In my previous post, I spoke about the The Black Panther , a comic that inaugurated by Jack Kirby before Don McGregor imposed his own inimitable stamp of racial awareness on it. Our story continues…
The last episode opened with Lindsay Anderson and closed with Malcolm McDowell responding in different ways to my comic addiction. At home however, the family was united around comics. Arrow and I became solid pals, and KK was happier. Don McGregor and his very pregnant wife left the celebrity stage for a while, and moved in with us. It was a tight squeeze in Comic Book Valhalla at our flat in Royal Cresent.
Revelling in the valuable cornucopia I’d accumulated, Don recommended my putting the comics in a bank vault. It’s what an American collector would do. I dismissed the idea. Eventually I intended getting the comics into the V&A at some point in the future. At the moment I wanted to live with and refer to them. It was my pleasure. It was my need. Don asked me how I’d found some of the rarer comics I had. I told him that the rarest items came from one source – a stall in Cambridge circus.
My pal Dez Skinn, a rumbustious Yorkshire chap who was in the forefront of comic book cultural awareness during the 1960s had something to tell me. He was the head of Marvel UK and Editor of Warrior. Anyway – I think it was him – tipped me off on what led me to one the great scores of my life.
I was soon scouring the streets around Cambridge Circus, between Soho and Covent Garden, until I located the sought after barrow in Earlham Stree and its owner, the gangly, rheumy eyed Bob Lee. He wore a cracked black silk top hat and a frayed tuxedo; a fading vision of 1960s psychedelic. He was like something out of Dick Tracy, lacking only a circling crown of flies, an overlong cigarette holder and a lethal whip. I’d detected the right place. It reeked of the great detective, villains and heroes in abundance.
Bob was a showman par excellence, a spinning gyroscope sans any direction whooping, hooting, kicking and strumming an air guitar. He welcomed me enthusiastically. I’d landed in comic book nirvana! I slapped a couple of notes into the palm of Bob’s outstretched hand saying I did not like to haggle. A language was established between us. Snapping about nervously he called me a scholar and a gentleman.
I scooped up one armload of delight after another. Bob gave me some change. I felt I’d been undercharged. He accepted more promising that next time he’d fleece the pants off me. He knew I’d be back. I went away lugging mint condition Adventure Comics, Famous Funnies and King Comics – the earliest from the seminal 1930s.
I returned the next day and the one after, each time I ferried more back to the rundown Dateline cutting room just off Wardour Street, where I was working at the time with Lindsay Anderson. On seeing what I carried, Lindsay would always groan and say something derisory.
Bob the dealer was connected to the owners of Miller publications who were going out of business. The Millers’ daughter was often buzzing around the stall. She had a mouth like a sewer while Bob sustained his giggly articulate shady veneer and flashed a mouthful of rotted teeth.
Millers reprinted masses of American comics. However, a grammatical refurbishment emasculated the colloquial verve, especially, to my annoyance, with Westerns − it was a travesty reprinted in black & white. (A small collection of file copies – the original item with the rewritten dialogue annotated in ballpoint – are in the Rakoff Collection at the V&A). I remember being upset, but buying a number of touched up Tom Mix (Fawcett publications). The Westerns were mostly published by Fawcett, and they had gone to great lengths to reprise authentic cowboy-sounding lingo. I found the conversion from the colourful argot reduced to simplified proper English painfully unnecessary and foolish.
The vintage US issues were trickling into Bob’s paws. I was in heaven , and buying as much as I could carry. Meanwhile Bob’s girlfriend was also dating Dez. He told me she slept with a loaded pistol under her pillow. Again I envisaged Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy…
Every time I thought I’d cleaned Bob out, fresh stock arrived and I needed more cash. I didn’t think I had a hope in hell borrowing from the bank (“You want to borrow money to buy WHAT?? – Are you insane??.”) Call me what you like, the manager of my Sloane Square Barclays would not budge. When I repeated that it was for buying comics he thought I must be joking and changed the subject.
These were early days in my friendship with Albert Finney and Lindsay disapproved. Albert owned Memorial Films, the company I was editing for, and he liked my love of comics, but I didn’t dare ask Albert for money.
Albert would’ve, almost certainly have lent it to me, but Lindsay would have punched my lights out. He’d never forgiven Albert for turning down the lead in This Sporting Life. I was no pushover, but Lindsay was a barrel of gunpowder, and things were edgy between us from the beginning. Albert was a no-go area.
There was also the affable resident money man at Memorial, Albert’s company. Barber. I struck up a friendship with him, but Lindsay couldn’t stand the fellow. Lindsay would see that connection as a betrayal.
The one possibility was tantamount to dealing with the devil himself… I called my childhood friend Randal. No matter what Randal got into he seemed to get out with money – no matter what it took. He was always well loaded. I first met Randal swapping comics outside the Coliseum Bioscope cinema on Saturday mornings in Cape Town, South Africa. We were in our early teens and it was the start of the 1950s.
