Friday 12 May 2017

Spiritus Soho

Robert Rubbish, photo by mary cigarettes
Robert Rubbish is an artist and filmmaker based in London He was a founding member of the Le Gun art collective.. Robert Rubbish presents a new body of artwork inspired by Soho.

Cathi Unsworth Photo Etienne Gilfillan.

Cathi Unsworth is the author of five pop-cultural crime fictions, The Not Knowing, The Singer, Bad Penny Blues, Weirdo and WIthout The Moon, all published by Serpent's Tail and many of which draw upon the history of Soho. She lives in London and is a member and regular host of events for The Sohemian Society, celebrating the characters that have populated both the geographical Soho and the Soho of the Mind. For more, please go to

Prelude is a new body of work that explores places and people in Soho’s rich history. Robert likes to think of his work as "drifting though Soho’s time and space fabric". It is the third exhibition in his ongoing project Spiritus Soho.

Spiritus Soho

Robert Rubbish takes Cathi Unsworth on A Drift through Soho…

CU Where do your Soho memories start – and what first drew you to the place?

RR My interest in Soho started when I was nine or ten and being into Mod music. Soho was name-checked in Lola by The Kinks, Pinball Wizard by The Who and A Bomb in Wardour Street by The Jam, so I think that’s how I first became aware of it as a place. My first visit was on a school trip in 1988, where we given an afternoon to do what we wanted to and me and a mate went for a wander into Soho… What I remember most is going into a shop on Carnaby Street and buying some smiley acid house badges – and booming out of the shop stereo was I Got A Big Dick by Maurice Joshua, which me and my friend found very funny as teenagers. So that was my first introduction to Soho!

The Drift starts at 33 Wardour Street, original home of the Flamingo Club (Black Bombers)…

CU The associations for me are all checked in your picture – snappy dressers, black bombers, underworld figures and GIs mixing with the Modernists. Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, Johnny Edgecombe and Lucky Gordon, Jack the Hat dancing to Prince Buster in The Long Firm… Did you ever dip a pointed toe in there yourself?

RR I am too young to have visited The Flamingo, though I have been interested in it since I got more into all things Mod when I was 18 and bought the book Mods! by Richard Barnes. It had photos of Mods in The Flamingo and newspaper cuttings about purple hearts and drugs… The thing that has influenced me most in recent time is a photo of Andy Summers and Zoot Money taken by Jeremy Fletcher at The Flamingo. I love the vibe of this photo the fashion of the men and the look of the outside of the club.
…then to Meard Street and 69 Dean Street (Traces of the Night People)…

CU This is Gossips/Billy’s/The Batcave/The Gargoyle/Alice in Wonderland/The Comedy Store/Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues and the home of night club culture – a corner of Soho that has started many trends! You seem to have represented them all in this picture. Is it also Lord Longford with his camera in the corner? Is this referencing his 1971 enquiry into pornography that basically brought down the Dirty Squad who really ran all the Soho rackets, as told in Paul Willetts’ Paul Raymond biography Members Only/The Look of Love?

RR It’s amazing that so much stuff happened in that building! In my artwork I have featured King Charles II’s mistress, Nell Gwynne, who once lived in this building. Then all the history with David Tennant, who ran The Gargoyle Club. All the club people are represented from the Bowie night at Billy’s, The Batcave goths and Gaz Mayall from Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues. The man in the corner is actually based on a photo of the Soho photographer Harry Diamond – I liked the idea he is someone who took photos of Soho and jazz musicians. He is another ghost of the Soho night…

…then to Bar Bruno (Boys in the Cafés)…

CU A proper greasy spooner left in Soho! This picture makes me think of many classic London books where Soho cafés play a central role – James Curtis’ The Gilt Kid, Colin Wilson’s Adrift in Soho, Laura Del Rivo’s The Furnished Room, Roland Camberton’s Scamp, Terry Taylor’s Baron’s Court All Change and of course Colin MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners… Again you seem to have captured the characters of these books passing through…

