A Corner In Fitzrovia

William Roberts: ‘The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel: Spring, 1915’. Painted circa 1961-2. Ezra Pound front left, Wyndham Lewis in hat and scarf, centre, Rudolph Stulik with cake, right. (Tate.)

‘My friend, Marie Beerbohm, came often to Fitzroy Street. We all went in the evenings to the Eiffel Tower restaurant and ate and drank afterwards. One morning Marie came to see me. She said ‘An awful thing has happened; I was bringing with me half a bottle of champagne to cheer us up. I met Walter Sickert in the street. He saw it and said “Disgraceful that young girls like you should drink in the morning’ and he took it from me”’. (Nina Hamnett, one of Fitzrovia’s great monuments, reminiscing about the area as it was during the first world war.)

The Virgin’s Prayer (Anon):
Ezra Pound and Augustus John
Bless the bed that I lie on.

On the corner of Charlotte and Percy streets, just a few steps north of The Wheatsheaf, is a restaurant that used to be The Eiffel Tower. When I started hanging around Fitzrovia in the early 1980s it was called The White Tower, and even then it carried some residual cachet of its earlier years. From the first world war to the start of the second, The Eiffel Tower was a beacon of fine dining and civilisation during the dark years when British food was genuinely awful. But it was more than just a good restaurant; like the Café Royal in Regent Street, the Eiffel Tower functioned as a sort of sanctuary for artists, an informal club where the bohemian aristocracy could feast and play. This is where you would find the artistic personalities of the age dining on Canard Presse, Sole Dieppoise and other classics of old-world French cuisine. The benevolent proprietor was an Austrian restaurateur named Rudolph Stulik, a dead ringer for emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, whose lavish bill of fare constituted an impressive feat during wartime. And one can only wonder at the sullen resentment patrons in the Marquis of Granby opposite – a tougher and less artistically inclined pub than the others in the vicinity – might have felt towards the conspicuous consumption of the Eiffel Tower’s patrons. The fact that Stulik was performing a sort of conjuring trick keeping the place going at all was not outwardly apparent, although the seams sometimes showed, as when he had to ask patrons to pay in advance for their meals so he could buy the food with which to prepare them.

The Eiffel Tower was where one Bohemian generation advanced the cause of the next. Walter Sickert, William Orpen and Augustus John – veterans of the 1890s Decadent scene, all of whom rented studios on Fitzroy Street – partied with Nina Hamnett’s crowd, Pound, Wydham Lewis and the Vorticist mob, and later the Sitwells, Dylan Thomas and co., in an ambience of genial permissiveness. The restaurant offered a private dining room, as well as bedrooms for serious naughtiness. ( As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it was in one of those bedrooms that Dylan Thomas consummated his relationship with Caitlin Macnamara, Augustus John’s 17-year old girlfriend, just a few hours after meeting her, the bill for the room charged to John’s account. By this point, Augustus John was approaching his goatish dotage, hence the saying that he patted the head of every child he met on Charlotte St., in case it was one of his own.)

Augustus John, circa 1955, by the great Alfred Eisenstadt for Life Magazine.

However, the glory days of the Eiffel Tower seemed to peter out sometime in the 1920s, its artistic demise coinciding with the genuine aristocracy – as opposed to the bohemian variety – crashing the place and sending the artists into flight. The shipping heiress Nancy Cunard – although a well meaning sponsor of the arts and certain artists in particular – seems to have led the invasion, and as a consequence the bohemian centre of operations moved a few doors to the north, to a place where the nobs and moneyed gentry were unlikely to follow. A pub. (The Fitzroy Tavern, still in business but no longer the epicentre of bohemian raciness.)

