STREET OF DREAMS by Paul Buck photos by Kevin Biderman
ondon. Charing Cross Road. I must have walked up and down that road two or three thousand times. Perhaps ten thousand. Who knows? How to calculate a figure with any form of accuracy when it traces back forty years to my early teens? Can’t I make a stab in the dark, perhaps like Simenon when he purported to have had sex with ten thousand women since the age of thirteen and a half in his “need to communicate”? A figure later reduced to around one thousand two hundred by his second wife.
Whatever the number, this dynamic road plays a major part in my life, a spine to my life, as it is to Central London. Or, alternatively, the aorta, the main artery of the body. What image to find to equate its importance in my life? Its vitalness. My life would have been very different if this street hadn’t been there to support and launch me in directions, like ribs from the spine, or vital organs within its sphere. Walking up the Charing Cross Road, to the left are connections to Leicester Square, Chinatown, Soho, Oxford Street. Walking up, to the right, connections to Covent Garden, Holborn, Bloomsbury.
Walking up. That word suggests the bottom is at the Trafalgar Square end. But that is only because I come into the great metropolis from the south, arrive at Charing Cross station, the closest station of all the main ones to the centre of London. Thus I begin my walk from the bottom as I know it, behind the north side of Trafalgar Square, behind the National Gallery. That is my base, my foot for my feet to start from. That means my head is at the top end, Oxford Street, Tottenham Court Road, Centre Point… that monstrous edifice to capitalism and redundancy, that blot on the landscape. If I lived in North London and came in from Hampstead, or Highgate, let’s say, then when I went up the Charing Cross Road, the worst thoughts of consumerism and capitalism would be as my base (to trample upon) and the National Gallery as my head, somewhere in which to dream. Now that feels better.
Perhaps spine and artery are clichéd images. Would it be better to liken it to a tree, even though the buildings along this road scarcely allow any tree, or plant life, unusual when all of Central London has its fair share of squares, gardens, parks… and trees? Of course, a few days later when walking up the road, I notice a number on checking, isolated plane trees set in the pavement, some pretty large ones too.
A tree with its branches and roots will not feed me here. Perhaps a tree within is what I’m pursuing. “The tree which impales my throat has sprouted and pushed from my stomach,” Bernard Noël impresses in one of his earlier poems. “It climbs right into my nostrils.”
Certainly I should stick with culture, because it’s culture that has been my lifeblood, that this street represents as my lifeline. Something more modern would be the idea of a collage. Let’s relate Charing Cross Road and its environs as a collage, an assemblage. Perhaps Robert Rauschenberg will suffice as a reference. His life’s work has wound in and out of all forms of collage, much of it categorized as “combine paintings.” For Rauschenberg this road itself would probably have provided enough for a collage, finding things underfoot to make into his work. “Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look,” is how John Cage wrote on his friend’s work. Nothing was ugly. Strangely, along this street I rarely notice anything underfoot as I’m too preoccupied with all else. Fortunately it’s a street where few dogs are taken for strolls, and thus no need to keep an eye directed downwards. In his Retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York in the late 90s, Rauschenberg unveiled the first complete showing of his major work, The 1/4 mile or 2 furlong piece (1981-1997), conceived as the longest art work in the world, a length which is not strictly accurate in terms of its title, impossible to measure as sculptural pieces are incorporated, though it must equate somewhat with the Charing Cross Road in length, and indeed in its very nature as collage and experience as a journey.
Like Rauschenberg’s work, the Charing Cross Road has never seemed to be a jumble, it always seems to fall into place, have a compositional form. And while he, as artist, might not like to exert his influence on his work, to personalize it, Rauschenberg knows there is no other way. “I know that the artist can’t help exercising his control to a degree and that he makes all the decisions finally. But if I can just throw enough obstacles in the way of my own personal taste, then maybe it won’t be all-controlling, and maybe the picture will turn out to be more interesting as a result.”
As a young child my grandma used to take me to Trafalgar Square to feed the pigeons, followed by afternoon tea in Lyons Corner House nearby. At least the photographs, reinforced by family stories, tell me that’s what we did, as I have absolutely no memory of those events aside from the images and their impositions as memory. Did we only go that far? What else did we do? Didn’t we set foot in the Charing Cross Road? I could ask my sister, she’s a wealth of information on childhood memories. But I won’t. I don’t need to remember the forgotten. How bourgeois to take a trip to London to visit Trafalgar Square, have tea and cakes, or scones, and then return home. I don’t believe that was the case. Surely we would have gone to the zoo, probably by bus… or even taxi, that would have been my grandma’s sense of style.
Walk, not ride. Walk. Always that pleasure. Even now. One can take a bus, or a taxi, or go down into the Underground and bypass this road, hurtle its length beneath the street. But I have never done that when my intention was to go somewhere within easy walking distance. I have always made it a point to venture up this road, to feel its life, to relate to its book culture, or even to aspects that don’t necessarily interest me. The need is to feel the vibrancy of its life. Another street will just not do, or, if chosen, it’s for the exotic nature of the detour, not to experience the pulse of my life. This street has become an addiction, I need it as if a fix. Since I was fourteen, or thirteen and a half (let’s say), I’ve needed this street “to communicate” with myself, to make me understand the complexities and confusions of my life, though I cannot say that I realized that point until I was around nineteen, the end of my teens. Perhaps not even that early. I had chosen a college in Chelsea for the start of my “further education,” because of its image, a sense of “bohemia” I guess – the Chelsea Set, with their Chelsea boots, those Cuban-heeled wonders bought from Anello & Davide, the theatrical footwear shop that once served a few years residence too in the Charing Cross Road, though I was its customer earlier when it was not far away in Covent Garden’s Drury Lane. I had also chosen Soho as another fixed point for its sense of risk and sexuality – enhanced by its Italian delicatessens, (my mother came from south of Roma), though probably a ruse to cover for my sexual awakenings and leanings.
