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Party Girls of Piccadilly

Some years ago I was wandering around the Vintage Magazine store in London’s Brewer Street, looking for inspiration for an ad campaign I was working on. I came across an old magazine that, while being no use at all for the job in hand, was absolutely amazing for loads of other reasons.

Male magazine front cover

Now that’s what you call shelf appeal

Male was probably irresistible to certain male browsers back in June 1955, just as it proved to me some 35 years later. I must have drawn some strange looks on the tube as I started reading it on the way home.

The leading article about an intrepid American hunter bravely slaughtering a Komodo dragon was appallingly exhilarating, as were the pieces entitled ‘I Alone Survived’, ‘My Legs Began To Rot’ and ‘We Flew Down Eagles’, a how-could-he story about a Texan farmer who rigged up a gun mount on his Piper Cub aircraft so that he could shoot soaring golden eagles more easily than from the ground.

I’m a sucker for old-school direct response ads, too, and the ones in Male are masters of the form. There’s the obligatory full-page ad for Charles Atlas (‘simply utilize the DORMANT muscle-power in your own God-given body!’), ads for book clubs, hunting knives and uranium detectors, ads for dodgy-looking correspondence courses (including one on mastering correspondence), a riff on the famous John Caples ‘They Laughed When I Sat Down To Play The Piano’ ad, and a few ads aimed at helping men become better men through mending things: ‘FIX ANY PART OF ANY CAR IN A JIFFY!’, ‘Learn To Fix Appliances’ and ‘I Will Train You At Home for Good Paying Jobs in Radio And Television’ (Again, he means fixing them rather than becoming the next Jack Benny).

But the article in Male that I’ve recreated here (aka laboriously typed out) is Party Girls Of Piccadilly, a searing exposé of the vice scene in post-war London. Given the passage of time and the sensationalist style of reporting that Male demanded from its contributors, it’s difficult to say how much of what follows is an accurate snapshot of 1950’s London. Alfred Kinsey’s testimony to the 1954 Woldfenden Inquiry (to which this article alludes) asserted that London was second only to Havana in the proliferation of its prostitutes, but even so, the authors of this piece seemed to bump into a hooker every few steps.

See what you think. The subheads are mine, by the way. They’re just there to break up the copy. It’s a bit of a long read.

At eleven o’clock every night the streets of London erupt in a rush hour of prostitution. The bars close; thousands of men down their last beers and hit the sidewalks for home – with girls propositioning them every step of the way. Soliciting is bold and uninhibited.

From the lowest Soho back alleys to the sidewalks outside Mayfair’s swankest lounges, London streetwalkers ply their trade with a frankness hardly equalled anywhere in the world. There are thousands of these women.

Last year 9,000 were arrested in the metropolitan section of London alone – arrested not for prostitution but because their health cards indicated they had skipped the semi-monthly medical examination.

The indifference to this form of vice surprised us. Until we saw it for ourselves, we couldn’t believe that so many women were making a living from kerbstone solicitations.

Britain’s rugged history

In quest of an explanation we visited C division of the Metropolitan Police, which has the unhappy task of overseeing most of the sidewalk activity. There we were told that the increase in commercial vice is simply a by-product of the rugged history of Britain’s most recent 15 years.

A lieutenant told us “During the war, there was the usual let-down in morality. But matters continue to deteriorate even afterwards. For the country on the winning side of, World War Two we are certainly pay a loser’s price. Post-war shortages put us on a depression economy. Rationing deprived us of a full measure of basic necessities. Dim-outs saved vital electric power, but cut down our social life.

Women turned to prostitution because they needed the money. Men turned to prostitutes because of tension and insecurity and, I suppose, because there was often nothing else to do.”

From our observations, the supply of women far exceeds the demand. In Piccadilly, the Times Square of London, we saw groups of eight and ten girls strolling around like schoolgirls on a gay visit to the big city.

The difference was that they accosted every man they saw, offering him a choice of any girl in the group – or the entire group, if he wished. London streetwalkers stand out in a crowd, like cabbages among apples. Even at high noon they make themselves obvious and prevalent.

Hip swing

Streetwalkers in mink and streetwalkers in rags, whether in London or Paris or New York, all use the same trademark: the slow walk, the enticing hip swing, the dangling purse, the prolonged meeting of eyes.

