After the Elizabeth Garret Anderson hospital, a job was offered to me as a bouncer by a nightclub proprietor, a former Oxford graduate who had been through a stretch in prison for a drug offense involving cannabis. He and I had formed a kind of friendship and as a consequence was asked to act as his personal bodyguard as well as a bouncer in his nightclub. My duties would not begin until after 2am; the first part of the night was taken up with the club’s function as a jazz club.
The club premises were situated on the second floor of a dilapidated building down an alley off Charing Cross Road, directly opposite the famous Foyles bookshop. It was the sort of joint you would be more likely to come across in the Bowery district of New York, though it was perhaps less seedy and certainly not in such a dangerous neighbourhood.
The jazz played was mostly in the New Orleans revival style; the so-called ‘Trad fad’ was taking off in Britain among many young, up-and-coming popular musicians. Skiffle- the poor man’s music using washboards was already an influence and would soon turn into a profitable craze for the music business.
I was a jazz novice in so far as it was kind of music completely new to me. I responded to it instantly and found myself caught up by its insistent, powerful swinging rhythms and the improvised melodic lines of trumpet, saxophone, clarinet or piano soaring above the bass. I was thrilled to the more elegiac numbers based on the twelve bar blues, the fall of the melody seemed to contain all the sorrow of an enslaved race over 200 years of suffering. There was sadness on the one hand, but on the other an unquenchable resilience and capacity for human joy. It was music I could relate to. The club’s patrons were mostly committed jazz enthusiasts who I appreciated and revelled in the intensely charged atmosphere.
During its brief life, the club became well known for the quality and brilliance of its players – some already famous and on the way to international stardom.
With gigs from such established figures as Chris Barber and Ken Colyer, it attracted a class of musicians keen to find a testing ground in which to improve their skills and try out their music in front of a live audience.
Many of the Soho landmarks were well known to them. Some they visited for pleasure; others out of sheer necessity. In particular there was Chiquito’s, a coffee house in Hanway Street, off Tottenham Court Road.
With its bohemian, easy going policy, its unpretentious and friendly atmosphere, it virtually fulfilled the role of a dating agency without intending to be one.
I became particularly well known there as I used to hold court at one of its tables in the afternoon and early evenings before going to work, usually in the company of women. It became a second home. Another favourite was the pub adjoining the dominion theatre on the corner of Tottenham Court Road and New Oxford Street, where one could sample a variety of Barley wines, very strong brews in small bottles.
My duties as a bouncer had its bad moments as well as its perks. That in the job I was sustained various minor injuries was only to be expected. There was one incident, however, which could have had serious consequences.
A burley Scotsman, who had been drinking heavily, became obstreperous and threatened to cause major disruption in the club. As I went to eject him, I found myself on the receiving end of a well-crafted blow, delivered with deadly precision, that sent me tumbling down two flights of stairs. I was quite badly hurt and shocked and had to be taken to the Charing Cross hospital, then still at its old address in the Charing Cross district to be given casualty treatment. My back was injured and I had bruises on both legs. From this I drew a useful lesson; never underestimate an opponent, not even one who appears totally uncoordinated and off guard with inebriation. I had dropped my guard when I tried to throw out the Scotsman and I paid a heavy price for one moment of inattention.
At a later stage in my life, after I was married, I needed to attend the Charing Cross hospital as a patient for a minor swelling of the thumb. To my utter surprise, the hospital register recorded the number of times I had attended for treatment in my former rackety existence as a Jazz club bouncer. Although I was embarrassed when the nurse mentioned how well known my name was for my regular visits during that period, I also felt a kind of nostalgia for those days that I could hardly conceal. I remembered how most nights, after the band had packed up and gone and the club had been closed, the proprietor would lead the way to Archer Street on the Southern edge of Soho, the reason for going there was to pick up what was usually a small packet of cannabis to see us through the small hours. An old barber shop in the same street was where, during the day, we would go to shop for our French letters (as condoms were called in those days).
From Archer Street, I and the proprietor would go into the Soho jungle to track down some weird party or other, news of which had been picked up on the grapevine.
Soho, at the time, had a sort of lured sleaziness that has completely gone from it today. It formed the underbelly of a sin conscious Britain, where all that was forbidden could be obtained at a price. The area was popular with poets and artists, who were drawn to the raffish pubs and drinking clubs, and with East End gangsters like the Cray Brothers, who made it their stamping ground when they were ‘up west,’ as well as with all sorts of other characters from the fringes of society.
The parties to which I accompanied the nightclub proprietor usually went on until dawn. At these libertarian gatherings I met many numbers of the Bohemian demi-monde, musicians and budding actors and not to mention lots of females in search of a little craziness and out for a good time. It was a milieu of louche behaviour which was commonplace. To me, the scenes of abandon that resulted had an irresistible appeal and the attraction got me into some odd situations. Some of which are hard to relate!
Suffice to say that, as usual, I soon moved to seek more fertile ground and abandon old ones for prosperity’s sake.