Interesting People #3
Long-term Hastings resident Glenn Veness has already appeared in HIP, writing an occasional column (see Glenn Veness kicks off again). HIP thought it was time to talk to him about his interesting life.
How long have you lived in Hastings?
I’ve lived here all my life, growing up as a child in a prefab in Hollington. But I had strong connections with the Old Town as my granddad, Glencoe, was a fisherman. He and his friend, Oxo, entertained holiday makers with their stall ‘Wonders of The Deep’. He also did acrobatics for the day trippers as they disembarked the coaches on the Stade and would sing in the local pubs in the evening. So being a showman is in the family!
What was it like growing up in Hastings in the fifties and sixties?
It was a far cry from that of today’s youngsters. I was out every day playing in the woods – which is where my love of wildlife stems from. I’d play football till dark every day, either in the street or on a small green in Blackman Avenue. Sometimes there would be as many as thirty of us, scattering for cover as we smashed another window!
I had a good childhood as I had wonderful parents. I had two brothers, Tony and Peter, and a sister Vicki. Pete and Vicki have lived in Tasmania for most of their lives. Sadly, my elder brother Tony – who had a gypsy soul inherited from my mum – left home one day to embark on one of his many hitch-hiking adventures abroad, and we never saw him again. Devasting for mum and dad and all the family when all attempts to find him failed.
My dad, Reg, was a train driver – steam in those days and something most young boys wanted to do when they grew up – and my mum, Vi, worked at the hospital. They were both great characters and were always taking us out with them to the beach, or over Fairlight Glen.
When did your interest in documenting life in Hastings start?
When I was growing up, I wanted to be a reporter. I went to the old Grammar School in Nelson Road and, while in the first year, compiled the school’s Sports Reports. In House Assembly once my House Master, Tom Cookson, told the school his wife read my reports and thought it was the most descriptive writing she’d ever seen from someone so young. I realised years later she was the writer Katherine Cookson! She suggested I become a sports reporter, but you needed A Level English, which in those days wasn’t that easy to attain. However, I did end up working for the Hastings Observer, but as a compositor.
My interest in filming started when I was working in Germany in the 70’s – like in Boys from the Blackstuff. I was earning good money so could afford a video camera, which at the time was £1,000. I originally started filming on cine, but you only got five minutes of film on a reel. Now I had three hours of tape, so documenting Hastings was possible. I was fascinated with the Old Town and its fishermen, and the other wonderful characters that worked on the beach. They had a unique lifestyle, so far removed from mine, and I wanted to capture it for future generations to appreciate.
I even managed to get a great bit of John Martyn – a musician known all over the world. I’d already filmed him before, talking, for some Irish friends who owned a bar in Hannover [Germany] and were big fans of his. One day he told me he would do an impromptu gig on the beach and I asked if I could film it. He said it was OK and word soon got round that the big Scotsman was playing. And so unfolded one of the most memorable afternoons I’ve had in the Old Town. We later played the footage in the Irish Bar in Hannover, where I did a show each Sunday evening for free Guinness and food.
I was also fascinated by the Bohemian feel of the Old Town with the many artists and musicians who used to drink with the fishermen in The Nelson. Just some of the names that newcomers might not recognise were characters like Monkey Dave, Pete Trickett, Yorky Ron, Electric Ray, Italian Tony, Pete Prescott, Mike Raxworthy and, more recently, John the Cobbler. It felt like Hastings was one of the most well-known towns in the world – what with 1066 and the Battle of Hastings – and I was conscious of the fact that it would soon be 2066!
I felt it would be an honour if they were still playing my films, and that in some way I had a connection with 1066. Being a Royalist I like to think my unpaid community work making my films of Hastings was the reason I got invited to the Royal Garden Party last year.
Where can people see the films?
They’re all on YouTube, so you can view them by just googling Glenn Veness. More recently, I’ve been making a series of bricklaying videos for YouTube. The first one has had 100,000 views. They started off as serious instruction videos, but of late have developed an air of comedy. There are 20 to date. If you watch them, it’s better to do it in chronological order to get the feel of them.
Why the comedy?
The comedy idea came from when I did some building programmes with Carol Vorderman. I started doing some work with the BBC after somebody asked for a copy of one of my films. They asked if I was a film maker, but I told them I was a builder! By chance this person worked in TV and suggested I do some work on a programme called Home Front. Then Dave Wellman, who was working for ITV asked if I would work on his programme Better Homes with Carol Vorderman.
I did this with a friend called Jack Howell. Jack was a far better builder than me – not hard – so I let him do most of the work on set. However, I always knew when the film crew would arrive, so would ask Jack to have a rest. This meant when it went out on television it looked like I did all the work! This is where the comedy comes in because Carol always assumed I did most of the work and when I told her what really happened, she felt we should incorporate it into the programme to make it funny. When we shot a scene, she’d ask why I was doing all the work and the viewers at home would know otherwise! We had a few scripts for funny situations where I would be seen in the café or fishing, etc, when I should have been working. We put the idea to the producer, who said people weren’t that gullible. Shortly after Top Gear changed its format to comedy with Jeremy Clarkson and his gang. The rest is history!
You seem to know a lot of interesting people?
