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Friday, 20 August 2010

West End Girls

One of the joys of getting older is looking back on one's younger self. Incidents in the past float up unbidden and you, as the distant observer, watch them unfold with increasing incredulity.

The other evening I suddenly recalled an incident that happened to me around 1975. It was before I met my first wife in '76 and after I'd started working in Whitehall in '74.

Usually after work I'd get on the bus or underground and go straight home to my bedsit in Belsize Park. Cook something indigestible and then off to the local for a few drinks and a chat. But not this particular evening.

I was working near Trafalgar Square, and it was a short walk from there through to Leicester Square and the cinemas and across Shaftesbury Avenue and the theatres into Soho. Soho then wasn't the rather bijou place it is today with smart eating houses and swanky pubs. It was a rather dingy, run down area with disreputable pubs and the occasional classy restaurant. It was also a gay haven and littered full of strip clubs and  porn shops - if you know the cover of the Ziggy Stardust album - that captures the feel of the place.

It was a wonderful, tempting little patch of heaven where you could snatch a taste of all that would damn you to hell.

I did already know the place. I'd been to a strip club with a girlfriend, a mate and his bird a few years before. It was for a laugh; except what was on display was no joke. I witnessed practices I thought had been wiped out during the Spanish Inquisition and discovered a new and interesting side to my girl friend.

Later I went with George, a mate from Belsize Park, to a flat for a meal in Soho He had a couple of mates who lived off Soho square in a tenement - that's just what it was. Up some very narrow,steep and rickety stairs with god knows what substances glistening on the floors. Theirs was the only flat that wasn't used as a knocking shop. "Lovely girls, but they are noisy - especially Friday and Saturday nights when the clients have had a skin full". 

Their flat was a gem. Early '70s decor was heavy drapes, posters, dark walls and candles - this was before Laura Ashley and Habitat had turned us all into suburbanites. Anyway their flat was gorgeous; like an Aladdin's cave full of exotic trinkets, gilded glass mirrors, chaise longues in satin and silk and the most sumptous smells wafting from their tiny, tiny kitchen. They were as gay as a row of pink tents - but I just didn't twig. George was showing me off!!!! And we were just good friends - honest.

The next trip with George was to a bar. One of George's favourites - a gay bar! And still I didn't comprendo. No mixed sex couples there and language I thought only existed on "Round the Horne" and in Joe Orton plays. I had a few drinks and was chatting merrily to these men - wondering what the couple of women dressed like spivs were doing at the end of the bar. When George grabbed me by the arm and dragged me away. "You can't have him" he said to the one I'd been talking to. "He's with me." "They were chatting you up dear." he whispered in my ear earnestly: I understood. "Not that there's anything like that between us of course but your life (not to mention other parts of you) wouldn't have been your own hadn't I claimed you."

We left and found ourselves in a tiny bar off Old Compton Street. It only sold beer by the half pint (or was it 250 ml). It was packed. I could have swore I spotted Oscar Wilde and Quentin Crisp not to mention a number of  the theatre glitterati of the day (male and female). It made the Stonewall Inn seem like an Bingo Hall.

So I wasn't a stranger to the more baroque parts of London's night life. Except I was an innocent.

I'm sure I had nothing in mind that evening on entering Soho's portals; a drink here, a shifty in one of the sex mag shops, maybe a meal. For a while I just walked around. As I remember it was a drizzly November evening, and there weren't that many people around. I passed a number of strip clubs, glanced at the pics of the young women whilst unkempt middle aged men tried to entice me in. First drink on the house - instant membership (in those days there was the pretence that these clubs were private so to get in you had to become a member). "Looveelly gals - not modest."

I don't know how I ended up where I did. Sitting in small, badly lit space with a few tables and chairs. There was no show, no stripper, just a few skinny women dancing together or with the one other "member" in the club. I was sitting at a table on a bench with my back to the wall. Sitting out of groping reach was my hostess. The "maître d'" brought over a full bottle of Scotch and poured me and my companion a drink. It was a very large shot of whiskey "50p a measure, can't be fairer than that."

I think I tried to work out how much I could afford to drink. I had about £10 on me and I figured that I could pay for half a bottle or more. I remember thinking that my companion must get pissed every night if she had to accompany each of her clients. There was no offer of "additional services", which I'm sure disappointed me. And then she was gone. Replaced by the now, as I focused, rather heavy "maître d" who was helpfully replenishing my glass. "The steak and chips is good" he opined  pointing to the hand scrawled menu. I declined, thinking  that at over £3 it would push me over my budget.

And so I continued my solitary drink, in a dingy, dank den and with a gathering feeling that this hadn't been such a good idea. I kept drinking because it delayed my leaving and having to face "mien host". But the reckoning could not be delayed.

"Certainly sir", he said as I asked for the bill. At which point he produced a ruler a bit like a plimsoll line. It has marks at regular intervals down its length. The first two marks were quite a distance apart - the length of my first shot of whisky at only 50p. The trouble was the rest of the marks were a third or quarter of that. I was sunk.

He placed his ruler against my whisky bottle. I was in total shock. I hadn't drunk £8 or £9 worth of cheap booze. I'd been stung for £40!!!!

I just didn't have the funds. I didn't have a cash card or a cheque book. All I had was £10 and some shrapnel.

He wasn't well pleased. He was joined by an equally unhappy owner and a couple of others. The "maître d" explained my predicament and this small ghoulish group huddled in whispered tones to consider my fate. There had been no mention of the police, or court action - nothing so civilised; just much tutting and rubbing of knuckles and occasional killing glances as they considered my fate.

"How much have you got?"  "£10; no £11.10, that's all honest. I am so sorry. Can I send you a cheque." "You're havin' a laugh ain't you? How much?" "Honest £11.10 - here count it."

They took the money and shoved me across the floor, up the stairs and out into the street, shutting the door behind me.

I don't recall how I felt but I must have been relieved. An expensive misadventure and.....I had no money whatsoever on me. No fare to get home. Belsize Park's quite a way to walk: up past Googe Street, Warren Street, Mornington Crescent, Camden Town and Chalk Farm before reaching my digs.

Looking back I feel rather protective towards that person I was. Naive I might have been but there was an innocence which I find attractive. Somehow it protected me from what might have turned out to have been serious scrapes.


Tenon_Saw said...

See my blog for a similar tale at a Post Office!

Barry Coidan said...

See my comment!

G said...

Yeah, a bit like how a toddler can take a tumble unharmed because he doesn't tense up on impact.

Old Cheeser said...

What a story! Oddly enough I quite often frequent Soho nowadays and there are some good gay bars there. The place has become a bit of a fashion catwalk for queens though. Probably more bland and without the adventure that you encountered back in the day...

Barry Coidan said...

Dear OC,so you're back. Look forwrad to reading your adventures in the land of make believe.