Because of peculiar police regulations which legitimise streetwalking and stamp out all other forms of the ancient profession, London prostitutes differ from each other mainly in price.

As might be expected, the more attractive, well-groomed and intelligent ones are able to charges as much as upper-crust courtesans in recently-exposed New York call girl rackets. The tariff sometimes runs to more than 100 pounds for an evening. (A British pound is worth $2.80.)

The majority fall into the 10 to 30-shilling ($1.40 – $4.20) range, though we were told it is possible to find some who place even less value on their work. The 10 to 30-shilling types are neither homelier nor more attractive than run-of-the-mill harlots elsewhere. Good posture and clear eyes are rare, although the blooming complexion of rural England is sometimes seen.

Eight harlots per minute

The girls in the middle price brackets, and even some who ask a lot more, mingle with each other on the same street corners and cruise the same blocks. On an afternoon walk from Piccadilly along Coventry Street, down the Haymarket to Trafalgar Square, we counted 40 at work. That night, taking the same 25-minute stroll, we spotted almost 200.

Subsequent excursions along the same route enlightened us to the fact that the girls work favourite ‘beats’. We always saw the same girls, just as we later saw familiar faces operating in specific sections elsewhere in the city.

Usually, the girls are as friendly to each other as neighbors who meet in a supermarket on the Saturday shopping expedition. We saw them stop and chat and trade cigarettes. One night we heard a man ask for a particular girl, and her colleagues happily pointed her out in the shadows of a shop entrance.

But on slow evenings and at late hours, friendship goes down the drain. Late on chilly night in Shepherd Market we saw three young girls fighting over an American sailor.

In an alley off Trafalgar Square we saw two older women almost rip a man in half as they tried to pull him in opposite directions.

And outside a crummy bar in Glass House Street, where many prostitutes live, we saw women battling for position in a line formed outside the door. As each man made his exit from the pub, the girls would shriek at him, often plucking at his sleeve to get his undivided attention and, hopefully, his trade.

If the man is willing, he walks with the woman of his choice to her ‘digs’, usually an ill-lighted, shabbily furnished room which may service for living quarters also. Only the most successful can afford to pay double rent. Some take their customers to one of the lesser hotels, though this risky for everybody.

Sorry, this is from another article

Sorry, this is from another article

Lucrative business

Despite their moderate fees, even the 10 and 15-shilling prostitutes claim to average 20 pounds a week – about $50. In view of the low tab, this indicates considerable activity. We talked to two sorry-looking sisters, 19 and 21 years old, who said they had managed to save $2,500 in six months of flesh peddling.

They told us they were from Ireland, which brought to light the fact that many of the middle class girls are imports. With many Irish girls the pattern is common: husbands and jobs are hard to find at home, so they leave their impoverished families to work in London as hotel maids or waitresses.

Girls come to London from all over the Empire. Many merely want to escape the drabness of economically unstable homes in remote colonies. Others seek movie or stage careers or just ‘any old job’.

Many know in advance that they are going into prostitution and arrive in London with the idea that they are invading the world’s best market. Whatever the cause of their choosing prostitution as a career, the girls land on the streets.

The pickings are apparently easiest for those who charge the highest fees. Although they are technically streetwalkers, these elite tarts seldom fate forth more than once a night and often work only once or twice a week. Some of them are actresses, models or showgirls who are either temporarily out of work or have become used to extra income.

£25,000 a week!

These are the girls who most closely resemble American call girls in that, after they have established themselves, they do not have to prowl the streets. The customers often become regular clients who make appointments by phone. One woman told us she earned £980 – $2,744 – in one week. (Me: that’s about £25,000 in 2017 prices!)

Unlike the quickie artists of Soho (London’s run-down equivalent of Greenwich Village), the ritzy prostitutes expect dinner and a few drinks from their clients, even if the transaction originates on a sidewalk.

Later, the woman takes John Customer to her elegant apartment, usually in the Mayfair or Sloane Square regions. The man knows he is expected to spend the night, stay for breakfast and deposit the girl’s ‘gift’ with the maid as he leaves.

Payments vary from $50 to $350. Men who can afford it visit the same girls regularly, thus assuring her of a decent income and keeping her available.

