Three Graces of Old Compton StreetFri 01 Feb
“Tearaways, layabouts, lesbians, queers, mysteries, and hangers-on. We just sat in the café, waiting. Waiting for another day to kill itself. Every time the door opened we looked up as if we were expecting someone. We wandered from café to café. ‘Have you been to Tony’s? Who was there?’
Bernard Kops, The World is a Wedding, MacGibbon & Kee, 1963
Events! If you want those, you’d best stop reading now. This is about sitting and staring and drinking coffee and maybe listening to some music and definitely talking shop. Before the Gaggia machine, before the 2Is Coffee Bar, two of the best cafes in London were on Old Compton Street. Both were down at the end where it meets Charing Cross Road. The Star Restaurant was on the left as you came off Cambridge Circus. It was more of a caff than a café. It was run by a Greek, Andreas. The décor was rudimentary, consisting of greasy Rexine tablecloths and crooked chairs and tables. The toilets were in an alley which led directly onto the street (handy if you were taken short and had no money.) The menu was chips-with-everything; there was nothing remotely Greek on offer. Two sausages and chunky chips, a slice and a tea – one and eight pence. The Star was basic but it looked after its patrons. Almost all the musicians gigging in the jazz clubs found an opening, a gig, a plate of chips, some camaraderie and inspiration in the Star. Opposite the Star, at number 4, was the coffee shop that was, without doubt, the place to go for the more dishevelled members of London’s artistic community.
Not to be confused with the French pub on Dean Street, the French was ostensibly a tiny newspaper shop selling international papers and magazines. It was a microcosm of the Soho that offers the promise of cosmopolitanism, a constant shifting of identities, a blurring of positions and perspectives, roles, general make-believe, everything really. But, although the newspapers took pride of place, the main business was coffee. The manager was a lugubrious Belgian, Bernard, and he brewed it up in a proper pot. Tea was available but frowned upon. There was nothing edible other than stale croissants under a glass dome on the counter. The French café was Laura Del Rivo’s introduction to Soho. She was 17 when she started going there.
“I had a job at Foyle’s Book Shop. In those days Foyle’s put tables with books outside on the pavement. It was a bit like a street market. My job was to stand in the doorway. I would see the prostitute whose beat was outside Foyle’s. She had a little, fluffy dog. She looked a bit like Dora Bryan, her lipstick was all over the place; her roots were showing. We always hoped she would get a man but she didn’t. Generally they ran away.”
Del Rivo’s eye was taken by the St Martin’s students from the building next door. The art students were, she says, the acme of glamour. One of them took her to the French. As soon as she crossed the threshold she felt a great sense of peace. “So this is where people like me go,” she told herself. It was a dump, she remembers, but she felt instantly at home. “We didn’t eat anything. But we drank Greek coffee which felt very sophisticated.”
My introduction to Laura Del Rivo took place at her pitch at Portobello Market underneath the Westway. In between handicrafts and souvenirs, Laura sells ladies’ hosiery and fashions from the 1950s. I had walked past her stall many times, charmed by the jitterbugging dresses and fishnet tights. On her stool, the stallholder was thin and girlish with a bob of silver hair. Her gaze was always in the middle distance, as though dreaming. I was intrigued when someone told me, “She’s a cult novelist, you know.”
When I finally plucked up courage to introduce myself she told me the reason she looks so remote is because she has prosopagnosia (difficulty in recognising faces). She invited me to her attic flat just off Portobello, it was everything I had hoped it would be. Bare floorboards, painted wooden cupboards and a rainforest of ferns, fronds and yuccas. Books and oils were everywhere; fossils and relics were scattered among them. I was particularly impressed by her lack of a kettle. Amidst a pile of paperbacks, she made me a cup of ginger tea in a saucepan of boiling water and filtered coffee for herself.
A Furnished Room, written by Del Rivo in 1961, was originally described as “an existential bedsitter novel”. The Guardian’s Isabel Quigly found it “extraordinarily unappetising”. However she was gracious enough to admit it contained “moments of grace” and “fashionable echoes” of alienation. Keith Waterhouse must have liked it because he wrote the screenplay for the young independent film-maker, Michael Winner. His film was called West 11. It featured Diana Dors in an serious role, revealing depths of bittersweet vulnerability. The film, like the novel, was judged to be rather too authentic for comfort.
