A couple of days ago, a car knocked comedian Martin Soan off his bicycle in a road just south of Tower Bridge in London. The car did not stop.
I saw Martin last night. He said he was “OK apart from a sore bum. But the bike’s a write-off. Absolute nightmare. Smashed.”
We were at last night’s Sohemian Society meeting.
As soon as Martin walked into the room above the Wheatsheaf pub in Rathbone Place, he recognised it as an early alternative comedy venue decades ago: the Guilty Pea.
“The only comedy clubs around then,” Martin told me, “were the Guilty Pea, the Sombrero – which was more of a variety-type place – the Comedy Store, the Earth Exchange and Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel club. I think the Sombrero opened up before the Comedy Store.”
Last night’s Sohemian Society talk was by Professor Judith Walkowitz of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who has written a book about London’s Soho in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s: Nights Out Life in Cosmopolitan London.
She was surprised, perhaps because she is an American, to find out that the Metropolitan Police’s extensive and now well-publicised corruption in the 1950s and 1960s stretched back well before then.
After her talk, conversation turned to an era after the period covered in her book when Sohemian Society organiser Marc brought up the subject of Harold ‘Tanky’ Challenor, a former World War II SAS man who became a corrupt transvestite CID officer at the legendarily corrupt West End Central police station in London – the station which covered Soho.
Challenor was the model for Inspector Truscott in Joe Orton’s play Loot and apparently used to pretend he had to work undercover as an excuse to dress up as a woman when, in fact, everyone knew he was a transvestite and, when he walked into a Soho pub or club in his female ‘disguise’ , everyone immediately recognised him.
This talk of policemen dressing up led Martin Soan to tell me about a police drugs raid on a pub in Portobello Road around 40 years ago, when Martin was an 18-year old plying his then-trade of Punch & Judy man.
“It must have been in the early 1970s,” he said. “I used to go to the pub to build up my courage to do the Punch & Judy show. I was in there at lunchtime, the sun was out and a twelve-man police team came in, supposedly in disguise.
“They were pretending to be painters and decorators, but they were wearing these perfectly-laundered overalls. They looked like they had come straight out of the packet and still had creases where they had been folded. There was no dirt on them – nothing – but they had obviously stood the policemen in a line and got some paint and flicked it onto the overalls.
“They walked into the pub and everyone just said: Uho… It’s the police! and most people who were carrying drugs just walked out of the pub. I think they managed to arrest some poor old bloke who didn’t know what day of the week it was.”
Martin also told me he is thinking of reviving his Greatest Show on Legs act (not the Punch & Judy act but the one involving the infamous naked balloon dance) with Steve Bowditch and Martin Clarke at the Edinburgh Fringe this year – but he has not yet decided.
“It’s the cost,” said Martin. “Going to the Fringe costs a fortune – even the free shows – because you have to pay for accommodation and transport up there. I am thinking of cycling up.”
“Cycling up to Edinburgh from London?” I asked. “That’s 400 miles each way.”
“I have a trailer to pull behind my bike now,” said Martin. “As you know, I have a few props. I’ve got a…”
“Hold on,” I said, “Hasn’t your bike been destroyed?”
“Well yes,” said Martin, “obviously there are a few issues surrounding my biking capacity at the moment, but I have a trailer for it now and I can fit the miniature Irish dancers and the whole show into it, though I couldn’t take my hydraulic lifting chair. So I am thinking of cycling up. I can make it to Norwich.”
“Norwich?” I interrupted. “That’s not on the way to Edinburgh.”
“Well,” Martin explained patiently, “you’re going by car. I’m going by bike, man. I would start off about two weeks before… Make it to Norwich, where I know some people, stay the night… Lincolnshire’s after that and I know someone I can stay with in Lincolnshire… And then I know someone in Hartlepool where I can stay… The major thing is, obviously, on a bike, I can’t do the motorways… And even the country lanes are dangerous on a bike, especially with a trailer behind it…
“But it’s really cool… I would have a lovely, lovely time… Loads of caffs and cake shops and cycling through villages… Not that I’m fond of cakes myself, but I do like a cake shop… I like the tea and they often do a sandwich supplement to their cakes…”
“Oh, that’d be fine, then,” I agreed.