John Coast | The Smart Set

The transformations in John Coast’s life are bewildering to comprehend. There is not a chapter of Coast’s life that was anything less than extraordinary. Even in its bare bones, Coast’s life reads like a modernist experiment in biography. Something like a cut-and-paste collage of some of the twentieth century’s most extreme episodes. An assault on both easy moralizing and any simplistic notions of cause and effect.  

By the time of his death in 1989, Coast had established himself as a leading impresario in the music world. His client list included Montserrat Caballé, José Carreras, and Jon Vickers.  “He represented everyone who was anyone,” recalls the baritone Anthony Michaels-Moore.  

In the 1950s, Coast organized Ravi Shankar’s first concerts in the UK. He apparently introduced Bob Dylan to London and was also widely credited with discovering Luciano Pavarotti.  “At that time Pavarotti looked like a solid athlete,” Coast wrote, “thighs like a footballer — strong. I patted his shoulder and it felt hard, like a teak board. He was young and in great shape.”

But while his obituarist claimed “many of today’s leading singers have reason to feel gratitude to him,” Coast was far from a celebrity. He cared deeply, passionately, and obsessively about music and was often conflicted about everything else. His marriage was profoundly unhappy and despite his agency’s incredible roster of talent, he was nowhere near as wealthy as he might have been. Often his influence was exerted completely from the shadows. 

“He was very English and didn’t go around bragging,” remembered his companion Laura Rosenberg, “he didn’t suck up to artists, he went his own way. He was not a great businessman.”

“To look at he was the epitome of an English Officer. He had this moustache which he hid behind, it was sort of like a joke. He wanted people to think he was something that he wasn’t.”

But this talent for subtle misdirection also hinted at Coast’s complex and secretive nature. When he died, even the people closest to Coast knew only a small part of his past. Because Coast had not just sensed trends in music, he had sensed them in politics, society, and culture. Indeed, he’d not just sensed them, he had given himself up to them.  

In 1947, to help break the Dutch blockade against the nascent Republic of Indonesia, Coast worked as a shipping agent. Using funding apparently generated by the sale of opium in Singapore, he chartered planes carrying weapons and medicine from Bangkok to Jakarta.  

Reviewing his memoir, The Daily Telegraph wrote that for Coast, “almost any Indonesian is admirable; almost any Netherlander the reverse.” This single-minded devotion to the cause led him to work as a translator for Mohammad Hatta, the first vice president of Indonesia, and as a radio propagandist responsible for interpreting the anti-colonial struggle to the outside world. In his own words, John Coast had become a “recruit to revolution.”

Across Asia, the end of the Second World War sped up the collapse of both Japanese and European colonialism. Indonesia briefly became a beacon of hope to both the region and the world. Sukarno, the leader of the Indonesian independence movement, was an eloquent and charismatic figure. (Later, his example inspired Nelson Mandela to wear the bright batik shirts that became his trademark.) Alongside political giants of the twentieth century like Jawaharlal Nehru, Kwame Nkrumah, and Josip Broz Tito, Sukarno helped create a non-aligned ‘third world’ of newly independent nations. 

In the run-up to the Bandung Conference of 1955, as the Indonesian government’s Technical Expert on Cultural Relations and Information, Coast was employed to organize a tour of traditional Balinese dancers as part of a larger program of cultural diplomacy.  

The show’s incredible success in London’s West End and on Broadway saw the dancers perform a star turn on The Ed Sullivan Show. This was a seminal cultural moment when a recognizably Balinese sense of culture was sold to a world audience through new media technologies. Apparently influenced by German jazz records and Coast’s enthusiasm for Sleeping Beauty, some of the classical Balinese forms that achieved global renown were deeply modernistic creations. 

But a cloud of political suspicion had begun to hang over Coast. In the service of the revolution, he had cultivated friendships across the political divide, from Vietnamese communist revolutionaries to the Thai dictator Phibun Songkram. Given this background, it was inevitable that the finger of suspicion would eventually point at him. The American scholar George McTurnan Kahin suspected that Coast was “a British intelligence operative.” Before chartering planes to Java, Coast had been working in information services at the British Embassy in Thailand.  

In the end, it was jealousy rather than political intrigue that bought the curtain down on the Balinese tour. Ideologically, Sukarno’s republicans mixed a program of state-led modernization with nationalism and romantic notions of inherent Indonesian genius. It was an unstable political cocktail that begat some odd legacies. During the 1980s, for instance, the British far-right promoted Bali’s ‘temple economy’ as a model for a distributionist alternative to the European single currency. 

Coast’s personal pre-eminence did not sit easily with such a combustible mix of ideas and this discomfort was compounded by pettier professional jealousies. Coast was falsely accused of funneling money from the tour into real estate purchases in Las Vegas. The tour collapsed in acrimony. 

But the success of the Balinese tour had bought Coast to the attention of the music mogul Sol Hurok, who opened the door to a new career at Columbia Artists that would see him become one of the pioneers of world music. By promoting acts like Shankar, Coast would help to feed both the Orientalia of the Beatniks and the cosmopolitan ‘openness’ of the flower power generation that followed in their wake. Coast had unwittingly made the transition from cultural attaché to cosmopolitan record industry impresario. 

