WHAT WOULD I DO WITHOUT ME?

“I don’t believe in an afterlife but I’m taking a clean change of underwear just in case.”
Woody Allen

At 9am on September 11th 2001 my cousin Keith and I were sitting in his shop in the East End of London watching the attack on the World Trade Centre on a portable TV. Together we saw the smoke pouring from the North Tower, listened to the hesitant commentary as the reporter tried to explain something that he himself didn’t understand. And then there was the dot in the sky that disappeared into the second tower in a silent puff of smoke, the unsteady images from hand-held cameras, people running from the tsunami of dust and paper that swept down the streets as the towers sank to their knees in defeat. Even now, thirteen years later, after the whole tragedy has been dissected, re-enacted on film, analysed and grieved over, even now that I have seen for myself the bleak cavity of Ground Zero, the overwhelming shock remains at this pure manifestation of evil which somehow became personified in the wall-eyed expression of Muhammed Atta. This meticulously planned and religiously inspired attack provoked an invasion of Iraq, fortified the radical Christian Right and brought forth, 6 years after the event, a trio of books from Christopher Hitchens, Michel Onfray and Richard Dawkins that made me think.

We were not a family of church-goers; religion, along with politics, sex and anything that required exposure of feelings, was never discussed. In fact, I don’t remember a single thing my father ever said to me; no repeated piece of advice that might have shaped a boy’s future. I have the impression his life stopped sometime before I was born, perhaps when he laid down his cherrywood pipe and started smoking cigarettes. I realize now that I was a smoker at the age of four, inhaling the smoke from the 60 un-tipped cigarettes he smoked each day. Photographs of him sitting alert and arms akimbo as a member of Alleyns Soccer Eleven of 1921 or smiling with his Pioneer Corps unit in Egypt in 1944 suggest that I had two fathers. The man I knew seemed to be always on a ladder painting drain pipes or sitting cross-legged on a lawn removing weeds with a chisel. He may be in his Parker Knoll watching Morecombe and Wise on our Radio Rentals TV with its detachable legs or reading the Daily Express over a cooked breakfast. Perhaps he’s shoveling salt into a water-softener or in his attic darkroom, developing undistinguished black and white prints. Even if he stood before you, dragging deeply on a Capstan Full Strength, he was somewhere else, probably in the smoky, hop-scented saloon bar of the Heaton Arms; let’s not mistake him for a deep thinker.

Mum had more to say. She’d sit and talk over cups of PG Tips with Mrs Smith who came once a week to polish the silver tea service on the sideboard and the brass frogs and bells and Spanish grandees that sat in niches in the brickwork around the fireplaces. While I collected newts from the village pond, she’d chatter away with her friend Sheck who managed an antique shop in Chislehurst. She talked to me too, often about a past that sounded more fun than the present. Along with an introduction to guilt she also offered endless warnings, “You can stoop low and pick up nothing” (a veiled reference to my father), “Chew it properly” and “Look both ways” still reverberate down the dark tunnels of my un-sleep.

“Mundania is a very drear place where the people do not believe in magic.”
Review of “The Man from Mundania” by Piers Anthony

Our house in Mundania Road, Honor Oak, was in a quiet grid of streets named after places in the Crimea, part of a 1930s development of gravel-walled semis. Beyond us was a series of gloomy, late Victorian houses and then, on the corner of Forest Hill, a dilapidated block of white, art-deco apartments opposite a church. I can still recall the smell of sun-warmed creosote on fence palings, of dock and nettle and privet; the oily fumes of combusted fuel from London Routemasters; the savoury steam from Sunday roasts and poached haddock; the aroma of newsprint and confectionery, of polished linoleum and most of all, of damp, that awful damp that pervades the inseparable boroughs of Camberwell and Peckham, Lewisham and New Cross, Deptford and Penge. I also remember the first thrills of escape, of slipping through a gap in the fence at the bottom of the garden to roam the wide open spaces of the playing fields that backed on to our row of houses, the lone visits to my Uncle and Aunt’s house around the corner in Therapia Road and scaling the wall of the underground reservoir in Homesdale Road to search for cartridge cases.(1)

