Tag Archives: Soho

Farewell to Soho’s Stockpot

It feels these days as if every time I venture into the West End I will pass a raft of unfamiliar shiny expensive shops and restaurants and then stumble upon one last holdout from the London that I grew up with. “How on earth has it survived,” I’ll think. And then a week later, I’ll find out on Twitter that it hasn’t.

So it is with Soho’s Stockpot, the cheap and cheerful bistro on Old Compton Street that was more than a cafe but wasn’t quite a restaurant. This closes on Sunday after decades of serving starving Soho dilettantes.

I started coming here in my early 20s. It was the first time I felt like a proper grown-up because I wasn’t simply eating at Burger King. It was utterly, ineffably London, as if they had distilled the very essence of the city and mixed it into the gravy that they poured liberally over the liver and bacon.

The Stockpot was somewhere you could come at any time, though I was usually there around 6pm before a night out, lining my stomach with cheap carbs before a gig or evening in the local pubs. It was one of the few places where you could order something like gammon and chips, and could be sure of getting a hot main course for under a fiver, which even then was something of a bargain.

I often ate there alone, with a book and tumbler of cheap red, feeling mildly bohemian, imagining that I was parking my posterior on wooden benches that had once seated some of Soho’s finest writers, artists, poets, wits and wasters. It felt that a torch was being carried. There was a sense of continuum, of being a tiny part of a magnificent city where progress and tradition could go hand in hand.

I loved so much about the Stockpot. I loved the simplicity of its frontage. I loved the way people sat close together, knee to knee, as the waiting staff stuffed another customer into every available space. I loved the menus, handwritten daily but always the same. I loved the ancient brass till that looked like a Victorian musical instrument. I loved the theatrical paraphernalia and overheard conversations of people that seemed like actors and artists but were probably receptionists in a nearby film production company as they gossiped about friends. I really loved the prices. I even loved the food, which was tasty, hearty and filling, precisely what was required before a night exploring Soho’s familiar haunts.

Once you’d eaten at The Stockpot, you felt ready for anything, and that the intoxicating adventure that was a young man’s night out in London was already underway.

 

 

 

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London’s Huguenots

I wrote this last year for Metropolitan magazine. The Huguenots of Spitalfields Festival runs from 9-20 July 2014. 

Up to 400,000 French people have settled in London in recent years, but this is not the first time the French have moved to London in great numbers. While today’s arrivals come willingly, with passports, bank accounts and mobile phones, those of 1685 were in reluctant flight, arriving with next to nothing. Calling themselves the réfugiés, these Huguenots – the persecuted French Protestant minority – were the world’s first self-described refugees, coming by the thousand to seek sanctuary in London. An adolescent boy with three siblings, including a baby unable to walk. A teenage girl disguised as a man. Husbands without wives. Children without parents. Houses and jobs left behind. They came hidden in salt barrels, pregnant, shoeless and with diamonds sewn into their cloaks. But like many of their modern counterparts, these French arrivals were young and ambitious, bringing with them a sense of adventure and enterprise, ready to transform the city they now called home.

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‘Britain owes a great but barely acknowledged debt to the Huguenots,’ writes historian Lucy Inglis in Georgian London of the biggest French invasion since 1066. The Huguenots brought with them exotic food like oxtail soup, caraway seeds and pickles, new ideas about industry and banking, brilliance in textiles, watchmaking, horticulture and medicine, and enough numbers – as many as 40,000 – to transform the geography of London, pushing it west into the ‘French Quarter’ of Soho, allowing London to become one of the great multinational capitals of the world. Inglis expands on this in conversation. ‘They were real self-starters, that’s what I admire about them, the way they arrived with nothing and just got on with it. A lot of them were very young. They arrived in London and began to make a splash straight away.’

This was the first serious test of London’s toleration of outsiders, and the city took it well, with just a few grumbles about the whiff from the garlic sausages that the Huguenots hung to dry outside their windows. Otherwise, the Huguenots were a sober presence. For decades, the Huguenots had been tyrannised by France’s Catholic majority until a vague equality was established with the Edict of Nantes in 1598. When this was revoked by Louis XIV in 1685, Protestantism was effectively outlawed. Hundreds of thousands of Huguenots ignored a ban on emigration and fled France in their search for religious freedom.

