The UK is in lockdown because of the COVID pandemic but, yesterday, my eternally-un-named friend and I (in our bubble) had to go into Central London. Here are some photos of the current West End, mid-afternoon, on a Friday…
The UK is in lockdown because of the COVID pandemic but, yesterday, my eternally-un-named friend and I (in our bubble) had to go into Central London. Here are some photos of the current West End, mid-afternoon, on a Friday…
Filed under London, Photographs
I think the first time it happened I was on a Victoria Line train on the London Underground.
I was feeling quite mellow and relaxed, standing by the exit doors of the train when he talked to me.
He was a young black bloke, maybe around 19. The shrewd observer of life in London might have guessed he was a black troublemaker and/or mugger.
He got up, looked me in the eye and offered me his seat. This was maybe two years ago. It was a first.
I had got to that point in life where I look so old (and presumably appear to be so frail) that people offer me their seats in trains. And one thing always strikes me. This is, I think, a fairly accurate guesstimate of the numbers…
Around 90% or maybe even 95% of the people who offer their seats to me in trains are non-white.
It is very rare for a white person to offer me their seat.
Young men; young women; even, the other day, an older Indian guy who was maybe 50.
I think: What the fuck? How old do I look? How geriatric must I look?
But it’s almost always the same. They are non-white and (I think; I guess) are British residents. I don’t think tourists would offer their seat to me unless I looked REALLY frail and looked like I was about to drop down at any moment. Tourists would not be absolutely sure about the local protocol.
I don’t know what the social or ethnical or upbringing reason is; but it is non-white-skinned people who offer their seats to me.
And, just before Christmas, there was a more unsettling incident.
I was with a friend’s 8-year-old daughter.
We got on a fairly crowded bus. But there was a double seat occupied by a young woman in her twenties of Chinese origin. I say that because I don’t think she was Chinese. She may have been Malaysian or similar. Mostly Chinese ethnically but not by birth.
She had a small child – presumably her daughter – standing in front of her; they were interacting. They were using one seat; the seat beside them was completely empty.
The young woman looked up and saw me approaching. I was going to let my 8-year old sit on the empty seat and stand beside her.
The Chinese woman, looking me in the eye, made to move so that I and my 8-year-old could sit down in the two seats and she and her daughter would stand, giving up their one seat. There was a look in her eye that made me think she felt I presumed I, as a white man with a white chlld, had a right to the two seats and she – a young Chinese woman with a Chinese daughter – had to defer to me.
With a look, I communicated she did not have to get up.
They had been quite reasonably and very politely only using one seat, so my 8-year-old was able to sit down in the empty seat without affecting them and I stood by the eight-year-old; there was no other empty seat nearby.
But the look in the young woman’s eye – that she had to defer to a white man – unsettled and still unsettles me.
Another incident happened just after Christmas.
I had arranged a meal with a chum in a Japanese restaurant in Soho. My chum is of Polynesian/Chinese descent. There was a queue of about four other people, mostly Japanese, outside the restaurant, including my chum; she had arrived before me.
“Did you see that man with the zimmer frame?” she asked me.
I had passed him. He had just turned round the corner.
“He told us all to get off the street and get out of the way,” she told me, “and to get back to where we came from.”
The queue was not blocking the pavement.
I went back to the corner but he was no longer there.
I can think of one reason why he had to use a zimmer frame.
The Christmas/New Year period roughly coincides with the 9-day Jewish Hanukkah holiday.
I live in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, just on the NW edge of London. For reasons unknown, there is a fairly high Jewish population; and a fairly high Romanian population. We have two Romanian grocers… one generic Balkan grocer also catering for Romanians… and now a triple-fronted Romanian restaurant in the high street.
This year, in the shopping centre, to celebrate Hanukkah, there was a large menorah installed – made out of balloons – and a few tressle tables. The gents supervising it all wore skullcaps/kippahs and long beards. They looked Jewish. There were DJ disco tracks playing on a loudspeaker. The music was a mixture of Jewish music and what sounded confusingly like black Caribbean music.
When I listened to the music properly, I realised it was Rasta music and the song lyrics referred to “the Lion of Judah” (ie Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia) and “have a happy Hanukkah”.
As I was loitering around listening to all this with some bemusement – OK, to be honest, the scene looked like a Jewish celebration, with West Indian music playing, manned by black-bearded members of ISIS – I realised quite a lot of the passers-by were speaking to each other in an Eastern European language that was not Russian. (I sort-of learned Russian at school.) I surmised the language was Romanian.
So there was this scenario where fairly recent immigrants from Romania were walking through a typically English shopping centre at Christmastime where some Jewish festival was being celebrated (there was the large menorah made from balloons) while West Indian music was playing.
I suspect this was culturally beyond confusing to them but, somehow, I also find it very reassuring.
Kim Kinnie died last weekend. The Chortle comedy website described him as a “Svengali of alternative comedy… the long-serving gatekeeper of the Comedy Store (in London) and a ‘spiritual godfather’ to many stand-ups in the early days of alternative comedy… Kinnie started out as a choreographer and stage manager of the Gargoyle Club, the Soho strip club where The Comedy Store began in 1979”.
This blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent Anna Smith used to work at the Gargoyle Club – she now lives on a boat in Vancouver – so I asked her if she remembered him. This was her reply:
Yes. He (and Don Ward) hired me on the spot when I auditioned there as a stripper.
I have had a bad cold for a couple of weeks and lost my internet at home, so I have been reading for a bit, about the Irish in Montreal, and maybe a Margaret Cho bio next.
