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.

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.

Spies and Queens at The Gargoyle Club

Brian Howard gazes thoughtfully at the camera. Photo taken sometime in the 1930s by noted portrait photographer Howard Coster (not at The Gargoyle: this is The 500 Club.)

‘At least, my dear, I am a has-been. That’s something you can never be.’
Brian Howard in The Gargoyle Club, circa 1940s.

The Gargoyle Club was located at 69 Meard Street, just off Wardour Street. The club was located on the top three floors of a Lutyens-adapted Georgian townhouse and was founded in 1925 by the young aristocrat David Tennant as a place where he could go dancing with his girlfriend, the actress Hermione Baddeley. (In the 1970s, her sister Angela Baddeley achieved a kind of immortality as the plain-spoken cook Mrs Bridges in the 1970s Edwardian soap Upstairs, Downstairs.) By day the club was a straight-up venue for business lunches, but it came alive in the evenings, when the livelier members of London’s intelligentsia gathered to talk, drink and occasionally dance; no-one thought the resident band was any good but no-one seemed to care. The décor was especially noteworthy, having been supervised by none other than Henri Matisse: the ballroom was panelled with fragments cut from 18th century mirrors salvaged from a French chateau, and a pair of Matisse canvases completed the look. The Gargoyle immediately established itself as a very important cultural and social venue, even if Constant Lambert described the dance floor on Saturday night as being ‘packed with the two hundred nastiest people in Chiswick.’

Matisse’s Red Studio. The club also housed his Studio, Quai St Michel – both were sold in the early days of the war to pay club debts. The former is now in MOMA, New York, the latter in the Phillips Collection, Washington DC.

The club’s members’ list is an impressive inventory of the great and the good, but this entry concerns itself with some of the sleazier regulars. The louche diplomat and traitor Guy Burgess became a member in 1943 and found the ambience particularly to his liking. At this time Burgess was working for the BBC and, covertly, the KGB, for whom he had already recruited sometime lover and occasional Gargoyle visitor, Donald MacLean. Their fellow Soviet spy in MI6, Kim Philby, was also a member of the Gargoyle but largely avoided the club during the war, possibly to keep Burgess’s conspicuous recklessness at arm’s length. Burgess was also close to another flamboyant Gargoyle fixture: Brian Howard, poet, professional failure, and one of the models for Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited. Howard was, like Burgess, an old Etonian and a member of the gilded 1920s Oxford generation, which is where he encountered Evelyn Waugh. Later, he became associated with the party set beloved of twenties’ gossip columns. Unfortunately, Howard’s precocious poetic achievements petered out early and his youthful promise remained forever unfulfilled. Howard’s war time career was ignominious: thrown out of MI5 because he couldn’t keep a secret, he ended up in the public relations department of Bomber Command, a job title worthy of a Waugh novel. (Even in that post Brian Howard remained incorrigible. According to D.J. Taylor, in his book Bright Young People, Howard’s mother once interceded with her son’s RAF squadron leader concerning a uniform Brian had left in a pub toilet.)

Eaten up with bitterness, Howard functioned as the Gargoyle’s gargoyle, a sinister, mincing barfly who would assail people entering from the lobby with queeny insults (e.g.:‘Who do we think we are, dear, Noel Coward?’). Burgess, meanwhile, used the club as a pick-up joint, making passes at anyone who took his fancy, with mixed results. On one occasion he succeeded in luring an interior decorator back to his flat, whereupon he assailed him with coat hangers, but his approach to a young painter was less successful: ‘Would you like to come back to my flat? Would you like to be whipped? A wild thrashing? Wine thrown in?’ Howard and Burgess were occasional lovers, Howard indulging Burgess’s masochistic tendencies with enthusiastic firmness. There is also an intriguing episode in the summer of 1945, when Burgess and Howard went with their respective boyfriends to visit the ageing Lord Alfred Douglas at home in Brighton, thus squaring the circle: the louche gay spy and the Bright Young Person paying homage to Oscar’s beloved Bosie. Burgess wanted to show off his new boyfriend, who he believed was even more beautiful than Douglas had been in his fabled youth.

Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean. Burgess found MacLean sexually unappealing, ‘white and flabby’, in sharp contrast to the rough trade he preferred.

The Gargoyle celebrated its silver jubilee in 1950: later that year Donald MacLean was made a full member of the club. The troubled bisexual diplomat had recently returned from a calamitous posting to Cairo and was proposed for membership by a friend who thought it might cheer him up. Unfortunately, Maclean was deeply unstable: unhinged by drink, his confused sexuality and the pressure of his own treachery. He was by now head of the American desk at the Foreign Office but his behaviour in the club seemed designed to bring about his own unmasking. Club regulars were subjected to the unedifying spectacle of Maclean slurringly announcing that he worked for ‘Uncle Joe’ (Stalin). But they thought it was a joke. In the end, Burgess and MacLean were tipped off by Kim Philby and fled before they were exposed. They defected to Moscow in 1951, living miserable self-pitying, and booze-addled lives thereafter. As for Brian Howard, he went even more to seed, and lived a peripatetic life bouncing cheques across Europe, before dying of an overdose of sleeping pills at 52. By the time all this happened the Gargoyle was in terminal decline, and by the end of the fifties it was a strip club. It remained a club of sorts until the 1980s, and for a while was the home of The Comedy Store, that notorious bear-pit where anyone could try telling jokes in front of a baying audience and the demonic emcee, Alexei Sayle. (What does this tell us? Anything? Discuss.)