“If you can remember Soho in the 1980s, you weren’t there”. That much-loved theory, Christopher Howse told us tonight, is a lie. So much so, that he’s written a memoir disproving it – which is what led us to his book launch, organised by the London Library in conjunction with Bloomsbury Publishing.
London during the 1980s, I think, is now seen somewhat through rose-tinted glasses. Jeffrey Bernard, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud…all are inexorably linked with the UK’s capital and, of course, alcohol. If you’re of my generation, you’ll recall that Jeffrey Bernard’s weekly column in The Spectator was regularly replaced by the stark headline ‘Jeffrey Bernard is unwell’.
We look back, now, on that period as an era when you could roll into work late with a hangover, pretend to work for a few hours and then, sometime around lunch, disappear to the pub and not be seen again until the following day. Sounds idyllic, right? But did such a world really exist?
Howse found his way to London when he was in his late 20s. Fatefully, one of his first destinations was The Coach and Horses, one of Soho’s infamous triangle of pubs, the others being the French Pub and the Colony Room Club. All feature regularly in ‘Soho in the 80s’ – Howse’s sequel, of sorts, to Daniel Farson’s ‘Soho in the Fifties’. The Coach and Horses was presided over by Norman Balon, to this day known as “London’s rudest landlord”. “The pub was as unpleasant as the landlord”, recalled Howse. “None of the furniture fitted together, and the beer was bad”. His complaint about the beer led to Balon telling him “Here’s your 73p back. If you don’t like it, you can fuck off!”
Within The Coach and Horses, there was a hierarchy. The likes of Bernard and Lucian Freud drank and conversed in the ‘Deep End’, while the Italian mafia and “shoplifters with bulging pockets” frequented the ‘Shallow End’. Finding himself in the Deep End and getting to know some of its inhabitants, Howse was warned, “Don’t mess with those Bernard brothers” – a reference to Jeffrey and his brothers Bruce and Oliver. “And yet, all three of them are dead now – and I miss them”. He was protected, to an extent, by his naivety, Christopher believes – and the fact that he was able to tell a joke: “The great enemy in the Soho venues was bores”.
Most of the characters Howse encountered were not well-known; rather, they were “bit players”. That said, John Hurt was often to be found in The Coach and Horses or the French Pub on a Sunday afternoon, “behaving outrageously”. He was, says Christopher, “a very good actor, but he switched between his acting roles and drinking, pumping his bad behaviour into his roles”.
The actress Diana Lambert was a regular in the Soho pubs before lunchtime. By then in her early 50s, she had been reduced to selling her furniture in order to buy whisky. In those days, it was still possible to live in Soho without having much money. In this bohemian world, according to Christopher, you weren’t judged on how wealthy you were or which schools your children went to. “You were accepted for what you were. If you had money, you would buy a drink. If you didn’t have money, it didn’t matter – as long as you didn’t sponge.”
In some ways, it was easier to not have any money and therefore have no fixed abode – like Jeffrey Bernard, who lived in a flat belonging to the widow of a friend of his, Geraldine Norman, who wrote for The Sunday Times (she threw him out after accidentally opening one of his bank statements and discovering that he was actually reasonably well off).
Jeffrey Bernard did not, as the urban myth suggests, “hold court” in Soho – nor was the reason for frequently missing the deadline for his Spectator column usually alcohol-related. “He had lots of things wrong with him and enjoyed watching his own decay”, according to Christopher, and the ‘Jeffrey Bernard is unwell’ headline was, more often than not, true.
Howse got to know Bernard through delivering copies of The Spectator to him and remembers him as a kind-hearted man who once took Graham Mason, another infamous Soho drunk, who spent what little money he had on booze, to Austin Reed on Lower Regent Street. There, he bought him a winter coat, which forever after was known as ‘Jeffrey’s coat’.
Christopher was also fond of Francis Bacon, a “very nice man”, who he used to see in the Colony Room Club on Bank Holiday Mondays. Bacon would paint from dawn until lunch time and then start drinking champagne. Always affable, he enjoyed baiting people, usually opening with the statement “I can’t really paint, you know”.
Christopher encountered poets and journalists (including the Private Eye gang) every day in Soho, where most people’s levels of drinking were “stupendous”. This, of course, was an era when landlords could still make money out of beer and spirits, which Norman Balon certainly did. It was also an era when Soho still played host to small, interesting shops (including any number of butchers – such as Portwine’s, a 200-year-old resident) instead of the homogenised mass of coffee shops you find now.
Did Christopher’s fellow drinkers understand the damage that they were doing to themselves? “The world seemed timeless in those smoky bars”, he reflected. “And people didn’t expect to live all that long”.
When did Howse realise that this way of life was going to come to an end? The latter part of the 1980s, he mused, saw an onslaught of people who he didn’t know arriving in Soho and pushing him and his friends out of their usual drinking spots. Francis Bacon’s death in 1992 “marked the end of an era”. Howse finds it unlikely that, in another 30 years’ time, someone will write another Soho memoir: what, after all, would they write about? The area’s current favourite haunt, Soho House, is “dull and like a hotel” – and Soho is no longer a bohemia of art, writing and drinking.
I started working in London during the mid-1990s, by which time Soho’s ‘bohemian’ label had more or less disappeared; a happy (if blurry) memory for Londoners who’d lived through that time. I enjoyed this talk immensely and can’t wait to read Howse’s memoir, but can’t say that world sounds as glamorous as I once thought it was – Christopher admits that neither he nor his contemporaries come out of the book well. And yet, he says, they did lean on each other, and there were kindnesses. People knew a good deal about each other: after all, Howse remarked wryly, that’s what drink does to you.
Booze, our author concluded, meant that time moved differently. And the sobriety that Christopher Howse eventually found is not a black and white art; rather, it comes in slices. It doesn’t, however, “have to spoil the fun”.