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Soho in the Eighties by Christopher Howse; Bloomsbury, £20

‘Look at y’self. Just look at y’self, you great lump. What do you think you f***ing look like? You’re a sad and pathetic sight. You’ve got f**k all to say. You’re a dreary, boring id–i–ot. What have you got to offer? Just shut your f***ing cakehole…’

This is Ian ‘Ida’ Board in conversation with one of his customers at the notorious Colony Room, a small upstairs bar in Dean Street, central London, the interior of which was appropriately painted a bilious gloss green. The Colony is one of a trio of watering holes – the others being the Coach and Horses, in Greek Street, and the French pub (originally the York Minster), also in Dean Street, that form the main stages for events in Christopher Howse’s book about that rackety land of pubs and clubs bounded by Shaftesbury Avenue, Charing Cross Road, Regent Street and Oxford Street. That Howse, who is assistant editor of the Daily Telegraph, focuses on pubs is rather a relief, because at first glance I feared the book might have contained anecdotes and digressions on the Groucho Club, alternative comedy, advertising firms and other horrors that flowered in the period he writes about. The sane man does not want to know any more about those topics.

Board took over the Colony from its founder, Muriel Belcher, who died in 1979 and who pioneered the use of the word c*nty as a form of address in the club which she opened in the Forties. Board delivered ‘rasping torrents of invective constructed, like epic poetry, from formulae’, and even told Francis Bacon, the internationally successful artist and number one Colony habitué, that he was no good. While beating Bacon around the head and neck with an umbrella and throwing biros at him, Board opined ‘in a voice like a cheesegrater’: ‘You can’t f**king paint.’ Board drank brandy for breakfast, vodka through the day and referred to being sick in the morning as having a little touch of ‘Vera vomit’. He gave up the dawn brandy at 60. The Colony was an afternoon drinking club. Such places were largely done for by the Licensing Act 1988, which allowed pubs to stay open all day, obviating their raison d’être.

Alcohol is the prime mover in the narrative. Much of the book revolves around Soho’s rebarbative drinkers, loafers, homosexuals, flâneurs, retired prostitutes and various forms of artists and writers. A lot are fairly awful people, it has to be said. It was mainly low-to-middling members of the journalism trade or those connected to the dramatic arts who roosted habitually in the Coach and Horses, specifically at the area of the bar reached by the Romilly Street door. This was the ‘deep end’ while the Greek Street entrance was regarded as ‘the shallow end’. Howse, who was part of the Coach crowd and has written books on religious subjects, thoughtfully provides diagrams. Jeffrey Bernard, the Spectator columnist and ‘career layabout’ was, so to speak, the star of ‘the Coach’, whose landlord, Norman Balon, ran the pub for 60 years and has outlived most of his infamous regulars. Bernard’s fame grew after his column was adapted into a successful and very funny play, Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, set in the Coach and Horses, by Keith Waterhouse.

And he was unwell. Diabetes, failing kidneys, gangrene and amputation were all on his medical notes by the time he in effect committed suicide by refusing dialysis in 1997.

Towards the end of the Eighties, when most of the events of the book occur, I worked in a hotel off Piccadilly on the Soho side, and spent a fair bit of time continuing to explore the area, which I first discovered as a schoolboy.

The establishment I worked in was referred to by its staff as ‘the knocking shop of the West End’ (though I once discovered a sex worker who did not receive money: a blow-up doll folded away under a sink). I bought a copy of the Spectator one day and came across Bernard’s column. I decided to try out ‘the Coach’ for myself. It was, as I suspected, not a happy place, though I never knowingly saw Bernard (as I did not know what he looked like). I never made it to the Colony, largely from trepidation about what lurked there.

