Good Lennon, Bad Lennon

The trouble with biopics of rock ‘n’ roll stars is that you are always aware that you are looking at an actor,  not a character.  Because the character is probably dead.  Or in rehab.  Or in California.  Or something.  There have been a rash of fictional Lennons over the years, not least the recent “The Killing of John Lennon” which you probably haven’t heard of.  Someone I know invested £50.0k in that and well – that was the last they saw of that money.  It was a total rotten tomato.  The last royalty statement came from an office four floors up on Camden High Street and spoke of the princely sum of £327.  For the last three years, following its premiere at a small Western Canadian film festival, it’s been lurking on the True Movies Channel in the small hours with a well deserved audience of 4 because it lost thousands and thousands of pounds.  All it seemed to feature was Mark David Chapman breathing heavily and driving around in a car. 

There is also a film which features fictional Beatles which is so bad it’s hysterical.  You must try to see it.  It’s called “The Linda McCartney Story” and what I love about it is how the title of the film allows you to infer exactly what the subject might be.  It features a John Lennon who is about 6 foot 7 inches tall, speaks with a Colorado accent and goes round to Paul’s gaff in the late 1960s when The Beatles are imploding to throw things at his St John’s Wood front door.  This front door looks like it’s in Arizona.  Whilst throwing a plank of wood, “John” announces “I hate you Pawwl, the Beatles are orvah. Ah’m going back to the Mursey…” or something similar.   When I was a youngster, I went on a two day trip to Geneva with a Welsh Beatles tribute act.   Me and three other girls were their backing singers, and our “John” got rat-arsed all the way from Zurich to Chur on a train and arrived in St Moritz where he carried on drinking without a pause for the following two days.  When we eventually parted ways at Gatwick Airport after two days of singing, he was bright purple. 

In the last three years, however, we have been granted two Lennons.  The first (Lennon Phase I?) was Sam-Taylor Wood’s biopic “Nowhere Boy” which featured the unlikely Lennon of Aaron Johnson who was so good looking – and in fact, possibly too good-looking to be the young Lennon – that Taylor-Wood wasted no time at all in whisking him up as her paramour and conceiving a child with him forthwith.  The second was the bizarre Lennon Naked”, a BBC4 production featuring a scary-looking Christopher Eccleston looming out from under a pale brown wig that looked as if it had been borrowed from Ian Beale’s wife in EastEnders.   Both took segments of Lennon’s life – the late 1950s and the very late 1960s respectively – and presented them as insights into the motivations and character developments of Lennon at that time.  One of them succeeded and one of them failed . 

“Hmmm…..well, the bottom 35% of his face looks a bit like Lennon, let’s cast him!” the BBC thought.  Wrong, wrong, wrong.

I cannot work out why anyone would cast Christopher Eccleston as John Lennon, other than he has the right pointy nose.  The trouble with Eccleston is that he has the overly-earnest manner that Meryl Streep has on screen.  “Look at me – and see how I’m suffering for you! I’m wearing so much angst on my face – it’s acting, you know!” beams from him.  The trouble with that of course, is that you can’t see what the character is, because all you can see is someone acting very hard.  There is nothing noble in letting your audience see how much you are self-flagellating in order to become your character.  Audiences are not so much interested in watching the process as watching the distilled, finished result.  The whole point is that the audience should not see the strings.  Unfortunately, with Eccleston, he is all process, and wrings performances out of himself as wretchedly as a dogged housemaid wringing out a wet flannel, leaving the audience feeling exhausted.  

In “Lennon Naked”, he flopped about in a white trouser suit in Apple in Savile Row in 1969 – 46 years old, playing 28 years old – and presented a vocal and physical heaviness that told nothing of Lennon’s natural exuberance, playfulness or flamboyancy.  Even when furious with wives or cohorts, people who lived and moved around Lennon have commented on how he would pad about his home and stealthily and quietly as a cat, and would suddenly appear – somewhat unnervingly – across the room from you on the sofa reading the paper.  But with Eccleston we got a slightly creepy, spoilt child who strutted loudly around his Tudorbethan manor-plex in such an idiotic way it was difficult to imagine him having any time to compose any music atall.  Meanwhile, Eccleston’s accent veered haphazardly around the Wirral, passing through Cheshire, Herefordshire and East Riding en route.  The script was a mish-mash of primal-therapeutic outbursts and self-pitying whingeing which rendered the empathetic link between audience and the character of the male lead (so necessary in intensely personal, character led narratives) very problematic.    When he wasn’t having a humour bypass, this Lennon was watching  his soon-to-be-ex-wife Cynthia weeping at the breakfast table at Kenwood, her false eyelashes plopping sadly into the cornflakes.   We were meant to share Lennon’s anger towards his distant father, recently reconciled into the family home in the late 1960s, who had abandoned him as a boy.  Instead, I ended up feeling sorry for the father who had to listen to an awful lot of claptrap whilst Eccleston pouted around his Surrey drawing room doing a lot of “I’m cross” acting and avoiding picking up a guitar, because this was the worst kind of Lennon biopic – that which didn’t have any music.  It was downright dismal.  There was no insight into his character at all, and the whole thing felt laboured.  It was looped in to coincide with BBC’s “Fatherhood” season so dealt almost exclusively with Lennon’s relationship with his father, more or less bypassing his  pseudo-Oedipal relationship with his own deserting mother.  The sight of Eccleston trying to play a 23 year old Lennon in 1964 complete with BBC wig dept moptop was very funny.  I don’t think it was meant to be. 