RR Bar Bruno to me is one of the last links with the old cafés that Soho once had and have all sadly gone now. All of the books you have mentioned have influenced this artwork, and also Bernard Kops’ The World Is A Wedding and Frank Norman’s Stand On Me – I love how a lot of the action takes place in Soho cafés. The title of the artwork comes form The Pogues’ song The Old Main Drag, where Shane MacGowan tells the story of how a young boy ended up on his uppers on the old main drag (Old Compton Street). This song is like a novel in a song and the lyrics: ‘Where the boys in the cafés would give you cheap pills’ always made me think of one of these old cafés. So I went in to Bar Bruno and took some photos as reference.
…then to the Bateman Buildings (Skiny White Sailor)…

CU Well, we all want a homage to the sailors and working girls of the district that populate all the above books and, of course, the works of Patrick Hamilton, Julian MacLaren-Ross and Daniel Farson’s essential Soho in the Fifties… I believe this was once the site of The Duke of Monmouth’s stately home and was described in 1895 by William Le Queux as: “a short, paved court, lined on each side by grimy, squalid-looking houses, the court itself forming the playground of a hundred or so spirited juveniles of the unwashed class.”

RR I didn’t know it was the site of Duke of Monmouth’s stately home but I like this –another layer! I have used sailors a lot in my work for Spiritus Soho as the sailor represents the pleasure-seeker of the past looking for a good time. The working girls of Soho’s past I have read about in books like Barbara Tate’s West End Girls and Streetwalker: An Autobiographical Account of Prostitution 1960. There’s a great photo of working girls lined up on a Soho street in the daytime, prior to the Street Offences Act of 1959.

…then to Bateman Street (Lorelei mural)…

CU The Lorelei, like Bar Bruno, was an authentic family-run Italian Old Soho café that The Kid in Absolute Beginners would likely have frequented. The mural of the mermaid took up an entire wall – although strangely the legend of Lorelei is a German one. This perhaps sums up the fusion of cultures that has always been a Soho hallmark?

RR If there’s one place that I miss in Soho its the Lorelei – I had so many great times in there. The Lorelei was a time capsule, a place that connected Soho past and present. The mural was amazing and even though it was based on the German legend, it seemed to me to be about Soho the siren, beckoning the sailor to the rocks. Yes, the history of Soho is all about different cultures mixing and bringing their food culture and styles, and no more so than in the coffee shop boom of the 1950s.

…then to Archer Street, site Charlie Chester’s Casino (Caught in a Game of Chance)…

CU Named after (though not run or owned by) the popular 1940s-50s comedian, Charlie Chester’s casino was at 12 Archer Street and once had a laudably Pop Art exterior… The trainee dealers were called ‘Lumpies’ and debuted their skills at the 10p per stake ‘Lumpy Pit’. The place was described by a former of their number, Chris Moore as: “an incubation chamber for the London gaming industry,” that was: “aimed squarely at the bottom of the market”. Like The Flamingo, a melting pot of Soho sinners and no doubt a handy stop-off point for the Dirty Squad…

RR I like the fact that building still has the casino sign on it if you look up! This to me is another ghost of Soho’s past. This artwork was the meeting of three different influences. I read Francis Bacon in Your Blood by Michael Peppiatt and it was so good it really gave me the feel for Soho at that time, Bacon’s attitude to life and his gambler’s instinct that lead me to re-watch John Maybury’s Love is the Devil and I loved the film even more from reading Michael Peppiatt’s book – and they both use Charlie Chester’s. I like how John used the real outside of the building in his film, with all the neon and dice. At the same time, I have been in love with the song Madame George by Van Morrison – its other-worldly vibe made me riff a reworking of it as poem for this artwork:

Guided and wired by the pink moon
You slip into a trance intoxicated by a game of chance
And the sweet smell of men’s perfume fills the room
In a subterranean bar you take another drink
Just to see how far you may fall
And you fall
In love again

…then 8 Marshall Street, site of William Blake’s birthplace (Visions of William Blake)…

CU You have captured perfectly here the way I feel when I look up at that tower block and wonder what William ‘Nature Boy’ Blake would have made of it all…

RR I would like to think William Blake would like this Brutalist tower block. I like to think of it as an Obelisk to Blake’s memory. As I was wandering down Broadwick Street last year, there was a building hoarding in front of what was to be the site of The Ivy and on it was printed a reproduction of William Blake’s The Grave Personified artwork of a figure holding poppies. At the time, I was thinking of making a artwork about Blake and the tower block, so I took this as a gift from the Soho streets. A lot of my ideas come from walking around Soho.

