Wine Bar Nostalgia

Not Le Beaujolais … somewhere in London, probably 1960s and definitely chilly, Evening Standard archives.

Just off the Charing Cross Rd., on Litchfield St., is Le Beaujolais: a friendly, uber-French wine bar that has been here since 1972 – an aeon in catering terms. The 1970s and 80s were, of course, the great age of the wine bar, those civilized venues that allowed business types to get shitfaced in a drinking environment that flattered their sense of status more than any mere pub could manage. At the much missed Le Tartin (more on that below) I remember two suits so drunk on Muscadet and workplace hilarity that one of them laughed himself off his bar stool with a full- throated executive guffaw. After being solicitously helped to his feet by the ever-deadpan barman Bernard, he resumed his seat and continued his anecdote with nerveless determination: ‘Anyway …’

In that everyday world that now feels so remote, Le Beaujolais was the best place to have a leisurely lunch that extended into tea-time and beyond, hanging on to your table as the bar gradually filled and grew raucous around you. By that time you would probably have to hang on to your table in order to stand; so, if you ever get a chance to try this, the important thing is to have a substantial meal, not some evanescent platter of cold meats that merely gives the illusion of solid food. This is vital. And, as the pace is set by the drinker with the fastest pouring arm, choice of company is key if you are to avoid disaster. But, seeing as most of my friends are happy to help me steal an afternoon, I have experienced many afternoons that slid effortlessly into purple evening: ‘Like putting your liver on a pole at the bottom of the garden and throwing darts at it’. (A phrase coined by an old family friend.)

One example from a few years ago: man-about-town Miles R. joined me in Le Beaujolais for a light lunch scheduled between appointments. Somehow, these appointments were duly forgotten (I reassure myself that they can’t have been too important, although I cannot in truth remember whether they were or not) as we melted our credit cards in pursuit of some sort of higher fellowship in booze. Sometime around six we were joined by our friend and colleague Tom H. – who was visibly alarmed by our condition – at which point I remembered that I had promised to escort an expectant stranger to a singles party. As I was too drunk to meet the girl myself, Tom kindly met her at the appointed street corner and brought her to me at Le Beaujolais, whereupon she wondered what sort of evening she had signed up for. My memory gets a bit hazy after that, although she was smart enough to slip any attachment to me as soon as we reached the event, leaving me marooned and pissed in a room full of groomed and glossy strangers. I left quietly, struggling my way home to bed and dreams of gorgeous women with fat men. Oh, the humanity.

A view of Rose St. and Garrick St. taken in the early 1980s by Paul Barkshire; the chefs are taking a break from the kitchen of L’Estaminet.

Opposite the Garrick, on the corner of Rose St., there used to be a restaurant called L’Estaminet, which had a terrific wine bar in its basement: Le Tartin. Behind the counter you would find Bernard (bespectacled, austere), Gerard (an endearing shambles) and a revolving quota of gamine waitresses whose function was to smile at the regulars’ jokes and give them dreams of a better life. It was a time-warped oasis in the grinding metropolis, offering a far more intimate experience than any other London bar or club I can think of. I was a regular there for about seven years, until that sad evening when my regular visit revealed the dead hand of new management. Bewildered, I retreated to the nearby Le Beaujolais where I learnt the sorry tale of the departure of Bernard, Gerard et al. The staff of Le Beaujolais were sympathetic to my distress, because they understood what I had become: an exile.

Fortunately, Bernard (I never knew his surname) later ran a spartan but first-rate wine bar in Fitzovia: Manouche. I was a regular here for quite some time, although this particular bar has very mixed memories for me. It is associated in my mind with a particularly fraught relationship which was largely conducted in this bar, given that my beloved’s estranged husband was still living in the family home, and ultimately the affair began and ended here. After a promising beginning, my star began to wane and after a while I could chart my flagging appeal in between trips to the gents. I remember that they had an elaborate cartoon on the wall above the urinal, a coloured pencil drawing portraying in extravagant detail a gathering of early 1980s public figures in some imagined super-bar. That image is burned on to my retina, and is associated with boundless promise and total failure.

Manouche is long gone. Last time I looked, the site was occupied by a branch of the London Cocktail Club. This concern seems to be gobbling up wine bars; they have already annexed The Grapes, that strange, rambling bar beneath the Shaftesbury Theatre (point of departure for a memorable Christmas-time episode that you can read about here). I visited the Grapes in its London Cocktail Club guise a couple of years ago: the bar layout was unchanged but the place purveyed a youthful, slightly gothic vibe. Changing demographics, I suppose. These new bars aren’t suitable venues for dissatisfied middle-aged men to pursue doomed affairs with unavailable women. Then again, in the time of Covid, where are people supposed to go to conduct their inappropriate liaisons? You can’t even meet over a cup of tea, as Trevor and Celia were obliged to do in that awful station café. Can you get all misty-eyed and tragic and Brief Encounter-ish on a Zoom call? Discuss.

