Category: Arts Culture

Shuttered Soho

Lockdown Lowdown 16.5.20

Took the bike and trundled up to Soho at 8am this morning to see if it still existed. It’s been my preferred place to have fun for more than forty years. Plenty of nothing going on now.

Soho Square: Lot of homeless people being cleared out by police
Want to be back at Ronnie’s the night it re-opens.

See you there when it all wakes up.

Suiting The Beatles

Suiting The Beatles

Dougie Millings made suits for the Beatles, in fact he made every suit featured in the Fab Four’s films: ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and ‘Help!’  Last night I met Gordon Millings, Dougie’s son, who gave a talk about those fab days and showed us the original patterns created for the Beatles’ outfits.

Gordon Millings, Guy Hills of Dashing Tweeds and bespoke cutter Dan MacAngus

Gordon, born in 1945, was three years younger that Paul and almost the same age as George. His Dad’s shop was on Old Compton Street in Soho, two doors down from the 2i’s Coffee Bar. The 2i’s was a famous music venue in its day and can claim to be the birthplace of British rock & roll. A young Cliff Richard got his start there as did the Shadows, Adam Faith, Joe Brown and Johnny Kidd.

When these singers started to rake in some teen-generated cash they wandered over to Dougie’s to get suited and booted. Cliff was the first to do this and started sporting Millings’ clobber on the box.

Word made its way to Liverpool and Brian Epstein brought Gerry and The Pacemakers down for a fitting. Brian told Dougie the next time he was in town, he was bringing a new band. The Beatles showed up with quiffs and leathers but left with a set of collarless Nehru-style jackets.

At the time Gordon was training as a cutter at Huntsman on Saville Row. He used to pop back to his Dad’s shop at lunchtime to help him out. Once the Beatles became famous, Millings had to move to bigger premises and employed around eight tailors to meet demand. Back then a bespoke Saville Row suit cost £35, today you’re looking at £5,000 or more.

Last night’s talk took place at Dashing Tweeds who have taken the original designs and created new suits according the Beatles’ patterns. There’s a cape jacket which can be seen on the Help! album cover, a collarless jacket and a Teddy Boy style jacket which was worn by Lennon at the London Palladium.

On a final note, Keith Moon was also a customer and was buried in one of Dougie’s dark blue suits. Trouble was, as Gordon told me last night, he had forgotten to pay.

Photo London: Visual treat

Photo London: Visual treat

I took a stroll to the Photo London Exhibition at Somerset House with Gyuri Szabo. He’s an old friend of mine, and an amazing photographer, who decoded many of the photographs for me and made sense of some I didn’t understand.

I usually let the words do the talking on this blog, with pictures something of an afterthought, but with Gyuri taking shots as we went around and the organisers kindly allowing me to use a few of the exhibition pictures, I thought I’d turn the tables and give you a visual treat.

Nick Brandt ‘Bus Station with Elephant and Red Bus’

Gyuri Szabo

Tom Wood ‘Mad Max’

Gyuri Szabo

Tom Wood ‘Sit Down Great Homer Street’

Gyuri Szabo

Tony Gum ‘Milk the Bok’

Jamel Shabazz, ‘The Playboy’

Gyuri Szabo

 


 

 


The Hard Yard

The Hard Yard

This is why I love London and perhaps it’s one of the reasons you do too. To be fair you may not even like going to the theatre and do you really want to watch a play written in 1953 that dramatizes the Salem Witch trials that took place in 1692 which is an allegory on the McCarthyism that was plaquing the US at the time the play was written? The answer to that tangled list of questions is actually yes, but let me explain.

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is currently playing at The Yard Theatre in Stratford and while I’m loath to do reviews on this blog, I leave that to others, I’ll just say this an extraordinary production that left the audience breathless the night I went. If anything, the director, Jay Miller packs too much into the show, hardly allowing the play to settle, but let’s not carp. The play starts with the cast sitting in chairs with their names on the seat-back. They start talking in British accents and I thought well OK, most would have just arrived in America and perhaps would retain their original accent whatever that sounded like in the 17th century. But gradually as the action gets under way their accents change to American and modern dress is replaced by period costumes. This is just one of the striking aspects of this production.

So why does this make me love London? Well it’s fairly obvious. This is a stellar production with a stellar cast, and everyone complains how expensive London is, but here in Stratford an evening at The Yard will cost you, top price £21. If you’re under 25 and turn up on the night and there are tickets available, then it’s yours for a fiver. I go to The National Theatre and the West End quite a bit and inevitably it’s full of middle aged, middle class people like me. Who else can afford it? Here at the Yard it’s stuffed with young people eager for a theatrical treat. And that is exactly what they get.

