A lament for louche London

So George Melly has joined Jeffrey Bernard and Francis Bacon in the great saloon bar in the sky (where at least they will be able to smoke). Michael Bywater mourns the end of a colourful chapter in the capital's history

Saturday 07 July 2007 00:00

Some years ago - too many years ago - I was standing at a bar in Watford talking to George Melly. He was exploding the Myth of the Sleazy Jazzer; fine talk for a man who, by his own account, was once threatened with eviction on the charge of having sexual intercourse with fish. But he was resolute. "It is," he said, "absolute balls" - nobody could enunciate the word like Melly - "to think that we prefer performing in some dive with beer-sodden carpets and abominably reduced visibility. No," he continued, "I'll take a properly lit, air-conditioned concert hall over a smoky Gehenna any day."

Well; they've both gone. Melly and the smoky Gehennas. Gone in the same week, the one after 80 years, the other after a lot longer, and, for the soundest of reasons, we'll miss them both.

Melly, not just for his music (that oracular orotundity, a black woman in the body of a white man), but for his strawberry velour fedora, his zoot suit, his strange and flagrant intellect in which even fly-fishing seemed an exercise in Dadaist performance (surely he couldn't just be fishing?); indeed, his very existence. As long as George Melly was out there, we knew that the accountants, the conformists, the bottom-liners and the health-and-safety sociopaths hadn't entirely won.

And the smoke? We'll miss the smoke too. Never mind the aesthetic reasons (the curling plume caught in the sunlight) or the romantic (lighting two cigarettes with one match; the cupped hands and two heads touching over the flame); what we will be missing is the foul atmosphere, the cough, the sheer embedded, stale, dodgy reek which told us we were unequivocally in a place which was not good for us. In the old afternoon drinking clubs of Soho, you didn't have to wait for the weeping or the shouting to start, the sudden lurch of rudeness (as often as not from the proprietor), the declaration of incoherent but almost poetic hatred or, indeed, love. The smell alone was enough to tell you that you were in that special circle of hell (or maybe it was heaven: the realm of booziness and bullshit and the bet, as the late Roger Woddis wrote,

"...where Beauty cannot hide her ageing thighs, And 'Doing fine' is always on the borrow."

I caught the tail end of it, was briefly sucked in, couldn't take the pace, and in any case it all more or less ended in 1988, when the licensing laws changed. After almost three quarters of a century, politicians finally decided the British were old enough to have a drink in the afternoon without reeling back sozzled on their Rudges and Humbers to turn out dodgy munitions and damage the war effort. And, there being no victory without collateral damage, that in turn spelt the end of the afternoon drinking clubs.

"They used to be everywhere, but particularly in that magical, sodden fools' Paradise of Soho and environs. Each had its special clientele, though 'membership' was all-too-often a fiction; hand over a fiver, sign yourself in ('M. Mouse') and hit the bar, lurching. They had their poets and chroniclers. Jeffrey Bernard was their Suetonius, an endless cast of boozers drifting across the pages of his Spectator 'Low Life' column. I once saw Jeff writing his column in one such place - I can't remember which one; they sort of blurred - large vodka and lime by his side, pen in one hand, fag in the other. After a few sentences, whop, down went his noble head upon the paper. Presently the cigarette burned down, he yelped, raised his head, lit up a fresh one, and resumed writing precisely where he had left off. The intervening time had simply been erased."

Bernard's chronicles were adapted for the stage eventually, in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, which The Spectator invariably printed in his space when he was too pissed, or occasionally actually unwell, to file his copy. Google Jeff now and you'll come up mostly with Peter O'Toole, the first to take the role and more Jeff than Jeff, in some ways. (When the play opened, Bernard used to go regularly to watch himself. On one occasion, he headed for the bar during the first act. "We're closed," said the barmaid. "I'm Jeffrey Bernard," said Jeff. "Don't be stupid," she said, "I've seen the play and you look nothing bloody like him.")

If Bernard was Soho's Suetonius, Waterhouse was its Tacitus, and nailed that self-styled bohemian culture time and again. His novel Thinks contains an excruciatingly precise picture of an afternoon drinking club, perhaps the basement Kismet Club off Tottenham Court Road, translated to the first floor. The Kismet, a subterranean charnel smokehouse known as Death in the Afternoon or, more commonly, The Iron Lung ("see you at the Lung?"), was notorious for its reek of old snout and mildew. Waterhouse describes, in his memoir Streets Ahead, one visitor there inquiring "What's that smell?"

"Failure," comes the reply.

But Keith Waterhouse, together with his then writing partner, Willis Hall, was prodigiously, almost frighteningly, productive. By the time he lowered himself into the smoky netherworld of Soho, its denizens bobbing on a gentle tide of alcohol, he had already delivered himself of an output which would, for most writers, qualify as a decent week's work.

He was not alone. Perhaps the most famous of the Soho louche set was Francis Bacon; yet he, too, would rise with the sun; work hard all morning; head for the bookies at lunchtime, and, having usually won handsomely, be in Muriel's at three o'clock with the dishevelled insouciance of an idler. All an illusion; as was Muriel's.

