Soho, Howse and the Spirit World

Discriminating Americans flying over London right now closing their airport copies of Bob Woodward’s Fear or shutting down on their iPads or Kindles Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng will know exactly where to look north of the glistening Thames to find the presently threatened tract of land known as Soho. It’s been an addiction for Americans for as long as any other visitor over the years. I remember one particularly epic session there with actor Matt Dillon after he came back from Cambodia. It began in the Coach and Horses between Greek and Romilly Street and ended up goodness knows where. The nearest to an American admirer in Soho these days is more likely to be a global developer with a penchant for office blocks. You see, in the grand concordance of things, even in Soho, property has become the new poetry.

Thank goodness for Christopher Howse. I’ve just read his book Soho in the Eighties. An illuminating volume in which small pieces of local London history are not only given perspective but lived. For five years during the eighties I was in New York. For another I was in Afghanistan and the Middle East. I knew Howse’s Soho only at the beginning and end of the decade. But it still made an impression on me and it’s been invigorating as well as unsettling to meet up again with some of its characters, many of them dead, whom I’d watched myself from the shadows.

Howse’s years in the aforementioned Coach and Horses, the French pub and Colony Room Club were not wasted. He’s written an important book here shot with a kind of spiritual yearning and alarming frankness — the former obituaries editor of the Daily Telegraph has written the mother of all obituaries. It is about drink, camaraderie, poetry, laughter, journalism, self-destruction, art, death, but also survival. The reader is parked right up against some of these characters, uncomfortably close at times, brushing against their darkest fur, but they sit true and you feel are never portrayed in an unfair light. In the eighties Daniel Farson wrote a book called ‘Soho in the Fifties’ but this book — ‘Soho in the Eighties’ — feels to me like so much more than a sequel, the light of the prose giving us much to think about, yes, but the now sober eye having one over on the pickled eye, too.

Howse lands us straight in the deep end — it’s actually called that — of the pub the Coach and Horses. (I was more of a shallow end man myself during the period covered in the book.) It’s here in the deep end a few years later we witness the Great Coach and Horses Betting Raid, involving several members of the Metropolitan Police and Customs and Excise pouncing on famous regular Jeffrey Bernard whom Howse regularly delivers a copy of the Spectator to each week with his ‘Low Life’ column it while Howse is working there. The funniest part of the raid is fellow journalist Sandy Fawkes sweeping the takings from the bar into her handbag in order to protect Jeffrey Bernard. Fawkes by the way had already written a book called Killing Time, later Natural Born Killer, about a three-day affair she’d had in the United States with a man who turned out to be a serial killer — Paul Knowles. The deep end you could indeed call it.

The landlord of the Coach and Horses Normal Balon didn’t take many prisoners. If you complained about aspects of his bar, he’d say: ‘Here’s your money. Now fuck off.’ Howse even mentions the mysterious ceramic gutter at floor level which used to baffle everyone and just as one great piece of narrative makes way for another, a later melancholy Soho character pops up, someone you half-knew, and you feel faintly mournful yourself — Diana Lambert was one such mortal. She’d been an actress in ‘The Nun’s Story’ with Audrey Hepburn and I remembered her with affection from my occasional perch at the shallow end.

The book is populated also with painters. You can almost smell the turpentine along with the alcohol. We’ll get to Francis Bacon but Lucien Freud features early on. Freud I knew because he’d drive me round Soho in his low-slung Bentley while the two of us stared out at a heaving capital. ‘Ever been to Zanzibar?’ he asked me one time. ‘No,’ I said, ‘but I’m thinking about going to Afghanistan.’ He smiled: ‘I mean the club, the club Zanzibar.’

In keeping with many of the characters, there is no risk of sentimentality here. The regulars at the Coach and Horses were popular enough to merit their own Private Eye cartoon strip — ‘The Regulars’ — but the masterly cartoonist Michael Heath, a regular himself, laced the strip with deliberate and rather fetching self-immolation. Amusingly, Howse quotes Jeffrey Bernard at this time asking who everyone would eat if they were in a plane crash in the Andes. (Former Private Eye editor Richard Ingrams is mentioned. ‘He’d be like a bit of burnt toast,’ says Bernard.) There’s even a map of the Coach and Horses in the book — as there is of the French pub and Colony Room Club — for any reader staggering around or losing their bearings. In Coach terms, this is right down to the Soda siphons and wine cooler.

