As it turns out, the battle to save Folgate Street was successful, although I don’t think our song can claim credit for the victory. Rather marvellously, in the process of preparing their case for opposing the building, someone dug up a set of ancient documents which suggested that Norton Folgate may still have rights to act as an independent state. It was like
Passport to Pimlico
, twenty-first-century style. If you’re ever walking east down Bishopsgate towards Shoreditch High Street and take a turn to the right just before you reach Commercial Road, you’ll still find Folgate Street in all its Edwardian glory. I urge you to do it sometime soon, because next time the builders come to call it may not be so lucky.
In many ways this book is an extension of that Folgate Street song - my attempt to piece together the story of some other special London places, and discover what the modern-day city can reveal about the past. But it’s not only the fabric of the city that I’ll be exploring, it’s also the tales of the people who’ve helped build and preserve it. As I’ve come to realise over the years, it’s often the same story with flesh and blood as it is with bricks and mortar: it’s all too easy to take them for granted until you wake up one day and find out they’re gone.The Last Rag-and-Bone Man
I have lived in north London on and off for most of my life. It’s an area rich in street characters of all sorts, but one gentleman in particular provided one of the finest sights for about as long as I can remember: the huge silhouette of Alf Masterson, the rag-and-bone man, coming up over one of Highgate’s hills, pushing his handcart, loaded up with everything from trombones to globes and bits of furniture of every shape and size. His Jack Russell, Lucky, up front, snout forward, sniffing the air, like a miniature figurehead on the prow of Alf’s creaking and clanking ship of the road, riding the high seas of north London in search of booty. And even without sails he could shift; take your eye off him for a second and he was gone, over the hill and far away, leaving just the echoes of his handbell and his strange, timeless cry. Whooah ooha! The words that were once hidden in this indecipherable call have long since been lost in the generations, but the cry remained as much part of Alf as his cart and his faithful dog.
Alf’s various rounds brought him down my street every Tuesday morning at 9 a.m. on the dot, whooahing and ring-a-dinging. And if you wanted to know anything that was going on in the area, he was your man. He spent every day trudging these streets, come rain or shine, and could tell you everything from forthcoming council parking plans to the dodgy dealings of just about everyone in the borough. For all the disparate people hanging about at home all day - the old, young mums, out of work actors, the unemployed, the mad, me - he was like a beam of sunshine coming down the road and he treated everybody exactly the same. He was always up for a chat, with one eye over your shoulder to see what might be lurking in your hallway. He permanently had a cigar on the go and if he was in the mood he’d offer you one too, though they were normally reserved for people who had given him something substantial. I once gave him a decent piece, an oak chest of drawers, and I would always get an extra ring of his bell when he passed by my front door. But it would never be long before his feet would be itching and he’d be off up the road.
Once my nephew, Jerome, and a few of his pals from school were discussing possible projects for their film club and I suggested that Alf doing his round might make an interesting subject. We met at Alf’s place in Kentish Town one crisp February morning, as arranged. The teacher in charge of the club wasn’t able to make it, so I stood in to supervise. Alf was very obliging, which was lucky since the camera equipment was quite new to the boys and I didn’t have a clue. It took a little time to set up and Alf had finished unchaining his barrow from the lamppost and was starting to get a bit fidgety. Lucky was starting to whine. Apart from race days at Ascot - Alf was a great horse-racing fan - this daily routine had been the same for years. Now he was starting to wonder what treasures he was being held back from discovering and Lucky couldn’t understand why the sights and smells of the back streets of north London were not flying past his nostrils yet.
Finally the film crew were ready. We’d set up at the end of his road and on the shout of ‘Action!’ he was off. The boys got a lovely shot of him coming down the hill chugging on a cigar butt, brown fedora on the back of his head, the metal-rimmed wheels of the barrow rattling and rolling round the corner into Kentish Town Road. Beautiful, they were off to a flyer. Jerome picked up the camera on its tripod and we jogged round to the main road to see where Alf had headed. Well, he hadn’t gone left to Camden Town, so he must have turned right heading for Highgate. We set off in hot pursuit but soon realised he hadn’t gone that way either. We looked left and right again, he was nowhere to be seen. He’d simply vanished. We hadn’t anticipated how fast he could go, but Alf later told me that he reckoned to cover 15 miles or more on a good day. And up some pretty steep hills too. No mean feat pushing that lumbering cart.
