Eighty Years On: Café de Paris, 8 March, 1941

‘Snakehips’ Johnson performing for a pre-WW2 BBC TV camera.

History is treacherous. Narratives of nationhood are myths and legends derived from imperfectly understood events. Even now, the 2nd World War continues to drive the national narrative, with phrases like ‘Dunkirk spirit’ and ‘blitz spirit’ employed as definitions of British grit, stoicism and grace under pressure. But these phrases are slippery and mendacious, and we all know the kind of people who use them.

The Café de Paris on Coventry St., between Piccadilly and Leicester Square, had been closed for refurbishment for most of 1940, but the manager had been able to stockpile something like 25,000 bottles of champagne during the year. On 5th November he re- opened with the slogan: ‘the safest and gayest restaurant in town, 20 feet below ground’. It was slow going at first; London was still getting hammered, and that December saw one the worst nights for property damage of the whole blitz, when large parts of the City of London were flattened by incendiary bombs. However, club business picked up and New Year’s Eve was the best night it had had for over a decade. But the Café’s catchphrase was a terrible hostage to fortune: too many Luftwaffe bombs had penetrated deep underground, killing people sheltering in tube stations and basement facilities.

By 1941 attacks on London had lessened as the Luftwaffe bombed British provincial cities instead, giving Londoners breathing space and the city an opportunity to recover a little. On the 8 March the Café de Paris was thronged with customers who were braving an ongoing air raid to dine and dance to the music of Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson, a popular singer from Guyana who was performing with his West Indian band. Betty Baldwin, daughter of former Prime minister Stanley Baldwin, was present and recalled: ‘The men, almost all in uniform, seemed extraordinarily handsome, the young women very beautiful, the whole atmosphere one of great gaiety and youthful charm’. At about 9.45, as Johnson was singing his number ‘Oh Johnny’, two 50kg bombs hit the building. One landed above the bandstand, killing Snakehips and all but one of his band. The other bomb exploded on the dance floor. Because the Café de Paris was a ritzy, exclusive, establishment, the ensuing carnage had a tinselly glitter, making it one of the most indelibly ghastly episodes of the entire blitz. As the wounded had their injuries washed with champagne and soldiers carried out their dead girlfriends, looters rummaged through the coats and handbags of the victims and took jewellery from the corpses. One of the eyewitnesses was Ballard Berkeley, an actor too old for the forces who had become a special constable instead: ‘In such a confined space the force was tremendous. It blew heads and legs off and exploded their lungs. … One hears a lot about the bravery during the war, but there were also some very nasty people … these people slipped in pretty quickly and it was full of people – firemen, wardens, police – so it was very easy to cut off a finger here or steal a necklace, and it did happen’.

The Cafe de Paris before the war.

The story of criminals using the blitz as cover remains one of the most startling aspects of life on the Home Front; Scotland Yard had to set up a special unit to tackle the deluge of looting; and, wherever possible, bodies dug out of buildings were guarded to prevent theft from the corpses. Some of the looting was merely opportunistic, but there were organised gangs who employed spotters to report likely prospects so thieves could be on the spot before air raid wardens or firemen got there. (My mother was a teenager in Swansea when that city was bombed, and recalled the eerie speed with which looters operated amongst the entrails of bombed houses, where the dead and dying still lay.) The story of the hit on the Café de Paris was a slightly taboo subject for several reasons. The looting obviously represented criminal self-interest taking advantage of the bombing and going against the national narrative of collective resistance. Also, there were similar tragedies happening all across London, dance halls in poorer areas being hit during Nazi bombing raids, and there was considerable resentment that the less glamorous dead generally didn’t rate more than a couple of lines in the paper. But what happened to Snakehips and his audience that night epitomises the surreal horror of indiscriminate bombing: opulence and gaiety supplanted by violent death in an instant. Nothing is stable, nothing is what it seems, nothing is what it was. There is no ‘new normal’, normality is simply abolished.

The Café de Paris remained closed for the rest of the war, reopening only in 1948. About the same time, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote a very bleak post-war symphony, his sixth, with an episode inspired by the Café de Paris bombing, a sort of hellish play on ‘Swanee River’ as played by Snakehips Johnson’s doomed jazz band. The novelist Anthony Powell also uses the bombing as a central episode within his grand series of novels of 20th century society ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ (he calls it the Café Madrid). As to the venue itself, Covid-19 succeeded where Hitler failed: the Café de Paris closed for good in December 2020, another fatality of the pandemic. As for Ballard Berkeley, he continued his career as a character actor in the West End and in the occasional B picture (I saw him in one on Talking Pictures the other day) but, unlike his old flatmate Cary Grant, he had to wait until old age for his finest moment: as the senile and xenophobic ‘Major’ in Fawlty Towers. Thus the heroic witness to the blitz enters the canon of British television comedy: playing a mad old man resentful at German guests staying in the seaside hotel where he is eking out his days.

Ballard Berkeley in ‘Fawlty Towers’.

Further reading: The Longest Night, Gavin Mortimer. London at War, 1939-1945, Philip Ziegler.

Deep Play

William Hogarth: A Rake’s Progress, plate 4.

