Rathbone Street Pubs

1st edition cover, 1950. Illustration by the great John Minton.

‘The scene of this entertaining first novel is London by night, the decaying back streets of Soho and the sad and elegant squares of Bloomsbury just beyond.’ Jacket blurb for Scamp, 1950.

Above is the cover design for an obscure mid-20th century British novel. The image (by John Minton, painter, book illustrator, and Soho monument) shows a man tramping down Rathbone St. in Fitzrovia; he is walking past an unidentified pub, which is in fact The Marquis of Granby, which still stands at the bottom of the street. At the top of the street is another unidentified pub: The Duke of York, also still extant. The lamp-post just beyond the couple on the left marks, roughly, where The Newman Arms is situated. Those who bother to read the novel will discover that the man in the picture is an impression of a literary type peculiar to the district; it is also, as Ian Sinclair points out in his introduction to the 21st century edition, a portrait of the author himself. Scamp is a novel drawn directly from life. This is how the novel was reviewed by the TLS when it first appeared:

‘The book is written from the standpoint of the “bum”: that bearded and corduroyed figure who may be seen crouching over a half of bitter in the corner of a Bloomsbury “pub”; it is ostensibly concerned with the rise and fall of a short-lived literary review, but Mr. Camberton, who appears to be devoid of any narrative gift, makes this an excuse for dragging in disconnectedly and to little apparent purpose a series of thinly disguised local or literary celebrities.’

The review was written by Julian MacLaren-Ross, the model for one of the characters in the novel. No wonder he panned it: Camberton’s characterisation of him as ‘Angus Steerforth-Sims’, a faded novelist past his prime, was cruelly accurate. But Scamp clearly hit a nerve beyond MacLaren-Ross’s wounded pride, as it portrays literary bohemia in decline: the fixtures of the ‘forties remain just about in place but lack purpose and impetus. The novel ends with its corduroyed hero realising that the literary scene is a mug’s game, whereupon he and his girl leave London for an idealised future in Wales. MacLaren-Ross’s disdain for the ‘bums’ was a pained reflection that he no longer had the scene to himself; and that perhaps that there was no longer much of a scene left to be had.

Bohemian Fitzrovia was defined by the archipelago of pubs between Oxford Street and Howland Street, chiefly the Wheatsheaf and The Fitzroy Tavern, but other watering holes played their part as well. The Marquis of Granby had a reputation as a bruisers’ pub, with tales of vicious guardsmen and the occasional fatal beating. (To this day I have never had a drink in that pub, and I used to spend a lot of time in the area.) So we’ll edge past and make for The Newman Arms, halfway up Rathbone Street. The pub abuts Newman Passage, an atmospheric cobbled alley (MacLaren-Ross dubbed it ‘Jekyll and Hyde Alley’) later featured in the opening sequence of Michael Powell’s shocker Peeping Tom, released to widespread revulsion in 1960. The ‘Arms was George Orwell’s favourite pub during the war, although its appeal was limited as it only sold beer. He used it as the basis for the ‘Proles’ Pub’ in Nineteen-Eighty- Four. Orwell was more at home here than he was in the garrulous, gossipy saloon of the Wheatsheaf, although it seems that an overheard remark in that pub gave him essential inspiration for his dystopian masterpiece. A theatrical scene painter called Gilbert Wood had a phobia about rats that frequently found its way into his conversation when he was drunk. Anthony Burgess, another wartime habitué of Fitzrovia, believed that Wood’s anxiety gave the watchful Orwell the key to Winston Smith’s ultimate terror. Burgess also remarked that the real subject of Nineteen- Eighty-Four was not future horror but the deprivations of ‘the miserable forties’: ersatz food, ersatz gin, ersatz hope.

I wouldn’t go down there love … the opening of Michael Powell’s ‘Peeping Tom’.

