I have a handwritten manuscript for an unpublished reminiscence from Sid’s youth. Someone began transcribing it, but (for reasons) I’m not sure who. At the time I scanned the handwritten pages, it seems that a sixth page was not with the rest. If you have suggestions for corrections, please get in touch.
I’m publishing it now in an unfinished state to allow myself to work on it as I’m able.
SOHO: Or Tales of Three Cafés
The `Swiss’, Old Compton Street
I was first introduced to the ‘Swiss’ café during my first visit to London in 1947 by a couple of friends from my home tocan of Birmingham who were en route for a holiday in Paris. It was not until I came to live in London in 1950, though, that I really got to know it.
The ‘Swiss’ was a large, narrow café which sold coffee and snacks and had a large rack at the back of the counter for those habitués who had no fixed address and they were many — or who preferred that their post was not delivered to where they lived.
One of its most frequent customers was Iron-Foot Jack (John Greave), fairground man, confidence trickster, a garrulous but ?? hearted man.
One of his legs was much shorter than the other and he wore an iron extension to it which gave rise to his nickname. He claimed that a shark had bitten his toe in the Pacific, but no one ever believed him because he still had his foot attached to it. All of his life Jack had been short of ‘ready cash’ and had resorted to various dodges (never [a] regular job) to raise money. These ranged from running a pseudo-Eastern religious cuit to opening a ‘fish café’ with no cooking equipment, the meals being bought by an accomplice from a nearby fish and chip shop, smuggled in through the back door, transferred onto plates and served with a frown[?] by Jack to his customers. When I knew him he scrounged a living by selling brass[?] and vire ornaments which he would shape while waiting for someone to treat to a cup of tea. He was always eager to show the company[?] his collection of tattered press cuttings about his time[?] as “King of Bohemia” to teint at secret contact[?] with the ?????? at least or ?????? the equal of Eastern philosophy. Thoroughly good-humoured he only became bitter when referring to a book about him by Mark Benney called “What Rough Beast?” Benney, he averred (not without reason), had slandered him and he always recommended his listener to read Herbert[?] Hall, “My Days at Night”, which gave a much more sympathetic accourt of him.
Another habitué was the poet Iris Arthur[?], who dressed as artists are romantically supposed to dress, complete with a cravat. She was always complaining in a voice that could be heard throughout the café about her troubles or the latest friend who had let her down, but she was generous with
her encouragement of aspiring writers and published their efforts in a magazine she edited.
Amongst the other regulars was a man who looked and dressed like one of Three Musketeers and made his living as a swordsman[?] in various historical films. Then there was “Charles”, who was another bit player in the cinema and who eked out his irregular income by taking band selling pornographic photographe. His nature[?] was that of a ?? matinée idol. He once amused us with a pretty[?] account of when he was acting with Charles Chaplin in “A King in New York”, although whether he actually had a part in that film I never discovered. He later committed ?? while serving a sentence for drug-smuggling in Germany.
Only[?] the drawback in The Swiss was that it closed at 7.00 pm, the gond French couple who kept it no doubt grateful[ly] closing their door to return home somewhat wearied[?] by “la vie bohème”.
Evening then would fend me, at first, in the Alexandria, a Greek-Cypriot café, whose clientele were even more down at heel than that of The Swiss, and whose “characters” were fewer. Iron-Foot Jack would moue his considerable[?] bulk there, alter the latter had closed but I cannot remember many others of the Old Compton Street crowd doing the same. We did have, from time to time, a visit from Quentin Crisp, who held court at the back of the café and whose make-up was mach admired by some of the young women regulars. More typical, however, was a bearded, down-at-heel man, who shuffled around with a bundle of dirty newspapers which, he claimed, proved he was the bastard half-brother of the Duke of Edinburgh. A few anarchists, a minuscule Trotskyite sect, assorted paltry thieves and other “deviants” completed the picture.
There were, of course, the odd ?? who were momentarily fascinated by this view of[?] “the louver depths”. One evening I tried ?? to ?? the ?? denizen[?], a former army intelligence officer who at that time was sympathetic towards[?] the anarchist views I then held. (Alter the end of World War 2 he had been sent to spy on Polish[?] in Germany[?] which had aroused his interest in radical ideologies.) He was accompanied by his current girl friend, an
expensively dressed and very upper crust lady, who was thrilled by her encounter with such a motley crew of derelicts and failures with its ?? of idealistic world changers. While were sitting there a drunk burst through the front door and demanded to be served. The Cypriot proprietor told him to clear off, whereupon the drunk swept every ?? thing from the counter. He then loudly announced[?] his intention of calling the police and staggered over to the telephone. While he was dialling in came two policemen who had been passing by and had been seen by one of the staff who had slipped out unnoticed by the drunk. One tapped him on the shoulder in the approved[?] fashion. He swung round and said “Blimey, that was quick!”, only to be hauled off to the local police station. Ned’s friend was horrified. “The poor man”, she said, “couldn’t someone have told the police what had really happened?” I tried to explain that hardly anyone on the café would risk doing such a thing since most had been in trouble with the police at one time or another.
After a time I abandoned The Alexandria for an even shabbier dive known as Tony’s. The ground-floor of the café, another Greek-Cypriot one, was comparatively clean, but [it] was the basement where the regulars congregated. However, ?? the ground floor ?? the scene of a ?? encounter between Mat Kavanagh, a veteran Irish anarchist, and Tony Turner[?], half Irish, half Maori, the then star orator at the SPGB [Socialist Party of Great Britain]. Botte were short[?], botte were Bloquent, but Mat lacked Tony’s mordant wit. One day, it seems, Mat was seated at a table with several young women whom he was no doubt regaling with tall stories about his “revolutionary” action when he spotted Turner entering the café. “Hello, Tony me boy”, quoth Mat, “corne and meet me darters!” “Daughters, you say”, growled Turner, “you incestuous old bastard you!”
The basement, in contrant, was a dirty dump. The ceiling always seemed on the edge[?] of the ?? and it was ?? that it ??? for dead insects to drop from it onto the tables. Nonetheless, for me at that time it represented the sort of place where all good rebels and weekend bohemians should be and be seen to be. It was presided over by a villainous looking cook called George whose speciality was leering at all the women customers and trying to grope them when he had the chance. He was, at the same time, a passable cook.
Tony’s was frequented not only by the usual would-be bohemians and Soho down and outs, but also by some petty crooks who liked to act as tough guys. One evening, for example, I was sitting there with a friend (Roy ?? or John Bishop I cannot remember which) and an Italian anarchist known only as Il Sole (The Sun) who was a professed smuggler mostly concerned[?] with transferring contraband tobacco between Switzerland and Italy. One of the would-be toughs swaggered up to us and pulled back his jacket to reveal a knife. Il Sole simply looked at him and, without a word, the “tough” turned away and swiftly disappeared. Our Italian comrade was no comic-opera Southem type, but a cool and controlled Northemer, one look at whom quickly convinced the reckless that to tamper with him was likely to proue very painful.