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The Blitz Kids

The Blitz Kids


Words Chris Sullivan 

Photography Derek Ridgers


“If you didn’t look the part, you were not getting in and that was that. Everyone always goes on about the time I turned away Mick Jagger, but what the fuck did he have to do with our scene?”

“Looking back, what’s most remarkable is how young we all were,” explained the late Steve Strange in conversation with me over a drink or ten in 2014. “We were all 19 or 20, just kids, and none of us knew what we were doing or had any plan. We all just made it up as we went along and ended up influencing the whole world. All we wanted was a haven where all of us individuals could be ourselves and dress as we wanted without the threat of violence from those who didn’t get it!”

The refuge Steve spoke of was provided, of course, by his legendary Tuesday night soirée at The Blitz Club in Holborn that began in 1979. Even though it lasted for less than 18 months, it became world famous, launched a million shoulder pads, spawned the electro and New Romantic movements and changed the face of clubbing, fashion and the pop charts forever.

I’d known Steve since the mid-Seventies. We both grew up in South Wales and went to clubs together. In those days, ‘Steve Strange’ was plain old Steven Harrington, whose mum had a greasy spoon café and lived in a council house at the top of a hill. Consequently, I was at the Blitz every week and witnessed, first-hand, this remarkable gathering where London’s sharpest young artists, stylists, musicians, art students, eccentrics and faces hung out – all wearing outfits that had not been seen in any one time and place ever before. It looked like my imagined version of the Universal Studios canteen in Hollywood circa 1960: you would, on any given night, see people dressed as 1950s bikers, cowboys, Edwardians, swashbuckling pirates, femme fatales, Robin Hoods, futurists and even the odd gaucho thrown in for good measure.

“But It was definitely not fancy dress,” stresses Michele Clapton, Blitz diehard and now costume designer for Game of Thrones. “Your outfit required integrity. I remember a boy from my college who was so desperate to go, but when I saw him exiting the tube wearing a ludicrous white sheet and hideous make up I was mortified and disappeared, as I knew I couldn’t take someone looking like that in with me.”

And that was the point. This scene was not for part-timers. Not only were you expected to be individual, you were applauded for being so. “We dressed like that all the time and used to experiment with different looks, coming up with something new every Tuesday,” recalls Princess Julia, who worked the cloakrooms from day one and was the scene’s main female face. “We’d make our outfits out of stuff we found, dressed up as we’d always dreamed of doing, and went out! The whole scene was like a big, mad adventure, with everyone just having the best time imaginable. My favourite was the Neo Naturist night. Grayson Perry was there, and Christine Binnie walking around naked and painted all over, while the writer Iain R Webb was on a crucifix on the stage. That really didn’t happen anywhere else.”

 

Indeed, everything was novel, including the soundtrack provided by DJ Rusty Egan, which included glam rock, brand new imported electro from the likes of Kraftwerk, Gina X, Telex, and The Yellow Magic Orchestra and the obligatory David Bowie and Iggy Pop. “A metronomic beat was the sound of the Blitz,” testifies BBC London presenter and Blitz regular Robert Elms. “Punk had been about guitars, but this was synthesisers.”

“I’d source records from Europe,” recalls Egan. “For me Europe and Japan were making better music than the American music in the charts. It was stylish, decadent, and futuristic.” Yet, it was not without humour. You’d spend all week getting a fresh look together from jumble sales and charity shops and step out to the admiration of your peers, who’d marvel at how you’d managed to take the tube to the venue without acquiring a black eye. In short, it was all a bit of a grin, a perilous game of one-upmanship where the stakes were rather high, bashing up the weirdo being a rather popular street sport at the time. On one occasion a gang of about a dozen Arsenal thugs stormed through the club only to receive the pasting of their lives and retreat accordingly. Lest we forget, many of the crowd were rather tough, straight chaps who’d fought the punk versus Teddy boy wars a few years before and could certainly hold their own.

Apart from the odd skirmish, The Blitz was a constant, guaranteed, dyed-in-the-wool hoot, at times hilarious and never banal. The prescribed diet was as much alcohol as one could afford before going in, combined with a few ‘speckled blues’, the strychnine-laced amphetamine tablets once known as Purple Hearts that were potent enough to make a cabbage carouse. As a rule, most everyone was off their gourd and the resulting bacchanal could be described as memorable – if we hadn’t all been too caned to remember any of it.

“What I do remember,” attests ace face Christos Tolera, “was that it was a very mixed gay/straight crowd who really did not care about your sexuality. It just was not an issue. What we all had in common was that we were ourselves, with no compromise – and that was the only agenda.” Undeniably, the Blitz was a sanctuary for the idiosyncratic, including the likes of Kim Bowen, Steven Linard, Pinkietessa, Philip Sallon, Fiona Dealey and George O’Dowd, who was the cloakroom boy for a short while. A mad, barking celebration of British recalcitrance that began during the aftermath of punk, it was created for those whose middle name was excess and for whom punk was just too bland.