Because of their aristocratic appearance, some of the more luxurious women are permitted to sit in the lounges of good hotels and sip drinks while waiting for a pickup. However, an overt gesture of solicitation by even the most elegant prostitute would be enough to put her out on the curb. All the top-notch pros try to work London’s best night spots, but an alert management is generally able to keep them out.

Strangely enough, the girls also follow social custom and have divided themselves into sharply demarcated social classes. We didn’t meet one who aspired to higher prices or resented the plush lives of her more successful sisters. A ten-shilling girl told us “I know my place. I know the kind of men I can get, and I know the kind who wouldn’t touch me. I do all right.”

For this sort of girl, ‘doing all right’ means earning a mere living and enjoying no luxuries. She lives in a small flat, sometimes alone, but surprisingly often with another prostitute who is her intimate friend.

Britain’s growing problem

We were astonished at the number of these women who not only display the prostitute’s traditional dislike for men, but are able to generate romantic feelings only for other women. As scientists have stressed in recent years, homosexuality is a growing problem in Britain.

Another rather unfamiliar aspect of London prostitution is the absence of the male scrounger, or procurer. Streetwalkers do not saddle themselves with ghastly boyfriends who can be found lurking around American tarts.

The British woman does her own soliciting and, if she has a lover, he is seldom associated with her business. Possibly the only men who make money from London prostitutes are the comparative handful who are paid to protect women who are in violent competitive feuds with others.

Also, in some of the worst sections, she may employ a man to act as lookout and warn of approaching police, but that’s the extent of their business dealings with men.

London bobbies stay on the same beat for years and get to know local prostitutes by their first names. The bobby has two jobs in this connection: to keep the competition from getting too violent, and check health cards. All London prostitutes carry the cards, issued by the city and checked regularly at St Thomas Hospital.

If a policeman finds that a girl has missed her check-up or is operating with a card that labels her as diseased, he runs her in. For this offense, as well as for street fighting, the court fine is 40 shillings. The girls are by now so accustomed to the fines that the call them ‘our income taxes’.

Outside London

We wondered about the ‘taxes’ elsewhere in England, and a tour of the country revealed that the provinces are jolly well holding their own. In Manchester, an industrial centre of 700,000, we were told of an official study which disclosed that 400 streetwalkers worked the town and that many hotels were hospitable to their trade.

In Newcastle, a seaport, prostitution flourished so disastrously after the war that an enlarged police force was given orders to patrol all streets every 20 minutes and arrest all women who appeared to be loitering.

Cardiff, once the roughest town in Great Britain, had so many police on the streets that we thought the town had been invaded. Prostitutes were not to be found.

Right, back to the capital

Evidently, the pressure in the provinces has served to heighten the concentration in London. There, in the world’s largest city, they all have room to maneuver. In Park Lane, where expensive hotels overlook Hyde Park, we saw one woman accost 30 men in less than an hour. Rebuffed but undiscouraged, she tramped on, until the last we saw of her she was strutting across the street and into the park.

In Soho we saw two British soldiers approached four times by elderly women who greeted them with ‘Got the time, dearie?’

In the Bayswater Road area, we noticed a large number of car pickups. The cars took off to the rows of apartment buildings near Paddington Station.

Tenants of those apartment houses have complained bitterly that the night traffic in the neighbourhood resembles a parade. Resultant raids occasionally net a few girls who are charged with disturbing the peace, but the clean-ups are so ineffective that they are conducted half-heartedly.

Floating crap

Another police headache are the groups of girls who try to set up parlour houses. They take short leases on apartments and small houses and take turns outdoors, drumming up business for each other. For the police, locating the establishments is somewhat like trying to track down a floating crap game.

In Leicester Square, we got an invitation to visit such an establishment, described to us by a sallow teenage girl as ‘the club’. She assured us that there was no admission fee and that the selection was varied. Asked for a rain check until the following week, the girl said ‘who knows where we’ll be next week?’

Present headquarters, she said, was over a pub and, though the owner enjoyed collecting the high rent, he feared that police would spot the traffic. Being caught would mean his license.

Many such youngsters, we learned, actually live with their families, spending what time they can soliciting customers. They are the most youthful of daytime streetwalkers and usually return to their homes in the late evening, when the old-timers hit the sidewalks.

