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.

Valentine’s Day Veg

Spot the missing theatre … The Golden Lion, King St., St. James’s., December 2019.

The Golden Lion on King Street is a theatre pub that has lost its theatre. Until 1957 it was the stage door watering hole for The St. James’s Theatre, one of those grand 19th century monuments so enthusiastically demolished by 20th century bureaucrats. Despite the protests of some of the greatest actors of the age, the theatre was pulled down for no very good reason: it was just old at a time when being old was unforgivable. A great pity. Apart from anything else, The St. James’s Theatre was the scene of Oscar Wilde’s greatest triumph, and one of the settings for his tragic fall. It’s a very familiar story but it remains endlessly fascinating, and more complex than the legend allows.

On Valentine’s Day 1895 the St. James’s saw the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest, a production starring the St. James’s charismatic manager George Alexander, a regular collaborator of Wilde’s. As the play was in progress, John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry lurked outside, clutching a bouquet of vegetables that he intended to throw at Wilde. Queensberry was furious with Wilde because of the playwright’s association with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas, forever known by his pet name of ‘Bosie’. But Wilde had been tipped off, Queensberry’s ticket to the show was cancelled and he was denied entry to the theatre. The premiere of Earnest was the apotheosis of Wilde’s career – but Queensberry was soon to have his revenge.

Four days after Earnest‘s first night, Queensberry visited Wilde’s club, the Albermarle, 13 Albermarle St., just north of Piccadilly; unable to find Wilde, he scrawled a note on one of his visiting cards and left it with the hall porter. The message read:

To Oscar Wilde posing somdomite.

The porter read it and wrote the time and date of its receipt on the reverse. It was unseen by anyone else until Wilde went to his club ten days later. On receiving the note Wilde considered leaving the country – but he was staying at a Piccadilly hotel, couldn’t pay his bill and thus felt trapped. Wilde was hounded not just by the mad Marquess but by the mad son: the toxic combination of the provocative note left at his club and the spitting hatred Bosie felt for his father pushed Wilde into suing Queensberry for libel. This was an extraordinarily bad idea. For all his brilliance, Wilde was a vulnerable outsider: an Irish writer of ambiguous sexuality, with expensive tastes but an uncertain income, he was ill-placed to launch a libel action against a vengeful aristocrat with a taste for pugilism. Years later, in a letter to Bosie, he deplored the way he was goaded into pursuing the case: ‘… on the one side there was your father attacking me with hideous card left at my club, on the other side there was you attacking me with no less loathsome letters. […] Between you both I lost my head. My judgment forsook me. Terror took its place. I saw no possible escape, I may say frankly, from either of you. Blindly I staggered as an ox into the shambles’. With a pithy turn of phase, he also recalled the preliminary consultations with his lawyer: ‘… in the ghastly glare of a bleak room you and I would sit with serious faces telling serious lies to a bald man …’.

Queensberry’s note to Wilde: exhibits A and B in Wilde’s doomed libel case, as kept at the National Archives.

Queensberry’s homophobic fury was driven by grief. In 1893 his eldest son Drumlanrig had died in a hunting accident, killed by a round from his own shotgun. At the time of his death Drumlanrig was Private Secretary to Gladstone’s Foreign Minister, Earl Rosebery. The verdict was accidental death but rumours of suicide abounded, implying that Drumlanrig had sacrificed himself to spare Rosebery scandalous revelations. Queensberry suspected that Drumlanrig was having an affair with Rosebery and blamed him for his son’s death. Queensberry followed Rosebery across Europe in the hope of confronting him publicly but was prevented from doing so. Thwarted in pursuit of his primary quarry, Queensberry was further incensed by Wilde’s relationship with Bosie, which he saw as mirroring the one between Rosebery and Drumlanrig. (Ironically, news of Drumlanrig’s tragedy caused Wilde to scrap his plan to dump the troublesome Bosie.) Wilde was a far easier target for Queensberry’s rage: by the time Queensberry left his card for Wilde at the Albermarle Club, Rosebery had become Prime Minister.

