Drink, talk and talent in the Fifties.. .
SOHO IN THE FIFTIES by Daniel Farson
Michael Joseph, f15.95
I've met all the people I've ever cared about in Soho' — so Bruce Bernard, whose brother Jeffrey lives on another page, told the author of this nostalgically illustrated and anecdotally illuminated account of Soho from the Fifties on. 'Where did you find all those glorious eccentrics? We don't have any at all', he was asked in Australia, after a showing of his television film of the Caves de France, whose clientele, between 3 pm closing and 5.30 pm opening time, used to comprise most and s9metimes all of the denizens of that milieu. As a creature of that world — having first been intro- duced to the York Minster, alias 'The French' as early as 1942, when de Gaulle's now yellowing 1940 poster still retained its mint condition and Gaston's father, M. Victor Berlemont, still presided behind those formidable scimitar moustaches that his son has never been able to emulate — I can echo Bruce Bernard's remark and share Dan Farson's surprise at the Austra- lian reaction. 'I took such people for granted.'
It was an extraordinary world, but did not seem so at the time. After all, though Farson does not mention this, 'Soho' had 'She has a wholefoodier-than-thou attitude' its outposts in distant lands — Harry Street in Dublin and Rose Street in Edinburgh, where the poets Patrick Kavanagh and Hugh MacDiarmid held court when not paying state visits to the pubs in Dean and Old Compton Street. It was a classless society, held together by a common in- terest in drink, talk, and talent; a gathering of lame ducks — lame because afflicted with a certain integrity; where one met daily and nightly poets, painters, compos- ers, mathematicians and all sorts and con- ditions of folk; where nobody had a job, and nobody, bar one or two like John Minton and David Archer, seemed ever to have any money and everyone lived out of one another's pockets. Such people were not drop-outs or the hippies of a later generation — all possessed a genuine gift for one thing or another, and some had genius. The late Brian Higgins — a bril- liant poet whose premature death in 1965 was a real loss — used to refer to it as 'the University of Soho'. I understood what he meant, for it was there, rather than at Oxford, I received the best part of my education: in the small bar of the Duke of Wellington, where George Barker pres- ided and most of the poets — Dylan Thomas, W.S. Graham, Anthony Cronin, Patrick Kavanagh, Burns Singer et al used to forgather.
As has been said of heaven, in Soho there were many mansions. Apart from the pubs there were the cafés (looked down on by the pub-goers); the after-hours drinking clubs — some, like the Colony Room and Kismet Meath in the Afternoon') still extant; the jazz cellars and, of course, the restaurants, coffee-shops, continental butchers, delicatessens and foodstores, not to mention the Rupert Street open market. Though Dan Farson casts a wide net over all of these, in the nature of things some aspects of Soho have escaped his mesh, and there are one or two extraordinary slip-ups. He says, for example, that Gaston of the French pub 'refuses to serve draught beer, making a greater profit from Pernod and wine which he imports himself.' These 40 years I've been drinking Gaston's draught beer, some of it paid for by Dan Farson ... The reality is that Gaston, a true oenophile, disapproves of the stuff and will only serve it by the half-pint. And on the endpaper map of Soho the pub shown as the Black Horse is in fact the Bricklayer's Arms, alias the Burglar's Rest...
Farson's survey falls into two parts. He opens with a mock-up of a typical day in Soho — a telescoping of actual encounters and conversations — conducting the reader through a morning at the French, lunch at Wheeler's, afternoon drinking at the Col- ony Room and Caves de France, then a drift through the camp clubs and pubs notably the grotty old Fitzroy Tavern, then under the aegis of the great Charlie Allchild, whose splendid collection of First War recruiting posters hung from its walls — all gone now, like Charlie; cleaned up, revamped and redecorated — as Dannie Abse exclaimed to me on revisiting the place a few years ago: 'All is changed, changed utterly; A terrible beauty is born.' On this tour, ending in the famous Gargoyle whose mirrored walls were de- signed by Andre Masson, we meet all the Soho habitues and characters — and like Farson in real life never manage to disen- gage from his mauvais ange, the late and great photographer John Deakin, who was born — appropriately some might think near a leper colony in Bootle, and whose devastating deflationary debunkings of all and sundry do not, alas, really come through in Farson's reportage of them. He drew a sharper portrait of this extraordin- ary character, whom Barbara Hutton anathematised as 'the second nastiest man I've met in my life' in his autobiography, Out of Step). In Soho, as nowhere else, people spoke the truth. Set down in print, the repartee sounds plain rude when not boorish — and because of this the actual charisma of originals like Deakin, Colin MacInnes, Henrietta Moraes, and the Roberts Colquhoun and MacBryde, is lost. But not always. Here is the authentic voice of Muriel Belcher, whose Colony Room was in effect a salon, ticking off the author:
Not only did you break the phone when I was expecting some important calls but you upset one of my best-spending customers who may never come here again and in all my years of club business I doubt if I have ever witnessed such disgraceful behaviour and do you know I don't give a fuck and what will you have to drink?
This is from the second and better half of the book in which Farson successfully attempts full-length portraits, accompa- nied by some marvellous photographs, of his friends the painters Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon (a wonderful tape-recorded fragment of his conversation on art here) and above all the publisher-patron David Archer, (`he changes his mind in mid- sentence') who brought out the first collec- tions of David Gascoyne, Dylan Thomas, George Barker, and W.S. Graham, and who opened an ill-fated bookshop/coffee- bar in Greek Street where, rather than sell one of his beloved books, he used to say to would-be customers: 'There's a very good shop up the road called Foyle's, go there'.
Not unnaturally, Farson concentrates on what you might call the fun aspect of Soho — but there was another side, barely glanced at here. No one can measure the fruitfulness of the almost nightly argu- ments and exchange of ideas between creative artists — but from them two magazines, Nimbus and X (OUP is to publish an anthology of contributions to the latter early next year) reaped a notable harvest. But to end with there's Ian Board of the Colony Room replying to the usual lament — which I first heard in the Forties — that Soho isn't what it used to be. 'It never was!'