Letter from London: Meeting at Maison Bertaux

Photograph Source: Willem – CC BY-SA 2.0

I made a nostalgic venture back into London’s Soho last week to meet up for a coffee and chat with writer and journalist Christopher Howse. We had arranged to meet at well loved patisserie Maison Bertaux on Greek Street, enjoyed by CNN only a few weeks ago, I noticed. It was not exactly Marlow getting the ship fixed and setting off upriver again but the drums of my past were certainly beating as I wandered up from Charing Cross. Not often these days did I meet with a broadsheet journalist, either. I have known my fair share, some also who gave up once it became impossible to make a living from it. Two I knew actually became barristers — funny, as, also last week, I had come across Harry Mount’s ‘My Brief Career’ in one of those appetising piles of free books you find at overland London railway stations. The kind you are encouraged to pluck like fruit and take back once read. As my train was late, I began reading Mount’s expose, and was immediately thankful to be taken away from news on my phone from Ukraine. It is a tidy account of how Mount travelled in the opposite direction from the two barristers by journeying instead from law to journalism. ‘A hilarious account of the splendid miseries of being a pupil in a barrister’s chamber,’ John Mortimer wrote. Mount is now editor of The Oldie, whose founding editor was former Private Eye and Soho luminary Richard Ingrams, and I wonder how the view is for him now.

At least London seemed its usual eccentric and capricious self. I couldn’t help but notice the man in Leicester Square marching in front of me with the word ‘ELECTRICITY’ on the back of his high-vis jacket. ‘I’m shocked,’ he kept saying into his mobile phone, rather troublingly for an electricity man. ‘I am shocked!’ he repeated, perhaps too loudly this time. Leaving him to whatever power game he was playing, I sneaked a left into Chinatown and suddenly found myself beneath a marvellous sea of tethered bright orange lanterns, as if each chuckling away at the big grey sky. There were so many of them, all so light and crisp and beautiful, that I had to take a photograph. Only later did I realise each was bearing the name of a giant casino. In fact, serious gambling among London’s Chinese community is sufficiently common nowadays for the many first-time Chinese students heading to our universities being made aware of the impending risk of unlimited access to it. This sounds like something they may have once said to communists about to experience capitalism. On my left, meanwhile, was Wan Chai Corner, where many years ago I would eat delicious dim sum with a gracious backgammon-playing friend. By now I was really looking forward to seeing Christopher again. We are two quite different people who share many of the same interests — poetry, travel, the cosmos — or so I like to think. I reviewed his book ‘Soho in the Eighties’ in these pages a few years ago, and if ever a London memoir demonstrates an acute power of observation, it is this one. In equal measure, I am also a fan of his crescent-like ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’ based on years of travelling across the Castilian interior.

I was now passing the Soho Fire Station, whose valiant firefighters were the first on the scene at the tragic King’s Cross underground station fire of 1987, and the Curzon Soho Cinema, showing ‘The Whale’, ‘Nostalgia’, ‘Women Talking’ and ‘Triangle of Sadness’, before turning — most familiarly — into Greek Street. I had not made this ‘divergence’ in ages. The pub the Coach and Horses was still standing challengingly on the corner opposite the Palace Theatre with all its brickwork. From across Greek Street, the Coach felt full of ghosts, physically if not spiritually emptied, vacuumed by that old busybody time. Once upon a drink, it was one of the most informed hostelries in London.

Where did everyone go? Opposite stood what used to be Kettners and was now another new planet in the still expanding Soho House galaxy. Perhaps this was where the lucky ones — if you liked that sort of thing — went. Like a self-seeker loves his or her secrets, London loves its members clubs. If the artist in the family had not had some of her work in one of them, I would be thinking all these places betray a fine line between outright elitism and a fear of the hoi polloi. The Germans for example don’t get them. I remember discovering this in Berlin where many Berliners I met claimed not to get the new Soho House there at the time. ‘If not everyone can go,’ said a German artist to me in Mitte, ‘then not everyone is there!’ To be fair to Soho House 40 Greek Street, I was unaware of the imminent assault on my senses — nothing to do with seeing Christopher, only to do with those about to interrupt us — I could later have done with something of a bridgehead.

