London Airs

Denmark St., with Centre Point looming behind, in 2015.

I have written about old St Giles before: as a dreadful ancient slum, Victorian London’s most fearful rookery, a festering warren inhabited by the poor, according to Charles Dickens, ‘like maggots in a cheese’. Did I mention that there was once a gallows roughly where Centre Point stands now? Seems fitting, especially as the phrase ‘one for the road’ derives from the custom of halting at St Giles to give a final drink to doomed convicts en route from Newgate to execution at Tyburn. (The Bowl and The Angel are both mentioned as pubs known for this charity.) In the 1660s St Giles became notorious as point of origin for the Great Plague, and the areas woes went on and on. Crumbling, fragile Denmark St., laid out in the 1680s, still survives, squeezed by the towering 1960s bombast of Centre Point and an assortment of wind- swept plazas that form an inner-city desert. You would be hard pressed to realize it now but this bit of town was once a mecca for British popular music. The Astoria Theatre, at the northern end of the Charing Cross Rd., was one of the most important clubs for breaking rock bands until it was sacrificed on the altar of Crossrail. A few yards to the north, on the southern reaches of the Tottenham Court Road, in an Irish dancehall (The Blarney, long since bulldozed), you would once have found the pioneer psychedelic club UFO, a short-lived temple to progressive music and expanded consciousness. For a few months in 1967 you could go there on a Friday night to lose your mind to the sounds of Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd or Soft Machine, who were the resident bands, and the hallucinatory light shows (pioneered by Mark Boyle, amongst others) that constituted a new form of art installation.

Billy Fury and manager Larry Parnes.

And you hardly need me to tell you that Denmark St. (‘London’s own Tin Pan Alley!’) used to be London’s music business quarter. In the fifties, this was the fiefdom of Larry Parnes, impresario and Svengali-figure, manager of Tommy Steele, Georgie Fame, and improbably-named singers like Billy Fury, Marty Wilde, Vince Eager, Dickie Pride, Johnny Gentle (these latter supposedly – urban myth alert – re-named by Parnes according to sexual type). Parnes was so risible that he was mocked by Muir and Norden in a famous Peter Sellers sketch, and the 1958 musical Expresso Bongo by Wolf Mankowitz (father of music photographer Gered) satirised Parnes’s domination of the contemporary pop scene. Expresso Bongo was promptly made into a film, wherein the satire was largely ditched in order to make it a star vehicle for Cliff Richard; this seems, somehow, entirely appropriate. Other local fixtures included songwriter Lionel Bart, the jingle genius Johnny Johnston (Softness is a Thing Called Comfort, Beanz Meanz Heinz, and five thousand other commercial ditties), and all the other personalities of the pre-Beatles universe. In the later sixties, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Donovan, Bowie, Hendrix all came here to record, in studios (e.g. Regent Sound, at no.4) carved out of 17th-century basements. The likes of David Bowie and Paul Simon came to schmooze publishers and hang out at the Giaconda coffee bar. Ten years later it was the turn of the phlegm-flecked protégés of Malcolm McLaren (the seventies version of Larry Parnes, plus value-added Situationist bullshit) The Sex Pistols, who rehearsed and lived here for a while. And, whilst he is unlikely to get a blue plaque, the mass-murderer Dennis Nilsen spent the early 1980s working in a jobcentre that used to be on the corner of Denmark St. and the Charing Cross Road (where, at one year’s Christmas staff party, Nilsen served his colleagues punch in a large pot he brought from his home, the same pan he used for boiling his victims’ heads).

Barbara Windsor and Lionel Bart during dress rehearsals for ‘Twang!!’

Wandering a bit further east from Denmark St., past Renzo Piano’s aggressively bright St. Giles Central development, you find Shaftesbury Avenue, St.Giles High St., and Bloomsbury St. converging in an unlovely funnel of tarmac. On the other side of the churning traffic lies the Shaftesbury Theatre, a crumbling Edwardian edifice stranded amidst the one-way system. The Shaftesbury is a survivor, narrowly escaping demolition in the 1970s, during the interminable run of the hippie operetta Hair, which ran from September 1968 until July 1973, when the theatre’s ceiling caved in. The owners, EMI, wanted to redevelop the site but the actor’s union Equity managed to get the building Grade 2 listed and it has since established itself as a successfully venue in a blighted location. The Shaftesbury also played a role in the downfall of local hero Lionel Bart. After rising to prominence as a writer of hits for Larry Parnes’s stable, Bart’s zenith was the celebrated musical Oliver! which opened at the New Theatre (now the Noel Coward theatre) on St Martin’s Lane in June 1960. A few years later, hubris struck as his under-prepared Robin Hood satire Twang!! – that’s two exclamation marks – had its chaotic London premiere at The Shaftesbury in December 1965. Reviews were terrible and the show closed after five weeks. Ignoring the wisdom that one should never invest your own money in your own show, Bart threw his fortune at the mess to try to keep it running and lost just about everything. At one point he sold his Oliver! copyrights to Max Bygraves for something like loose change. (As some of Oliver!‘s numbers were re-workings of old London street cries, this is another eventuality that has a pleasing inevitability about it.)

