Tag Archives: Tony Elliott

Disappearing London: Food For Thought

I have a piece in the Guardian about the closure of Food For Thought, one of London’s most charismatic and seemingly nuclear-proof (and I’m not just talking about the consistency of the scones) restaurants. It closes on June 21, rising costs – basically rents and wages to cover staff’s rents – forcing the owner Vanessa Garrett, to shut a business that has been successfully operating since 1971.

Food For Thought is one of those places that’s always been there. It was there when I prowled Neal Street on amateur shopping trips in the early 1990s. I knew, instinctively, that it was some sort of hippie joint, so went elsewhere, a teenage boy in thrall to the twin thrills of the Sex Pistols and bacon double cheeseburgers.

Years later, grown up somewhat, I began to eat there regularly, usually nabbing a takeaway from the ground floor during lunch breaks at Time Out. It always felt more than just a lunch venue. Without wanting to get too Sinclair about it, waiting in line at Food For Thought felt like a visit to polydimensional London, somewhere that had been quietly doing the same thing, for the same people, in the same place, for generations. Close your eyes, and you could be in 1970s London or even London in 2015. For secular souls, there are few areas that carry this atmosphere in quite such an effortless way, not so much a timewarp as timeless. It wasn’t dated, retro or old-fashioned, it just was.

I didn’t realise then quite how entwined Food For Thought was with the counterculture that spawned Time Out. When I tweeted about the closure of Food For Thought, the writer Richard King responded thoughtfully that: “FFT felt like one of the final remaining traces of the original Tony Elliott vision of London for Time Out.”

It was an astute observation. Food For Thought was born in the same spirit as Time Out, a desire to make London new, fresh, exciting, modern and funky, but also to make it, for want of a better word, good: cheap, utilitarian, healthy, an experience to expand the mind and reward the soul. London can still do this, but not in such a distinctive and understated political manner.

It went deeper. One of Food For Thought’s first chefs was Sue Miles, the wife of Barry Miles, founder of International Times, the underground newspaper from which Time Out hatched in 1968. Sue had learnt her trade at the Arts Lab, a counterculture take on the ICA that operated from Drury Street, and she later worked at Time Out, writing its first pair of London guides, which included enthusiastic reviews of Food For Thought.

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What’s particularly depressing about the closure of Food For Thought is that it wasn’t doing anything wrong. It was popular, it was serving good food at reasonable prices. They could have expanded, sought outside investment and gone into the franchise business, but they felt that would dilute the experience. Why should they change when they were doing what they wanted and doing it well?

And it was this commitment to offering value for money – that deeply held desire to not rip off the consumer – that led to its demise. That was at the heart of what Food For Thought represented, and it is precisely the sort of thinking that doesn’t wash in rentier London, where even success is punished and landlords feel duty bound to wring more profit out of something they have done nothing to create, like Mafia bosses demanding their cut. People revolt when a government behaves this way, so why is it acceptable for landlords?

What a city we have created.

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Time Out – logo-agogo

As has been reported elsewhere, the big glowing Time Out sign came down this week from the front of the TO office in Tottenham Court Road where it has lived since around 1993. It has gone into storage, ahead of a proposed office move and will at some point, we are promised, be restored to wherever the magazine ends up next. I hope it does. This is, after all, one of London’s few bursts of neon and probably the only one that is halfway decent to look at.

That’s because the logo is a design classic, the work of Pearce Marchbank, an art school student who drifted into the more agitated end of the counterculture after the Grosvenor Square anti-Vietnam demo. ‘The impact on me,’ he said, ‘Was blowing away all that love and peace shit which I thought was bollocks and complete pretence.’

After working on Friends, Marchbank was asked by Time Out founder Tony Elliott to redesign his shambolic magazine. ‘I hated the unadventurous way it looked,’ said Marchbank. The entire magazine was redesigned, with the logo being created at the last minute on a Sunday afternoon in November 1970. ‘It was supposed to look like an out-of-focus neon light,’ Marchbank explained. ‘It was Letraset Franklin Gothic, shot out of focus so it had a glowing fuzziness to it. I put a negative over the positive and the gap between the two made the glowing neon outline, which I shot in line then again out of focus. It was deliberately transparent, so the cover images could read through it, as if it were on the glass of a window.’

This distinctive, blurry effect was intended to be a short-term solution, but Elliott refused to change it. It was a wise decision although not everybody liked the new look. One reader wrote in asking if the magazine could include a pair of glasses with each issue as the typeface was now too small to read.

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Marchbank continued to work for the magazine on-and-off throughout the 1970s creating some of the best covers in the history of publishing. He was back there in 1981 when it imploded in a series of strikes, stand-offs and occupations between staff and management over wages and the historic equal-pay system. As Elliott attempted to regain control he learnt that the logo – which was now being branded all over London and which the strikers were hoping to claim as their own – actually belonged to Marchbank.

Elliott called Marchbank, saying ‘I want you to write me a letter saying you’re giving the logo to me.’ Marchbank figured it was probably worth as much as £100,000 but, strapped for cash and short of time, asked Elliott for a mere £2,000.

‘What? £2,000! How can you do this to me after all the things I’ve done for you?’

The conversation ended. Shortly afterwards, however, Marchbank was offered a job with Richard Branson’s new London magazine, Event. As his parting gift, he presented all rights to the logo to Elliott. To turn into a real piece of neon was both a no-brainer and a stroke of genius. I hope one day the sign will be back above the door in some London street – if not, I’m sure it’ll fetch more than £2,000 on eBay.