The golden age of Soho

Christo­pher Howse re­calls the hey­day of Lon­don’s boozy artis­tic bo­hemia – from the For­ties to the Eight­ies

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Christo­pher Howse

‘You can do a lot of things at the sea­side that you can’t do in town,’ went the Ed­war­dian mu­sic-hall song. Soho was in town but, in the four decades af­ter the Sec­ond World War, the same rules – or lack of them – ap­plied.

Pubs were closed by law be­tween 3pm and 5.30pm; so the af­ter­noon drink­ing club was in­vented. Be­fore I saw one, I’d imag­ined sit­ting in a chintzy arm­chair gen­tly sip­ping gin and tonic. Re­al­ity at the Kis­met Club (nick­named Death in the Af­ter­noon, or The Iron Lung) was dif­fer­ent.

‘What’s that smell?’ a vis­i­tor once asked. The re­ply was: ‘Fail­ure.’ Yet the Colony Room Club, un­der Muriel Belcher from 1948 to 1979, and un­der the mon­strous Ian Board in the Eight­ies, was more than a tap­room for ethanol.

Of course, an­other il­le­gal thing (un­til 1967 and cul­tur­ally later) was any ho­mo­sex­ual act. Most peo­ple were het­ero­sex­ual, but I think there was less sep­a­rate so­cial­is­ing than there is to­day. No one in the Colony cared one way or the other, nor did any­one in the French or the Coach and Horses, the two pubs pre-em­i­nent for con­ver­sa­tion (and for hard words of as­ton­ish­ing fe­roc­ity).

There was an­other drive at work, more im­por­tant even than drink and sex, and that was money. It was not a law but some­thing stronger that, in those decades par­tic­u­larly, made fi­nances a bench­mark of suc­cess. Not in Soho. The poet Oliver Bernard, Jef­frey Bernard’s el­dest brother, felt at home in Soho as he had never felt at his mother’s house in Hol­land Park. On run­ning away at the age of 16, he found that, in Soho, ‘It was all right to be very poor, and peo­ple bor­rowed shillings off one an­other.’

Even so, the stage car­pen­ter Mick Tobin would of­ten say, ‘The only sin is to be skint.’ Then he would laugh, and you would be able to see where his teeth would have been had he not dis­pensed with their ser­vices by the 1980s.

Mick was re­ally a proof that his joc­u­lar say­ing was un­true. He had, as Jef­frey Bernard’s el­der brother, Bruce, re­marked, a ta­lent for friend­ship. He called Maria Cal­las ‘Cally’ and Lu­cian Freud, who painted him as Man with a Check Cap, he called ‘Lu’. Mick gen­er­ally dis­ap­proved of sur­names, since some of his friends and re­la­tions had no friend­ship with the po­lice. He called peo­ple Ian the Hat, Cock­ney Di or Stut­ter­ing Sarah.

Nick­names could be awk­ward, as some­one uni­ver­sally known as Brian the Burglar must have found. The best in­ven­tor of nick­names was the drunk­est man in the Coach and Horses in the Eight­ies, Gra­ham Mason. There was a for­merly suc­cess­ful ac­tress, Diana Lam­bert ( The Nun’s Story, 1959), who was re­duced to sell­ing her fur­ni­ture to buy whisky. To travel around free, she rode a bi­cy­cle with a bas­ket. Her other pen­chant was for gos­sip. So Gra­ham suc­cess­fully landed her with the nick­name the Vil­lage Post­mistress.

Gra­ham’s own lead­ing trait was the

ex­treme. He once went nine days with­out eat­ing – which he found in­ter­fered with his drink­ing. ‘You know those had­dock in Richard’s fish shop,’ Jef­frey Bernard once said to him. ‘You can tell if they’re fresh by the eyes. Well, if you were a had­dock, I’d leave you on the slab.’

