by Ronnie Capaldi @From_Rons_Desk
At 3pm on the 19th June 2015, Soho24 commenced. For 24 hours London’s Soho district would be explored by four people: Nika, Paul, myself and later by Janet. We would also deliver a non-stop #Soho24 Twitter feed. This is my 13 hours (5.00pm – 6.00am) in 8 steps. Take a walk with me!
L’Escargot : Broken curfews and snails from Wales
I cut through the green haven of Soho Square where Charles II statue overlooks Londoners who are taking time out from the city bustle. I walk into Greek Street and half way down I meet Nika and Paul outside L’Escargot. Established in 1927 it is the oldest French restaurant in the capital and sits in a beautiful, nearly 200 - year - old, Georgian townhouse. A small plaster bust of M. Gaudin the restaurant’s founder is embossed just under the building’s apex high above us as we enter at around 5.05pm.
Our well intentioned, pre planned curfew of no alcohol until after 9.00pm that night had lasted just as long as it took for the waiter to offer us the wine list. By 5.15pm we were clinking glasses.
Naturally, a house speciality of L’Escargot is snails. It would be a first for all of us. We ordered them. We waited for them. They arrived. We named them and then we ate them. We wondered if these little fellows had made their way from France. The friendly waiter informed us however that they were actually from Wales! Like the forthcoming courses, they were delicious.
It felt easy and relaxed at L’Escargot. A little surprising as during its 88 years of service such people as Coco Chanel, John Gielgud, Mick Jagger, Elton John and Princess Diane have all been here. Its ambience is spirited through its magnificent chandeliers and wall lighting which would occasionally dim leaving an intimate atmosphere of candle lit tables and glowing frames of art.
After about an hour we move on. Au Revoir L’Escargot. Merci beaucoup!
Orders at the Phoenix and the secret grid
Leaving Greek Street we make our way up Old Compton Street to its junction with Charing Cross Road. On this corner is Molly Moggs pub. Here I point out one of London’s best kept secrets:
On a tiny pedestrian island directly in front of Molly Moggs is a grid. If you peer into it you can make out a subterranean wall with a visible street sign reading Little Compton Street. Until 1896 the current eastern section of Old Compton Street was known as Little Compton Street. It has since been buried by construction. Negotiating a photo right here is difficult and precarious. (Mind the traffic!)
A short walk up Charing Cross Road takes us to The Phoenix Theatre. Paul has discovered that the theatre’s side street (Phoenix Street) has hidden amongst back and stage doors, an entrance to The Phoenix Artists Club.
It’s 7.00pm and admission is still free for non members. The entrance leads us downstairs into this thespians meeting place. Past visitors include Kiefer Sutherland, Kiera Knightley, Jude Law, David Soul and John Hurt to name but a few.
Taking our drinks from the bar we make our way into the deceptively large back room. Signed photographs and drawings of all sizes decorate the walls and collectively work together as a framed montage of show business memories.
We find a table and under the high oak beamed ceilings we go over our plans and then start to fuss about our camera charges, (“I’m still on 85% - and you!?”). I’m informed it was here were opening sequences of Harry Potter were shot. I doubt it’s deliberate but I see Harry Potter influences in the club, from the deep red and dark oak decor to the very font used on the Welcome to the Phoenix Artist Club arched sign at the foot of the stairs. We leave a few hours and a few drinks later.
Back on Charing Cross Road we needed to get to Kingly Street at the far end of Soho. We make our way back into Old Compton Street. Its 10.00pm and traffic now flows continuously in a reflecting stream of silver and gold. It courses through the neon lit labyrinth of Soho’s narrow streets where rickshaws have made battle with taxi cabs for right of way.
At the end of Old Compton Street we turn right to walk up Wardour Street. A left at Peter Street brings us into Berwick Street, the epicentre of this year’s hugely successful Record Store Day. This was a mini festival in its own right (my mind flashes back to that sunny, cold April morning and the big queue at Sister Ray Records).
