We could write a fancy preface to this month’s Schooner with… but the enigmatic Phil Thomson is better in his own words. Enough from us, enjoy our chat below.
Q: Hi Phil, thanks for sitting down with us on a miserable wet day in April. What are you drinking?
A: Predictably, for a Scotsman, it’s whisky. West Coast, Talisker, maybe Lagavulin – but neat, room temperature, no rocks and only doubles.
Q: We’re feeling warmer already. Cheers. We’re about to go all Michael Aspel big-red-book on you, tell us more about your life.
A: I was born in Paisley, educated at Perth Academy and graduated in graphic design and photography in Dundee. My professional life began as a freelance journalist in the USA at the end of the Sixties. But when it was suggested after a year that Green Card holders could be fodder for Vietnam, I revised my plans.
Back in the UK I became a creative director and copywriter, while building a second career as a publicised lyricist – including Cliff Richard, of all people. I was always caught between artist and writer, then travelling and lecturing in South East Asia. I’m not really retired now, I just have a new boss – me!
Q: It’s fair to say there’s been a few stops between Scotland and Brum. Now, the main event: Arts Lab. How did it come about?
A: Late in 1971 I began to run a jazz club at The Old Crown in Broad Street, opposite ATV Tower. Great jazz, Roger McGough, Adrian Henri, Alan Brownjohn, Edwin Brock, they all came through and read with us, with local musicians. My favourite was Norman MacCaig, probably the finest Scottish poet this side of Rabbie Burns. We were pretty much the first live broadcast on the local BBC of the time. There were Arts Labs around then – in London and here in Birmingham.
Of course, decades have passed since and over a pint with a colleague, I reckoned on reviving the name. Doing it my way seemed the natural next step. There’s Harry Ramsden’s chips, Betram Mills Circus, whatever… why not Phil Thomson’s Arts Lab? It makes a distinction. Parting with history yet keeping some continuity with the past.
Q: We’re all about a Brummie reboot with a purpose. So what can people expect when they come along?
A: Celebration, and risk, getting to the know the artists, experiencing creativity in a slightly different way and maybe at a difference pace. There’s the familiar and the unexpected and always a degree of experimentation. That’s what a lab does. And expect to meet interesting people in a wonderful setting.
Q: Time for our regular what-would-you-do slot. Birmingham is a city of a thousand trades. If you could pick one, what would it be and why?
A: Whistles. 460 million of then. 18 million customers worldwide. Now that is business. Those Hudson brothers epitomised the spirits of the city and the times. And you can’t say you’ve never heard one, not if you’re into sport. Just that you’ve never thought about where they are made.
Q: One more, before we brave the weather again. What do you love about this place?
A: Uncompromisingly individual – it is an intimate space, tapping into the unexpected and completely at variance with slick, market-driven philosophies. It dishes up great food and drink, great atmosphere and events you’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere else. It has a quiet confidence. A tinge of retro but just enough. Mine’s a craft beer… any of them. Lagavulin later.
Can we stay for another one? Phil Thomson’s Arts Lab is on Thursday 19th April from 7.30pm, and hopefully many more months to come.