On weekdays my father would drive his old cream and blue Sunbeam down to 190 Rye Lane where he would slowly destroy the timber merchant business his father had begun and built up. My grandfather had taken advantage of the canal built in the 1820s for the transport of softwoods from Surrey Commercial Docks to New Cross to set up a saw-mill on its banks and a retail outlet in Peckham. He called it “W Lynn and Sons” for he had expected both his sons to continue the business but my father’s younger brother, Ted was rounded up by the Japanese when they took Singapore in February of 1942, and after a spell in Changi, died in January of 1943 helping build the infamous Burma Railway. (2) Would things have turned out differently if he had been there? Who knows? There were further complications when grandma died (3) and was replaced by her husband’s house-keeper, Constance, a humourless, dessicated prune of a woman with illusions of Gran’dad.

It is easy to see now the strategic options that would have been open at the time to someone interested in developing or even merely saving the business. But my father was not interested. The body language, the resigned attitude, the constant resort to the temporarily uplifting saloon bar of the pub across the Rye told it all. Often, on a Saturday, my mother would help with the bookkeeping and I would be taken along to play on the piles of timber or in the heaps of sawdust in the old stables that was sold as bedding and toilets for rabbits. I could also escape into Rye Lane, in the 1950s still a bustling shopping centre with its fruit and vegetable stalls in Choumert Road, Austins Antiques warehouse, the Tower cinema, the stall under the railway arches selling cigarette cards and the confusing labyrinth of Jones & Higgins, at one time the largest department store in South London. How my father coped with the final collapse I cannot imagine. “He aimed low and missed,” explained my mother some years later.

In the early 50s we left Forest Hill and moved a dozen or so miles south to Petts Wood, a garden estate of Tudorbethan style houses surrounded by woods of oak and silver birch. To create a village atmosphere the developer had grouped the shops in a square surrounding a mock Tudor pub called the Daylight Inn named in commemoration of William Willet, the inventor of daylight saving, who had lived most of his life in nearby Chislehurst. The owner of the Dunstonian Garage, a dealer in Hillman and Humber cars, had even been persuaded to cover his petrol pumps with a canopy and to incorporate oak beams into the façade of his workshop and office. Slightly out of keeping was the local church, St Francis, set in woodland and built of wood and Sussex brick, its long straight hammerbeam roof recalling a medieval tithe barn. Our own house at 17 The Chenies (4) was all white with leaded-light windows and an elaborate porch and oak front door with gothic panels. There was a crop of silver birches in the front garden and a pond with water lilies and frogs in the back. Although there was a nice lounge with inglenook fireplace and a view of the garden with its screen of pine trees at the far end we lived grouped around the television in the dining room or in the kitchen.

In this paradise of “rus in urbe” I watched relations between my parents deteriorate. Apart from my father’s lack-lustre performance in the work-place and his heavy drinking my mother confided to me that he also had a “weakness for women” and enrolled me as her private investigator. Children, in both fact and fiction, have always been used for nefarious ends by their elders. The experience of young Leo Colston in L P Hartley’s novel “The Go-between” left him psychologically impaired for life. How will those 8 and 10 year old Junior Streetwatchers (embryo Stasi agents?) employed by Ealing Council (5) to identify and report on enviro-crime issues (graffiti and fly-tipping) fare as adults? My duties were to search the ashtray of dad’s car for lipstick stained cigarette ends when he came home late and to make sure he was never left alone with unattached or unaccompanied women. On at least one occasion I was sent out to call my mother from a public ‘phone box, a supposedly mysterious admirer designed to provoke my father’s jealousy. I doubt whether the plan worked. When on occasion I became the subject of discussion between my parents I was never referred to by name but as “that boy” (even if I was within earshot) as in “That boy needs a new pair of shoes” or “Don’t you dare hit that boy, Arthur”. Like all children I didn’t like to hear my parents arguing and I would creep from bed to listen to what my mother would later, in comforting me, describe as “just a discussion”. Was my father joking when he announced, in response to my mother’s threat that she would dance on his grave when he was dead, that he would be buried at sea?