Christopher Eccleston suddenly realises his agent got the audition information wrong.  He was told he was being seen for BBC “Doctors” and he is well-miffed coz he bought the white coat and everything.  Oh well.  It looks like he’ll have to have a bash at Lennon instead then. 

“Lennon Naked” also provides us with two vastly underwritten roles for both Cynthia Lennon and Yoko Ono.  Despite that this film was set during the breakdown of the Lennon’s marriage, it all too loudly chimed with the unthinking, two-dimensional, recidivist projection of Cynthia Lennon which has always puzzled me slightly.   Too easily, biographers and filmmakers situate her marriage to John in context with his extraordinary second marriage.  She becomes representative of abstract aspects of Lennon’s life he was keen to change.  The problem with this is that she becomes a device rather than a character.    As if the fate of being a rock star wife doesn’t already give her an existence lacking legitimacy, we have to watch as the dramatic depiction of the character of Cynthia is also being denied any legitimacy.  The writer dodges this rare opportunity for insight into the collapse of their marriage.  Instead, Cynthia is awkwardly twisted into a patchwork quilt of parts of Lennon’s life that are about to shift.  It’s all rather odd.  The result is a strange negation of their marriage, a failure to recognise it’s importance as Lennon’s formative adult relationship.   The idea that their marriage would never have happened if they hadn’t had a child on the way, still seems to perpetuate, despite the biographies that challenge this by documenting the details of their relationship and that Lennon made it clear he always intended to marry her anyway.    All too easily, the writer of “Lennon Naked” has slipped in a lazy prototype Cynthia, writing her as a copy & paste  “first wife” from the drawer marked “Rock and Roll first wives [sub-classif. provincial middle class] Possibly a drag.”   Yoko Ono doesn’t escape from this either, being strangely mute throughout. For her, however, the silence indicates something exotically enigmatic.  She is foreign and she is an artist; therefore she is allowed some kind of unspoken depth that ordinary female characters – including Cynthia and her mother Lillian – are unentitled to.

This is a missed opportunity to challenge the only two roles for rock star wives that films usually provide us with.  First, the sweet, undemanding girl, too bourgeois to accommodate our heroes sexual peccadillos and too busy running a home to encourage him to sleep with groupies (Jane Asher, Cynthia Lennon, to some extent Jim Morrison’s Pamela Courson) and the crazy, lunatic control freakish hussy who in determining her own artistic destiny can only ever be the butt of other’s jokes and is never taken seriously (Yoko Ono, Linda McCartney).  “Lennon Naked” was written by a man.  I don’t know that for sure, but, good God, let’s just say I’d bet ya all my Beatles CDs and DVDs on it, ladies.  

Where Sam Taylor-Wood succeeded where the director of “Lennon Naked” failed was that she decided that looking a bit like Lennon wasn’t part of the casting criteria.  You can tell as, yes, dear readers, you Beatle eyes do not deceive you, Johnson is far prettier than Lennon was as a young whippersnapper.  Eccleston looks slightly like Lennon – if Lennon’s face was pulled downwards slightly, given a lined brow and then the image turned and flipped to something altogether more dour – and that’s the problem.  In relying on an actor who looks a bit like him, the actor may turn to concentrate on trying to look a lot like him.  For Johnson, this isn’t an option.  The whole look-a-like-y thing doesn’t exist.  Subsequently, he is able to inhabit the character much more effectively and make it his own.

“Nowhere Boy” is the story of Lennon’s early life in provincial Liverpool, between the time he was reconciled to his estranged mother, Julia, in his late-teens, to his departure for Hamburg shortly after her death.  Rock ‘n’ roll’s matronly aunt is here, of course, Aunt Mimi, with all her Royal Doulton china and her provincial snobbery (“No, John!”  she shouts when he starts fiddling with the radio to look for something skiffle-tastic. “We do not turn Tchaikovsky over!”).  “Nowhere Boy” isn’t really about John Lennon, so much as it’s about the dynamic relationship between two strong women who struggled to claim him and – in a round and about sort of way – both raised him.    The struggle for the teenage John to determine these relationships results in him getting caught in a bizarre love triangle, as the mother who seemed incapable of effective parenting whirls back into his life, confusingly declaring to him that he is “my dream!”, and challenging the matriachal authority established by the kind, if emotionally inexpressive, older Aunt who raised him. 

Aaron Johnson as the young John Lennon.  Rather nice, isn’t he?

Suede brothel-creepers CHECK.  Buddy Holly specs CHECK.  Artistic works lodged neatly under black clad arm CHECK.  Aaron Johnson rocks the late 1950s Liverpool beatnik rocker look as the young John Lennon. Cor.