I realised early on that others wouldn’t need to know any of these people personally in order to devour their stories. They are also through their circles plugged into the greater good of the country itself. I have seen national newspaper editors, government ministers, as well as pop stars, drinking at the Coach and Horses. Another regular, Conan Nicholas, is described as gate-crashing the annual Spectator garden party into which Howse rightly admits many gate-crashed. I for one certainly did: the last time with Boris Johnson as editor. (To be fair, I told him at the door I was a gatecrasher and he made a bow and welcomed me in.) Howse describes Conan Nicholas then proceeding to follow round controversial politician Enoch Powell in the garden, telling him he could have saved the country once but was now ‘a complete SHIT!’

And yet despite the colourful invective spewing from the mouths of some of these eccentrics, Howse never forgets he is also a journalist — even the horse he backs for a five-furlong sprint is called Print — and readers hungry for veracity and candour are safe here. But Howse was a regular himself and when the police get involved further with Jeffrey Bernard, the author is more concerned — endearingly — the duty sergeant knows that Bernard is diabetic and shouldn’t therefore be left in any coma at the police station. (At court later, everyone offering moral support is described by Howse as laughing too much ‘and in the wrong places’.)

Not surprsingly, we learn little about Howse himself in the book but this is only because he’s more interested in everyone else, a good quality in a writer, than in himself. He may even think it unpolished to write about oneself. One of his few biographical chinks however is when he mentions a well loved regular called ‘Pickles’ or ‘Pick’ as ‘Stephen’: ‘I called him Stephen because I’d known him a little at Oxford,’ writes Howse. Stephen Pickles in fact wrote a book called Queens by Pickles and I’m always surprised how many books came out of this principality. They even had films made, Howse reminds us. (I made one once about former Soho regular Barry Flanagan.) In one of theses films, Jeffrey Bernard is standing at the bar of the Colony Room Club with a £50 note in his hand while Graham Mason, another regular from the Coach, is seen demanding: ‘Where the fuck did you get that from?’ Even famed Norman Balon is not without surprises. I hadn’t known he’d been a gambler and drinker in younger days. At times it’s as though Howse is presented with a city run amok with defrocked monks and terrible habits and only now has chosen to deliver them to the reader. He writes: ‘This democracy was invisible to many outsiders who experienced only the strong forces of exclusion that the place exerted: the carapace of violent verbal resistance of bores.’ As he also put it, ‘no one could buy their way in.’

In the nearby French House, we meet Sonny — ‘an old black man with white stubble on his chin and long, grey, crinkly hair.’ I remember Sonny. The late Dundonian fireball Derek Kidd once took me to meet him of an evening at the French. It was like being led to a Japanese shrine-master and I felt uncomfortable about it. But what I had failed to grasp was that it was a simple case of someone showing respect. Beneath the banter of broken lives are sometimes the most appealing fissures of respect, though I noticed Howse ask himself at the beginning of chapter four if he’s too nice for Soho.

But if the most serious of lives can be made into soap operas, they can also be turned into comedy. One unhinged moment is when a doctor who drinks in the area is roped into checking out Jeffrey Bernard’s member in the gents. ‘I think I’ve got thrush,’ he declares. It’s only when someone else wants the doctor to then look at their anus is a justifiable squeamishness recorded.

Nor were these regulars without clout. The cast may have been infernal on occasion but many had influence way beyond the bar. One day Bernard’s generous landlady Geraldine Norman — whom I stood next to in New York when Van Gogh’s ‘Irises’ went for $53.9m — discovers he has £13,500 in his account and decides his days of having a free roof over his head are over. She even writes a piece on this for the Spectator. But it is never published because Bernard doesn’t like what she has written.

I adore the French pub run by Lesley Lewis in Dean Street. There are few events more welcoming in London than the faces led by Hilary Penn behind the bar. It’s also where I met my partner, the artist Joanna Kirk. There were many times I’d return there from Afghanistan and get rid of some of my angst. (Soho lovers Lisa Stansfield and husband composer Ian Devaney were great boon companions during this period.) I’m also not so young I didn’t know the revered Gaston Berlemont, the previous landlord of the French pub, either. Howse paints Berlemont perfectly when he describes him kissing a woman customer and ‘his handlebar moustache tickling her skin’.

On one occasion the distinguished blind poet John Heath-Stubbs is at the French. Heath-Stubbs first visited the French pub 54 years earlier. They walk to the Coach and Horses together, the poet with a non-white stick and Howse possibly keeping a firm mental record. He later recites with him a poem by Edith Sitwell. Of Philip Larkin, Heath-Stubbs says: ‘He’s against life.’ There are one or two other such heavyweights in the drama unfolding before us whose spray we feel but this is one of the best.

