Tuesday, 28 May 2013

just another angel in the crowd

Stepping out from Angellucci's for my coffee beans
Checking out the movies and the magazines
Waitress she watches me crossing from the Barocco Bar
I get a pickup for my steel guitar

When I mentioned to my barber that last week I had been in Soho he gave me a quizzical look and asked me what I was "up to down there?" It would appear that the very mention of Soho still raises eyebrows as it still seems to hold some mystique of being a Mecca for perverts. A place so beloved over the years that plenty of songwriters have commemorated it in song: Donovan Sunny Goodge Street, Bert Jansch & John Renbourn Soho, Al Stewart Soho Needless To Say, Ray Davies Denmark Street, RT Beeswing and Knopfler's Wild West End to name just a handful.

As it happened I had wandered down there after the marking conference, as I normally do, for some wallowing in nostalgia I suppose. I've been going "down there" for so long now that it is part of my psychogeography. I think I've used the term correctly but could be wrong - I fully expect to be corrected at any moment. However, if this apparently serious term 'psychogeography'", writes Guy Debord biographer Vincent Kaufman, "comprises an art of conversation and drunkenness, and everything leads us to believe that Debord excelled at both" then I'm probably okay with it too.

Having grown up a twenty five minute train journey from London, Soho indeed became a regularly visited place. Through my early-to-mid teens I would travel up to visit Virgin Records, occasional Galleries and Museums and then as I got older went to gigs regularly there. The Marquee and just down the road The Lyceum with its all-nighters were great fun. The Marquee in Wardour Street and the Nellie Dean allowed me access to many of my musical heroes. Charisma Records used the Dean as their watering hole so rubbing shoulders and sharing a laugh (and a few pints) with members of Genesis and Lindisfarne before going up to watch some great bands just round the corner at the Marquee was wonderful. These people weren't famous then. Viv Stanshall drank (a lot) there too. I still frequent the Nellie Dean but as they don't sell London Pride I tend to prefer one of George Orwell's regular watering holes, The Dog and Duck, which is where I was heading off to at the start of this post. 

A quick pint at the Dog and Duck and then I wandered over to Charing Cross Road and Denmark Street (aka Tin Pan Alley) to drool over a few vintage guitars. Cross over the road and pop into Foyles before rushing up to Tottenham Court Road tube station to get to Liverpool Street for an early evening train home. Foyles, by the way are still in the same premises but should be moving soon. Business as usual.

Many years ago I would meet friends in the Pillar of Hercules for a pint before shuffling off to Ronnie Scott's or the Marquee. Again, raised eyebrows as it's known as a gay bar but it was next to a great Greek restaurant I used to frequent. I was quite saddened when it became victim to a bombing incident some time at the end of last century. Foyles is just behind it. I performed the Amoeba Twist there once*.  Nearby there was the Admiral Duncan and St Annes Court where Dark They Were And Golden Eyed was hidden away (or was it Forbidden Planet?).

In my very late teens and early twenties we would go and hang around the guitar shops in Denmark Street a lot. Well, when we could manage to get out of some seedy bar we'd found ourselves in. I went up once to buy a guitar with my bassist Brian** and we didn't get out of the bar at Kings Cross Station, just drunkenly got back on the train to come home to Stevenage in time for last orders.  Over the last few years I've returned more sober with another friend to poke around these wonderful shops and rubbed shoulders with Noel Gallagher and that bloke from the Manic Street Preachers - the little one not the one that disappeared. Many years ago I bumped into Steve Howe from Yes and just up the road saw Richard Thompson rushing across the road. Probably dashing off to pray or something.

Anyway, over the years I have visited the area so often that it is part of the landscape I carry in my head. Blimey, even Mrs Dave and I shop around there quite often still. A visit to London without popping in to Fopp Records or a bite of lunch in one of the many lovely little cafes is almost unheard of. So when I read this article last year I thought I'd better get up there a few more times before it all disappears. It's worth reading if you've ever spent a bit of time walking in the wild West End but I'm not one hundred per cent convinced that things are changing that much. Yes, there's no Starbucks (named after a character in Moby Dick trivia buffs - the knowledge of which helped me win a Quiz recently) but other than the obvious Nando's and chains of pasta & pizza parlours, there's little to convince me that it's changing that much. I notice in the article it mentions that "since the 1970s . . . when the music did informal business in its pubs" - they certainly did. Tony Stratton Smith held court in the Nellie Dean and would buy anyone a drink. A great bloke.