To this, Taylor-Wood loops in Lennon’s musical development – much of which was courtesy of his bango-playing mother, his initial musical first starts with his band The Quarrymen, and his meeting with the 15 year old Paul McCartney.   All too soon – of course – Julia is killed by a car in 1957, thereby releasing a wave of Lennonesque rage that was to re-echo throughout the years.  The writing (Matt Greenhalgh – also responsible for the excellent Control)  is strong and the fact that Greenhalgh is economic with words (never using 5 words when 2 will do) creates a script of great tension.  Oh – and it’s full of music!  Johnson even learned to play the guitar and sing.  Suck on that, Eccleston.  At the end of the film there was a sense that Johnson plays the third supporting role in this film, despite being in nearly every scene; with the major impact and drama coming from Kristen Scott-Thomas’s Aunt Mimi and Anne Marie-Duff’s Julia.  These are women – the mother and aunt of a rock star who – wait for it – wait for it – actually have properly written roles to play!  Who knew?  It is a film which engages in the human – rather than the superhuman elements of Lennon’s life – and a presents us with a conventional storytelling technique which stands it in good stead.  Most importantly, the characters are well-rounded and drawn beautifully.    “Nowhere Boy” provides us with a fascinating aspect  into Lennon’s teenage years. Sam Taylor-Wood and Matt Greenhalgh have illustrated how it was two strong women who made John Lennon, and gave two actresses that very rare thing in film –  well-written three dimensional female roles for actresses aged in their late 30s and late 40s.    Imagine that – if you can.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

A Tale of Two French Houses

Some weeks, culinarily speaking, I get a bit puritanical.  Especially when my waist threatens to leak over the top of my tights.  This is not a good look and encourages laughter from onlookers.  In those weeks I recline, chewing lettuce, crunching through cherry tomatoes, trying to think of cottage cheese as something to look forward to.  It requires an awful lot of affection for cottage cheese to do this.

This week I have put my system through a bit of a shock but piling in two city dining experiences in just over 12 hours and I think my colon is still protesting.  On Tuesday night, I had a late supper at the robust Arbutus which squats with Gallic certainty at the Soho Square end of Frith Street.  The menu took about a quarter of a hour’s reading to understand, but once understood, looked thrilling.  I kicked off with a curd goats cheese, hazlenut and heritage beetroot salad that was truly exceptional and I don’t think I had ever eaten such a beetroot so well-bred that it had it’s own heritage before.  The aperitif was a prosecco made with blood orange rather than the usual white peach.  This settled nicely – if oddly- on top of the vodka and lemonade I had quaffed shortly before at the bar at Little Italy down the street.  I was with my brother who lunches in Little Italy whenever there is an “a” in the day.  As soon as we placed our drinks order, a waiter arrived with a platter of extraordinary looking langoustine, having taken one look at my brother and hoping we were stopping in for the evening.

Back at Arbutus, we were cheered by our waitress, chatty and informative, full of good advice and charm.  For the entree I went for a saddle of rabbit, with artichoke and accompanied by a cottage pie made with shoulder of rabbit.  The saddle was as soft (and as rich) as chicken liver pate.  Most of the chaps at the table opted for the skirt of beef which came with it’s own carb-busting potato dauphinoise and a circle of bone marrow big enough to be worn as a bangle.  Most pronounced the food outstanding.   But the really good bit – and I mean the really good bit – as always – was the pudding.   The tarte tatin was apparently for two people, so being six of us we ordered two of them, only to be presented by two enormous pies the size of Victorian stovepipe hats which we were quite dazzled by.  Instead of wafer thin slices of apple we had – oh wow – enormous, fat, fluffy quarters of apples, laced in caramel and outstanding.  This came with custard.  Although this being a French restaurant they HAVE to call it creme anglaise.  The waitress, still attentive and cutting the tarte tatin majestically, asked my brother if he was French.  He replied, in his best GCSE grammar but she soon bamboozled him with language and he gave up.  She then asked him if he was Spanish but he didn’t try to get away with that one.

Obviously at this stage, I thought I was going to pass out or that someone should at least hand me a Rennie.  My brother suggested, as he usually does at this stage, that what I needed was an Armagnac.  He illustrated this by promptly drinking two of them.  But one of them was enough to render me, frankly, hysterical.  I giggled like a maniac all the way home, but regretted the double espresso that rendered my night’s sleep feverish, brandy-raddled and a bit sweaty.

Understandly, the next morning I was a little confused.  The world looked pixelated, like when the digital telly doesn’t work properly on Channel 4 and the image disintegrates into little fuzzy squares.  High on ibuprofen and the promise of good, low-carb, sober deeds still to come, I rocked on up to the office.  Shuffled paper, did some typing, shuffled paper, did some typing……………zzzzzz Rabid caffeine hit with sugar at 11.30am to see me through until – DING!! – oh, I’m off to lunch at one at Polpetto, you know.

Polpetto is related (maiden aunt?  sister?  cousin?) to Polpo, the Venetian bacaro which serves genuine cicheti in Beak Street (see and which I visited last year.  I adored Polpo and had been excited to try Polpetto.  This restaurant is housed in the somewhat claustrophobic upstairs room at The French House, in Dean Street, that hotbed of Gallic resistance and ferocious beer drinking in Soho’s south eastern flank.   Like Polpo, it’s reservations only at lunchtime and a first come, first fed system in the evenings.