‘There is nothing, however trivial or ridiculous, which is not capable of producing a bet.’ 
Gambling at White’s club, noted by Connoisseur Magazine, May 1754.

We last met Hogarth’s rakish anti-hero in Covent Garden, insensible with drink in a room at the Rose Tavern; that was plate 3. In plate 4 Tom is in the process of being arrested for debt, the action taking place on the corner of Piccadilly and St James’s St., with St James’s Palace in the distance. As ever with Hogarth, the specificity of locale is key: St. James’s is the playground for the super-rich, although even children wager at cards here. The building being struck by lightning is White’s, 37-38 St. James’s St., oldest and grandest of St. James’s clubs. Although much rebuilt, White’s still operates on the same spot, its members list a roll-call of three centuries of the British establishment, but its heyday was the high Georgian period, when the mania for gambling on anything ran rampant throughout society. White’s and the other clubs of St. James’s., including Almack’s, Brooks’s, Boodle’s, etc., gave the monied class a congenial environment in which to flirt with existential ruin.

White’s gaming book was kept from around the 1740s, and some of the more insane wagers of the era may be found within its pages. For example, ‘Lord Montfort wages Sir John Bland one hundred guineas that Mr. Nash outlives Mr. Cibber.’ That particular wager was rendered void as both backers had killed themselves before any outcome was reached (gambling debts, naturally). It was at White’s where Lord Arlington bet £3,000 on one raindrop beating another to reach the bottom of a window pane. In 1750, the diarist Horace Walpole reports an incident where a man who collapsed in the street was carried up the steps and into the hall of White’s, whereupon members began wagering whether or not he was dead. Other stories have members of White’s staving off their aristocratic boredom by betting on which of their alumni would be the next to catch the pox from the girls at Mrs Comyns’ brothel a few doors down; or rolling a sentry box and its occupant downhill, laying bets on the occupant’s chances of survival. At Brooks’s, across the street, Lord Cholomondley bet Lord Derby 500 guineas that he would have sex with a woman in a hot air balloon ‘one thousand yards above the earth’. That was in 1785. No-one knows whether Lord Cholomondley pulled this off or not.

By the end of the 18th century, there were many amazing tales of fortunes being lost – and occasionally won – at games like Faro, Hazard, Picquet, Whist, etc.. Amongst gamblers of ‘the quality’, there was a divide between the shrewd, calculating operators who practised games of skill and those who were addicted to risk itself. The daughters of the aristocracy were not immune either and many were cleaned out by elegant but wily professionals such as John, 2nd Lord Hervey (a courtier of George II and an expert at Quadrille, he made a speciality of relieving the ladies of court of their fortunes). Hogarth dramatised the dilemma of the aristocratic lady embarrassed by her losses in his painting The Lady’s Last Stake, wherein the subject is given the option of repaying her debt to a soldier by taking him as a lover.

William Hogarth: A Rake’s Progress, plate 6.

White’s is also the scene of plate 6 of A Rake’s Progress, where Hogarth’s doomed anti-hero Tom gives in to despair as his debts mount in the club’s gaming room. An interesting detail in this image is the night watchman attempting to alert the oblivious gamblers that the building is on fire. (This is a nod to the fact that the original White’s club caught fire in 1733, around the time Hogarth was working on the series.) Brooks’s, at 60 St.James’s St., was founded in 1764 as a more political, even progressive, gentleman’s club; but it was also a theatre for even deeper ‘deep play’ than was practiced at White’s. In the words of the Member of Parliament and wit George Selwyn, Brooks’s was a ‘precipice to perdition’. It once boasted a window at ground level that afforded passers-by a look at the aristocrats losing their shirts at the tables. Amongst so many of the latter, brothers Charles and Stephen Fox deserve special mention, as they ramped up scarcely conceivable debts at games of chance, especially Faro, during the 1770s. By the end of 1773, the brothers’ indulgent, sorrowful and terminally ill father, Lord Holland, was trying to pay off Charles’s debts of £130,000 (something like £11M today); in spite of this, Charles went on gambling at Brooks’s, borrowing wantonly from friends, money-lenders, and, at one point, even the club’s waiters, to finance his compulsion. Like many who lost heavily, Fox’s debts were incurred during all-night sessions where judgement was muddied by booze and fatigue. This is a common factor in the histories of fortunes squandered. The ones who actually made money were the abstainers, the percentage men; men like General Scott, who is reported to have dined exclusively off boiled chicken, toast and water, and who won £200,000 during a bout of whist at Brooks’s. By 1781, Charles Fox’s house on St. James’s St. was in the hands of bailiffs; yet at the same time as all his possessions were being loaded onto carts, Charles returned to Brooks’s in a desperate attempt to turn his finances around. Amazingly, he seems to have had a run of the cards – for a while anyway. For those who were less fortunate, suicide was an honourable way out, although it seems that the accepted thing to do was to dispatch yourself into eternity in a distant and less toney district: Covent Garden perhaps, or Smithfield maybe. Hogarth’s Tom ends up in Bedlam. Charles Fox ended up as Foreign Secretary.

William Hogarth: A Rake’s Progress, plate 8.

See also: Greene and Philby in The King’s Arms.