“We didn’t much go to the pubs because drink was expensive. The generation before us – Dylan Thomas and Francis Bacon – was the drinking generation. Ours wasn’t so much. It was more abstract discussions as well as the usual gossip about who was keen on whom. I didn’t stay at Foyle’s that long because they used to hire and fire people after a year. Nobody ever stayed there long so it was always a total mess. I next had a job in the office of a coal merchant’s in Marylebone. I would come to Soho when the office closed. It was like an informal club.”
It was a club with some extraordinary members, most of whom were known to Del Rivo. “There was Countess Eileen. She was an old lady, quite bent over, and generally carrying a bag full of shoes. Clothes were scarce those days, so a crowd would gather round her to see what she had. Sylvia Gough, the diamond heiress, was there, too. She had been a model for Augustus John and lived with a famous murderer in Fitzrovia. Sylvia was very elegant. She would say, ‘Darling, I haven’t eaten for three days. Buy me a gin.’ Iris Orton the poetess, she spluttered when she spoke and always wore a cloak. Ernest the Astrologer, Ricky the Poet, Lesbian Lorraine … They were like fixtures in the café.”
Del Rivo found herself among the last guard of the Bohemians, a group that ensured that in post-war rationed London the Romantic Movement was still paying tribute to a few grand years in which the British rivalled the Quartier in artistic licence and extravagant creativity. King of this particular Bohemia was Ironfoot Jack, a mountain of a man with a coil of black hair slithering down his shoulder like a pet snake. His right leg was shorter than his left. To overcome this he wore a surgical boot with elaborate metal scaffolding supporting the sole.
As a lad, it was said, Jack had lived with the gypsies. In his youth he worked sideshows and spectacles in circuses all over the country. In his prime he ran a theatrical boarding house, two Soho nightclubs, a School of Wisdom, and a Children of the Sun materialistic religious group that worshipped at a commune in Camberwell.
Professor of anything, hawker of cheap jewellery, lucky charms, and yogic perfumes, Ironfoot Jack could be whoever you wanted him to be and he could give six different versions of how his foot met its calamity. Each one was more glorious and grandiose than the last: a shark-bite while pearl diving in the Seychelles; an avalanche in Tibet; a bloodhound’s bite; mauled by a lion; shot while smuggling; run over by a car while saving the life of a child.
But Jack’s genu-wine feat which earned him national notoriety and a bundle of newspaper clippings took place in 1933 when he poured Soho sauce over Endell Street, across the great divide of Charing Cross Road. The Caravan Club came on the back of two nightclubs Jack had opened on Wardour Street, the Jamset and the Cosmopolitan. The advertisement stated it was “London’s Greatest Bohemian Rendezvous said to be the most unconventional spot in town” – a code phrase meaning homosexuals were welcome. The ad promised, “All night gaiety” and “Dancing to Charlie”. The police were duly alerted. Soon after opening, the club was raided and multiple arrests were made.
In court, a constable stated that the women present were of the “importuning type”, and that he had entered into conversation with a man named “Josephine”. A Constable Mortimer testified that, “Men were cuddling and embracing.” He, too, had met two men who introduced themselves as Doreen and Henrietta. When asked if these men were present in the court Mortimer replied, “Doreen, no. Henrietta, yes.” The judge had to silence the laughter.
Dressed like a nineteenth-century savant, the accents of his iron foot and walking stick stumped through the room, causing conversations to cease and heads to turn. Jack’s entrance always had this mesmeric effect, no matter where he made it. Reality became suspended in his presence, and everything became possible.
Not everyone was so enamoured. “There was a side to Ironfoot Jack that I wouldn’t want to touch with a bargepole,” Iris Orton told me. “He was mixed up with all sorts of criminals. But when I knew him he was an old man. I called him Mr Neave. He made just enough money to live on by selling horoscopes outside the National Gallery. Then he would come back to the French café and have his coffee and talk to people.”
When I first came across Iris Orton I was watching a 1959 newsreel, part of the “Look at Life” series by Rank, advertising the delights of Soho’s nightlife. After a panning shot that takes in the neon signs and foot traffic, the camera enters the Mandrake Club on Meard Street. The Mandrake began as a chess club in the 1940s. By 1953 it was advertising itself as “London’s only Bohemian rendezvous.” Once inside, the camera takes up its restless roving, allowing the viewer to eavesdrop on earnest discussions of politics and suicide. At the bar, the camera stops in its tracks. A young woman in a dramatically over-sized cloak is reciting poetry above the din of drinkers.
