Spitalfields Drinking: Meths, Absinthe, Flat White.

Spitalfields, January 1991. © David Secombe.

As early as the 1730s, overcrowding had become a characteristic of the East End, a process accelerated in the early 19th century by the building of the docks between 1800 and 1830, the demand for unskilled labour, and the arrival of Jews and other refugees from Eastern Europe. […] Hawksmoor’s architecture, imbued with Baroque rhythms, is massive yet solid, like Johnson’s prose. Characteristic of how little we really value [Hawksmoor’s churches] is the fact that, at time of writing, Christ Church, Spitalfields, is under threat of demolition, though thousands of pounds are uselessly thrown away in every conceivable direction.
From The London Nobody Knows, Geoffrey Fletcher, 1962. Penguin Books.

Spitalfields used to be cited by ‘psychogeographers’ as one of those London locales where the sad history of the city was engraved upon its streets and buildings: a place that was permanently wrong. The district’s association with poverty, with Jack the Ripper, the waves of the dispossessed that have settled over the centuries – this stuff was meat and drink to the likes of Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd. Back in 1900, the great American writer Jack London came here to discover the East End. He posed as an American seaman down on his luck, resorting to this subterfuge after Thomas Cook & Co. refused to give him a tour of the district. The resulting book, People of the Abyss, documented in depressing detail the squalor of Spitalfields, and included photos of down and outs sleeping against the walls of Christ Church. The pictures taken by Jack London have an eerie echo in Bill Brandt’s photos of east enders sheltering in the church’s crypt during the Blitz; his picture of a Sikh family among the tombs is a pointer to the future, as the local Jewish population declined and immigrants from the Indian sub-continent moved in. The 1960s saw moves to demolish the entire area – including Hawksmoor’s church – and the time-locked deprivation of the Georgian district was eloquently captured by photographers Don McCullin, Paul Trevor and (later) Marketa Luskacova. McCullin’s portraits of local meths drinkers are terrifying and poignant: when they aren’t screaming at some unseen object, they defy the abyss by retaining a certain dignity. And Marketa Luskacova’s magnificent portrait of a man singing operatic arias for pennies on Brick Lane is the visual equivalent of Gavin Bryars’ post-modernist tone poem Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet, wherein a field recording of a London tramp singing a hymn is accompanied by a limpid orchestral texture. (Although it is worth noting that Bryars made the point that the tramp on the tape, recorded circa 1970, was not a drinker; this also applies to the woman in David Secombe’s photo, and to Marketa’s singer.)

Street singer, Brick Lane, 1982. © Marketa Luskacova.

But Christ Church was not demolished and has in recent years been the beneficiary of grants to restore the fabric of the building after decades of neglect. Hawksmoor’s London churches have experienced a revival in general, and I’ve already written about how they have become talismans for those who seek a hidden or mystical history of the city; so we get Peter Ackroyd’s 1985 novel Hawksmoor, and Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell, which links the Jack the Ripper murders to the looming presence of Christ Church over Whitechapel. It’s all balls, really; but mention of From Hell gives me the opportunity to link this clip from the film derived from it, in which Johnny Depp pours himself a very inauthentic absinthe (this particular recipe inspired, methinks, by Aleister Crowley’s ‘Kubla Khan No. 2′ cocktail) …

The picture at the top dates from a moment just before the wealth and bombast of commercial London annexed the neglected East End. Spitalfields’ perceived desirability perked up considerably around this time; long-term residents like Gilbert and George, Dan Cruikshank (who had been one of the original squatters who had helped save the area from destruction in the 1970s) and the American artist Dennis Severs, whose house is now a museum, acted as beacons of gentility amidst the inner-city gloom. And, as the 1990s rolled on, the East End went from being the Dark Heart of Old London to Shiny Retail Zone with bewildering speed. I remember laughing at my first sighting of Japanese tourists apparently lost in Shoreditch circa 1997 – but that was, I think, the same year that a Holiday Inn opened on Old Street. A visit to Spitalfields Market today is a trip to Covent Garden East: Covid-19 notwithstanding, visitors are safe to purchase their branded goods and speciality coffees in a shopping environment free of disquiet. It gives the lie to the theories of Ackroyd and Sinclair: with enough commercial pressure, any area, no matter how dark its history, can be transformed into a playground for contented shoppers. The poor and neglected get moved on and even Jack the Ripper is transformed into a token of area branding. Nostalgia, eh?

The past is a foreign country … Spitalfields Market, 1991.Photo: David Secombe.

Stomping At The Savoy (Part One)

Where Bob stood … Savoy Chapel.

Wherever there is drunkenness about
No secret can be hidden, make no doubt.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (modern English version by Nevill Coghill).

When
Again
Alley Way
Bob Dylan, Subterranean Homesick Blues video, 1965.