Recently, I have felt like trying standup again after this almost 40 year interval. I was telling some stories I call my “God Guy” stories to a crazy lady at work – a client – She thinks she has a snake living in her ankle and wears a TRUMP supporter badge,
Anyhow, she loved my stories and was having me repeat them to everybody.
I say I did stand-up comedy almost 40 years ago. Maybe I should have call it Pop Out Comedy, as I would pop out of my costume when the audience was too rambunctious.
I wasn’t doing stand up among the dancers. The Gargoyle/Nell Gwynne club had a theatre, where the strip shows were done and The Comedy Store was in a separate room (and floor actually) which was set up more like a supper club, with round tables and a stage barely a foot above floor level. There is a picture in the book by William Cook showing a punter sitting at a table in front of the stage, resting his feet ON the stage!
For some reason I remembered the theatre as upstairs and the comedy club downstairs but, from the memoirs of other comics, it was the reverse. The club was upstairs and the theatre downstairs. The comics sometimes used to come in and watch us do our shows before they went on.
When I went there I auditioned first as a dancer, but then I also used to do stand up at the open mike (which was in a gong show format) at The Comedy Store. It was in the very early days of the Store. It had only been open about a year and the compères were Tony Allen and Jim Barclay.
Jim Barclay used to wear the arrow-through-his-head thing at the time. I saw Sir Gideon Vein doing his horror show, in his hundred year frock coat. He always started his act by saying: “This looks like the place to be-eeeeeee…” and then he told a ridiculous ‘Tale of Terror’ about The Gamboli Trilplets, Tina, Lina and Gina… John Hegley was a hit right off the bat there. Others took longer to find their feet.
Most of the comics were ultra politically correct and some were really boring. The audience has been rightly described as a bear pit – very drunk, mostly young people who had too much money. They thought nothing of throwing objects at us. One time the chef, newly arrived from Bangaldesh, rushed out to offer first aid to Sir Gideon Vein, who had a stream of fake blood pouring over his face – because comics were known to suffer injuries from the audience throwing their designer boots at them.
The Greatest Show on Legs were there one night and the first time I saw them I couldn’t believe it – they were so hilarious – so I ran down to our (strippers) dressing room and made the other dancers run up the stairs so they wouldn’t miss it. We watched them through a glass window in a door at the back of the club. Malcolm Hardee was, of course, glad to have a bunch of strippers admiring his act and greeted us after the show with a genial “Hello LADIES”.
I had started doing stand up in Toronto as I loved comedy already, before I went to London. In Toronto my strip shows had become sillier as I went along. Once I learned the rudiments of striptease, I found it impossible to take seriously. How could I take seriously taking off my clothes in public for a bunch of old men? When I did my nurse show I dressed in a real nurse outfit with flat shoes.
The audience really loved my silly character and act. I used to start it with a song called I Think I’m Losing My Marbles. I would come out with my first aid kit and whip out a notebook and, looking really bitchy, I would pretend to take notes on the audience and would put on a surgical mask.
It was pretty complicated but I realised that if you are a young woman dressed as a nurse you can get away with just about anything.
Another time, when I was about 22 years old and still living in Toronto, I went to New York and, dressed as a nurse, showed up at the offices of Saturday Night Live and I just walked in looking for Lorne Michaels, the producer.
At the time, I wasn’t looking for comedy work. I went there (without an appointment) because I wanted to ask if they could give my musician boyfriend a spot on the show. It sounds like a long shot, but my boyfriend had been at the University of Toronto with Lorne Michaels and the show’s musical director Paul Shaffer, who are both Canadian.
It took me a couple of days but eventually I got a meeting with Paul Shaffer. He was very nice and I sat there in his office as he explained to me that, sadly, even though he was the musical director, he didn’t actually have much say in which acts were chosen for the show because John Belushi held the balance of power there, so all the musical acts chosen to be premiered on Saturday Night Live were friends of John.
Life was never boring.
When I was dancing on the Belgian porno cinema circuit, there was a particularly dedicated licence inspector in Liege whom I managed to avoid by hiding on the roof of the cinema (probably half dressed in costume, after my shows). Eventually, he caught me and so I had to visit the Harley Street physician dictated by the Belgian Embassy and got a certificate to prove that I was physically and mentally fit to strip for Belgians.
I may be coming back to Amsterdam this year or next. If I do, I will try to find some other shows or work like playing a double bass half naked or some such nonsense. Is there much work for that type of thing do you think? Or maybe I will go to a burlesque festival in Finland.
I danced in Finland in February around 1985 and it was exceptionally cold that year. But not indoors.
I was billed as Lumoojatar, which means an enchantress. I took trains all over the country for one month and then did a week at a cinema on the waterfront of Helsinki called La Scala.
In my CV, I say that I stripped at La Scala.
When I did my show at La Scala, all the men were wearing wolf skin hats. All I saw was a sea of wolf skin hats. One time, when I was passing through the lobby, a tiny man wearing a wolf skin hat – who appeared to be about 85 or so – told me in halting English: “You very good show. Very good. Very good, I know. I am connoisseur!”
The worst thing that happened to me was in the industrial town of Tampere where the policemen wore earmuffs. I was dancing on the floor of a cavernous bar (it seemed more like an arena than a bar). I could barely hear my music – theme songs from James Bond movies. The audience of paper mill workers on their afternoon break seemed thrilled anyway. A rough-looking lone old woman in the audience stuck her tongue out at me.
After my show, I was getting dressed in a toilet and an enormous drunk man suddenly threw the door open, advanced towards me and then dropped to his knees bellowing in Finnish.
