Category: London History

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.

Blue plaque special

Blue plaque special

Ronnie Scott gets a gong

It was bucketing down; more like an Asian monsoon than gentle British rain. Appropriate, I suppose, as there were a hundred of us gathered in Chinatown getting soaked. Suddenly a saxophonist stuck his head out of an upstairs window and started to play.

English Heritage were honouring the old jazzer, Ronnie Scott, with a blue plaque at the location of his original club on Gerrard Street. The weather was not playing along.

On the plaque Ronnie is cited as jazz musician and raconteur. His gags were legendary: ‘I love this club, it’s just like home: filthy and full of strangers.’ Or how about: ‘You don’t seem very impressed. Why don’t you all hold hands and see if you can contact the living?……It’s the first time I’ve seen dead people smoke.

The club was located on Gerrard Street from 1959 until 1965 and was an attempt to emulate the smoky jazz clubs of New York. They presented many famous musicians there: Zoot Sims, Roland Kirk, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, Stan Getz and Ben Webster.

Of course, these names will mean nothing to many people so how about Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone, Jeff Beck, Van Morrison and Prince who’ve all appeared at the club where it now resides on Frith Street.

Simon Cooke, the MD at the club, who’s a mate of mine said: “Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club has led the way in British Jazz for 60 years through its innovative programming and championing of the music and musicians. An English Heritage Blue Plaque is a fine acknowledgement of the contribution that Ronnie Scott himself made to the British Jazz scene.” He also said a lot of stuff that was entirely unprintable.

I should declare an interest here and that interest is I love jazz and have been going to the club since the late 70’s. In fact, I was there last night to see the mighty Mingus Big Band.

Coincidently I was also there the night Ronnie died on 23rd December 1996. George Melly was appearing as he did for years over the Christmas period and rather bizarrely, said nothing about Ronnie’s passing.

But back to happier matters, as the rain beat down the saxophonist (Alex Garnett, part of the club’s house band) played Ronnie Scott’s own saxophone to wild and wet applause as Ronnie’s widow Mary looked on.

Ronnie’s is a London treasure; a fantastic venue presenting wonderful musicians and for a jazz club even the food is pretty good. Make sure you get along there sometime soon.

The Oval Cook Book

The Oval Cook Book

Fed up with Brexit Britain? Had enough of Little England? Well here’s an idea, go buy a cookbook, more specifically The Oval Cook Book. As the author, Veronica Parker, says in her introduction: ‘In 2016 when we voted very narrowly to leave the EU, it felt as if all sorts of divisions had been opened up in our society.’ She wanted to heal those divisions where she could and set about creating a diversity cookbook which celebrates the lives and recipes of Kennington residents who have come from the four corners of the world.

Meet Akin Mustafa, originally from Cyprus, who runs the electrical shop on Clapham Road. He studied electrical engineering but fled the island after partition. Akin can fix anything from a toaster to an old VHS video machine and he can also fix a ‘Turkish Bean Salad’.

There’s a fine picture of Jasvir Singh receiving an OBE from Prince William for his services to social cohesion. His parents are both Punjabi Sikhs and the recipe he contributes to the book is ‘Turka Dhal’, that wonderful Indian dish with red lentils at its heart.

Walk down Coney Lane and you’ll come to Ashmole Stores run by the Patel brothers Bav and Prash. They came to the UK when Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of Ugandan Asians. The brother’s parents, together with their two sisters, moved to Leicester, then came to London and set up their shop in 1984. Bav is a Millwall supporter but don’t hold that against him. Their recipe is for ‘Curried Meatballs’.

Now you’re already getting hungry and wondering where this nourishing book can be found, which leads me to Jeanne Joyce who runs the gift shop Max & Melia. Jeanne was brought up in Normandy, came to England as an au pair and made London her home. Her recipe is for ‘Tomato, Onion and Hearts of Palm Salad’.

In 2018 Max & Melia was named London Gift Retailer of the Year. The book is on sale at their store and costs eight pounds. Five pounds of every copy sold is donated to the Triangle Adventure Playground just off Claylands Road. So far £1400 has been raised to support this excellent cause.

There are fascinating life stories in this book, which go into far more detail than is contained here. Find out more about the lives of immigrants who have made Lambeth their home. We are lucky to have them, and now we are lucky to have their recipes.

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.

First Blog Birthday

First Blog Birthday

Today is my blog-anniversary, A Little London Life is exactly a year old. Thanks to all of you who have been reading and commenting, I hope you’re enjoying the ride. I relish the writing process and it’s great to see that the blog is starting to build a sizeable readership. Spread the word if you feel so inclined and if there are stories out there you think I should be covering, let me know.

I finally went to see the RA Summer Exhibition today just before it closes. The collage above has some of my favourite bits.

