the first female to male sex change was performed over a period of 4 years, on a young aristocrat named Laura Maud Dillon. Although it was never disclosed how convincing the physical change was, Laura - who later went by the name of Michael - never had sexual relationships with women after his operations as he was too scared of being exposed, even going as far as to develope a misogynistic personality to keep the women away. "One must not lead a girl on if one could not give her children," he was quoted as saying.

So there we have it; a brief history of girls who like to dress as men for the thrill, for the fun, for compulsion or just because their brain is wired that way. Whatever the reason, these woman were brave, they broke down barriers and sometimes managed to fool the world, which just goes to show how narrow the gap between men and women is. A gap that is - on average - about 3 and a half inches... apparently... 

Sunday, 7 April 2013

The True Gentleman - An Interview with Mr B

"Cheery-bye Mum," I shouted as I slammed the back door. Sammy, my faithful Basset hound following me, I leapt on my chopper, ready for a day of stunt biking and perhaps some mystery solving, and sped off.
"Gosh," I puffed as I cycled up the road towards the park, "I wonder what jolly japes we get up to today, eh Sammy?". I turned to see Sammy struggling up the hill, he was a bit of a shit dog, but I did love him. I stopped my bike and waited for him to slowly lollop up the road. Why hadn't mum bought me a sheepdog like she'd promised?
While waiting, I scanned my surroundings. Through the gate there was the park, and just there in the middle of the park was the little café, that served hot chocolates, and iced buns. I checked my pockets, ooh, maybe enough for a doughnut. "Oh goody," I thought, licking my lips with anticipation. 

Then, just as Sammy had finally caught up, I spotted him. My eyes lit up - oh Golly! There he was! Dressed in tweed, with a dapper tie and moustache curled with all the joie de vivre of a renaissance dandy, there was Mr.B! Mr.B the chap-hop Gentleman rhymer! Would I dare go over and talk to him? Would I dare? Yes, I blumming well would!

I parked my bike up, and with my most speedy of walks I headed towards him. My tummy fluttered like a nervously caged budgie, and I stopped by his table and smiled. He was tucking into the most enormous Knickerbocker Glory and it looked good, even Sammy's chops were drooling, then again they always did.

I stood there, grinning at him until the air became a little uncomfortable.

"Excuse me," I said timidly, "Gosh, I'm such a terrific fan of yours Mr.B, would you answer some questions for me?", dreaming of the ring binder that I could fill with Gentleman facts.

He looked up from his pudding and smiled, his face full with clotted cream and strawberries. 

The waitress came over,  and in a quaintly common voice asked what I wanted to order. I couldn't help it and asked for the same as the Gentleman. He smiled again, face still full of pud, and taking it as an invitation I sat down.

I took out my trusty pad and paper and leant forward in anticipation of my first answer.

"Mr.B, you are such a spiffing fellow and your music is tops, your album has been described as a 'psychedelic chap-hop masterpiece', what a coup! How on God's green earth did you come up with your unique style of rap?" I asked.

He swallowed his mouthful, wiped and straightened his moustache and answered, I was on tenterhooks.

Chap-Hop was something of a culmination of many things I'd done in the past, from 'straight up' rap to banjolele covers, from quirky breakbeat disco production to being in a dandy punk band. Just thought I'd bung everything together and see what occurred. Chap-Hop occurred!

"Gosh Gentleman, that's super! So who has influenced you along the way, both in music and, of course, your unique and sweet, sweet style?" I inquired. My mother had always said that flattery got you everywhere, let's see if it got me an answer.

Crikey, so many splendid types. Old school hip-hop types such as Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa, Noel Coward, Ronald Frankau, George Formby...the list goes on... they tend to be stylish musicians.

I continued, "You always look like you're in your Sunday best Gentleman! What era would you class yourself as? Surely not the 21st Century?!" 

I suppose I am a 21st century chap out of time.

The cockney waitress brought over my Knickerbocker Glory. She was obviously not very bright, but I thanked her anyway as my mum had always taught me to be polite. I tucked in, but not before asking another question.

"I saw a programme of yours Gentleman, and you seem to do a lot of festivals, what are they like? Which is your favourite?"