In the 1980s I knew Fitzrovia very well; I had a friend who lived on Whitfield St., right opposite the Fitzroy Tavern, and I availed myself of the local processing labs. (Like many other photographers, I flirted with incipient alcoholism by killing ‘anxiety time’ in pubs whilst waiting to see my film.) By then Fitzrovia seemed a bit like Soho’s poor cousin: the literary and artistic scenes had vanished and both the Fitzroy and the Wheatsheaf were just Sam Smiths pubs. But the media companies and ad agencies that dominated the area lent it a distinct flavour of its own, and thus the artists of an earlier era had been replaced by actors and ‘creatives’. Saatchi and Channel 4 had their headquarters on Charlotte St.; Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones ran Tallkback productions out of an office on Percy St., and the various theatrical agencies and dubbing studios meant that many famous faces would drift past in the grey afternoons. I remember seeing the young Stephen Fry, tall, grim and pale, wandering along the bottom of Rathbone Place at seven in the morning, apparently returning home from some all-night bash. The place still had a village feel and the restaurants were one-offs rather than chains. On the corner opposite The White Tower was the Venus Kebab House, the kind of unpretentious, not exactly brilliant, restaurant that used to be so common around here (and which fed generations of bohemians, bums and beatniks). The Venus’s saving grace was its location, which gave it enough room to spread tables outside in summer. At lunchtime on a warm summer’s day, the Venus lent this corner a palpable echo of the Mediterranean: one of the few instances I can think of where a restaurant has really achieved that in London. In any case, its fishbowl windows, erratic staff and indiscreet clientele made it a theatre of human comedy at all times, memorable for fights between diners (‘My mother warned me never go back to you after the first time you hit me!’), fights between waiters (‘That’s two orders of kleftico, you bloody shit!) or just pure farce, like the memorable night when the ceiling caved in. It couldn’t last, of course, it was too much fun. And with its passing, a little bit of London died. Last time I looked, there was a Café Nero on the site.

I’ve written about Fitzrovia a few times (see the links below), simply because the district offers a rich density of anecdote, and was peopled by men and women who lived in pristine pursuit of a bohemian ideal. The tragedy of so many of them was that they succumbed to ‘Sohoitis’, i.e.: spending all your time in the pub instead of working. In our own age, now that great cities have been purged of their unseemly artistic communities, and even photographers’ labs are a thing of the past, the contemporary version of Sohoitis is noodling on Twitter or Facebook instead of being productive on Photoshop or Microsoft Word. (This tendency deserves a term of its own.) But the temptation to drift online is all too easy to understand. London’s artistic communities have been driven away and artists have to make do with virtual communities, where the jokes and arguments, feuds and allegiances happen over social media instead of a mahogany bar sticky with drink. It’s supremely ironic that Facebook’s London office is in a swanky block on the west side of Rathbone Place, across the road from The Wheatsheaf. Even my own experiences of Fitzrovia are antique now, as distant from the grey, stooped 50-something writing this as the Blitz was to my callow 20-year old self. In time, perhaps my ghost will join all the others haunting Fitzrovia: waiting for eternally undeveloped film, or for lovely women whose shades will never appear.

The Fitzroy Tavern in 1949.

Further reading:

Julian and Dylan at The Wheatsheaf
Laughing Torso Meets the Great Beast
Rathbone Street pubs
Hangover Hamilton

All Yesterday’s Parties

Bright Young Things and the proletariat: Elizabeth Ponsonby fourth from left, Cecil Beaton with pneumatic drill, next to Cyril Connolly.

‘It was an age of ‘parties’. There were ‘white’ parties in which we shot down to the country in fleets of cars, dressed in white from head to foot, and danced on a white floor lid in the orchard, with the moonlight turning all the apples to silver, and then – in a pale pink dawn – playing races with champagne corks on the surface of the stream. There were Mozart parties in which, powdered and peruked,  we danced by candlelight and then – suddenly bored – rushed out into the street to join a gang excavating the gas mains at Hyde Park Corner. There were swimming parties where, at midnight, we descended on some municipal baths, hired for the occasion, and disported ourselves with an abandon that was all the fiercer because we knew that the press was watching – and watching with a very disapproving eye.’ Beverley Nichols, All I Could Never Be (1949)

The Bright Young People were a phenomenon of the 1920s: well-connected if not actually aristocratic, sometimes rich, usually spoilt and occasionally stupid, they came to characterise the frivolity of the decade and have the capacity to irritate even at this distance. Treasure hunts, scavenger hunts, elaborate dressing up, themed parties, the affected speech (‘too sick-making’, etc.) were guaranteed to invoke the displeasure of their elders in proportion to the number of newspaper columns they filled. In many ways, their behaviour was an understandable reaction to the black-edged aftermath of the 1st World War, the assertion by a generation too young to have experienced hostilities that there was more to life than endless grief. And their coverage in the popular press was mostly indulgent – to begin with at any rate. They were good copy. They are also credited with inventing an important social innovation: the bottle party. (This is said to have been introduced by Loelia Ponsonby in 1926, the novelist Michael Arlen duly turning up with twelve bottles of pink champagne.)