Many settled in the new district of Soho, where Huguenot craftsmen could be close to the gentry of Westminster. Soho’s French character lingered for centuries – even now you can dine at L’Escargot, get cake from Maison Bertaux or pernod from The French House. In 1720, 40% of Soho’s residents were French speakers and one contemporary noted the area ‘so greatly abounds with French that it is an easy matter for a stranger to imagine himself in France’. French currency was accepted by London Huguenots into the 1720s and as late as 1924 a London guidebook would comment, ‘In Soho you may see Frenchwomen shopping exactly as they do in France, bareheaded, as no Englishwomen would.’ Scandalous!

Huguenot church, Soho Square

 

Just as many of today’s London French work in and around the City, when the Huguenots arrived, most headed to the long-established French Church on Threadneedle Street. London already had a small population of wealthy Huguenots – among them John Houblon, the first Governor of the Bank of England – and they, observing Louis’s despotic behaviour from afar, had been expecting the exiles. A soup kitchen was already established and accommodation secured for pregnant women. New arrivals had often become separated from their spouses so posted their details on a huge board outside the church. ‘It’s a horrible analogy,’ says Inglis. ‘But it was like the aftermath of 9/11.’

The Huguenots descended on a city on the rise. ‘Daniel Defoe wrote about the corruption of luxury, the way people could suddenly afford luxury goods,’ says Inglis. ‘But the Huguenots were plain people, they didn’t wear wigs, perfume or make-up, they had a real dignity and that meant they appeared trustworthy. As a people they were very upright in their business and to a city that was booming, this was quite welcome.’

Not every Englishman responded to this in quite the right way. One was accused of kidnapping an English girl named Christian Streeter, raping her and then having her hair cut ‘in the French way’, such was the appeal of the short-cropped French women on London’s streets. He was eventually acquitted. For the most part, though, the French presence was accepted, even as they set about revolutionising the silk business.

‘The wealthier ones went to Soho and the rest went to Spitalfields and Shoreditch, where they began to set up business as weavers, establishing a factory system and employing a lot of people,’ explains Inglis. ‘They had a massive influence on the earliest part of the Industrial Revolution.’ So many Huguenot weavers left France that the country went from being an exporter of silk to an importer in a few years. Silk was used for clothes, furnishing and wall coverings, and the Huguenots produce huge amounts of the material. The stunning patterns created by one Huguenot designer, James Leman, are now in the V&A Museum. Another weaving family were the Courtaulds, who later founded the Courtauld Insitutute of Art in Somerset House. The weavers, with the fine eye for style of many Huguenots, erected grand-looking houses, most notably along Fournier Street, one of which is now occupied by the artists Gilbert & George.

James Leman textiles

 

Another London artist, William Hogarth, was still able to reference the Huguenots as a stylish, sober but alien presence in his 1737 etching Noon, completed more than 50 years after their arrival and Inglis notes that ‘until the 1730s they almost exclusively married within the community.’ By 1780, however, the Huguenots were integrated into the London landscape, even adopting English names – Dubois becoming Wood, Roussel become Russell – the first of many groups of refugees who arrived in London with a bang, and then slowly became absorbed into the city’s heaving, evolving mass having altered it for ever.

Georgian London by Lucy Inglis (Penguin) is out now in paperback.

Pathe newsreel: London time machine

These are all taken from the recent cache of thousands of Pathe newsreels loaded on to You Tube.

1. A trip to Swinging London in 67. Is that Yoko reading International Times at Trafalgar Square? Surprisingly sympathetic beneath the patronising tone. I love those Bob Dylan paper dresses. And at 4:50 you get to meet Keith Albarn, father of Damon, as he organises a happening. Also features Mary Quant, the Speakeasy, the Scotch of St James and much more.

2. This Is London, with commentary by Rex Harrison. A tour of the capital for the British Travel Association, starting at the Tower of London, into Fleet Street and Temple then into the West End and Westminster. It’s all very quaint and polite, but great for location spotting. The shots from Chelsea at 10:42 are extraordinary.

3. Platform shoes, 1977. A wide range of Londoners discuss platform shoes – “they’re not natural,” says one cockney. I think this was filmed around the King’s Road.

