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.

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.

Julian and Dylan at The Wheatsheaf

The saloon bar of the Wheatsheaf was not large but cheerful, warm in winter and always brightly lit, good blackout boards fitting tightly over the windows of armorial glass and the floor spread with scarlet linoleum. It had mock-Tudor panelling and inset round the walls, squares of tartan belonging to various tartan clans. (‘Memoirs of the Forties’, Julian Maclaren-Ross).

London never did café culture, that was Paris’s forte; but what we used to have was the writers’ pub. During the 1930s and 40s London’s own left bank was Fitzrovia, that archipelago of pubs and restaurants between Fitzroy Square and the bottom of Rathbone Place, where it slams up against Oxford St.. The queen of Fitzrovia’s literary pubs was the mock-Tudor Wheatsheaf on Rathbone Place. The stories associated with the Wheatsheaf are the stuff of literary cliché. If you walked in here one lunchtime during the 2nd World War, you would almost certainly encounter the twin popes of The Wheatsheaf bar, Dylan Thomas and the novelist Julian Maclaren-Ross, each with his own set of acolytes.

‘What will you have to drink Mr. Thomas?’ ‘Anything that goes down my throat.’

Whilst Dylan was versifying by the stained glass windows in the public bar, MacLaren Ross occupied the saloon end of the counter, from where he would broadcast his opinions on films or modern novels. You might see George Orwell on lunch break from the BBC, perhaps waiting to meet the glamorous Sonia Brownell who lived just around the corner. Sonia’s employer, Cyril Connolly, the pudgy aesthete and editor of Horizon review, might be there too, talking an incongruously beautiful woman into investing money in his magazine. Perhaps you’d notice a young woman who, on closer inspection, turns out to be Quentin Crisp in austerity drag. Or you might wonder about the demure ‘Sister Anne’, a prostitute whose quiet demeanour gave no indication as to her trade. And you’d also see the bar limpets of an older Fitzrovia: an ancient lady in Edwardian dress drinking Guinness over newspaper crosswords; or the venerable Nina Hamnett, a once feted artist and model, muse to Modigliani, Sickert and Gaudier-Breszka, but now well into her alcoholic decline. You get the idea. The Wheatsheaf was the real thing: the place where dreams, greatness and failure met.

John Banting’s cover illustration for Maclaren-Ross’s 1946 collection of short stories.

In the 1930s and ‘40s, Julian Maclaren-Ross was a ‘promising’ writer, his stories exploring the seedy, London-to-Brighton idiom pioneered by Patrick Hamilton (who used aspects of The Wheatsheaf in his monument to inter-war drinking 20,000 Streets Under The Sky) and the young Graham Greene. Like those illustrious practitioners, Maclaren-Ross described the furtive world of the travelling salesman, the cheap hotel, and the saloon bar – but Maclaren-Ross was living the material of his own stories to an alarming extent. He pursued his own ideal of how a modern man of letters should live, an experiment carried out in the teeth of aggrieved landladies, vengeful girlfriends, and exasperated publishers. He had a career-trashing habit of selling the same rights to the same unwritten novels to multiple publishers in return for a few quid to pay the next week’s rent. His occasional commissions were marked by a celebratory splurge of immoderate spending, the lavish dinners, benders and extra-long cigarettes somehow failing to mitigate the mounting bills and imminent (and occasionally actual) homelessness. One way of supplementing his shaky literary income was to lure the gullible into playing his ridiculous matchstick game ‘Spoof’ for real money, the bar of the Wheatsheaf offering him the ideal venue to fleece the unwary. And when the pub closed at 10.30, Julian would lead the hard-core drinkers a few steps up Rathbone Place to the Marquis of Granby, which – being in the borough of Marylebone – was subject to different licensing laws and didn’t ring time until 11. After that, it was back to wherever he was kipping that night; a Turkish baths, say, or the waiting room of Euston station, or – if his luck was in – a girlfriend’s flat in some distant suburb.

Meanwhile …

‘Somebody’s boring me. I think it’s me.’

Dylan Thomas, drunk again, the quote taken from a live radio broadcast for the BBC. Everyone knows Dylan Thomas; but in life, his burgeoning fame as poet and public figure offered no respite from the lure of the London pub. Although he was the prototype professional Welshman it was in London that Thomas cemented his reputation as a raconteur, mimic, and purveyor of his own patent brand of Welsh sentimentality. There’s a strangely touching story about him taking Henry Miller on a pub crawl around Soho and Fitzrovia and then on to a little dairy that sold sandwiches just opposite The Wheatsheaf. Miller was rather more far-gone than Dylan Thomas, as well as being very short sighted, and was convinced that he was in some kind of brothel, and Dylan was trying to stop him propositioning the startled waitresses. This is an unusual story as it casts Thomas in the unaccustomed role of (relatively) responsible adult, as opposed to the incorrigible man-child drunk that forms the bulk of his legend. It’s a more endearing image of Thomas than, say, that of him shacking up with Caitlin Macnamara, teenage mistress of the ageing Augustus John, a few hours after their first meeting in The Wheatsheaf.

The Wheatsheaf’s front door, July 2020; note (i) the blue plaques for Orwell and Dylan Thomas; (ii) safety tape on the pavement – to facilitate drinking in the time of Covid.

Literary drinking in Fitzrovia is a big subject and I will return to these characters in future instalments. But, for now, I will leave the last word to the Wheatsheaf’s most extravagantly dressed monument to squandered talent. Julian Maclaren-Ross’s conspicuous outfit (teddy-bear overcoat, green aviator shades, a carnation in his button hole, an extra-long cigarette in his cigarette holder and a silver-topped malacca cane in his hand) made him an occasional target for abuse. Towards the end of his stint as barnacle in chief of the Wheatsheaf bar, he was approached by a clutch of menacing youths who demanded that he ‘Say something witty!’ Maclaren-Ross peered at them and declaimed:

‘Noel Coward!’

(For those interested in Maclaren-Ross, I recommend the excellent biography by Paul Willetts, Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia.)