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.

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