…then 43 Carnaby Street (Lord John 1967)…

CU This wonderful homage to Swinging London and Warren and David Gold’s boutique brings to mind one of my favourite films, Smashing Time – written by top Soho swinger George Melly – in which Northern lasses Yvonne (Lynn Redgrave) and Brenda (Rita Tushingham) arrive in the capital in 1967 in search of paradise. Winding up in Camden Town instead, Yvonne instructs Brenda: “Give us ten bob and wait here while I got to Carnaby Street, get a job as a model and find us a flat. Then I’ll come back and get you.” Yvonne and Brenda were turned into Princess Margaret and The Queen by Private Eye and there is a song on the soundtrack about Carnaby Street that is playing in my head as I look at this…

RR George Melly is one of my all-time big influences and yes, Smashing Time is a great take on the Swinging Sixties. I’ve always loved photos of the Lord John shop in Soho and it has always interested me as a visual landmark of the point when the 1960s went psychedelic – the music changed, the style changed and the mindset changed. LSD was a big factor in this change and that’s what I wanted to get across in this artwork, that the mural on the building has come alive and is projecting beyond. One bit of music that I had in my mind when making this artwork was Nicky Hopkins’ 1967 instrumental version of the Rolling Stones’ She’s A Rainbow.

…ending at Walker’s Court (Red Light artwork and Sailor Minotaur and Twilight Daughters) relate to the death of Soho’s past walk ups.

CU The end of Walker’s Court is what sort of brought us together, isn’t it Robert? I had more responses to my FB outpouring of grief on this subject than anything else I have ever put on there… My own first entrée to Soho was listening to Soft Cell’s Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, with its cover of Marc Almond and Dave Ball in a neon-lit doorway underneath The Bridge of Thighs that demarks the former territory of Paul Raymond’s Revue Bar and all those little shops and secret places… Remembered for posterity in Gallon Drunk’s Jake on the Make. Is this really the end of Soho?

RR Walker’s Court was an unique piece of London architecture and walking though it gave me a feeling, a vibe. I think it’s so short-slighted to knock down the old buildings and replace them with glass boxes. They call it progress, but why can’t we have a mix of both old and new? Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret has been a big influence on my work for Spiritus Soho, it evokes the seedy underbelly of the old place. Your post about Walker’s Court was interesting and people really care and are affected by what’s going on in Soho – once you knock it down it’s gone forever.

And thank you for bringing Gallon Drunk’s song Jake on the Make to my attention. Jake Vegas is part of the Soho I know and love and its good to see him leaning on a lamppost playing his stereo in plastic bag, sipping one can of lager and having a chat with him.

Soho will never die. It will keep changing, but maybe it’s the death of the Soho I feel in love with and still love. People are being priced out and that’s sad – and to think it will just become about who can afford to be there is very short-sighted and kills the community that Soho has always had.

"Prelude" the exhibition continues at We Are Cuts, 33a Dean Street. 11 May – 30 June 2017.

Tuesday 14 February 2017

Piccadilly. My Stop.

Piccadilly. My Stop, by Clayton Littlewood.

I step off the train, onto the escalator, up the stairs, until I’m above ground, on the Dilly Boy ‘meat rack’ of old, on the outskirts of Soho. I walk down Brewer Street, past the ‘closing-down’ Vin Mag, the NCP Car Park, my mood lifting as I enter the village, following in the footsteps of my heroes; Wilde, Crisp, Almond and Horsley.

Walker's Ct. Soft Cell-Non Stop Erotic Cabaret.
I first came to Soho in the 80s, drawn by the Non Stop Erotic Cabaret world of seedy films and sex dwarves. I’d stand outside Madam JoJo’s, gazing up at Marc’s flat, or linger outside the Trident Studios on St Anne’s Court (home to Bolan, Bowie and Freddie), hoping to catch a glimpse of my hero. Then at night, high on speed, I’d climb a rickety staircase on Wardour Street to the The Pink Panther, mixing with rent boys and goth girls, East End crims and West End toffs, drag kings and scene queens, ‘dancing, laughing, living, loving’. That was my Soho, so long ago.

