17 March 2019

SOLVING THE PROBLEM OF EXISTENCE

Jack Neave. The Surrender of Silence: The Memoirs of Ironfoot Jack, King of the Bohemians. Edited by Colin Stanley. Strange Attractor Press, 2018.

'Ironfoot Jack' earned his nickname from the metal frame that supported one leg, which through some accident, was several inches shorter than the other. According to Jack's own accounts this was the result of a brave attempt to save a boy from being run over by a car, an avalanche in Tibet, a tiger-hunting accident, or his foot being bitten off by a shark.
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As his foot was still visibly attached to the shortened leg, this was one explanation which could easily be dismissed.

Jack Neave was one of many Soho 'characters' of the first half of the twentieth century, but unlike most others who appear in hazy reminiscences of that era, he managed to avoid being drawn into the alcoholic condition of 'Sohoitis', and locations such as the French Pub and the Colony Room appear nowhere in these memoirs. Instead he inhabited a marginal world which lay somewhere between Aleister Crowley, 'Del Boy' Trotter, and Gypsy Petulengro of Blackpool's Golden Mile.

He arrived in England from Australia the age of ten, accompanied by his mother; his father having jumped ship in Marseilles. A year after his arrival his mother died, and Jack was put a Boys' Home in Walworth, from which he absconded. He soon worked his way into the travelling world of gypsies, fairgrounds and markets, at one point operating as an escapologist, until he was barred from Blackpool beach and in protest threw his chains and canvas sacks from the end of the pier.

Some sort of windfall allowed him to buy a caravan and pony, and re-invent himself as 'Professor Curio, Lecturer in Astrology, Evolution and the Occult Sciences' travelling with various pieces of equipment which allegedly gave astronomical and numerological readings. At the same time he was reading anything he could find which he thought would help him “solve the problem of existence”, which rather than discovering the secrets of Life, the Universe and Everything, meant simply finding enough money to allow a basic level of food and shelter.

It's difficult to work out how seriously he took his 'numerological' spiel, and his other occult-sounding activities – at one time he advertised himself as “England's Celebrated Physiognomist” - but his interest in the occult was serious enough for him to tackle Blavatsky and other noted occult writers.

By the nineteen twenties he was more or less settled in London, where his occult interests took a more serious turn. He established a club – or possibly a cult – called Children of the Sun – in a basement in Charlotte Street, which later became 'The School of Wisdom', where he met his wife Jinny.

This was the start of a whole string of mystic, occult-sounding, establishments in basements and attics across London's West End, which began to attract a range of other Bohemian and marginal characters. At the same time he continued with his fortune-telling spiel in markets and fairs. Much of the exotic décor for his clubs came from the Caledonian Market, where he would also buy odd pieces of furniture, books, cheap jewellery and 'clutter', which he would either sell on to other dealers, or use in various scams of his own.




The unconventional characters that his increasingly exotic clubs began to attract caused problems with the police, and in 1934 his Caravan Club in Covent Garden was raided and shut down. Jack was charged with running a club “for the purpose of exhibiting to any person willing to pay for admission to the said place, diverse lewd, scandalous, bawdy and obscene performances and practices to the manifest corruption of his Majesty's liege subjects”.

The subsequent trial, which itself at times took on the character of a fairground show, resulted in Jack serving twenty months hard labour at Wormwood Scrubs.

After his release he gave up the idea of opening any more clubs, esoteric or erotic, and moved to Oxford (his wife was now living in Scotland) where he lived in a semi-derelict caravan, and tried to solve the 'problem of existence' by buying and making cheap jewellery and ornaments which he sold in markets and to 'clutter shops'.

He lived for a while in Birmingham, where there was a second brush with the law, for allegedly handling stolen diamonds, resulting in another eight month in prison, this time in Reading. After an interlude in Glasgow where he rejoined his wife, he returned to London, again solving the 'problem of existence' by small-time dealing of antiques, ornaments and decorative jewellery which he made himself from silver wire and beads, at a table in a tiny French cafe on Old Compton Street.

Everything had changed after World War II, and the environment in which Jack had learned to survive was gone. In the end Jack was saved from destitution by the arrival of the Welfare State, which helped solve some at least some of his problems of existence

The story is told here in his own words, dictated into a tape recorder as he was having his portrait painted by the artist Timothy Whidborne, and his voice and character come over clearly in the text. He seems to have had no notes or diaries to refer to, and the editor Colin Stanley has done a good job of clarifying some of the vagueness in Jack's memory, while keeping his interventions to the minimum necessary – 'Ennemoser Levy' apparent translates as 'Eliphas Levi'. Some of these errors are probably due to transcription from the tape recording, but others reflect Jack's omnivorous, but rough and ready, reading habits.

A carbon-copy of the transcribed text eventually turned up amongst the papers of the late Colin Wilson, and is published here with some of Jack's correspondence to Wilson, and his four 'Advices for Life', which actually contain some surprisingly good advice.

There is an earlier biography of Jack, What Rough Beast, by Mark Benny, published in 1939 and now virtually unobtainable. But this present volume takes us directly into Jack's Bohemia of 'carnys', circus freak-shows (Jack exhibited 'Zenobia the Leopard Woman' at one point), street entertainers, hucksters, hawkers, con-men and the wilder fringes of occultism; as well as the world of dimly lit, exotically decorated clubs and 'Schools of Wisdom', in cellars and attics. It shows an alternative society – a 'Magonia' – that existed amongst the ordered city streets and small towns of the 1920s and 1930s. A fascinating journey into a forgotten world, with Ironfoot Jack as our eccentric guide – John Rimmer.


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