Finally, I sat down with my coffee at one of Maison Bertaux’s small outside tables. This was right by a neatly polished glass window behind which were mixed fruit cheese cakes, marzipan figs, and strawberry and raspberry tarts. Christopher with characteristic brio had assured me a few days earlier that he had arranged for it to be sunny. ‘So that’s all right,’ he wrote. ‘I love it when people can do that,’ I had replied. Presently I looked up at the by now lantern-free sky and found it to be sallow and dour, unlike Christopher, who suddenly appeared from Romilly Street, in a discerningly checked coat with his still remarkable Darwin beard, perhaps the fullest in journalism.

He must be a talisman of sorts, because during the rich conversation, two homeless people, both men, appeared, one after the other. Nor would either be in a hurry to leave. Our initial reaction was non-judgemental. If anything, it was possessed of a warmth and a sympathy. Regrettably, though, the first man, who looked and sounded Slavic, had soon demonstrated that he was upset with life and it was all our fault. His possession of anger issues reminded me of encounters in the past, particularly in hostile environments, even on one occasion in the Balkan Wars. While Christopher brushed off this man’s aggression with a lightness of touch that I admired, I was not responding quite so well. If I was lucky, despite those observational powers, Christopher may not have picked up on this. Anyway, I remained vigilant to the end, over what I took to be this man’s constant menace. At one point, he made the actions of a soldier firing an assault rifle and pointed the imaginary weapon right at my heart. This was after I had suggested to him that Christopher and I had only a limited period of time in which to catch up, and that it would be helpful if we would be allowed to do that. Not dissimilar to the visit of the three policemen in last week’s Letter. Thankfully, the man did leave us in the end. My eyes were still following as he passed what used to be Y Ming restaurant on the corner, a place which Christopher reminded me was a favourite haunt of late Soho famous person Jeffrey Bernard.

Just then, as our conversation began warming up again, this time around isolated topics such as the Isle of Man, Preston, Berwick-upon-Tweed, there suddenly swooped down from our right like a bedraggled hawk a Liverpudlian with a machine gun delivery of anti-Liverpudlian jokes. As he fired away, shooting himself left, right, and centre, I could not recall so many homeless people on Greek Street. I also felt even more uncomfortable in this man’s presence than the man before, and did not like myself for this fact. I used to know a lot of the people on the streets here and would try to give everyone the time of day. Like many, I had known some of them well enough to have a few friendly faces come up to me when showing my son around the area for the first time. Some even knew my name, which confused my son, and I knew theirs. As our energetic Liverpudlian caller continued baffling the ether, Christopher and I may well have been pining for less aggressive days when Soho figure Pam Jennings, also a struggler, would never aggravate with her request for small change to feed a pretty mean slot machine habit. Not just because she was a woman, not just because she didn’t take drink or drugs, small change was always given readily to Pam, sometimes in exchange for a printed postcard from her of her portrait as rendered by artist Rupert Shrive, who used to work in a studio above the Coach and Horses. Of course, not many people carry change these days. Christopher in his Soho book described Pam as also being seen around Pimlico ‘where she slept in a hostel’.

The Liverpudlian had staying power. What was peculiar was that Christopher had been in the middle of telling me he was writing about high streets when we had been interrupted for the second time. In fact, Christopher had been wondering, lightly enough, if I had any to recommend to him. Many a high street seemed doomed, we concurred. Look no further, I was now thinking, as our truly vulnerable second visitor wiped two troublingly large bright red scabs on his face, at the same time as never quite delivering the punchline he promised. Besides, Christopher, like me, would have disliked anti-Liverpudlian jokes, even when told in jest. Liverpool was an incredible city — we both knew that — and one I had particularly enjoyed working in with director Danny Boyle on his film ‘Millions’. Liverpool was still to this day mocked quite enough by risible people in the south without it being done all over again by one of its own. The man cursed one last time, re-scratched an infected chin, and eventually left. I felt sorry for him. We both did. Of course we did. But I had also felt intimidated. As it happened, the House of St Barnabas which tries to help homeless people get back to work was just down the road. As it also happened, a proposal had just been announced to create more than a dozen new 24/7 shelter hubs and 600 supportive housing units in London. Not a moment too soon, I was thinking, as 206 people experiencing homelessness had died here since the start of 2020. Mind you, a terrifying number of people in Britain are today just a single payment away from oblivion.