If 1840s St Giles was the ultimate in city squalor, its 21st century incarnation is the very model of a modern townscape: a sterile concrete tundra, safely contemporary, safely cheerless. Around 1900, London suffered the destruction of Wych St. and environs to create ‘new’ Aldwych and Kingsway, the loss of which it is hard to overstate. That particular act of civic philistinism didn’t just obliterate some of the prettiest streets in the capital, it cauterized life on the streets – which is exactly what it was intended to do, removing ‘unwholesome’ theatres and booksellers and erasing one of London’s cultural centres. The destruction of the area around Denmark Street is the contemporary equivalent. How do we characterise it? A few years ago, I saw chalked graffiti on the hoarding in front of the remains of the 12 Bar club that summed it up …

(Speaking of the Shaftesbury Theatre, there used to be a strange wine bar beneath it, The Grapes, which boasted an Escher-drawing of an interior and small, inadequate tables. It is now another branch of the London Cocktail Club. Some years ago I got into trouble there in a memorable episode which I describe here. A cautionary tale of sorts.)

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.)

Brave And Chilly Spring

April is the cruellest month … Gipsy Hill, 11 April 2021.

Sam Hancock, The Independent, 13 April 2021:

London’s Soho was busier than ever on Monday night — although some of those enjoying the reopening of pubs admitted there was “very little” social distancing being adhered to. Police patrolled central London as crowds flocked to Old Compton Street, signalling the end of certain lockdown restrictions and the reopening of pubs and bars’ outdoor areas across England. Several West End streets were even closed to traffic between 5pm and 11pm, to create outdoor seating areas as part of measures implemented by Westminster City Council to support hospitality businesses. Pictures and videos being shared online show people packed onto tables, while dozens more stood on the streets raising a glass to England officially entering into stage two of Boris Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown.

The spring-like peep out of lockdown has everyone on edge. And attempts to enjoy a freezing al fresco drink inevitably emphasise the painful distance between Before Covid and our current Covid Era. Personally, I have no plans to book a slot to do my Captain Scott impersonation (‘this is an awful place …’) in an arctic pub garden, and don’t fancy drinking amidst desperate Soho crowds pretending it’s VE Night. It’s indoor spaces that I miss. My mind wanders to cold spring evenings in former times; when the pub garden turned chilly in twilight, you would retreat to the cosy public bar, to the gleam of polished mahogany and the crystalline brightness behind the counter. You’d take your drink to a spot next to the wooden partition that separated you from the customers in the saloon, and fragments of their conversation drifted in and out of your hearing:

‘Nah, it was John Wayne they filmed in this pub. Him and that Richard Attenborough, played policemen they did. Filmed it here, I should know, I was in it wasn’t I?’

‘Do you know what my son said to me the other night? He phones up and he says: :”Dad, can I come round? I need to borrow fifty pence”‘.

‘I don’t know whether she knew or not, but let’s put it this way: she got very good at getting blood out of carpet.’

‘My dad knew him, he was staying at a hotel in Kensington Gardens, very dapper and polite he was, you’d never guess he had bodies dissolving in a tank in Crawley’.

Before lunch I’d been in the witness box and they were jumping all over me, felt like a right wanker. And I was looking at doing four years. Anyway, after lunch the jury was ready to come in and everything and then the prosecution said the CCTV didn’t work. That’s their case dead in the water. So I was acquitted. I’m thinking of compensation. Go after them I will, yeah. I’ve got letters about my loss of hearing.’

Here, I’m selling this phone. It’s fucking immaculate, no scratches on it or nothing, I mean I did manage to drop it in the slop bucket behind the bar, but you’d never tell.

‘From Muscat he was, yeah – one of those places where they don’t wear things on their feet.’

The Victorian pub interior is an inviting place, an urban parlour, a place where plumbers give racing tips to bankers, where visitors from exotic lands fall for boys from Penge or girls from Hainault, and where addled regulars share unlikely stories (‘it’s true, I swear, I was there’) with anyone who will listen. Britain’s peculiar drinking culture might have been a source of appalled wonder for foreign tourists but London’s lugubrious, booze-only boozers offered easy access to the interior life of the city. In an earlier time, I would bewail the rise of the gastro-pub as a factor eroding the democratic nature of the institution: tables take up room, families colonise the bar space and the social or solitary drinker is marginalised. ‘The decline of the pub’, I would say to anyone who would listen, ‘as a place to just drink is making the city colder and less knowable than before’. (And thus I became someone else’s loquacious pub bore.) Well, what did I know. Now, if I could, I would cheerfully walk into a gastropub and order the most pretentious thing on the carte du jour just so I could be in an interior where people have come to gather. Even a hipster bar is good for overheard remarks:

So what does a full-time anarchist do? Do you celebrate Christmas?’

But if Monday night demonstrated anything, it’s that Londoners need to drink. The manifest ills of drinking are well rehearsed, but the social value of documents such as Life and Labour of the People in London are often compromised by their authors’ failure to empathise with hard-pressed city-dwellers, or to fully understand their need for release. London is an ongoing experiment in urban life: a 2,000 year-old Roman settlement that became the first industrialised city, the first world city, the first mega-city. Londoners have had to suffer the sharp end of history so it’s no wonder that they developed a craving for booze – as a stimulant, a palliative, a tradable commodity, or simply a safer beverage than Thames water. And, call me old-fashioned, but I think that public drinking is healthier than private drinking: if there are people around you, there’s always someone to tell you that you are overdoing it, or simply being a tit. (Altogether now: ‘What good is sitting alone in your room …’ etc.) But I’m looking forward to getting inside pubs, not lurking outside them. And who knows? Maybe it will be all over by Christmas.

The other milestone this week was, of course, the death of the Duke of Edinburgh. I did, as it happens, have a few encounters with him over the years but I didn’t fancy contributing to the tsunami of news coverage, or the grinding of axes by op-ed toters. Those stories will have to wait.

Working Class Family’ by Ralph Steadman, circa 1969. Via Ralph Steadman Printshop.