Can you remember 'Second-Hand Rose'?
by Ian Stewart
A recently catalogued Museum of Soho artefact comprises a cardboard-mounted black & white photograph and its envelope.
The envelope has written on it: "'Second-Hand Rose' / A Soho character from the 60s / Funeral at R.C. Church Warwick St, c.1970. / (Donated by Peter Jewell)". Also written onto the back of the cardboard is "©1970 Gordon Sandle", with a Surrey address and phone number.
The mounting has a pinhole at the top, suggesting the picture was at some time displayed.
|Second Hand Rose. A Soho Character. Berwick St. Market. 1960's.|
The photographer has captured a portly, middle-aged man, disarmingly sat in the sun on a market cart. He’s confidently at ease amidst untroubled market traders and what's probably British produce. ‘Rose’ is tootling a penny whistle, lifting his play slightly turned to the camera. He has a necklace of several strands of beads pinned to his cardigan, and what looks like a colourful cravat. A white headband could be a bandage: given the flourish of pearl-like beads, it could as likely be adornment. His receding hair is neatly combed.
The older gents are dressed in working class clothing typical to the first half of the last century. By the time this picture was taken such attire would already be deemed old fashioned -- witness the younger fellow in his polo shirt (hitched-up whilst he's munching an apple, toying with a nipple through his vest). With people in jackets and layers, the apple; perhaps it's early autumn?
The spontaneous and rapidly shifting everyday scene is charged with sound and gentle movement. It was certainly snapped with a deft eye, undoubtedly upon swift engagement. The good fortune of a painterly composition has saved this bygone instant, and miraculously preserved into the present day that passing, sunny moment. Until otherwise disproven, we have to assume that this scratchy print is the sole surviving copy.
A former Soho-born resident, straightaway naming "Rose" from the picture, said that he was a "notorious gay man," associated with Berwick Street Market, and subject of "a running battle" with that informant's mother, as "a foul-mouthed alcoholic." Such resonant childhood testimony brings sweeping insight to the image.
Being gay had only just been partly decriminalised in 1967. British police aggressively hunted-out homosexuals, who endured organised social hatred and brutal prison terms. (Our laws from the period still apply in former colonies like Malawi, where in May 2010 two young gay men were sentenced to 14 years with hard labour, solely for vowing their love for one another).
Did the bottle offer refuge? Trifling with gender? Berwick Street Market?
The pet name 'Secondhand Rose' featured in musical theatre. 1962 and 1965 Barbra Streisand recordings gained widespread radio play. The song’s female character, shamed by her worn goods and cast-offs, rallies her pride on the boisterous urban milieu she’s a part of.
In the rare spells when time frees from assisting researchers, Museum of Soho volunteers continue diligently to catalogue artefacts, documents and images related to our neighbourhood.