The cinema queue was always a hive of swapping frenzy. Most weeks I’d be bedridden, but on Saturdays I’d miraculously be well enough to catch the Number 4 bus in Kloofstraat. My older brother was supposed to look after me. He was a Joe Palooka fan, and so was Cliff my comic book companion.
I’d just swapped some Little Lulus when smarmy Randal approached wanting to know why I read “girl” comics. I said ‘because they were good, that’s why’. He disappeared into the crowd searching for Flash Gordons – that was Randal.
The surge outside the Bioscope was on. I rushed in behind Peter Boxall, an older boy, a Cape Coloured albino gave me some money. I bought him three tickets and sidled over to him waiting in the shadows. I handed over the tickets. Randal was following me. He’d watched the thwarting of the apartheid laws and of course the Cape coloured populace were not allowed to mix with whites in the cinema. In those days though, according to the statistics, Cape Town contained equal proportions of Cape Coloured, Xhosa and whites.
The Cape coloured boys sneaked in with the crowd and into the Bioscope darkness. Randal snatched one of my Little Lulus and gave me a Batman. I smiled; we were linked forever.
Years later I got a holiday job with Randal’s father. His men’s clothing store in offbeat Claremont was a Mecca for persons not allowed to invest in property but could buy clothes (in other words, black males). Randal’s father took me on even though he reckoned I was political, unlike his bamboozling son!?
Smooth voiced and smartly attired Randal went through three London drama schools and subsequently flourished as a DJ on a pirate radio station and went on to found a successful disco empire. Living in London, he flourished but was never anything other than a dubious character. Nevertheless, we were friends. He lent me the lolly without any qualms. He’d admired my Alex Raymond early Sunday newspaper pages so I gave them to him as security saying how rare and valuable they were. He promised to look after them and get them framed. He was in no hurry for the money he’d lent me. When it came to paying him back he refused to take the money. He said I’d sold them to him. I was devastated by my loss. That was the last I saw of those valued Flash Gordons.
A buying spree cleared out the 1930s from Bob’s barrow. This buying frenzy took up about 40% of my income. There was more from a newly discovered warehouse in Copenhagen. It contained unsold American comics – late 40s and early 50s especially Dell Westerns with glossy painted covers in pristine condition unmarred except for the cover stamp of 50 Ore, the Danish currency – merely a curiosity!
I was struggling along Old Compton Street with an armload of Westerns when a taxi pulled up. Out stepped Mark, a pal who’d worked on The Prisoner TV series where we’d met. Mark was suave and good-looking. In his usual easy manner he paid the cabbie, took half of the comics and steered me into a doorway. I followed him as he ascended a dimly lit flight of stairs. Mark listened attentively as I enthused over my incredible score. Mark was a stylish sympathetic, creative type − a rarity in the cutting rooms. I’d got him his present job, assisting on Magical Mystery Tour which I’d turned down for the job arranged by Lindsay.
To my surprise, two bouncers let us in. I’d never known being vetted to enter cutting rooms. I heard shrieking from the street. The pavement below was packed with young girls. Beatle mania was at its height. Some leapt about yelling like crazy. Mark said it was like that all the time.
Stepping into the cutting room Roy the editor was feeding 16mm film through the moviola. I’d known Roy since our Shepperton studio days. He’d been assisting on Dr Strangelove and starting on Lord Jim. Roy resembled a mobile Christmas tree; Carnaby Street; wide lapels and floppy flares in pastel colours. I was the second assistant on Joey Boy an unfunny comedy by the writers that scripted for Hitchcock – old school English gents.
Roy subsequently assisted on Dick Lester’s Beatles features so he was a natural choice to edit their highly personal Magical Mystery Tour.
‘It’s ready’ Roy called out. In a corner Paul McCartney stirred, went over and perched alongside the editor. Paul approved the cut and sauntered towards me drawn by the comics and riffled through them, politely asking permission.
Mark told Paul about our history working on the Prisoner. Paul asked if I was the guy who turned down The Beatles and got Mark his present job? ‘Yes, that’s the one!’ Roy yelled without taking his eyes off the tiny screen. I had no qualms about Paul handling the comics – he had a sensitive touch, almost delicate. Admiring the covers he praised the brilliant colours. Dell painted covers, the best – I declaimed − like no other publisher except maybe Ziff Davis. I rattled on about Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Autry had better artwork and better politics. Paul responded positively saying we should talk more about comic books. He liked Westerns.
Unobtrusively Mark slid between the trim bins and lifted out a strip of film. Roy took his foot off the pedal and waved the strip of 16mm film in the air. He was shaking. I’d never seen him so frenetic. Paul dealt with Roy and then came back to me. He was genuinely curious. He listened. He asked me to have lunch with him. I accepted. Lindsay could bitch all he wanted when I was late with even more comics. I could hear him being snotty about the awesome foursome.