As per the Cleveland Street Scandal of a few years earlier, the establishment was vulnerable when it came to homosexuality, with sexual transgression across class boundaries being especially taboo. Wilde’s lunatic libel case merely exposed his own sexual tastes, as Queensberry’s legal counsel announced his intention to call rent boys known to Wilde as witnesses for the defence. Wilde withdrew his suit, leading to Queensberry’s formal acquittal. Within hours, Wilde was arrested on charges of sodomy and Gross Indecency. The Crown prosecuted Wilde (now bankrupt as a result of costs from his libel suit) not once but twice, as the first trial resulted in a hung jury. Once Rosebery’s name was invoked by Queensberry in connection with Wilde it was inevitable that Wilde would have to fall. He was convicted at the second trial and sentenced to two years hard labour. Wilde’s demise is generally viewed as a pristine example of Victorian repression and hypocrisy, but sympathy for Wilde’s persecution (exemplified by Richard Ellmann’s deeply-felt but very partisan biography) tends to obscure an element of coercion in his dealings with at least some of his sexual partners. If Wilde came to court today, it’s likely that the outcome would be much the same; one doesn’t have to look far for recent parallels.

The site of the St. James’s Theatre is now occupied by a bombastic office block, although Wilde’s portrait appears on a commemorative wall frieze that merely emphasises the theatre’s absence. (As with the plaque commemorating the vanished Adelphi Terrace, what is the bloody point of memorialising buildings that should never have been pulled down in the first place?) The Golden Lion remains an engaging pub, and one can imagine how exciting and atmospheric it must have been after a first night. Whether or not Wilde himself ever came here to drink is uncertain; he probably would have swanned off to Kettners or The Cafe Royal straight after a show. But I bet Queensberry came in for a sharpener, vegetables in hand, blood on his mind.

Commemorative plaque, Angel Court, on the site of The St. James’s Theatre. Wilde is pictured centre.

At Home With Keith Moon

Keith Moon at Tara, early ’70s. Photo Alec Byrne. (Not commercial use!)

Stories of Keith Moon’s behaviour on the road and on the town are the backbone of rock music’s mythic past, that never-never land which seems as remote now as the England of Byrd and Dowland. Moon’s biographer Tony Fletcher suggests that the drummer’s hyperactivity and penchant for breaking things were symptoms of undiagnosed Borderline Personality Disorder, aggravated by the fact that he played in a band that parlayed violent destruction as performance art. By the early Seventies The Who’s huge success finally gave them a chance to have a breather from back-to-back touring and recording. Unfortunately, Keith wasn’t very good at sitting still and had no real interests beyond drumming for The Who. Nevertheless, he did the rock star thing and bought a country house for himself and his wife and young daughter. But it wasn’t deep in the countryside: the house was in Chertsey, inside the present-day perimeter of the M25, thus within striking distance of London’s clubs, and of a startlingly contemporary design. He bought it from film director Peter ‘Italian Job’ Collinson, who had built it on the site of a Victorian house he had blown up for a war film. (Apparently Collinson bombed the old house because he’d been refused planning permission to extend it: the film featuring its destruction is called The Long Day’s Dying.) Collinson called the new house Tara, and seems to have designed it himself; but no sooner had he finished it, in 1971, he decided to move to Los Angeles and put the house up for sale. Tara was an essay in futuristic opulence, a rambling agglomeration consisting of five pyramid-capped structures set in five secluded acres near a lovely stretch of the Thames: the ideal playground for a hyperactive man-child with time on his hands. (Although, tellingly, the one thing Tara lacked was a drum kit: Moon didn’t practice at home.)

Keith and John Entwistle with their vehicles at Tara: the Cadillac is Entwistle’s, the milk float is Keith’s. (Not commercial use!)