“The grave’s great dark is fed on thoughts alone.” I wondered who this voice in the wilderness was – just standing there unheeded reading from bundles of paper. There was no mention of her name or who she was but I was captivated by her air of portent and spitfire delivery.
I described the girl with the brainy forehead and staring eyes to Laura Del Rivo, who said, “Oh, that’s Iris, the poet. I used to see her around a lot.”
There is very little written about Iris Orton. I did however find a copy of her first book of poetry, The Dreamer and the Sheaves in the London Library. The collection explored her fascination with gypsy folklore and shadowy outsiders. Her second book of verse, A Man Singing, was only traceable in the British Library. In this she had turned her attention to the rasping sound of one of Soho’s greatest inventions, the skiffle band.
From the archivist at Oxford University Press it transpired that Iris had written to them in 1970 from an address in Sweden. After a lot of trawling on the internet I found a reference to an Iris Rosalie Bearhope Orton in an online Swedish newspaper. Miss Orton was commenting on the death of avant-garde saxophonistBengt Nordström. She told the reporter, “He was simply too early.” The date of the article was 2001. Iris was born in 1925. I calculated she must be 92 by now. I worried I was too late. But I found a reference to her amongst the parishioners of the Anglican Episcopal Church of St Peter and St Sigfrid in Stockholm.
I contacted the chaplain, explained my plight. He responded the following day saying he had spoken to her and that she was happy to speak with me. To my amazement I had her phone number and instructions to ring after midday local time.
When I spoke to Iris Orton, I heard again the commanding tones of the young woman in the newsreel. Iris would not be drawn on personal matters but told me that she was 25 when she first went to the French café in 1950.
“The war had been on so I never had my teenage fun. I was a young poet in those days and I used to go to the French café at lunchtime to get a coffee and roll very cheaply. There were lots of other young poets there, like Bernard Kops and my friend James Kirkup. You could leave messages for people behind the counter. ‘If so and so comes in could you give them this note?’ The art students used to argue about their ideas and draw on the tables. I would try to sit near the table where Quentin Crisp was sitting. He would be giving away the beautiful conversation that people would later pay to hear.”
The café itself, she remembers, was like a tunnel – windowless. It got its light from having the door open on to the street. At the far end there was a kitchen. “We all sat along the walls and there was a counter that sold tea and coffee and rolls and all the foreign papers. One day in Soho was very much like another. The thing about the place was the people who used it.”
Laura Del Rivo added that phone calls to the French might be answered, “Ritz Hotel”. “Colin Wilson left the MS of his novel in progress, Ritual in the Dark, behind the bar of the A+A for Bill Hopkins. Anarchist John Rety hawked his stapled-together Intimate Review round the café circuit. The Review’s articles and gossip were all by or about Soho inmates. It was that clubby. Songs were adapted:
‘You all know John Hasted [from the Partisan cafe]
Well he's really a nuclear physicist.’
So some work was being done.”
Young hopefuls came in to Soho from the provinces or in the case of Iris Orton’s friend, Bernard Kops, the East End. Kops (a future Kitchen-Sink Dramatist and author) got off the number 8 bus at Tottenham Court Road. He could hear the sound of an accordion playing. He soon encountered Laura, Iris and their friends. He set himself up as a bookseller trading from a barrow at Seven Dials. He learnt the art of fiddling.
“Fiddling” meant money-making schemes that required sharp wits and fluid moral fibre. Bookselling was another caper. The kind of books that went down well were dissertations on Russia and left-wing politics, true crime and semi-pornography, poetry and magic; books that left no secret unrevealed.
If Ironfoot Jack was the King of Bohemia then Countess Eileen was its queen. “Countess Eileen De Visnes had been married to a French count – I think they were Protestants,” Iris told me. “She was divorced by the time I met her in 1951. She had been one of the great beauties of the Twenties. Her grandfather had been Governor of New South Wales. So she came from good people.”
“Because she took Benzedrine people didn’t take her seriously. But I did, and she took me seriously in return. People told stories about her, how outrageous she was. But people didn’t understand that Eileen had constructed an extraordinary story that she played out day after day, night after night. In this story, she was still the grand lady. It is important to understand that this yarn was constructed in order for her to live because her past world had disappeared.”