Like many writers I can only write at home, at my table. Not in the living room. Not in the bedroom. Only in my workroom. At my table. It’s as if I’m only switched on there. Charing Cross Road is much the same. Not any other street. Just this one particular road that I can walk up, oblivious to the noise, to anything but what I want to see, hear, or smell. This street is the writing table at home that “fortifies this whole need for identity,” as Morton Feldman suggested in a public conversation with Cage.
My first recollections of the Charing Cross Road start in my early teens, when I went to buy a clarinet, and a year or so later when I exchanged it for an alto saxophone. Where I went specifically I can’t recall, there are still shops selling instruments along the road and various roads off. Boosey & Hawkes used to have their shop a step or two away in Shaftesbury Avenue, I recall it well. The windows were always a lure. Today I still pause before window displays to look at those gleaming instruments, particularly saxophones, amazed at their prices, wondering how I must have saved for mine in my teens, as they would have been as high in comparison even then.
Charing Cross Road is like a jazz solo too. I think of Johnny Dyani, his authoritative bass on the album Fruits with Leo Smith and Phillip Wilson always a pleasure to hear, sending tingles up and down my spine, setting my body alive, woozing my head into worlds of desire. Why that album rather than another by Cannonball Adderley or John Coltrane, both early influences and sources for inspiration? Coltrane’s Tunji plays in my head even now, at the flick of a memory. Those albums are still downstairs in the bulging collection of vinyl, never to be replaced, even though CDs fill the new shelving. It was in Charing Cross Road too that I used to come to buy my jazz albums, in Dobell’s at number 77, the whole block erased today and replaced with a modern arcade. Or not to buy, more particularly to leaf through the covers, read the sleeve notes, and dream of having enough money to purchase them. My list would be drawn from the jazz magazines or the foreign radio stations (usually French) I tuned into through the fields of static. I used to hang around those wooden racks, listening to the jazz played in the shop, listening to people talking knowledgeably on the music, eavesdropping and feeling part of “the happening scene.” That shop has long gone, moved some years ago to another street, then vanished. But at least Ray’s in Shaftesbury Avenue is only a quick blow, a stone’s throw away, a shop that still has an earthy feel. (It too has moved, into Charing Cross Road, in-house at the new-look Foyle’s.) If one wants slickness and absence of passion, one goes along Oxford Street, to Virgin, HMV or others, the big megastores that supply everything, or so they say. Better to go the opposite way into Covent Garden and find the cellar store, Rough Trade, with its highly selective choice of the ignored and avant-garde. Better to support independent ventures in the face of the corporate monsters. (Rough Trade too has moved, much further east, to the trendiness of the Brick Lane area.)
A street of music, a jazz solo winding through all that I stand for, the pivot on improvisation in all the arts. Did I aspire to become a musician? I don’t think so. I knew I would never achieve that. Nothing to do with feel, more to do with support I suspect. Unlike any apprenticeship at writing, a silent pursuit in a corner, or beneath the bed sheets, learning to play a musical instrument is a noisy affair that can attract the wrath and discouragement of others: family or neighbours. Today I see a different support system in this house, watching our girls progress on their journey with flute and violin, visibly encouraged to learn and enjoy.
Music is a pleasure. It is at the heart of all I do. It is my blood flow, the glow at the core of my existence ever since I reached my teens and, with a couple of others, formed a jazz club at school to while away our lunch breaks in ecstasy, or as near as one could get to paradise in a Catholic grammar school.
Jazz is the root of my music interests. Whether I detour into rock or classical, free form or ethnic, it’s jazz that lies behind it. So what do I mean by jazz? Do I mean jazz? Or do I mean improvisation? I know that improvisation is found in other musics – Indian, baroque, church organ, and more – but it was with jazz that it came into my world and where it still holds its strength. Improvisation is the form that fits all my interests in the arts, that guides my way, whether working with chords, chromatic scales, acrostics, chopsticks or pieces of eight. Always that notion to weave from a source, to flow, to give 100% at the moment of creation, placing the material in the furnace and, like the alchemist, producing gold, or at least the aspiration to do just that.
It seems no mistake, or slip of the tongue, that Dyani flowed first from my pen. If I was ever to pursue a course in music I’m sure somewhere along the process I would have taken the bass line, would have wanted to be a bass player, albeit an inventive bass player, like Dyani, or Jimmy Garrison, or Charlie Mingus, of course. Or, on the rock platform, someone like John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin), or Tony Levin (King Crimson). A few examples only, good ones though. Inventive would be the condition. Or if it was to remain around the saxophone, that aspect to be found with the bass clarinet as played by Eric Dolphy, or even the baritone sax as first heard by Gerry Mulligan. Those bass sounds have always resounded deep within me, have always pulsed irredeemably, still do. And now I know why I kept away from them, standing before the musical instruments on display, looking at the prohibitive prices, knowing they are out of my reach, always were, always would have been… dreaming aside.
