We fought our way in, pushing through the crowd of sailors, whores, airmen, negroes and French sailors. Close to my ear people whispered to each other earnestly, ecclesiastically. The thimblefuls of golden whisky spilt on dark cloth when elbows were jogged. Someone said playfully, "I'm feeling hysterical." There was warmth and dirt and love and disgust and poetry and sweat.
Of all Soho's pubs, the French House on Dean Street represented the very essence of this classless, timeless, and yet specifically mid-century phenomenon. Its cavelike interior seemed to evoke forbidden pleasures, as though an opium den might lurk upstairs - suggested by the contraption screwed to the bar which dripped water through a lump of sugar on a leaf- shaped spoon over a glass of absinthe. It was a sense of foreign indulgence personified by the pub's proprietors, the moustachioed father and son Victor and Gaston Berlemont.
In 1914 Victor Berlemont, then running the Restaurant Europeen next door, had been the first foreigner to be granted a full English pub licence when he took over the Wine House from a Herr Schmidt who was threatened with internment. That year also saw the birth of his son in their apartment upstairs. The pub - patriotically renamed the York Minster - was soon known as "the French" by virtue of the Berlemonts' tenure, although they were in fact Belgian.
The establishment appealed to continental sensibilities - Berlemont imported hogsheads of wine and bottled it on the premises "always on a clear day for white wines, otherwise it goes cloudy", recalled Gaston. A French restaurant was opened in an upstairs room, where Lord Beaverbrook was a frequent diner - "He was always presenting me to a niece who was with him," Gaston said. "He had more nieces than any man I've known" - whilst downstairs in the cellar Berlemont, a great boxing fan, installed a ring for his hero the French boxer Carpentier to perform in.
As a boy, Gaston Berlemont was employed as bottle-washer, "and, since there was no law against it in those days, I was behind the bar in short trousers. I'd come home from school and it'd be, `Come on, serve the customers!' We didn't think of it as work - we were simply en famille."
During the Second World War the place became popular with the Free French forces - Charles de Gaulle is supposed to have visited - and was also home from home for "Fifis" - the professional Frenchwomen who then made up most of Soho's street-walkers. "They used to come in here and have a half-bottle of champagne, a Pernod or Ricard," recalled Gaston Berlemont. "And, if anybody approached them, they'd yell for help. They might promptly leave and go and stand on their corner - but in here was sacred."
It was this liberated European air, at a time when Europe was unattainable, that attracted those working in the film and publishing industries in the area. John Lehmann, Stephen Spender, Tambimuttu, Brendan Behan, Julian Maclaren-Ross, the painters Colquhoun and MacBryde and Nina Hamnett all drank there. Below the framed autographed photographs of boxers, Dylan Thomas sat with Theodora Fitzgibbon, turning each other's doodles into cartoons, when a dark figure in the corner sent, via the barman, an identical drawing. Thomas hurried Fitzgibbon out into the street, only later explaining that the man was the Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley.
Gaston Berlemont, who had served as an interpreter in the Royal Air Force from 1940 to 1946, returned to the bomb-damaged pub to oversee its post- war revival. After his father's death in 1953, he took over as landlord (although Daniel Farson claimed that the licence was earlier transferred to Gaston's name when "carryings-on" in the downstairs lavatories threatened to close the pub). It was at the French that Francis Bacon asked Henrietta Moraes to pose for him, via nude photographs to be taken by John Deakin (which he subsequently sold as a sideline to visiting sailors). Moraes was a typical "French" customer: "We'd wake up and drift down to Torino's, and then over to the French when it opened at 11." Spending the dull unlicensed afternoons at the Colony Rooms, they moved back to "Gaston's" until closing time.
Soho had the edge over Fitzrovia; pubs south of Oxford Street closed half an hour later than those north of it. At the French, one-arm bandits, juke-boxes and fruit machine were banned, as was Daniel Farson. Like many Sohoites, he treated Berlemont as a banker, and, having drunk his way through his credit, was barred from the pub by Gaston. "Usually he gave me a quizzical look, murmured, `One of us will have to go and it's not going to be me', and showed me out politely."