The food was as staggering as Polpo, although for some reason a fifth of the menu, the part titled cicheti, was missing from the paper menus laid in front of us.  However, there were beautiful breaded sardines served with a rich homemade mayonnaise, zucchini fritte, a cavolo nero with lovely borlotti beans and rosemary crumbs, and an excellent grilled bistecca with fresh shaved fennel and parmesan.  But the experience was hollow.  The service was sloppy and slow.  There was none of the customer service which seems so rigorously adhered to over the street at Arbutus.  Our two waitresses appeared lackadaisical, and didn’t write our order down.  Perhaps this explains why the bellinis we ordered never arrived.  We ordered further sardines and – eventually – after about 20 minutes when they failed to materialize – just asked for the bill.  The plates were cleared by one waitress, only for the other to turn up just after the bill was paid, with the second dish of sardines.

The Polpetto experience teaches such an important thing; food is not enough.  I suspect – and this is a quintessentially English problem – that the waiting staff were  not professional waiting staff, but likely to be girls who took up waitressing for a while.  The gulf between the professional expertise offered at Arbutus and that offered here was extraordinary.  If the service is as sloppy and recalcitrant as it was in Polpetto on Tuesday lunchtime it leaves a bad taste in the mouth, no matter how good the salt cod is.  They simply cannot afford to let the relationship between the staff and the customer lapse.  I shan’t be going back to Polpetto, which it was originally my intention to do.  Not until they wake up and take some much-needed customer service lessons from Arbutus.

The Bus Nutter

He gets on around the bit of the Finchley Road that connects to Hendon Way, our Bus Nutter.  And it isn’t really Frognal and it isn’t really Cricklewood and it isn’t really West Hampstead, it’s the fuzzy weird bit in the middle where people get petrol and where they realise they are in the wrong lane for the A41.  He looks entirely ordinary (AHA!  Most of them do) and he gets on the bus very casually and normally.  He is of average height and build and just sits on the upper deck.  Then there is the catalyst.

The catalyst can be anything, really.  It could, for example, be Wednesday.  And then he will go downstairs and in his very very normal voice demand the driver to explain why it is Wednesday.  He sounds ordinary, mundane and has an authoritative voice that lurks somewhere between Phil Mitchell and that bald bloke who does Masterchef.  Once, on a wet morning a few weeks ago, our bus driver announced that he had received a warning light on his dashboard, so off we all got off, to spend five minutes trudging along Finchley Road in morning mist whilst waiting for another bus.  For ten minutes our Bus Nutter parlayed his grievances to our driver.  He does this in an insinuating voice that implies that the driver thinks what he thinks, which is lunacy.  Mad people do this sometimes, however.  “The service doesn’t equate to common sense – I mean, you know what I mean, eh?  Yes, don’t you?”  Yesterday morning, though, Bus Nutter’s rants became downright surreal.  Buses these days talk at you, to let you know where they are going, when they are about to arrive at bus stops and then, finally, when they have arrived at bus stops to tell you that – yes, you have arrived at the bus stop.  This is abhorrent.  You cannot concentrate on your book, and the robotic voice delivery system seems to have been designed to purposely be louder than the world’s loudest, largest i-Pod that has been racked up to top volume.   Bus Nutter, whose frontal lobe has clearly yet to engage with his feet, failed to respond to the delivery system telling him we had arrived at Baker Street.  As the bus left the bus stop, he suddenly hopped up tutting and fretting and bounded down the stairs to rant at the driver that there were “too many stops”  and “why not have some common sense and change the next stop”.  This was because “no one wanted to stop at York Street anyway….I mean, mate, mate, why have SO many stops?”  At this point the robotic lady voice says “Number 82 to…..Vic-tor-i-a.  Not for you, random loony boy.  You’re getting off at Blandford Street if I have to kick you off, you mad cowbag.  Please move down inSIDE the bus….” All right, she didn’t.  But crazy lad did get off at the next stop, where he continued his conversation with the driver as the doors were closing.

Everyone has had these experiences in London and the Bluebird’s first reaction is to giggle silently in her seat and turn Frank on the iPod up louder.  In seventeen years of London Island living, I’m lucky not to have been the victim of some lunatic encounter or other, and lucky that nothing wild, violent or downright terrifying has even occurred to l’il old me.  That’s not because I brandish my light sabre at them, blind them while chortling “Aha!  I am the Bluebird.  Kneel and show your mercy, bus boy!” at them, but rather that I spent my first 10 years in London travelling everywhere by taxi. Nuff said.  You don’t so much pay for the geographic journey when you travel by taxi, but pay for the guarantee that random bus nutter will not try to engage your driver in a dialogue about bus stops for the best part of 20 minutes whilst leering at your legs and dribbling.

Black cabs are the golden elixir of the gods on late nights out.  Everyone has had that feeling – yes, you at the back, don’t deny it – when it’s 1am, you are so drunk you are ready to insist that you are sober, you knew  that fifth mojito was a mistake, you have danced with a man called Bruce and are not quite sure who he is but he said he went to school with your brother, you are tired, slightly sweaty and really, really want to be at home, on the sofa, safe and tea-and-toasted up.  But you are a lady.  A female lady of the woman gender, and have been warned by other female ladies, by your mother, your father, your brothers and Bruce (who played rugby at school with them and who had earlier, in a bar on the Charing Cross Road, showed you the scar that never quite healed after your brother “accidentally” broke a bit of his jaw off) that you Must. Not.  Go.   Home.  On.  Public.  Transport. Late. At Night.  Ever.   This has been drilled into you so successfully throughout your adolescent years that you are convinced that by going into a tube station after the pubs shut you are guaranteed to be the subject of some ghastly sexual attack or that you will be randomly clubbed on the head for your wallet.  If I so much as move towards the Piccadilly Line at Green Park after closing I can hear the Crimewatch theme tune.