It’s not all a love-in, though. Of one less loved French regular, Howse writes: ‘He seemed oblivious to his own absurdity. In that, he resembled Jay Landesman, the lecherous American publisher.’ (I made the mistake of finding a scriptwriter to adapt a story of Landesman’s once, for which he never thanked or paid us.) Howse continues on the theme: ‘He was not what Soho was meant to be about. He was a bore.’

Another literary presence in Soho is American writer Elizabeth Smart whose By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept I remember reading in the eighties at Fanelli’s bar on Prince Street in that other SoHo in New York. Smart’s book is largely about legendary former Soho habitué and poet George Barker and I remember seeing Elizabeth Smart at the Coach and Horses but never quite knowing who she was. In retrospect, it’s rather attractive people weren’t telling me who she was. Howse informs us he also missed the opportunity to know her better, admitting ‘her transatlantic accent and readiness to talk of feelings made me cautious.’

If great talent was sometimes lost in the even greater tsunami of drink flooding through Soho in the eighties, great work was sometimes saved. We learn for example that if Jeffrey Bernard’s brother Bruce hadn’t retrieved the prints and negatives beneath the bed of dead photographer John Deakin, they would have been ‘destroyed’. Perhaps only as a result of this rescue, Deakin’s reputation grows to this day.

For me the most troubling character to read about and not to have known is Graham Mason. Of Mason, Howse writes: ‘If it was snowing he would complain of the noise that the flakes made landing on his balding head.’ Painter Rupert Shrive who had a studio on the top floor of the Coach and Horses painted Mason rather well. (There’s a reproduction of this work in the book.) Somewhere in the angled face and eyes trying to look up is a forgotten brightness and chilling self-reflection. Mason — like many here — moved around. (‘As always,’ writes Howse, talking about The Economist’s Bobby Hunt, ‘provisionality was a mark of Soho bohemianism.’) Mason’s last port of call was a ‘hard to let’ flat in a run-down tower block overlooking what was then the Greenwich Naval College where they used to have a nuclear reactor on the premises for training purposes. Mason looks in some of the other images like a man who wished it had gone off.

The Colony Room Club with its green walls and ashen-faced ghosts became a kind of haven to me before one band of members tried to slay another band of members ten years ago in a regrettable social bloodbath. I travelled to Afghanistan as the war over the club began for what turned out to be four pretty sobering stints. Nights in the Colony may not have felt as dangerous as walking a minefield near Bagram or flying in a twin-engine Black Hawk across Helmand but it was close. It was Decadence Unlimited.

Founder Muriel Belcher’s successor Ian Board is described as giving up drinking brandy regularly for breakfast in his 60th year. I only became a member once Michael Rojas and ‘his tinted spectacles and grim scar’ was running the place. I enjoyed myself so much one night I fell off my stool and broke my arm. Howse reserves his best prose for the Colony. It’s impossible not to be transplanted back there as he stares out the Georgian windows into the afternoon sun, something I used to do while the late Dick Bradsell, inventor of the Espresso Martini, stood both silently and vigilantly behind the bar.

Howse recounts personably the time when ‘a thin, dark-haired man in his seventies with dark, bright eyes came in and sat to the rear of the room, away from the window.’ It turned out to be the Duke of Sutherland, a former prisoner of war whose family happened to sell a Titian after his death for £50 million. Howse writes admiringly: ‘So here was this man, dressed in a checked shirt and tweeds, chatting quietly with Ian Board in a place to him less threatening than the House of Lords.’ This is the great mistake of modern Britain. It’s not chintz people need but character. Painters would seek shade in the club too and there was the dark Michael Andrews mural to use as backdrop if you yourself wore black.

Howse also describes the artist Patrick Caulfield as having ‘a feeling of quietness with him’ there and says: ‘Once he spoke about using some unsold canvasses to roof a shed. Could that be true?’

Of course, money and paint-spinning Damien Hirst made the Colony one of his key camps. Howse is amusing when wondering if the old till redecorated at the club by the artist — with the word ‘CUNTY’ in capital letters — is not less remarkable than it was before. There’s also a humorous telling of a Baby Face Scarlatti tale involving a court case and smashed mobile phone.

But I do not miss the Colony.