Sitting in the Dog and Duck - a tiny pub on a corner - last week (and three times last year) I watched the world go by - it seems to be a similar world that I've watched through these windows for the past 40 years. Yes, there are lots of strip clubs, gay clubs, dirty book shops and seedy "film companies" and yes, there are far more oddly dressed people of some indiscriminate gender, blokes holding hands and wide eyed lost-looking foreign visitors but thus has it ever been. And also, the world has changed of course - and I've moaned at times about that more than many others - but there does seem to be some cosy familiarity about Soho that I enjoy visiting. I certainly wouldn't want to be there all the time but I'm rather pleased that my fears have been allayed somewhat since reading the article. Interestingly, one of the teachers I meet each year at the marking conference works at Barclay School in Stevenage and had been down to Sister Ray's record shop in Berwick Street the day before.

Okay, perhaps there was a bit too much name dropping here but I wanted to try to show that Soho has always been a place that the public could rub shoulders with genuine working musicians.  God knows how many actors and writers I've stood next to or walked past. The article is all about "decline" and higher rents. These are the realities of life I suppose. However, the whole area is held in some affection by more than just me, I'm sure. I started jotting down thoughts about this article after reading it last year. As is often the case, I drew a map of the area (possibly a psychgeographic one) and besides some of the memories mentioned above there is also:

  • The Dominion Theatre where many gigs were attended before it became the home to Ben Elton's awful Queen tribute
  • A guitar shop I've long since forgotten the name of where I bought a Shergold Guitar (behind/underneath Centrepoint)
  • The Phoenix Theatre where we went to see Chaucer's Prologue to the Canterbury Tales just before our O'levels
  • The Shaftesbury Theatre where we went to see Jesus Christ Superstar the first time round
  • The Marquis of Granby, Soho Square, the cafĂ© we called Angellucci's after the Dire Straits song (where I learned that a young bearded man on his own shouldn't eat egg mayonnaise sandwiches***) . . . 
. . . well it goes on and you get the picture.

It appears that historic Soho is hanging on in there and I hope that it'll be a similar situation when I go there next year.

Soho, needless to say
I'm alone on your streets or am I dreaming?
I've been here all of the day
I'm going nowhere with nowhere to go

* you had to be there, I guess, but if you ever saw Patto live . . .
** who mostly played a double bass in those days. That's one reason we never gigged much.
*** nowadays explained away by "dyspraxia" but that was then . . .

17 comments:

Zouk Delors said...

Good to have you back, Dave (thought you must have disappeared forever into Twitterland). Now I've got someone to pick nits off again!

So (as they say on R4) I've always thought of Soho as being bounded by Oxford St, Charing X Rd, Shaftsbury Ave and Regent St, which puts quite of few of those places (Denmark St, Goodge St to name but two) strictly outside Soho.

It would have been nice to have the taverns and cafes pinpointed but I guess we'll just have to wander round and find those we're not already familiar with.

Given the flexible boundaries of your piece, I was also surprised not to hear mention of the rather wonderful Hobgoblins (purveyors of musical instruments) in Rathbone Place.

Dave Leeke said...

Hi Zouk - I never went away, just got lazy and overworked.

Technically these places are outside of 'Fitzrovia' as Soho was known to Orwell (more of later) but we're talking Borderlands here - part of my psychogeography. You're right, of course, but it was always a great catch-all name for the general area.

My good friend and I once went to Hobgoblins sometime last century but we had to go to Croydon. So, I'm surprised to hear that there's one there - I guess I never looked! I will be searching for it the next time I'm there. I'm still after an Appalachian Dulcimer.

Dave Leeke said...

As for Twitterland, it appears to be a news service and time wasting self-congratulatory "me-fest".

Zouk Delors said...

To the best of my knowledge, and without bothering Google, Fitzrovia is the bit north of Oxford St from Soho (including Rathbone Pl, directly north of Soho Square), which itself has been so named since at least when it was Henry VIII's hunting ground (SO-O-H-O-O!).

Dave Leeke said...

Yes, you're quite right, Zouk. I'll take that criticism sitting down. This just proves that we should always check our sources. In my case, I took it from the book I started reading the day after writing the post, "The Search For The Perfect Pub". More of which at a later date.

So, a quick check by bothering Google came up with this in case you're ever in the area: http://bit.ly/12lockW

I know a few of them.

As for your first comment, they'll be plenty of nits to pick off of things I write!

eeyorn said...