Gra­ham be­came a clas­sic ex­po­nent of Boozer’s Eco­nomics. Drink ruled. He hap­pily paid for a mini­cab home at night to the Isle of Dogs be­cause he couldn’t walk steadily. But he wouldn’t buy clothes. He wore the clothes that had be­longed to the de­ceased hus­band of the woman he lived with, Marsh Dun­bar. But the late Peter Dun­bar was not so tall as he; so the hand-me-downs wore out, not at the knees and el­bows, but a few inches fur­ther down, where their new owner’s joints rubbed them. It was a sur­prise when the duf­fel coat, once navy blue, that Gra­ham hung up in the Coach was stolen. The thief must have been very dim. This in­ci­dent led Jef­frey Bernard to per­form what could only be called a good deed. He said to Gra­ham, ‘Fol­low me.’ They went to Austin Reed and Jef­frey bought him a good, navy, worsted over­coat that fit­ted. Of course Gra­ham gave it a mock­ing nick­name: Jef­frey’s Coat. But I knew he was grate­ful.

It seemed in the Eight­ies that Soho was un­chang­ing. That was an il­lu­sion. Cer­tainly the sa­cred an­ces­tors men­tioned in books such as Daniel Far­son’s Soho in the Fifties seemed like the peo­ple still around in the Eight­ies, only dead: the cruel-tongued, bril­liant photographer John Deakin; the poignant couple of painters, the Two Roberts (Colquhoun and Macbryde); the painter John Min­ton, also queer, as the term still was, but un­happy about it, end­ing his life aged 39.

Marsh Dun­bar, who had known Deakin, de­fended him against the charge of cru­elty, as she de­fended Fran­cis Ba­con. (Ba­con, named Deakin’s next of kin, was sup­posed to have said on in­spect­ing the body: ‘That’s the first time I’ve seen him with his mouth shut.’) To Marsh, Ba­con was ex­tremely funny and madly gen­er­ous – ‘buy­ing as many drinks all round as he pos­si­bly could’, as Bruce Bernard put it.

That was the rad­i­cally poor Soho, where peo­ple like Bill Moore, a driver who drank amaz­ing amounts of whisky while sit­ting in the Coach wear­ing a jersey but no shirt, had nowhere to live. He slept in a deckchair in his boss’s of­fice.

Money still ex­isted. Any cheques were cashed with Nor­man Balon, land­lord at the Coach, or Gas­ton Ber­lemont at the French (pic­tured). Gas­ton, no mean psy­chol­o­gist, knew that the quick­est way to en­sure you never see some­one again is to lend them money. Yet he would do so, with the pro­viso, ‘Pay me back when you can, but don’t stop com­ing to see me.’

There was no worry about pen­sions in Soho. Peo­ple didn’t live that long. Jef­frey Bernard was not the only one to be un­well, just the only one to have Peter O’toole play him in a com­edy bril­liantly con­structed by Keith Water­house.

Jef­frey’s hobby, as Michael Heath the car­toon­ist re­marked shrewdly, was ob­serv­ing his own dis­in­te­gra­tion. By the late Eight­ies his thighs were thin­ner than his knees. He had night­mares of be­ing eaten by mag­gots. Two cysts the size of or­anges were re­moved from his neck. Then a leg went. He would wave his stump to em­pha­sise a point in ar­gu­ment.

Jef­frey died in the same week as the Princess of Wales and Mother Teresa. Daniel Far­son died later that year. Ba­con was dead. Ian Board was dead.

But it was not the Reaper who killed Soho, nor the changes in drink­ing hours and sex­ual mores. The real fac­tor is that there aren’t enough peo­ple now who think po­etry and painting the items to value in­stead of money. The first thing Young British Artists of the Nineties learned was how to make out an in­voice. To­day, when the young would rather text than speak on their mo­biles, who goes to a pub to talk, or even shout at each other?

Christo­pher Howse’s ‘Soho in the Eight­ies’ is pub­lished on 6th Septem­ber (Blooms­bury Con­tin­uum, £20)

‘Jef­frey Bernard would wave his stump to em­pha­sise a point’

Gas­ton Ber­lemont at the French pub, mid-1950s. Op­po­site: (from left) painters Ti­mothy Behrens, Lu­cian Freud, Fran­cis Ba­con, Frank Auer­bach and Michael An­drews lunch at Wheeler’s, 1963

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