Funnily enough, Alannah Currie – former Thompson Twin lyricist, and now groovy art furniture maker – has just got married to former KLF bad boy, now artist (still dissenting) Jimmy Cauty, but I can’t help wanting to take her to the cemetery. Well, actually I wanted to take her to the gun factory as well – I’ve just discovered that there is a posh Holland & Holland gun factory down Harrow Road, I knew the building but not its mystery function, and can’t help musing on Harlesden being formerly the ‘the gun crime centre of the UK’ whilst its inhabitants were unaware of this neighbouring upmarket arsenal – but they wouldn’t let us visit. ‘Our busiest time of the year’ apparently. So this is the death and no guns tour, in fact.
I’ve known Alannah for 27 years. I interviewed them – her, her former husband, Tom who actually played ‘Here Comes The Bride’ at her recent wedding, and Joe – as pop stars for Sounds, she rewarded me by flying me to various gloriously decaying castles in Ireland whenever programme notes. Oh, those were the days when the music industry had the money to indulge journalists and musicians. OK, I confess I wrote The Thompson Biography for Virgin Books. That included a stay in a sumptuous hotel on Place Vendome in Paris. And Alannah and I have kept in touch.
We arranged this post-wedding walk long before the fabulously spirited and loving, bawdy even, event itself. Alannah and Jimmy threw down the marriage gauntlet at each other in the suitably textured, fairy light-adorned surroundings of the delightfully non-refurbished Wilton’s Music Hall near Tower Bridge. “It was like a gun battle,” she laughs like the wild woman she truly is, “with a dark Pablo Neruda poem as the first round of bullets.”
The honeymoon is discussed as we meander down Scrubs Lane. I know the idea of being ‘flaneuses’ in this dirty, noisy setting is problematic but stay with us. Yes, it is possible to ignore the grime and the cars. “We ate small fishes and lay on our backs in Lorca country. We would listen to the wafts of flamenco guitar drifting down from the local village,” she says, ever the Romantic. They even took beloved friends from New Zealand – where Alannah is from and went back to for a decade or more in the 90s – with them.
At this juncture, Alannah sees the gigantic plaster ice cream and chipmunk outside the Cornice Centre. Has Jeff Koons arrived in Scrubsland? We’re seduced by the possibility, and have to enter. The place is full of huge chefs and oddball glass tabletops nestling on the upturned knees of stud-like, male gods. It is irresistable. “They so often get it wrong,” says Alannah, “but occasionally they get it right.” It’s the sheer naivety of the kitsch that is somehow the lure.
It turns out that husband, Jimmy Cauty, has a commission to make some Made In Birmingham posters, so they started the project whilst they were on their honeymoon. They’re like that. Restless spirits. “I was dressed up in my black wedding dress pulling a stereotypical white plastic sun lounger which was made in China, whilst he was shouting ‘Wife, what are you doing?’ and filming it,” she explains. “The idea is to send the lounger back to China saying we don’t need it anymore, we can make our own. We’re turning into a nation of designers and financiers, Jimmy and I want to bring back hand-made articles. Like the upholstered chairs I make. That’s what they are all about. I’ve got another plan which involves me taking the lounger back to Bejing myself. Making stuff is all about maintaining our mental health. We get deranged when we’re not physically making things. As a society. ”
I deliberately haven’t told her that we’re going to a cemetery. However, she spies some headstones through a gateway just before the canal bridge. “Have I opened your present too soon?” she laughs raucously. To be honest, I’m a little confused. Not about a cemetery being a gift-wrapped present , but which cemetery this is. Not the one I’m looking for, I’m sure. I see lots of Irish and Italian-sounding names on the graves and assume this is St Mary’s Catholic graveyard. I’d read earlier that it was opened for Irish people who had come to the UK in order to escape the potato famine.
Over recent weeks, Alannah has been immersed in marine monsters, outlandish sea tales and the world of mermaids. “Debbie Harry has commissioned me to make two drunken sailor chairs and have them sent to her in New York before Xmas,” she sighs, “so I’ve been thinking about tattoos of lusty women and Jimmy has been drawing mermaids for me whilst I stand over him with a stick complaining that they’re not right. I like going into a bubble of information and then, making stuff. I’ve been doing the tattoos down the chair legs and I want to make some kind of bawdy sailor’s map on the back.”