Prior to Mr Strange’s input, the Blitz had been a bog-standard wine bar in Great Queens Street on the Holborn/Covent Garden border. Decorated in a style befitting a venue named after one of the greatest horrors ever to befall London, it was replete with 1940s tin signs for Bovril, Woodbine cigarettes and Typhoo Tea, and framed wartime newspapers festooned its walls. Initially, it was the watering hole for the ‘older’ crowd such as Steph Raynor and Helen Robinson, who now owned PX in Covent Garden, where Princess Julia and Steve Strange worked a day job. The latter toddled up after work, was told Tuesdays were free and so transferred his regular Tuesday Bowie night at Billy’s on Meard Street in Soho to The Blitz – and the rest is history.

Billy’s was really where it all began. Strange had taken the night over from puppeteer David Claridge (who was also Roland Rat and started Skin 2), installed Egan as DJ, and created a scene that went through the roof. In truth, Billy’s was smelly, sleazy and full of hookers, so after Vince, the six-foot-six proprietor, gave Strange and Egan a hard time, they left.

“Billy’s became really busy and we were turning away more people than we could let in,” clarified Strange. “Then the owner – who was reputedly a pimp and a gangster and definitely someone you didn’t want to piss off – started bringing more and more of his prostitutes in for a look, which left little room for our crowd, and became really difficult with our money. So, I thought, that’s it, and closed the night down. Really nasty threats of violence followed. Rusty scarpered off to Germany and I found the Blitz, which was a Godsend!”

Undeniably. It was Steve’s incredible front and bullishness coupled with Egan’s arcane playlist that made the Blitz. “I was very selective on the door,” remembered Strange, who passed away suddenly in 2015. “If you didn’t look the part you were not getting in, and that was that. Everyone always goes on about the time I turned away Mick Jagger, but what the fuck did he have to do with our scene? I am sure he just came for a look at us oddballs, but we didn’t need him. This was ours and the rest of the world could fuck off.

“But I am very, very proud of what we all did,” he continued rather emotionally. “So many of our regulars have done so well: bands like Depeche Mode, Ultravox, Culture Club, Sade and Spandau Ballet; designers John Galliano, Body Map and the world’s greatest milliner Stephen Jones; artists like Tracey Emin, Peter Doig, and Grayson Perry; and writers such as yourself, GQ editor Dylan Jones, Robert Elms, and Kathryn Flett. Even though it was all about having fun and being yourself, we were a seriously creative bunch.” Like all great clubs, The Blitz existed as a little bubble outside of society where the rest of the world’s mores, traditions and rules did not apply. As such, it definitely earned its place in history.

To read more about Derek Ridgers and his work go to his website

Lara Intimates

Lara Intimates


Interview Pippa Brooks

Illustrations Alexa Coe


“…the commitment to the wellbeing of people and the planet is key to what we do.”

If you check the label in your knickers, the chances are it will say ‘made in China’. This is symptomatic of the demand for high production numbers and low unit price across the clothing and lingerie industries. So how fabulous to know that Lara Intimates lingerie is made not just in the UK, but right here in the heart of Soho. In fact, Cindy Liberman and Faith Leeves design, make and ship their products from their studio on Bateman Street – and they even hold private fit parties there too, which you access by invitation through a bar downstairs. How very Soho!

The two women met at the London College of Fashion, where they studied lingerie and swimwear design. Still in their early twenties, they believe that “anyone wanting to start a business today must take responsibility for their environmental and social impact”. I chatted with Cindy about how Lara Intimates balance their creative pursuits with their strong beliefs.

You met Faith at LCF, where you both worked in the lingerie industry as part of your studies. Lara came about due to the horrors you both witnessed in the industry, particularly in terms of the waste generated by factories. Please share some of the worst fashion crimes you have seen?

Working in fashion, it’s easy to see the disconnect between designers and products today. Everything is so rushed, so focused on efficiency and speed to achieve a lower price, that designers don’t have the opportunity to experiment and fit properly. Ultimately, the products are of lower quality. I think this is most obvious with complex products like lingerie.

While I was at university, I went to an interview for a design role at a beachwear company – a brand that is stocked in lots of major high street stores. During the interview, I asked if their team did pattern cutting in-house. The managing director replied: “No, not at all. Last year we bought a bikini off Victoria’s Secret online, mailed it to the factory in China and asked them to copy the pattern.” Today 60% of bras are made in one town in China that’s actually nicknamed ‘bra town’!