Trollops

Though London has always had its share of commercialised vice, the problem, according to police, has never been as great as it is now. At one time, a high percentage of the trollops were foreign, coming over from Paris and berlin when travel was easier and prices higher. The war finished London for the Germans, and the French who arrive now are in the elegant higher brackets.

It was the war, say authorities who should know, that brought on the current vice epidemic. Remnants of defeated European armies moved to England. The US sent over hundreds of thousands of men for the European campaign.

Thus London became a huge garrison playground. Operating prostitutes made fortunes, and gossip of their profits attracted newcomers. A sad but true fact was that Americans contributed largely to the decline.

Few English women had met any Americans before the war. Suddenly the country was jammed with thousands of fast-talking, fun-seeking, easy-spending Yanks who treated the women with a lavishness and intensity such as they had never known before. To Englishwomen, Americans were the greatest import since tobacco.

The girls went wild. Thousands left home in order to make themselves more available. Many hoped to marry Americans eventually, and some did. But the majority were left on the wharf, some, unfortunately, with illegitimate children to support. For hundreds, there was no recourse but to make their bodies public property.

Harlots

Post-war controls greatly restricted British life. Spending a night at beer and darts in his favourite pub was the only way an Englishman could spend his money – if he had any money to spend. Knowing this, the desperate girls learned to haunt the dark streets at night, hoping to find a man who would want them. As the years passed, prostitution increased, until today the British themselves admit that London has the largest population of harlots on the Western world.

Older members of this profession, unable to make out any longer, become charity cases. The outcasts often resort to robbery and mugging when other business is slow.

In an effort to improve this disgraceful state of affairs, a committee of fifteen eminent men and women was recently organized* and began casting about for solutions. The police told them, in effect: ‘Increased arrests will only cause a new problem. We don’t have enough room in our jails to accommodate that mob.’

But the picture is not completely barren of solution. Social workers point out, for example, that the British economy is becoming more robust. In some trades, jobs are going begging.

Honest

The London committee, believing that most of the streetwalkers would not have chosen their present calling had they have been able to find honest, fair-paying employment, hopes to organise a salvage operation. The girls will be encouraged to take jobs – if employers can be persuaded to overlook the past.

Should this campaign prove successful, and should the sidewalks become less congested, many Londoners will consider the time ripe to take the next step: fill up the jails, not with the girls, but with their customers. These observers are sure that once it becomes a public offense to patronise a prostitute, vice will approach the vanishing point.

The average Britishers are not losing any sleep waiting for this moral millennium, however. Being very practical people, they know that women will be wearing streetwalkers’ shoes for some time to come and derive comfort from the knowledge that as long as this must be, at least they’ll be wearing them in good health.

*This led to the Wolfenden Report.

 

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Christmas Carols via Google Translate

Popular carols translated from English into several random languages then back into English. Everybody sing along!

Ding Dong Merrily on High

Ding dong merrily on high,
Heav’n ring the doorbell:
Ding Dong! The sky
The Angel singing riv’n.
Gloria in excelsis Hosanna!

Down so low e’en,
Let the bell swungen,
And “I io!”
Priests and people Sungen.
Gloria in excelsis Hosanna!

Please, first duty
Your Matin Carillon bell;
It may well frost
Your evetime song, you singers.
Gloria in excelsis Hosanna!

Silent Night, Holy Night

Silent night, Holy Night,
everything tranquil, everything it bright
Yon virgin mother J. Nino.
Santo Infant Tan tyerno J. Ramah Taman,
sleeps in La Paz sky. Sleep in La Paz sky.
Silent Night, Holy Night,
The Shepherds Tremble Before The View,
The Glorious Women of the Cycle Away,
The Heavenly hostesses canton haleloia;
Christ the Savior, noses! Christ the Savior, noses!
Night of Silence, Holy Night, Sons of God, pure Led of Love Riot Radiance of your Holy face, with the amaneser of the redeeming Grace,
Jesus, it ñ Ore, in your birth.
Jesus, it ñ Pray, in your birth.

The Twelve Days Of Christmas (final verse)

In twelve of Christmas, my true love sent to me
Twelve drummers, eleven tubes and flute
Ten Lords A- nine women dancing,
Eight Maids A-mil, seven swans swimming in water,
six geese, chickens, Gold, four birds of call,
three French chickens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree is!