Great Newport Street first came to my attention as a jazz home for Ken Colyer’s Studio 51. Not that I favoured that form of New Orleans “Trad Jazz,” but I was aware, each time I walked past, a few yards away in Charing Cross Road, that jazz was played there. I did get to visit it later when a friend of mine, the poet Pete Brown, formed a band, one of many, that included the then session musician who went on to greater heights, Johnny McLaughlin. The string of guitarists who moved through the guitar spot, Chris Spedding, Jim Mullen… has to be compared with the blues breaker bands of John Mayall and his appetite and breeding ground for a profusion of today’s celebrated rock blues guitarists.
Studio 51 was to catch my eye a few years ago when I came across Patrice Chaplin’s book, Albany Park, (the side of Sidcup that borders on where we live) and discovered that she grew up a couple of streets from where I’m now sitting at my desk. Her story plots the course of an escape from the suburbs to the wider world, via early trips to London to visit Studio 51 and other nearby jazz haunts and all-night cafés around Soho. Later she was to venture to America, to the West Coast, and marry – into the famous film family whose surname she now bears.
More in keeping with my mood was Ronnie Scott’s, at that time in a basement in Gerrard Street, just behind the Charing Cross Road, off to the left. Again I was too young to visit the club, and the knowledge that it was in Chinatown didn’t help. Any image of Soho, no matter how sordid, I have always felt comfortable with, but all images of Chinatown always spooked me in those days, perhaps still do to some degree. When Ronnie Scott moved his club a few hundred yards north across Shaftesbury Avenue into Soho itself, and when I was older, then it seems it was possible to pay a visit – though as it grew and became famous, even distinguished, my tastes in jazz went more towards the avant-garde, the breed of modern jazz musicians they wouldn’t feature – or even into a “free music” that didn’t qualify as jazz in many eyes. Or even within its own eyes.
I don’t think I really did aspire to or dream of a life in music. Though I must have had some presence or sense of interest, for once I had left home and was working in the area, I used to regularly bump into Tommie Connor, a songwriter of the old school, one of those famous for penning early “popular songs” like Never Do A Tango With An Eskimo, or I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. His son was at school with me, we shared similar jazz interests. Yet over all the years I almost never saw his father at home, only at Mass on Sunday mornings taking the plate around for the collection. It wasn’t until those years later, when I was in the area daily that I used to bump into him going to and fro to Denmark Street, the original Tin Pan Alley, directly off Charing Cross Road, just short of Oxford Street. Even when “pop music” was not long under way, like the early days of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, to name the obvious, it used to be along that street that the music business thrived. Mr Connor worked in Denmark Street, one of those who had an office where he would sit at the piano and write songs. He was under contract to a music publisher, the street was full of them. In the basements were small recording studios where they would demo the songs. Or even make records. The Rolling Stones famously recorded Not Fade Away in the basement at Number 4 with Phil Spector and Gene Pitney in attendance. Today most aspects of the business have gone, though shops selling instruments or sheet music survive, and even the only music bookshop in London, Helter Skelter, has taken fairly solid roots there it would seem. (Again, another casualty, no longer a retail outlet, but a publishing venture.)
“Hello son,” I can hear Tommie saying, or Mr Connor as I always called him with respect. And I can also hear his repeated words of advice, as he knew or sensed the arts were becoming my ground, perhaps my livelihood, not to go into the music world. Not that he had been unsuccessful. The nicest father figure I’ve ever met. Someone special to me. Still fresh in my mind. That kindly little man who always treated me too with respect, always offered a smile and warmth of greeting, followed by a routine of polite questions before we spoke on other matters, never omitting the warning that I should avoid the music business. I understood.
Charing Cross Road has always been a street where people in the music business could be seen walking, whether to Denmark Street, or elsewhere. Even today, though what business they have can only be guessed at. But through the Sixties and Seventies heads always turned when someone like Hendrix in his multi-coloured clothes would pass along, en route for somewhere. One famous occasion, in June 1967, at the Saville Theatre, now a cinema complex, just round the corner in Shaftesbury Avenue, is fixed in music mythology, for Hendrix opened his Sunday night set with the title track of Sergeant Pepper, to everyone’s amazement, including the Beatles, also in the audience. The album had only been released the previous Thursday. Where had he heard it? Pre-release copies then were not prevalent or such a hype-ridden strategy manoeuvre as now. Most didn’t hear an album until release date, even those in the business. Perhaps Hendrix had heard it at UFO, the famous underground club, just off the top end of the road, the hippy club where all the great rock musicians used to pass through Friday nights, and where the album would have been played on the sound system between live sets. Not would have been, but was, I was there. Like many a major album it was played straight through. Hendrix only needed to hear something once to absorb it for future use.
Or Frank Zappa, who could pass by unnoticed to most of the population, at least as an unrecognizable face, though as most of our generation looked so different in those days from the general flow of people, heads would have turned regardless. Talking about our generation.