Welcome back Dave. Knowing little of the area, I can only add a gentle reminder for 'Les Cousins', allegedly the place that gave a few people their early start including Roy Harper and Cat Stevens.

Hobgoblin is also highly recommended. I pretty much like all their ales :)

Dave Leeke said...

Hi eeyorn and welcome back to you, too.

I must admit that I tend to find Hobgoblin ales a little on the heavy side. However, a few years back I did spend a pleasant evening in "The Hobgoblin" at 21 Balcombe Street near Regent's Park. At the time they served Thai food and plenty of Wychwood ales which actually seems to be a bit of a bizarre mixture. Fancyapint.com don't have anything about it so I'm not sure it's still there.

The Cousins remains an important place of almost mythical status. I never went there but it's mentioned in the biographies of so many rising stars of the late 60s/early 70s - John Martyn, Sandy Denny & of course dear old Bert.

Evidently it wasn't that nice a place.

I guess we all carry our own version of London around with us for all sorts of reasons. And to pick up on a point made by Zouk, mine certainly has (very) flexible boundaries.

Brendini said...

Dark They Were And Golden Eyed was defineately St Anne's Court

Dave Leeke said...

Thank you, Brendan.

A wonderful way to lose a few hours. A great shop. There's a great Sci Fi bookshop/comic shop in Cork in the little square now renamed as Rory Gallagher Place (formerly St. Paul's Square, I think). The one in London near Fopp Records is crap.

Zouk Delors said...

And speaking of Borderlands, mention also The Borderline, close to Soho's eastern border in that little cul-de-sac next to Foyle's (before it moved) with the archway leading to Greek Street...

...beneath which, with access from the next street up, is (or was) Across the Border, a restaurant whose interior was designed and realised by Littman-Goddard. If the latter partner's name seems to ring a bell, that's because you went to school with him (Richard).

Zouk Delors said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dave Leeke said...

Zouk,

I only deleted it because it doubled up the comment. Nothing personal.

I didn't realise that Richard had done that. I believe he sold up and moved to Greece many years ago. Still, given their economy he may have been back for a while now!

It was Richard who put the pre-Ziggy David Bowie gig on at Alleynes. The one I was too young to go to. That still rankles. I notice Trevor Bolder has gone over the rainbow to meet the Starman this week.

zythophile said...

According to LinkedIn (the Facebook for creepy people anxious to make as many professional contacts as possible) Richard Goddard is still in Greece and his email address is goddard@otenet.gr

And one of HIS LinkedIn contacts is Doug Whitehead, Senior Teaching Fellow at Bond University in Australia, formerly of Alleynes ...

To me the Dominion Theatre will always be (a) the place I saw Van Morrison live, but more importantly (b) the site of Meux;s brewery, where the great London beer flood happened 199 years ago this October.

Martyn Cornell

zythophile said...

According to LinkedIn, the Facebook fopr creepy corporate types trying to make as many business contacts as possible, Richard Goddard is still in Greece.

And one of HIS LinkedIn contacts is Doug Whitehead, formerly of Alleynes and now Senior Teaching Fellow at Bond University in Australia.

They get around, those Alleynians ...

Martyn Cornell

zythophile said...

Fugging Blogger, telling me there's an error and conning me into posting (almost) the same message twice ...

Dave Leeke said...

Well, thanks for that Martyn. You wait for a comment from your favourite beer blogger then two come along at the same time. . . or is that buses? It's interesting that the repeat one had a typo in it.

I'll write to Richard just for a laugh.

At the Dominion Theatre we saw a wonderful gig with Richard Thompson, David Lindley, Rory Gallagher and Paco Pena (careful with that spelling). Also a gig where RT supported The Pogues . . .and the Albion Band in 1978 where Linda T sang but hadn't got permission from RT or their Mullah . . . it goes on . . . it's hell inside my head with all this useless info.

Zouk Delors said...

Yeah, cheers, Terry. I used to see a lot of Richard when Rob was still about, but lost contact after the latter went to France and I disappeared into the night for a few years. I tried to look him up at the Chelsea Wharf studio the firm used to inhabit when I was down that way last year, but was told they hadn't been there for a few years (it was in 80s when they did Across the Border) and there was no forwarding address. So now I know. Guess he must have made his money and moved to where it'd last longer. Or summink.

Last time I saw Doug must have been about the same time and he was living near the river in Hammersmith and was working, I think, as some sort of consultant and not enjoying it much, as I recall.