Ordinarily, if a podcast purports to be revelatory, you can assume it is anything but. There’s a glut of programmes at the moment featuring interviewer and interviewee locked in passionate heart-to-hearts in which a few, carefully selected beans are spilled to no real consequence or effect. The Last Bohemians makes no claim to shatter the earth with secrets, but the guests are so unguarded that the episodes possess that longed-for bite.
Maggi Hambling reels off a to-do list she made at art school while she was seeking to lose her virginity: ‘Older man, younger man, black man, woman’. Dana Gillespie, singer and former flame of David Bowie, describes undoing her top button to be photographed in the cleavage-obsessed press of her youth. And actress Cleo Sylvestre speaks of the fungus-filled mess of the young Rolling Stones’s flat and of turning down a marriage proposal from Mick Jagger (she felt it wouldn’t last as he became more successful; the dirty milk bottles couldn’t have helped).
The first series of this podcast aired in March 2019, and a new series has been released each spring since, except for last year when, presenter Kate Hutchinson explains, she experienced a crisis of confidence. Her task is by no means easy. Her guests are mainly older women who grew up in the 1960s and retain a certain rebelliousness of spirit. There is no use in being obsequious towards them. Hutchinson pleasingly makes no attempt to apologise for the odd un-PC remark or to filter what these women say. If anything she earns their respect by assuming something of their demeanour. It is one thing for Gillespie and Sylvestre to reflect that they might have been more successful than they are. It is quite another for the presenter to say so. Dana (rhyme with ‘spanner’) Gillespie speaks candidly of failing to receive adequate recognition as a singer-songwriter. I had no idea that David Bowie wrote ‘Andy Warhol’ for her to perform only to record his own version first, which of course became better known. Gillespie has no hard feelings about this. She has only good things to say about Bowie and his former wife Angie who, similarly, she suggests, deserves more credit for her role in creating Ziggy Stardust.
Gillespie first met Bowie at the Marquee Club when she was 15. He asked to go home with her and she agreed, struck by his blond ‘Sherwood Forest look’. She was living with her parents at the time. The casualness with which they seem to have reacted to her pushing the young star out of her single bed in the morning while clambering into her school uniform seems extraordinary today. ‘I was underage,’ she says, ‘but who gave a toss?’
Gillespie’s description of the 1960s as ‘pure and innocent’ may initially puzzle, but listening to the three women interviewed so far in this series, you begin to understand what she means. The gulf between then and now could hardly be greater. When Hutchinson asks Hambling about her sexuality with the question ‘How did you identify back then?’, Hambling sounds irritated. ‘What do you mean identify? What is all this?’ The concept of ‘women’s art’, a popular label in modern galleries, is as alien to her as ‘having shows of people with red hair’.
These words run through my mind when I listen to novelist Max Porter discuss his book on Francis Bacon (to whom Hambling’s late partner Henrietta Moraes played muse) on the excellent biweekly How To Academy podcast. Porter, born in 1981, may be some years younger than the last bohemians, but he emerges as a kindred spirit in his willingness to say what many of his contemporaries are afraid to.
Many will be grateful to him for bashing ‘the great stupidification of the cultural industry that we’re living through’, and the ‘vicious and condescending’ nature of cultural conservatism, which demands that writers treat readers as idiots, and spoon-feed them information. Equally, Porter’s despair at the place of ‘algorithmic tendencies’ in commercial publishing houses, which categorise books as ‘prize-winning’ or ‘for fans of Sally Rooney’ or such like will delight many authors. For the rest of the episode, chaired by superbly inquisitive Esme Bright, I sat absorbed in Porter’s virtuoso reading from his book. It is truly worthy of a performance by Benedict Cumberbatch.
Listening makes you realise how few opportunities there now are for bohemian souls like Bacon. The pressure to fit one mould or another has placed a suffocating hold on all but a few lucky escape artists. The situation wasn’t necessarily better last century; Gillespie, Hambling and Sylvestre were evidently held back. But incompliance is now as major a limiting factor as identity in the path to success. The dilemma is, does anyone dare rebel?