Old Compton St.
From the dying embers of the sex industry (on Walker's Court) I cross the film world of Wardour Street, turning into the gay world of Old Compton Street. On my right, Cafe Espana. On my left, St Quentin’s old haunt, The Black Cat (where he was beaten by ‘the roughs’). The street’s awash tonight, with tourists and hen nights, Hari Krishnas and socialites, a melting pot of London life, thrown together on one street, like a modern day Hogarth painting. I walk past the 2is (the birthplace of British rock and roll), a pack of bears outside Comptons (the new Coleherne clones), bowing my head in remembrance as I pass the Admiral Duncan, breathing in the rich aroma from the 125 year old Algerian Coffee Shop, until I’m standing on the Dean Street crossroads. It was these magical few yards that Daniel Farson captured when chronicling Bacon’s ‘gilded gutter life’, that 50s Love Is The Devil drunken period when he’d stagger from Gaston’s bohemian The French House, to Muriel’s ‘concentration of camp’ at The Colony, recovering over breakfast at number 50, Cafe Torino’s, where a ten foot marionette once perched above the door, and where ‘dark Italians and pale young artists and poets’ would search halfheartedly for jobs. I have a connection to this building. This is where my partner and I once lived, in the damp rat-infested basement, just feet away from Elizabethan plague pits (and where I too would chronicle life on this street).

The Gargoyle Club.
I turn into Dean Street, waving at Maggie, one of the madams from the ‘walk up’, heading for Meard Street, the little cobbled Georgian thoroughfare where the famous Soho clubs The Mandrake and The Gargoyle once stood; where Tallulah Bankhead danced, where Fred Astaire was entranced, where Farson took Josh Avery in the book Dog Days of Soho. The prettiest street in the village. Whenever I’m in Soho I make a point of coming here. I stand outside number seven, the house with the sign that reads,

This is not a brothel.

‘This is not a brothel. There are no prostitutes at this address,’ and I remember. For it was here that Sebastian Horsely, the Soho dandy, once lived. I would ring his bell, the shutters would open on the 1st floor and he’d lean out, in a black silk negligee with a marabou feather–lined neck, his face coated in a fine white powder, his eyes caked in last night’s mascara and he’d purr ‘Hello Romeo, Juliet here. Welcome to Horsley Towers.’ When he died his coffin was wrapped in blood-red tissue paper, draped in jewels and it was placed in a Victorian style horse drawn hearse. And the hearse went all round the streets of Soho. It was as if Sebastian was saying a last goodbye to the village that he loved.

Pam outside the French.
Now I’m back on Dean Street, looking toward The Golden Lion (a one time serial killer haunt). It was here I last saw Pam, the local homeless ‘celebrity’. Wherever I was in Soho, Pam was here too. If I was walking past the Coach and Horses, Pam would step out of a doorway. If I was having a coffee outside Maison Bertaux, her radar would home in on me, dressed in her usual attire; camouflage trousers, donkey jacket, ‘barn owl’ NHS glasses, sporting a number one haircut. ‘Gotta gold one for me?’ she’d mumble. I’d hand her a coin. She’d squint at it, not looking impressed. ‘It’s all I’ve got, Pam.’ Then she’d wrap her arms around me, snuffling into my jacket. ‘Thank you ... Luv you!’ And off she’d trundle, like something from Beatrix Potter. Pam the Fag Lady. The hardest worker on Old Compton Street.

I turn left into Old Compton Street, and look, there’s the woman with the striking eye makeup and the ‘bum length’ multi-coloured plaits. And over there, that’s Michele, the aging trans woman, shuffling past, in a moth-eaten fur. Like an ancient Romanov in exile. This street maybe predominately youth oriented, but the old return, often unnoticed, to remember, to reflect. They see a different Soho. The ghosts.

A minute later I’m at ‘Fruit Corner’, the proliferation of coffee shops on the corner of Frith Street, within sight of Kettners. It is said that Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas entertained rent boys there. And a couple of decades before them, two other doomed lovers, Rimbaud and Verlaine, socialised in a public house on this street. And this is what I love about Soho - sitting in these coffee shops, by the window, writing in my notebook, watching the mayhem outside - I imagine the artists, the writers and the eccentrics that have flocked here over the centuries, attracted by the cosmopolitan feel, the lure of sex, and the hint of danger that lies within. You can’t transport this vibe. It’s in the brickwork. It’s in their footsteps. The High Street chains maybe moving in, but old Soho is still here if you care to look. There’s nowhere like it in the world. And one day it will rise again. It always does.

The Caravan Club.