Good King Wenceslas

Good king Vásla saw
Esteban Tour Information
Snow’s lie deep. Significance still
A bright moon shining in the night
Don abuse
It ended up poor
Fuel collection in winter
You and me
if you can,
What is a farmer?
How to find a place?
Teacher, he is a good agreement,
farm
Located directly on the trees
Sources of St. Agnes
My meat brings me wine
I brought sophisticated me here
You and I will have lunch.
When you wear.
The page and the king, they
I went
Bad air is wild
Pain and weather.

The First Noël

Noel angel
Fields are located to the shepherds of the poor,
When the sheep sector,
A cold night, and it was very deep.
Noel Noel Noel Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

They saw the star to watch
Eastern border is much better
And the earth with high beam
Thus continues day and night.
Noel Noel Noel Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

 

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Dead funny: a stroll around Highgate Cemetery

All the Graves in one grave

All the Graves in one grave

Awkward.

Awkward. Henry edges it in the popularity stakes

For one terrible moment I read this as Arnold LinkedIn

For one terrible moment I read this as Arnold LinkedIn

Well, he SAID he was a poet

Bernard was a ‘poet’

A man of men! Who did not yield! Grrrr! Middle name Marion

A man of men! Who did not yield! Grrrr! Middle name Marion

‘Wake up!’

‘The name’s Green, Green Green.’

The master copywriter. I left him a pen. Sorry, typo: I lent him a pen

The master storyteller. Found a nice Edding 55 in the little box

A life in words. Makes a change from ‘RIP’

*snigger*

No mournful euphemisms for Patrick Caulfield. He dead.

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The Beach Boys and creative ownership

A friend of mine describes the frustrations of not retaining a degree of control over his creative output:

Watching a documentary about the making of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, I was amused by Al Jardine’s tale of suggesting they record the song ‘Sloop John B’. Brian Wilson wasn’t too keen, but Jardine showed him some chord changes and tried to persuade him it would be great. He then went back to work, and the next he heard was the finished track.

“I was really pissed not to be invited to the recording session, but I guess in the end I was pleased that the idea flew,“ said Jardine, ruefully.

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 08.16.03

I wish I shared his insouciance. Whenever an idea of mine is approved and selected for production, only to be hi-jacked by others who change it and deliver the finished thing without involving me at all, I die a little. I know these are professional people who are good at their job, and are only interested in getting good work out into the light of day. And I know that I am not as good as I think I am at art direction, let alone knowing anything about today’s technical skills, but so what?

Our current CD is extremely good at people – one of the best I’ve known. He constantly praises and flatters us all, never taking credit for others’ work and delighting in the growth and achievements of the team. But he gets excited about good new work, and zooms off with it, overseeing every detail, all the way. Which includes tweaking the script, changing the jokes, adding new bits, etc.

And the finished result? I haven’t seen the latest one yet – I’m going to withhold this until I do – but I expect it will be excellent, loved by the client, and feathers in caps all round. So what am I fretting about? I guess it’s frustration about losing control and especially about not being kept in the loop as things progress.

I think what’s missing is a stage, or stages, in the production process where I – and others in a similar position – can be kept in the picture. That’s all – no-one has to take any notice of my suggestions or anything, just let me feel part of it. And defend my original idea where necessary.

Of course, if it all turns out like Pet Sounds then I won’t complain too much.

Do you recognise this scenario? I certainly do. The only thing I’d take issue with is my friend’s assertion that the people who change creative work are ‘are only interested in getting good work out into the light of day’. Maybe that’s what’s happening. Or maybe there are other forces at work. As HG Wells said, ‘No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.’ This is especially true in advertising agencies when people spot a good idea. They want to alter it – ever so slightly – so that they can then claim a tiny bit of ownership for themselves. When you have everyone in an agency – not to mention everyone in the client’s office – itching to add their fingerprint to a piece of creative work, the result is very often the proverbial dog’s dinner.

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The day I met Bernard Manning

Younger readers, this is Bernard Manning.

It’s 1992. I’m a young, fresh-faced freelance copywriter which, amazingly, I still am. I had picked up a few little jobs from a London advertising agency that specialised in film work. That is, they made press ads for when Hollywood films were about to get a video release. I had a lot of fun coming up with ads that were appropriate to the film being advertised, reasoning that this was a key element of my job, but the agency generally rejected my work in favour of a pack shot with the headline ‘OUT NOW ON VIDEO’.