4. Tracking shots of Soho at night, 1968. No sound or context here, just a series of tracking shots around Soho at night. It’s incredibly atmospheric and full of strange glimpses into past lives, especially the laughing man at 3:22, whose companions have slipped off to an upstairs flat.

5. West End, 1977. Similar to the above, this is a series of disconnected, fairly random shot of London and the West End starting in Chinatown. Silent but fascinating as a sort of moving street photography. Note the number of Scotland fans around Piccadilly Circus, the porn shops, and the huge amount of scaffolding that appears to be everywhere.

7. Making a psychedelic light machine, 1968. A sitar plays while Mike Leonard constructs his machine for a light show. For 60s scene nerds, this is pretty fascinating.

8. White Defence League, 1959. Footage from Notting Hill, featuring an interview outside the HQ of the White Defence League (soundtrack starts around 1.20min). Staggering racism, unapologetically voiced.

Secret London: streets beneath streets of London

Paul, the librarian at Time Out, first told me about the street beneath Charing Cross Road in around 2005. He promised to show it to me, but never did.

Then, last month, I saw it. I was mooching around Cambridge Circus, noting the loss of London’s best-named book shop, Lovejoys, a landmark from the time I used to be a dedicated fanzine-browser across the road at Sportpages, also since departed. I had always assumed Lovejoys was a wittily named Soho porn shop, but it actually stocked cheap classics and DVDs. The shop taking over the site will be a sex shop it seems, albeit of the modern, seedless, air-brushed, air-conditioned variety rather than Soho’s traditional damp basement. With the erasure of any trace of character at the arse-end of Berwick Street, the old Soho sex shop is nearly gone. Indeed, much of this post is about things that have removed, including Paul the librarian, who left Time Out shortly before I did.

As I crossed Charing Cross Road from Soho and stood on an island in the middle of the road waiting for a No 24 bus to pass, I happened to look into the grille beneath my feet. I have instinctive curiosity when it comes to London holes but this is the first time I’ve really seen anything of interest, as, to my surprise, I could make out what appeared to be a subterranean street sign set into the wall a few feet below the ground.

IMG_1992I leaned in closer and there they were – not one, but two street signs for Little Compton Street, one blue enamel and the other painted on to brick. Here was London’s buried street.

IMG_1990Although Little Compton Street has its own Wikipedia page, it is not entirely clear how the signs got here. The street itself was obliterated by the construction of Charing Cross Road – here you can see Little Compton Street on an old map of 1868, intersecting with Crown Street (which is marked by green as Soho’s border, though surely red would be more appropriate) just before Cambridge Circus. Little Compton Street ceased to exist in around 1896 and is now part of the Cambridge Circus utility tunnels, which some urban explorers write about here. (Apparently, Rimbaud and Verlaine used to drink in a pub on Little Compton Street during their dramatic London stay.)

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Were the underground signs accidentally left behind when Charing Cross Road was run roughshod over the top of Crown Street or was it a careful act of preservation by an unnaturally thoughtful council? Or were they removed from a wall by unknown hand and deliberately placed down here, where Little Compton Street has existed ever since, entombed beneath London feet and offering a tantalising glimpse of those fantasy Londons from countless dreams and dramas. There’s an echo of China Mieville, Neil Gaiman and the Borribles, but also of Malcolm McLaren’s mysterious and misremembered subterranean Victorian road (neatly discussed here) that is said to exist intact beneath Selfridges on Oxford Street.

One wonders whether the brutal Crossrail redevelopment of this bedraggled part of the West End will allow any such traces to remain. I hope so. And I hope they also have this last-gasp, accidental feel, of something that London can’t quite let go, like dying fingernails clawing a wall, leaving behind a ghost, a whisper, of one of London’s many pasts.

For some great old images of Charing Cross Road, browse here with leisure and a little sadness.

The Clash in Soho

The Clash have opened a, wait for it, pop-up shop in Soho to promote the release of their new box set. It’s only open for a couple of weeks, and I happened to be in the West End yesterday so paid a quick visit, joining a crowd made up entirely, and unsurprisingly, of middle-aged men.

