“Once I was very enthused by that life. I got off the train at Waterloo. I had about two pounds on me. I thought well I’ll go round to the French because at least I can afford one of Gaston’s halves of bitter. They were only about 50p in those days. So I ordered one, and stood drinking it at the bar. Someone came up to me and said, ‘Haven’t seen you for a bit. Thought you were dead.’
Then a fellow came up to me and asked how I was.
‘A bit unsteady actually,’ I said.
He asked if I would like a job, and I said, ‘You bet.’
So we hopped into a taxi, sped off and picked up a few passengers. At this point I was told we were all going to be company directors in a property development firm. So I said, ‘Since we’re all fellow directors, can someone lend me a fiver’ One of them pulled out a roll of fivers from his back pocket. It was about three hundred quid, and said, ‘Here, have this. There’s plenty more where this came from.’
Basically we were working for Charles De Silva. He was a brilliant conman. I saw him fifteen days before he died. He said, ‘My dear chap, it’s no fun anymore.’”
Soho in the Eighties was in limbo, not quite sure what to make of itself.
By the end of the decade the demi-monde was still clinging to pretensions of style, bohemianism or class. Derek was different. Derek was one of my first Soho crushes. I would see him in the Coach and Horses after work, and in the French at lunchtime or last thing at night. I was working at Waterstone’s Booksellers on Charing Cross Road and although I was Floor Manager of the ground floor Travel Department, I was too shy to talk to Derek. He was about forty. He always wore a slim black suit with a brown shirt and tie. This was very unusual for the time; shoulder pads and primary colours were in. He would be standing with the crowd that gathered around Jeffrey Barnard in his wheelchair. He was the only one who spoke in a low voice so I strained to hear him. Derek had dark features which coupled with an Edinburgh purr gave a touch of exotica to his regular good looks.
“Later in the 70s I found myself in the black again and ran into Bobby Katz, in the French – where else All my operations started there – and he said, ‘Why don’t you have a go at selling books’ I thought this was a terrific idea. So he told me to come to Walker’s Court and we got started straightaway. Selling porn. The harmless stuff was in the front of the shop. The heavy punishment and bondage stuff, the movies, etc., – were all in the back. We used to sit up all night filtering them. Thinking about it, we were rather like the censorship board in Soho Square.
The very first day I was working in the porn shop a man dashed in with blood all over him and a gun in his hand. Luckily he ran out again. You got some really rather peculiar people in there. So much so that at one point I came to work in the morning and there was a notice behind the counter reading, ‘The following MPs will not be served.’ Two Conservatives. Two Labour. Two all.”
Derek carried his drink well with an extended pinkie. For some reason I found the ring with a cornelian on this little finger particularly thrilling. Years later I caught up with him again at the French House. By now I was an assistant to a literary agent at David Higham Associates on Golden Square. The French was within a brief stroll from Golden Square which decanted into Little John Street. The very intricacy of these streets still seemed to capture the by-ways of some tiny town in the Tuscan hill-tops. Once past Walker’s Court I would be confronted with pictures of tasselled breasts and promises of threesomes in the sex shops that made me so uncomfortable, past Raymond’s, which made me more so, then back on to safer territory with Camisa on Old Compton Street. I would turn right on to Dean Street and order a Ricard at the French that made everything all right.
I envied Derek’s ability to look so composed and at home. He knew everyone and laughed at everyone’s jokes, which seemed to me a mark of good breeding. He also had the trick of saying very little, which made him all the more sophisticated in my eyes. I found out about his scruffy past when I caught up with him in the new millennium in a drinking club set up by Auberon Waugh, my then boss at the Literary Review. 43 Lexington Street was a home from home if you liked £20 bottles of champagne and gathering resentments about other writers, as I did. Derek had found his way up the stairs to the first floor room with a copper bar propping up literary types. His suit was worn and shiny and his features had lost their angularity, his eyes their sardonic gleam, his little finger its cornelian.
One of the fun things about Soho pubs is that you get to kid yourself you’re Hercule Poirot. Whether it’s the Nellie Dean, the Intrepid Fox or the French pub, you get three to four minutes of forensic character analysis in a highly charged atmosphere to decide whether you’re going to buy that person a drink, listen to their story or go home with them. On one occasion my radar failed me. I was in the French pub with a friend. It was early evening, my favourite time, when the pale lemon sun was sinking behind St Ann’s crooked spire. A man walked up to us with a bucket of champagne. He launched into a gossipy account of a football manager caught in flagrante with a minor and about to be splashed all over the News of the World. He told us he was staying at Brown’s Hotel, and that he was waiting for his chauffeur to pick him up. Would we like to have a bite of supper with him As the grand-daughter of a conman I should have known better but I fell down the rabbit-hole feet first. I dragged my reluctant friend to Quo Vadis, the Great Dame of Dean Street, just a few doors from the French. Our new friend found us a table. He ordered with great savoir faire and munificence. By now I was smelling a rat. This type of grandiosity needled me. The drunker I got the more confrontational I became. He started to fidget. He was getting cross. He excused himself. He did a runner. Our new friend had left us in the middle of the main course with an empty bottle of expensive wine sitting accusingly on the table. As a junior dogs-body on the TLS, financial panic assailed me. In my consternation I somehow managed to set fire to the tablecloth. (It was 1992 and I was a smoker.) The ensuing conflagration provided some cover. I once more dragged my friend to her feet and we, too, did a runner. Back to the French where we revived ourselves with a congratulatory glass of something or other.
to be contd./