French letter from Soho
For a certain type of Londoner “The French” is as much part of his birthright as his football team, the police station where he was questioned, his favourite park and where he lost his virginity. As the pink pound and greedy landords change the red and zany blooded heart of bohemian London, Soho ,the French like some beleaguered garrison holds out.
I came to it past its pomp. The list of authors and artists who made it famous in the 40s,50s and 60s was a kind of first eleven of a type. Behan,Thomas, Freud, Bacon,Mortimer, John , Lowry,Plath,Farson. , all gone by the earl seventies, When I started working in the centre of London as a journalist I remember stumbling into the place at midday. Already a group of madmen were celebrating some account win. One bottle of bubbly drunk another being opened. Lunch still an hour away. This was life on a different planet. It continues.
Round the corner Jeffery Bernard and Private Eye were still making myths in the Coach and Horses. There of course beer was only sold in pints. Somewhere else, Laurie Lee was cadging drinks(not least from me) in the Queens Elm.
Later the poet Ormsby and I used the place as our diving off point for our Saturday pm carouses. Sometimes tv star Murray would join us but never for long.Often these afternoons would end with a snooze in the cinema. Sometimes Chinese. Occasionally an adventure in La Marche in Berwick Street. Always a laugh. We became aware of a smartly dressed man who sat in the corner. We started saying hello, the barmaid told us he never spoke
Once while standing outside I was accosted by one of the “last of Soho’s characte. The so called queen of Soho Pam Jennings a dwarf like beggar who died in 2012. She asked me for a £1..
I said that not good enough, she had to give me value. So she simply said ,I’m a Soho icon. It made me laugh and I coughed up. But she wasn’t telling a lie.
And so the French pub still attracts the raffish roughs,those who still can undsterand a culture which demands mobiles must used outside, serves more pastis than anywhere else I n London and beer only by the half. There with Gaston serving the Free French made their home in the war, there Thomas left Under Milk Wood under a chair,Plath signed the contract for Collossus and Behan wrote The Quare Fellow. And where I once gave Soho Pam a £1.
Last week when the poet and I were drinking the house red we fell among some academics from Bristol. Dylan Thomas they were not. Then neither were we. But then Dylan was a bit of a shit but then most creative people are.
If you scroll down to the famous photo. Gaston who made the pub the French is sitting by the window. The pub celebrates its centenary this year.