Last year we visited our fabric supplier’s warehouse, stocked with surplus fabrics from international lingerie factories. We expected a tiny room with scraps of materials. It turned out to be three massive storage units full of fabrics from floor to ceiling! It’s scary that so much material is wasted and the craftsmanship of garment-making is so often absent from today’s fashion industry.

It’s fantastic how you have rejected most of the common practices of lingerie and clothing manufacturing, firstly by using material that already exists – surplus, unused textiles which would otherwise be stuffed into landfill. How hard was it to source a supplier of the surplus luxury lingerie fabrics?

Thank you! Our fabric supplier used to own a lingerie factory here in England. When manufacturing moved overseas, he started buying up surplus from his former clients and selling it in smaller quantities to British brands. Not everything he sells now is surplus, but we’re careful to only work with reclaimed fabrics and materials.

There doesn’t appear to be a single underwire in any of your bras, despite the fact that you cater for all sizes. Are you against underwiring?

It’s a complete myth that wireless bras can’t be supportive. Wireless bras can extremely supportive, as long as they’re designed by a lingerie expert and engineered properly. That’s what we do at Lara. Every bra is made to fit an A cup, an E cup, and every size in between. We’re actually adding F and G cups soon too.

We have one wired bra, the Delilah Bra. The majority of our customers love our supportive wireless bras, but everyone likes something different. We’re listening to requests all the time and always thinking about the best items to add to our range. Next up is a nursing bra.

Despite the softness of the shape, the bras look ingenious, often with layers of stretch, but always with an elastic underbust. Is your magic in the elastic?

The magic is in the fit! Women should wear bras that fit perfectly in the band and the cup. Our bras fit and support so beautifully when women wear the correct size. That’s why we built our online sizing tool and also host bra fittings in our studio. It’s such a magical moment when women find their perfect size and wear a bra that actually fits.

How did you raise the funds to set up your studio/factory in Soho, where absolutely every garment is designed and made in-house?

Initially, we planned to manufacture with a factory in Wales. It’s the last specialist lingerie factory left in the UK, and they have a wonderful reputation. To manufacture our range (11 products in 30 bra sizes and 2-5 colours for each design) was going to cost £367,000! We would need to reduce the number of offerings or find another manufacturing solution. Faith and I knew how to make everything ourselves – and we worked out that for less than £10,000 we could set up our own factory.

We raised £23,850 on Kickstarter last May. In addition, we won £10,000 in grant funding from The University of the Arts London. That money went towards specialist lingerie sewing machines, renovating a studio space and hiring seamstresses.

Explain your ‘triple bottom line framework’?

Our triple bottom line framework is a promise to our customers that we consider profit, the planet and people in everything we do. These three elements need to coexist.

For example, we’d like to create sleep robes soon. Instead of conventional stuffing, we want to shred our excess material and stuff the robes. As we grow and need new seamstresses, we’re looking to set up an apprenticeship programme and train women in a unique skill set. As long as we keep making products people want, profit will come. But the commitment to the wellbeing of people and the planet is key to what we do.

Lara is the name of your brand, but you have also developed a personality for her. What’s she like?

Yes, absolutely! Lara is completely made up, but she embodies the brand. She’s creative and colourful with an effortless sophistication. Faith and I wanted a woman’s name for the brand, but didn’t want to use our own names, so we came up with Lara.

Your message is such a positive one – that as well as believing in sustainable fashion and creating opportunities for female makers, bright pink underwear is the BEST! What kind of women come to your underwear parties?

We are so proud that a variety of women attend our fittings and shop with us online. Some like the brand for the sustainability or style, but most shop with us because they want to find a properly sized bra. At fit parties we meet mother and daughter pairs, women that need specialist sizes like 28A or 26F (which we make custom), boyfriends and girlfriends and sisters shopping together.

I think women today want something different than conventional brands offer. Lingerie isn’t about impressing a boyfriend. It needs to comfortable and wearable every day, and bras actually need to fit properly. Underwear at Lara is practical and beautiful, and we’re happy our fittings attract a range of women of ages, sizes and styles.

To read more about Lara Intimates, go their website

Mark Wardel

Mark Wardel


Words Kirk Truman

Photography Etienne Gilfillan


“I’d found a balance between commercial work and making a living from my passion for my art…”

It’s early on a bright and chilly January morning and in his Limehouse studio, artist Mark Wardel and I are discussing art, fashion, music and Soho’s yesteryear to a soundtrack of ‘70s and ‘80s club tracks. In the background, multiple startlingly realistic life masks of glam-era David Bowie watch over us from the walls – just part of the internationally renowned artist’s work – as I meet the man behind the mask and learn about his early years in Soho.

