Tag Archives: Katharine Hamnett

1983 ➤ When The Face led the cultural agenda

art schools, The Face, magazine, fashion, style, music, nightclubbing, cuttings, subcultures, analysis, history, Swinging 80s, London

London,Sullivan,Dirt Box, Mud Club,Wag club,White Trash,Sallon,Nightlife ,The Face,Swinging 80s, clubbing

First published in The Face No 39, July 1983

◼ 1983 PROVED TUMULTUOUS for British youth culture: 17 new British pop groups lorded it in the US top 40 chart that autumn, while our spirited fashionistas were making waves around the world, with Princess Diana playing ambassador for the classic designers, and Boy George pushing the wilder extremes of street style. Among major features I wrote for The Face was February’s cover story The Making of Club Culture, and in the Evening Standard Posing with a purpose at the Camden Palace, a centre spread on the runaway megaclub hosted by Strange and Egan.

Nightlife was a burgeoning story as black beats took over dancefloors everywhere and Manchester’s tearaway megaclub was the Hacienda, despite the oppressive clean-up being imposed by the city’s infamous Chief Constable. Clubbers from across the nation swarmed in to create a grand coalition of all the cults – “your complete i-D line-up, minus the Worlds End spendthrifts”. In my January report for The Face one inmate bemoaned Hacienda music as  “too funk-based” though another, a flat-top lad called Johnny Maher, revealed his secret, despite having launched some new indie rock band minutes earlier. “I schlepp to funk,” he said.

In July The Face published a major piece of reportage, Art on the Run, prompted by numerous friends in fine-art education, and billed it as a “shock report” on the Conservative government’s debilitating squeeze on the art schools. Ironically in the same issue my regular Nightlife column identified the four hottest clubland teams as a Who’s Who in the New London Weekend: “Not since the Swinging Sixties had London nightlife reverberated to such a boom.” These clubs were the unofficial job centres that kept a generation in freelance employment and introduced the verb to vop into the language (derivation: “What are you up to these days?” – “Oh, a Variety Of Projects”). Some of that effort was fuelling the rise of computer games which in the June issue Virgin assured me was “the new pop industry”!

My Nightlife column in The Face’s October issue featured Brighton’s trendiest hotspot (seconds before the very word trendy passed its sell-by outside the Greater London stockade). The Can was presided over by a young Oliver Peyton with Andy Hale as the deejay breaking funk there. Years later Olly thanked me for this exposure and said he would never have come up to London and started opening restaurants without The Face’s prompt! (One of the few people who have ever thanked me for writing about them! Cheers.)

The Face, magazine, fashion, style, music, Eight for 1984, cuttings, subcultures, analysis, history, Swinging 80s, London, Body Map, Stephen Linard, Katharine Hamnett, Sheridan Barnett,Richard Ostell , Sue ClowesBy this fertile year’s end I had FIVE indicative pieces of reportage published in the December issue of The Face including a detailed rundown on the new dance music scene by the leading club deejay Jay Strongman, plus news of the imminent Westwood/McLaren break-up which I’d scented from body language backstage at their Paris runway show.

The launch of the first London Fashion Week that same October confirmed that British street style was being feted in the international spotlight, yet it begged the question how on earth had this suddenly come about? Click through to our inside page to read the feature investigation that set out to answer such questions, by asking decision-makers in the industry to identify the best of Britain’s young designer talent under the headline Eight for ’84. . .

First published in the Evening Standard, Nov 4, 1983

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➤ Will the magical blasts from the past follow St Martin’s out of Soho?