My sister, ten years older than me, was already planning her escape into matrimony; my escape for the moment was into the branches of the pine trees at the end of the garden, among the books that lined the shelves over my bed or into the Embassy, Petts Wood’s art deco cinema on the other side of the railway line that divided the town both territorially and socially. On those evenings the family went to the cinema we were greeted in the foyer by the manager, Mr Helstine, resplendent in evening suit. There was chop, chips and peas in the first floor café lounge with its fashionable tubular chairs before we settled into the rose and gold auditorium for a full evening of cinema – Movietone News, cartoon and a double bill of A and B films, spoilt only by my mother fidgeting and grumbling about the “stupid slobbering” when the actors happened to embrace. Better still when I could travel alone to the kids only sessions on a Saturday morning and follow the adventures of Johnny Weismuller, Buster Crabbe and Hopalong Cassidy. Cinema was not the only casualty when the Embassy closed its doors in 1973; the building’s new tenant, Safeway’s, spelt death for many of the local butchers, fishmongers and fruit and vegetable shops. A regrettable loss was David Grieg, a meat and dairy shop in Station Square where assistants in long aprons would cut your order for butter from a pale yellow mountain with cheese-wire and then slap it around between wooden paddles before packaging it in grease-proof paper.

My sister’s marriage to her Dutch boyfriend, in St Francis church (with reception at the Daylight Inn) did not result in her immediate liberation. For the first year or so of their marriage she and her husband lived with us in The Chenies. This is not an easy situation in the best of circumstances and it must have been a happy day for her when she and her husband moved into their own home some five miles distant on the other side of Orpington. After my sister left, my mother moved into her own bedroom (newly and un-tastefully decorated in pale grey Formica) while my father slept on in his cold room with its heavy mahogany veneered furniture and smell of stale cigarettes until he decided to move full-time into the Heaton Arms. ‘He was called to the bar,’ explained my mother.

“I am constantly going into churches, but for architectural reasons; and, more widely, to get a sense of what Englishness once was.”
Julian Barnes
“Nothing to be Frightened of”

If religion was never discussed and we were not church-goers there was also no sign that either of my parents were private believers. Grace was not said at meals; there were no framed prints of Saints on the walls as there were at my mother’s sister’s house. God’s name was only called upon in contexts of blasphemy. In spite of all this I still have a fading card that says on April 5 1942 at St Augustine’s Church in Honor Oak Park I was made a Member of Christ, A Child of God and An Inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven but it was not until I was packed off to boarding school for nearly eight years that I was fully exposed to religion or, more accurately, to the Boys Own Anglican version of Christianity. At Dulwich College Prep there were prayers and hymns morning and evening and, on Sundays we were shepherded in a crocodile up College Road, past the toll-gate and into St Stephens for morning service. (6) At Cranleigh School there was chapel each morning and every evening we would kneel on the bare boards of the dormitories for prayers before bedtime. On Sundays there was Evensong as well as morning chapel when some visiting cleric would deliver a sermon to a largely uninterested congregation. I enjoyed chapel, listening to future organ scholars playing “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring”, sun illuminating stained glass, gripping the wings of a brass eagle as I read the lesson from a massive Bible and the carols at Christmas. I was a good divinity student and passed it at GCE. I still take great pleasure in the language of the King James’ Bible, in Donne’s sermons and the poems of George Herbert. At fifteen I was confirmed by the Bishop of Guildford, kneeling on the black and white marble tiles hoping for, but not expecting, some magical revelation as I received the sacraments.

But I never believed. My lack of belief was instinctive not something I thought about or intellectualized over; certainly I never had Christopher Hitchens’ self belief or intelligence as a schoolboy to voice my rejection of religion in general. I knew then that Genesis was a fairy tale and still find it amazing that there are educated people who believe the earth is 10,000 years old. I could never accept Jesus’ divinity or any New Testament tales of the super-natural; after all, what was the so-called miracle of the five loaves and two fishes other than an equitable redistribution of pooled assets, the burning bush other than a natural phenomenon. Faith was required and I had none. Why would anyone place faith in something that for two thousand years had never provided a single instance of justification? Judging from history those who had faith were seldom rewarded in this life and as far as I was concerned there was no other. And isn’t it strange how contemporary Greek Othodox ritual seems as alien to an Anglican as Sumerian Sun worship, that Sunnis and Shiites slaughter each other over interpretation of some arcane procedures of the same religion and that educated men like Latimer and Ridley were toasted for their intransigence by the separate branch of a common Christian faith. And wouldn’t the faithful Christian be a loyal Muslim if he had been born in Islamabad rather than Ipswich? And so, looking back, I can see Bible study was just another part of the broader study of history in general and history, or a large part of it, the struggles of one religious sect against another. Hitchens and Dawkins and Onfray were only making me feel more comfortable with something I had always felt. The love of churches and cathedrals, of Christian ritual at the time of birth and marriage and death remain as mere memories of England and Englishness and not objects of guilt over lack of faith.