I do indeed. The Croissant Neuf stage at Glastonbury is always fun, Bestival and Camp Bestival are lovely. Latitude was a raucous show in the poetry arena. They're all lovely and it is the audience which makes them so.

I wanted to ask about all the hippies. I'd seen a film of festivals at school, and my teacher said not to trust hippies; because they were smelly and didn't like to work, but before I had time to ask him, he'd already started again. I tucked into my ice-cream and listened intently.

Festival audiences tend be splendidly open-minded. Either that or they're simply out of their tiny little minds on something rather naughty.

I wasn't quite sure what he meant by that, maybe they stayed up late and didn't finish their vegetables? That is naughty. My teacher must have been right. I decided to change the subject.

"What do other rappers think of you?" I inquired, rather quizzically. 

I believe they are terrified. 

Again the meaning of his answer eluded me. He seemed such a pleasant chap, maybe he wears a scary mask or something on stage, but I certainly wasn't scared.

He was getting to the end of his pudding now, I had to think on my feet. I know, I thought, I'll impress him with my knowledge. I searched through my note pad under the note that was headed; 'Questions to ask if I ever met one of my musical heroes and have to impress him'. Oh yes, this was a good one. I read it very carefully;

Do you think that bands like The Bonzo Dog Doo Da band paved the way for artists like you, giving credibility to 'comedy' music? Neil Innes astutely pointed out that some of his music was silly, but it was still good music, 'good, silly music'. 

He was absolutely bang on there. Comedy music often doesn't work because it's comedians trying to do music or musicians trying to do comedy. Usually they'll forget one or the other. I like to think that I try my very best at every aspect of what I do. So if you don't find it amusing, you may enjoy the music or vice versa and what have you.

I also remembered something I'd seen on the news, Kevin Ayres had died. I asked for his reaction to this.

It is always sad to lose a high quality clever musical loony. 

This was going just splendidly, I thought. I checked my notes, "What's next for you?" I asked,  "More rap battles? I've heard about you and Professor Elemental. Have you checked his credentials, I suspect he's not a real professor though, have you asked to see his certification?" 

Next up is recording the next album, entitled (at the mo) 'Can't Stop, Shan't Stop', which should be splendid fun.
As far as battles go...well, the Prof and I have rather called a truce at the mo, so I doubt there will be any battles in the near future.

He was down to the cherry sauce now, just time to squeeze in a couple more. Oh yes, I thought of a fabulous question, "Who would be in your dream band?" I asked.

He replied

2nd Banjolele: George Formby
Bass: Lee Rocker
Piano: Hugh Laurie
Trombone: Louis Armstrong (he'll learn it quick enough)
DJ: Kool Herc
Backing dancers: Ginger Rogers and Rachel Riley from Countdown.

I laughed to be polite, but to be completely honest I didn't have the foggiest notion who most of those people were, and by golly they did have funny names. I went to school with a chap called Ginger Swithington-Rogers, who we used to pelt relentlessly with oranges for having red hair. Oh those were happy days, I wondered if it was the same fellow?

Now both the Gentleman's and my own Knickerbocker Glories were all but empty glasses, so I thought I just pop in one final question about all my favourite rappers - apart from the Gentleman that was.

So, Gentleman, who do you think is the best rapper of the classic? They are of course Blondie, Adam Ant and obviously the Wham! boys?

Apart from those three I would have to give it to MC Mikey G (of MC Mikey G and DJ Sven). When he ringa-ranga-donged for that holiday a new art form was truly born.

"Well thank you Mr.B, you are indeed both an excellent Rhymer and a Gentleman," I said politely. The waitress came over and put down the bill, and I noticed that she had added mine onto the Gentleman's. "Oh you are a nice man, I shall run home and tell my mother and father what a spiffing chap you are, and that you answered all my questions and you paid for my treat and everything. Oh thank you Gentleman! Gosh! Thank you!"  

Well yes....I suppose so, he answered as I jumped on my bike and excitedly left the park, rushing back to tell my mum the news of my fabulous encounter with Mr.B, The Gentleman Rhymer.

Oh, and I never did see Sammy again.