William Roberts ,Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel ,Tate Britain

BLAST! Hackney-born William Roberts was an apprentice poster designer, who at the age of 14 attended evening classes at St Martin’s School of Art in London. Within four years he was taken up by Wyndham Lewis, who was forming a British version of the avant-garde Futurist movement. Ezra Pound suggested the name Vorticism, and 19-year-old Roberts’s work was featured in the radical Vorticist magazine BLAST in 1914, a seminal text of 20th-century modernism. A lifetime later, Roberts painted the group (he is seated third from left) in one of the defining images in European art — The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel, Spring 1915 (detail) — currently showing in The Vorticists: Manifesto for the Modern World at Tate Britain until September. (Courtesy of the Estate of William Roberts/Tate)

London’s grooviest art school is leaving the bright lights for the wide open spaces two miles north of their historic manor, where the impoverished Marx wrote Das Kapital and Hazlitt the finest essays in English, and the painter Francis Bacon was a founding member of the Colony Room, a notorious watering hole for misfits. Can our savviest creative spirits really thrive once uprooted from Soho’s 300-year heritage, its dissenters, eccentrics, streetlife and dens of inquity?

King’s Cross Central,Central Saint Martins ,University of the Arts, London

King’s Cross Central: the University of the Arts at Granary Square will form the hub of a new cultural quarter, a 67-acre development that is the largest in London for 150 years. (Courtesy of Anderson-Terzic)

❚ AT MIDNIGHT LAST NIGHT, before an artsy audience spanning many generations, Jarvis Cocker and Pulp were bashing out their hit song Common People in the heart of his ramshackle old college, St Martin’s School of Art, as it was still called in 1988 when he met that girl made famous by its lyrics. While he studied film-making, she seemingly “studied sculpture”. The song says she came from Greece and her Dad was loaded, yet she wanted to slum it by going to live in down-at-heel Hackney. Jarvis explained years later: “It stuck in my mind what she was saying — that she wanted to sleep with common people like me.”

Jarvis Cocker, Pulp, popCommon People has become much more than an anthem for Jarvis’s generation. Everybody knows the words and the 800 former St Martin’s graduates — gathered to bid farewell to their alma mater as it leaves Soho for King’s Cross — erupted into a riotous sing-along, because those lyrics are stiff with truths that aren’t entirely universal, but they are, or were, peculiarly British. What we now know is that, in real life, Jarvis hardly knew the girl and in the end they didn’t get it together, but what the encounter had triggered in him was an awareness about class differences in our society that, as a lad from Oop North, even at age 25, he’d been oblivious to: that she would always have Daddy to help her “never fail”.

The definitive song of the Britpop era begins as satire but ends in anger. In deeply felt rage. As with the socially mobile 60s, this was the edginess in the 80s that divided British society and in our art schools sparked tangible creative tension, when talented working-class lads came up against genteel gals from the moneyed middle-classes, especially those on the smartest degree course for fashion in the land. Many posh parents saw this as an alternative kind of finishing school, yet the sloganeering designer Katharine Hamnett tells fashion historian Judith Watt in a forthcoming film documentary about St Martin’s, directed by Oleg Mitrofanov: “I actually had to change the way I spoke because I’d come from public school and nobody would take me seriously.”

Gilbert & George  Singing Sculpture, St Martin's, performance art,

♫ Underneath the Arches ♫ Gilbert & George perform Singing Sculpture in Cable Street, London, 1969 © Courtesy the artists

St Martin’s ,art school, Richard Long, Barry Flanagan

Radical sculptors of the 60s: Richard Long outside St Martin’s in 1967 (Alammy) . . . One of Barry Flanagan’s giant bronze hares in O’Connell Street, Dublin, in 2006

Why the Blitz Club became the potent subcultural melting pot that it did in 1979 was down to its geography — located midway between St Martin’s on Charing Cross Road, and Central School of Art & Design in Holborn, in the no-man’s land between the then trendily refurbished market area of Covent Garden and the sleazy, yet always cool red-light district of Soho. As one early 80s fashion graduate reminds us: “Essentially, the Blitz was an art students’ club.” Then into their midst, lured by new music, came the working-class soulboys and girls who were themselves several sharp steps ahead of their own class for style. Naked one-up-manship inflamed ambitions all round.