Paul called out a friendly greeting. Standing in the doorway was Rosie, a well known Soho character. I was surprised to see him away from the streets. Everyone responded to Rosie. He was likeable and zany. As ever he wore a shabby beige raincoat with a red rose tucked behind his ears under his glasses.Paul finished scribbling a lyric, shook his head and tossed aside the scrunched up scrap of paper. Roy watched intently as it landed in the wastebasket. Paul noticed Roy’s interest. Something wasn’t right. No wonder benign Roy was anxious for me to assist him. It was agony refusing. Mark was the only hip editing assistant I knew. It was a risky recommendation.
Paul turned his attention to Rosie who grinning asked if he knew what day it was. Tenderly Paul handed Rosie a guitar and picked up another one. Paul and Rosie started to strum. Miraculously harmony emerged and they turned to face me. I took a seat and waited – an audience, a fandom of one, me. I was mesmerized. I had never heard anything more sensitive, more melodious. I was alone face to face with greatness and the art of modesty. No wonder the world adored Paul McCartney.
Together they played and sang; ‘Will you still feed me, will you still need me when I’m sixty-four?’. It was a transcendent moment. I was intoxicated with joy and admiration. Rosie was a picture of happiness. In all of his many years of homelessness this was the finest birthday present he had received.
Suddenly everything changed. The cheerful atmosphere vanished and the cutting room felt darker. The moviola, going at full tilt boogie, slowed down abruptly. Victor Spinetti, shrieking on the track, softened and stretched out his words. Rosie visibly went pale. He looked to Paul for help. Nothing was offered and Paul seemed at a loss. With the merest turn of my head I’d be able to see. Rosie lowered the guitar to the floor and left. McCartney recoiled as i he’d been bashed in the chest. It was obvious but it wasn’t till I heard the glimmer of a Liverpool accent that I twigged.
No one was supposed to be in the cutting room unless all four of them had agreed. Paul did and said nothing. Roy waited. He was trembling. Mark looked puzzled and took a step back. I turned to face Lennon. We had exactly the same type of glasses – gold rimmed National Health.
I swayed unsteady uncertain and frightened. The look Lennon gave me was almost as pirecing as one I saw from Marlon Brando commanding the stage at an anti-apartheid rally in Westminster Central Hall. A larger than life size Afrikaner had been heckling non-stop. No one seemed capable of stopping him. A mere glance from Brando and the white racist heckler shut up and wilted. This was the calibre of look Lennon was giving me. He was dressed entirely in white. He looked like a colonial plantation owner in a stylish loose hanging linen suit and a collarless light cotton shirt. All that was missing was an appropriate hat made of raffia or straw or something like that.
All I could think of was escape. I no longer cared about lunch with McCartney. The chance of a lifetime and I had to blow it. I had no choice, none whatsoever. I said to Paul we could have lunch another day. He said nothing. He couldn’t. Lennon picked up my comics and handed them to me. I’m not sure how it actually happened or whether Lennon actually said a word but anybody could have read his thoughts. He was like Superman with his X-ray vision…
In my haze I glimpsed Ringo holding the door open for me. The next thing I knew I was out on the pavement surrounded by girls making adulatory sounds oblivious to my presence. Later Mark insisted I should have stayed – I would’ve got on with Lennon. Holding onto my comics for dear life I’d yet again turned down The Beatles. My nerves were still jangling when I got back to our cutting room off Wardour Street. No one had noticed my prolonged absence.
Back at the barrow in Cambridge Circus, I bought what was to be some of the most valuable parts of the collection. They even surpassed the gems I’d acquired from the elderly couple in Portland.
By the time KK and Arrow went back to Portland the collection was nothing short of amazing. The flat was bursting at the seams and I kept on acquiring more comics. Some friends said the collection was too valuable to keep lying around. That I should do something about it. I wasn’t worried. No one would steal comic books, would they?
So I believed.
A while later, funny things started happening. There were telephone calls with no one on the other end. The doorbell rang but when I reached the front door nobody was there. These unexplained incidents accumulated, and simmered in the back of my mind. Maybe I couldn’t see what dangerous friends I had. Could I…?
Take advantage of this rare opportunity to hear Ian speak, and to view and handle some of the Rakoff Collection comic books and strips in person with the collector himself on Saturday March 4th:
Victoria & Albert Museum. Seminar 1 (Level Three)
On Saturday 4th March at 1200-1330,
“I’ve seldom tackled the linkage between apartheid and my own psychology. By bringing up old memories, I view the impact of comics and the addiction to collecting in a different light – being put on the spot with questions I feel compelled to answer.
In previous talks, I reflected on the social and art history of comics. This venture goes back to how comic books became an integral part of my existence. I hope that it will be interesting – and entertaining.”