It was at Tara that many of the urban legends associated with Moon originated. It was here that he acquired a stable of cars that he couldn’t drive, including a Ferrari (that got wrecked), a hovercraft and a milk float. And it was here that he accidentally backed a Rolls Royce into a shallow duck pond, giving birth to the quintessential rock image of a Rolls sunk in a swimming pool. It was also during his tenure at Tara that Moon’s personality changed, errant playfulness curdling into something darker. His reliance on booze (principally brandy and champagne) became chronic, and the house became base of operations for his ongoing assault upon the straight world. The relentless japes and jokes and dressing up (as Hitler or Marilyn Monroe or Long John Silver, and usually in the company of Viv Stanshall) were reportedly hilarious or desperate or both: Keith never knew when to stop. Moon’s young wife Kim lasted a couple of years at Tara before she finally fled, taking her daughter but leaving her mother, who sounds almost as damaged as Keith. An account by a visitor:

‘Tara was like a sort of trap. In the morning or whenever people were awakened, you’d be aroused with a large gin and tonic or a Joan Collins, which was Keith’s mother-in-law’s own specially lethal version of Tom Collins. What were considered light drinks were imbibed during the day – gin, vodka, Pimms, beer alternating between the pub and the house. After six o’clock, though, it was serious drinking. Joan would switch from gin to Bells or Teachers whisky and Keith would switch from beer, or whatever, to cognac. The problem was that the days were all one long blur. Each hangover was hidden with yet more gin breakfasts in bed and so another round of semi-tired silliness would start’. (Richard Barnes, Maximum R&B, a biography of The Who.)

Fletcher’s biography contains a poignant anecdote from Jeff Beck, who visited Tara after Keith’s marriage had broken up, ostensibly because Moon wanted to sell Beck one of his cars (a fabulously ugly American ‘hot rod’; Beck demurred). The afternoon came and went, Keith gave Beck a tour of the house, warning him of the dog shit in every room, illustrating the custom-built cupboards full of junk that immediately fell out, playing Beck’s hit single Beck’s Bolero on a vintage jukebox that then repeated it over and over and over again. Meanwhile, Keith’s stunning but nameless girlfriend flitted about looking anxious, and ended up in bed with Beck. Next morning Beck and Keith’s girlfriend were woken by industrial noise coming from outside: it was Moon riding his hovercraft onto the lawn. Later, they went to the local pub with Beck driving Moon’s other Rolls-Royce, a drop-top Corniche. The pub regulars were fond enough of Keith to be a bit wary of Beck, seeing him as perhaps yet another hanger-on, but then it was back to Tara, Moon and the girl taking their clothes off in the back of the Rolls, surf music on the sound system, as Beck narrowly avoided wrecking the big car on an unexpected roundabout. Beck summed up his experience chez Moon thus:

He just seemed to have opened up all the sluices to enjoy life more, and this house was a piece of man-made nonsense which was a fashion accessory that enabled him to do what he wanted in the middle of nowhere. … He gave me the impression that the thought of staying more than two hours on his own there would be a torture. It looked like it and it smelled like it. (Quoted in Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon.)

On the town, somewhere … via Rex Features (not commercial use!)

Shortly thereafter, Moon followed in the footsteps of Tara’s creator and headed to Los Angeles, where he stayed for four years. He ended up selling Tara to another rock musician, Kevin Godley of 10cc. Sadly, but perhaps fittingly, Tara was not memorialised as a relic of rock’s golden age, or even as a piece of ambitious Seventies architecture: in 1990 Godley sold it to Vince Clarke, he of Erasure, who promptly levelled it and constructed his own millennial fantasy home on the site. But Moon was long dead by then, having expired in 1978 at the age of 32: an overdose from prescribed medication for alcohol addiction. (News of Moon’s death didn’t reach the planning committee of the 2012 London Olympic Games, who got in touch with The Who’s management to see if he was available to play at the opening ceremony.) As for Peter Collinson, he succumbed to lung cancer in 1980, just 44 years old.

More photos of Keith at Tara here.