I wonder what my father thought of in those post-stroke years, in bed alone or silent in his slippers in front of the television as my mother discussed him within earshot with visitors. Did religion or the possibility of afterlife ever cross his mind? We’ll never know.
He finally gave up at 75. Weakened and emasculated by a stroke, deprived of tobacco, strong drink and the ear of a friendly barmaid, he sat quietly watching the sport, mother clicking her dentures while he wobbled a lower front tooth until he could pluck it from his gum and start on the next. He was buried in a postcard country churchyard, four men in black carrying him through the yew trees to be lowered into the earth. Somehow this was a betrayal. He wasn’t meant to be there alone in a churchyard next to a church he had never visited in a village he had never known. Better his ashes in an urn, flanked by bottles of Bells and Teachers, on a shelf behind the saloon bar of the Heaton Arms. At least, reduced to dust, he could have been himself. Mother chose not to attend the funeral although she removed Dad’s signet ring and wore it to her own. In a final act of misandry when her time came she elected to be consigned to the flames and her ashes scattered in a Garden of Peace rather than bear the eternal proximity of her husband. Presumably, among her powdered remains are flecks of my father’s gold signet ring.

Mother had longer to reflect on past life and after-life in her retirement home bed-sit in a large Victorian house on the outskirts of Maidstone smelling faintly of stale pee and cabbage. Too proud to mix with the other inmates, she must have watched those last seasons come and go alone, writing out shopping lists – Jay cloths, shortbread biscuits, note paper – to hand my sister when she came to visit, cutting unwanted faces from photographs of the past, re-writing history in her head. On my own infrequent visits we had nothing much to say to each other. On one occasion, jet-lagged from a 24 hour flight and overcome by the heat in the tiny room, I passed out on the bed and was unconscious for two and a half hours out of the three I had allowed for the visit. And so, as the years ticked by it sometimes seemed as if she would go on forever. Even though choked with the horrible finality of it all when she was finally swallowed in the inferno, I experienced a mild feeling of release afterwards as I joined the mourners for tea in my sister’s garden and when Keith and I later sped off towards London I felt quite happy it was all over.

(1) The biggest underground reservoir in London. Used as a rifle range during WW2; now a golf course
(2) Signalman 2357597 Thomas Edward Lynn, Royal Corps of Signals. Born March 1907; died January 2nd 1943. He is buried in Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, located 129 kms WNW of Bangkok and close to the famous Bridge 277 over the Khwae Yai River, which was completed one month after Signalman Lynn’s death.
(3) Grandma Alice died at the age of 62 in 1934. She was 6 years older than her husband.
(4) The Chenies, a cul de sac of 29 houses, was designated a Conservation Area of architectural and historic importance in 1982
(5) Article in the Weekly Telegraph 10th September 2008
(6) Both St Stephens and Dulwich College were the subjects of paintings by Camille Pisarro who had fled France in 1870 on the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war to live with his half-sister in Palace Road, Upper Norwood.

A Clerk’s Tale

“You have of us, for now, the governance,
And therefore do I make you obeisance,
As far as reason asks it, readily.”