Christopher is someone who often writes about the world’s faiths, to a large extent about Christianity. I asked whether or not his own faith — he is a practicing Catholic — helped inform him over issues such as the conflict in Ukraine. He looked briefly skyward. ‘I don’t really know,’ he answered. Agnostic myself, probably clumsily so, I do nonetheless find that I crave concepts such as rewardable goodwill. (There will be a better term for this.) Christopher already knew I am curious about people’s faiths. Recently I was recommending to him Christiania Whitehead’s ‘The Afterlife of St Cuthbert: Place, Texts and Ascetic Tradition, 690–1500’. One of his Telegraph columns over here is called ‘Sacred Mysteries’. Last week, marking the beginning of Lent, he was writing about TS Eliot’s ‘Ash Wednesday’ — with an exquisite Herbert Read quote about the poet’s hand and then arm reaching round the door for his bowler hat shortly after converting to Christianity and heading off for an early Communion service. Christopher and I didn’t discuss his church’s views on LGBT+ rights, though Pope Francis has opened the way to what was recently described in the international Catholic news weekly The Tablet as ‘a more inclusive and pastoral approach to gay and lesbian people’. Not for the first time, I did mention to Christopher however one of my favourite writers Graham Greene and his so-called ‘management of sin’ — Greene believed evil to be a truly inescapable element of life — and even repeated my appreciation of both the art and atmosphere at Westminster Cathedral, where Christopher worships, and where a favourite mosaic of mine of St David is done by Welsh artist Ivor Davies. Christopher is also a big tweeter, by the way, on everything from iron works to neolithic photoshoots.

Perhaps inevitably as we found more and more time for ourselves the name of former Coach and Horses landlord Norman Balon made an entrance to the conversation. I was at the same time remembering Torquil Fleming-Boyd filming Norman expertly for me one day some 18 or so years ago on the street corner only meters away. Forget where everyone went. Forget where even the footage went. Where did all the time go? Once Christopher had departed back down Romilly Street, perhaps to ‘Telegraph Towers’ in Victoria, I was left momentarily with a feeling of overwhelming sadness. It was as if Soho, as we knew it, with perhaps the exception of Maison Bertaux and the French House, was dead, and I just hadn’t taken the time to mourn it. The opening of a nearby themed bar in Soho called Mr Fogg’s Pawnbrokers seems in particularly awkward taste given the present economic climate. But then again, Lazarus probably drinks in Soho too.

Pausing on the corner of Romilly and Greek, I had to confess to myself it was places like the Coach and Horses and French House which after I had returned from the States via the Middle East had inspired me to write occasional features again for newspapers. That was to say before I became a father and spent better rewarded time on other people’s feature films. Back then, journalism felt like a club, a group of fellow drinkers even, who each had connections with so-and-so, who might help get you an intro to such-and-such. Everyone’s copy was accurate, sometimes gifted, and the amount of cigarettes and drinks consumed in order just to clinch a commission was legendary. Now, editors in Blighty don’t even read your emails anymore, heavy-lifting interns work for nothing, and those labouring in online workhouses are close to being abused.

I left the area wondering what it was that had kept all our spirits so high, all of our lights on for so long, back in the day. Was it just the drink? Even for relative part-timers such as myself, there was always enough brightness and in-built guidance to go round for everyone. Our nominal leaders in barroom conversations were people like Hemingway. As we made our different ways to the great novel we never wrote, journalism remained something to aspire to. We didn’t ask for much, just readers. Today, I don’t even know if people read Hemingway anymore. TikTok and its mates tell us what news to follow. Adventurism has been relegated to the domestic straits of Netflix or middling peaks of Amazon Prime. The fast boats are moored for what feels like for good. There is no need even for anchors anymore, which is just as well, as they’d just be sold as scrap. Excellent coffee with Christopher, though.

Peter Bach lives in London.