For a few moments, we’re transfixed by the iron canal bridge which has been painted in unexpected pink and blue. A vestige of engineering Victoriana in carnival colours. “It is an architectural feat,” she says as we look up at the criss-crossing girders, “I really like it.”
We go down to the Grand Union Canal and start walking towards Ladbroke Grove. This is not Harlesden. Neither is it Clapham where Alannah lives. In the 70s, she squatted in Clapham and she’s back there now in a more salubrious manner. Does she remember the Mean Fiddler, the music venue in Harlesden that has now closed down? “I was probably there,” she sighs a little ruefully, “but it’s gone like so many memories. It’s that slash n’burn life I led.”
For her big day – back to that again – she asked friends to bring cakes instead of having a big wedding cake. I never make cakes but I constructed a chocolate one and stuck some dramatic turquoise feathers in it. A burlesque concoction. “Did you notice that they came out on an old mortuary trolley?” she says relishing the image as we walk. “I loved that at my wedding.”
Our mutual gaze is suddenly drawn over to the gas tower, another noble industrial construction, that is next to us. I complain that recently it has been painted in these caramel fudge colours and looks too new. “I can see my chairs hanging off the sides,” she says having flown into her imagination, “in fact flaming chairs would be good.”
Someone has been planting little shrubs down the sides of the canal – less a guerrilla gardener, more likely one of the houseboat dwellers. We pass one narrow boat with cherry tomatoes growing on the roof, an Indian-kitsch shrine sparkling in the sun and a pram outside. “I would find that kind of living too oppressive,” asserts Alannah, ”I need space.”
Somehow I start talking about an old ‘friend’ of mine, Joshua Bowler who recently discovered that his real father was Colin Tennant, or Lord Glenconner who used to own Mustique. It’s one of those huge stories. Fairytale and roller coaster all at once. Josh’s mother was Henrietta Moreas, who was not only a model for Lucien Freud and famously for Francis Bacon in the 60s – a great photograph of her naked and luscious, hangs in Tate Britain – she was also addicted to methedrine. Which led to cat burgling exploits in Hampstead and imprisonment.
Cat burglary – we mull it over as terminology from the estranged, distant past, where a kind of fateful romance lies. “It’s very 007,” decides Alannah.
As we’re walking up Ladbroke Grove, a familiar figure sporting a nifty, red polka dot blouse appears. It’s Sue Saunders, yes, the ex gas meter reader, co-walker and poet. With her daughter, Eileen who went to primary and secondary school at the same time as my son, Marlon. In fact, the primary school, Middle Row, is only yards away. “I bet you’re on one of your walks,” she giggles,” I saw Marlon lately and he’s got facial hair. He’s a man, a delightful one.” Oh, I agree.
At last we’re at the right cemetery. Kensal Green Cemetery, opened in 1833, full of wondrous tombs and bizarre statuettes, and more recently, personal objects – from footballs to poems – left by relatives who want to individualise their loved one’s life. We are becoming more expressive as a nation. It’s the upside of 21st century narcissism. Only yesterday, my tennis partner told me how her 22 year old daughter and herself had visited this very place only a few weeks ago, played reggae music and danced like crazy women around the grave of her ex and father of her daughter, to mark the third anniversary of his death. “It was so right for him,” she said, “and us. We didn’t care what other people thought.”
“I’d like to be burnt and turned into a brick,” says Alannah with her own fierceness in the face of death, “then, I could be turned into a bus shelter or something else functional. And I’d want Jimmy as a brick next to me. I don’t like graveyards where you end up next to people you don’t know . I want to be next to the people I love, like one big family.”
Mmmm, I’m not sure. I feel like I want something more natural. I like the sound of woodland burials and my friends spending the day remembering the outrageous, the still and the gorgeous times together. I certainly want to be visited. My father’s ashes were scattered in our village – Menston in Yorkshire – graveyard, and mum put a primrose over them. I often go down and have a conversation with him, reflect on how much I miss him and take in the view of the neighbouring Chevin.
I love that there are so many different people buried here. The names speak of the variety from an Ethiopian official to ‘dearest Gillian’ to Marvel Hycel. We sit down next to Marvel Hycel, who was a beloved grandmother and mother, when Alannah softly starts to about the deaths in her own life. Unbearable ones. She lost several babies before she had her daughter, Indie. She nursed her sister who had cancer before she died. There’s something of that struggle that lives in her in a wonderful, liberated way. She has been so close to death, she is determined to be fully alive.