Hussein Chalayan, collection,1993, Tangent Flows

Graduation 1993: for his collection, The Tangent Flows, Hussein Chalayan buried silk garments in his back garden, then exhumed them. Joan Burstein of Browns put the entire collection on show in her windows

The pole position of St Martin’s has been reconfirmed with each generation of graduates who become household names: from Frank Auerbach and Joe Tilson, Lucian Freud and James Dyson, Terence Conran and his son Sebastian, Isaac Julien and Belinda Eaton, Bruce Oldfield and John Galliano, to Stella McCartney and Sarah Burton who stepped into Alexander McQueen’s shoes following his sudden death.

Through the 60s and 70s, both under Anthony Caro’s tutorship then in revolt against it, abstract sculpture had been St Martin’s strength, but with the 80s the fashion department responded to the force of Britain’s subversive street style which was exciting the international media. The impact of alumni such as Jacques Azagury with his New Romantics collection made London Fashion Week an essential stop-over for the fashion world’s globetrotting commentariat.

Sex Pistols, debut, plaque, anniversary, St Martin’s,

30 years on: Pistols bassist and St Martin’s painter Glen Matlock unveiled this plaque at his old college. It was designed and made by potter Douglas Fitch and graphic designer Mike Endicott

Is the old Soho alchemy about to lose its magic? Last night’s party  for alumni was organised by one of them, Birmingham-reared Katie Grand, stylist and editor of Love magazine and coincidentally partner of Pulp’s bass player, Steve Mackey. It was a generous and fitting farewell to the shabby seven-storey building on Charing Cross Road that has blazed as the beacon among London’s half-dozen undergrad art schools for the past 50 years. Though technically St Martin’s School of Art (founded 1854) merged with Central School of Art and Design (founded 1896) two decades ago, only now does the resultant Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design have a purpose-built new home to house its 3,800 staff and students — two miles away from the life of spice that energises Soho.

Platon Antoniou, Barack Obama,photography, St Martin’s

President Obama by photographer and St Martin’s alumnus Platon Antoniou: he succeeded to Richard Avedon’s job at the New Yorker magazine

Not for nothing did the anarchic Sex Pistols choose to play their first gig at St Martin’s in November 1975. GQ editor Dylan Jones, who graduated in 1980, told The Independent a while back: “We were 400 yards from the 100 Club, 200 yards from the Marquee, and a mere spit from the Cambridge, which is the pub everyone used to congregate in before they went onstage — the Pistols, the Clash, Adam and the Ants… St Martin’s at the time felt like the most exciting place on earth, not just because of all the wonderful painters, designers and boulevardiers who had studied there, but also because it was central to the whole punk explosion.”

So will the renegade artistic heritage that evolved with the growth of Soho over 300 years become somehow dissipated? Britain’s most visible sculptor Antony Gormley, another St Martin’s graduate, made a case more detached from bricks and mortar in Wednesday’s Guardian: “The place stands for a certain anarchic idea of permanent revolution – of every generation overturning the orthodoxies of the previous one.” Indeed, from the stage in the old St Martin’s studio last night, Jarvis Cocker capped his anthemic song by criticising the government’s introduction of £9,000 annual student fees that are bound to deter new generations of common people from even considering art school. He then indicated the walls of the buliding, and said, “It’s not about THIS … It’s about THAT”, pointing at the heaving dance-floor.

Which seems to suggest that the spirit of the age will ultimately trump any spirit of place. Aha! Germanic Zeitgeist versus the classical genius loci. Discuss.

Alexander McQueen , fashion,Savage Beauty,Metropolitan Museum of Art ,New York,

McQueen lives on: The 2011 Costume Institute Met Gala, held in New York on May 2, honoured the life of the British fashion designer Alexander McQueen who died in February 2010 at the age of 40. His Savage Beauty exhibition is running at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until July 31

➢ Oleg Mitrofanov’s blog, I Hate My Collection, follows
his progress in making a film documentary about
the exodus of St Martin’s from Soho