Get a cab.  Your Dad said it as he handed you two folded-up ten pound notes when you were 19.

Get a cab.  Your brother tells you when you are 16 and then tells you (again) that all men are potential rapists – never mind, have a nice evening, love – and get a cab.

So I always got cabs.  When I could find the bastards.  Have you tried?  Stand in Piccadilly Circus at midnight on a Friday and look for one of those magical orange lights.  Nowt.  Your shoes ache and it’s raining on the hair you blow-dried for an hour at 6.40pm.  Rubbish.  The best thing to do, I was told, is to go and stand outside a five star hotel.  There are always cabs there, I was told.

What numpty told me that? – because  it was actually the worst thing to do.  Regularly I used to walk down Piccadilly after a night out in Soho, away from the flotsam and jetsam of Soho muckeries, where I immediately felt safer as soon as I passed the classic porticos of the Royal Academy, and felt I was instantly transported into a smarter London.  I always used to stand outside the Meridien Hotel , and ironically put myself in exactly the wrong sort of situation because it would be guaranteed that within the next half hour I would be approached by a gentleman from Kuwait who asked “how much?” whilst I shuffled from one foot to the other and threw eye semaphore towards the doorman in the hope he might rescue me.  Tsk.  None of those random prostitute-seekers from the East ever offered me their taxis, incidentally.  I don’t mind being mistaken for a prostitute if they were a bit chivalric about it.

So well-honed was my need to find a taxi that I once walked all the way up Oxford Street and Regent Street to Portland Place in five inch heeled sandals until my feet bled to try to find one.  When I did see one I screamed and waved my hands around in desperation “STOPPP!”  “Oh my goodness,” he thought.  “It’s a random blood-splattered Bus Nutter.  Not picking her up.”  When one taxi driver did finally pull up I could have kissed him (but didn’t) and luxuriated in the thing I always do in the back of taxis after a splendid night out: kick my shoes off and stretch my legs out in the generous confines of the passenger seat.  The moment you are successfully installed in that warmth, in that comforting leather seating, with BBC London or LBC humming away in the speakers,  you are truly in urban bliss.  Or at least you are until you realise another random, verbose mad-as-a-box-of-frogs chap is driving you home.  It’s a sinking of the heart that accompanies his rants, the oily eye that engages with your own via the smeary rear view mirror and the voice that inevitably says “Bus stops!  Don’t get me started – how about a bit of common sense about bus stops? Well, there’s just too many of them, aren’t there?!”

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Teatime in Soho – or is it?

As regular readers know, my heart beats for Soho.  There’s blood lines and personal history running through that neighbourhood which is curtailed at one end by the Piccadilly Theatre and at the other end by the mess of pavement and road diversions that is the Crossrail extension.  Of course, you do also have to be careful; there aren’t only blood lines but fault lines, slips and falls that mean you can suddenly get dumped into bits of history that, frankly, you’d rather leave lying in peace a la the sleeping dog.  But mostly, Soho always refreshes, as each evening is just pasting another layer on top of the memory of evenings out you had before.

Not at 6pm though.  Soho’s only just had it’s breakfast at 6pm.  It’s only just finished wheezing and coughing up last night’s B&H at 6pm.  I’m not talking about the Soho that is working, of course; the beavering media bees buzzing about those Wardour Street honeypots with their business names written in Helvetica lower-case font, but the Soho that celebrates, amuses and entertains itself with brio nightly.  6pm is the in-between hour, and Soho is fixing her hair, getting herself dolled up and wondering what lipstick to put on.   The lights blink on in steamy cafes and in antiseptic, metal-topped bars in Old Compton Street in this in-between hour at the beginning of spring.  Soon we’ll be rushing to the Gelateria del Lupo in Archer Street.  Soon – a month or two – but not yet.  Maison Bertaux is still having it’s rush hour with late teas and cakes dripping with Parisienne gaudiness and enough calories to keep a woman pregnant with twins going for a week.  A few brave souls are sitting outside Bertaux, trying to kid themselves that’s it’s actually spring, the mad crazies, but they all end up wrapped in balaclavas and complaining about English weather – in a very Maison Bertaux, Parisienne way, of course.