Today there are other venues in and around the street, mainly clubs and bars, but the Astoria at the top end is the only rock venue of any size. It’s still known as The Jam Factory, after its initial site as a preserves factory more than a century ago. Litchfield Street, further south, has suffered a more recent loss. The famous folk cellar, Bunjies, where many a folk artist carved out their career, cramped in that grimy place, has gone. Now there is little reason to pass along this short street, unless to reach The Ivy, the fashionable restaurant at its far end where the glitterati of rock, film and media dine, marked by the paparazzi who hang around outside day and night with their cameras dangling. It’s more important these days to be famous, to be a celebrity, than to be a master of your art. Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame reduced to five, at best.
Earlier, before I worked in the street, when I was at college, I found myself attached to it as another world of dreams opened. One that was an expediency for me, financial remunerations, rather than a reality or long-term course. I had been approached by a woman who looked incredibly like Sophia Loren. She wanted me to model for her agency, the Marjorie Jones agency, which had its office just off to the right at the end of Charing Cross Road, along William IV Street. At college I had not been aware of many, or perhaps any, gay men, but now I was faced by a room occupied by gay male models. My preference was always female and I tended to veer into their room when I was passing through. I started my part-time occupation at the same time as another who was there briefly before moving on, one who came to fame on the silver screen: Charlotte Rampling. Neither of our destinies tallied with notions to be models. In my short stay I was offered free hairdressing, and used to go along to one of the best, Robert James, who had a little salon upstairs in an alleyway opposite Studio 51, on the other side of Charing Cross Road, an alleyway that led to Chinatown. But having one’s hair cut too frequently seemed to remove it faster than it grew. It became short, too short for my liking. I felt a draught and decided enough was enough, I wanted my hair back, so I held on to it fast. From that day I’ve never stepped inside a hairdresser, though for many years I saw photos of myself extracted from a hairdressing magazine and stuck in their windows.
I did meet one of the models years later, on the arm of a rock musician I knew. But it wasn’t long before I became confused and lost track of names to know if some of those who graced the magazine pages were girls I had seen undressing before me in that room at the agency. I guess I can’t remember their faces, my eyes filled with other distractions.
Dreams of music, dreams of modelling. No. Just things that came along. Though I’ve been lucky to have found involvement in the music world throughout my life.
My real introduction to the Charing Cross Road as a daily occurrence came when I took an early job in an office in Leicester Square, each lunchtime escaping around the corner to the Charing Cross Road to browse in its bookshops, and often to eat in a small Italian place that served an abundance of bolognese, right on the slip road, Moor Street, that was part of Cambridge Circus. As it was so filling, sometimes I elected to skip lunch, and just go browsing, grab a sandwich instead.
Going a step further I soon determined I would much prefer to work in a bookshop, and, as far as the Charing Cross Road was concerned, that meant Better Books, which was more like an Arts Centre, given that there were benches for people to sit and read, a coffee machine, the start of the swish coffee bar fad that has now become a regular and obvious addition for some of today’s chain bookstores. Way back in 1967 a drinks facility was more of a primitive affair. But they were good times. My fellow workers were all poets: Bob Cobbing, Lee Harwood, Anthony Barnett, Paul Selby…Our visitors, as much visitors as customers, were poets, writers, artists, and all manner of celebrities, or as they were then called: famous people. The shop was more than a shop. During my period there, downstairs, in a fairly squalid and damp cellar, theatre events occurred. Or, more precisely, Jeff Nuttall’s People Show more or less started its long and illustrious history right there. The People Show was the most extreme form of fringe theatre, what many might term Performance Art. Or perhaps better described as sculptural happenings, a collage of juxtapositions set off by a box of verbal fireworks. It was certainly true underground theatre. There I witnessed shows that were a total assault on all the senses. There I saw Laura Gilbert hanging upside down from a meat hook, suspended next to the whole side of a cow that had been strung up for a few days, left to fester and rot and smell unbearably, perhaps even to achieve a maggoty state by the end of the few days the show would last. A Nice Quiet Night was its title. Laura was hanging from the rafters, distraught, wracked with tears, baited by Mark Long and John Darling, until a member of the audience tried to intercede and confront the pair, insisting they take her down as her terror was for real, nothing to do with acting. Mark and John turned on this man, a well-known psychiatrist, and berated him for interfering. Who said this was about acting? This group tested those grounds between theatre and art activities, performers as creators, improvisers. Or another show entitled Golden Slumbers with Laura walking around naked, except for black fishnet stockings and a rose taped high on her navel, besieging Syd Palmer, who lay in a bed, self-obsessed, playing with himself beneath the sheet, desirous to join him, while Mark and John stuck their heads through a backdrop and added comments. Memories, images, that have never left me. The words might have gone, but the visuals remain clear before my eyes, whether wide open, or closed shut. Today Nuttall’s visible presence is clear for all to see, larger than life, acting in films like Peter Greenaway’s The Baby of Macon… (even though Jeff himself has more recently left this mortal coil.)