Before I could figure out what to do next, four more men crashed in and grabbed the first man.
“He wants to marry you,” they explained, laughing and apologetic as they dragged him out.
My phone’s battery is about to die now. I am going for a swim.
Continuing the memories of this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent Anna Smith…
The only person whose tyres I ever wanted to slash was my agent Jules Rabkin, because he overbooked girls all the time. He would send eight girls to a bar in the middle of nowhere that needed only six and the last two to arrive would get bumped and be out of work for a week.
He ripped off my friend Tiffany for $300 and she did something better than slashing his tyres. She marched into his office and set his desk on fire.
“How did he react?” I asked her, full of admiration.
“He handed over my money through the flames,” she said. “After that, he never dared fuck me over again.”
But we also knew how to be discrete back then …yes we were so discrete.
I can’t imagine why all those motels had to give us all those ridiculous lists of the rules… like we weren’t supposed to walk through the lobbies naked or tie up the switchboard phoning each other’s rooms and we weren’t supposed to lie down inside the club either. And there was a $20 fine if you got caught ‘taking a man in the ladies room’ at one club. So, obviously, it must have been a terrible problem there. And we weren’t allowed to smoke or drink on stage. One really terrible place said that ‘horseplay’ wasn’t allowed. Anyone would have thought it was a building site.
We were in motels for the same reason rock bands were in motels. Touring.
Did I mention the time I met Thor at the Coronet Motor Inn, in Ontario?
Nothing happened between me and Thor. I don’t really go for the God type. I just crossed paths with him in the hallway and felt a bit sorry for him that he had to dress like that. It seemed like even more work than dressing up as a stripper.
We were often in motels. We were often on the road. We could make more money out of town (Toronto).
The furthest north I went was Elliott Lake, a uranium mining town. I was scared travelling alone to such an isolated place. At the time, the ratio of males to females was 10 to 1, so that in itself was scary, plus I was afraid to drink the water so I only drank juice.
The motel was on the outskirts of town – strip clubs usually were.
The owner was a really nice woman so I didn’t have to deal with the usual come on we always got from the male managers. And there was a nice painting over the front desk .
It was a landscape, done locally and given to the owner’s father by the artist.
There was another dancer working there the same week as me: a friendly young Jewish guitarist and songwriter from Ottawa. So we spent time in each other’s rooms, watching television in bed, sharing our plans for the future. She wanted to be a famous singer and I wanted to be a famous comedienne in movies. This was in about 1980.
We went for meals together. I remember she was the first person to introduce me to Caesar salad, prepared by the chef at our table in the traditional manner.
The audience was made up of uranium miners who were very rowdy, enthusiastic but not obnoxious. I had so much fun doing my show that I flew off the stage and landed in the audience and broke my foot – luckily it was a Saturday so I only missed one show. I think I was spinning around semi-blindfolded when I went off the stage… I used to often break my feet in those days, but that was the first time I did it while performing.
I met one of the uranium miners years later. He was a little guy from Chile known as ‘Loco Misissauga’. I was surprised he would be in Elliott Lake which is such a remote place, but then he had been a miner in Chile.
Missisauga was a godforsaken suburb of Toronto. It was one of the places I went to for work. It was where Jules Rabkin, my agent, would send us. I worked there in 1977 when I was just starting out. As I became more experienced I worked in better, more central clubs
The bars in Missisauga were awful, usually run by Greeks. I remember one club called The Oasis which was anything but an Oasis. The small stage was covered in orange shag carpet, with the ceiling done the same. Can you imagine trying to dance in stilettos on that? Another club out there used to ask the dancers for a $50 deposit to rent a locker for the week. There was no dressing room, just a narrow hallway. So most of the dancers went to sit with the customers between shows and the waitress would take their keys off the table so they would lose their key deposit. Eventually the owner was shot dead, which was hardly surprising.
I don’t have any photos of that time, though I was one of the first adapters of the selfie with my Olympus OM 10 which I bought from a hunky Italian boy stripper I met in a Belgian porno cinema. We had to do a show together because his girlfriend was ill. I became quite close to them and bought the camera and we stayed in touch.
The last time I ever saw them was in about 1985. They were doing a sex show in Soho, London. They invited me upstairs. They were living above a sex shop, with its lights flashing LIVE SHOW. I went upstairs, and was surprised to see the mother of the Italian boy was up there too.
She was tiny and dressed like a stereotypical Sicilian old lady: all in black, with the headscarf and the gold earings.
I asked the boy: “But your mother? Doesn’t she mind that you are doing a sex show?”
He introduced us and the mother was all smiles.
“She doesn’t have a clue,” he told me. “She never leaves the flat. She’s actually a complete moron.”
The mother kept nodding, smiling away cheerfully, thrilled to meet me, but I must have looked worried, because her son then reassured me: “Don’t worry, she doesn’t speak English.”
I thought about my mother. I didn’t tell her everything I did but no way could I have deposited her above a sex shop in Soho for a couple of weeks.
So I got an email from Rich Rose of comedy duo Ellis & Rose.
“A friend of mine and I,” it said, “have written the pilot for a sitcom. It’s called Hell and is set in a grubby Soho sex shop. It’s being filmed from 5th-9th January at 3 Mills Studios and we were wondering if you would like to pay a visit to the set.”
So that was why, yesterday afternoon, I was in East London surrounded by dildos and accidentally walked through a vagina.
“It’s a full-length 25 minute sitcom pilot,” Rich told me yesterday, “divided down into five 5-minute webisodes which we are going to put online this summer.”