 Chaucer; The Canterbury Tales
Prologue to The Clerk’s Tale

Where did all the clerks go? Once upon a time the City of London was full of them – Shipping Clerks, Ledger Clerks, Articled Clerks, Head Clerks, Senior Clerks, Junior Clerks – they were a unique species, a race genetically designed to ensure the continued functioning of the world’s greatest financial centre. And suddenly, like the dinosaurs 200 million years before, they disappeared. As in the case of the Tyrannosaurus Rex the disappearance of the clerk was gradual and the result of not one but several events. But we can safely point to October 27th 1986 as a key date in the clerk’s demise, the day of the “Big Bang”, the day London’s financial markets became deregulated, spelling the end of the quaint old boy network, a feudal system of privilege and administrative serfdom that had managed to survive since the Middle Ages. After the Big Bang came the technology revolution, replacing thousands of clerks with PCs, reducing handwriting to an arcane craft and turning the fountain pen into a luxury item. Of course, even after these events there were still plenty of clerks in the City but the Shipping Clerk was now a Forwarding Agent, the Solicitor’s Clerk a Para-legal, the Ledger Clerk an Assistant Accountant. Only the Clerk of the Course and the Clerk of the Closet remain, the latter an ecclesiastical appointment with the responsibility of covering up the indiscretions of homosexual priests.

Mine was an accidental clerkship, entered into when I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. In the early 60s I was staying on and off with Clive (who I had met at University in Grenoble) at his Belgravia flat, a present from his father who sought privacy with his new and much younger bride. Clive’s father gave me occasional work recording music for his Mayfair supper club, the “41 Room” in Dover Street, and kindly offered me a traineeship with Dow Chemical. In between entertaining his costume designer wife’s showbiz friends at his house in Hyde Park Gardens and dining at Les Ambassadeurs, he managed Dow’s European operations. At that time the company was on a roll with its new product “Lurex” and had not yet become notorious for trying to incinerate the whole of Indochina. I had also been accepted at the St Martins School of Art but while I was still considering these options Clive informed me that he was going to become a Chartered Accountant and had signed Articles with Deloitte, Plender and Griffiths (or “Do Little, Plunder and Great Fees” as it was more commonly known). Accountancy was a mystery to me at the time but listening to Clive I could see that here was life insurance with the whole premium paid up-front and a ticket to anywhere. My mistake was thinking that it was something to fall back on if the paintings didn’t sell. Once a clerk, always a clerk. A few weeks later I was articled to David D’Eath, partner of Dunn, Wylie and Co, a medium sized firm of Chartered Accountants located in Ropemaker Street, a few yards from Moorgate tube station. David D’Eath was the one of the younger audit partners, tall, patrician and good-looking with an eye for the ladies. Allan Davis, another audit partner that I would work for, had come up the hard way. I liked to think of David D’Eath as the James Mason character and Allen Davis as the John Mills character in “Tiara Tahiti” (1). Davis did the work, ending up as Sir Allan, Lord Mayor of London(2), while his ex-colleague loafed around with Jilly Cooper at house parties in Gloucestershire, toasting his partner’s success. There were a couple of tax partners, gruff but kindly Scotsmen and like many City offices, our receptionist was a uniformed veteran of the Great War, lungs scarred with mustard gas. This was the City when professional fees were still denominated in guineas, when coal fires warmed pokey offices in Cheapside, a half of mild and bitter at Dr Butler’s Head(3) was 11 (old) pence, the bowler hat was still worn and British Rail had not yet phased out the “Ladies Only” compartment (4). To alleviate what little stress existed in business at the time men still ignited, sucked, cleaned and handled pipes. The pleasures of caressing a polished cherry-wood bowl, of watching a rising whisper of smoke, of inhaling smouldering Virginia Flake enriched with molasses and latakia have all long been outlawed, replaced by the embarrassing spectacle of Tai Chi or the dubious benefits of Aromatherapy.

My starting salary was five pounds per week, increasing by a pound per week for each year of Articleship. There was no time for clerks to supplement their earnings with a part-time job as there were exams to be studied for after a full day of work. Studying alone by correspondence course was difficult as I was easily distracted, particularly by our next door neighbour’s daughter, Laura, who was intellectually backward and sexually forward, an exciting combination for those of us interested by her pouting lips and overdeveloped bosom. It also took me a long time to understand just what accountancy was all about, that it was nothing to do with maths but about the subtle wording of reports that satisfied the shareholders to whom it was addressed (and who were paying the bill) that the company was financially sound and at the same time alerted the creditors and regulatory agencies to impending collapse. It also took me a time to appreciate the genius of Luca Pacioli, a Franciscan Friar who in 1494 had codified the principles of double entry bookkeeping in his “Summa de Arithmetica, Geometrica, Proportioni et Proportionita”. Once Pacioli’s formula, as beautiful in its way as E=MC2, is understood, even the complexities of a conglomerate merger can be solved in a twinkling. But these were not issues that I and my fellow clerks encountered in our day to day work, which largely consisted of examining documentary support for book entries and checking the additions of columns of numbers without the benefit of an adding machine. There were no computers and no mobile phones. There were also no lady clerks in those days; the only women in the office were in a heavily policed pool of typists, secretaries and comptometer operators.