Her sister died in New Zealand, so what have her family done about the ashes? “It’s so hard to know what to do,” she says, ”if you scatter them, then they are not with you. At the moment, my brother and I are still passing the plastic container with her in it between us so he’s got her over there at the moment.”
Memento Mori, we decide, are one good way of dealing with grief. “Shrines, making memorials, writing messages, decorating the graves in a way they would have liked,” she says passionately, “are all ways of grieving, we all need to let go of people in our own time and space, we’re all individuals in how we deal with the deaths of our friends, families and lovers.”
Now we’re walking down the main horse chestnut-lined avenue, and there are some horrific examples of self-importance via tomb choice. Victorian men really went for phallic reminders of themselves. Obalisques, pillars, tombs you could almost move into. And adorned with ghastly, self-congratulatory words. “What a pompous idea,” says Alannah sticking her fingers down her throat, “this colonial civil servant is definitely saying his tombstone is bigger than the others.”
It turns out that Alannah once visited a graveyard on the South Pacific island of Tonga. “I just remember loads of gold lame and sequins over the graves,” she says. So it doesn’t rain there? “Well, the sea came in and soaked them anyway,” she carries on, “but then they went back to their sparkling states.”
I’ve just come back from Berlin where I was impressed (although that verb doesn’t seem right) by how open information is all over the city about their shameful history. The Gestapo headquarters – where torture and murder were carried out – in Wilhelm Strasse, has been razed to the ground and replaced with bleak grey stone and an exhibition called The Topographie of Terror. Visitors read the relentless accounts of indecent societal atrocity – 70,000 Jews were transported out of Berlin in the 30s, 8,000 killed themselves, thousands of mentally ill and disabled people were killed – in silence. As if we are honouring the wronged with our lack of words. It’s emotionally disturbing and it should be.
At the end of the grand central avenue – we managed to miss Isambard Kingdom Brunel – Alannah wanders off and discovers an extraordinarily elaborate tomb with carved griffins holding it up, and it belongs to one William Holland. I jump instantly to the wrong conclusion that he was the founder of Holland and Holland, the gun factory over the road that we haven’t been allowed to visit. We giggle at the untrue synchronicity which turns out to be purely a willed coincidence on my behalf. This William Holland was apparently a grand furniture maker and ‘society undertaker’ instead.
We’ve arrived at the pillared, classical building that houses the catacombs. It’s only open on Sundays so we can’t go in. Whereupon Alannah tells a tale about a stonemason she met in Ireland who claimed he would make up grave headstones the day before someone died. With the name and dates. They would be killed by the IRA.
“You know I find cemeteries cheerful places,” she says, “I’m reminded that I am very much here and how much I have to live for.” Alannah has her lovely, outspoken yet paradoxically quiet husband, Jimmy ( ex KLF member who infamously burnt a million pounds as an art statement about the nature of money and society), her 16 year old daughter, Indie and 22 year old son, Jackson – just for starters.
The giant wall that concealed these graves from the Harrow Road tumbled down – it had been leaning dangerously for years – four or five years ago, it has only been replaced by scaffolding and nasty, low metal fencing. There’s a notice warning about collapsing walls, I take a photograph, and Madame Currie-Cauty accuses me of sensationalising the wall story. Me, what does she take me for? A news reporter. Humph. And then I’m reminded of my friend and gloriously colourful PR, Mark Borkowski’s words, ‘There’s nothing as dull as a fact.’
One of the gravestones proclaims ‘Shine On, You Crazy Diamond’ to a grandmother. They must be lyrics and I love the idea. Other early 19th century tombs have been bricked up presumably so that cemetery explorers don’t have horrible accidents. Like Harrison Fords Lost In Kensal Green.
Finally, we’re back on the Harrow Road and approaching the impressively anonymous redbrick building that I now realise must be Holland and Holland gun factory. We peer through the downstairs windows. Not a £25,000 engraved rifle in sight. So we slip in the gate and spy industrial lathes in action. Ah ha. A man wearing a green working outfit sits with his head in his hands on the back steps. “Is this a gun factory?” I ask. “It is,” he says, “but we they don’t like to announce it for security reasons.”
“Did you ever go shooting?” asks Alannah. I didn’t. “And you?”
“My father always had a double barrelled shotgun and used to go out hunting deer when I was growing up in New Zealand,” she says, “I had my first go with a gun when I was five. That was the 60s in the suburbs.”
Guns n’Alannah, not Guns n’Rose…