Or poetry readings in the shop, where we drew curtains across the shelves to prevent excessive stealing. Stealing was rife from the professionals. No matter how hard we watched them during the day they always managed to secrete the books, art books particularly, under their coats as they turned and made for the front door. We couldn’t challenge them unless we had proof. Occasionally one of us would walk round to the door if we suspected a professional at work and stand there in an attempt to discourage them, to let them know we were wise to their activity, the gauntlet thrown down for them to take the risk of being confronted. Many still accomplished their task. Checking the shelves after their departure one could not believe a book could still be missing despite close scrutiny. The poets were the most incompetent book thieves, or “borrowers” as one told me some years later. We watched them clumsily sticking books away in a bag, or beneath their jackets. If only they had asked, they would have received a good deal. Many another poet or artist, David Medalla for example, would spend their day seated on a bench, or even find a space at a table in one of the rooms, reading and making notes as if in a regular library, and then appear with a volume and ask if we had a less expensive shop-soiled copy of the same. For some reason we used to find just such a copy on the floor at our feet with a slight mark as if a foot had been placed on it. Not worth its price, now. Sold. Or Heathcote Williams who used to appear periodically a few minutes before closing, whisk around the shelves collecting together a pile of books, place them high on the counter, fifteen minutes after closing time. Bob would glance at the pile, then at his watch, no time left to work out the true total and nominate a rough estimate – with an atrociously bad sense of addition – and Heathcote would leave to devour another trove of earthly delights. Arts patronage at its best.
I did meet one of the models years later, on the arm of a rock musician I knew. But it wasn’t long before I became confused and lost track of names to know if some of those who graced the magazine pages were girls I had seen undressing before me in that room at the agency. I guess I can’t remember their faces, my eyes filled with other distractions.
Dreams of music, dreams of modelling. No. Just things that came along. Though I’ve been lucky to have found involvement in the music world throughout my life.
We stayed open later than others. 6.30 if no evening event. Opened later in the morning, 10.30. Other shops were strictly 9 to 5. On Friday nights I worked at UFO, the club at the top of the street, along Tottenham Court Road. We strove to stay open most of the night, pushing on until everyone was dead on their feet. I used to depart around 5 on Saturday morning, observing the remains of the audience collapsed in corners until the public transport started. For me it was a matter of walking down the road and, keys in hand, entering Better Books to stretch out on a bench and snooze until the others arrived just before 10.30. Fairly often I’d be woken by a policeman tapping on the window to ascertain why I was asleep on a bench at 7 or 8 in the morning.
Other memories of the shop come and go. Customers like the actor James Coburn, who was wary that we should know our stock instead of crossing to check the shelves for 50 poems by e.e.cummings. Or Belmondo, wary that we recognized him at all. Or Burroughs who announced himself: “I’m William Burroughs,” before asking, “have you…” Or Francis Bacon, never prepared to look for himself, always asking us to search and fetch.
There I first met the French poet Claude Royet-Journoud. I can still see him leaning across the counter, smiling and introducing himself. With Anne-Marie Albiach beside him, and her abundance of black hair, buoyant and flowing, a fine “sumptuous” head of hair that weaves into her texts, that she later talked about with regard to her family’s view of being shamed by her hair.
Or the American poet Jerome Rothenberg bringing in copies of Some/thing magazine, or early David Antin books, and placing them as little piles on the centre table. No sooner had he left than we determined we each needed our own copy, and another for someone else… and before we knew it the pile had disappeared, so that an hour later when a customer arrived in search of copies that Jerome had just told him had been left there, we had to inform him that we were already sold out. Today’s hot item. Those were the days. Copies of rare books brought in from abroad, Warhol catalogues, and so many small press editions… countless put aside for staff or friends. A day off risked missing out on what would later become a treasure. That’s the delight of having a literary staff in the shop. Always a pleasure, as last week, to find an assistant in a bookshop with some knowledge that enables an informed conversation on a book or author. All is not lost today, even if it seems so quite frequently.
When our wing of the shop was closing down, the cream being folded back into the more traditional sections of the shop next door, I bought up or removed some of the remaining copies of magazines like Kulchur, bringing a borrowed car in one Sunday to take away a handful of boxes. I was instructed to do that, otherwise loads of rare items would just be junked. As I understood it, the owners, Collins the publishers, were closing us down because we were losing money, or not making enough profit (their role as unwitting arts patrons was obviously not appreciated), though they hinged their decision on a contentious point by stating they disliked the prominence given to Burroughs or his Naked Lunch. They did not want his conspicuous promotion. It offended their religious convictions. Of course, once they had disposed of the thriving but nasty avant-garde aspect to their shop, they sold Burroughs’ books like any other. Why turn away sales? The shop that remained under the illusion that it was Better Books never recovered, even though it limped on in one form or another for some years. All the loyal customers transferred their allegiance to Barry Miles’ Indica not far away in Southampton Row, and later northwards to Compendium in what was at that time a peripheral area of London called Camden Town.
From Better Books one would take walks through Soho, directly opposite, along Old Compton Street, where the prostitutes either stood in doorways or switched on the red lights in their windows. A little further and one reached Brewer Street, climbed the stairs behind the Italian deli, and entered John Calder’s offices to collect books. One time I went to buy Beckett’s More Pricks Than Kicks, three of the 100 copies directed my way, one for myself, two for friends, Beckett having been persuaded initially to allow a mimeographed re-edition for scholars.