Back at the Coach and Horses, landlord Norman Balon is emptying the coin drawer onto a table to count the money from the cigarette machine, an act I saw on several occasions. I can feel the wind move as the door opens and it’s Daniel Farson. The late writer and photographer is a welcome figure in the book. I once attended ‘Henry IV, Part 1’ with him at the Barbican. At one stage he was locked out of the performance and only made it back to his seat after crawling and climbing over various members of the audience. While this large and bilious Falstaff — played so memorably on the stage by Robert Stephens — was met with informed laughter and admiration, this other version, the real-life one, was by retching on his shoes to incessantly cruel taunts from the very same members of the audience. Howse is not unkind to Farson, a man seldom unkind to others in his books, though his Jeckyl and Hyde nature is recorded responsibly. Howse also acknowledges his strength: ‘He was a brave man even when sober and strong enough to make an antagonist think twice.’ I remember Farson saying to me at Kettners once after I’d declined one of his advances: ‘Don’t worry, some of my best friends are heterosexual.’ Farson ended up living in a boathouse in Devon where we’re told he hears a village child one day say: ‘There’s poor Mr Farson, going to his shed.’

A natural giant of Soho is Francis Bacon, towering like a putative ghost above everyone else. It’s as though we see him all the way from the mews he worked in where I first met him with art dealer Robert Fraser. ‘I’ll have you know I’m a very fime-ous pine-ter,’ Howse has him say. This may be said in jest but you feel a kind of malevolent tremor behind it. I was once commissioned by Vanity Fair to travel to Moscow with Francis Bacon. They booked me into the room next to him. At the last moment the artist pulled out, claiming he was having an asthma attack. (I suspected it was more to do with the fact he felt he was being used as a global political football.) According to Howse, bringing it all back home, he was sufficiently troublesome for Michael Heath to ‘tremble if he opened the door to the Colony and found that Bacon was there.’ I was never quite sure what to think of Bacon, not that it would have mattered one jot to him.

Then Eddie Linden pops in. Eddie Linden, who endeared himself to me one day by collapsing in my company, then sent a copy of his poetry magazine Aquarius with a thank you note for looking after him. According to Howse, one of Linden’s achievements ‘was to navigate to any part of the country by public transport for the funeral of any notable poet’. I must admit, I saw him a few months ago in north London at the funeral of painter Derek Kidd.

Although I don’t know Michael Heath well, I admire his work. Howse shared a room with him at the back of the Spectator offices where ‘scalpels would lie around splashed with Tipp-Ex correcting fluid.’ I remember pointing out to someone in the Coach and Horses that the paper he used for his cartoons on the wall there were yellowing while the Tipp-Ex remained a clear, unforgiving white. Instead of this being a revelation of mistakes, however, it actually sends the work further into the sphere of high art.

The odd actors pop in and out of Soho in the Eighties. Howse with John Hurt one time tells us he learned to be careful about what he said, having once described the actor’s performance as Stephen Ward in ‘Scandal’ as ‘quite good’ and afterwards witnessing something of an explosion. For every actor in the book, there is a musician. A former member of Fleetwood Mac — Danny Kirwan — is a regular in the book who saw years of bad health and homelessness and only died this year: ‘He kept himself to himself, and that was fine,’ writes Howse. Howse also makes clear that you could never try to be a local: ‘The ecology was so dense that few niches became vacant,’ he concludes.

It was something of a jolt to bump into Eddi McPherson again. One of my few visits to Soho recently was to attend her wake at the French pub where crowds of mothered fans drank in the street and shared stories of how they first met Eddi. Her son Suggs from the band Madness patrolled the pavement with a mixture of pride and affection. I first met Eddi in 1990 after a stint in the foothills of Gulf War One and an almost fatal car crash. I was not long in London and without a roof over my head. (A commonplace: even Howse admits to being homeless in Soho once.) Out of the blue, I’m left a key behind the bar of the Coach and Horses for Eddi’s nearby flat on New Compton Street. There’s a small note attached saying she’ll be away for two weeks and that the flat is all mine. It was remarkable. I’d only met her once. So this is what it feels like to be a regular, I remember thinking.

Jokes however were discouraged in Howse’s Soho and ‘there were persevering regulars who depressed the atmosphere whenever they came in.’ Meanness is also rightly criticised. The late Old Etonian crime writer Robin Cook is reprimanded because he ‘seldom sprang to the chance of buying a round.’

