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.

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