While Clive seemed to spend his whole working life checking the payroll records of British Leyland, the clerks of Dunn Wylie roamed city and countryside, working with a clutch of smaller but more interesting clients. In his house in St George’s Hill, Weybridge, the kindly Russian émigré proprietor of the Blen Chi Tea Company interrupted work each afternoon to give us lessons in tea tasting. At the Helga Greene Literary Agency(5) I was surrounded by the works and correspondence of Raymond Chandler and in the company of the writer’s last mistress. At Painters Hall in Little Trinity Lane, home to the Worshipful Company of Painters Stainers,(6) there was a collection of medieval gold, silver and pewter plate to marvel over and check to the records. In Clements Inn we shared the boardroom of “The Municipal Journal” with the proprietor’s son, John Hemming(7)lately back from the Amazon jungle and writing “The Conquest of the Incas”, a first step to his becoming Director of the Royal Geographical Society. But the best client of all was United Newspapers and the passport it provided to the thrill of Fleet Street. In the client’s cramped quarters in Mitre Square we worked on the boardroom table of Punch magazine(8), adding our initials to the more famous names carved by James Thurber, AA Milne, Ronald Searle, Princess Margaret and William Makepeace Thackeray. At lunch time we slipped into the dark labyrinth of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in Wine Office Court or shouldered our way into the eternally crowded El Vino, where, at that time, women were only admitted with a male escort and were not allowed to stand at the bar or to buy drinks. This was Fleet Street before the death of the linotype machine and the removal to the bleak outpost of Canary Wharf. Nothing was more exciting for a life-struck ingénue, than to stand among the hard drinking reporters from the Daily Express, Daily Telegraph and News of The World in The Tip or The Harrow, listening in to tales of the Berlin Wall, Hemingway’s suicide, Kennedy’s Camelot, nuclear disarmament and the debut of a new folk talent called Bob Dylan. It was at lunch one day in Fleet Street that we watched Reg Foster and Brendan Mulholland of the Daily Mail frog-marched out of the pub by the police to begin a six month prison sentence for refusing to disclose the source of their articles on the spy case involving Christopher Vassall(9), a government official convicted of spying for the Soviet Union.

Still wanting to be an artist in Montmartre and at the same time afford to shop at Harrods I compromised by spending some of my evenings at the Brush and Palette in Queensway, where for the price of an espresso, you could sketch a tastefully draped nude, using the free stick of charcoal and paper provided. Waiting occasionally on table was Noel Howard-Jones who I had known at Cranleigh. He was a year or two older than me and from a different house so we had little more than a nodding acquaintance. Before my first visit to the Brush and Palette Noel had struck up a friendship with another customer, a Harley Street osteopath called Stephen Ward who had been kind to Noel, lending him money to help him out as he struggled to support himself at University and inviting him for weekends at his rented cottage on Viscount Astor’s estate overlooking the Thames at Cliveden. He had also introduced him to Christine Keeler, then a topless showgirl at Murrays Cabaret Club in Beak Street.

