Words & Portraits Kirk Truman
“There is something about Soho – what Tambimuttu way back in the 1940s had called Sohoitis…”
It is by chance that last year I found myself talking with a man who followed the trade I was only just beginning to tackle. He said to me, wisely with his distinct northern twang, “get Fitzrovia Journal into the hotels. Get it everywhere. You’ve got a good idea, so carry on, but it’ll be the 10th issue that’ll get you; by then it’ll just be a job.” Editor-in-chief and co-founder of Soho based magazine, State/F22, a Yorkshireman and inspiration, Mike Von Joel tells me of his early days in Soho, his northern routes and the publishing world we share.
Born and raised in North Yorkshire, Mike grew up in Scarborough which, he exclaims, has since been sold to Alan Ayckbourn. “You can always tell you are in Scarborough, because whichever direction you go it is always uphill.” He came to do (what was then called) Pre-Dip at art school, going even further south to Winchester to do a DipAD in painting, although, as he explains, “I actually specialised in etching and eating LSD.”
Living in Winchester was a lucky opportunity for Mike as it was only one hour outside London. During this period, like many people today, staff commuted from the suburbs to the city. “The guest visitors were all London celebs – like Marty Feldman, Patrick Heron, Eric Idle, Pete Townsend. Eno was leaving as I arrived (to join Roxy Music) and the full-time team included Bill Crozier, John Bellany, Bill Wright, Norman Ackroyd… these people became friends I still see, those that are alive,” Mike explains.
He talks of his friend Bill Wright, who at the time was married to Upstairs Downstairs actress, Meg Wynn Owen – Whom he describes as the Downton Abbey of the day; a household name. Bill introduced Mike to Soho, the Bar Italia and his first brush with the French pub. “I bet I am not the only fresh faced provincial who walked endlessly up and down Dean Street looking for a pub called the French!” He laughs. This was the haunt of media hacks, writers and artists and Francis Bacon’s gang. This was all very thrilling for a provincial nipper like Mike to rub shoulders with these recognisable faces.
He has always been a writer and coincidental publisher of art magazines, and latterly art & photography pieces. State Magazine was at one stage based in Wandsworth, when there was need for lots of space for typesetting equipment and whatnot. “Of course, now you can create the whole of the Daily Telegraph on a laptop in Starbucks. Today’s mags are solely run by freelancers on the end of an internet connection. If you want actual staff they need somewhere to come to every day.” Today, State Magazine has a very small office that runs between Berwick Market and Wardour Street. A building full, with lots of creatives involved mostly in music and film. State/F22 is not his premiere publication, the first magazine that Von Joel started was in 1976 and called The New Style – described at the time by Harper’s & Queen as ‘the King’s Road gossip magazine’, covering a wide range of media: art, fashion & photography. “We did an issue in 1977 called the ‘Pink Punk Poetry’ edition, and Ed Lucie-Smith – who was then seen as an establishment critic and poet – went on the radio to talk about his contribution. This first effort started off really amateurishly but became quite revolutionary and hot towards the close. Amazingly you can now find copies on eBay selling as cult items,” Mike explains.
His next publication was called Art Line which ran for 15 years from 1982 and was literally a newspaper – very uncommon in those days where glossy was the ultimate goal. “I liked the tabloid size. We did many great front cover interviews with art-stars like Peter Blake, Warhol & Brian Clarke. The trouble is, we also got the reputation of killing off the cover story people because we did the ‘last interviews’ with quite a few, such as Robert Fraser. Bert Irvin said he was too frightened to go on the cover again,” he laughs. Mike and Matthew Flowers briefly published State of Art newspaper – a free paper that people seemed to like. Later, he launched Photoicon which was focussed on international art and photography. “The late and lovely Pat Booth was very much part of this. She tragically died before we could collaborate on what was to become State/F22 magazine. We spent ages formulating the project,” he explains. During this period, Mike was a very early, almost founding member of the Groucho, courtesy of friend Tony Mackintosh. “There is something about Soho – what Tambimuttu way back in the 1940s had called Sohoitis,” Mike tells me. “It’s a sort of attitude of mind. Nothing to do with sex, drugs or drinking. This live and let live philosophy has today provided a platform for all sorts of groups and interests to thrive.”
He explains how Soho seems somewhat different to the rest of the West-End, having retained the narrow streets footprint of Victorian England with many Eighteenth century houses still standing – this he feels much of the West-End has lost. Along with Seven Dials and Covent Garden, this he feels contributes to locality which could be called ‘old London’. “Even the metallic be-bop of life today has not entirely ruined this special Soho resonance. Its spirit is alive and well in the garrets and back alleys around Dean, Wardour, and Berwick streets, with Paul Raymond’s famously tight control over the real estate actually having helped preserve the balance of the area,” Mike explains. “Certainly Soho is hemmed in by the decidedly unpleasant neon nightmare of Leicester Square and Piccadilly. I had a flat for a number of years above the Phoenix Theatre – the only time there was no noise was on Sunday morning first thing – a sort of 24/6 and a half cacophony.”
However, from what Mike tells me, he feels strongly that Soho is being corrupted along with many other aspects of London life, explaining that he feels there is an influx of those whom feel they can buy everything and anybody – and the businessmen who think they can provide it for them. “Ordinary creative people are being priced out of everything and so are the traditional mainstays of any community. Even Berwick Street market is being squashed up to allow for new flash flats.” Mike is still very fond of the Soho area, spending much of his time here and exclaiming that he has never seen any violence or been propositioned (unfortunately) or even arrested. “The really eccentric people have given way to the artificially eccentric and the pretend weekend bohemians who like to think they are living the life. Those living truly on the edge (ignoring the unfortunate homeless folks) and only by their creative talents as writers, poets, artists or hacks – like the ‘two Roberts’ or Tambimuttu or Eddie Linden or Harry Diamond – are mostly shadows of the past now,” he says, counting himself lucky enough to have met some of these people.