HOW TO TEACH THE UNTEACHABLE

Peter Kardia, Christopher Burstall, The Locked Room,Richard Deaconm,St Martin’s

“The Locked Room”, a radical teaching experiment at St Martin’s from 1969: a dozen first-year students, including Richard Deacon, were locked in a room and observed in silence. What were they to make of it? From Christopher Burstall’s BBC documentary A Question of Feeling. Photograph © Garth Evans

❏ SOME OF US WHO were later required to recruit new talent in our workplaces learnt a novel lesson in 1970 by watching a compelling BBC documentary shot at St Martin’s. How do you assess somebody for a creative job which has few boundaries and rests heavily on self-reliance? Invite them to an interview, don’t say a word and see how they react! Such was the inspiration yielded by Christopher Burstall’s documentary A Question of Feeling, which observed a dozen first-year sculpture students including Richard Deacon who were locked in an empty studio and not allowed to speak. Each was given one particular material — a block of polystyrene, say, or a bag of plaster. They were left to deduce for themselves that these were raw materials with which to work, without critical feedback, despite their tutors’ constant surveillance.

The experiment known as “The Locked Room” came in response to the prevailing trend towards non-objective art, itself a reaction to Anthony Caro’s giant abstract works in steel, all of which posed the problem of how you set about teaching conceptual art. This was a bold attempt to erase tradition. Tutor Peter Kardia said: “I wanted to put them in an experiential situation where they couldn’t grasp what they were doing. What I wanted was ‘existence before essence’.”

➢ More about Richard Deacon’s work at the Tate

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ELEGIES ON LAST NIGHT’S EXODUS

Judith Watt, St Martin’s, fashion, historian, Twentieth-Century Fashion Writing,

Judith Watt photographed by The Clothes Whisperer

❏ JUDITH WATT, fashion historian who has taught the history of fashion and writing to Fashion Communication and Promotion BAs since 1998, reports:
“Most current students were not invited to the party; so it was helpers — many my lovely students — and those who graduated this June. It was a shame, as students are so much of what makes up St Martin’s unique character (with the added magic dust of some staff). There was a mix in terms of the alumni, but so many of the youngsters have no idea about those important days of the late 70s to the mid-1980s, when St Martin’s was the beating heart of British fashion and style; who the people were, or the magic uniqueness of it. Stephen Linard was there, and I thought of how many of my students have xeroxed pictures of him and his work from The Face, i-D and Blitz but didn’t know he was in their midst. Which spoke volumes about them, and the hideous metamorphosis of fashion, not him.

“John Galliano (obviously) was not there but homages of all kinds to him were graffiteed on the walls. I saw Dean Bright, Jacques Azagury, Ninevah Khomo, Claire Angel, Paddy Whitaker and Keir Malem, Christopher Brown, Andrew Groves, David Kappo, Tristan Webber, the lovely Christopher Kane. Sadly not there were Fiona Dealey, Rifat Ozbek, John McKitterick, Ike Rust, John Maybury, Simon Ungless, and, of course, Amanda Lear. Great line up really … Most asked-about former tutor was Bobby Hillson, who set up the MA Fashion course and was the person who arranged for Lee McQueen to enroll as a student and who supported him in those early days. She was sadly not there … and was sorely missed.

“Jarvis Cocker hit just the right note … it’s a long time since St Martin’s has felt like an art college to me — and last night it did again. Pulp playing Common People was particularly apt, as of course it’s the thread that binds so many of the people who make up the subversive British music and style underground. With the fees now at around £9,000 a year, that may be a lot more difficult to find.”

Corinne Drewery, Christos Tolera, Stephen Linard, Robert Leach, London,St Martin's, farewell, party

Two alumni, two gatecrashers, four ex-Blitz Kids: At St Martin’s farewell to CXR party, Corinne Drewery (fashion, Swing-Out Sister), Christos Tolera (ex-college cafe customer), Stephen Linard (fashion, own silk suit), Robert Leach (ex-Kingston — photo from his Facebook album, Goodbye Charing Cross Road, June 24, 2011)

❏ HOW TO DRESS FOR A ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME PARTY — Fashion note by Stephen Linard (class of ’81, pictured above):
“That suit is a one off from 1990, silk rep candy stripes, to my own design. I was the belle of the ball. Etro print shirt, Drake’s linen madras check scarf, printed pastel paisley hank, lime-green suede Paul Smith Hush Puppies.”