I wasn’t actually expecting a great deal, but was pleasantly surprised by what I found. While the upstairs is essentially a Clash mini-mart, flogging copies of the band’s albums as well as the Sound System box, the downstairs is more like a mini-museum of Clash memorabilia, featuring the iconic alongside pleasing ephemera.

So while the biggest draw was the buggered bass guitar that Paul Simonon is seen smashing on the cover of London Calling

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… I rather preferred witty juxtapositions like this, which places a punk-referencing pizza box alongside a Vince Taylor LP.

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A long cabinet acts like a timeline of the band’s history, crammed with ephemera relating to the band personally and politically, but also to the musical and literary influences they were absorbing along the way. So the section around the time of, say, Sandinista!, is full of South American political paraphernalia, lyric sheets and cassettes of the music they were discovering, while further along, at the time of Combat Rock, it’s all about cowboys and indians, and the US military. It was a bit like the Bowie V&A show in miniature with a better developed sense of humour, and ably demonstrated that the three-dimensional, technicolor world of rock and roll offers huge potential for entertaining and informative exhibitions when handled with the right blend of respect and irreverence. One day, one hopes, somebody will do a Beatles exhibition that works along similar lines.

Other items of interest included the Clash’s map of the world, Paul Simonon’s certificate of appreciation from the Guardian Angels, the hand-written lyrics to “Guns Of Brixton” and an old beat box, with rather touching home-made cassettes. Everything is offered entirely without explanation, which is part of the fun. Check it out.

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Black Market Clash, 75 Berwick Street, W1. Open until September 22.

At the Poll Tax Riot

I attended the Poll Tax Riot by accident. I was at the theatre with my family on Charing Cross Road when the lights came up at the end of the performance and the house manager told us there had been a little disturbance outside so we would have to remain in our seats for a short period. As we did so, this was taking place on the street above.

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We’d seen the coaches parked up as we drove into London, but I had little interest in politics. I knew who the Prime Minister and  leader of the opposition were, but that’s about as far as it went. I would have recognised other names – I watched and enjoyed Spitting Image – but none of it really meant very much to me. Perhaps that’s as it should be when you are 14. Questions of policy were largely irrelevant so the anger towards the Poll Tax Riot had passed me – and my Daily Mail-reading parents – almost completely by. And, boy, were people angry.

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When the house manager gave us the all clear, we climbed the stairs – the theatre  was in a little basement – and emerged on to a devastated Charing Cross Road. What I most remember is the stench from all the overturned bins, debris spilling on to the streets, and the complete absence of traffic, people and noise. It was spooky. That smell I can still recall, a horrible, fatty, sweet stink of rot and decay. London then was a dirty city, but this was something else.

My father – surely in a state of some fear – ushered us through back streets towards the car park in Soho but I remember little of this journey, which surely would have taken us past smashed shops, mobs of protesters and riot police desperately trying to get their shit together. Once we reached the car, my father visibly relaxed but one junction, he had to hit the accelerator while we waited at a red light. He later said he’d seen we were about to be sandwiched between a bunch of rioters and some police and decided this was not a time to obey the laws of the road. Once again, I’d missed this sight.

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I thought about all this again while reading a pamphlet I picked up recently for £2 in a local bookshop. Produced by ACAB Press (an acronym for All Coppers Are Bastards) and ‘dedicated to all working-class heroes’, Poll Tax Riot: 10 Hours That Shook Trafalgar Square contains 12 eyewitness accounts of the riot. The interviewees all appear to be anarchists, and are as equally contemptuous of the traditional Left – Militant are particularly despised, and there are amusingly barbed references to George Galloway and Tommy Sheridan – as they are the police. Most of them seem to have had a great old time, chucking stuff at coppers, smashing windows and setting fire to South Africa House. This is about revenge.

‘Off we go intent upon destruction, up Charing Cross Road, into the West End, everything a target, everything subject to our rage and deep down surely a demonstration of how hated this world is.’

Cars are turned on their roofs, shops looted, the Hippodrome smashed and the police attacked whenever they are seen. There are no dissenting voices to the general feeling the Met finally got what they had deserved for a decade. One protester who ended up in a cell even claims that his fellow cellmate was a prison officer who joined in the fun because he ‘fucking hates the cops’.

