Lives Remembered: Ian Dunlop

 

Ian Dunlop, who has died aged 83, once described himself as "a crouton floating on top of life's soup". Croutons can go soggy; this one added texture and taste to the dish. He inhabited Soho, a destiny unforeseen at the outset.

His father, an old soldier, died when he was eight; Ian went to prep school, then Wellington and Sandhurst. A later career of studied fecklessness – "Ian's never done a thing but prop up the bar at the French" – was notable for witty insights gleaned from august origins.

He scarpered to France whenever someone else paid, as if it were still a refuge for sexual miscreants or from creditors. He'd find his "French" in the old town of Nice or port at Antibes, where patrons claimed to have served in the maquis or operated as maquereaux. His favourite author was Céline; he translated a play by Crebillon fils.

The stage Englishman persona was many-flavoured. Dunlop was an old Scottish clan; maternal antecedents had been Southern gentlemen, one straying north to join Jay Gould in Wall Street manipulations. Ian played the London property market in the 1950s, associating with Peter Rachman. He knew where bodies were buried.

He spoke German and seasoned aperçus with how the old foe might see it. He skewered pretentions, but rarely without lightness of being. His smile was wicked but punctuated by the blowing of a kiss or waving of fingers in air. Being twitted by Ian felt like being hazed into a fraternity.

Women were many, and disappointments. Ejection from home after his father's death dented faith in mother-love. His career as rake after Sandhurst earned repute for mistreating one deb and being wounded by another. Englishwomen avoided, he married into a Genovese family; Italophilia did not survive it. He settled with an Australian of Oriental and Irish stock; she worked in publishing and saw the point of his peculiar intelligence. Jenny became Ian's support, Ian Jenny's trophy.

They lived in a flat above Old Compton Street. The French was nearby in one direction, the Italian grocery in another. Blacks appeared round the corner, the Academy some streets away. Regulars would tramp upstairs for afternoon bridge between noon drinks and long evening libations. Shelter was given to strays. Newcomers to Soho found fatherly guidance to its eccentricities.

Crumbling with ailments, Ian evoked affection from those able to see his rare worth. This helped him evade death's door for decades. Jenny survived years of cancer; neither stopped smoking, both continued to drink from midday 'til midnight. They went south in the winter and set up in "sunny places for shady people". When Jenny succumbed, Ian was expected to follow. In the event, he floated on top of the soup three years more, vivified by a younger, last protégé.

Leaving a birthday party, he suffered a fall. He was taken to hospital, a bourne from which he'd returned so often. The no longer quite so mean streets of Soho become less grand with his passing.

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