Imagine then, if you will, Bluebird at 6pm in Ronnie Scotts.  You see?  You can’t –  it’s just wrong – because it’s three hours to early for anyone to be enjoying festivities in Ronnie’s or anywhere else.  You may have had a hazy episode when you actually left Ronnie’s in daylight, but to go in in daylight feels like your trespassing upon the bed-sitting-room of a jazz vampire who is having a sleep.  However, cocktail hour is cocktail hour, and  the ingenuity of Ronnie’s Bar – the upstairs hostelry above the club, strangely absent from the main club but simultaneously attached by a series of black mysterious interlinking doors – is that it is no longer a members’ bar, it is open to all, and it opens at 6pm.  I wouldn’t say it’s dull either, because the shabby, linoleum-floor disco/bar that was above the club for the best part of the last century (and in which you were nearly guaranteed to be approached by orange-squash drinking jazz men with one eye or men with one arm to dance) has now been redecorated to look like a Textiles A Level student’s idea of Sharon Osbourne’s bedroom.  Only the chairs are louder than the music – leopard skin armchairs and purple and burgundy walls abound.  With the exception of a small, glass-roofed area near the bar there is little natural light.  So, it may be 6pm on a Wednesday but – like a casino – it’s designed to always feel like 1.30am on a Friday night.  Honesty, I nearly felt drunk the moment I walked in – or at least that I had just spent the last two hours listening to the late Elvin Jones drumming downstairs whilst I made the best of a tepid house salad.

The drinks prices are what you’d expect for a West End bar – with around £10 a drink, particularly if you order vodka martinis which is basically pure alcohol that was once allowed to stand next to a mixer for ten seconds.  Oh, and three olives.   But the barman was particularly jolly at the beginning of his shift.  We were there for a album launch complete with a gig – and the retro feel of the artists meant that soon I couldn’t move for slick-haired sensitive looking young men in sleeveless pullovers and two-tone shoes, and ladies decked out in Vivienne of Holloway’s finest 1950s dresses and peep-toed, vintage slingbacks.  Hence the vodka martini – which seemed to fit.  Just holding a martini glass and excelling at its shape takes you back sixty years.    Soon we were grooving to Night Train and wondering where the 21st century had gone.  The lady singer sang a series of stalwart numbers in her polka dotted dress and we had to move our bags and coats to accommodate the growing number of retro cats crowding around the door.  Two singers and a five piece band and, oh, it was all very jolly.  The place was rammed and the atmostphere was fantastic.  The “casino” effect exerted its power; we were grooving and clapping to songs whilst the real world outside seemed a universe away.  Everything went a bit elastic and whoozy.  We did some dancing and then some other people did some dancing and I thought this vodka martini business was mighty fine.  The music was infectious and we stayed and stayed and stayed.  We laughed and chatted with old friends and admired the dresses.  After a long time dancing and finger snapping and watching the 1950s hemlines flip and slide in the air, it was finally time to leave.  We granted generous, sloppy mouthed goodbyes to friends we knew and also to a few astonished randoms who we clearly didn’t.  We laughed the victorious chortle of the Wednesday night drunk on our way out.

“Were the tubes still running?”  I asked Mother Bluebird.    “Hang on, we thought – we are in 1954 – there’s no Jubilee Line, is there – isn’t there?  Who am I?  What year are we in?” So blatantly tricked had we been that it was mid-1950s that I started involuntarily using words like “rationing”, “pops” and – this is particularly shocking – “gusset”.   I was sure that it was the 1950s martini talking when I said “ought not” rather than “should not” like some clipped, Rank film, 1950s British movie actress.  I felt my name should be Barbara, or Marion, or Val. Another four years in there and it would be 1958 and I would be forced into drainpipe black, beatnik jeans – and I just don’t have the legs.  It was good to get out when we did.

Mother Bluebird wasn’t sure.  She had the overwhelming impression she was supposed to be at a supper party in Queens Park.   We flopped down the stairs into black night and watched the snake of patrons bleeding through the front door of the club below.  The streets were fully lit, the city was awake.

“Best be off then,” I said, shocked at the 21st century-ness of the street.  I ought to have passed through a gentle time journey whilst on the way out of the club.  A room in the 1960s (they could put Lulu in the corner or something) and then a room in the 1970s.  Then the decrepid, impoverished Soho of the 1980s.  But to suddenly lurch from 1954 to 2011 was distinctly unpleasant.

“Yes, dear.”

“Too late for supper – gotta get back.  Shit – working tomorrow…..” A clutch of ladies out for the evening looped drunkenly along the middle of the road in Frith Street.  An empty police car was parked opposite, as two policeman (1950s – rozzers?  Bobbies?) bought their Bar Italia caffeine hits.   My shoes hurt.  It must be late.

“Yes, dear – what time is it?  I’m supposed to be in Queen’s whatsit….” asked Mother Bluebird.

“Queen’s coronation…..that was last year in 1953.  I think you mizzed it…. hic.  Good album launch, daddio.  Or rather mummio sorry.   – honestly, the fifties are great, eh?  It’s like we never had it so good.  Hang on – lemme see what time it is.”

It was 7.20pm.

We had only been in there for 70 minutes.

How did that happen?  Honestly – people were still leaving their offices.   7.20pm?  Are you sure?  Has there been some mistake?  I felt perplexed.  You see, this is what happens when you get fooled into some intricate 1950s zoot suit timewarp like Marty McFly.  “Wha’….how many vodka martinis did I ‘ave, Mum…?”

“One dear.  About an hour ago when we arrived.”