Willie Walters,St Martin’s, farewell party

Partying with her stars: Willie Walters, BA fashion course director, in a shirt by Lucie Sutton. Photographed by Alexandra Gordienko

❏ Kay Barron, FCP/CSM graduate, reports at Grazia Daily:
“Everyone regressed to their student selves. In fact some (sorry) became even younger when Pulp took to the stage. I would like to apologise for pushing, screaming and bouncing on people’s feet like a 16-year-old as Jarvis (an ex-student himself) wiggled his way through Disco 2000, Sorted for Es and Whizz, Misfits and Common People (natch). They have never sounded better.

“This party was as legendary as the college. Beyond any fashion party, as no-one was putting on airs and graces, everyone was relaxed and felt bloody lucky to be there.

“St Martin’s is bigger than a building. Give it a year or two and the spanking new building in King’s Cross will be as rough around the edges as CXR, and another 72 years of creative genius will be shaped there. And there will be 800 new alumni enjoying Absolut cocktails, and drawing obscenities on the wall — really, all that talent, and penises are still the illustration of choice!”

St Martin’s, farewell party, Iain R Webb

Iain R Webb Absolutly aglow. Photographed by Robert Leach

❏ Iain R Webb, CSM professor of fashion, reveals all about his 1970s soulmates at the Harper’s Bazaar blog, and puts Friday’s bash in perspective:
“The Farewell to Fashion at Charing Cross Road party was a strange cocktail (fuelled by lashings of Absolut vodka) of nostalgic sad tidings and glittering ecstasies. Past generations of graduates, from Swing Out Sister’s Corinne Drewery (who DJ’d in the Illustration studio) to Katie’s ex-classmate Giles Deacon, rubbed shoulder pads with the current cohort and a Sex Pistol — Glen Matlock, who along with the original Pistols line-up played their first gig at St Martin’s. Dressed up to the nines (and tens in some cases — the boy in the gold knitted dress that unravelled as the evening wore on), the colourful crowd (who says fashion folk only wear black?) displayed a flagrantly flamboyant individuality that is the very lifeblood of the college and has played no mean part in the success of its alumni who have over the decades become big players on both sides of the catwalk.

“The St Martin’s media mafia still fills the international front rows, Twitter on about trends and play dress-up with popstars and supermodels. The party on Friday night was an appropriately loud, glittering and bumptious, sexy and downright messy affair. Confirmation of the enduring talent born out of St Martin’s School of Art.”

London,St Martin's, farewell, party, Chi He

Farewell CXR<3 thanks for the amazing memories: fashion print-maker Chi He from Shanghai (second right) and friends at the St Martin’s party. From her Facebook album

➢ Farewell CXR<3 — happy snaps from Chi He’s party album

❏ CHRISTOS TOLERA, painter, musician and not a former student, who nevertheless idled many away teenage hours in the St Martin’s cafe, reports:
“Pulp started with Misfit and ended with Common People which I listened to in the rain from Charing X Rd as I left. If I was 22 I think I would have thought it was one of the best gigs ever. Jarvis was charming in between songs and had presence but was drowned out during the enthusiastic performance.

“However the energy in the room was palpable and reminded me of the olden days, of gigs in warehouse spaces and a certain abandon rarely seen in these overly organised and calculated times. I left because I wasn’t drunk and had seen enough. It made me feel old. I didn’t really have anyone with me who was looking through the same eyes, seeing what I was seeing. There was something quite romantic about listening to the last song from under an umbrella on the street, with no one really aware that the very audible racket coming from the first-floor window was actually Pulp and not a dodgy covers band.