But today my job is a bit different. I am to direct the comedian Bernard Manning in the recording of two radio scripts I’d written. They were to publicise the release of his own video, charmingly titled ‘Banging With Manning’ and allegedly a ‘hilarious’ spoof of sex education videos.

Manning. He was much bigger back then.

I arrive at the Manchester recording studio with the agency’s account lady at the same time as he rolls up in an enormous Cadillac bearing the number plate 1 LAF. No doubt you were supposed to read that 1 as an I in case you were left thinking the plate alluded to the number of actual jokes in one of Bernard’s comedy routines.

The passenger door opens and Bernard, not the lithest comedian on the circuit, grips various parts of the car to leverage himself out of his seat. He waddles across the car park and introductions are made.

“See the boxing last night?” He’s addressing me, correctly assuming that the posh young account lady wouldn’t care one iota about boxing. Neither do I, but I say I missed it while making a face that I hope conveys the idea that this was an unavoidable oversight on my part.

We walk to the studio. “I don’t mind black blokes punching shit out of each other,” he continues, “but I don’t like it when they beat white fellas.”

I don’t have a face ready for a remark like this, much less a suitable vocal response. The account lady and I look at each other. This is going to be interesting.

And it is, and not only in the way I’d been expecting. No sooner does he settle down in the recording studio, still angry about a white boxer being beaten by a black one, than my colleague gets a call from the agency back in London. Apparently the body that oversees the suitability of broadcast advertising has belatedly taken objection to an element of the script. “Which script?” I ask.

“Both of them,” she says.

“What it is about them they don’t like?”

She hesitates. “The word ‘banging’.” The name of the product, in other words.

I glance at Bernard in the booth. Although I can’t hear anything, he seems to be asking the recording engineer questions about the equipment. What’s there to explain? Like all such rooms there’s only a microphone and a pair of headphones, and surely he’s familiar with the former.

“You’re going to have to rewrite the scripts,” says the account manager, “and quickly.”

I look for a place to, er, bash something out while the situation is explained to Manning. He’s not happy. He’s decided that blame for the episode should be laid at London’s door. “Fucking London,” he yells at everyone. “Fucking London idiots,” he adds, getting a bit more specific.

Writing radio scripts isn’t easy. To be honest, I don’t find any writing easy. Those who come up with headlines like OUT NOW ON VIDEO probably do, but I don’t. And although I’m not what you might call precious, I do find a desk and a chair and a bit of peace and quiet help the creative process. Not an enraged shouty comedian stomping about, a product I’m not allowed to mention by name and less than 45 minutes to write and record a couple of 20-second radio commercials.

It gets worse. Once we’re in a position to get something down on tape, it becomes clear that Bernard is as unfamiliar with reading aloud as he is with basic recording equipment. He stumbles over every line, strays from the script, adds pointless pauses and PUTS the emphasis ON all the wrong words. The agency didn’t bring an actual radio producer, someone skilled in the diplomatic art of getting the best work out of the ‘talent’, and all the engineer says after each take is “was that OK?” So it’s down to me to explain to an increasingly impatient Bernard that he needs to read a bit faster, or a bit clearer, or with less yelling, and please can you wait until the microphone’s turned off before saying fucking London wankers.

Luckily, the studio – situated in a largely residential area just outside Manchester, as I recall – doesn’t have any other jobs lined up so we’re allowed to overrun. A couple of hours later we’ve got frayed nerves but two commercials that even the most puritanical member of the radio clearance committee won’t have a problem with.

Recently I was clearing the loft and came across a whole bunch of my old radio ads on C30 cassettes, including the two with Manning. I ordered a bit of kit called the Tonor cassette tape to MP3 convertor, and stuck the least-crap ones on my website. Grit your teeth and have a listen. 5th and 6th ones down.

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The pub where ‘gastro’ leaves a nasty taste

The local boozer is having a refurb! This is good news. Like many pubs, the Royal Oak has been hit by falling trade and has also suffered a number of ‘incidents’ prompting visits from the local plod. Permanent closure and conversion into flats could have been the alternative, so any kind of determination to keep it open is a good sign.