The theatre seats may be hard and made from plastic stacking chairs that have been torn apart and screwed into a wooden amphitheatre. The whole place was built out of salvaged material and has the feel of make do and mend, but don’t let that put you off. Twenty-one quid for a world class show; well you’d be foolish not to.

The Yard Theatre, it’s another London wonder.


 

Denmark Street Blues

Denmark Street Blues

I signed one of those on-line petitions the other day to ‘save’ Denmark Street. For those who don’t know, Denmark Street was once the Rock & Roll capital of London. I’m not entirely sure why I thought it was a place worth preserving. In my almost 40 years of visiting ‘Tin Pan Alley’ as it used to be called, I’ve received, almost nothing but snotty nosed, boot-faced condescension from the so-called sales people that frequent the music shops. Most of them look like roadies who may be wonderful at coiling cables but would struggle to sell water in a desert.

The patronising attitude must have seeped into the brickwork, because while the hair styles from 1970 to the present day may have changed their withering looks haven’t. But we’ll come to all that in a moment.

Denmark Street is located just east of Soho and branches off Charing Cross Road just south of Tottenham Court Road. It runs for only 300 metres or so but in its hey-day it was what Harley Street is to medics and what Fleet Street used to be to newspapers. It was the beating heart of London Rock & Roll.

In the 50s and 60s it was home to music publishers, but times changed, and it gave way to recording studios, music clubs and musical instrument shops.

In the 60s the Rolling Stones recorded their first album at Regent Sound located at 4 Denmark Street and Elton John and Bernie Taupin wrote ‘Your song’ at offices belonging to music publisher Dick James. The 70s saw the Sex Pistols living and recording there. From 1994 until last year the 12 Bar Club played host to the likes of Jeff Buckley, Bert Jansch and KT Tunstall. It has quite a musical history.

Today, Denmark Street is the victim of a triple whammy: (can you have a triple whammy?) Creeping gentrification, the Crossrail development at Tottenham Court Road and I’m guessing the cold hand of Amazon.

Tin Pan Ally and I go way back, and over the years I’ve been there to buy all matter of guitar playing stuff, but I want to tell you about my first and last visits.

In 1970, I was a budding guitar player which made me virtually identical to just about every other 16-year-old in the western world. But where I differed from all the other players was not in talent, but rather that I had £15 in my pocket. Fifteen quid that was to be spent on my first proper amplifier and there was only one place to go to get it.

I was living with my parents in a village just outside Northampton and I bought an amplifier in a local junk shop that had come out of the Savoy cinema. It was massively heavy, produced almost no volume and was utterly useless.

It was decided, I was to go to London by train, buy an amplifier and return all in one day, ALL BY MYSELF. That rather dull, repetitive sentence does scant justice to the head-spinning, cart-wheeling excitement, that a day in London at the Rock & Roll centre of the universe conjured up. I could barely sleep, and what’s more, I had a new pair of jeans.

To my parents, a trip to London was a special occasion, dressing up was obligatory and I totally bought into that concept. Let me tell you about the new jeans. They were skin tight, and I’d taken my mother’s pinking shears to the generously endowed flairs that spread like spinnakers from my ankles. I looked like I’d been attacked by wolves. Topping them off was a psychedelic tie-dyed T-shirt and a World War 2 military great coat, the latter bought at an army surplus store. It had a small hole in it and I was always slightly bothered that it’s previous owner might have met his end while wearing it.

Top look I’m sure you’ll agree, except my mother didn’t. What DO you think you look like? You can’t go to London looking like that, was the general tenor of her remarks. If I was to retain that all important £15 a compromise had to be reached. And then I had a brain-wave.

Yes of course Mum, I’ll change my trousers and turn down the volume on my shirt. Rather a quick back down in the face of authority you might be thinking. To which I reply HA! You are underestimating the ingenuity of a 16-year-old. I had a largish shoulder bag that I used for carrying albums into which I shoved the ripped jeans and eye-melting T-shirt. Once aboard the train I changed outfits and, I like to think, looked magnificent. Surely, I’d meet rock stars in Denmark Street and we could exchange cool, sardonic nods of recognition. I might also meet girls, a commodity that seemed non-existent in Northampton.

Sadly, the rock stars must have been getting their heads together in the country that day and as for girls, well my extravagant look didn’t have the desired effect.