At the top of Rathbone Street is The Duke of York, another attractively located pub although, in Fitzrovia’s glory days, regarded as a second-tier drinking hole. Maclaren Ross only started coming here after he was exiled from The Wheatsheaf. (A change of landlord saw MacLaren-Ross banned from The Wheatsheaf for playing his ridiculous matchstick game ‘Spoof’ for money in the bar. In Scamp, the game is called ‘Scrag’.) But The Duke of York has its own cameo in literary history. On leave from the army, Anthony Burgess and his young wife Lynne found themselves in the Duke of York when a group of thugs from the Pirelli gang invaded the bar, demanded pints of beer from a terrified barman before pouring them on the floor, smashing the glasses and threatening the punters. Lynne commented on the waste of drink, which prompted the ‘cherubic’ leader of the group to force her to drink pint after pint of bitter. Burgess reckoned that Lynne’s courage was a product of her essential innocence: she was unable to take the little goons seriously, she thought their leader was too much like ‘Pinky’ from Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. Later in the war, Lynne was robbed and savagely beaten on a London street by a group of American soldiers on the run. She was pregnant and miscarried as a result of the attack. These two episodes stewed in Burgess’s mind and ultimately begat Alex and the droogs of A Clockwork Orange. (See Burgess’s memoir Little Wilson and Big God.)

As for Roland Camberton, author of Scamp, his real name was Henry Cohen, and praise for his first novel led to a second, published in 1952, and then … nothing. He died in 1965, aged only 44. But most of Fitzrovia’s 1940s’ lynchpins were dead by then. Orwell died in 1948, Dylan Thomas in 1953, Nina Hamnett in 1956, Augustus John in 1961 … MacLaren-Ross died of a heart attack in 1964, still attempting to keep ahead of his creditors whilst touting ideas for novels, plays and films. Like Nina Hamnett, MacLaren-Ross’s ultimate fate was to be a character, associated with a very specific territory: a faded bohemian landscape that dissolved amidst the rise of youth cultures that changed Soho and London forever.

The Duke of York pub is today identified by a truly frightful pub sign showing the contemporary occupant of that title in mock-heroic pose. Even before Prince Andrew’s recent difficulties, this seemed like a catastrophic lapse of taste and one wonders how long that sign will remain in situ. That said, our current Covid-driven dystopia has one wondering about the permanence and viability of pubs themselves. Change is in the air, not necessarily for the better; and, like a bewildered bohemian staring at the duffel-coated ‘bums’ walking down Rathbone Street, I don’t like it one bit.

The Duke of York, July 2020.

Conspicuous and Inconspicuous Consumption

The Holborn Restaurant, circa 1890. Photo from ‘Decadent London’ by Antony Clayton.

ERNEST: ‘What would you like most in the world?’
MARTHE: ‘I want nothing more than to eat a fine dinner with fine people at a brightly-lighted restaurant’.
An exchange between impoverished bohemians marooned in Catford, circa 1900.

‘Jesus, who are these people?’
A Master of Wine commenting on the wines drunk by ‘The Barclays Five’ at Petrus in 2001.

There is a story doing the rounds and it goes like this:

It is a lovely evening in spring and we are in a fine London restaurant. At our elevation we can see all of London and all the surrounding counties through the panoramic plate glass window. An attractive young couple are being shown to their table, its place settings flecked with gold from the sun that is setting somewhere beyond Reading. You might not know it to look at them but they are on a first date. The young woman is excited and a bit nervous. They have already had a couple of drinks at the bar. She is in a celebratory mood and offers to buy the wine to go with dinner. She has just passed her medical exams, she has qualified to be a doctor. ‘Let’s push the boat out!’ she says. She studies the wine list. She studies it without her reading glasses. She leaves her glasses in her bag because she is on a date.

Cut to later on: the meal is drawing to its close. The romantic tenor of the evening is still in play and the food and drink have been superb. The bill arrives. There is some confusion. Queries are raised, the wine list is fetched, reading glasses are retrieved from a handbag, the maitre’d telephones the manager … Those three bottles of wine, the ones costing £500 a time (‘the wine’s on me, I’m celebrating!’), they are five thousand pounds each. The junior doctor has arranged a repayment plan with the restaurant, gradually paying back the fifteen grand (plus interest) she accidentally dropped on her big night out. And she has not seen that Tinder date since.

It’s not true of course – and I say that as one who was taken in by this story and contributed to its spread. In my defence I should say that this story is, like many urban myths, superficially plausible because it draws on a kernel of truth that reflects the tenor of the time. So today we are looking at the phenomenon of necking statement wines (or, if you like stunt wines) as a form of celebration or display. The quote at the top was the reaction of a wine expert to the list of vintages consumed by one table in a London restaurant over the course of a single evening in July 2001. The restaurant was Gordon Ramsey’s Petrus, 33 St. James’s Street, the party was a group of six investment bankers celebrating their bonuses, and this what they drank:

1 x Petrus de Pomerol 1947 @ £12,300
1 x Petrus de Pomerol 1945 @ £11,600
1 x Petrus de Pomerol 1946 @ £9,600
1 x Chateau d’Yquem 1900 @ £9,200
1 x Montrachet 1982 @ £1,400
… & a few Kronenbourgs @ £7 (that’s when the Master of Wine lost it).