But the endorsement of alcoholic oblivion as a displacement activity for actual creativity - largely engendered by the wartime spirit - was fading. Soho, and its community, altered its tastes. In the late 1950s the teenage coffee bar started to take over, followed in the Sixties by the pop culture of Carnaby Street, outmoding Soho's pubs; by the Seventies the French was a dusty retreat for society's rejects. But in the Eighties Soho was revived as a pop-cultural playground, and Berlemont's near-caricature (and assumed) Frenchness became the stuff of glossy magazines. Posing for the Sunday Times Magazine in his pub, flanked by a band of goateed young trendies in 1987, he announced that Soho was "always changing, and always stays the same".
With its 1935 decor, the French remained the least changed: it still served beer only in half-pints, although the brass water optics had long gone. It had found a new niche as an early-evening watering-hole - open only until 9pm - giving its new clientele an osmotic sense of authentic Bohemianism; getting drunk there seemed somehow civilised - and decadent - compared with Soho's newer establishments. Bleached-haired punks and art students from St Martin's occupied the "visitors" end of the bar, whilst at the southern end sat elderly Bohemians who'd seen it all before. Through it all drifted Berlemont, fleur-de-lys badge in his lapel, his luxuriant moustache a mask for all manner of presumed dissipation (in fact, his greatest weakness was for absinthe cocktails and admiring elegant women).
Berlemont finally retired in 1989, his departure celebrated with a party organised by Bruce Bernard on Bastille Day, 14 July. Around that time Caroline Blackwood, talking about Soho's legendary Bohemia, told me that "the difference between then and now is that now there is nowhere like that to go . . . Everyone . . . could be sure that they could walk into a pub and there'd be someone to drink with. It was a supportive thing, I suppose." Yet in Judith Summers's book Soho, published the same year, Berlemont argued that his pub never really went out of fashion:
The crowd we have now is just a carbon copy of the same crowd that was coming in 40 or 50 years ago when I was a boy. They are the same type of people . . . They themselves create an atmosphere. It's no use putting up a couple of plastic onions and saying you're creating a French atmosphere, it doesn't work like that. Atmosphere is a human thing, concerning hearts and souls.
I started to use "The French Pub" regularly when under age and Gaston had just returned from his wartime RAF service in 1945, writes Bruce Bernard. He was essentially the same man I happily saw four weeks ago, and although retired for 10 years he still conveyed an unswerving belief in himself, which his memoirs, if anywhere near ready to publish, will no doubt amply confirm.
I was soon joined by my brothers Oliver and then Jeffrey, the former having known it during the war when Gaston's father Victor was running it. We all got on pretty well with Gaston, indulging in pleasant kinds of badinage, and using him, Jeff and I in particular, as an understandably rather cautious bank manager. "Did you say 10 shillings, sir?" he would intone when you had distinctly asked for a pound or more. He would make you pay for such assistance by telling you jokes, often excruciating, my favourite being, "Have you heard the one about Hopalong Chastity the one-legged nun?", a joke I have still not heard and cannot invent.
But he was a man who appreciated and cared much more about the personal predicaments of his customers than anyone fully realised and who was also entirely fearless about anything, including large muscular drunks. Once, when a woman had thrown a glass of wine into the face of a man who had been insulting and tormenting her, he saved her from further ill-treatment by stepping in between them and saying, "But Madame, I see your glass is empty", and refilling it.
His cult of his own personality was extraordinary, as was the way he groomed his moustaches on the hands of almost any lady who would submit (and surely none refused) but he made it work both for himself and the scores of customers who would never have dreamed of not calling into the pub if anywhere near Soho and would indeed travel many miles for that purpose alone.
It is good that the present management of the pub are determined to keep the essential values of the place going, but there cannot, alas, ever be another Gaston.
Gaston Roger Berlemont, publican: born London 26 April 1914; three times married (one son, two daughters); died London 31 October 1999.Reuse content