Sadly, Alf passed away in 2007. I heard the news from a reporter at the
Camden New Journal
who’d done a piece on him. It was a big shock, because Alf always seemed indestructible to me, an ox of a man and a constant in an ever-changing world.
When I got home that evening from rehearsing with Madness for a gig at Ascot racecourse at the weekend I found a box of cigars and this note on my doorstep.
Hi Graham (aka Suggs),
I am sorry that we have all lost Alf. I know you have a lot on. My dad had some dreams in his last weeks. He loved Ascot; this will be the first Ascot race meeting that he will not attend in 43 years. This year Ascot is on his birthday, 11 August, and there is a race meeting that day. One of his wishes was that his best friend and I go to the race meeting that day. My dad had a dream that he and myself called to see you. In the dream he said to you, ‘Hi, play me a song, I am not well.’ I had to tell him it was just a dream. He said I was to give you a box of cigars that he had kept for you, if he did not get a chance to call and see you. Could you please play him a song that night at Ascot? My dad would have loved that. One for the rag-and-bone man. Thanks so much.
Lots of love,
Damian, Alf’s son
I did sing him a song that night and even added a bit of ‘wooah ooah!’ for good measure. Before he died I had the chance to ask Alf what it was he had been shouting for 40-odd years as he came down the road ringing his bell. He thought for a moment and said, ‘D’you know what? I haven’t got a clue.’ Now that Alf has gone, there’s no one else left who could answer the question. He was greatly loved and is sorely missed. He did as much, if not more, for the community as anyone paid by the council. Alf, the last of that noble London breed, the rag-and-bone man.
So this book is also a celebration of the people like Alf who are just as much a part of the fabric of London as its streets and buildings.
You can’t stop the clock of progress, or travel back in time - and nor would I want to. I love this city as it is today, and I can’t wait to find out what it’ll be like tomorrow. But sometimes it’s good to stop for a breather and take the time to celebrate the best bits of the past before they head off over the hill like Alf and his cart, a last ring of the bell swallowed up by the sound of the traffic.
have a pad in Soho; well, it’s a helipad actually, located on the roof of the 24-storey tower block where I have an apartment. There are dozens of heli garages on the rooftop of my building, so the skies above the glass-canopied streets of Soho can get a little congested if all my neighbours decide to take their helicopters for a whirl at the same time, especially if the people in the five identical tower blocks nearby decide to take flight too. Still, if I’m venturing no further than the French House for a cold drink, I usually navigate my way by high-tech gondola along the network of rooftop canals and, if I’ve remembered to bring my Speedos along, I’ll take a dip in the vast, glass-bottomed swimming pool that looks like a tropical fish tank in the sky.
No, I haven’t been at one of Sherlock Holmes’s pipes, nor have I had one too many absinthe shandies: this fantastical plan for a ‘Brave New Soho’ was actually put forward by the Pilkington Glass Company in 1954. Back in post-war, bombsite-ridden Soho, Pilkington’s proposal to turn the district into something approaching a modern-day shopping mall with a touch of
thrown in was just one of many redevelopment schemes that were considered for the district. It might seem incredible to us that such a radical idea was ever conceived, but if you were to tell those Pilkington chaps that one day it would be illegal to smoke in pubs, they’d probably choke on their cigars.
If you fancy a glimpse of how Soho might’ve turned out, take a look at the only piece of the jigsaw to have slipped out of the box: Kemp House on Berwick Street. This incongruous, 17-storey block of flats was as close as plans for a futuristic Soho came to being realised. All I can say to that is phew. The building, which features on the cover of the Oasis album
(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?
, was once home to the infamous Soho-ite and bibulous journalist Jeffrey Bernard, who made a career out of writing about his alcoholic escapades in Soho and was a drinking buddy of many of the 1950s bohemian brigade, including the painter Francis Bacon. I don’t know what he thought of the place but I thank God Mr Pilkington and his glass company’s attention was diverted to the Westfield shopping centre, because a high-rise Soho would’ve been a no-go for me - an abomination of epic proportions. After all, what makes this tiny district of London so special is its village-in-the-city appeal. It’s one of the few areas of London that is not traversed by any bus route, never mind rooftop gondolas, so the pavements are full of pedestrians.