Trevor Howard falls in love with Celia Johnson’s hat: ‘Brief Encounter’, directed by David Lean, 1945.

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.

The Return Of King Mob

What follows is a post which originally appeared here in April 2020. I am re-posting because it feels appropriate for the surplus of history we are currently living through. The past is never far away; we are lumbered with it the whole time, even the bits we’ve forgotten or would prefer to forget.

‘Phiz’ (Hablot Knight Browne) depicts the Gordon Riots.


Lord George Martini’
Ingredients:
One gin distillery.
Equipment:
One anti-Catholic mob.
Method:
Set fire to distillery; drink contents until building explodes.

The opening of chapter 52 of Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge (1841):

A mob is usually a creature of very mysterious existence, particularly in a large city. Where it comes from or whither it goes, few men can tell. 

If you are looking for some lockdown reading with contemporary overtones, Barnaby Rudge might fit the bill. The climax of Dickens’s early historical novel features one of his most vivid set pieces, as London is put to flame by a monstrous assembly. Dickens was recreating the incendiary climax of The Gordon Riots of June 1780. This orgiastic week of violence, fuelled by anti-Catholic paranoia, which threatened to overwhelm the army and unseat the government, came to be named after their unwitting instigator, the deluded Lord George Gordon, an MP and demagogue who was seeking to overturn a law aimed at relaxing restrictions on Catholics. (This was at a time when England was at war with America and there was widespread fear that older enemies such as France and Spain were poised to invade.)

Newgate feels the heat: the night of 6 June 1780 as reported in a contemporary pamphlet.

The riots were the most destructive in London’s history, as the ‘No Popery!’ agitators joined common purpose with London’s slum-dwelling poor, who emerged from the city’s favelas with curiosity and absolutely nothing to lose. On the night of Tuesday 6th June, they torched that symbol of state oppression, Newgate Gaol. A note written on the smouldering walls of Newgate stated that the inmates had been released on the orders of ‘King Mob’. Embittered convicts swelled the crowd as they sacked and burned swathes of Covent Garden and Bloomsbury (although, in the aftermath of the fire, there were also reports of bewildered lifers wandering amidst the ruins of Newgate, waiting for someone to take charge of them).

The next night, another hot one, the mob set fire to Fleet Jail, King’s Bench Prison, the Borough Clink, and several other clinks, freeing about 1600 prisoners, and then marched on Langdale’s gin distillery. Thomas Langdale was a Catholic who had a chapel on the premises of his distillery at the corner of Holborn Hill and Fetter Lane, along with 120,000 gallons of gin. Troops guarding Langdale’s had been called away to shore up defences at the Bank of England and on Blackfriars Bridge, leaving the distillery an open goal for the rioters. Langdale attempted to buy the mob off, but they weren’t buying and the building was soon alight. At the same time, a gentle wind began to blow, fanning the flames until all Holborn resembled ‘a volcano’.

And this is where British character asserts itself and revolution turns into an opportunity for a party. As the distillery went up, rioters brought raw gin and casks of rum out of the cellars by whatever method available – a pig trough was put to this purpose. Rather unfortunately, a fire engine briefly employed to douse the flames pumped gin instead of water, fuelling the fire even further. Another fire pump was captured by an old cobbler who used it to draw buckets of gin from Langdale’s cellars, selling it on to spectators at a penny a mug.

‘Phiz’ illustrates the Langdale episode for Dickens in ‘Barnaby Rudge’.

As the stills inside exploded, rivulets of raw gin poured into the streets. This 20th century description is too good not to quote:

By nine the buildings were enveloped in smoke and flame, while there flowed down the kennel of the street torrents of unrectified and flaming spirit gushing from casks drawn in endless succession from the vaults. … Ardent spirits, now running to pools and wholly unfit for human consumption, were swallowed by insasiate fiends who, with shrieking gibes and curses, reeled and perished in the flames, whilst others, alight from head to foot, were dragged from burning cellars. On a sudden, in an atmosphere hot to suffocation, flames leapt upwards from Langdale’s other houses on Holborn Hill. The vats had ignited, and columns of fire became visible for thirty miles around London. (John Paul DeCastro, The Gordon Riots, 1926.)

Gillray’ contemporary comment, dated 9th June.

The riots petered out shortly after that, and order was restored amidst an epic collective hangover. ‘King Mob’ came very close to overwhelming the army and it’s interesting to consider what might have happened if so many rioters hadn’t got smashed at Langdale’s. For all the ambition of political agitators (‘populists’, as we’d say now) who were exploiting latent xenophobia borne out of misery and deprivation, the broader mob had no clearly defined aims. As far as ‘King Mob’ was concerned, it was just a chance for a piss-up, with a bit of recreational arson thrown in. A very British coup.

Further reading: King Mob: The London Riots Of 1780 by Christopher Hibbert.