A whole day ahead of us in London, no prior arrangements other than a stop off at Embankment tube and meeting up with some very good friends – how much could we fit in?
Let’s start with a stroll along the river and across to Lambeth. Ever since I started spending a lot of time in Pimlico, friends have inevitably joked, ’got your passport?’ Whilst it’s always nice to hear one of our favourite Ealing Studios films referenced, it’s sad to have to admit that the film is more about alliteration than location, and the exterior scenes were all filmed across the river in Lambeth. Still, why not pay the other Pimlico a visit and, thanks to a superb website called Reel Streets, which lists the locations for British films throughout the UK, we knew just where to head for – the railway bridge at the junction of Lambeth Road and Hercules Road not far from Lambeth Bridge. The Reel Streets site has a wealth of carefully set-up shots juxtaposed with screen grabs from the film, so I just stopped for one shot to check I was in the right place, then found a lovely late art deco health centre built in 1958 that turns out to be plumb in the middle of one of the other location shots.
From there, past the Imperial War Museum and into Lower Marsh Market, one of the remaining down to earth streets within a spit of Waterloo Station. Sadly, our reason for visiting (apart from stopping off for a rather nice coffee) was to check whether our pal Lee Williams had gone ahead with his plan to close his treasure trove shop Radio Days. I’ve written about Radio Days before and we kind of hoped that Lee would have relented and kept trading; an open front door raised our hopes, only to find that he was in packing up stock and hosting a visit from a surveyor preparing to put the premises on the market. Such is Lee’s dedication to vintage ephemera, that he kindly let us take one last look round the shop and gave us a generous discount on the pieces we picked out as souvenirs of a place that means an awful lot to us (and I had great difficulty talking myself out of the purchase of a lovely little portable record player). We’re hoping that, once he’s given himself a good break after years of long days trading, Lee will be back on the scene; his eye for a vintage gem is just too good to lose.
Embankment rendezvous done, we headed north for a free exhibition currently running at the British Library documenting the 40th anniversary of the first years of Punk Rock between 1976 and 1978. That might sound like an odd attraction to a bunch immersed in the culture of the 50s and 60s, but there are many resonances. At their heart, both the punk scene and the rockabilly revival (horrible term, but it’ll do) grew out of our frustration at the diet of pap pop or overblown stadium rock that we were expected to embrace. Punk had all the vibrancy, brevity and amateurism that rockabilly had demonstrated in the 50s, along with the sense of rebellion and creating a scene that belonged to us. As we looked around the amazing collection of artefacts in the exhibition, the similarities with our scene were everywhere, from the home-made fanzines and flyers, though to the influences behind the clothes (and you can forget all that multicoloured Mohican stuff – that was much later and strictly for the tourists). Of course, it also took us straight back to our teenage years when this stuff was being played by ou
r contemporaries – and occasionally slipped out onto the radio. It’s well worth a visit, if only to see John Peel’s own copy of Teenage Kicks by the Undertones, something of a holy relic! The pop-up shop was good, too – books, vinyl and record players: what’s not to like. We were also delighted to find copies of Sam Knee’s book, ‘The Bag I’m In’ which features a chapter on the rockabilly revival illustrated mainly by my photos (and about which I must write properly), and of a new edition of ‘Street Style’ featuring good friends from the bike scene. I was childishly excited to think that my work actually appears in the British Library, and I think the assistants on duty were quite tickled to have their Saturday afternoon enlivened with a visit from a group with a direct connection to their stock.
From there to the Photographers’ Gallery – about which I’ve also written before – and a small exhibition of the work of Bert Hardy, one of the greatest of Britain’s post-war photographers and whose work epitomises the era. Sadly, there was only a small selection of Bert’s vast oeuvre on display, but it was still good to see quality prints of his work, having become so well acquainted with it in print. The other exhibitions at the Gallery are always worth a look, the shop is very tempting, the tea and cake in the cafe are worth a visit in their own right.
With appetites for popular culture (and cake) sated, it was time to relax and the occasion gave us a much awaited opportunity to head for the French House, one of Soho’s most iconic pubs. First opened as the York Minster in 1891 (it only changed its name in 1984 when the real York Minster caught fire and people started to get really confused), it has long been known by the nickname it has now adopted and from 1914 to 1989 was run by ‘père et fils’ Victor and Gaston Berlemont. Still priding itself on only serving half pints and more Ricard than anywhere in the UK, it has long been the haunt of Soho bohemia artists and writers including Brendan Behan, Dylan Thomas, Augustus John, Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and John Mortimer. With the rain starting to pour outside, it was the right place to sit back, drink, chat and try to take the kind of photos that surrounded us on the walls.
We wrapped up the evening in our favourite Mexican restaurant, Cantina Laredo, in Covent Garden, where a glass of hard-to-find authentic Mexican beer Negro Modelo helped keep the atmosphere building, and then ended up a wonderful day around the corner at the Lamb and Flag in Rose Street, revisiting one of the spots that Mrs M and I visited on our first date, having been brought together by the friends we were drinking with. And that, dear readers, is a nice way to spend a Saturday!