Countess Eileen’s story is harder to tell than Jack’s. The gossip that comes down is that she was always in the French. From there she would sally forth on her visits to the smart shops and restaurants of the West End where she would cause outrageous scenes on any pretext.
Soho George is usually to be found being photographedin Berwick Street's thermopolia of street-food stalls. He says that the hapless shop owners “eventually realised that leaving a ten bob note for Eileen at the door would save them a lot of aggro”. She left no unpublished memoirs behind her; there is no account of a birth, marriage or death. But some writers, including Bernard Kops, have described her, how “she used to wear a school-boy’s cap and just the one saucy ear-ring dangling from a penetrating face”. But little more than vignettes such as the one Quentin Crisp wrote in How to Have a Lifestyle or Daniel Farson’s unsympathetic appraisal in Soho in the Fifties. Perhaps because she is a woman and similarly obscure, Iris could appreciate Eileen’s free spirit.
“The Countess had a small annuity from her father’s estate. She did used to go round bins but they were at the back of department stores in the West End. She used to get quite good things in there.The stories I remember show her sense of humour. For instance, one evening, she was trying on a dress in St Giles’s Churchyard. She wasn’t doing anything improper but the policeman carted her away to court. The magistrate said, ‘What were you doing, getting undressed in the park?’She said, ‘Well, what would any woman be doing at that time of day? Changing for dinner.’ She meant that people should mind their own business. On another occasion, she was walking home very late at night carrying an easy chair. She used to deal in second-hand things, and lived in a cupboard somewhere in Covent Garden. She put the chair down in Trafalgar Square and sat in it. A constable came along, and said, ‘What are you doing?’ She said, ‘Can’t you see I’m resting?’”
Laura Del Rivo identifies different grades of Bohemian. “People who just went into Soho after work like me were still living at home with their suburban parents. We still had jobs; we just went into Soho in the evening. But there were a few genuine bohemians. Some, I suspect, like Sylvia [Gough], were paid an allowance by their upper-class families on condition they stayed away. Stray dogs like Charles Russell [see below] had no means of support. He shared his food or his money with people like himself. But he conned ‘nice girls’ he found in art galleries into buying meals for him. He had integrity with his friends but he was unscrupulous in his dealings with the bourgeoisie. That’s how the true bohemians had to live, and he was one of them.”
Charles’s real name was Belchier. He changed it to Russell after Russell Square. At the end of the decade, when the writing was on the wall of the French café, he wrote a sketch of life in Soho. He asked his friend Colin Wilson to find a publisher for The Other Side of Town. Wilson was the author of a bestselling book called The Outsider, which in a nutshell was about people like Charles. Wilson read Charles’s memoir. He decided it was too short and since it “had no development” it could not be considered for publication.
“But the fragment fascinated me,” he wrote. Charles had captured the essence of Soho – its vagabondage and its liberty, in his story that had no real plot. It is significant that his story had no development. His characters experienced no progression and followed no arc. The narrative meandered, confided, and occasionally showboated. But it wrapped itself around itself, going nowhere.
He was one of Soho’s last bohemians.
“If I had to guess Charles’s origins I would hazard French/Algerian,” Laura said. “He affected an actor’s voice like James Mason, andwould often get work as a film extra.”
“He and his friend Michael did a patter together.” This was day two of my interview with Laura. Memories were backing up now like a traffic jam. “They used puns such as ‘blaggers can’t be choosers’ and ‘patience is a virgin’.”
In 1958 Charles managed to get a part in A Night to Remember.
“He plays the bandleader who goes down with the ship. But you can see he is really taking the piss out of his character. I mean, there was no way Charles was going down with the ship. He would have been one of the first to get off.”
Charles also painted portraits in cafés. In he would glide, always in profile, suave, black-haired Charles in his duffle coat, with corduroy trousers, and cravat. Under his arm a portfolio of not very good sketches.
“For a while I went out with him but we were not suited. I was not right for him because I was a bouncing virgin from Surrey to whom nothing bad had happened yet,” Laura told me.“He was not right for me because his need to survive as a bohemian had sullied him. He had a bitter repertoire of grudges and grievances against society. So when Colin [Wilson] began writing his novel he couldn’t make Charles the camera character because he couldn’t identify with someone who got women to buy him dinners.”