While Noel was enjoying a brief affair with Christine Keeler, I was seeing a dark haired divorcee of twice my age. Mary, a consultant with Mervyn Hughes & Co, a recruitment company for professional accountants run by the eccentric Colonel Muggeridge(10), had “placed” me with Dunn Wylie after which she decided to help me with other aspects of my education. Our relationship was not entirely confined to the bedroom of her apartment in Dolphin Square, (by chance, also home to both Christine Keeler and spy Christopher Vassall) and we continued to be friends long after we had both found other partners.I was also in love with the city itself, where Thames-side warehouses, yet to be converted into luxury apartments, still gave off an aroma of the spices they had stored for hundreds of years, where Billingsgate and Covent Garden were still markets for fish and vegetables and where the male staff of Fortnum & Mason wore morning dress as they sold you a packet of McVite’s Digestive biscuits. Affordable rents meant that Charing Cross road was still full of second hand bookshops and you didn’t need to make an appointment or queue for three hours to wander into Sir John Soane’s museum at lunchtime. At the Café des Artistes in Redcliffe Gardens I could dream of Montmartre, inhaling the sweet smell of hemp among the Chianti bottle candle holders and scallop shell ashtrays. But best of all was to slip up Great Windmill Street into that square mile of sinister excitement bounded by Oxford Street, Regent Street, Shaftsbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road. An oasis of Bohemia, a square mile of seedy elegance and sexual promise. It was, as Daniel Farson wrote, “a land of anticipation, if seldom realized.” Into Moronis’ newsagency on Old Compton Street for a copy of Private Eye or Continental Film Review and then a seat on a coffin for an espresso at Le Macabre. A stroll through the stalls at Berwick Street market and a rifle through Doug Dobell’s jazz records at his shop in Charing Cross Road, then back through a gauntlet of pea-shooting ‘leisure workers’ at their first floor windows in Green’s Court. Somewhere Francis Bacon was working in his bordello of a studio by the light of single bulb, the sunlight shut out by blankets over the windows, until later, like a badger, he would emerge into the night and slope down Archer Street and into Charlie Chester’s Casino. At the Coach & Horses Jeffrey Bernard would be drinking in the company of Daniel Farson and Dylan Thomas, gathering material for his future Low Life column in The Spectator. Soho and the freedom it seemed to promise were addictive. I wanted to be part of it and had pinpointed my future digs in St Anne’s Court. The wheels of my dream fell off nightly, like Cinderella’s coach, as I ran to catch the last train back to suburbia and the suffocating presence of my mother. I was a sponge, easily impressed by anything that smacked of the unusual, the unforseeable, the untried. My role models were hard-drinking losers, romantics, artists, failed intellectuals, social misfits; Simon Raven springs to mind. So do “Dandy Kim” Caborn-Waterfield(11), Jeffrey Bernard, DH Lawrence, Ernest Hemmingway and Toulouse-Lautrec.

We were an odd bunch of clerks, Rodney, earnest and bepimpled, portly Old Etonian, Sir Andrew C, lamenting the loss of the family estates by a gambling mad grandfather. Brothers Donald (ex-Charterhouse) and Ian (ex-Cranleigh) argued incessantly. Ian S was bookish, Rod belligerently Scottish. Gerald had a weakness for a tarty slip of a girl from the classifieds department of the Yorkshire Evening Post. John Y left before qualifying to take up a job in a Greek shipping company the offices of which were packed with a zoo-load of stuffed animals slaughtered by the proprietor in a determined bid to rid the world of animal life. I remember John’s desk lamp, the skin and horn of an antelope and his in-tray, an elephant’s foot complete with toe nails. I had one friend from the typing pool, Mabel, a sad but kind, single lady in her late 40s who was committing suicide in daily instalments at the Green Man. One evening, legless after one gin too many, we took her home where she showed us a whole wardrobe of rubberware, once worn for the delectation of the lover who had abandoned her, and now, like its owner, perishing quietly in a damp, basement flat in Pimlico. Ian W, who might have still been a friend today, died on a squash court before he was forty. Simon, once the naughtiest of the naughty, is still my friend.

In 1962, talk in the pubs and wine bars of Fleet Street of manned orbits of the earth, the execution of Adolf Eichmann and Sophia Loren’s bigamy was increasingly displaced by rumours of an indiscretion concerning a leading government minister and his connection to a Russian spy. The small chinks of sunlight, as the curtain of post-war depression and deprivation was pulled aside to let in rock and roll, Carnaby Street and the Way In at Harrods, were still shrouded by the Iron Curtain. Alarmed by the Cuban Missile crisis, the capture by the Russians of British spy Greville Wynne(12) and the arrest of Christopher Vassel, rumours of another Cold War incident spiced with a government official’s adultery was the stuff of journalistic Nirvana. The gossip focused on a party at Cliveden in July of the previous year, when Stephen Ward had introduced a girl to John Profumo, then Secretary of State for War; the girl was the same Christine Keeler he had introduced to Noel Howard-Jones and, fatally for Ward, to Yevgeny Ivanov, naval attache at the Soviet Embassy. The circle was joined. Eventually the rumours became so rife, so pointed, that George Wigg, a Labour MP raised the question in the House of Commons. It was only a matter of time before John Profumo was forced to address the indirect accusations. At first he chose, as many do, denial, but in the end he was forced, as many are, into an abject admission. Bloody retribution for all involved, guilty or not, was swift.