Anyone who has been a regular in a bar knows there is often much misery being chased away; when mixed with strong drink this leads inevitably to outbursts of rage among the frivolity. The quantities of vodka and whisky consumed in this book may make even a seasoned drinker blench. Howse’s book reflects the manic depressive nature of dipsomania very well. Here is one Graham Mason, ‘the drunkest man in the Coach and Horses’, saying to one of his fellow regulars: ‘You’re an ugly, horribly drunk old woman.’ Howse notes that when Mason was dying of emphysema, imprisoned in his flat on an oxygen tank and drinking white wine as an alternative to vodka, he was ‘still very angry’.

Mick Tobin, a stage carpenter, addressed the opera star Maria Callas as ‘Cally’ and was painted as Man in a Check Cap by Lucian Freud, whom he called ‘Lu’. Tobin had somehow come by a flat in Covent Garden and when driven mad by noisy downstairs neighbours he ran a bath then went out for the evening, leaving the water to flood below.

Some anecdotes are amusing but others smack of padding. Bernard at one time ran an illegal book in the Coach, taking tiny bets off punters. One Saturday he was arrested by plain-clothes officers. This episode is dealt with at somewhat excessive length – Bernard, described in newspapers at the time as ‘a frail and tipsy scribe’, was fined £100 (and was later invited to the CID Christmas party).

All sorts of more or less forgotten characters from that era turn up in the narrative, the actor Michael Elphick, the cartoonist Frank Dickens, the poet Paul Potts, who had been an associate of Orwell in his younger days but by the Eighties was barred from many pubs because of ‘the appalling odour caused by his double incontinence’. The staff of Private Eye feature at length, including its once thirsty former editor Richard Ingrams, who enjoyed bibulous Soho until his doctor informed him his liver ‘was several sizes too big’. He forswore drink there and then.

The democracy of the barroom is well illustrated: no one, Howse suggests, ‘could buy their way in’, the common enemy were ‘bores’, and beggars are part of the story.

One of the latter I used to see and give money to in Soho pubs and then encounter again in the betting shop in Greek Street. Pam Jennings was a small woman who was obsessed by fruit machines, dog racing and betting. She would rub coins together constantly in her hands. Her sad story emerged only after her death. Her life had fallen apart when mental problems began after the death of her mother. She was teetotal. Though Howse does not mention it, Jennings was given a Telegraph obituary, which must have been his doing. The painter Rupert Shrive, who had at one time a studio upstairs at the Coach, kindly painted her portrait so that she could sell postcards of it for £1 (or £2 when autographed).

Howse has it that Soho in the Eighties in fact finished in 1992 when Francis Bacon died in Spain aged 82. For all its monsters, the vanished Soho of the book unfolded on a human level and, until artists such as Damien Hirst arrived, it seemed to attract writers, painters, poets who were interested in other people in a way that the postmodern interlopers of the following decades seem not to be. The modernised, horrifically expensive Soho of today lacks character and the pubs are definitely not as they were (for pubs I recommend the streets known as Fitzrovia on the other side of Oxford Street). Almost everyone in the book would not recognise the political correctness of today and would, regardless of their own status and preferences, doubtless dismiss it as claptrap and, worst crime of all, boring. One suspects that the dictatorial promotion of Gay Pride would have also been viewed through the barroom windows with ennui if not outright contempt: Bacon maintained that homosexuality was more fun before it was legalised.

This is a little snapshot of a corner of London when it was still largely an English city, before Tony Blair and his crew changed the country for ever, and long before it became an international byword for money laundering, disorder, drugs, juvenile murder and mismanaged immigration.

In summing up Howse says: ‘If only, one is tempted to think, some narrow academics and dull management types could be transported back 30 years and thrown in at the deep end then they’d wake up. But would they?’

Probably not.

Howse’s book is fit to take its place with other similar works, such as Julian Maclaren-Ross’s Memoirs of the Forties, Closing Times by Dan Davin, Daniel Farson’s Soho in the Fifties and The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon. 

‘It was all very funny indeed,’ Howse notes, ‘and of course ended in disaster.’

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