“So five climaxes,” I said.
Rich looked at me and said nothing.
“And potentially a series,” said Rich’s friend and co-writer David Ralf.
“Are you both appearing in Hitchcock-type cameos?” I asked.
“David’s cameo,” explained Rich, “is him standing in the shop scratching his nuts in a tracksuit.”
“So good clean stuff,” I said.
“In it’s current incarnation,” said David, “I’m not sure that any mainstream television studio would, eh…”
“Ofcom would shit a brick,” said Rich.
“Are you going to have any nudity?” I asked hopefully.
“There’s a lot of doll nudity,” David told me. “I’m not sure how doll nudity goes over.”
“And you walked through the giant vulva,” Rich added.
“I did?” I asked, surprised.
“The curtains,” explained David.
“I feel soiled,” I said. “If you want vaginas, you want Martin Soan, supplier of large scale vaginas to stage and screen. Some of them sing.”
“Really?” asked Rich.
“Really,” I told him. “So what’s the plot of Hell?”
“A hopeless romantic,” explained David, “finds himself working in a Soho sex shop, a grubby little den which is subject to all the pressures and changes in the area. And he embarks upon a sexual odyssey.”
“Well,” said Rich, “he is forcefully coerced into a sexual odyssey by the assistant manager of Hell.”
“The message is very wholesome,” said David.
“No it isn’t,” said Rich.
“Yes it is,” said David.
“So what’s the message?” Rich asked.
“Well,” replied David, “what does the central character learn at the end?”
“Don’t slip on lube?” suggested Rich.
“I think,” said David, “we may have taken different things away from this whole writing process.”
“What do you think the message is?” I asked David.
“The central character learns about himself. He is a very repressed individual and his only outlet for intimacy is idealised rom-com romance and I think he learns about other ways to express himself.”
“Also,” added Rich, “there are loads of dildos. Try to emphasise that, John. Loads of dildos.”
“Yes,” agreed David, “maybe go with that.”
“You crowdfunded it,” I said.
“We assumed we could make it for £8,000,” said Rich.
“Which we raised,” said David. “Then we went to Koto Films who raised more and now the budget is more than twice that, with Jack Plummer of Koto Films directing. We are doing it at a level that I think has surprised us. A higher quality level. A huge number of people have given a huge amount of time and energy.”
Producer Holly Harris of Koto Films told me: “A friend of a friend has lent us some fetish wear she collects. So many of our props are quite expensive and we just would not have been able to get such an amazing variety of different things on set if it wasn’t for her generosity.”
“How – indeed, why – did you come up with the idea?” I asked Rich. “Just because sex always sells?”
“I thought of it,” he told me, “when I was leaving university in 2011. I was being driven home back to Purley and we passed a sex shop in quite a pleasant suburban area – not in Purley. My initial thought was How funny would it be to do a sitcom set in a sex shop in a leafy, cheery, suburban area? But that didn’t really work.”
“When we first worked on the script together,” explained David, “the shops we went to – for research purposes, of course – were all in Soho.”
“We had to visit many, many shops,” explained Rich. “We are professionals.”
“And then,” said David, “we gave Koto Films what now turns out to have been a very, very early draft.”
“It’s been taken apart and put back together again,” said Rich.
“And Koto have made it look much better than we ever imagined it,” added David.
“And the crew?” I asked.
“It was amazing,” Holly Harris told me, “to see so many people come out of the woodwork who have some kind of relationship with the adult industry. Our art director’s mother is a sex therapist who spent 18 months in Spain running a strip club. Our construction managers are also drag queens.”
“And the central female character?” I asked.
“Is Crystal Hart, the manager of the shop,” David told me. “She is an ex-pornstar turned small-business woman.”
“Played by?” I asked.
“Saffron Sprackling,” said David, “who fronted the 199os band Republica. She was and is an actress. She was in Starlight Express.”
“So she can roller-skate,” I said.
“Yes,” said David. “This morning she was telling me about rollerskating around Soho in the old days.”
“In the streets of Soho?” I asked.
“Yes. She knew people who owned exactly the sort of shops we are portraying in the show and they used to have police among their clientele. But the police had to raid the shops every now and then, to keep up appearances. So they would ring ahead whenever they were going to raid the shop and Saffron would leave the theatre where she was performing Starlight Express, pick up a bag which she assumed was full of cash and held on to it until they gave the all clear and then she returned it to the shop. Hence the roller-skates.”
“So she roller-skated through the streets of Soho?” I asked.
“I believe so,” said David.
“Saffron has a very strong gay and lesbian following,” Holly told me.
“I will have to get more Jaffa Cakes,” David mused as I left the studio.
“Because?” I asked.
“Because the crew have eaten 108 Jaffa Cakes in two days.”
This afternoon, Koto issued their first press release about the production, saying: Hell is a grubby story with a warm heart.
David Ralf is quoted as saying: “A sex shop is the last place most people want to admit to going to for research. But we found a world of independent Soho sex shops with dedicated and friendly staff, mind-bending products, and a rich and fascinating history in an area of London that’s changing fast.”
Rich Rose is quoted as saying: “So we kept some of that stuff and crammed the rest full of dirty jokes.”
I think that pretty much covers it.
Filed under Comedy, Movies, Sex, Television
Back in April, this blog’s South Coast correspondent Sandra Smith shared a meeting in London’s Soho with the UK’s only ‘drag king’ LoUis CYfer.
Last week, Sandra went back with her friend to the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho to see LoUis perform again.