“All in all I found it sad. Not the band but the memory of me as a 17-year-old hanging out in the cafe at St Martin’s thinking I’d arrived only to find out I was just passing through like the rest of us. My night was summed up when the girls in the cloakroom asked why I was there and I told them I’d modelled in a seminal show (Stephen Linard’s) there in 1980. ‘Oh, that was nine years before I was born’…”

HELLO TO THE SPECTACULAR NEW UNIVERSITY CAMPUS BESIDE THE CANAL AT KING’S CROSS

King’s Cross Central, CSM, Central Saint Martins, Granary Building

King’s Cross Central: The focus for CSM’s new home will be the Grade II listed Granary Building of 1851, built to a design by Lewis Cubitt

➢ Wednesday’s Guardian G2 cover story laid out the arguments for the move — Alex Needham writes:

❏ THIS WEEK marks the end of an era, as CSM leaves its two buildings in central London and moves to a new premises in King’s Cross, just across the road from The Guardian. The move won’t be welcomed by Professor Louise Wilson, legendary course director of MA fashion, who believes that the very grottiness of the Charing Cross Road building has helped drive her students – from McQueen to Christopher Kane – to succeed. “You feel that you’re better than this corridor,” she says. “In the new building you want to hide…”

Charles Peattie, alexcartoon,

Yesterday’s topical Alex cartoon strip: created by another St Martin’s painter, Charles Peattie, together with Russell Taylor. © alexcartoon.com

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➤ 80s shapers win 2010 New Year Honours for fashion, music and walking in space

Katharine Hamnett, Fashion Aid

Fashion Aid 1985: Katharine Hamnett’s dazzling style, plus slogans

❚ IN THE FASHION WORLD, protest T-shirt designer Katharine Hamnett, 63, and Raymond Kelvin, 55 (founder of Ted Baker), are appointed CBEs, an order of chivalry granted twice a year by the British monarch for exceptional public service. Hamnett graduated from Saint Martin’s School of Art in 1969. Ten years on, she launched the Katharine Hamnett label and her first protest T-shirts bearing slogans such as Choose life, Worldwide nuclear ban now, Preserve the rainforests, Save the world. The British Fashion Council declared her designer of the year in 1984, when her designs became popular with pop stars including Wham! and Madonna. That year she famously met the then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher at a Downing Street party wearing a T-shirt proclaiming “58% don’t want Pershing” (the US ballistic missile). The meeting made news across the world and Vogue called it one of the most iconic moments in fashion. Hamnett remembers: “She didn’t notice it at first, but then she looked down and made a noise like a chicken. Then quick as a fishwife she said: ‘Oh well we haven’t got Pershing here, so maybe you are at the wrong party’, which I thought was rather rude as she had invited me.”

➢ New Year Honours reported by the BBC

Sandy Powell, Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love, OBE, Oscars

Gwyneth Paltrow sports her blue number from Shakespeare in Love: Sandy Powell’s costumes drew on half a century of Elizabethan design

❚ OSCAR-WINNING COSTUME DESIGNER SANDY POWELL, 50, receives an OBE for services to the film industry. She studied theatre design at Saint Martin’s and won her third Oscar earlier this year for The Young Victoria. Her previous wins were for Shakespeare In Love, in 1999 and The Aviator, in 2005. Of her job, she once said: “A costume designer’s contribution is to help make some believable characters, that’s all.”

Annie Lennox, Eurythmics, Rolling Stone

Annie Lennox: Cover girl in 1983. Photographed by C J Camp © Time Inc

❚ ABERDEEN-BORN SINGER ANNIE LENNOX, 56, is appointed an OBE for work fighting Aids and poverty in Africa. As one half of the Eurythmics, she brought her own unique voice and style to the music scene in 1981 with the hit Sweet Dreams, and later Thorn in My Side and Walking on Broken Glass. Today she is an Oxfam ambassador and, inspired by Nelson Mandela, founded her SING campaign to raise awareness of Aids in Africa. She said of her OBE: “It either means I’ve done something terribly right — or they’ve done something terribly wrong.”