It was all very disconcerting. We gradually got over the distress of discovering that it wasn’t 2am in 1954 but it was actually 7.20pm in 2011.  It was early evening still in Soho, apparently.  I stopped off to see that cheery man who runs the off licence in Greek Street to buy a bottle of tonic water.  I felt I would need another drink when I got home just to get over the vortex of time travel sickness I appeared to be in, and my mother was still in plenty of time for her supper party in Queens Park.  I strolled up to Soho Square and passed into the 21st century.  Well, that’s part of the magic of Soho.  Sometimes the history seeps in and time flips over, and you get swept up into the celebratory raucousness of it all – only to emerge exhausted, a little drunk, and slightly bamboozled on the other side.  But at least there is always some dancing.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

What Lies Beneath


“Gah!  Exactly how many vodka martinis did I have?” is the first thought that crosses the mind of the lady about town when confronted with this heinous riot of tube lines.  Isn’t this what getting home on the tube looks like after a raucous gathering in a musical hostelry?  Like the London tube map has been put through the spin dryer?  The lines have moved…..are moving.  I don’t know where I am. Can somebody help me please?  I really think I should drink some water.   Has anyone seen my book?   Are these my bags?  I want to get on the spindly red bit and then hop on the black wavering line but I think – do you have anything I could be sick in?    I don’t like it.  I don’t like it atall.

Phew.  That’s better.  Solace.  I feel all safe and fuzzy and warm now.  It’s Zone 1 as I know it; Zone 1 as I need it to be before I can get home, drink water and go to bed with my ibuprofen.  I can get home drunk now because the map is sober.  It has the infamous Blue “Johnston” Font, and a comforting plethora of right angles and little straight lines.  Our city is comprehensible once more.  How thoughtful for someone to put those lovely small white circles to indicate where I can join with another line.  This is civilization.  I heartily approve.  

The map below is of an identical thing to the map above, but the map above is geographically accurate.  Go figure.

When the first underground tube trains rattled through London in the 1860s and 1870s they stank of sulphur and had no insulation for sound.  As late as 1890, the Speaker – a London magazine –  maintained that “it is only safe to discuss impersonal subjects on the Underground” as conversations could clearly be heard from one carriage to the next.   This meant that a private conversation you could be holding with your wife / husband / live-in lover / underhousemaid etc on the brand, spanking new District & Metropolitan Railway could easily be overheard by someone in the next compartment.  This was most distressing, particularly for people who conducted affairs by Victorian gaslight and then, leaving the train at Bond Street, got bashed on the head on the umbrella by the wife who had been sitting in the next carriage.  Also, in the early days of underground trains you had the choice of a first, second or third class ticket.  On the tube.  Honestly – it’s consumer choice gone mad!  But what they forgot to tell you was that the Metropolitan Line’s third class carriage had no roof.  Subsequently, you would have to spend the journey coughing back coal, spluttering out sulphur, avoiding brick dust whilst the remainder of the underground was still being built around you and shouting “I say!  Isn’t progress marvellous!” to your fellow, poor third class passenger, and hope that you would still be alive when the train vomited you out at Aldersgate for your 12 hour day cleaning chimneys and eating rats.  Victorian London, eh?  How LOVELY.  And if the unpleasant travelling experience wasn’t enough to pledge you to stick to the omnibus above ground instead, there was the lunacy of the maps.

  Take for example the rudimentary map from 1908:

This is plain daft.  First of all Edwardian ladies had massive skirts and stuff and had to spend all that time being various mistresses of Edward VII and looking grandly fragrant in hysterical hats, and now they are forced to go to the music hall by negotiating a tube map that looks as if someone has taken a photo of some worms.  Why is the West End all weird and illegible? What’s the bizarre orange bit meeting the yellow bit at Finsbury Park?  Why does the red line veer off in five directions?   Pathetic.  Must try harder, chaps.

This is the incredibly grand map from 1921.  It’s in an incredibly fussy, pseudo-aristocratic font, largely illegible and utterly confusing.  Again, the West End just looks like a right old mess.   This is extremely unhelpful and clearly cobbled together by a London Underground secretary.  On opium.  Or at least, someone who can’t spell “Gloster Road”.

In fact, the genii at London Underground only stopped producing geographic maps in 1932, when a design by MacDonald Gill finally introducted the concept of a diagrammatic map which we still have today.   Until 1932, I can only imagine people wandered around the network weeping trying to find Tottenham Court Road.  MacDonald Gill thought it silly to include geographical sites above ground (cricket grounds, random royal palaces and – incredibly – Army & Navy Stores) because no one identifies with that when they need to find the District platform Westbound whilst under the ground.  What was needed was a different, underground topography.   It was astonishing that it took London Underground half a century to work this out.

Thank goodness, then, for Harry Beck.  Harry Beck was the marvellously clever LU employee who determined that the topology of the ground above doesn’t matter; it’s the topology of the inter-connecting lines below that need to make sense in the mind of the traveller.  He designed the iconic map which is still used as a blueprint for today.  See – isn’t it lovely?

