Not so groovey,
Groovey Bob (The Life and Times of Robert Fraser)
Faber & Faber, ISBN 0571196276 (317 pages, £20 hardback)
There is no explanation of who the people who contribute to this book
are - the majority of whom are not that well known, this is a festschrift,
a tribute by pals for other pals.
Robert Fraser was the son of a slightly loopy banker. He failed at Eton
and was thus sent into the King's African Rifles (a soul destroying
combination). He got into the art world by spending his early days in
the US where he visited the Betty Parsons gallery and took a few notes.
The sybaritic pleasures, were all the more tasty for him when spending
other people's money. As he grew sick of NY's early 60s bondage
bars, the idea came to him to start a new gallery in London and punt fairly
established US artists in the UK. A lot of the west coast and east crowd
hadn't then exhibited in Europe.
His father (a Christian Scientist) offered uselessly lenient advice - and
was talked into parting with the cash for the gallery (an early white
cube designed by Cedric Price - who said he was the ideal client).
He did seem to pay the money in those days, a habit he would grow out
of over the years as one turns the pages.
Enjoyment or interest in reading this book is reliant upon the reader
making their own amusement - at the expense of the parade of various
old hippies - but it has none of the art of epistolary novels like
Smollet's Humprey Clinker, although it does have some connection
to Stoker's Dracula. Early indications paint a cute picture of him
as a cross between the Fast Show's Swiss Tony and Rolley Birkin QC.
Later ones are not so funny as he descended into forms of abject depravity,
which would disgust and anger most people: including nights out with Gilbert
and George preying on young boys - or 'chicken' as they liked
to call them.
The problem with unleashing a parade of old roués regaling us with
tales of their sad exploits and pathetic existence - the cast of this
book does lean towards Norma Desmond's old card pals, and I know
this is the London art world in all its glory - is that as we are ultimately
invited to smell waft after waft of their own emissions - they all
end up talking about themselves:
"Dave Medalla: there was a Picasso exhibition at the Tate. I'd
been acting pretty funny and got thoroughly drunk, drinking all this red
wine and sherry - I was so young! My uncle, the ambassador, had taken
me along to this big benefit supper. They wanted to invoke Spain with
flamenco dancers, so I jumped on the table and had done an odd version
of Flamenco. Robert had really loved it! he and Sir Roland Penrose and
his wife, the photographer Lee Miller. So I was just zonked out of my
head, that's all I remember."
That one gets worse - it's all just such blundering bathos:
"Anita Pallenberg:...Whether the drugs has anything to do with it
I don't know".
"Jim Dine: I thought his views of art were great, although I was
never very clear what they were."
The period is thought of as one of a lowering of class values - and
Fraser is presented as an example of this. The liberation was exclusive - reinforcing
aristocratic values albeit those of the Hell fire club.1
When Fraser's gallery closed down as he awaited trial, a group of
his artists got together in support to stage an exhibition; and to bitch
about not being paid. This is Richard Hamilton (one fairly sensible voice
throughout) talking to the Press (at one point I thought it was on the
"We are not going to have any kind of statement sympathising with
his habits. A number of artists have suffered materially at his hands
over the last year or so. Some of the exhibitors have sworn never to show
in the place again..."
Fraser influenced the cover of Sgt. Pepper and Peter Blake's contributions
tend towards telling us he is still pissed off about not getting paid
royalties which he was stupid enough not to bother to negotiate properly
at the time. Also it still rankles him that it came out looking like a
collage rather than a photograph of a full size set. More than thirty
years later he's still counting up imaginary sums of money in his
head like some Beckett character.
The author Harriet Vyner had a tenuous alchohol relationship with Fraser
and makes the pretty hopeless admission that:
"He didn't reminisce at all or talk in depth about anything,
but when I was with him there was an atmosphere of glamour."
Right. And that through the haze of booze has qualified her to lash this
The book has very little to offer on Fraser and the 'Railing Stains'
(as he no doubt referred to them) arrest and subsequent trial2,
it repeats chunks of previous books, such as that of the Stone's
em ...Substance Technician, Spanish Tony. This is Keith Richard's
memory of events:
"When you're on an acid you take things in a different way...There's
a great thundering at the door and we're all relaxing in front of
a big raring fire. George Harrison had just only left. I think they were
waiting for him to leave. It was some tip-off from a chauffeur, a newspaper,
Knock at the door. And we looked through the window. There's all
these little people, wearing the same clothes! We took it with a sense
of bemusement: 'Oh, do come in.' Then they read the warrant.
'Yes, that's fine, OK, please do look around.'"