The group are remembered mainly because their ‘antics’ fed into the early novels of Evelyn Waugh, and also those by Anthony Powell and Henry Green – none of whom were members of the set but detached, ironic observers. Other associated with the group included the historian Robert Byron and the artist Rex Whistler; and some in their orbit achieved success and social advancement by association. Cecil Beaton and William Walton both benefited by having their names on certain invitation lists. But the core ‘Brights’ seem to have been full-time party-goers. These include Brian Howard, acid wit, alcoholic and under-achiever; Stephen Tennant, aesthete, would-be novelist and lover of Siegfred Sassoon; and, of course, the fabled Mitford sisters, chiefly Nancy, who occasionally wrote novels, and the breathtakingly beautiful Diana, who ended up married to fascist leader Oswald Mosley. All of these individuals turn up as characters in Waugh’s novels, the exotic Stephen Tennant cited as one of several models for Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited

The Impersonation Party, 1927: the Right Hon. Stephen Tennant as Queen Mary of Romania, seated left, Brian Howard in drag, standing next to Elizabeth Ponsonby and Cecil Beaton, Harold Acton kneeling below, Tallulah Bankhead in tennis gear front, etc.

One of the the most significant of the multitude of parties was David Tennant’s Mozart party, 29 April 1930, a do that was reckoned to have cost £3,000. David Tennant, brother of Stephen and son of the first Lord Glenconner, would now be described as a ‘scenester’, a man who had a feel for the times derived from impeccable connections and a fair bit of old money. Tennant was married to the young ‘queen of revue’, Hermione Gingold, and was founder and proprietor of the Gargoyle Club, a nightclub and cultural hothouse that lasted in Soho from the early twenties to the mid-fifties. Tennant  co-opted the defiance and costume of Don Giovanni by giving himself a lavish birthday party after returning from Canada in the wake of a business failure. Taking place just a few months after the Wall Street Crash, this entertainment was held within a chamber adorned with antique furniture and accessories, with music played by an orchestra decked out, like the five hundred attendees, in formal 18th century get-up (and conducted by the young John Barbirolli, no less). While the host appeared as Mozart’s dark anti-hero, another guest masqueraded as Beau Brummel with the original Brummel’s own cane as a prop. The climax of the evening was a surreal and ominous encounter as a group of party-goers emerged into Piccadilly and were photographed next to a group of workmen digging up the street. Amongst the revellers in the costume of the ancien regime posing next to bemused labourers were Cyril Connolly, Cecil Beaton and the most quintessentially bright of all the bright young people, Elizabeth Ponsonby.

Elizabeth Ponsonby, daughter of the Labour MP Arthur Ponsonby seems to have been the group’s lynchpin in their 1920s heyday. She was one of the sponsors of the famous ‘Bath and Bottle’ party in July 1928, at St.George’s Baths, Buckingham Palace Rd., where guests were instructed to wear a bathing suit and bring a bottle and a towel. Unlike some of the set, Elizabeth never wanted to do anything other than go drinking and partying; but she lacked the financial reserves to truly sustain a life of aristocratic frivolity. She was always good copy, turns up as ‘Agatha Runcible’ in Vile Bodies, lived cheerfully beyond her means – also the means of both her baffled husband and her long-suffering father. Elizabeth achieved apotheosis in tragedy, an event that also marked the end of the Bright Young era. This was a ‘White Party’ (everything painted white, white dress, etc.) held at a country house in Faversham, Kent, on a Saturday night in July 1931. Elizabeth went on her own, her increasingly exasperated husband Denis refusing to attend. At the party, Elizabeth found herself the object of affection of two men, both of whom seem to have had long-standing designs on her. A dance- floor quarrel ensued and events quickly escalated. Some time around 5 a.m., Elizabeth and one of her admirers drove off in a car that belonged to her other admirer, who then gave furious chase in a commandeered lorry. Unsurprisingly, this chase through Kentish lanes ended in disaster, as Elizabeth’s car skidded and overturned. Elizabeth was able to crawl out of the window, but her companion was crushed beneath the vehicle and died at the scene, whilst her pursuer was arrested for drink driving. In his book on ‘the set’, D.J. Taylor pinpoints the coverage of the ensuing inquest as the end of the media phenomenon of the ‘ Brights’.