It wasn't even called Muriel's. Its real name was the Colony Room Club, up a flight of stairs in Dean Street, a couple of doors along from where the striving, networking (and now irretrievably men-in-suit-y) Groucho Club would later set up shop. The club was presided over initially by Muriel Belcher, a woman of a deeply socialist business ethic and a staggeringly foul mouth, who used the latter to impose the former. If one of the drinkers in the place were notably wealthy, he would find himself mysterious presented with the bill for everyone else's drinks at closing time. Members were generically addressed as a word which rhymes with "Bunty". "Come on, bunty," she'd bellow, "stand your" (another expletive, signifying congress) "round instead of sitting there with a face like" (another expletive, adverbial, followed by another expletive, substantive). When she died, the terrible, hypnotic Ian Board took over: a man with a nose like Schnozzle Durante and the vocabulary of ... well, of Muriel herself. "Why don't you just fucking off and go fucking home," he would shout, "so that I can fucking go fucking home too, to a fucking plate of fucking beans on fucking toast."

When he died, the barman, Michael Woja, took over. It is said to be a kinder and gentler place now, but Soho is no longer my patch. Perhaps it has been closed down. It is out of the spirit of our times.

As was the Coach and Horses, the Private Eye boozer in Greek Street, presided over by Norman Balon, self-styled (but accurately) as the rudest landlord in Fleet Street and depicted (together with Bernard) in all his florid horror by Jane Ellison in her 1989 novel Another Little Drink, as well as his own memoirs, You're Barred, You Bastards, which about sums it up. Bullet peas, dead sandwiches, beer's off. This was the pub which formed the set of Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell and the backdrop to Michael Heath's strip The Regulars. Balon allegedly once barred his own mother ("She's bloody past it") and certainly barred a well-known writer, snatching away his cottage pie and throwing him out for being "fucking boring". Balon retired a couple of years ago, aged 80. Everyone he knew was dead, he said, and he was fed up with going up to Golders Green cemetery. The new landlords declared they weren't going to spoil the spirit of the place but they were going to improve the food, open a nice restaurant, replace the carpets and tables and get rid of the smell of the lavatories. Oh, and perhaps have Norman's voice on a recording so that they could bar people by pressing a button.

But otherwise, the spirit of the place would remain. Just as it remained, not, in the York Minster, uniformly known as "The French" because of its role as rallying point for the Free French in the Second World War. Instead of reeking of Embassy and bitter, the French reeked of Gitanes and spilt rouge; there'd be no place now for Gaston Berlemont, the landlord, with his unmistakably French handlebar moustaches and unmistakeably London accent. No place for twitching staccato Fred, yeah, Fred Diamond, yeah, photographer, photographer, yeah, the man who invented, yeah, the habit of saying yeah, yeah, every few words. No place for Chicago Dave, punchy boxer, could have been a contender, was a contender, but now Chicago just perched on the back of a chair from opening to closing time and eventually passed on, probably of sciatica. We knew it was over when instead of it being known as "The French" it changed its name to The French House. When they brand their own mythos, it's time to move on.

No room for Ronnie Scott's as it was: nicer now, but no longer, as Jonathan Fordham wrote, a place where "the food wasn't even recommended by the owners ... [and] everybody around there seemed to be trying to live their entire lives in one night". Gone. Gone with the smell. The Swiss pub? Gone. No-Knickers Joyce has been replaced by affable Muscle Marys and Old Compton Street has become a lurching-free, upmarket, rather nice Gay Zone, because if there's one thing the Pink Pound doesn't like, it's sleaze. The old basement Academy Club? Gone (though its spirit lives on in the revived version, above Andrew Edmunds restaurant in Lexington Street).

The furthest outposts of this smoke-yellowed, alcohol-embalmed bohemia are also no more. El Vino is filled with aspirational corporate lawyers and terrible bankers, its old habitués having been driven to the suburbs or, in some cases (like a duelling-scarred Prussian barrister whom I introduced to Guinness one day, to his delighted cries of "Lunch! Tsis is lunch in a bottle! I vill hev no other lunch from now!", and whose name I forget, as one forgot names in those days; it may have been Manfred or Heinrich or Fritz, but he was generally known as the Red Baron) murdered.

Even the Tatty Bogle, in Kingly Court, off Carnaby Street, is no longer the ramshackle haunt of old hoofers, sozzled luvvies and determined transvestites singing the old show tunes. Once, there, I fell into such a haze of drink and smoke that I imagined I could speak Thai, and did, to a Thai barman, who said I was very good. He was being polite. Affable. Non-judgmental. That was how it was, under the haze of smoke, in the waft of alcohol. We were all in it together, and when things turned nasty ("I bloody hate you, you talentless, pretentious ..." THUD.) well, it could be one's own turn next so best not to look askance.

The culture has changed for ever. Health and Safety are our watchword now. Undoubtedly, it will be drink itself next; after all, passive smoking may kill some people early, but passive drinking kills and maims thousands each year. Alcohol is implicated in more than 70 per cent of trauma cases, after all.

And it's no longer considered funny to fall off a bar stool in a haze of smoke, to put your hand on strangers' knees ("You look a nice young man darling. I bet you have no trouble finding girlfriends"), to weep, to wake up in the lavatory after the place has been locked up, to vomit, black out, rage, have hysterics, shag, natter, hack, lurch and ramble. Times have changed. Mr Melly's leave-taking is one sign; the end of smoking, another.

About time too, arguably, and to hell with the chiaroscuro. To hell with the smell that tells you: "I am where I shouldn't be, and I am glad."

But, just occasionally, it would be nice to see one of the fit, buff Smugs derailed from their spreadsheeted trajectory through the new Soho Lite en route to the IPO and the Cotswolds retreat; just once, to see one inexplicably end up on a bar stool in a smoke-stained room, weeping at the cosmos, while beyond the faded curtains the Soho afternoon burns towards night.

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