The next street up finds us standing under a giant arch proclaiming: Welcome To Carnaby Street. Opposite us the Shakespeare’s Head pub overlooks this legendary centre of the 1960’s London fashion and music scene. It was closing time and large groups of people were milling around outside. They were taking their time and taking in this famous area of Soho.
Ten minutes later at approximately 10.45pm we arrive at Kingly Street. It is bustling and teeming with people. I felt their increasing urgency as they rushed and brushed past, seeking admission into their favoured clubs and bars. The small no nonsense sign and entrance of Aint Nothin But appears. Its authenticity immediately sets it apart from the surrounding trendy venues.
Aint Nothin But - Blues Bar
On entering we were greeted by a sheer wall of denim and leather clad backs. The place is long and narrow with a band called Crowd Company rocking out a masterful blues beat on stage at the far end. We managed to scramble a round of pints at the bar which ran the length of the side wall. From there it was just a matter of subtle elbows and shoulders to get anywhere near that yellow and purple floodlit stage.
Holding our cameras high over a sea of bopping heads we snap and feed this live happening direct to Twitter and #Soho24. We took in the band and the multitude of framed photographs and portraits which proudly filled the walls. The stairs down to the toilets had caricatures of some of the great names of the Blues genre including a fabulous art piece of Screamin Jay Hawkins.
Aint Nothin But plays live blues bands 7 days a week. Its rowdy and pulsing atmosphere makes it all you would expect from an established Blues joint in the heart of London. I would have been quite happy to have had another beer (and maybe another one after that). I’m reminded though that a venue with an entirely different beat is up next and before that we are set to meet Janet (the fourth member of Soho24) at the Bar Italia.
By midnight we are in Bar Italia in Frith Street and just whilst we are ordering cappuccinos Janet appears amongst us. The neon red and black of Ronnie Scott’s glows from just across the street and we hop over to join its 25 minute queue for the 1am-3am late show.
Ronnie Scott’s had opened in the basement of 39 Gerrard Street in 1959 under the management of Ronnie Scott and Pete King. In 1965 it moved to Frith Street. Many famous musicians and artists have since played here, their presence is felt as framed memories of people like Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone usher you into the main room.
I stand at the bar with Paul. In front of us a seated jazz crowd talk at tables in front of the stage. Each side of the stage is flanked by ascending dark wood seating illuminated with the ambience of pale red lanterns. We re-join Nika and Janet.
The late show featured the Kansas Smitty’s House Band. Slow jazz starts them off and their sound is crystal and pure. I was struck by sharp spontaneous rounds of applause during songs. This was because a change of melody or a subtle chord change had been noticed. They are a knowledgeable crowd at Ronnie’s! In particular I saw one girl applaud on her own as she heard the steel brushed drummer quickly change the beat. The drummer had glanced round, he found her with a smile and a nod of acknowledgement. This was the vibe of the place.
Ronnie Scott’s is unforgettable. It was interesting to mingle with this sub culture of jazz people who I believe I had never met before. Funny that, 20 minutes into the gig I’d felt a hearty slap on my left shoulder, I turned to see the smiling face of an old university friend I hadn’t seen for over 20 years! New places, old faces. Thanks Ronnie Scott’s – Jive on!
St. Patrick’s : An unexpected vigil
Leaving Ronnie Scott’s at just after 3am we decide on taking a little fresh air detour and it’s when we reach Dean Street that our worried and fussed conversation re-surfaces:
“Paul, have you got the camera charger? “.
“It’s in my rucksack”.
“How much money do we have”
“Paul - You found the charger yet?”
“I’m looking for it.....”
I later found out it was just around this time that Twitter was reporting that #Soho24 was starting to trend in the UK. Our Tweets and snaps were doing the trick!
Dean Street brings us out into Oxford Street. After a few blocks we take a right and walk back down to a shadowy Soho Square. We noticed the doors of St. Patrick’s Catholic church were wide open. We ventured towards them and at just before 4.00am we tentatively stepped inside.
We were greeted by a lady who gave us all a card each. Its message was from Rome instructing dioceses from all over the country to have one church open for a special 24 hour vigil on this weekend (what a co-incidence!).
We sat inside this beautiful church for around 15 minutes. It was an oasis of absolute peace and serenity from the pumping neon seduction all around us.