It was a bittersweet success because these accomplishments went hand-in-hand with the complete obliteration of Coast’s hopes for the future. He had already leased land in Bali in the hope that one day he could return and build a cultural center. In 1969 he served as an advisor on David Attenborough’s BBC series The Miracle of Bali, which featured several performers from Coast’s tour of the 1950s. Throughout his life, Coast continued to send money to the Indonesian dancers who he had come to think of as family. Exiled from his adoptive home, Coast never stopped dreaming of finding a way to return.   

“Corpses were lying in pools of their own excrement, covered with countless infected flies and bluebottles,” from hastily dug and overflowing shallow graves, “a gruesome hand was left sticking out above the ground.”

Published in 1946, John Coast’s Railroad of Death is an absorbing, as well as harrowing, memoir of forced labor, beatings, and torture as a prisoner of war on the Thai-Burma railway.  

Coast credited his survival to ‘the university’, a remarkable network of life-sustaining intellectual and cultural activities established by interned officers. The POWs picked up lessons in Buddhism, fishing, and the building of basic bamboo houses (ataps) from the local Thai population. They ate rats, iguanas, and vultures while studying “the Chinese methods of using ash manure and urine to bring the (spinach) plants up quickly.” In building the railway they became experts in the properties of local woods like teak.  

A hunger for cultural nourishment emerged out of the deprivations of wartime imprisonment. Ian Watt, a future Professor of Literature at Stanford who was interned alongside Coast, later captured the essence of this in his celebrated lecture “The Humanities on the River Kwai.” What Watt would theorize, Coast would practice by tirelessly promoting an enormous range of global music cultures, alongside ballet, opera, and Western classical music. The source of Coast’s unpretentious cosmopolitanism appears to have been a Prisoner of War camp.

The shape of Coast’s future career also emerged in his role as camp Stage Manager where he produced Javanese dances and ensembles (kronchongs) alongside comedies, musicals, and dramas. “If you’d told me the war was over and I could go home,” Coast remembered, “I’d have said not now, let’s get this show on first.” Later, Coast represented the Band of the Coldstream Guards and Mary ‘The Singing Nun’ O’Hara (whose father had been an officer in the British army). 

Yet to the frustration and anger of the survivors, as the story of their ordeal on the Thai-Burma railway spread around the world, the lessons Coast and his peers had drawn from their experiences were either ignored or completely rewritten. In 1952 the French writer Pierre Boulle remolded the POWs’ story into an absurdist parable. In The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Boulle’s fictitious Colonel Nicholson becomes obsessed with driving the Allied POWs to outbuild their Japanese captors. 

Boulle’s novel caught an emerging cultural trend. It appeared at the same moment as the English translation of Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and the rise of Ionesco’s théâtre de l’absurde. In Boulle’s portrait of life as a POW, the world is cruel, empty, and wretched. The bigger idea of Boulle’s novel was that, as surely as Nicholson led his men to their doom, the organizational and technological imperatives of the modern world would corrode, misdirect, and ultimately destroy humanity. This was a theme that Boulle famously revisited later in his 1963 novel Planet of the Apes: “You finally really did it!”

But Boulle’s perspective was the exact opposite of many of the POWs that survived the Thai-Burma railway. Even in the harshest conditions imaginable, they had resisted the deranged cruelty inflicted on them, while local villagers risked their lives to smuggle medicine into the camp. For Coast, their survival had proved that there was a collective human instinct to resist chaos and destruction. Watt pointed out that Boulle had never been a POW, and had never visited the railway, let alone worked on it. Indeed, Boulle’s ‘Nicholson’ was inspired by two Vichy Generals that had switched sides during the war.  

In Coast’s words “fiction had overtaken fact” and, armed with little more than a series of cartoons by his friend Ronald Searle, in 1969 he managed to persuade the BBC to commission a documentary, Return to the River Kwai, that not only attacked the inaccuracies of Boulle’s novel — which by this time had inspired an Oscar-winning film — but did so by interviewing some of his Japanese captors. This was the first time that the voices of Japanese soldiers had been heard on British television. Coast’s captors were introduced to the public as the mild-mannered bankers, businessmen, and English teachers who had underwritten Japan’s post-war resurgence. Here it is worth saying that during the War Crimes trials that followed the war, Coast had written in support of a few “comparatively humane” Japanese generals who he believed had been punished too severely: an ethical rejoinder to Boulle’s blithe nihilism.    

For the past decade, Coast’s biographer Laura Noszlopy has been wrestling with how to make sense of Coast’s complex character. “One of the reasons that the project has been so difficult to complete,” she says, “is that he went through lots of quite extreme changes in perspective and direction.”

