Stephen Denholm, who passed away this week, was a buddhist, a man who made a huge difference to Somers Town by founding and running the Festival of Cultures for 20 years, and someone whose presence added to life of all who encountered him. A rare being, he made time for those whose voices don’t get heard; and a perspicacious wit that cut through those who thought too much of themselves.
He will be greatly missed.
Here is an interview with Steve in 2016.
Memorial party 2nd December 2022
Those who knew him are invited to the event on December 2nd where a book of condolences will be available, the film of the festival, and his music.
What possessed you to begin a festival?
I moved into the area in ’93. Richard Everett was murdered in ’94 and the community was very tense and relations between different cultures were not good the BMP met every other week at local pubs. We got rid of them …
Joined arms Shoulder to shoulder .. 20 of us. marched them out.
I was always community minded rather than not corporate minded. I felt there was no platform in Somers Town for people to be together in harmony, to overcome perceived differences, to fight racism, to promulgate the view that we are all human. There is far more that brings us together than divides us in the end.
Do you think it has done that?
Yes, I do think it’s a far more tolerant area with less violence. The festival has something to do with that.
How did you get to know Alan Patterson (Chair of START)?
I was working in Somers Town Area Partnership and he was seeking funding. Alan really improved the place, with gardens. There was a lot of sh** going on, a lot of junkies… someone was found dead. He wanted a festival to say: ‘we are better than this’.
We had a friendship based on mutual activism.
In ’99 St Pancras Housing approached me to help put on a festival for the 75th anniversary of the slum clearance on Chalton St.
So in 2000 we got together I did the stage; he did the street. He got the funfair. Loads of people said that wouldn’t work but it was hugely popular. There were huge crowds.That’s when START began. We had a committee with Cllr Roger Robinson, the actor Rob Inglis and Angela and others.
What was your personal highlight of the festivals?
We got the only performance in England of the Tibetan monks doing music. The first thing they did was meditate to purify the area and it felt the area was cleaner and better afterwards.
Does Buddhism influence you?
Yes, I see a bigger picture; a more all-embracing picture. Not Tibetan. I practice Nicherin, a Japanese form. It’s not silent meditation …we practice chanting and recitation of the Lotus sutra.
I ran a Buddhist group for years people came to my house first in Soho where I lived there, then in Chalton Street.
I heard Boy George came?
He came to couple of the meeting, and Sandie Shaw, I met Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter… great jazz musicians.
What’s the crucial element of a good festival?
Sunshine and the music. Most important – the stalls bring together people who want to sell food, share information, health and welfare…that still happens. People can pick up information.
Is the music the aspect you enjoy?
It’s the easiest… musicians want to play. I now actively promote Somers town musicians there’s some great talent. I see it as a local festival for local people.
Have you had famous acts?
We had Les Dennis – not my idea – he did his best – played bingo.
Alexis Sayles performed… he said,
‘I only came here because I cycle through here and now you’ll recognise me and nobody will nick my bike.’
When did you know you wanted to become a musician?
When I was 7 or 8. My brother and sister were much older…I listened to rock and roll. My sister played the Beatles, Motown. At 14 I used to sneak up to Soho and used to go all night folk clubs. The temple… I used to go to Le Cousin ‘Cousins’ we called it a little folk club in a tiny basement in Greek street. I saw David Graham, John Martin, Roy Harper, Fabulous times. 10 shillings to get in (50p)
I was lucky because I grew sideboards and I looked older so they let me in. Never had any trouble in Soho it was safe.
Who inspired you?
He was ill but magnificent. I was at the front with a very drunk John McLaughlin.
I felt sad he had to play but he gave it his all..
When I was ten, I saw the Zombies and they had just done ‘She’s not there’. Then late van Morrison in ’65.
My favourite quote is…
Beethoven said, “To play a wrong note is insignificant but to play without passion is inexcusable”.
What changed your life?
“I am the Walrus” by the Beatles.
Early Dylan. The most momentous era I lived through was the 65-75 music art and civil rights.
I used do read Rolling Stone magazine it had a headline, which was “all the shit that fits”.
When were you happiest?
I have always been. I found out in Buddhism that you can be unhappy but it can turn round very quickly, because there is a core I call that the Buddha nature. It’s protective and it’s beautiful.
Why we are miserable is the way we think. If you don’t get stuck in interminable patterns of behaviour, you are feel more flexible and free.
Ninja, my cat wakes me at 5am every morning by biting me on my nose.
My two sons are a constant source of joy.
What’s your greatest spiritual experience?
Realisation of oneness… that we are all interconnected. We’re all one. We may even share one soul.
What’s the nearest you’ve come to death?
“Listening to M*** at the council meeting the other day..(no, edit that)…
But you were ill after the 2014 festival?
Yes, I was in hospital for 70 days.
But what doesn’t kill you make you stronger.
[Steve had a spinal operation.]
Who would you invite to a fantasy dinner party?
Carl Jung, the Buddha, Noam Chomsky, Jack Kerouac, John Lennon, John Cowper Powys who wrote ‘A Glastonbury Romance’, Michio Kaku the quantum physicist, Joni Mitchell.
When did you last cry and why?
I shed a tear when we decided to leave the European Union.
What will happen to Somers Town?
I fear it’ll be subsumed and the name will be changed to East Euston. Most council housing will go, there won’t be people of low income in central London. The rich will live here. I don’t see much of a future. Because of HS2, Crossrail 2, and the CIP.
If they are to dig Chalton Street up, there can be no festival.
In future I hope we can have it on the British library concourse.
I’d change Chalton Street into some kind of Greenwich Village with music, clubs, and elevate it to some kind of importance.
What song would you like at your funeral?
2 songs – “The laughing policeman“ and “Always look on the bright side of life”.
By Diana Foster