Yes, I’ve been lucky to meet a lot of different individuals who have also had an impact on the town. The bars we frequented changed when Paddy Piggott opened The Dragon Bar. The music scene also changed. We had a great music scene with people like Liane Carrol, Johny Panic and Buick 6 and countless others, but then 17 years ago Blair turned up. He’d heard about the music scene here and moved from London to Hastings with his wife Anna.
He would never say so, and actually denies it, but for me personally, he added a lot to the music scene down here by giving new and old musicians a platform to show their talents. I remember walking into packed pubs and seeing everybody jumping up and down to artists such as Dr Savage, Helen Sharpe, Rufus Thomas, Russell Field and Chantelle Duncan, all jammed together. This was given a boost by some of the pubs making Sunday afternoons a real music bonanza. Bob Tipler at The Albion, George at Porters, the Jenny, The Stag, The Standard, The Dolphin and The London Trader were just some of the venues to see live music. When I worked with Mark Steele two years ago on the programme Mark Steele’s in Town about Hastings (www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00021rb), these were some of the pubs we went to. We obviously ended up in The Nelson where, as is normal, they were dancing on the tables. Mark said he had never seen a town like it!
What does your family make of it all?
I’m lucky with my family as they’ve always supported me in my hobby. I could go fishing or play golf but, much as I love those things, at the end of the day I’ve always felt there’s nothing to show for it. I know I’ve spent too many hours in front of a screen, taking hours to make a video on an old VHS machine, but I like to feel that time was not completely wasted and will hopefully bring hours of pleasure to generations to come! My wife, Kathy, has a lot of input in my films, and just when my interest in editing was waning, she told me to listen to a track called I Love This Town by Nanci Griffith. it subsequently became my theme tune!
What else have you been up to recently?
As you know, I was doing a column for HIP – and my views are often quite controversial! I’ve always enjoyed good debates and half of what I say is just to get a response from people. When I was younger you could do this without causing offence. It’s not like that anymore and I think it’s all down to the 24/7 news. In the past the News was only on for a short period of the day and people formed their own opinions without all the analysis you get these days. Unfortunately, today we have 24/7 news, with presenters giving their opinions on everything. Many viewers take this as gospel and can get quite unpleasant if you disagree. It makes life difficult for someone like me as, on one hand I believe in freedom of speech, and on the other, I don’t want to offend anyone.
You’ve always been a larger-than-life character. What about the big topics of the day?
Yes, Covid, Brexit, Donald Trump, Climate Change and all that. It feels sometimes as if nothing else in the world is happening. I felt with Covid more time could have been spent by the media doing constructive things rather than the thousands of hours wasted on going over the same conversations.
We have foodbanks so why wasn’t the BBC making daily cookery programmes on teaching young families how to cook cheap nutritious meals, instead of things like MasterChef. They could have worked with the Government, supermarkets, nutritionists to actually help people eat more healthily for less and air the programme at a convenient time like 5pm. Healthy eating would go a long way to protecting your body if you contracted the virus. Also we would then produce a generation of children that could cook.
I’ve always felt you should turn disadvantages to your advantage. So if the schools are closed, why doesn’t the BBC put on educational programmes for our very young children each day. Each morning the BBC – yes, the BBC again – could help families by making educational programmes for children every day, amusing, but informative programmes, instead of the daily diet of repeats. We would then have a structure to our days. Some television in the morning, then maybe a walk, then come home and cook the dinner as shown on TV. There would be things to discuss round the table as well as on social media – including what to cook – which would make life more interesting.
Passionate as always! Are you hatching plans for after the pandemic?
We have a party each year where our garden – our very large garden – is open to anyone who turns up. We’ve been doing this for over 30 years. They’ve become quite famous*. The idea has always been to get all our various friends, and friends of theirs, to get together and make new acquaintances. After the restrictions are lifted, we’re planning to have small regular gigs instead with some of my musician friends. The idea comes from the variety shows I’ve been running at the Electric Palace and Opus Theatre (See A Night at the Grand Olde Opus. [convert to here button] I’ve always liked variety shows especially when the audience is seated. They then appreciate the artists much more. I owe a lot to the Electric Palace, who’ve always supported me and given me a platform for my films.
What about general predictions for the future?
Who knows? I’m not sure that things will ever be the same again. I’ve never personally been worried about Covid. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve lived through probably the best 70 years history has ever known or ever will know. I have a good diet which builds up my immune system and I feel fairly healthy. I think the future of the younger generation is far more important than that of us older folks. And that future at this moment in time is not particularly rosy.
But on a more positive note, if there’s one place you would want to be spending your future, it would be Hastings. We are surrounded by beautiful countryside, and The English Channel. We have a wonderfully vibrant promenade and a beautiful Old Town, nestled between the East and West Hills. Even in a total lockdown these treasures are always there, free of charge, for us to enjoy. That can’t be bad!
*In Mark Steel’s in Town – Mark Steel’s online, he has the following to say: “The most famous people I’ve ever met have been people like … a chap called Glenn who puts on gigs in his garden and everybody in the room [at the Hastings show] had been to his garden!”
• To find all Glenn’s videos just search ‘Glen Veness, channel’ on YouTube
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