Speaking of signs, there’s one on the wall announcing that the Royal Oak was an Evening Standard Pub of the Year back in the late ’70s. That probably meant you got an assortment of affable pipe-smoking gents who used the word ‘marvellous’ a lot.

‘Affable’ too, probably.

I hope the refurbishment plans allow for the retention of that dying institution, the separate public and saloon bars. Mind you, the distinction between the two was getting a bit blurred at the Royal Oak. The former used to show football on Sky and could get noisy, especially when Chelsea were playing. The saloon bar used to be somewhere you could escape football on Sky. Then the management adopted the retirement home model of reckoning that people needed to have TV on at all times, wherever they were. So they put up TVs in the saloon bar, and tuned them all to show football on Sky.

The pub served a range of traditional hearty pub fayre. You know the sort of thing. Burgers, steaks, pies and so on. All pretty good value and, thanks to weapons-grade microwaves, delivered to your table virtually before you’d finished placing your order.

But whatever else is changing, it looks like the food side of things will stay the same:

See that?

GASTRO PUB, NOT US!

Dubious grammar aside, I was struck by what these four words say about how the ‘gastro pub’ is perceived. Well, badly, obviously. Perhaps with a deep sense of distrust and suspicion. ‘We’ll be having none of your fancy London ways around here’ is the subtext. Or maybe it’s a veiled reference to the refurb carried out some years ago at another nearby pub, The Railway.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about drinking in pubs, it is to avoid any whose name contains the words ‘railway’, ‘station’ or ‘travellers’. Sure enough, The Railway was a seriously dodgy venue. After one disturbance too many, they shut the place down and reopened it months later with a new name, new decor, new prices and a new menu:

Does this shout ‘gastro pub’ to you? It doesn’t to me. But maybe the drinkers at the Royal Oak got terrified that their pub would reopen selling, not burgers, but black cod fillet in a Japanese tamari and manuka honey reduction, served with locally harvested micro greens.

Fair enough, but why so virulent in the denial? Why mention it at all? Is gastro food, whatever that might be, really such a terrible, terrible thing that you have to highlight the fact that customers needn’t entertain the slenderest fear of encountering any?

It’s like trying to reassure customers with signs saying things like:

SALMONELLA & BOTULISM? NOT HERE!
FILTHY CARPETS & STINKING BOGS? I DON’T THINK SO!
RISK OF UNPROVOKED GLASSING? NOT REALLY OUR STYLE!

To me, the sign is stating in a passive-aggressive way that the pub will under no circumstances serve the kind of food many people enjoy. They may as well have a sign reading:

CHEERFUL AMBIENCE? NOT US!
LOG FIRE IN WINTER? GET OUT OF HERE!
or
GOOD RANGE OF ALES? WHAT PLANET ARE YOU ON?!

I’ll give it a try when it reopens, though. Of course I will. It’s the local.

UPDATE 1: I visited The Royal Oak shortly after it reopened. Verdict: They’ve kept the good stuff (antique mirrors, unusual tiny wooden doorway through which one has to stoop to get from the public to the saloon bar, good range of beers, general layout,) and got rid of some the bad stuff (old fashioned furniture, heavily stained swirly carpet). All the TVs are still there, and they’re all showing football. There were plenty of unoccupied tables and chairs. But dim lighting made it impossible to read the paper, which has always been one of life’s pleasures, and a pair of children were allowed to run around and yell at the tops of their voices. THAT I could just about have coped with, but the constantly barking dog in the adjacent bar proved too much. Plus, the owner attempted to stop his dog barking by shouting at it. So I drained my pint and left.

UPDATE 2: Maybe I was unlucky, so I give the pub another try. This time I takeBounder (my cocker spaniel) and a backlit iPad. The place is just as empty as before. But the barman takes one look at Bounder and says that dogs are no longer allowed, except in the public bar. From there I can hear the barking dog above the sound of two teams battling it out on Sky 3 Plus Football Euro Extra, so I leave and strike the Royal Oak off of my list of locals. Shame.