To outsiders, life in Soho might appear to be the world turned upside down, but to me it’s the world turned the right way up and that’s because my experience of this bastion of bohemia began at a very young age. In fact, Soho’s been a part of my life since I was knee-high to a barstool. It’s here that I got a lot of my education, and because the place is so full of surprises lurking around every corner, I don’t suppose I shall ever stop learning. And I owe it all to my mum, who beamed down to planet Soho in the mid-1960s.
Mum was a jazz singer when she arrived here from Liverpool, and she’s been singing and working in Soho’s clubs ever since. We didn’t actually live in the district, but moved first to Clerkenwell and later to a flat on Tottenham Court Road, which was no more than a long throw-in from Soho if launched by Chelsea legend Ian ‘The Windmill’ Hutchinson. One of my earliest memories of the place is being taken by Mum to the Colony Room Club on Dean Street in 1968, and to this day I clearly remember the legs of those old barstools, at eye-level to a youngster like me. This also meant that I was well below the thick fug of cigarette smoke that hung across the tiny bar, so that I couldn’t really see or hear what was going on at adult level. On reflection, that was probably all for the best. Occasionally a giant hand would reach down through the nicotine clouds and ruffle my hair, or better still proffer a two shilling coin. If the atmosphere was particularly convivial, that might even rise to a ten bob note. Now there’s a thing to conjure with, and conjure you could as ten shillings would buy a lad a lot of magic tricks.
The décor of the place didn’t bear too close scrutiny. Arguments still rage today on Dean Street, among those without more important things to do, as to who was the first person to find their feet physically stuck to the Colony carpet. I can say without fear of contradiction that my credentials, sir, are impeccable. Now whose round is it?
I shall be returning to the Colony later, but I mention it now because of its association with the so-called ‘golden age’ of Soho back in the 1950s. During this period, some of the most charismatic, dissolute and infamous characters in Soho’s already lively history were doing the rounds including, as I’ve said, Bacon and Bernard, along with Muriel Belcher, the redoubtable founder of the Colony Room Club, and George Melly, who were both still knocking about in my time. Another regular from that era was writer and broadcaster Daniel Farson, who wrote the definitive book on Soho in that decade entitled, funnily enough,
Soho in the Fifties
. Farson was a talented journalist, writer and photographer and wrote the authorised biography of his pal Francis (
The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon
). He could also be a nightmare when under the influence. I didn’t know Farson personally, but I often used to see him in Soho’s pubs and clubs before his death in 1997. His reputation as a hellraiser was of sufficient standing for his obituary in the
to contain the following description: ‘Television interviewer, writer and photographer who turned into a monstrous drunk in his beloved Soho.’
Part of Farson’s book chronicles a Soho ‘Life in a Day’ kind of journey set in 1951, the year he first set foot in the district. Farson appears to have nicked this idea from James Joyce’s
, so in the same spirit of recycling I thought I’d attempt to follow in his footsteps to see which places remain from those far-off days and to mull over just how much the area has changed in my lifetime. It’s the sort of journey that would come with a government health warning these days, but attitudes to alcohol were different back then and, as Farson said himself: ‘A Soho type of person would never contemplate going out “just for the one” unless it was the one day.’ So, having done a fair bit of training in my time, I’m ready to give it my best shot, but please don’t try this at home.
It came as a bit of a shock to read that Farson’s perfect 1951 Soho day began with a coffee at a cafe; I’d have bet good money that he would’ve been off in search of the hair of the dog. But, of course, back in the 50s, and for decades to come, you couldn’t get a drink in Soho until the pubs opened at 11 a.m., which is why serial hooch-hounds used to head to Covent Garden for an early morning livener, because prior to the fruit and veg market getting the heave-ho in 1974, the Garden’s pubs were permitted to open at 5 a.m. This quirk in the licensing laws applied to pubs adjacent to many London markets, like Smithfields meat market (and probably still does in some instances). There was, however, one major proviso during Farson’s day: landlords were only permitted to serve market workers.