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

Never Trust A Hippy

The Drinker’s bathroom, 23 March 2021.

A few weeks ago I posted some accounts of domestic life with Keith Moon, which essentially consisted of all-day drinking and practical jokes. Moon made it to 32, overdosing on medication intended to combat his excessive drinking. In an earlier era, Charlie Parker managed to make it to 34, despite conducting his life as though it were an experiment in existential chaos. But anyone reading Graeme Thomson’s recent biography of the Anglo/Scots singer/songwriter John Martyn will wonder how this errant near-genius managed to make it to 60. (He died in 2009.) Booze runs through Thomson’s book like a flood from an exploding brewery and Martyn’s life story is a trajectory from the precocious teenager of his first LPs to the bloated, wheelchair-bound alcoholic who lost a leg to drink. (Martyn’s long goodbye to his leg was covered by the BBC in a 2005 documentary. I heard – anecdotally – that Martyn’s friend and collaborator Danny Thompson described John’s leg-loss as ‘a bit of a wake-up call‘.) Musically, Martyn had gone from sixties folk guitar merchant to seventies rock experimentalist, pioneering what became known – decades later – as ‘trip-hop’, before an association with Phil Collins led him into an eighties wilderness of jazz-funk and bad suits. (He made music to the end but his glory days ended around 1981.)

I read Thomson’s biography as a sort of part-time Martyn fan, a position that seems to be fairly standard for those interested in his work. He was nothing if not erratic and after he started making records with the Pope of Cheese even some of his most loyal fans drifted away. It seems that Martyn and Collins bonded over the ends of their respective marriages, but in John’s case he doesn’t seem to have connected cause and effect. John had been married to another singer-songwriter, Beverley Martyn née Kutner, and the pair started their marriage as a starry folk duo, before John sidelined Beverley’s career, leaving her to look after the kids whilst he went on a series of Rabelaisian tours in the company of bassist Danny Thompson. When he was at home, John’s behaviour became increasingly paranoid and threatening, eventually forcing Beverley to flee in fear for her life. Beverley’s take on this now is remarkably forgiving; she identifies the key flaw in Martyn’s personality as misogyny deriving from a lack of maternal contact in childhood. His parents separated when he was an infant and John was mostly brought up in Glasgow in the care of his father and grandmother; his mother re-married and stayed in Surrey. Contact with his mother seems to have been distant, although he spent summers with her at various addresses around Kingston-on-Thames, an environment he characterised as a riverside paradise, a stark contrast to the streetscapes of sixties Glasgow. (One early song testifies to his love of London’s riverine suburbia as well as projecting an aching image of parental abandonment.)

Whatever the underlying reason, Martyn was serially dreadful to the women in his life, frequently hitting them or absorbing them into his own addictions. (A later girlfriend proudly says that she had done kickboxing in her youth, so ‘he never landed a punch on me.’) He abandoned his children in infancy, and, when he finally did make contact with his teenage son, took him on tour, whereupon the kid acquired a heroin habit. Even other musicians are described as being wary of Martyn at the bar, or ducking his company in a social setting (he developed a John Belushi-like tendency to out-stay his welcome). The chaos increased as the musical output deteriorated and some of the vignettes in Thomson’s book offer startling testimony of a life in freefall. There are dark mutterings of ‘nightmarish’ benders on tour, with stops at every roadside bar, and indications that people started to turn up to his gigs just to see what state he was in (a situation undoubtedly fostered by his legendary appearance at the Mean Fiddler in 1987, when he went on stage three hours late, sang one song, threw up, and left). And the Glaswegian hard-man persona he developed would have tried anyone’s patience. At one point he gets beaten up by nameless men wielding an iron bar, another time he gets stabbed with his own knife during an altercation in Chicago. But he had the constitution of an ox and, gradually, came to resemble one. He returned to the jazz-folk milieu of his earlier career and managed to claw back a degree of personal and professional respectability, although the drinking remained heavy to the end. He expired a few weeks before he was due to receive an OBE, but he lived long enough to get a Radio 2 Lifetime Achievement Award, shunted out in his wheelchair a receive a mantelpiece trophy, a message from Eric Clapton and a kiss from Phil Collins.

I suppose this book has rattled me a little. I am old enough not to care too much about the personal failings of artists I admire, but when a documented wife-beater and delinquent father is quoted saying ‘quite literally, the most important things to me are my childrens’ smile and my woman’s love, one is inclined to think that clubbing with an iron bar was too good for him. Even without the gruesome personal life, John Martyn made an art form out of disappointment. He was consistently inconsistent and this applies to his most celebrated record, Solid Air. He was often twee and crass within the framework of the same LP. But, at least some of the time, it was worth putting up with the dross for the bits that were really visionary and unlike anything by anyone else. As a live act he was best encountered as a solo turn, playing his acoustic guitar through an Echoplex machine to create his own personal orchestra. I saw him a few times and was lucky enough to attend a small charity concert he gave in 1980 in Bourne Hall, Ewell, near the happier scenes of his youth. In front of an audience that consisted of every hippy left in Surrey, he played a sentimental and good-natured set, concluding with a haunting version of his greatest song. So … all right. Some forgiveness is in order. RIP.

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 submerged 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.