The result was three nights of emails from Sandra. Here are two.
Two other acts were on as well.
One was Shakondda, a Brazilian girl with a body that could move as only a Brazilian can – and big, big hair, made up of two wigs and a couple of smaller pieces. She wore a banana as an earring, and sang a few numbers.
The other was somebody called Sugar Lump – a guy in drag – who sang and it was left to the audience to decide whether he was to get paid or not. We voted Yes.
After the pub closed, LoUis invited us to Muse, a nearby nightclub, to meet her girlfriend Kayleigh, a dancer who works there. LoUis is very smitten by Kayleigh and they are moving in together very soon.
So we all arrived at Muse – LoUis, Shakondda, Sugar Lump, the manager of the Admiral Duncan, Psychic Sadie (who works behind the bar) and another guy. The Muse manager and one of the girls there work with fire, which they demonstrated. They set fire to the bar every so often just for the hell of it.
LoUis is busier than ever. Filming for her documentary – out next year – is ongoing. She is going to be filmed at home very soon. Then she is going back to Texas to do some workshops and a mini tour, possibly ending up in Las Vegas. She is also rehearsing for a one woman musical in Derby called Joan, based on Joan of Arc. She will be performing it in Derby on 17th and 18th July, then it’s coming to Camden’s People’s Theatre, possibly in August… and to the Edinburgh Fringe next year.
LoUis looks upon herself as gender fluid and intends to have a double mastectomy in the future. I think that has as much to do with having large breasts, which give her backache and she has to bind for her act. She wants to be seen just for herself and not identified by her gender.
She was born in Germany to a mother in the Royal Signals and a father who was a PE instructor. She came to England aged six. Her auntie, Marie Myers, was the first woman CID officer in Yorkshire and was attacked with a hypodermic syringe and contracted meningitis. But I can’t remember the outcome of that, as it was getting late.
LoUis went to Brunel University in London and has an MA in Contemporary Theatre Performance. She also studied Gender and Art in Relationship to That of Identity. At least I think that was what she said. It was getting very late.
Shakondda and I chatted about things racial in Brazil. She told me she chose her rather over-the-top wigs because of her family’s attitude to race and her mother’s refusal to acknowledge that they may have black blood. That is as far as I can remember. My memory is hazy in parts.
I told her that I would have loved hair like that when I was younger, as I was desperate not to be English. I used to get called Chink (so non-PC) as a kid, which delighted me enormously.
We left them at around 3.30am and all I had to do then was persuade the friend I was with that I would rather go back to where we were staying and not on to another club till 5.00am.
Have got my top on inside out at the moment, having had two hours sleep. Went to bed at 5.00am. No doubt I will perk up later.
As well as my top being inside out, I am drinking coffee – instant – out of a cafetière that I found under the sink. Not a cup to be found.
We spent a fairly sedate afternoon yesterday up at Middle Temple.
I then headed to Soho and the Admiral Duncan pub again, as they have an act on every night.
I went alone, as my friend had fallen by the wayside after too many late nights.
The entertainment came in the form of the very glamorous Mary Mac – a Scottish lad from Glasgow – with tartan ribbons in his hair and a belter of a voice. There was a real party atmosphere and Psychic Sadie was behind the bar.
I spent the evening with a couple of boys who work together in Shaftesbury Avenue. They were great fun to be with, as were the rest of the crowd.
Mary Mac asked me where I was from and how I had spent my time in London, then asked me my age.
My answer elicited a huge cheer from the crowd and Mary Mac proposed a toast to me. My glass was clinked many times, and the evening continued apace. The show finished around 11.30pm and Mary Mac asked us collectively to join him at Heaven, the nightclub just off the Strand.
I decided not to go and said goodbye to the boys, after exchanging e-mail addresses with them. I headed off for something to eat in an Italian restaurant, which was on the point of closing. They insisted that it was no trouble at all to prepare something for me, after which I headed back to Bloomsbury at around 1.30am.
Sandra sent me a photograph of herself wearing Shakondda’s hair. She told me she felt less like Scarlet O’Hara, more like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
I was talking to Micky Fawcett, author of the book Krayzy Days about his times with iconic London gangsters the Krays Twins.
I mentioned 1950s London Jewish criminal Jack Spot. There was an infamous knife fight in Soho involving Jack Spot.
Micky Fawcett is probably the only person who personally knew Jack Spot, the Kray Twins and Billy Hill.
“When I was 16,” Micky told me, “I was working on fruit stalls in Upton Park. The stall that I worked on got shut down, because they decided it was an obstruction and a feller said to me: If you’re looking for a job, I can get you one in Aldgate. A pal of mine has opened an auction room there. Aldgate was completely Jewish at that time.
“So he took me up to No 2, The Minories in Aldgate. They used to have fortnightly auctions there – confectionary and food and textiles and haberdashery all alternating. It was a ‘long firm’ but I had never heard the phrase then.
“The long firm was run by these two fellers named Jack and Maurice Sohn and a feller called Leon Kaiser – crooks, gangsters – I didn’t know. I was quite naive at 16. I had just left school.
“They introduced me to this feller called Sonny The Yank – his real name was Bernard Schack. He was introduced to me as: This is Sonny – He’s Jack Spot’s right-hand man. But I didn’t even know who Jack Spot was.
“Jack Spot! they said. He’s the boss! You’ve never heard of him? He’s the king of the underworld! Sonny is Jack Spot’s right-hand man. You know when you see a man with the wage bag chained to his hand? They don’t do it when Sonny’s around. He cuts their hand off.