Elizabeth Ponsonby died of the effects of alcoholism in 1940, at the age of forty, in her rented flat in Jermyn Street, a few doors from the Cavendish Hotel, scene of so many twenties’ parties. A respectful obituary appeared in The Times: D.J. Taylor suggests that her grieving father wrote it himself. Evelyn Waugh died, successful but disillusioned and prematurely old, in 1964. David Tennant died in 1968, in Spain, where he had lived for many years; the same year, Hermione Gingold was in Hollywood and Cecil Beaton was photographing Mick Jagger on the set of Performance. (The National Portrait Gallery held a Beaton exhibition last year, centred on his early career, but this major show was cruelly curtailed by Covid-19.) Stephen Tennant became a recluse on his family’s estate and lived long enough to watch a version of himself being played on television by Anthony Andrews in the famous eighties ITV Brideshead (which must be a bit like being embalmed whilst still alive).

Further reading: Bright Young People, D.J. Taylor, Children of the Sun, Martin Green.

Hangover Hamilton

Taking Patrick Hamilton for a ride on the Met line.

Among the hundreds of taverns sliding back their bolts in the favoured domain was The Midnight Bell – a small, but bright and cleanly establishment, lying in the vicinity of the Euston Road and Warren Street. Though it had no wide reputation, all manner of people frequented The Midnight Bell. This was in its nature, of course, since it is notorious that all manner of people frequent all manner of public houses – which in this respect resemble railway stations and mad houses.’ (From chapter one of The Plains of Cement, the third of Patrick Hamilton’s trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky, 1935.)

Following last week’s essay on overheard conversations in pubs, I thought we’d take a quick look at the work of Patrick Hamilton, patron saint of the saloon bar bore. Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky is a trilogy of novels wherein a Fitzrovia pub serves as a backdrop to a series of small, sad and sordid dramas: stunted lives and doomed hopes playing out on both sides of the mahogany counter. But whilst his characters are invariably pitiful, the atmosphere he conjures of a pub at opening time is lovingly described and gives a clue to his own fondness for the milieu:

The Saloon Bar was narrow and about thirty feet in length. On your right was the bar itself, in all its bottly glitter, and on your left was a row of tables set against a comfortable and continuous leather seat which went the whole length of the bar. […] the whole atmosphere was spotless, tidy, bright and a little chilly. This was no scene for the brawler, but rather for the restrained drinker, with his wife. (The Midnight Bell, 1930.)

The Midnight Bell, the fictional pub of the trilogy, draws heavily on The Wheatsheaf, but also on his own favourite haunt, the now-lost Goat and Compasses, which stood on Fitzrovia’s northern shore, the Euston Rd. (The building is still there but is now commercial premises.) Hamilton knew the territory very well; and the assistant barman, Bob, is to an extent a stand-in for Hamilton himself, as the author also had the misfortune to fall in love with a prostitute. This doomed affair is the main strand of the first novel in the sequence, The Midnight Bell; the trilogy continues with The Siege of Pleasure, which is the back-story of Jenny, the off-hand recipient of Bob’s affections. If the reader knows the autobiographical context the masochistic nature of Bob’s behaviour renders the novel almost unbearable; but then, the trilogy trades in unbearable relationships of all kinds.

He went to bed with a rich and glorious evening, and he awoke at seven to find that it had gone bad overnight […] He had been fooled. He had not, after all, had a great time: he had merely been drinking again. […] He had been fooling about the West End with a woman of the streets. (The Midnight Bell).