The total came to £44,007 (Ramsey gave them the food for free, that saved them £400). I wonder if they noticed what the wines tasted like, or if they even bothered to finish drinking them. The vintages in question are, in fact, considered to be ‘the finest wines available to humanity’, and are of incomparable depth, complexity and intensity. But, obviously, the actual content of the bottles was irrelevant: it was their price tags that mattered. The aim was to splurge cold, conspicuous cash on the rarest and most evanescent of commodities. This kind of thing makes a nonsense of the idea of fine anything; it’s like the decadence of Carthage in Flaubert’s Salammbo, the nihilistic super-consumerism of Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian, or Terry Jones’s Mr. Kreosote. It’s hosting a paintball party in a medieval barn – or buying a vintage Bentley for use as a dune buggy.

The late, great Terry Jones as Mr. Kreosote, enjoying a momentary lull between courses.

Ultimately, this blow-out caught up with our bibulous Masters of the Universe: news of the meal leaked out immediately and shortly afterwards their identities became widely known. Even though they paid for the wine out of their own pockets, their bosses at Barclays Capital took a dim view of their employees’ lurid extravagance. In the messy aftermath the party even attempted to sue the restaurant for breach of privacy, which was a bad idea: bankers blaming a caterer for their own hubris isn’t a good look. (And Petrus asked for no money for the wines up front; good judgement on their part but running a restaurant at this level must be a bit like managing a casino.) Ultimately all six fine diners lost their jobs with Barclays; this seems unfair on one of the party, a teetotaller who felt somehow obliged to pay nine grand for wine that had not passed his lips.

There are other, more charming, stories of encounters with fine wines in public places. In May 2019 a couple at the Manchester branch of Hawksmoor were mistakenly served a Pomerol (a 2001 Chateau le Pin) worth £4,500 but the restaurant didn’t discover its mistake until after the couple had left. The couple had ordered a 2001 Chateau Pichon Longueville Contesse de Lalande, which happened to have a very similar label to the Pomerol, but was a mere £260 a pop. Thankfully, this joint did the right thing: they tweeted the incident and said that they hoped the couple had enjoyed such a splendid bottle of wine. The PR value of such a charming story far outweighed the loss of a common-or-garden Pomerol, even if it did cost as much as, say, a low-mileage 2014 Ford Focus.

But in the current lockdown, in the interminable imprisonment in our own hutches, these stories have acquired a fresh lustre of myth and legend. The idea of going into a bar, to dine out with friends … forget the plutocrats’ super-wines, a bar-service round of Kronenbourgs is The Holy Grail of our time.

Stomping At The Savoy (Part Two)

The Savoy from the Embankment,1900; Claude Monet might or might not be standing on one of those balconies.

A few weeks ago I was going on about Savoy Palace, Savoy Chapel and Bob Dylan’s co-option of same as a location for a Modern Art statement. Of course, Dylan only chose that spot as he happened to be staying at the Savoy Hotel, so let’s wander over there now and see if they’ll give us a room …

The Savoy Hotel was built in 1889, an essay in cutting-edge Victorian hospitality: electric lighting, electric lifts, private balconies offering majestic views of the Thames (put to good use by Monet, who painted fog-shrouded Waterloo Bridge from his), Cesar Ritz as its first manager and Auguste Escoffier its first chef. An early and enthusiastic patron was Oscar Wilde, who proceeded to run up large bills entertaining the likes of Bosie Douglas and an assortment of rent boys, several of which testified against Wilde at his trial for indecency. At Oscar Wilde’s first trial, the following exchange took place between prosecution witness Charles Parker and prosecutor Charles Gill:

PARKER: Subsequently Wilde said to me. ‘This is the boy for me! Will you go to the Savoy Hotel with me?’ I consented, and Wilde drove me in a cab to the hotel. Only he and I went, leaving my brother and Taylor behind. At the Savoy we went first to Wilde’s sitting room on the second floor.

GILL: More drink was offered you there?

PARKER: Yes, we had liqueurs. Wilde then asked me to go into his bedroom with him.