Soho is not the same any longer. A haven of gay bars, a profusion of cafés that pour onto the sidewalk, Continental style. There is also an abundance of rubber and leather shops, suitable for all persuasions, such that the prostitutes who do still seem to ply their trade conspicuously now appear as the milder side of sleaze. What is sleazier is found right on the Charing Cross Road itself, as indeed elsewhere in central London where telephone boxes are plastered with “calling cards” for all manner of prostitutes, transvestites and transsexuals. No sooner does a council official clear a booth of the “infestation” than the young men return with their blue tack and cards, relining the walls and windows with the array of flesh on offer. Taken individually the images seem lurid but innocuous, though when one is confronted by a bank of a hundred or more on all sides it’s not so easy to hold a conversation with one’s dear old aunt, or discuss any amount of delicate matters with anyone but an intimate friend.
I was fortunate to find my feet in London, to find a bookshop to work in that gave me that first step into the world I wanted to enter. And even for that step to be on the Charing Cross Road. One of those who lead me into this world was Colin Wilson. In my teens I had discovered his book, Adrift in Soho, in the local library. It was that title with that salacious word, “Soho,” with its implications and propositions, that had made me pluck it from the shelf. Reading again a copy that I later acquired, I note the pub opposite Better Books, Molly Moggs, on the corner of Old Compton Street was one of the first places at which Wilson’s hero stopped, when he descended on the great metropolis in the Fifties, in search of another world, a more cultured and intelligent world. Dispirited and annoyed at his lack of contact with others in what he thought would be some form of instant acceptability of himself as another outsider welcomed into the ranks, he adds: “The whole city was a part of the great unconscious conspiracy of matter to make you feel non-existent.” But Colin Wilson had a presence in my life. That novel led me to The Outsider, and the pursuit of his various references, through Sartre, Camus, Nietzsche, etc, each leading me to further paths, avenues, alleyways, fields, vistas, opening up a world map itself, a personal labyrinth, a paradise to my imagination. His books had a considerable part to play in determining my direction in life, no matter what I might have subsequently thought or determined about any of his books. At that point they were crucial as catalysts.
Always other bookshops to go into, then as now. Today there are some of the big bookchains like Borders and Waterstones asserting themselves in the street, while others like Foyle’s and the second-hand shops seem to survive, some under different owners, alongside the bookshops where the reviewers’ copies and the remaindered excess from publishers are off-loaded – with their bargains for the discerning buyer among the best-sellers which didn’t happen. Other favoured shops like Henry Pordes remain with memories of treasures discovered there, particularly art books. Beuys drawings spring to mind. Or various Tàpies volumes. And close at hand the women’s bookshop, Silver Moon, where once one felt positively discouraged from entering, but now where they seem desperate for customers, the flash mega-bookshops like Borders and Waterstones draining away all business. And yet Zwemmer, the art bookshop, somehow manages to survive miraculously. (Also to note, Silver Moon’s recent absorption into the Foyle’s emporium and Zwemmer’s renewal in the form of a Koënig wonderland.)
When I ask others, not only writers, what street they would be drawn to in London, or cite as their major thoroughfare, they invariably say Charing Cross Road. Perhaps they see their own stories along it. But I wonder how many see it as a street of dreams, a street of hopes and aspirations, like me? All are people who have a sense of culture, obviously, as this is nothing if not a street of culture. It helps too if they are people who still read, not those who used to read in their youth, and who now have little time, as they would see it, their families and jobs having swallowed their days whole. Thus, while some show signs of nostalgia as a result and can still venture along this road, albeit not so frequently, others seem cloaked with jealousy for those who can, or who have benefited from familiarization with it.
Literary memories. Taking my friend Mitsou Ronat, on a brief trip to London, around for the day. After visiting art galleries, walking the length of this road en route to eat near Cecil Court, a passageway off, crammed with second-hand and rare editions bookshops, including Watkins, the occult specialists, famous for steering clear of Crowley (who was catered for in Atlantis Bookshop near the British Museum). Pausing with Mitsou before the window of a shop of theatrical nostalgia, laughing before the displayed original poster for the film, Trapeze, one of her favourites, triple somersaults across the mind’s arena, and other gymnastic manoeuvres. Hard to walk that passage today without a flood of fond memories for my friend killed so tragically. I try to switch the subject, focus on the variety of other windows, including an Italian bookshop, one of the very few languages to have its own London outlet, rather than the more general foreign bookshops that exist, countable on one hand.
Another memory, a more recent one, when Pierre Guyotat came to London to promote the English-language edition of Eden Eden Eden, shaped as a double-handed event with one strand as an exhibition of his books and manuscripts at number 142, a building my neighbour tells me had seen better, or other, days when he had worked as an architect on the top floor, with an escort agency below, a cover term for other activities, and a drinking club on the first floor, a home to less savoury characters, the haunt of gangsters and other known “faces,” the Kray Brothers included he suggested. It must have been on that floor, abandoned to decay, then reclaimed for use as an artist’s studio, that Guyotat exhibited his texts and books. The other part of the event took place a few doors further away, where Guyotat staged a reading before a packed and standing hip audience in another abandoned and decaying space dominated by a splendid wooden staircase. A memorable night, not only for his vocalization of a recent text, but for the office hand from the publishers who, in a drunken stupor, clambered onto the platform and halted the proceedings, insisting Guyotat remove himself from the stage and the translator step up to read from the just-published book in English. At the back it was impossible to ascertain what was happening. Why those at the front didn’t halt the debacle I’ve never really known. Guyotat was probably too shocked to refuse to move or to know how to handle the situation. That unpleasant outcome features as one of the most shameful literary moments I’ve ever witnessed.
