Wednesday, 18 March 2020

London Reading List – Soho In The 50s & 60s

DC Editor Adam writes…

Welcome to The Daily Constitutional London Library – my London reading recommendations for these days of self-isolation and social distancing.

If you are unable to come & visit us in London for the next little while, or if you're stuck at home, I'm providing a few suggestions for great London-themed & London-based books

In the series I'll be drawing in literary fiction, popular fiction, graphic novels and non-fiction to create a reading list as disparate and inspiring as London itself. 

Each one features at least one London location – and I'll also share a map to some of the locations featured…

Soho in the Fifties
By Dan Farson
(Pimlico 1987)

It's March 2020 and we're not allowed to go to the pub.

So here's a book crammed full of them…

A work that rattles along with all the élan of a great novel, Daniel Farson’s Soho in The Fifties is an account of London’s most forgiving and tolerant quarter. It is told by that most unique of all Soho-ites: a man who was both there and who can remember he was there.

“Soho,” writes Farson, the great-nephew of Bram Stoker, “has always been a state of mind rather than a boundary.” And the minds that populate his narrative (the main section of which is structured as a 24-hours-in-the-life-of-Soho documentary) are some of the sharpest of the mid-20th Century. Artist Francis Bacon and journalist Jeffrey Barnard swagger through the narrative, rubbing shoulders with a picaresque gallery of characters who, while less celebrated on the international stage, remain Soho legends. Characters such as Norman Balon of the Coach and Horses (the man styled by Barnard as the Rudest Landlord in London) and Muriel Belcher, the éminence grise of Dean Street and proprietress of the legendary watering hole The Colony Room.

Farson’s narrative even takes us a little further north of the 21st Century Soho, over Oxford Street to the area to which he refers to as North Soho (Fitzrovia today) to reveal licentious goings-on at the Fitzroy Tavern and in search of the painters Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde as they evade eye-watering bar bills all over W1. It’s a revealing insight: Soho has changed in shape as well as tone.

The great surviving characters of Soho are the pubs that serve as backdrop to the tale: The French House and the Coach and Horses remain in rude health in the 21st Century. “It’s ironic,” writes Farson of those Soho hostelries, "that Karl Marx and Logie Baird both lived in Soho, for politics and last night’s television are rarely discussed in Soho, though they are the mainstay in [most other] British pubs.”

Farson’s only oversight is the importance of music to this part of town. A forgivable omission given that the author moved in a world of letters and media; and one that is rectified with a peerless introduction by the late, great English jazz musician and writer George Melly. A rare treat: two great writers for the price of one.

(The edition illustrated is the Pimlico paperback from 1993)

One of the most prominent pubs mentioned in the book is The Coach & Horses. A version of that pub can be can found here, keep it in mind for when the pubs are opened again…

And on to the 1960s…

Too Stoned
By Andrew Loog Oldham

2 Stoned is the second volume of autobiography from the Rolling Stones manager and rock svengali Andrew Loog Oldham.

Loog Oldham was the young turk who shaped the Stones as the anti-Beatles. His first volume of autobiography – Stoned (1998) tells the tale of his youth and his meeting the self-styled World’s Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band. It is a great read.

The second volume – appropriately entitled 2Stoned – gets down to the nitty gritty.

Oldham’s tale is unique indeed. Few had such a close view of the so-called Swinging Sixties in London. And few have allowed other voices into their story. Oldham, always the radical, has no fear in this quarter.

His narrative bowls along with stylishly-honed tales of drunkenness and cruelty, yet… every so often he steps aside to allow someone else to chip in. Townshend, Marianne Faithfull, Al Kooper, Nick Cohn, John Paul Jones and many more – provide a Greek chorus of asides and contradictions that helps to make this one of the best of all rock’n’roll reads.

You probably won't buy your white-haired ol’ mum a copy for Mothers’ Day. Unless, of course, her hair’s white from peroxide and she thinks sweet sherry is a breakfast wine. In which case… bring her along on the Rock’n’Roll London Walk!

Location? Regent Sounds in Denmark Street. Now a guitar shop, it was once a recording studio and it features prominently in the book…

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