Because Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton cranked their axes through Marshall amps, I had to have one, but fifteen notes didn’t cut it, so I settled for a Park amplifier instead. This was grudgingly sold to me by a long-haired lout who could barely get out of his chair such was the industrial level of contempt he felt for the whey-faced plank-spanker standing in front of him. Walking out with my prized possession I was philosophical. Sod him for a game of soldiers, I thought, I now own a black, fifty-watt amplifier. Heaven on earth.

A week later I took it to school and someone nicked it. Rock & Roll dreams snuffed out.

Last month I visited Denmark Street in search of mid-priced acoustic guitar to take travelling. I was after an instrument that could get thrown around without too much concern if it got the odd dink or scratch. One massive improvement on being 16 now rather than in 1970 is that for £300 you can score yourself a highly playable, decent sounding guitar. The guitars I was brought up on were untunable and almost unplayable. Or was that my lack of talent?

So, I’m upstairs at Hank’s and the guitar jockey is handing out various specimens for me to try. Just prior to this visit I’d figured out quite a nifty version of the Gershwin classic ‘Summertime.’ It’s not exactly hard to play but involves a descending bass line and some rather groovy chord changes. Next thing I know the guitar sales person looks round and says, ‘Wow, that’s great, how do you do that, could you show me what you’re playing there?’

Young people today, they don’t have a clue how to behave.

In case you’re wondering about the guitar in the picture, it’s a Mexican made Fender Stratocaster that was produced in conjunction with Transport For London.

Atheist meets God in novel conundrum

Atheist meets God in novel conundrum

Last night Mrs Preen attended two book launches, one at the Reform Club in Pall Mall, the other at Waterstones in Islington. I know it seems unlikely, but women are allowed into The Reform and have been since 1981. So early days, but some of the members are still visibly shaken. Not that they didn’t try to exclude the wife. She was almost slung out on account of bare shoulders and shockingly primitive shoes – sandals.

As there were government ministers present they served scallops, steak tartare and a daikon radish dip guzzled down with fine Club claret. I was not invited, but the second event proved more down-to-earth – they served peanuts. I know that, because I ate most of them.

As to what book was launched at The Reform I forgot to ask (call yourself a journalist?) but I can tell you at Waterstones Simon Edge unleashed his latest novel ‘The Hurtle of Hell’. It’s the story of an atheist who meets God. Full disclosure: he’s an old friend. Simon that is, not God.

The author read the opening chapter where the hero, Stefano Cartwright, almost drowns, has a near death experience, and travels along a bright white tube of light where he reveals: ‘I think I just saw the eye of God.’

This is Edge’s second novel. The First was the Hopkins Conundrum which as improbable as it may seem involved a Welsh pub landlord, his faltering love life, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and a covey of shipwrecked nuns. Simon likes to paint on a broad canvas.

Talking of painting, the latest novel’s cover was created by cartoonist David Shenton, which as you can see from the picture is fortunate, as he looks like God.

‘The Hurtle of Hell’ is packed in my suitcase and will be coming with me on holiday to Italy next week. I’m sure Stefano will make a great travelling companion.

Click here to bag yourself a copy.

Shakespeare in Albert Square

Shakespeare in Albert Square

Shakespeare in Albert Square? To be or not to be: you muppet! No, not EastEnders Albert Square, this one is tucked between Clapham Road and South Lambeth Road in our little piece of heaven that is either Oval, Stockwell or Vauxhall depending on your point of view or which estate agent you talk to.

Albert Square SW8 is quite a grand affair with high, white, hansom houses that stretch five stories and ring this pleasant patch of green that is overseen by a fine example of that London wonder, the London Plane. Local legend has it that one of the houses contains Joanna Lumley.

Every June, a Friday evening is given over to an alfresco production of a Shakespeare play. Last night the Quite Right Theatre Company gave us a rip-roaring version of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’. They sang, they danced, they spoke verse, they battled the wail of planes descending into Heathrow, they didn’t flinch as motorbikes roared round the square and they remained unperturbed by growling dogs and the munching, wine swilling residents of our community.

For a modern audience, The Taming of the Shrew is freighted with a few problems as it deals with Petruchio trying and succeeding in taming his wife Kate. It doesn’t quite fit with the #MeToo generation, but Izzy Daws, who played Katherine, didn’t look like someone who would put up with any kind of misogyny. Plus, she has some great lines: ‘If I be waspish, best beware my sting.’

But with due respect to the actors, the plot may not have been uppermost in people’s minds last night, as this event is never quite sure if it’s a play with a picnic or a picnic with a play. Whatever it is, it’s a great communal event where children turn cartwheels, dogs steal from picnic baskets and you meet friends you haven’t seen in a while. Come back next year Quite Right Theatre; you bring the play and we’ll bring the picnic.