The regulars at the Midnight Bell come to the pub because they have no real life outside it. Patrick Hamilton is the master of a very specific form of dialogue, the kind you couldn’t help overhearing if you were drinking in a London or Brighton pub between 1920 and 1950. The monstrous punters in The Midnight Bell – Mr. Sounder, Mr. Wall – possess a clammy authenticity, and the reader feels that these characters have not been invented so much as endured by the author. The unfunny jokes, the numbingly awful puns and ghastly attempts at flirtatious barmaid banter are reported with a dead-eyed horror borne of intimate acquaintance. To wit: ‘His jokes, like all bad jokes, were mostly tomfooleries with the language. To call, for instance, ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’, ‘The Four Horsemen of the Eucalyptus’, was, to him, quite tremendous in its sly and impudent irony.’ Then there is Mr. Wall, ‘obscurely connected in some way with motors in Great Portland Street’. Hamilton devotes a lengthy paragraph to Mr Wall’s conversational style, concluding thus: ‘… in his own particular idiom, Martyrs were associated with Tomatoes, Waiters with Hot Potatoes, Cribbage with Cabbage, Salary with Celery (the entire vegetable world was ineffably droll), Suits with Suet, Fiascoes with Fiancees, and the popular wireless genius with Macaroni. He was, perhaps, practically off his head.’

First edition jacket.

The trilogy’s most likeable character is Ella, a cheerful barmaid who adores Bob but who knows that he is oblivious to her shy love for him. Hamilton’s description of Ella strikes this reader as more than a bit patronising, but the author’s sympathies are fully with her. She is a good person and does not deserve the attentions of the nightmarish Mr. Eccles, the most grotesque of all the Midnight Bell’s gargoyles. When we first meet him, at the start of the final book in the sequence, The Plains of Cement, he enters the pub wearing a new hat:

There are new hats and new hats. No man in the history of the world had ever worn a hat quite as gloriously and fervidly new as this. […] You could see at a glance that that for the time being the man lived in and through his hat. You could see that it cost him sharp torture even to put it on his head, where he could not see it, and it had to take its chance.

This wincingly awful non-relationship is the main subject of The Plains of Cement, and Mr. Eccles’ clammy overtures to the cringing Ella (‘You little Puss! … You make me want to Squeeze you!’) are presented with forensic precision. Much of the comic tension (not that you want to laugh) derives from the revolting thought that 28-year old Ella might give in to the 52-year old Mr. Eccles’s suit, on the basis that ‘he had a bit put by’ and might offer some form of protection against poverty. I first read the book years ago and Mr. Eccles just made me want to puke. Reading it now, I find myself brought up short: suddenly, I find myself to be several years older than Mr. Eccles, and I too have had the experience of being smitten in high middle-age by a much younger woman serving behind a bar. (More than once, in fact, and sometimes in Fitzrovia.) It’s not a good look. Surely I am not that man? No-one likes to think that they are drinking in The Loss Of Dignity.

Hamilton is an unusual example of a writer who managed to be as dissipated and disappointed as he was successful. His two smash-hit plays – Rope and Gaslight, both filmed by Hollywood – made him rich at a young age (the latter being well-enough known to lend its title to a form of controlling behaviour); but at the height of his early success he was hit by a car whilst crossing a road in Earl’s Court, suffering multiple injuries and having his nose badly gashed. The trauma and disfigurement contributed to his chronic drinking. His early books are invaluable documents of their time. His masterpiece was his valedictory study of the last years of the peace before the war, Hangover Square, a nightmarish account of psychosis in low-life Earl’s Court. (Hollywood also filmed that, but in such a mangled fashion that it caused considerable distress to its star, Laird Cregar, who had brought the book to the attention of studio bosses in the first place. One gets the feeling that Hamilton wasn’t bothered, the film rights being worth more than just a few cases of gin.) His later book The Slaves Of Solitude is also very fine, and offers another interesting take on forgotten lives on the home front in WW2. Opinions on the later novels vary and the consensus is that the drink began encroaching on the prose. Hamilton drank himself to death in 1962 at the age of 58.

Patrick Hamilton in his 40s, looking awfully jolly behind the wreck of his nose.

(Photos of Hamilton from Sean’s French’s biography, published by Faber.)