Old Oval: As time goes by

Old Oval: As time goes by

Neighbourhood architects, Rolfe Judd, has its offices on Claylands Road SW8 in what was once a Congregational Chapel. (See above) It’s always been a local firm, starting out in premises on Kennington Road in 1968 and moving to its present site in 1982.

It now employs more than seventy architects and town planners and works on upscale projects at the Oval cricket ground and Nine Elms Point in Vauxhall. They recently held a summer fete where they displayed pictures of our neighbourhood from bygone days.

Kate Ludden, who works there as a business administrator, kindly sent me copies of the pictures which I thought you might like to see in case you missed their event.

I’ve mixed their shots with ones I took today.

Claylands Road

Clapham Road

Fentiman Road

A risk register of loathing

A risk register of loathing

Journalists: not a popular bunch by and large. In these turbulent days of supposed fake news, reporters don’t inspire much public trust. This is hardly new. Princess Diana died while being pursued by paparazzi and at the time I think the only person disliked more than reporters was her husband Prince Charles.

Back then, I was regularly sent out to do perhaps the most useless form of television journalism: Vox Pops. This is where you ask members of the public what they think about the topic of the day. When asked about the heir to the throne, people told me in pretty fruity language that he should never be King. Perhaps his star has risen a little since then.

Balkans

In 1992 a heady dose of pig-headed nationalism and long supressed violence got the conflict in the Balkans kick-started. Here the various warring parties thought that on balance, the best kind of journalist was a dead journalist. Obviously, reporters had died in conflicts before, caught up in the cross-fire, but as far as I’m aware this was the first time they were seen as the enemy and targeted. Someone I knew was travelling down sniper’s alley in Sarajevo in a van marked TV on the back door. To make his point a sniper placed a bullet right between the T and the V which struck and killed a young reporter inside.

But journos rarely see themselves as victims. We are Millwall: You all hate us, we don’t care.

Real Estate

Journalists could always take comfort in the fact that on the risk register of loathing there were at least two groups below us: Estate Agents and Bankers.

Apparently, such is the rake off in real estate at the moment that in Central London, the sale of one house is enough to pay the running costs of an agent’s office for a year and that includes salaries, rent and rates. Nice work if you can get it.

It’s the small things that irritate. When my family moved to Oval SW8 at the turn of the century it was a sleepy enclave dissected by major roads getting people and goods in and out of the city centre. Planning laws changed, and we now live a stone’s throw from the biggest building site in Europe that stretches from Vauxhall down Nine Elms Lane, past the new US Embassy and fetches up at Battersea Power Station. Whether there are enough oligarchs to buys these over-priced hutches is at best doubtful

Close to us, is a high-rise block that mimics the Flat Iron Building in New York along with a series of apartments in low rise townhouses. They are advertised as Luxury Apartments Built in Britain’s Famous Brick. Except they aren’t. They are built of steel and glass and clad in brick. It is real brick, I’ve had a close look, but it’s half an inch thin and stuck to a metal frame that’s attached to the side of the building. Built in brick? Fake news.

But as elsewhere in the economy, maybe times are getting tough in realty as American’s call it. I see hardly any For Sale signs on our streets, but what I do see is a proliferation of builder’s vans with houses everywhere being re-booted, with loft extensions put in for young adults who can’t afford to leave home and side returns for that dream dining room and kitchen you always craved. Not surprising really, if you sell a house and move you might as well, go into your garden armed with not less that £50,000 and chuck it on the barbeque. Doing up is the new moving out.

Giving the realtor community the benefit of the doubt, I walked into a local estate agent and asked if they no longer used For Sale boards. I was told that boards were still very much part of their sales approach. I said, there are none around here, business must be terrible. To which the reply came: ‘not at all, business is buoyant.’

Banking Barons

The financial sector, with its Banking Barons or in Tom Wolfe’s famous phrase ‘The Masters of the Universe’ doesn’t inspire much love either. Ten years ago, the Western World suffered the worst financial crash since the 30s. Following the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the whole banking system was just hours away from turning turtle and taking us all down with it. In George W Bush’s words: ‘This sucker could go down.’

Ultimately that didn’t happen as the government decided the taxpayer should step up and bail out the ailing banks. Very decent of us, but as a result we’ve all had to live with austerity and reduced public services for a decade and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.

But what of the bankers who caused this mess? Was anyone prosecuted or held to account? They were not. It seems that ‘Masters of the Universe’ can make hay with their massive bonuses when the sun is shining, but when things turn nasty, it’s up to you and me to pick up the tab. And just in case you are concerned the poor loves are suffering, the bonus pool in UK finance last year was £15 billion, the largest since 2007.

There you have it, a risk register of loathing: Journos, Estate Agents and Bankers, what a threesome! Where bloggers fall in this register, I’ll leave up to you.