The main frontage of the Savoy Hotel is on the Strand, a glitzy exercise in 1920s chrome, like a discarded study for the Chrysler Building. In contrast, the river-side aspect is far more muted and discreet, the business end clad in the ‘hygenic’ white glazed tiles the Victorians reserved for the filthier urban environments. The hotel takes its name from the ancient royal manor that once sprawled across the Thames foreshore. Until the 17th century, private access to the river was a prerequisite for any serious player, and the mansions here were as grand as the grandest of Venetian palazzos. Savoy Palace stood here from about 1200, occupied at one point by Eleanor of Castile, consort of Edward I. About a hundred years after that the house became the property of John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster and the richest man in England at that time. Shakespeare put him in Richard II and gave him some of the best lines (‘This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle’, etc.).

Savoy Hospital, circa 1550.

By 1370 John of Gaunt had re-built and generally pimped-up Savoy Palace, to the point where it was said to be the finest house in the country, a vast royal residence sprawling along the river: a great hall, a chapel, vegetable garden, fish pond, the works. Geoffrey Chaucer benefited from John of Gaunt’s patronage and worked herepage1image3674384as a clerk, writing some of The Canterbury Tales in his free time. The opulence of Savoy Palace reflected John of Gaunt’s position as effective head of state; but he’d also become a sort of Basil Rathbone-type villain, having introduced a poll tax that no-one liked – especially not the peasants who became generally more peasanty as a result of it. Given John of Gaunt’s unpopularity with just about everyone except Chaucer, it’s unsurprising that his gaff got wrecked in the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. Wat Tyler’s men started by building a huge bonfire in the courtyard, on top of which they piled all the Duke’s gold, silver, tapestries and such like. They didn’t want to actually steal them, they were as fastidious in that respect as the Bolsheviks who stormed the Tsar’s Winter Palace – and the mob rioted so piously that one of their number who tried to make off with a silver goblet was thrown on the fire himself. It should be said that even this display of moral fervour didn’t prevent a few of them from getting quietly, subversively smashed on the Duke’s wines. Finally, a box of gunpowder, which the rioters thought contained gold, was consigned to the flames; the explosion destroyed the great hall and also caved in the ceiling of palace’s wine cellar, trapping the thirty-two drunken rioters who had been enjoying the Duke’s fine vintages. They were abandoned to their fate, their cries for help ostentatiously ignored by their zealous compatriots. (Goes with the territory.)

Anyway, that did for Savoy Palace. What was left of it was finally converted into a hospital, during the reign of Henry VII, and even that didn’t work out too well. By the end of the 16th century, the Recorder of London was complaining to Elizabeth the 1st’s enforcer Lord Burghley that Savoy Hospital was the ‘chief nursery of evil men’ because criminals claimed sanctuary here from the law. They were taking advantage of ‘The Liberty of the Savoy’, a strange anomaly whereby criminals pursued in London could claim that, because the Savoy territory belonged to the Duke of Lancaster, agents of the Crown had no power over them whilst they stayed within its bounds, a bizarre arrangement that persisted into the 19th century. By that time the whole area was in ruins, and what was left was finally cleared to make way for the approach road to Waterloo Bridge in 1816. The only part of the old Savoy complex that remains is Savoy Chapel, a solemn Tudor fragment adrift amidst the bulk of anonymous offices. I don’t know whether Oscar and Bosie ever came here to inspect ‘the grey twilight of Gothic things’, it’s more likely that they were too busy hustling rent boys into Wilde’s suite at the Savoy Hotel,* but this alley has one bona fide claim on modern culture. It was here, alongside the ancient wall of Savoy Chapel, that the 26-year old Bob Dylan – staying at the Savoy Hotel during his famous ‘electric’ 1965 UK tour – telegraphed Subterranean Homesick Blues for D.A. Pennebaker’s camera. Allen Ginsberg and legendary record producer Tom Wilson can be seen loitering in back of shot, unaware that they are witnessing the birth of a pop culture meme.

(* The ‘Gothic’ quote is from the ‘Hyacinth letter’ from Wilde to Douglas. This letter, and details of the goings on in his rooms at the Savoy, came up in court during Wilde’s legal suit against Queensberry in 1895. At Wilde’s committal, the magistrate observed:‘I know nothing about the Savoy, but I must say that in my view chicken and salad for two at sixteen shillings is very high. I am afraid I will never supper there myself.’ In an early draft of The Importance of Being Earnest, a solicitor arrives to remove Algernon to Holloway Prison for non-payment of restaurant bills at the Savoy, whereupon Algie retorts: ‘I am not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs for dining in the West End. It is ridiculous.’ With irony that he must have appreciated but can hardly have enjoyed, Wilde was held on remand at Holloway whilst awaiting his first trial.)

Francis Bacon in The Colony Room

Francis Bacon and Ian Board (right) in The Colony Room, 14 September 1983. Photo by Angus Forbes.