“I got very friendly with Sonny, so then he introduced me to Jack Spot. I was 16, so I was honoured to meet him. Then my National Service papers came through for the Army. And, right at that time was that fight you were talking about on the corner of Frith Street. I saw it on the newspaper placards.”
The fight took place in a Soho greengrocer’s shop between Jack Spot and Albert Dimes, one of Billy Hill’s bodyguards. According to reports, the fight was stopped when Mrs Sophie Hyams, the greengrocer’s 13-stone wife, picked up a large metal scoop and started beating the two men about the head with it.
At the subsequent trial – according to, of all newspapers, The Spokane Daily Chronicle in a 1955 article headlined British Thugs Shun Guns But They Can Be Tough – Jack Spot got off after evidence from “a venerable clerk in holy orders – the Reverend Basil Claude Hudson Andrews – 88, who came forth solemnly and swore the bookmaker had not wielded the knife. Spot was acquitted on this impressive testimony, but it then developed the star witness had a most curious background for a minister. He finally admitted he had committed perjury.”
The reverend, it seemed, had a taste for whisky and women, did not pay his gambling debts and had been found wandering about the Cumberland Hotel in London, living on nothing but continental breakfasts. He had been persuaded to perjure himself for £63 by Sonny the Yank and Moishe Bluebell (whose actual nickname ‘Blueball’ was not printed by embarrassed newspapers because it referred to the fact he had one discoloured testicle).
According to The Spokane Daily Chronicle, as a result of the trial: “Britons found to their chagrin that they had their own colorful collection of Damon Runyon characters – Sonny The Yank, Moishe Blue Boy, Benny The Kid, Flash Harry, Erny The Gent, Monkey Johnny, Joey Kings Cross.”
Micky Fawcett told me: “Aldgate and Soho in 1955 were the best places I had ever been.”
The knife fight in Frith Street marked the start of a slow decline for Jack Spot’s criminal reign and, later, the Kray Twins and The Richardsons became the ‘top dogs’ in London crime.
“The Krays,” I said to Micky, “were Bethnal Green, but that’s pretty much the same as…”
“Oh no,” he said, “they lived practically in Aldgate. And they were born in 1933, so they would have been in their early twenties when the knife fight happened.”
“Did they want to be criminals?” I asked.
“Well, people wouldn’t believe it now,” said Micky, “but they always disdained criminals even right to the end. They didn’t like criminals. They used to call them ‘jailbirds’. The image they had of themselves was that they were celebrities. That was how they saw the world.”
“So they thought they were above the law?” I asked.
“Jailbirds? they’d say. We don’t want jailbirds. The Twins never stole anything. Well, once… I am the only man who has ever been on a robbery with Ronnie Kray.
‘We were in the Twins’ Regency Club and there was a big cellar in the basement, which they had let out to a firm of carpet suppliers – Gannon & Hamish – they supplied all these expensive Indian carpets.
“One of Ronnie’s friends – Dickie Morgan – said: Ron, what we’ll do… We’ll get locked in here tonight, then we’ll nick all them carpets: they’re worth a fortune.
“So Ronnie asked me: Can you get someone with a van? We’re gonna rob downstairs in our own place.
“So we got a van, stayed behind, got locked in and, at about six o’clock the next morning – so as not to arouse suspicion moving things late at night – we loaded all the carpets into the van and took them over to a feller in Chingford to sell them to him.
“He looked at them and said: They’re a load of fucking rubbish! They’re just Belgian rubbish! They’re not worth anything!
“So then Ronnie turned and wanted to strangle Dickie Morgan. That’s the only robbery Ronnie ever did.”
“What did he do with the carpets?” I asked.
“That’s a good question,” said Micky. “I don’t know. He threw them away, probably.”
My Scots comedy chum Janey Godley is down in London this week, from Glasgow.
I met up with her this evening for a chat.
“I’ll give ye a blog,” she told me. “What do you want me tae talk aboot?”
And, before I could reply, she started:
“I’ve stopped smoking for a month now,” she said, “and I’m on a diet, so my whole family have been put into the witness protection programme while that happens. And, if you talk to me about it, I’ll stab ye.”
“Well,” I said, “No change there, then.”
‘It’s hard to stop smoking,” she continued, “but to stop smoking AND go on a diet isn’t really that much harder cos you’re using the same willpower for both.”
“I would have thought,” I said, “that it must make you twice as angry as normal – but maybe that’s not possible with you.”
“That,’ said Janey, “is what (Janey’s nameless husband) says: How can we tell the difference?”
Janey looked over her shoulder.
“There’s really loud people behind me,” she said, “who deserve to be stabbed. But I’m really excited cos I’m up for four Scottish Comedy Awards on 27th April. have you voted for me yet?”
“Yes,” I said quickly.
“I won the Podcast one last year,” she told me. “This year, I’m up for Best Headliner, Best Compere, Best Podcast again and Best Festival/Tour Show.”
‘Tell me why are you in London in some way that’s repeatable?” I asked.
“I’m in London this week,” she explained, “cos I had a couple of meetings with the BBC about future projects and I’m doing a couple of gigs – Banana Cabaret in Balham and Soho Comedy.”
“Is that the one in the gay street?” I asked. (It is not.)
“A gay street in Soho?” laughed Janey. “That must be a fucking hard task to find, eh?”
“Old Compton Street,” I said, “I didn’t know the street was supposed to be gay until the Admiral Duncan blew up when the nail bomb went off.”
“You didn’t know it was gay,” said Janey, “because not one gay man has ever approached you in your entire life. They’ve all went: No, you’re on yer own, John.”
