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John Hopkins - An Obituary

John 'Hoppy' Hopkins – photographer, writer, activist

Born August 15 1937; died January 30 2015


John 'Hoppy' Hopkins, who has died aged seventy-seven, was a key figure of the UK's 1960s counter-culture. This was the case whether documenting critical events of the era including the 1965 International Poetry Incarnation at a packed Royal Albert Hall, as co-founder of underground bible International Times and its short-lived spiritual home of the UFO Club, or else instigating the London Free School, a community-based adult education initiative which led to the founding of the Notting Hill Carnival.

As a photographer, Hopkins was in the thick of the action, whether playing records at UFO or being busted for cannabis possession. The latter event led to a high-profile trial that amplified the schisms that existed between generations, and prompted a full page ad in the Times newspaper funded by Paul McCartney and featuring messages of support from the likes of George Melly, Jonathan Miller and all four Beatles.

Hopkins' assorted social concerns were gathered in Taking Liberties, an exhibition of his images from the 1960s hosted by the Glasgow-based Street Level gallery. Here rarely seen images of pop icons such as poet Allen Ginsberg captured outside the Royal Albert Hall and a young Marianne Faithful were hung besides equally iconic pictures of CND's Aldermaston march and studies of a derelict London awaiting liberation, but which more recently settled for urban regeneration instead.

An image of the IT editorial board seemed to sum up the era perfectly. Here was a group of radical dreamers, whose numbers included poet and author of Bomb Culture, Jeff Nuttall, co-founder and spiritual guru of Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, Jim Haynes, and Tom McGrath, future director of Glasgow's original arts lab, the Third Eye Centre and inspiration to many playwrights in Scotland, grinning away as they basked in the moment Hopkins had captured. If they were going to change the world, their grins seemed to say, they were sure as hell going to have fun while they did so.

Hopkins was born in Slough, Berkshire, to Victor and Evelyn Hopkins. After attending Felsted school in Essex, he studied physics and mathematics on a scholarship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he was awarded an MA . More significantly in terms of what came later, it was while at Cambridge that Hopkins discovered sex, drugs and jazz, a holy trinity that would in part define his generation.

Hopkins arrived London in 1960, just as a new sense of cultural and creative possibilities was seeping into public consciousness. Much of these new ideas manifested themselves through music, and Hopkins' images of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, original blues artists Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and jazz pianist Thelonious Monk are as evocative of their age as Hopkins' images of tattoo parlours and bikers who resembled extras from a Kenneth Anger film. Many of these were gathered in From the Hip: Photographs 1960-66, published in 2008.

In 1965, Hopkins was a key figure behind the International Poetry Incarnation, an event at the Royal Albert Hall inspired by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and which attracted some 7000 like-minded souls to hear readings by Ginsberg and other American Beats alongside the likes of Adrian Mitchell, Christopher Logue, Alexander Trocchi and Tom McGrath. The event was filmed by Peter Whitehead as Wholly Communion.

Shortly afterwards, with Rhaune Laslett and others, Hopkins co-founded the London Free School in Notting Hill, then a run-down multi-cultural neighbourhood. With Laslett as president, this community based initiative aimed to democratise education, but gave rise to the UFO Club, founded by Hopkins with record producer Joe Boyd and with Pink Floyd as its house band. Ideas for a free festival, meanwhile, saw Haslett found the Notting Hill Carnival, while the School's newsletter, The Gate, set a template for IT, co-founded by Hopkins and Barry Miles.

In 1967, following a raid on IT's office, Hopkins set up 14 Hour Technicolour Dream, a fundraising happening at Alexander Palace attended by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and filmed by Whitehead as Tonite Let's All Make Love in London. The same year Hopkins was found guilty of possessing a small amount of cannabis, and, in a climate of hysteria concerning recreational drug-taking that caused the judge to brand him “a menace to society”, Hopkins spent six months in prison.

Following the social upheavals of 1968 when global revolution, more cultural than politically orthodox, seemed a genuine possibility, Hopkins moved out of the headlines and even more underground. While he embarked on a short-lived marriage to Susan Zeiger, aka Frank Zappa associate Suzy Creamcheese, Hoppy turned IT into a workers co-op and founded information service, Bit.

In 1970, with his partner, Sue Hall, Hopkins formed Fantasy Factory, a facility that brought low-tech video editing within reach of community activists and independent directors. UNESCO funded Fantasy Factory’s researches, and Hopkins edited the Journal of the Centre for Advanced TV Studies. He co-authored distance learning video training courses, and latterly exhibited photographs of flowers and other plants, co-authoring papers on plant biochemistry at the University of Westminster, before being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2007.

It was the heady days of the 1960s, however, that were captured in Taking Liberties, instigated by director of the Glasgow-based gallery, Street Level, Malcolm Dickson, who, while steeped in the key works and events of the era, “didn’t quite grasp the pivotal role of Hoppy in these platforms of free expression. I was aware that Hoppy was a central figure in the video culture of the seventies and eighties in Britain, and whilst researching an article on that subject, it was serendipitous that I was introduced to his book, From the Hip.”

Following many hours of conversation with Hopkins, Taking Liberties premiered at Street Level in the newly opened Trongate 103 arts hub in September 2009. Having only been seen in public once before in 2000, Hopkins' work was now proving to be a rich seam of inspiration, with a second show, Against Tyranny, opening at Ideas Generation in London in the summer leading up to the Street Level show.

Taking Liberties itself provided a springboard for a series of panel discussions named In Search of Space. These brought together counter-cultural luminaries of the period, such as Miles, Jenny Fabian, Jim Haynes, Joe Boyd and Bruce Findlay, founder in 1969 of Bruce’s record shop in Edinburgh. While in Glasgow, Hopkins also took part in two editions of writer and broadcaster John Cavanagh's Soundwave radio show. Inbetween an extensive interview, Hopkins' selections of music ranged from Bessie Smith to Notting Hill contemporary, founder of 1960s jazz-fusion Indian rock band Quintessence and more recently a pioneering DJ, Raja Ram.

A second, smaller version of Taking Liberties was seen at the Burgh Hall in Dunoon in April 2014.

“We made arrangements for Hoppy to visit and participate in a Q&A,” Dickson recalls, “but given the very short run of the exhibition it was practically not possible. Hoppy was frail at that time, and the effects of his illness were taking its toll. At that point, most of the exhibition scanned images held by Hoppy had been lost due to faulty hard drives, but with Hoppy’s cooperation provided us with a limited number that we would take the responsibility of printing. We managed to get several of these signed by the man himself, but his health was deteriorating rapidly.”

Street Level hopes to host Taking Liberties again in its entirety.

“It is critical that this work does not disappear into obscurity again,” says Dickson.

Hopkins is survived by his sister, Marilyn.

The Herald, March 6th 2015

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