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The pamphlet is so gleefully celebratory of the riot that it has to distance itself from the Trafalgar Square Defendants’ Campaign, set up to help those that had been arrested, even as it promises it will give them all proceeds from its sale. It also announces that ‘this pamphlet is anti-copyright and can be freely reproduced by any revolutionary group. But copyright protects it from being used by journalists, rich bastards, etc.’ I hope they don’t sue.

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The nature of London: Clay by Melissa Harrison

‘It wasn’t much of a park, really, more a strip of land between the noisy high road and the flats… Despite its size and situation the strip of grass was beautiful – if you had the eyes to see. The Victorians had bequeathed it an imaginative collection of trees; not just the ubiquitous planes and sycamores, and not the easy-care lollipops of cherries either, but hornbeams, service trees, acacias and Turkey oaks with bristly acorn caps like little sea anemones. It was alive with squirrels, jays and wood mice, while in spring thrushes let off football rattles from the treetops, and every few summers stag beetles emerged to rear and fence and mate, and begin another perilous generation among the logs that were left to decay here and there by government decree.’

‘Clay’ by Melissa Harrison

Next to my computer is a small round stone my daughter brought to me from the garden. If I was to pick it up and throw it at the bookshelf, I could hit any of a dozen novels set in London,  all of which carefully detail the grimy, grey, green-free streets of the post-industrial capital. They could be set in Soho (‘Adrift in Soho’ by Colin Wilson) or Kennington (‘London Belongs To Me’ by Norman Collins), Bloomsbury (‘Scamp’ by Roland Camberton) or Bethnal Geen (‘King Dido’ by Alexander Baron). I love some of these books dearly (all of the above) while others I find unforgivably bad (er, ‘Saturday’ by Ian McEwan) but they all inhabit essentially the same milieu – a London of narrow streets and Victorian houses that block out the sky, paved streets, traffic, pubs, smoke and people. This is the written London, or at least the London most experienced by writers in London which they then transfer to the page at the exclusion of almost anything else.

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None of them, then, do what Melissa Harrison has done with ‘Clay’, which is write a novel about nature in London. The plot, a slight but melancholic meditation on freedom, is really just a MacGuffin for this, Harrison’s real heroine. There are a number of non-fiction books enthusing at the way trees, weeds, flowers, foxes and immigrant parakeets coexist alongside largely uninterested Londoners – try ‘The Unofficial Countryside’ by Richard Mabey or ‘Scrap’ by Nick Papadimitriou – but by placing nature so firmly in the foreground of her novel – and the book is rich with descriptions on each page of everything from pine cones and owl pellets poo  [Harrison tells me that owl pellets aren’t poo] to rain clouds and long grass –  Harrison has managed to achieve what every London fiction writer surely dreams of: she makes you look at the city around you with freshly opened eyes.

I am perhaps a little biased – and not just because I know Harrison through Twitter (where she introduced herself to me by announcing she’d varnished a duck). The book is set in a part of London that I know already, a park based on Rush  Common, a strange, thin, scraggy strip of parkland that follows Brixton Hill from St Matthew’s church down towards the prison. I’ve always thought it a scrawny, rather pointless piece of grass but through her characters – a small boy called TC, a Polish farmer called Jozef and a grandmother Sophia – Harrison shows how much life can be concealed a short walk from a traffic-clogged A road. It gives an unexpectedly life-affirming twist to an otherwise sad but beautiful book, that resonates far louder than its slim size would suggest. Is it a new London genre? It’s certainly a welcome change from the norm, though I doubt whether many other writers would have the knowledge, passion and skill to recreate it so impressively.

On old pubs, and getting older

Last week I went for a stroll around Soho for the first time in a while and spent most of the time in a state of shock and confusion at the lack of familiar landmarks: restaurants and bars had changed name, shops had appeared from nowhere, and everything appeared to have been cleverly redesigned to make me feel old and out-of-it.

