Can You Tell What It Is Yet?

Vincent Glanvill writes …

It was 1994 and Rolf Harris had been booked to play our university hall. The hall was a good-sized venue, if a little run down, having lost some of its lustre since its Edwardian heyday. I was a second-year student and Iʼd already helped organise a couple of gigs; weʼd load all the equipment into the hall and help set up, then weʼd watch the gig, drink some of the band’s rider and stay just sober enough to pack up and load out at the end. Nominally in charge was one Mark Connolly (NB: not real name). Connolly was rarely sober for the three years that I knew him. Despite this, he generally managed to function in the role, which included booking bands for gigs. And, on one occasion, Connolly outdid himself and managed to book Rolf, at that time one of the most sought-after acts on the university circuit. 

Rolf was, of course, a TV legend and this was years before Operation Yewtree uncovered his misdeeds and destroyed his reputation . Back then, he seemed like everyoneʼs favourite uncle. He could draw, and cry about dogs being ill, and, kind of, sing. Rolfʼs version of Led Zeppelinʼs Stairway to Heaven re-launched his singing career: an implausible hit that led to an invitation to play Glastonbury, and projected Rolf back into the zeitgeist. He embarked upon a subsequent tour and thatʼs where I met him.

Rolf arrived dressed in a sheepskin waistcoat, with signature goatee, glasses and toothy grin all in place. He greeted everyone and made sure he shook hands with each of us. We helped the band set up, then Rolf joined them to sound check. They played Jake the Peg and Two Little Boys followed by a song with a didgeridoo, only Rolf mimed playing the didgeridoo; the keyboard player made the sound instead. I felt a little betrayed by this but put it down to the problems of feedback that a resonant instrument can create.

Rolf took Connolly aside after the sound check and said, ʻI’m going to need some help.ʼ Connolly volunteered me. Rolf took me back to his dressing room and produced a beaten-up leather suitcase. ʻWe always start with Jake,ʼ he said. ʻItʼs since Newcastle.ʼ He took a prosthetic leg and arm out of the suitcase and showed them to me. ʻStudents – they want the leg as a prize. Iʼll finish the song and wander over to you in the wings. Iʼll hand them to you, you put them straight into the suitcase and lock it in the dressing room. Straight away. We canʼt have another Newcastle. We canʼt risk losing the leg.ʼ I nodded and told him not to worry. ʻWould you like a drink?ʼ ʼI offered. ʻJust spring water. Iʼm teetotal. Have been for yearsʼ, replied Rolf. ʻDonʼt mind me having one?ʼ I asked. ʻNo, no,ʼ came the reply. Great! I thought. Thereʼs a whole rider of booze out there and he doesnʼt drink!

Rolf and his band opened their set around 9:30pm with Jake the Peg. Rolf hopped about the stage singing to the inebriated crowd, who went wild as they sang along to the chorus. The song seemed to end quickly and Rolf shambled over to take off his Jake overcoat and pass me the arm and the leg. I packed them in the suitcase, which I then secured in the dressing room. Mission accomplished, I grabbed another cider and returned to the side of the stage to enjoy the rest of the show.

As I climbed the stairs to the wings, I could tell something was wrong. I couldnʼt see Rolf. I stood in the wings, stage right, as the bassist and keyboard player started gesturing for me to come on stage. Rolf was on his knees at the front and a woman in the audience had taken the mic stand off him and was singing Tie Me Kangaroo Down into the microphone. I froze for a second. Where was Security? I ran on stage, pulled the mic stand out of the audience and swung it back in Rolfʼs direction, the microphone swinging at Rolfʼs head. He ducked at the last minute, grabbed the mic and seamlessly joined in with the verse as I tightened-up the screws on the stand. I realised there was no security, it was just me. Connolly hadnʼt left any money in the budget to book them and rather than stay to help was off doing lines of coke in a dressing room.

Full of cider and yet solely in charge, I faced a fresh problem with each new song: stage invasions by both men and women, who I escorted back to their place in the pit; people throwing drinks at the stage, me having to mop them up; women throwing underwear at Rolf, which I threw back. It was relentless. When the band started playing Waltzing Matilda, a woman mounted the stage and headed straight for Rolf. I started to escort her away, but this time the band gestured for me to stop. Rolf turned to me and winked, ʻThis oneʼs OKʼ. He took her hand and put his arm around her waist. ʻLetʼs waltz,ʼ he said and they danced around the stage as the audience sang the song.

The band ended with an obligatory encore of Stairway to Heaven then left the stage. ʻThat was worse than Newcastle. Where was Security?ʼ Rolf said as he clambered down the stairs.ʼ I lied and blamed the management of the University, knowing that this was all Connollyʼs fault. ʻShall I wait outside? Do you want some time alone?ʼ I asked Rolf. ʻNo, stay, itʼs fine.ʼ As I was taking a piss in the dressing room toilet, the door left open because the light was broken, the band came in with Connolly. Connolly, all jokes and banter, was wearing a white polyester suit and looked like an extra from Scarface. ʻHey Rolf, could you draw a Rolfaroo for my baby daughter?ʼ Connolly asked. ʻIʼd be happy to,’ replied Rolf. He drew the character with practiced ease and gave the page from his drawing pad to Connolly. ʻWould you like me to draw something for you too?ʼ Rolf asked me. ‘Oh, no thanks, I said. Then changed my mind. ʻActually, could you draw something for my brother? Heʼs nine. He loves your show.ʼ Rolf started to write my brotherʼs name and I quickly said ʻAnd maybe for me as well …ʼ

There was a knock at the door. I went over to answer. An attractive student was standing with one of the roadies. ‘Can I speak with Rolf?ʼ she asked. I started to say no, when I was interrupted by the roadie: ʻTell them what you wantʼ. Rolf came to the door. ʻIʼd like you to draw a little face on theseʼ she said, pulling up her top and bra to unveil her breasts to Rolfʼs face. I stepped back as Rolf grabbed his marker pen and set to work. He drew the same toothy grin on the womanʼs breasts that he had on his face.

ʻYeah! Thatʼs rock and roll!ʼ said Connolly.

Vincent Glanvill in his nineties pomp.

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.

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.