Foyle’s was famous for its accumulation of stock, no clearance sales, back stock that became lost among its shelves, no stock taking, where you could find volumes long out of print at the original prices. Also a dream outlet for small and independent publishers who could always send in a rep to top up on stock, deliver them in the afternoon with a bill to be paid a few days later, as I knew only too well when I worked for Fulcrum Press directly after Better Books. Foyle’s has saved many a cash flow problem. But now I gather it’s changing, heading to join, or perhaps combat, the fold peddling the latest “products” for a quick turn over.
Foyle’s has always suggested an old world of quaintness, dominated by its owner, an old lady who refused to bring it up to date with modern practices and technology. That might have been true, but with its chaotic organization, and perhaps because of its low pay practices, members of staff had other ways to provide a more clandestine reputation, a reputation of enjoyment. Stories have abounded of drunken lunch-hours or after-hours sprees for some years. In the early Nineties when I was friendly with various members of staff, I would drop in on passing and hear about the sexual activities that occurred in darkened corners, in cupboards, or under the stairs, let alone in the toilets. On more than one occasion I walked smack into couples half-perched on the edge of their pleasures. While these escapades might have been unseen by the late owner, other long-serving female members of her higher echelon were adept at turning a blind eye, remarking that it was just young people having fun, no different from in their youth. Lines of cocaine along the counter probably didn’t strike home.
Foyle’s helped to brand Charing Cross Road as a bookshop road. Another was number 84, where Marks & Co once resided, the shop to which Helene Hanff commenced writing her letters in 1949, the correspondence becoming the basis of her book, 84 Charing Cross Road. My sister-in-law loans me her copy when I find it on her shelves. I browse and become charmed like anyone would at the story unfolding. This edition is a double book, the sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, added, in which Helene comes to London in 1971 to realize her dream, including a visit to the now closed 84, “black and empty,” and upstairs “another floor of empty, haunted rooms.” Her memories unroll mine. To open the door they call at 86, the bookshop next door: Poole’s. I had all but forgotten it myself, indeed thinking, without thinking, that they were one and the same. They were not. Poole’s. Next door to the original Better Books. A shop where I made other friends in the following years, the late 70s, one of whom I saw only yesterday, working further down the road in Zwemmer. Memories pile over one another as they crash through my head. All can be aligned. Books, magazines, those friends own involvements and writings all enmeshed in this house, all here to be untangled: if and when.
All the bookshops have risen and fallen over the years I’ve been walking back and forth along the road. At different times I have frequented one more than another, either because of interest changes on my part, or because ownership and management changes on their part have varied the stock and attitudes. But this road has always been a road that one cannot keep away from. Any break of a few months and one notices the absence through its changes.
Browsing in these shops, edging one’s way down shaky wooden stairs into musty basements, one is always prepared to find a fellow scribe in the corner enjoying its pleasures. More than once I’ve caught that chronicler and celebrant of London, Iain Sinclair, between the pages of a book. Besides creating a different picture of London in his own books, painting an alternative aesthetic of the metropolis that brings together rare connections between people and places, facts and ideas, for years Sinclair has had an occupation, and preoccupation, with buying and selling books, maintained via a catalogue. And like the best catalogues it’s not just an alphabetical listing of delights, but a carefully detailized and informed work in itself. A dealer who knows and cares about the books. A dealer who has rescued books from discarded corners and brought them into the light, offering them for the reader and collector who has an equal passion for rescuing books. I’ll refrain from reiterating Walter Benjamin’s famous essay on collecting with regard to such matters. For the book collector the Charing Cross Road is an extension of his own bookshelves, where each volume is cared for, where each tome is treated with the love and attention the poet gives to each word during writing.
Today, for me, each bookshop is like a bookcase when I’m standing outside it. Each offers memories, interests and obsessions. Even reading up the building is like casting one’s eye up a bookcase, looking for something on the top shelf, cornices or balustrades, a twist like a turn of phase.
The regular fare of most book catalogues, cryptically-listed catalogues that drop through the letterbox, are often akin to the modern bookshop. They will always hold delights, but rarely a sense of adventure. Catalogues, like Sinclair’s, are sumptuous, are like the old bookshop where one knows instinctively as one opens the door whether it is likely to offer something sought after, or worth seeking, something to take one off in a different direction, a little detour, an added bonus.
Even when accompanied by our children today we still find reason to walk up the Charing Cross Road rather than take other routes if our destination is close at hand. The girls might not yet have the habit to browse at length in bookshops, though they are not averse to entering them and acquiring more books, a pile growing in our arms in a short space of time, but the idea is planted that this road is the centre of the universe, or virtually. The idea is established that the physicality of looking at and feeling books is more important than any computer screen versions. Or indeed that the smell of slightly musty books is the smell that all good homes are perfumed with, as well as the best bookshops.