A Call for Volunteers. Caravan Club Project. In 2017 organisations across the country mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act that partially decriminalised homosexuality and the signals it sent out about rights and freedoms. This spring, The National Archives and the National Trust are working with set designers to recreate the Caravan Club of 1934; an illegal gay club that was the subject of a sensational court case in 1934. The space will act as a focal point for a wider programme of volunteer led tours, debates, events, and a guidebook that celebrates the history of club culture c. from 1918 to now in the Soho, Covent Garden and Fitzrovia areas. There will also be a physical and online archival displays curated by The National Archives.We’re offering 25-35 volunteers the chance to be trained as National Trust tour guides as part of the project. In addition to meeting like-minded people and broadening your knowledge, you’ll be invited to a special ‘club night’ for volunteers to thank you for your time.If you’re passionate about LGBTQ+ heritage, love learning about London’s history and are a confident speaker in front of small groups, we’d love for you to get in touch. Click here for more info on volunteering. 


Thursday 5 January 2017

In the Shadow of the Prince Edward Theatre.

The Prince Edward Theatre has been a familiar Soho landmark for generations of people to enjoy since opening its doors on the 3 April 1930. Its own illustrious history has seen the theatre go through many transformations over the past 86 years. In 1929 the buildings which stood on the corner of Old Compton Street and Greek Street were demolished to make way for the new theatre completely eliminating any trace of the people and business which occupied the address of 41 Greek Street and 53 Old Compton Street.

While the buildings were home to a diverse mix of inhabitants and occupations the silk and linen drapery business was the main trade which eventually spanned several buildings as the business grew from small shops to a wholesale warehouse business.
Here are just a few of the businesses which occupied the space along with Auctioneers, Candle makers and residents living in the rooms above the offices and shops.
1796, 41 Greek Street, Thomas Clarke, Silk Dyer
1807, 41 Greek Street, Stephen Callahan, Silk Dyer
1808, 53 Old Compton Street, William and Joseph Bryan, Linen Drapers

In April 1824 Andrews, Stobbs and Maggs opens at 41 Greek Street 1826, 41 Greek Street, John Jenner and Ambrose Boodle, Linen Drapers and Mercers
1826, The Examiner, 12 November reports

The Evening Standard, 16 October 1828 reports, new proprietors of the “Emporium” Messrs Wagner and Chapman, Greek Street Soho, The business closed in 1830 when William Chapman and George Wagner were declared bankrupt.

In 1862, the final chapter of the address at the corner of Greek Street and Old Compton Street commenced when William Taylor Reddan a butcher’s son from Parson Drove in Cambridgeshire opened his drapers business, William Reddan & Sons Ltd.
William’s empire spanned several buildings 51 to 54 Old Compton Street and 41 & 42 Greek Street with around 14 drapers’ assistants and staff living above the business. Reddan’s was renowned for its Victorian charm and its most discerning cliental on its books which included Winston Churchill and members of the Royal family.

Image of William Reddan & Sons Ltd Drapers shop in 1926, 3 years before the buildings were demolished to make way for the Prince Edward Theatre. In 1899 the building numbers changed to 22, 24 & 28 Old Compton Street.

Members of William’s own family worked within the business, his brother Charles set up his own drapers business in North London. William died in 1920 year after his Wife Emma and was survived by his four children; in 1928 his children Minnie and Charles wound up their fathers 66 year old business and sold the premises to the Hay Hill Syndicate to make way for the Prince Edward Theatre. Reddan’s loyal staff moved on and his trusted store managers were remembered in Williams will.
On Monday 3 September 1928 The Evening Telegraph reports on the close of Reddan’s, One landmark falls into the shadow of another.
Further reading at  Arthur Lloyd Music Hall and Theatre History Website

The Prince Edward Theatre research by mosoho volunteer Sarah Buttery.
Sarah’s own family has a long history in Soho with Italian restaurants; Sarah worked for Kettner’s before its closure last January to make way for the next phase of its life and has researched the history of Kettner’s, the families and people involved in running the business and holds a private archive of information and artefacts which she has collected over the past few years. I hope Sarah will share this untold story with us in 2017.

We offer a bespoke research service to business and individuals. If you'd like to find out more please email:

Featured post

Soho and the Cholera outbreak of 1854.

The Modern Myth of Soho’s Dr John Snow. History often gets things wrong either because of the way in which events are initially reported ...