1980s Soho is poured into a memoir
From the Coach and Horses, to the French House and the Colony Room, Christopher Howse’s book recalls a decade lived out in the pubs and bars of a celebrated area
11 October, 2018 — By Dan Carrier
The Coach and Horses
THE pub has long been a stage for our national conversation – and where else has Britain’s drinking culture been more celebrated than in Soho?
Journalist Christopher Howse spent much of the 1980s propped up at the bar of the Coach and Horses in Greek Street – interspersed with trips to the nearby Colony Room, or the French House – and from his perch he got to know a cast of people who were as much part of this celebrated area as its streets and businesses.
He has poured his experiences into a memoir called Soho In the Eighties, and his funny, non-judgmental book sits alongside classics by the likes of Patrick Hamilton, Edward Ardizzone, George Orwell, Nina Hamnett and Dylan Thomas who have also recounted London’s love affair with gossip told over multiple drinks.
Sandwiched between Charing Cross Road in the east through to Lexington Street and Poland Street in the west, Shaftesbury Avenue in the south and Oxford Street to the north, in the 1980s this small patch was home to a number of pubs, clubs, cafés and restaurants that provided a place to watch Soho characters go about their lives.
Howse recalls the publication of a book called Soho In The Fifties by writer, broadcaster and Sohomian Daniel Farson.
“His book came out 30 years after the period it celebrated, and now it is 30 years since the 1980s,” writes Howse.
“Like a policeman giving evidence, my memory is refreshed by contemporaneous notes. My focus is the places where poets, painters, stagehands, retired prostitutes, actors, criminals, musicians and general layabouts met to drink and converse, or shout at each other.
“That world is now gone. Everyone is dead among the older people, apart from Norman Balon, London’s rudest landlord; too many of the younger people are dead, too.”
Howse has an eye for detail. It feels like you are perched next to him nursing a pint of beer or knocking back a vodka as he leads you through these grotty but strangely magnetic places.
The French House
“The cast was what made the daily performances of the Soho tragicomedy so compelling,” he adds.
“I’ve never laughed as much as I did in that decade. Any television sitcom seemed utterly lame in comparison, even though the long-running comedy of Soho ended in divorce, sickness, poverty and death.”
We have the Spectator columnist Jeffrey Bernard propping up the bar at the Coach: “Jeffrey’s hobby was to observe his own physical dissolution,” says Howse.
He recounts with glee the story of Jeffrey running a bookies from the pub, and his subsequent trial after being caught by Customs men. Geoffrey Robertson QC, who took up the case, pointed out that the columnist had written of taking bets in the Spectator, and that the case against him used entrapment.
Jeffrey was so much more than a bar room soak. “He used his knowledge of history, music, art and literature as part of his verbal armoury,” says Howse.
From the Coach, we are led to the French House in Dean Street, run by landlord Gaston Berlemont. He was popular, according to Howse because he had an “essential role in cashing cheques”.
“His father brought in a rule about only selling beer in half pints,” he recalls – a ruse to filter the clientele and ensure they bought the wine he bottled and sold. He also, unlike Norman Balon, the self-styled rudest landlord in London who oversaw the Coach, treated everyone with politeness.
From there it is on to the now-closed Colony Room, also in Dean Street. Howse stepped over the threshold after the foul-mouthed owner, Muriel Belcher, had been replaced by the equally foul-mouthed Ian Board and he creates a particular image of rotten days through a fog of booze: “The sun, as available, would stream through the two westerly facing Georgian windows and turn the clouds of cigarette smoke into glorious billows.”
It’s a book that stumbles stumbling from one drink to the next, recounting people who survived on two bottles of vodka a day and little else – food being a grotesque after thought. But while lunches were always liquid, Howse also recalls a Soho where small independent food shops thrived, and offers a glimpse into a world now virtually extinct. Earlham Street had market barrows, zinc baths and chicken wire – “I don’t know who in Soho wanted chicken wire,” he wonders – and he recalls how independent traders were slowly replaced by pedlars of pornography only to be replaced again as rents rose and porn moved online.
“Sometimes the Coach seemed like the Raft of the Medusa, crowded with survivors clinging on,” he says – and those clinging on are the characters that slip in and out of the book.
There is the Antipodean doctor who would do examinations in the toilets for STDs, Bill Moore, who slept in an office and whose melancholia was attributed to his escape from a prisoner of war camp which involved a killing.
On top of those either happily or frustratingly anonymous, he writes of Francis Bacon and the photographer John Deakin, George Melly and the Private Eye crowd – and their creativity, wit and appetite for life is celebrated here.
• Soho in the Eighties. By Christopher Howse. Bloomsbury Continuum £20.