John Coast was born in Eastbourne on the Sussex coast of southern England in 1916. His parents were unable to support him through medical school, and Coast grew to resent their provincialism. This personal frustration was amplified by the lack of opportunities during the great depression. Like many born in the wake of the First World War, Coast matured in a world where millions lost their livelihoods while a global financial elite apparently lived beyond the law.  

Disillusioned, during the inter-war years Coast became part of the ’back-to-the-land’ movement. This was an attempt to popularise new methods of farming that mixed visionary plans for the alleviation of hunger, poverty, and unemployment, with concepts of race and culture recognizable as fascistic. “His whole talk was violently pro-Nazi, anti-Jewish and anti-Roman Catholic,” reported a policeman at the time.  

Estranged from his family, Coast began to associate with a range of figures on the far right of British politics, such as the politician Lord Lymington and the novelist Henry Williamson. Through friendship with the soldier turned politician Colonel Archibald Ramsay, Coast became active in the ‘The Right Club’, an attempt to bring under one umbrella a diverse mix of ‘patriotic societies’ — anti-Communists, anti-democrats, and former suffragettes — opposed to war with Nazi Germany. 

“I think he was attracted to the trappings,” says Noszlopy, “there’s a sense ​of impressionability in the picture of Coast that comes through from this early period.”

It was through Right Club meetings that Coast became close to Anna Wolkoff, a White emigre who ran the Russian Tea Rooms in South Kensington and gave Coast access to a world of richly talented stage managers, set makers, and costume designers who had fled Bolshevik Russia. 

Coast appears to have worked with Ramsay as he set up a New British Broadcasting Service to spread anti-Semitic propaganda. “He read Mein Kampf, and acquired swastikas,” remembered his sister, “fired by an almost fanatical desire to put the world to rights, mistakenly thinking that Hitler was the man to do so.” 

When the war began, The Right Club blamed Hitler for selling out to ‘cosmopolitan financiers’ and Coast responded by fly posting ‘This is a Jew’s War!’ in hotel bathrooms, phone boxes, and on bus stops. Coast opposed the evacuation of children from the East End of London on the grounds that it would spread ‘Polish Jews and Czech Communists’ throughout the British countryside.  

It is likely that MI5 surveillance of Coast’s activities delayed his call-up to the war, explaining why he was drafted to Singapore just three weeks before the Japanese invasion in 1942. Imprisoned and interned, Coast appears to have begun giving anti-Semitic lectures at ‘the university’ shortly after his arrival.   

During his life, Coast was an Indonesian revolutionary, a prisoner of war, and a presidential translator turned propagandist. In his youth, he was a Fascist agitator, in middle age a diplomat, and in later life a musical agent extraordinaire.  

No human stories boil down to an easy moral, but John Coast’s life poses a particularly poignant challenge to some of the central ideological tenets of our moment. We live in a tribal world where cultural affiliations are often conflated with personal identity. Political values are treated as if they derive from our DNA. We are encouraged to see Political Opinion X and Person Y as all but indistinguishable. In a world underpinned by essentializing assumptions, Coast’s story reminds us how malleable, incomplete, and inadequate the explanatory power of identity can be.  
In numerous memoirs, novels, and political tracts, Coast appeared to try and make sense of his stark reinventions. Yet despite these volumes of writing, it is simply not clear how far Coast ever really paused to re-evaluate his life. When completed his literary efforts seldom served as durable anchors of identity. If anything, they often marked the beginnings of a new stage of highly unpredictable personal transformation. Hero and anti-hero, Coast’s pursuit of new understandings of the world might almost be considered an illness. This was self-authorship without self-reflection.  
His love of both concealment and performance further complicated matters — and perhaps also helped explain his ability to manage the demanding egos of the music business — while Coast’s papers were split up and scattered across the world after his death.

Decades of correspondence with figures like Marlene Dietrich, Olivia De Havilland, and Bob Hope were also lost. Rosenberg continues to hope that Coast’s papers will finally be collected up and reunited. Perhaps one day given a home at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Without them, it will always be very difficult, if not impossible, to really understand either the depth or resilience of his ideological make-up. 

However, Coast had hidden away any holistic sense of his extraordinary life long before his agency’s archive was torn apart. In 1987, illness prompted a retreat to Norfolk. The move brought the geography of Coast’s life full circle. He was now living close to where he had worked on Williamson’s farm as a young man. Indeed, just a few years previously he had anonymously donated money to help greenlight the animated film version of Williamson’s book Tarka the Otter. No one who knew Coast at the end of his life appears to have understood the full dimensions of his past. Like his former Japanese captors, he now presented as a mild-mannered old man. 

“Everything I’ve read from Coast’s letters paints a picture of a gentleman, striving for new experiences and to witness world events,” says Noszlopy, “and he dedicated a large portion of his life working with Asian people and fighting colonial rule before falling in love with a Jewish woman.”

Laura Rosenberg believed that Coast’s moustache gave him something to hide behind. But it is certainly possible, perhaps even likely, that even he did not know exactly what it was that he was hiding. There were many contradictory John Coasts, and for substantial parts of his life, he lived them all simultaneously and with complete sincerity.•

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