➢ Entertainment honours reported by the BBC

Buggles, Video Killed the Radio star, Trevor Horn

Trevor Horn, left, as one half of Buggles, 1979

❚ RECORD PRODUCER TREVOR HORN, 61, who dominated orchestral pop in the 80s, receives a CBE, as does Howard Goodall, 52, National Ambassador for Singing, who created theme tunes for TV shows that included Blackadder. During Horn’s influential career his epic treatment made ABC’s The Lexicon of Love one of the masterpieces of 1980s pop, and enhanced hits by Frankie Goes to Hollywood on his own ZTT label, the Pet Shop Boys, Robbie Williams, Tina Turner, Simple Minds and Grace Jones’s mesmerising Slave To The Rhythm. He was named best producer at the Brit awards in 1983, 1985 and 1992, and won a Grammy in 1995 when Seal’s Kiss from a Rose was named record of the year.

❚ TALKING OF BLACKADDER, its producer John Lloyd, 59, also becomes a CBE — he also oversaw the landmark 80s comedy series Not The Nine O’Clock News and Spitting Image.

BRITISH ASTRONAUT RECALLS
THE SMELL OF SPACE

Atlantis, Nasa, Piers Sellers,shuttle, STS-112 crew portrait

Atlantis shuttle crew, summer 2002: Sandra Magnus, David Wolf, Pamela Melroy, Jeff Ashby, Piers Sellers, and the Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin © Nasa

❚ HE WAS NEVER A NEW ROMANTIC, but astronaut Piers Sellers, 55, from Crowborough, East Sussex, is from the same generation. He is one of the nine Brits who have flown in space and he receives an OBE for services to science. Dr Sellers had to become an American citizen to be considered by Nasa, and then flew three missions aboard the shuttles Atlantis and Discovery in 2002, 2006 and again this year. He has carried out six spacewalks to continue the assembly and maintenance of the International Space Station. With the shuttle programme coming to an end, Dr Sellers — who took a degree in ecology and a PhD in climate simulation — is set to return to Nasa Goddard to resume his science pursuits.

Nasa, patch,space shuttle,Atlantis, STS112

Nasa patch for Atlantis mission STS112

When I met him and the Atlantis crew at the US embassy in London, touring the world in 2004 to talk up the Nasa programme following the Columbia shuttle disaster, the most startling thing he said was that space had a unique smell of its own: “Like burning steel.” The most shocking aspect of this observation is how the smell is transmitted. Smells comprise minute particles of material, which stimulate the sensory receptors in the nose. They could be as small as molecules, or ions, but to notice them at all space-walking astronauts must inevitably have brought them inside the shuttle from the exterior working environment of space. You hesitate to mention the word “alien”, but surely these particles have the potential to infect us earthlings with, er, whatever?

Each of the crew seemed to have been handpicked for their social skills, so during the party I questioned them all on the nature of this smell. Unprompted, every astronaut provided roughly similar descriptions of the smell of space — a mixture of sharp, smoky, acrid, burned metallic odours that permeate their Orlan space suits.

Michael Fossum,Piers Sellers, spacewalk,Nasa, space shuttle, Discovery, mission STS121

British astronaut Piers Sellers during the third spacewalk from the shuttle Discovery, July 2006: photographed by Michael Fossum, whose reflection is visible in the visor

When I asked mission commander Jeffrey Ashby about the risks of contamination, he said that in the early days of space flight, astronauts were always quarantined on returning to Earth and kept under observation for many days. With the passing of the years, and a marked absence of spiny creatures bursting out of people’s chests, quarantine was simply abandoned. The reasoning is that the extreme temperatures in the vacuum of space (+270 degrees C to –270 degrees C) would have exterminated any viral threats — especially the searing heat that had created the smell of space by burning the shuttle’s steel exterior, similar to that from an arc-welding torch used to repair heavy equipment. Yes, but, I hear you say: What about the cockroach?

➢ More from Nasa on the smell of space

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