“Not even women,” I said. “I once had a pigeon approach me at Oxford Circus.”
“I bet,” said Janey that even it bolted when it saw you.”
“No,” I said. “You know the barriers at the kerb to stop you walking across the street? I was outside one of those, walking on the narrow bit of the kerb, and this pigeon was strutting towards me and I thought it would give way to me, but it didn’t. I had to step into the road so it could walk along past me on the kerb.”
“That happened to me,” said Janey, “in Earls Court with a rat. You remember that hotel I lived in in Earls Court? There was a rat in the middle of the pavement and I thought: Well, clearly, if I bang ma feet, it’ll bolt. No. It stayed. I had to go into the road and I almost got hit by a car cos I was walking round a rat. And, see, when I went to the other side of the street, it turned its head to look at me and never moved. I am thinking like: Ya fuckin’ bastard! It was the size of a small poodle. I was frightened.”
“It was a very self-confident pigeon,” I said. “Its shoulders were going like it was an Essex Boy.”
“It’s the only bird that would come near you,” said Janey.
“Any other jollities for the blog?” I asked.
“I’m still,” said Janey, “having a fight with people on Twitter over the word cunt. They still can’t believe you can say that word. The other day, Ricky Gervais put up a post with the word cunt in it. That’s OK cos he’s rich and middle class. But, if I say it…”
“But you won’t,” I asked, “have had any Scottish people objecting?”
“A lot of people,” said Janey.
“Really?” I asked, surprised.
“Yup. It’s really weird that nobody will say anything to me (At the time of writing, Janey has over 16,500 Twitter followers) but, the minute I say cunt, people start to come on Twitter and moan. I always then put up this post that says: If the first time you’ve contacted me is cos you’ve saw the word cunt but, whenever I’ve asked you to donate to the Food Bank and you’ve never contacted me, then that means you’re a cunt.”
“But I mean,” I said, “in Glasgow, it’s the equivalent of an Australian calling someone a ‘bastard’. It’s not strong.”
“They still have an issue with it,” said Janey. “It’s unbelievable that the word cunt makes you bad.”
“When you think,” I said, “of the things they asterisked-out in Victorian novels – H*ll possibly and certainly d***ed.”
“In London in 1960,” said Janey, “they had the court case over Lady Chatterley’s Lover – about the language in that – cunt – and it was found to be not obscene. So I can say the word cunt specifically.”
“Some of us,” I said, “lost the same court case in Norwich in 1996.”
“Did you?” said Janey.
“I was,” I told her, “found guilty of Malicious Communication for calling someone a fucking cunt.”
“You called somebody a cunt?” asked Janey.
“A fucking cunt,” I said. “I thought it was fair comment. The judge said in his ruling that both the words fucking and cunt were ‘clearly indecent’. As far as I could see, that overturned the decision in the Lady Chatterley case under Common Law.”
“You got taken to court for calling somebody a cunt?” asked Janey.
“Yes,” I said.
“You’re a dick,” she told me. “Who did you call a cunt? The Queen?”
“It’s a long story,” I said. “You should read my blog.”
“I usually do. It’s fuckin’ brilliant. Ashley (Janey’s daughter) is obsessed with your North Korean blogs. They’ve made Ashley want to go to North Korea.’
“Everyone should go to North Korea,” I suggested.
“She’s no going to North Korea,” said Janey firmly.
“It’s safe,” I said, “provided you don’t say anything. I used to go to lots of Communist countries because they were safe.”
“I have to say,” said Janey, “that the best laugh I ever had on Twitter was when I contacted Jonathan Ross and asked: Do you remember John Fleming? And he Tweeted back: Is he still going to weird Communist bloc countries? And I said: Yeah. You definitely remember him.”
“That’s it finished,” I told Janey. “That’s the way to do a blog. Pretend it’s about someone else, but it’s really all about Me, Me, Me.”
Filed under Comedy, Legal system, Offensive
Two days ago, I got a message from this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent Anna Smith, who lives on a river in Vancouver. The message said:
Having an oil spill in Vancouver right now!
Everybody here is furious about it. The oil is on the beaches. I am too disgusted to even look at it. It hasn’t arrived in the river yet but it will. Vancouver likes to call itself The World’s Greenest City. Now there is an oil spill in our water. We are dirtier than we think.
In New Westminster, the movies have been replaced by strippers. Cinemas that once screened Cleopatra and Cecil B. DeMille movies have been supplanted by 2 FOR 1 DANCES SUNDAY ALL NIGHT.
Anna also sent me a photo of what she described as “a bear dressed as a rabbit standing very close to a chicken laying marijuana eggs across the street from a 24 hour drugstore, which is not to be confused with the ubiquitous weed dispensaries which have been popping up like mushrooms all over town,” and added:
There are now at least eighty storefront dope dispensaries in Vancouver and new ones are opening every week. None of them have business licences because the city council can’t make up their minds what to license them as.
The laws about dope are so complicated that most people are totally confused and have to smoke a joint to relax and get over the confusion. Different provinces deal with it differently. I think the Federal government has tried to keep it illegal but grows it for people who require it during chemotherapy. This is known as chemo weed.
A pizzeria in Vancouver is now serving slices with marijuana in them for $10 extra – provided you are over 18 and have been prescribed marijuana by a doctor.
A former British Columbia Solicitor General has predicted that Canada will make marijuana totally legal within five years.
And 24 Hours has a picture of a pregnant woman smoking a joint with the headline: Is Pot Safe For Pregnant Women? The article inside says that pot advocates claim it helps reduce nausea and morning sickness.