Hounded by the press, selected for punishment by the hypocritical constabulary and judiciary as an example to others, Ward committed suicide during his prosecution for living off immoral earnings. He took his life in the flat of Noel Howard-Jones one of the few friends to remain loyal, leaving a short note in which he left Noel his white, XK 150 convertible. John Profumo resigned from the Commons, dedicating his life to Toynbee Hall, a charitable institution in the East End, until his death in 2006, his whole life ruined by one small indiscretion with a brainless fan dancer and the lie he told to cover it up. Harold Macmillan resigned on the grounds of ill health and was replaced by a chinless, Scottish sheep farmer, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who was gusted aside with the rest of the Tory party in the General Election of 1964. Christine Keeler was jailed for nine months on unrelated perjury charges. As her looks faded she returned to her caravan camp origins, the brief flame of her youthful beauty kept alive by Lewis Morley’s nude portrait of her astride an Arne Jacobsen chair. Noel left England and was never seen again at the Brush and Palette.

It was, as Dickens wrote of another age, “the best of times, it was the worst of times”.

  1. “Tiara Tahiti” 1962 film, a satire on the class system pitting the effortlessly suave, upper class layabout (James Mason) against the successful but lower class businessman (John Mills).
  2. Sir Allan Davis GBE, Lord Mayor of London, 1985. He was also Trustee of the unique and wonderful Sir John Soane’s Museum. In April 1986, along with my ex-colleagues at Dunn Wylie, I received an invitation to a reception for Sir Allan at the Mansion House.
  3. “Dr Butler’s Head” – pub dating from 1616 in Manson Alley off Coleman Street.
  4. Eventually disappeared in 1977, but actually available (for couchettes) on some French and Scandinavian rail.
  5. Helga Greene was the last mistress and UK literary executor of American writer Raymond Chandler, author of the Philip Marlowe novels (“The Big Sleep”, “Farewell My Lovely” etc.). Chandler, who was at Dulwich College from 1900 to 1905, proposed to Ms Greene from his Los Angeles hospital bed one month before he died in March1959.
  6. First reference to the Painters Guild, whose members decorated, gilded and coloured solid objects (wood, metal, stone) was in 1283. The first reference to the Stainers, who applied colour to woven fabrics was in 1263. The two city liveries came together in 1502 as The Worshipful Company of Painters Stainers.
  7. In 1961 John Hemming, Richard Mason and Kit Lambert (later Manager of The Who) were part of the Iriri River Expedition in Central Brazil. Mason was killed by poisoned arrows, the last Englishman ever to be killed by an uncontacted tribe. ‘The Conquest of the Incas’ was published in 1970.
  8. Punch magazine folded in 2002 and the boardroom table was sold to Mr Al Fayed around which he doubtless briefed his lawyers on his pursuit of the Duke of Edinburgh for the death of his son in the Pont de L’Alma tunnel.
  9. William John Christopher Vassal, British civil servant who, under the threat of blackmail (Vassal was a homosexual) spied for the Soviet Union. He was convicted and imprisoned in 1962.
  10. Elder brother of journalist (and one time editor of “Punch”) Malcolm Muggeridge.
  11. Michael “Dandy Kim” Caborn Waterfield. Old Cranleighan, con-man, lover of Diana Dors and man about Chelsea. At Cranleigh School in the late 50s I read that he had been arrested for stealing jewels from film maker Jack Warner’s villa in the South of France and wrote to him at Fresnes prison offering him the House petty cash funds. He never replied.
  12. My sister and brother-in-law once found themselves sitting next to Greville Wynne at the cocktail bar of their hotel in Majorca. Wynne, a member of MI6, was captured by the Russians in Budapest in 1963. He was released in exchange for the Russian spy, Gordon Lonsdale, the following year.