Royston Ellis, travel book author and jazz-poet who inspired the Beatles’ Polythene Pam – obituary
Royston Ellis, who has died aged 82, was known in recent decades for travel books, but in the late 1950s he was a bearded, cheerfully bisexual jazz-poet, which led John Lennon to call him “an English cover version of Allen Ginsberg”.
Despite being described by the Daily Mirror as “a weirdie from weirdsville”, he toured with Cliff Richard and the Shadows, and the band provided the backing to one of his recitals – as did the emergent Beatles.
Ellis was later memorialised by the song Polythene Pam on their 1969 album Abbey Road, whose title character dressed in a polythene bag, as well as jackboots and a kilt. Lennon met up with Ellis after a gig on Guernsey, where Ellis was working on the ferry. “He said Miss X, a girl he wanted me to meet, dressed up in polythene,” Lennon recalled. “She didn’t wear jackboots and kilts. I just sort of elaborated.”
Christopher Royston George Ellis was born on February 10 1941 and grew up in Hatch End, near Harrow. He left school at 16 and took various humdrum jobs while furthering a career as a poet inspired by Ginsberg and Kerouac. In 1959 he published a small volume, Jiving to Gyp, followed by Rave in 1960. He described the former as “raunchy, atheistic poetry”, though it was incongruously dedicated to Cliff Richard.
Joining the Soho scene, he was taken up by Richard’s management, toured with him and wrote a book about the experience, Driftin’ With Cliff Richard (1960), as well as The Big Beat Scene (1961).
The Shadows’ lead guitarist Hank Marvin recalled of Ellis: “He had the hair and the beard, which in 1961 was very far out.” Film survives of the Shadows backing him with an uncharacteristic slow blues – “free-form rubbish but fun”, Marvin recalled of their contribution – in front of surprised teenagers at Battersea Town Hall (for such performances Ellis coined the term “rocketry”).
He made several television appearances around that time, including one at the start of a 1960 ITV documentary based around Brighton’s basement coffee bar, the Whisky A-Go Go. “Parents seem to have something against this place,” he says. Asked whether there were any youth clubs in Brighton, he replies: “So they tell me, but I don’t see the point of them. We just don’t jive with religion.”
Ellis hitch-hiked around the country to read his poems, and in June 1960 he arrived in Liverpool. Due to appear at the university, he filled in time beforehand at the Jacaranda coffee bar, an early haunt of the nascent Beatles.
He chanced upon George Harrison, who, he wrote, “looked fabulous with his long hair and matelot striped T-shirt. I was 19 and he was 17 and we clicked right away”. George introduced him to the rest of the group, Paul McCartney and two art college students, John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe, who shared a squalid flat on Gambier Terrace in the shadow of the Anglican cathedral.
They invited Ellis to stay there, and later that month the then drummerless group backed him at the Jacaranda as he recited: “Easy, easy, / break me in easy. / Sure I’m bigtime, / cock-sure and brash, / but easy, easy, / break me in easy”.
He subsequently gave the band their introduction to the world of drugs. “The big thing about Royston Ellis,” Harrison recalled, “was that he discovered that if you opened a Vicks inhaler you find there was Benzedrine inside. We cracked open an inhaler, ate it, and sat up all night, burping the taste of the inhaler.”
Ellis suggested the group join him as accompanists in London, and even announced it in Record Mirror, their first mention in a national music paper. They seem to have taken him up, but reached Pinner only to be told that he was away.
Ellis continued to tour, and for a brief time was accompanied by Jimmy Page, the future Led Zeppelin guitarist; they shared a bill at the Mermaid Theatre with Flora Robson and Ralph Richardson.
Still only 20, Ellis left England, travelling to East Berlin and Moscow – where he shared a stage with Yevgeny Yevtushenko – and on to Guernsey, where he met Lennon again, then the Canary Islands, where he played an Arab in the 1964 Cliff Richard film, Wonderful Life that was shot in Las Palmas. He stayed for three years, becoming the editor of the islands’ English language newspaper, the Canary Islands Sun.
He also wrote three novels, one of which, Myself for Fame, drew upon his showbiz experiences, making plain that pop managers were often homosexual.
Ellis took off again, reaching the Maldives, the British Virgin Islands and Dominica. Again, he turned his hand to various writings, among them a dozen fast-moving novels, under the pseudonym Richard Tresillian: set in 19th-century West Indies, his Bondmaster series turned around slavery, whippings, passion and witchcraft, a heady brew that sold more than a million copies.
He stayed in Dominica for several years, taking a close interest in the island’s cricket team – he became president of the Dominica Cricket Association, a member of the MCC and of the Windward Islands Cricket Board of Control – and grew close to President Edward Le Blanc.
When the 1979 hurricane destroyed his hillside cabin Ellis departed for Sri Lanka, where he stayed. It became a base for his extensive travel writing, which also encompassed India, Madagascar and the Maldives. He was as ready to contribute to lucrative in-flight magazines as he was to compile guides to travel by railway.
He remained friendly with Jimmy Page, and they met again when Ellis resumed poetry readings and his earlier books were republished. In 2006 he met Paul McCartney, who surprised him by recalling all the words to “Break me in easy” – and suggesting an amendment.
Royston Ellis wrote more than 60 books, including Gone Man Squared (2013), a collection of his beat poetry, with an introduction by Page.
Royston Ellis, born February 10 1941, died February 27 2023