In 2010 St. Patrick’s had closed between the months of February and May for restoration. After its refurbishment it opened with a stunning new marble floor, a repainted ceiling and with its marble statues and frescos having been restored to their former glory.
We left St. Patrick’s and the few faithful who had remained until this hour. Seated on a back bench was the parish priest who had momentarily drifted off. He looked up to see us go.
Good night St. Patrick’s. God bless.
Bar Italia: From the Suzie Q to the Prosciutto
Back in Frith Street the Bar Italia clock outlined in a red and green neon blaze tells us its 4.20am.
On entering Bar Italia you feel as if little has changed from when the owner Nino Polledri first opened in 1949. It is still owned by the Polledri family and its independence retains its authenticity, right down to its original Italian stone terrazzo floor.
Taking centre stage behind the bar is a huge framed black and white poster of Rocky Marciano which details his record of 49 undefeated fights as Heavyweight World Champion during the 1950s. This American-Italian boxer from Brockton (the Brockton Blockbuster) was known for a ferocious right (his “Suzie Q”). To this day he remains as an iconic source of pride for Italians worldwide.
The poster was sent as a gift to Bar Italia from Rocky Marciano’s wife, Barbara shortly after his tragic death in a plane crash in 1969. It was meant as a thank you from Barbara to the Polledri family for looking after Rocky during his stay in London.
I notice that hanging from the ceiling is an encased No.10 Juventus shirt of the legendary Del Piero. What gets my attention even more is the 3 large joints of prosciutto which hang directly below. Prosciutto - my delicious favourite! It crosses my mind to buy one and walk out with it under my arm right there and then!
It is now 4.50am and the four of us are seated at the far end by the TV. I start feeling the first weight of tiredness on my eyelids. I get a genuinely lovely smile from the waitress who is busy cleaning around us for a 5.00am closure. I then go to the bar for a short sharp high roast espresso, expertly pulled by one of the Baristas. I feel awake again. Ciao Bar Italia!
Balans: Eggs Benedict and whispers from the past.
We head for Balans a 24 hour cafe one minute around the corner on Old Compton Street. It’s after 5.00am on the eve of the longest day of the year and early daylight has already broken. It is breakfast time and I decide to go all American: Eggs Benedict with freshly squeezed orange juice.
The cafe is packed with remarkably bright eyed, trendy dressed people, all in their early 20s and none of whom look like they have been out clubbing /drinking all night. Strange indeed.
At 6.00am I tweet one last time to say I am signing off and then I say my goodbyes to Nika, Janet and Paul. Soho24 would continue for them all the way through until 3.00pm.
The streets of Soho are now empty and quiet as I make my way to Tottenham Court Road tube station. Its shops float past me like a silent news reel. The coffee bars, the traditional old pubs, the bespoke tailors, the film studios, the restaurants and nestled between all of them the remainder of the sex shops.
Their soaked history seems to rise and flow out into the quietness to tell a story: The first immigrants who came and set up restaurants and cafes to feed the bohemians and artists who had made this area their home at the start of the 20th century. Paul Raymond’s Revue Bar and the decadence that revolved around it during the sex industry of the 1970s and 80s. The 2i’s Coffee Bar at 59 Old Compton Street and the pounding backbeat emanating from its basement which gave birth to Rock N Roll in 1950s Britain. The pride and liberation felt by the gay community. The ingenuity and hedonism of The Windmill Theatre right through to the sanctity and protection offered by churches like St Patrick’s during the Second World War.
All these passages of life spirit together and are delicately balanced to give Soho its own unique ambience. Sadly this is now all under threat from the heavy hand of gentrification.
I look up to hear yet another ghost of one of Soho’s famous inhabitants whispering to me through one of the many blue plaques. So many artists and musicians have spent part of their lives here. They range from Mozart right through to Jimi Hendrix.
I am at Soho’s border now where Soho Street meets Oxford Street. The night people have faded away and are slowly being replaced by the morning people. I wish Soho a fond farewell. Goodbye Soho, enjoy your few hours of peace. Rest well old girl.