This morning on the radio I heard a man saying that women should be put on a pedestal because they have to endure things such as childbirth and morning sickness and I thought WHAT? The worst morning sickness experience I ever had was having to throw up out of the window of a bus.
Nauseating, yes. But it’s not as if morning sickness is an actual illness. It’s not a reason to take drugs when pregnant.
There will be more weed news from here on the 20th of this month when the pot heads have a huge festival at the art gallery and there will be a plaza of official booths where helpful young people selling it will suggest which strain is most suitable for you.
Meanwhile, back in London, I met comedy performer and stuntmeister
Ellis at Soho Theatre for a blog about a stunt which I posted two days ago. As we walked along Oxford Street towards Tottenham Court Road station, two new confectionary shops appeared to have opened up, both offering massage parlours in their basements. This seems a new development in retail on Oxford Street.
Also, in England this week, I was sent the first of what I hope will be an ongoing series of communiqués from this blog’s new South Coast correspondent Sandra Smith. (No relation to Anna Smith). She too had paid a visit to Soho in London:
I have just seen LoUis CYfer, the only ‘drag king’ in the UK, at the Admiral Duncan pub. She won the title in June. I thought she was male. But she is, in fact, female. I thought she was fabulous. She used to work behind the bar at the Admiral Duncan.
There was also an Elvis, in a cardigan and a dreadful wig, who even at my advanced age seemed very old indeed. He had quite a powerful voice though – so much so that I thought he was miming. But I was told he wasn’t.
There was also a girl. Well, looked like a girl – could’ve been a fella – who knows? Did a number and a duet with Louis.
There is a clip on YouTube of LoUis CYfer performing at the Admiral Duncan.
And I met a man with an amazing quiff, who was in the Admiral Duncan at the time of the nail bomb in 1999.
He pointed to where he was sitting at the time, which was along the right wall at the very back of the bar. Unusually for me, I did not ask him more about it. It would have been interesting to have heard his experience of the event. I must have been distracted by something else. The front of his white blond hair was pointing skywards, so less of a quiff, but amazing hair nonetheless.
There were a nice bunch in last night, though I did have to try and persuade a couple of them that dancing with me was not a good idea.
They were filming for a documentary called Queens & Kings, due for release in 2016. (Well, there was a man with a camera anyway). They are following LoUis CYfer in the lead-up to her visit to the International Drag Festival in Austin, Texas, at the beginning of May. I should have asked her more, but didn’t, as I was just enjoying the experience. It was an interesting evening.
LoUis CYfer asked if me and the lady sitting next to me were together.
“Oh yes,” I replied, “we’ve known each other since we were fourteen.”
There was a collective Aaaah… from the room, and even Paulo the barman from Brazil, stretched across the bar, beaming encouragingly.
I thought to myself: That’s not what I meant at all.
Returning to Canadian drug affairs, there is a clip on YouTube of a Russian newsreader failing several times to keep a straight face while reporting a particularly detailed story from Canada.
Filed under Canada, Drugs, Eccentrics, Gay, London
Yesterday’s blog was about the current Save Soho! campaign.
This blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent Anna Smith used to work in Soho.
Last night, she told me in an e-mail:
“I enjoyed the song about Soho. The Gargoyle/Nell Gwynn club at 69 Dean Street is where I met nearly all the people who befriended me in London. It was the first place I went to look for work and I got hired immediately and then found spots in the surrounding clubs.
“In Canada we mostly worked at clubs for one week at a time but in Soho, at most clubs, we did one show at a set time and then basically the job went on forever. It seemed like some of the Gargoyle girls had been there for decades! Some seemed to have done the same show for years.
“I spent so many years being a pretend nurse that, to this day, I refer to nurses as ‘real nurses’. I remember one exhausted looking woman dressed like a French maid who looked so bored, clomping in platform heels clockwise and then counter clockwise. She could barely be bothered to lift her feather duster. The men did not usually applaud, being busy with their rain coats.”
Anna now lives in Vancouver, somewhere I increasingly think of as a hotbed of oddities.
“Last week on the bus,” she told me, “I saw an octegenarian lady start punching a young man who had offered her a seat on the bus. She was wearing a long pink plaid skirt, an emerald green beret and carrying a nice cloth New York Public Library bag. People on the bus, including me, comforted the skinny, shaken young man and assured him he had done nothing wrong.
“Meanwhile, adult education is developing at a good pace here. At a meeting last night I learned that local sex workers have been training the Vancouver Police Department as well as selected urology nurses – not in the same room though.
“We also learned about the situation in Arizona, where we were told there is apparently a new law to prevent ‘self rape’.
“Everybody looked confused and asked what that meant.
“A woman explained it is what morbidly Christian Arizona calls masturbation. She said the first person charged under the new law was a teenage boy whose mother called the police when she caught him wanking. The boy was 15 when it happened on 15th November this year and is now in jail facing a three to thirteen year sentence.”
Anna looked further into the boy facing prison for self-rape, which turned up in a National Report online.
She found that “if you Google ‘Paul Horner’ there are links to that name associated with Banksy and the same name has been used in other hoaxes.”
Sadly, too, a Queerty website report that, in the US, the Stop Masturbation Now organisation – which claims to be dedicated to “educating the world about the dangers of self-rape” and which has an extensive website – has begun marketing an anti-masturbation cross for your self-loved one at the bargain price of $199… is an elaborate joke.
But it is good to know that well-planned and backgrounded cunning stunts are alive and well in the Colonies.