James Style

Writer, columnist and photographer
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The Independent Online

James Style, writer and photographer: born London 18 August 1966; died Anjuna Beach, Goa 23 January 2004.

Not many Jewish ex-public schoolboys are equally at home with Jamaican ragga artists, Indian saddhus and tough south London estate kids, but James Style managed it effortlessly. A gifted writer and photographer and an important player in the capital's club and music scenes, he had talents too diverse to make him conventionally famous. His most significant literary achievement was probably to be cited in etymological dictionaries as the first person to use the expression "chill-out" as an adjective (in his early 1990s clubbing column in The Independent). But, within the numerous circles in and between which he moved, he was something of a legend.

The bare facts of Style's life, though unusually colourful, fail to do him justice because his greatest gifts were interpersonal. His ability to bring unlikely people together and his knack of penetrating what was essential about them were perfectly captured by his unique approach to photography.

He would shoot a roll of film, say at the Kumbh Mela festival in India, and add it to the collection in his ubiquitous satchel. Then at some later point - perhaps a friend's birthday party in London - he would select a roll (often at random), wind back the film, and start shooting. The results were unpredictable, but occasionally mesmerising. A grey winter's sky would glow with the ghost of a tropical sunset. A serene holy man would hover over the face of a young English child. These were photographs of the soul.

James Style was born in 1966, the youngest of three siblings. His father Michael, a film and television executive for ATV and Hammer, was a pioneer of outside broadcasting. He was responsible for the first satellite link-up between Britain and the United States, which featured a Beatles concert. His mother Angela, meanwhile, was sometime deputy mayor of Richmond in Surrey. James grew up in the classic 1970s media-mogul environments of a mansion in Kingston Hill followed by a large Georgian house in the Cotswolds. His parents converted the latter into a language school, thereby acclimatising their son to the cosmopolitan atmosphere which became second nature to him.

Style was educated at Winchester College. When his father died suddenly in 1983 as the result of a faulty drug prescription, the tab was picked up by an anonymous benefactor. On leaving school, James went to read Law at London University, but dropped out after a year, likening the experience to being forced to learn the telephone directory.

Instead, he embarked on several careers in parallel. By day he wrote for Nine to Five and Touch magazines and had a column in The Independent covering the burgeoning UK club scene. By night, he pursued his musical interests more directly, working in tandem with his promoter cousin Spencer Style and his business partner Johnny Lawes. He was a particularly gifted talent-spotter, helping bring Soul II Soul among others to a wider audience.

Style was instrumental in staging many of the first "mega clubs", in which club nights were taken from small, traditional venues into huge ex-cinema arenas such as the Astoria and the Brixton Academy. "Delirium" (1985-87) and "Metamorphosis" (1987-89) were the biggest nights in London and are still talked about today.

During the early 1990s, Style worked for Hardzone, the company run by Jackie Davidson and her sisters that managed some of the biggest reggae stars of the era. These included Ninjaman, Supercat and Shabba Ranks, who had No 1 singles in the UK and US. Style proved an invaluable masseur of the egos of these sometimes difficult stars and their entourages, ferrying them around to media interviews and negotiating lucrative contracts on their behalf.

He was also involved in musical projects of his own, notably with Nick Raphael and others on Spectre (1999), a dub album themed around the conspiracy theory, for which he acted as overseer and adviser. He was fascinated by "sacred geometry" and the mysteries of Rennes-le-Château in the Languedoc.

Style's next venture was a vintage clothing stall in the Portobello Road market that he operated with his friend Stefan Zoppi. He also dabbled in antiques and had a fine eye for porcelain. Around this time, his cousin Charles Style purchased a dilapidated Victorian pump-house in Rotherhithe, south-east London, for development. The property had once provided hydraulic power for cranes on the city's docks. James moved into the adjacent keeper's cottage as caretaker.

The pump-house had a small orchard and was enclosed by a high steel wall, making it an island of tranquillity amid the high-rise flats of this impoverished corner of London. Style realised it was the ideal location for the foundation of a community reflecting his developing spiritual awareness. For a few years, pending the commencement of building work, he filled it with an ever-changing selection of pierced Australian women, musicians, seekers, artists and grown-up Artful Dodgers. Style was the benign monarch of this odd kingdom, the scene of legendary parties and "happenings". He also acted as mentor to many local youths, taking them to work on his Portobello stall and providing them with a haven from their hectic lives on the surrounding streets.

During the last years of his short but rich life, Style devoted much of his time to his photography, exhibiting in Great Marlborough Street in London and in Brighton and elsewhere, and to travel. Though never pushy or evangelical, he was a pro-active seeker after truth, and was particularly drawn to India. Here he found a freedom from the pressures of the rat race that perfectly suited his temperament. At the time of his tragic death in a motorcycle accident in Goa, he was looking into buying a plot of land there with a view to opening a café. He was also working on a book about his idiosyncratic path through life.

James Style was unmarried. Though he loved women and vice versa, frequently referring to his "harem", he remained relatively celibate. He is survived by his mother, his two sisters and an enormous extended family of friends and relations.

Johnny Acton

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