Just about the only thing that remained consistent were the pubs: Bradleys, the French House, the Sun and 13 Cantons – venues in which I had spent much of my 20s were still present and correct. Indeed, while we can bemoan the undoubted withering of London’s traditional pub life, it’s still remarkable how many old-timers still cling in. The British Library has just republished The Epicure’s Almanack, an 1815 guidebook to London eating and drinking. Fascinating in its own right – did you know there used to be three inns near Westminster Abbey called Heaven, Hell and Purgatory? – it also has brilliant footnotes by Janet Ing Freeman, who maps and chronicles the history of the 650 establishments reviewed by Ralph Rylance 200 years before. In doing so, she notes those places that still exists: all are pubs rather than restaurants and include the still excellent Seven Stars in Holborn, as well as London legends like Wapping’s Town of Ramsgate, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in the City, the Windmill in Clapham and the  Spaniards Inn in Hampstead.

Town of Ramsgate, Wapping

Another London institution, the BFI, have also been looking at pubs. Their brilliant new two-disc DVD, Roll Out The Barrel, rounds up a great bunch of short films and documentaries about British pubs. A highlight for Londoners is Under The Table You Must Go, a 1969 film by Arnold Miller, the gonzo exploitationist behind London In The Raw and West End Jungle. His film visits half-a-dozen London pubs, almost all of which appear to no longer exist. The most intriguing for me is surely The Great Escape, a theme bar for RAF man that is filled with paraphernalia from WWII escape attempts (it’s now Mabel’s Tavern), but I also appreciated the moment when Jon Pertwee inexplicably popped up in a pair of lederhosen to serenade a crowd of pub goers with a burst of the classic Chelsea anthem Zigger Zagger. A trailer for the DVD can be seen here.

William Burroughs and the strange demise of London’s first espresso bar

In 1953, a momentous event occurred in Soho. London’s first proper coffee shop – one equipped with a Gaggia coffee machine – opened at 29 Frith Street. This was a place where teenagers too young for pubs could come and gather, and it is said by some that the introduction of this coffee bar prompted the youth culture explosion that soon changed social life in Britain forever.

Inside the Moka Bar

The Moka was an instant success, selling over a thousand cups of coffee a day. The author John Sutherland recalls, ‘the Gaggia machine, a great burbling, wheezing, spluttering monster, would grudgingly excrete some bitter caffeinated essence.  It would be swamped with steamed-milk foam and dusted with chocolate to form its ‘cappuccino’ hood… Glass cups and brown sugar (lots of it) were de rigueur.  Frankly, 50s espresso was no taste thrill.  But it felt smart as hell.’

By 1972, coffee bars where everywhere and the teenage revolution was firmly established. At this time, the author of ‘Naked Lunch’, former junkie and all-round Beat legend William S Burroughs was living in London, quietly going about his business in St James’s. He lived in Dalmeny Court, Duke Street, and loved the plush gentlemen’s shops of the area, not to mention the ‘Dilly Boys‘, young make prostitutes who hustled for clients outside the Regent Palace Hotel.

Although Burroughs was fond of the finer things in life – he got his shoes from John Lobb, hat from Locke’s and bought most of his food in Fortnum and Mason’s – he did at some point stumble into the Moka Bar, and was not impressed by what he found.

Burroughs and friend Brion Gysin in London

Burroughs at this time was getting sick of London – sick of the licensing laws, sick of the crap food and small drinks, sick of the weather, the terrible service and sexual hypocrisy. He was also sick of the Moka, which he believed responsible for an ‘outrageous and unprovoked discourtesy and poisonous cheesecake’.

The Church of Scientology, Fitzroy Street

Burroughs decided to mount a sound-and-image attack. He had previously launched one of these against the Church of Scientology, of which he had been a member, turning up at their headquarters at 37 Fitzroy Street every day, taking photographs and making sound recordings. He believed that ‘as soon as you start recording a situation and playing them back on the street, you are creating a new reality’ and that repeated exposure to such an attack would lead to ‘accidents, fires and removals’. After a few weeks, the Scientologists did indeed move, round the corner to 68 Tottenham Court Road.

Photo taken by Burroughs during the operation

On August 3, 1972, Burroughs turned his attention to the Moka. He would stand outside every day taking photos and making recordings by tape, and then return the next day to play the previous days recordings. Burroughs was convinced he was winning. ‘They are seething in there,’ he said. ‘I have them and they know it.’

On October 30, 1972, the Moka Bar closed.