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The lady in the launderette

In the early 1980s a  job move took me to new accommodation in a flat in Hornsey, north London. By the end of the second week it was time to wash some clothes. Trouble was, there was no washing machine in the flat. Come to think of it, there wasn’t much of anything in this flat. No TV or radio. No stereo. A tiny two-ring hob in a poky kitchenette. There wasn’t much in the way of conversation, either. The only other occupant – the flat’s owner – was a humourless, vegetarian teetotaller. My small room contained an ancient wooden-framed single bed that made such an alarming series of creaks and groans every time I shifted position that the noise would wake me up. I ended up sleeping on the floor.

Two weeks later I’d be out of there, moving to a much more lively flat on the edge of Clapham Common. Sex, drugs, booze and noisy parties all awaited.

But right now I needed my clothes washed. So I stuffed them all into a heavy duty plastic sack and hauled it to Turnpike Lane, the local high street, where I quickly found a launderette.

I opened the door to an uncharacteristically empty shop. In my experience of using these places when living in other flats around London, your typical launderette would be full up on a Saturday. There’d be people chatting, smoking, reading magazines and lifting great baskets of steaming laundry from one machine to another. Everyone would know what to do and the order in which to do it. Crucially, they’d also have the right change for the different types of coin-operated machinery.

I never had the right change. Nor could I face the prospect of dumbly sitting there while the machines slowly did their stuff. I could conceivably zip off to the pub to while away the time, but harboured the fear that I’d come back to find I had missed the end of the washing machine cycle, and an irate customer had angrily dumped all my clothes in a tangled heap.

So I always opted for a service wash, where the attendant – typically a harried, no-nonsense, chain-smoking woman of indeterminate age, dressed in a floral garment made from some electrically-charged synthetic fibre – would for a nominal fee do all the heavy lifting for you. Hopefully without spending too long judging the general state of your smalls.

There was just such an attendant there in the Turnpike Lane launderette. I approach her with my sack of dirty clothes.

“Hi! Do you do service washes here?” She looks at me while she considers the question. You should know the answer to this instinctively, I think.

“Yes, love,” she says eventually. “Yes we do. You want that little lot washed, do you?” She nods at the sack.

“Yes please, that would be great.” I hand the sack over. “How long will it take, do you reckon?” She gives the sack a once-over. “Couple of hours?”

“Great,” I say. She starts to turn away, then stops.

“What, are you going to wait for it?” Well, no. That would defeat the whole time-saving purpose of a service wash. It would also be a bit odd, sitting there watching while someone you didn’t know washed your clothes.

“No no, I was waiting for a ticket. You know.” Back when people used launderettes, you needed a ticket for a service wash. Otherwise anyone could walk in and claim your washing as their own. Or there could be a bag mix-up and you’d get home to find you’d picked up the clothes of a petite 25-year-old PA. So they’d give you a ticket, normally one of those cheaply-printed tear-off raffle ticket affairs.

“Oh right. A ticket.” She puts the sack down and heads off into her little office at the back. I hear what sounds like heavy wooden furniture being scraped across the floor. I turn to have a look around. No one else has come into the shop. Curiously, none of the machines seems to be in action. All I can hear is the steady drone of the traffic outside. Eventually the attendant emerges from the office. But she doesn’t have a ticket. Instead, she’s dragging an enormous pair of old-fashioned wooden step ladders. She plonks it in front of me, extends the legs outwards, rocks the assembly back and forth to ensure it’s stable and begins slowly climbing up.

I follow her progress. When she gets to about the third step, she reaches up and pushes at a ceiling tile. It moves a little. She gets both hands to it and slides it fully out of the way. Then she climbs up on the next step, and the next, until she’s in a position to climb off the top of the ladders and into a black space above the ceiling. She disappears from view.

I stare at the darkly forbidding aperture. The seconds tick by. Anyone glancing in through the window would see a 20-something man standing motionless in front of a pair of tall stepladders in an otherwise deserted launderette. My mouth starts to feel a little dry. The sounds of more objects being moved around reaches me from above. There’s a muffled thump. At least something’s happening up there, I think.

Eventually a leg appears, its foot searching tentacle-like for the uppermost step of the ladder. It makes contact. The attendant slowly descends a few steps, stops to replace the little trapdoor in the ceiling, then makes it all the way back to terra firma. Plumes of dust fly from her crackling nylon housecoat type thing as she brushes herself down. She reaches into a pocket and hands me the ticket.

It’s the customary raffle ticket. I look at the number. It reads ‘1’.

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