By 1958 the tentacles on the tube stretch out so far as to appear familiar to modern tubetravellers:

Hey kids, let’s pull on our peasant-style waisted tops and Levis and pop down to Trafalgar Square and have a bloody good dance and celebrate the end of rationing.  Or something.  Then off to the Stockpot with Cliff and the Shadows and have baked beans!  Cor!  Look there’s Adam Faith busking on the District Line!  Wow.   It’s the 1950s and teens are rioting around the tube like no one’s business – why?  Because they’ve got a bloody good map, that’s why.  Where’s the Jubilee Line?  Well, the Queen aint HAD her silver Jubilee yet, you 50s numpties!  So, you have to deal with two branches of the Bakerloo, one of which will eventually break off and form the Jubilee Line to open in 1977.  Or rather two years later in 1979 when they actually finished building it.   But hang on 50s kids.  Cool your bobby sox.  What is this ?  Aldwych?  Trafalgar Square?  Bushey & Oxhey?!  These aren’t tube stations.  Or are they?

There are over 30 closed stations that are no longer in use – Aldwych, Dover Street, Down Street, King William IV Street etc are still there, although closed up like ancient caves.  Aldwych is a very popular site for location filming for television and films.  Tomb Raider 3 was filmed at Aldwych.  Strangely, Transport for London won’t allow these stations to be used for any programme or film featuring vandalism, firearms, (“Freeze, sucker.  Now.  Got To Platform 5 Westbound (Putney branch) to Parsons Green or I’ll shoot!!”)   nudity (“Oh inspector, I’m so sorry I don’t have my oyster card – I forgot, oh it’s so hot down here.  Shall I take my blouse off?”), terrorism or that most dastardly of criminal acts – fare evasion (“Mr Bond – sir – SIR!  You can’t jump over the ticket barrier, sir. You’ll spill your drink.”) 

Here’s the 1985 map.  You can practically smell the social inequality and see the red filofaxes, can’t ya?   All those Secondary Modern accents floating about the Brand New Spanking New 1980s Docklands Light Railway to Rotherhithe and Wapping.  The Docklands Light Railway introduced some very old, exotic sounding names to the network, with silly titles like Mudslap, Filthdragon, Royal Albert Slapsplash, Thames Midriff and Mudlark Spifflegrinder.  No one is entirely sure whether these places are real or quasi-legendary London hellholes where men in red braces dine off cocaine capsules instead of food.  Either way the network is impoverished and no one knows who controls anything anymore following the disintegration of Ken’s Club, the GLC.   But the font is comforting Times New Roman and this is the tube map of my youth.  Not that I was ever allowed to ride it alone, of course, because I had anxious parents who presumed (wrongly) that I would be the target of trouser fiddlers.

Ah.  Here we are.  The 1999 tube map.  We’ve been looking forward to partying like it’s 1999 ever since Prince told us to in about 1983.  And now it’s Millenium Eve.  But how on earth are we supposed to find our New Year’s Eve Party, now that the powers that be have painted the underground map to look like a municipal swimming pool?  This is the much-maligned zoning system that tells you how much you pay depending on how far you are from the centre, rather than how far you travel.  In other words, you get a penalty for being a suburbanite, whilst the truly rich chaps who live in the middle go from Harrods to Marylebone High Street for £1.90.  This basically sums up the late 90s, when the gap between people with loads of lolly and people with not that much atall began to widen alarmingly.  No one ever understood how this zoning system works (again, much in common with the untransparent nature of politics at the time), or why a Zone 1-2 and Zone 1,2 3 & 4 Travelcard is available, but a card covering only Zones, 1, 2 and 3 isn’t.  It’s all slightly cretinous.   London is, however, is in the fiendish grip of the biggest financial boom ever seen by anyone in the universe.  Ever.  To celebrate, £3.5billion goes into the much-celebrated Jubilee Line extension, which boasts platforms with protective plastic walls that only open when the train has drawn to a halt.  This is to prevent suicides, which most people attempt when they get to the Millenium Dome and see how shit it is.

Complaining about the tube service is, like complaining about the National Health Service, a constant national pastime.  But, also like the National Health Service, it is dearly loved, we would defend it to the death and we think ourselves superior to other nations because we have it, we love it, and we were generally the first people on the planet to think of it.    It’s also a microcosm of the city and the citydwellers that live here.  Who knew that Cadbury’s Whole Nut is the most popular chocolate from tube vending machines?  Or that Gladstone and Dr Barnardo remain the only two people to have had their coffins transported by tube?  Or that last year the network carried 1,065 million passengers?  Perhaps the most reassuring statistic is that 96.6% of the trains last year ran perfectly on schedule.  The London transport network maintains its status as one of the most staggeringly efficient networks in the world; most of the time, you get on a tube, you sit down, and then you get off it again.  Job done.  It’s filthy – but then again, so is my knicker drawer.  There are half a million mice in it and, then again, there also is in my….no, sorry.  The half a million mice are best viewed from the platforms at Oxford Circus – they are not, as many believe, baby rats.  For some reason the mice like Oxford Circus (close to Top Shop, easier to pop to Soho for a cappucino – is there a very good cheese shop in W1?).  Strange, worse things than rats have started out life in the London Underground.  For a start, Jerry Springer was born on the platform at East Finchley.  Disgusting.

Finchley, of course, has a far more respectable tube-connected resident .  Harry Beck, the iconic tube map designer, who was paid only 5 guineas for a design map which is still the basis for our present day tube map, lived at Finchley, and one of his original maps are on a platform at Finchley Central Station for all of you to see.  You can get there easily these days.  Because he designed a brilliant map. 

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.