The girls must notice how acceptable it is to part with hard-earned money to buy books when reluctance settles in with regard to other goods. One day, some years ago, we leave the Charing Cross Road and cross through Soho to reach that mock Tudor façade that is Liberty’s, an expensive department shop, famous for its own brand of prints, fabrics, silks and scarves. Always worth a browse during the “sales” periods. For fun, or to dream, Catherine looks in the “designer” fashion section, browsing the Vivienne Westwoods, Nicole Farhis, and others, until Elise, the elder, notices a price tag, albeit a reduced sales price. And then another. She asks me to equate its price to other things. I compare it to a video recorder, food for more than two months, a tower of children’s books and other such practical realities. Edging close to her mother she whispers that it’s time to move on. Why? She wants to move to another department, or preferably another shop. Why? “You’re just looking,” she stresses. “Just looking.” Now it’s a joke every time we plan a trip into the centre of London. “Just looking,” we are reminded if a whiff of Liberty’s is caught on the wind, or our breath. There are other things to spend such a sum of money on, of course. Books. Records. For a start.
In the new strip where Dobell’s once resided, and where the rents must be high, against all the odds, I would have thought, a bookshop, Murder One, has managed to find its feet. (To add that it has now crossed the road into more reasonable premises.) Murder One is the main specialist in crime fiction in the country, a venue where many a writer would be pleased to do a signing or hold a book launch. A few years ago I was passing and popped in to see friends. It should have been closed, but it was the night for the launch of Walter Mosley’s first book. He was already acclaimed in America, but had not yet caught on here. Bill Clinton had not proclaimed him his favourite writer at that point. There was no one there, even though it was past the prescribed time. Not even the publisher’s entourage in attendance. Just Mosley and myself. We talked for what seemed a good hour, until we were dry. Literally, for I don’t think there was any drink at that point. Finally the publishers arrived, and one or two friends of friends appeared. How different a year or two later. Not that a celebrated name necessarily means a packed shop.
When Robin Cook (aka Derek Raymond) had returned from France in the early 90s, his own view on London crime finally finding its audience in his homeland, he was always to be located just behind the Charing Cross Road, in Soho, frequenting the two haunts that have long been watering holes for writers: the French House and the Coach & Horses. The Coach & Horses is almost on the Charing Cross Road, the French House, often called The French, a few steps further. The latter has a reputation, being the bar where General de Gaulle, Maurice Chevalier and other French people used to drink during the war days. Unlike comparable French establishments, you are more likely to be crammed in, standing room only, not seated at tables. This isn’t Paris. These are the two regular bars one retreats to with anyone you meet in the street. Or if alcohol is not the menu, then two equally cramped pâtisserie homes have been in existence for years, one called Pâtisserie Valerie, the other, Maison Bertaux. Both have illustrious reputations for morning or afternoon coffees and delicious cakes.
How sad to bump into a friend coming from Maison Bertaux recently, bouncing with joy, a wide smile. “Good news,” I asked, thinking perhaps he had found a publisher for his book. “No,” he responded. “I’ve just had the most exquisite cake. It was so good, it was better than sex.”
Little drinking clubs, often exclusive, or where one can bluff one’s way in if one looks the part, whether the Groucho Club, or basement bars hidden behind solid wooden doors whose bell one rings to enter. Or places to eat, so many places, of all types, spilling here in Soho or off all the roads these days. And indeed on the Charing Cross Road. Many are run of the mill, parts of chains, but there are still some that have existed for ever, such as the little Greek place in the southern part of the road, near Cecil Court, that was always a reasonable place for a bite many years ago before today’s profusion came into being. Today too, in shops like Borders, after browsing the books, one can drink a coffee of one’s choosing, a proper cup of coffee, not the “instant” variety in white plastic cups still trafficked in many other quarters.
Philip Corner, when talking about playing some of John Cage’s “prepared piano pieces,” notes that while one could follow the instructions of the precise dimensions of the bolts and the exact positions to place them, the sound that was supposed to be produced wasn’t always so, suggesting that one had to choose between “the specificity of the position or try to get the sound,” because, at the time they were written, most of the performers of the pieces were practicing and experimenting on “beat up” pianos at home and working on different ones in concert. I think of that in terms of walking up and down the street, trying to say what one will see, what I saw, what I felt, as if trying to make a game plan for others. As if a score to be performed by others. Is that what we do? I think of this now because out of the blue I hear from Philip Corner after twenty or more years, today relocated from New York to Northern Italy, pleased to rediscover me via a friend, hoping that we can meet if it works out that he comes to London in the near future. Now that I’m living within the encompass of London once more I know we can meet this time. I think it’ll be in the Charing Cross Road. It usually is employed as a base for my meetings with others. But where? The coffee bar at Borders is the favoured place these days, allowing one to browse in books or records to give flexibility to the meeting time. Or should I chose somewhere else, something more representative of our relationship? Record shops, bookshops, the National Gallery slide through my mind. Nothing sticks. Before I would have come up with something suitable. Now it’s not so easy. Anything credible is probably out of the way and liable to cause some confusion locating.
Among all these bookshops is a cigar shop, G. Smith & Sons, at number 74, that sells not only cigars, but pipes and all manner of cigarettes. It has been there since 1869 it proclaims outside. It looks something like one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, being the only one in the neighbourhood to retain some of its former look. I’ve been inside a few times when guests from abroad have sought their favourite cigarettes and I’ve seen that as a possible source, successfully as it has turned out.