Another prosecution witness was the Savoy’s own ‘professor of massage’, who testified that he saw a boy sleeping in Wilde’s bed as the dramatist was dressing, and a former chambermaid who described sinister stains on the bedlinen. Thirty years after Oscar and Bosie scandalized Victorian society by hustling rent boys in and out of the hotel, there was another Savoy scandal in 1923 when one Marguerite Fahmy killed her husband, an alleged Egyptian prince. This was a quintessentially Twenties murder case, ticking all the right boxes: mysterious royalty, money, a good-looking victim, a doe-eyed murderess, bisexuality, sodomy, dance band music, all sprinkled with a generous dose of racism. The crime fed the English public’s fascination with/suspicion of all things ‘oriental’. Marguerite was put on trial at the Old Bailey where she was defended by Edward Marshall Hall, one of the great advocates of the era. Her defence was that her husband had pestered her for ‘unnatural’ sexual relations, so she shot him. Feeding the jury’s prejudices, Marshall Hall loaded his summation with racist tropes and portrayed his client as practically a victim of the white slave trade .Marguerite was duly acquitted, and there were official complaints from Egypt regarding Marshall-Hall’s astonishingly racist closing statement. Marguerite went back to Paris where she was seen, less charitably but perhaps more accurately, as a high- class escort who’d conned and killed a gullible young man. Whatever the truth, she didn’t inherit any of the prince’s money and lingered on as an exotic Parisian recluse, finally expiring in 1971.

Mr. and Mrs. Charles Chaplin atop the Savoy.

Other 20th century guests included Fred Astaire, who danced on the hotel’s roof, Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, etc., etc. Personally, I’m most intrigued by Charlie Chaplin’s fondness for the hotel. Chaplin seems to have taken a particular satisfaction in revisiting the locations of his deprived childhood. The photo above shows Chaplin and his implausibly young wife Oona* on the roof of the Savoy at some point in the 1950s, the grand old man of cinema pointing south, presumably dilating upon the haunts of his youth. In Hollywood, Chaplin refashioned traumatic events from his deprived boyhood landscape (his early films featured detailed recreations of ghastly rooms in Kennington and Brixton, rooms he had lived with his alcoholic mother) and created cinema’s first global hero. When he returned to London as world-conquering star, Chaplin based himself at the Savoy and liked to venture, incognito, into south London, then a land of poverty and bomb-damage. But Chaplin would run for cover if recognised; he once ended up catching a boat from Embankment Pier to Greenwich to escape a pursuing crowd, only to find that they’d all got on the next boat to follow him downriver.

[* Perhaps a bit off-topic, but Oona was the daughter of American playwright Eugene O’Neill, who was very unhappy about her marriage to Chaplin. Also unhappy was the young J.D. Salinger, who had once courted Oona and who referred to the 54 year old Chaplin as ‘an old prostate gland’. After Oona married Chaplin (in 1943, when Oona was just 18), Salinger conjured an image of their marital life that is so repulsive that I can’t resist quoting it: ‘I can see them at home evenings. Chaplin squatting grey and nude, atop his chiffonier, swinging his thyroid around his head by his bamboo cane, like a dead rat. Oona in an aquamarine gown, applauding madly from the bathroom.’]

The Savoy is a shrine for cocktail fanciers, its place in drinking history assured by Harry Craddock‘s 1930 masterpiece The Savoy Cocktail Book. Craddock learnt his trade as a barman in the US, returning to England at the start of Prohibition and assuming control of The American Bar at the Savoy. Craddock is credited with inventing a number of cocktails and ‘codifying’ the recipe for the classic dry martini. A later barman, Joe Gilmore, became known for creating ‘event’ cocktails in honour of visiting toffs. One Gilmore original is the ‘Missouri Mule’, consisting of bourbon + Campari + Cointreau + Applejack + lemon juice. That concoction was invented in honour of Harry S. Truman. What effect this beverage had on the Anglo-American Special Relationship is unrecorded. Rather poignantly, he also came up with a cocktail to commemorate Britain’s entry to the Common Market – which of course became the European Union – in 1973. This calls for equal measures of ingredients from all member states, so you’ve got Cherry Brandy (Denmark), Noilly Prat (France), Orange Curacao (Netherlands), Dry White Wine (Luxembourg), Coffee Liqueur (Ireland), Carpano (Italy), Schlichte (West Germany), something called Elixir d’Anu from Belgium, and Sloe gin (Britain), all shaken with ice, strained into a cocktail glass, and thrown in Dominic Cummings’s face.

Portrait of Harry Craddock from The Savoy Cocktail Book 1st edition.