A Day in the Life

by Angus Forbes

September 1983: the book publisher Malcolm McGregor is organizing A Day in the Life of London and the commissioning photographer Red Saunders wants me in. I tell Red I’ll cover legal London in the morning and the West End drinking clubs, of which at that time I was a frequenter, in the afternoon. On the day (Friday the 14th) I roll up at the Colony Room in Dean Street soon after opening, about half three. The lowering sun is reflecting off the buildings opposite and streaming through the first floor window; a lovely light. I’m a Colony member, so I tell the irascible owner Ian Board what I’m doing and would it be ok if I took some casual non-flash pictures. Ian’s in a mellowish state today and says yes.

It’s early for the Colony and people are just beginning to drift in. I take some pictures, nothing special, and am thinking of moving on when Ian says don’t go, Francis will be here in a minute. Francis Bacon. Of course I wait. By the time Bacon, John Edwards and team arrive, the drinkers are used to my Nikon-wielding antics and I ask Bacon if I can take some shots of him too. He does not demur. My scoop in hand I head for The Little House, another painters’ hangout in Shepherd Market, and sitting at the bar is Patrick Caulfield.

The next day Saturday I’m in my darkroom viewing the contact sheets. It occurs to me that by simple photocomposition I could combine my images of Bacon and Caulfield and drop Bacon into The Little House (which I know he uses as that’s where I first met him). A double-scoop. But before I take it even one step further, fresh permissions from all depicted parties must be sought.

I get to the Colony about 7. Ian and his barman Michael Wojas are the only people there and drink has already been well taken. I have with me three photographic prints: one is the shot of Bacon and Board in the Colony, another shows Caulfield at The Little House and the third is a mockup of the proposed photocomp. I show Ian the first shot and he likes it; Francis’ champagne glass is at the right angle, and Ian, his arm in a sling from some rough, looks suitably mad. Next shot, indifference. But when Ian Board sees the mockup of his Francis in a rival hostelry, all hell breaks loose.

So incensed is Ian by the image I’ve just shown him that he pitches forward on his stool and topples onto the cigarette-scorched, booze-sodden carpet of the notorious green boite with an almighty, clattering thump. When Michael and I manage to heave him back onto his throne, Ian’s right index finger is dripping blood. He grabs the mockup and starts jabbing at it, daubing it with dollops of his own gore. ‘It’s a disgrace! It’s an insult!’ shrieks Ian, lunging for the phone. He gets Bacon on the line. ‘Know what that cunt photographer wanker’s gone and done?’ Ian bellows, ‘He’s only put you in that fat Jamaican whore’s place with someone called Cauliflower or something!’ Ian thrusts the receiver to me, ‘Francis wants to speak to you!’ ‘The negatives must be destroyed!’ Bacon booms. He’s drunk as well and I’m gulping down the vodka like there’s no Sunday – this photocomp’s not such a good idea after all (if indeed it ever was). ‘Francis, I wouldn’t dream of publishing without your say-so. I just thought that as Patrick and you use the same place’ ‘Who?’, he interrupts. ‘Patrick Caulfield’ I say. ‘Never heard of him!’ Bacon thunders.

Later I relate the story to Gerry Clancy. He tells me that not long ago Bacon had turned up at an opening at Fischer Fine Art where Caulfield was showing miniatures. Francis had proceeded to walk around the gallery, waving derisorily at the works and muttering ‘Postage stamps! Postage stamps!’ Some time after the affair had subsided I see Patrick in the Zanzibar with John Hoyland. I repeat the Colony tale to them, including Bacon’s last remark to me. Patrick Caulfield bursts into tears.

Red Saunders uses my shot of Bacon, Edwards and Board in the Colony over a double-page spread in A Day in the Life of London. A decade later and all has supposedly been forgiven. Francis has been dead for three years and a framed print of my shot of him with Ian has been hanging in pride of place behind the Colony bar since it was taken. Board is on his usual perch and I’m on the next stool knocking back the tonic water. We’re having a desultory conversation about nothing in particular, no animosity, when Ian suddenly reaches behind him, seizes the framed print from the wall and smashes it over my head. A rivulet of blood runs down my nose and splashes onto the palm of my hand. I turn to Ian in astonishment.page36image3840288

‘Cunt!’ says Ian Board.

Quite.

Angus Forbes with his picture of Bacon, Dellasposa Gallery, 15 September 2020. Photo by The Drinker.

Photo and text © Angus Forbes. Angus’s photo is on display at The Dellasposa Gallery as part of Tales From The Colony Room, which also includes work by Francis Bacon, Patrick Caulfield, Lucian Freud, John Minton, R. B. Kitaj, F. N. Souza, Frank Auerbach, John Deakin, Daniel Farson, Bruce Bernard, Nina Hamnett, Isabel Rawsthorne, Sir Peter Blake, Eduardo Paolozzi, David Bailey, Sarah Lucas, etc.. The show accompanies the publication of Darren Coffield’s book and runs until 20 December. Highly recommended.