In Chapter 18 we finally run into the magazine Private Eye. Like Francis Bacon, it is part of Soho folklore. I was invited once to their fortnightly lunch above the Coach and Horses. Sitting opposite me was Stephen Fry, himself an active campaigner these days on behalf of Soho’s threatened role as a platform for the performing arts. To my left at the busy table was editor Ian Hislop and next to him Richard Ingrams. Robert Maxwell’s nephew was there — ‘Bob’s your uncle!’ I wanted to say. Instead I got involved in a disastrous foreign film project with him.

Just when I was wondering what happens next, onto the page steps the late writer Richard West. (Most friends called him Dick.) When I was returning later from filming and writing in the Balkans during the conflict there, Richard corrected a thankfully minor historical fact I’d included in a feature in the Evening Standard. (One of West’s books was ‘Tito and the Rise and Fall of Yugoslavia‘.) How I chuckled, though, when Howse mentioned the time West was covering Vietnam and wakes up not knowing where he is and tells a local taxi driver to take him to the nearest town — only to discover it’s Singapore. Soon after I’d met West he surprised me by traipsing all the way across London to attend my wife’s art exhibition. He was like that — interested in people.

Conversely, I knew what Howse meant by others lacking ‘the death-or-glory commitment to a bohemian life without security’. I knew a man for example who worked for the tax authorities and drank in Soho regularly. A nice enough human being, he used to romanticise about the many characters he’d regularly read about in books by the likes of Daniel Farson, a pedestal never far from his rating of people. Sometimes after a few drinks in the Coach and Horses this man would ruffle up his hair and affect a kind of bohemian pose — as if to say he’d finally arrived. He was one of them. It didn’t work. It just did not work.

And certainly I hadn’t heard of Lord Patrick Conyngham in a while, the last time when he was a self-declared underwater poet. Diana Lambert returns to the book a few more times, also. While looking after what’s possibly her mother’s dog she falls asleep in the street one time and that week appears in a photo in the Observer accompanying an article on London’s homeless. When her mother later dies, she who struggled like the best of us suddenly had enough money to drink her favoured whisky whenever she wished. Alas, as so often happens in these cases, jaundice set in and she refused any help. Of her death, Howse writes what is perhaps his best line: ‘After so long struggling with poverty, she was killed by its relief.’

I remembered others of course at the Coach and Horses and French pub who are not in this book, people whom I’m reliably informed are still there today — art curator and writer Adrian Dannatt when not possessed by Paris or New York, shorts producer Jonny ‘Spitfire’ Armstrong, cineaste, singer and writer Paul Ryan, agitator TV host Afshin Rattansi now working for Russia Today, goggled actor Tim Woodward and his motorbike, veritable Scarlet West who recently wrote ‘I’d Like to Thank Manchester Air Rifles‘, rising film actor David Whitney, comradely filmmaker, artist and Channel Islander Robert Rubbish, picaresque Beat-lover and master-painter Neal Fox, former croupier and mindful photographer Carla Borel, generous humorist Celine Hispiche, outlandish French poet and singer Anne Pigalle, energetic strategist Ahmed Mehdi, plumber and playwright Laurence Lynch, special jewellery designer Susanna Shaw, up-and-coming radio host Clare Lynch, former conflict cameraman Torquil ‘Tranquil’ Fleming-Boyd, DJ and raconteur Simon Crabb, uncommon draughtsman Mark Reeve, journalist Bryan MacDonald now mostly doing a terrific job in Russia, piper and composer Antoin Ban O’Dochartaigh, Alderney scriptwriter Dickon Levinge who wrote the Landesman script, horror film producer Hubert Gibbs, Metro journalist Joel Taylor who features regularly on TV reviewing newspapers, ‘Animal Lovers’ novelist Rob Palk already finishing another, Museum of Soho’s justifiably protective Tony Shrimplin, and oracular Scot and inventor of the Galbraith Fastener John Galbraith — the only man I know who was both in the Paras and RAF. All of these people — and many more — still drink in Soho. And what of Michael Dillon and his equally local club Gerry’s on Dean Street? He’s as much a keeper of the Soho flame as anyone.

But it’s Howse I’ll remember most for now. He has done London’s Soho a great service with this book. There’s an old photo of him in the so-called deep end of the Coach and Horses perhaps already gathering notes for this book. Howse no longer drinks. Damien Hirst also quit. For what it’s worth, Matt Dillon doesn’t drink either. I don’t drink and haven’t for a few years. But thanks to Christopher Howse, we can safely say we were there.

Peter Bach lives in London.