There are one or two passages which are mildly related to the times, mildly
informative if you flick around and compare things. Malcolm McLaren after
noting that it was Fraser who encouraged the V&A to collect Punk memorabilia
talks of the 80s:
"High culture was about to become low culture. I think by the eighties
it was ...if it wasn't a product that was useful, it wasn't
worth being on the block. That was the Thatcherite philosophy or, in fact
dare I say it, a fucking mandate. Suddenly art schools were being closed
down, suddenly you couldn't get grants to go to art schools. You
know, what's the point of studying art if you can't use it to
get a job? I could see that was having an effect. Bob was part of an old
era that was not wanted on location any more."
This comes a page after testimony by the man running the system who obviously
is no judge of character, old mendacity himself:
"Lord Palumbo: I trusted him because he was my friend, always someone
I could talk to, to define/refine my own tastes. He was wonderful from
that point of view. He was ideal. If you think of gallery owners of today,
good though some of them are, none of them have his taste, his eye, his
instinct and ability to spot a trend or a talent ten to fifteen years
in advance of its time."
The UK didn't produce a really good writer on, and who was part,
of the counter-culture of the 60s (if it exists I'd like to read
it). Not someone who truly remained an outlaw. Some who should reflect
on the past are reluctant to be seen 're-living the past' as
if that was a sufficient definition of history.
1. Apologies to The Club, which never really called itself the Hell-Fire
Club. Its founder, Sir Francis Dashwood termed it 'The Knights of
St. Francis of Wycombe', or 'The Monks of Medmenham', but
seems to have attracted the 'Hell-Fire' label through the organisation's
reputation, echoing that of earlier groups. They were a small group of
selected members: Dashwood - a Member of Parliament being the leader.
Other members included Lord Sandwich (who at one point commanded the Royal
Navy), the politician John Wilkes, William Hogarth and poets Charles Churchill,
Paul Whitehead and Robert Lloyd. Benjamin Franklin doesn't seem to
have been at the core of any 'Hell-Fire' activities, despite
the more spurious books written about the Club. The current Sir Francis
quotes John Wilkes describing the group:
"A set of worthy, jolly fellows, happy disciples of Venus and Bacchus,
got occasionally together to celebrate woman in wine and to give more
zest to the festive meeting, they plucked every luxurious idea from the
ancients and enriched their own modern pleasures with the tradition of
The Hell-Fire Club's Sir Francis was also founder of the Dilettanti
I draw these remarks mostly from the wonderful Irish electronic magazine
Blather devoted to the spirit of Flann O'Brien.
2. Although some points (such as the presence of all the Beatles) are
disputed, there is an interesting account of the punitive use of drug
busts against the 'rock elite' and the general development of
drugs policy, in Steve Abrams "Hashish Fudge, The Times Advertisement
and the Wooten Report" (7 April 1993) which is available on the net:
"The News of the World replied to the article in the People by
accusing the Rolling Stones of abusing drugs. (February 3rd) The same
night Mick Jagger appeared with Hogg on the Eamon Andrews talk show. Jagger
told Hogg that he too had been to university, and seemed to get the better
of him. Then, I thought, he got above himself and announced, impulsively,
that he would sue the News of the World for libel. The newspaper panicked
and went to the Scotland Yard Drug Squad. The head of the Drug Squad,
Chief Inspector Lynch later told me that he refused to act. He said that
he was not expected to stamp out cannabis, but to keep its use under control.
If he arrested Mick Jagger every lad in the country would want to try
some pot. He was, after all, head of the drug squad, not head of the Lynch
As is well known, the News of the World had more success with the local
police in West Wittering, where Keith Richards lived. In the subsequent
trial, Jagger's counsel, Michael Havers (later Lord Havers, also
Mrs. Thatcher's attorney general in the "Spycatcher" case)
alleged that the newspaper used an agent provocateur. The arrests were
made on February 12th, but the story did not break until the 19th. Only
the Telegraph named those arrested, Keith Richards, charged with the absolute
offence of permitting premises to be used for smoking cannabis, and Mick
Jagger, charged with possession of amphetamine. George Harrison has said
that the Beatles were at the party that was raided, but the police waited
until they left.
Perhaps the beginning of the entire sequence of events was the arrest
on cannabis charges on December 30th 1966 of... John Hopkins (Hoppy),
a member of the editorial board of the underground newspaper "International
Times". The "underground" was a literary and artistic avant
garde with a large contingent from Oxford and Cambridge. Hoppy, for example,
was trained as a physicist at Cambridge. The underground had found an
enemy in Lord Goodman, Chairman of the Arts Council, who went over the
head of the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, and appealed directly to the
Director of Public Prosecutions to mount a police raid on the Indica bookshop
where International Times was edited. Goodman had an animus against (Barry)
Miles, co-proprietor of the bookshop with Peter Asher, and also a member
of the Editorial Board of IT. In December 1966 Eric White nominated Miles
to serve on the Arts Council Literary Advisory Panel. Goodman had been
infuriated when his appointment was announced to the press on January
30th, and had him thrown off."