Colin Wilson could not find a publisher for Charles’sThe Other Side of Town but he recycled parts of it for his own book, Adrift in Soho, published in 1961 by Victor Gollancz. Despite the success of The Outsider (1956), Wilson’s first novel was overlooked. He left Soho for Notting Hill. Quite a few Soho-ites end up on the Portobello. It’s a country retreat for those who have tired of the fiddle. This was not an option for Charles.
When I went to visit the author and playwright Bernard Kops in his garden flat in Swiss Cottage the fact he was most keen to impress upon me was that Soho’s stalwarts did not take kindly to success. In Soho it was all about the here and now, and what you could get right now. Once an artist had made it, as Wilson did, and later Kops himself, they were no longer part of the gang. They could buy characters like Charles and Eileen rounds of drinks, teas or coffees. But in this gang acceptance was gained, not by public acclaim and monetary reward, but by flourishing on the brink of catastrophe.
“Immediately I felt a great chasm,” Bernard said. I was sitting between the 90-year-old poet and his 83-year-old wife, whom he had met at Bunjie’s folk cellar on Charing Cross Road. Erica told me about the prostitute who boasted of having “the smallest waist in Piccadilly Circus”, and the prostitute who read Dostoevsky. “Crime and Punishment was her favourite”. Bernard’s take on Soho was valedictory.
“When my play was put on my friends in Soho saw me as someone with money coming in. They didn’t exactly say ‘fuck off’ but I wasn’t one of them anymore. My enthusiasm was naïve. It lit up their own lost-ness.”
This is an interesting predicament for bohemians; similar to rock stars losing their street cred. Once on TV, Laura Del Rivo, told me there was a spoof on a Soho-type poet. The love ballads, read in a poetically thrilling voice, had titles like “Can you lend me nine pence till Tuesday?”
Walking the streets, loitering in the doorways of the pubs, waiting to be bought a drink, talking a lot of nonsense, Charles was so sure – he had that much drink in him – that he had the solution to his own and the world’s problems. At the back of his head there was this nagging knowledge that, “all these words, all this drink you’re taking, it means nothing. It doesn’t solve the basic problem that you’re alone. You’re lonely.”
He took it upon himself to remind his fellow travellers that Karl Marx, William Blake, De Quincy, Verlaine, Constable, Hogarth and Chatterton had all lived within a stone’s throw of where they were standing right now. And he was dead serious about all of it until the pub closed, and he realised he was alone.
Wilson said goodbye to his erstwhile collaborator in his autobiography, Dreaming to some Purpose:
“In the summer of 1968, [Charles] wrote to me from some island in the Mediterranean, telling me that he had found the perfect way of life, beach-combing, dozing in the sun and smoking pot. Six months or so later, I received a press cutting from his girlfriend: it is from the Daily Express of 6th December 1968: ‘A 43-year-old Englishman arrested for peddling dangerous drugs in West Germany committed suicide in his cell in Heilbronn today. He was named as Charles Belchier of no fixed address. He and two associates were arrested after they were found with hashish worth £1,500 on the black market.’ Apparently Charles had hanged himself.”
Outside Soho, “We felt a little chilly and in our own particular ways a little lonely … The lamp lights in Soho Square looked like little candles in the foggy air … A couple of hours in the company of which we were part of was what we needed.”
Charles Russell or Compton Street, The Other Side of Town
By the end of the 1950s the real Bohemians, who had nothing to live on but their wits, would be dead, dispersed or dried out. According to Ironfoot Jack, it was the welfare state that brought about the end of “fiddling”. With the introduction of social security, there was no need for the struggle. Jack, the numerologist and astrologer, foresaw that social security would replace (anti-social) creativity.
“Looking back it all seems colourful, and in retrospect Soho always sounds interesting,” recalls Laura finally. “But quite often it was boring. I’d think to myself, “Well, I’ve invested so much time sitting in this café, I’m not going to leave. I’ll keep waiting.” So then I’d get the last tube back to Morden. Then I’d stand at a bus-stop waiting for a night-bus to Cheam in Surrey. I’d be tired at work the next morning and nothing had really happened. But there was the possibility something could happen. You didn’t want to cut your losses and leave in case you missed something.”