This year will be Wardel’s 40th as a Londoner, having hightailed it down to the capital after finishing art school in Liverpool in 1978. “You had to be in London if you had ambition to be at the centre of things and be involved creatively in those areas. As a huge Bowie obsessive, music and fashion were key influences on me, so I knew I had to relocate.”

Mark hawked his art school portfolio around the advertising agencies of Soho, securing a job as a junior illustrator at the third one he tried: Robert Davies Design for Advertising, based in Canaletto’s old studio at 41-45 Beak Street. ”There’s no way that could happen today – you wouldn’t even get through the door!” laughs Wardel.

His earliest impressions of Soho came from 70s cult TV show Budgie and seminal documentary Johnny Go Home; they evoked a seedy, down-at-heel glamour that the teenage Wardel found both frightening and alluring. In fact, a series of coincidences and chance meetings meant that he moved rapidly from being the new kid in town to socialising with the heroes he’d previously only fantasised about meeting: David Bowie, Andy Warhol and David Hockney, among others. ”It’s almost like my life chose me rather than the reverse. I was suddenly hanging out with Antony Price (clothes designer for Roxy Music), who introduced me to all these amazing people. I started frequenting the Blitz club where I became a kind of ‘court painter’ to the club’s luminaries, including Steve Strange and a pre-fame Boy George, and life became just what I had imagined it would be in London.”

This included connecting with his ultimate hero, David Bowie. In 1978, Mark was hanging out with a crowd of Bowie fans outside Capital Radio, where Bowie was being interviewed. “I’d passed this picture I’d done, complete with a fan letter, to his American PA, Barbara DeWitt, who very kindly offered to put it in the boot of Bowie’s limo for me; after which I promptly forgot about it until about six months later when a hand-written airmail letter from Berlin arrived at my work address. I was totally stunned when I opened it and discovered it was from David Bowie!”

Shortly after this, in September 1979, Mark was introduced to Bowie at Mayfair nightclub Legends. He reminded Bowie of the letter and the two briefly chatted. It was a meeting that heralded an ongoing series of coincidences and connections between Wardel and his hero.

By late ’79, having left his job in the ad agency and with help from London club entrepreneur Campbell Palmer, Mark began his independent career as an artist, painting, exhibiting, Polaroiding, producing record covers and art directing video storyboards for Steve Strange, Spandau Ballet, Boy George, David Sylvian, Bryan Ferry, Marc Almond and others from his Brewer Street studio. “I’d found a balance between commercial work and making a living from my passion for my art.”

As the 90s dawned and the musical landscape shifted towards American-influenced house music, Mark was recruited by club promoter Laurence Malice to design and produce the artwork and visuals for the notorious gay/mixed/anything goes Clerkenwell all-nighter Trade at Turnmills. This gained Wardel the moniker of ‘TradeMark’, a tag by which he became known to clubbers worldwide. It was a whole new audience for his artwork, although after six years he suddenly quit. “The hyper-intense, drug-ravaged environment of Trade epitomised the apex of the ecstasy and cocaine culture of 90s clubland. It nearly killed me, and I eventually had to step back from it to survive… although it took me a long time to recover.”

With the psychic damage of the 90s receding Wardel threw himself back into painting and exhibiting, eventually coming across a life cast of David Bowie made in the mid-70s. “A friend of mine who was a bigwig at EMI had got hold of this beautiful cast of Bowie’s face and, knowing of my obsession, lent it to me so that I could take a mould from it and cast my own version.” Mark created a flawless version of the original and began casting and painting Bowie masks for fun and to give to friends as presents. He had not considered selling them publicly until 2013, when his masks came to the notice of the Victoria & Albert Museum, who were keen to sell them in conjunction with their blockbusting ‘David Bowie Is’ exhibition. “They told me they would initially like to order 50 to see how it went. I was delighted, but also slightly freaked out as I had never mass-produced the masks.” Mark had to learn quickly: the official order that came through that night was not for 50 masks but for 300! He spent the next six months working around the clock to produce them. “I was going nuts,” he remembers. ”Bowie’s face was in my face day in, day out for that entire period… I was even seeing him in my sleep!”

After the V&A edition sold out there was still a demand for the masks and Wardel continued producing different variations. Then, one day in 2015, he heard that David Bowie’s office had asked for his contact details. His first thought was that he was about to be told to stop producing the masks; instead, he was delighted to discover that Bowie, through his company Isolar, wished to purchase two of them for inclusion in the official Bowie archive. This, along with the star’s death in 2016, neatly closed a circle of contact that had started back in 1978 and put the official seal of approval on a lifelong obsession.

Following Bowie’s shock passing, Wardel decided to step back from the ‘feeding frenzy’ of commercial exploitation and concentrated on quietly producing a small number of masks for discerning collectors only. However, now that, “a decent amount of time has passed”, he plans to mount an exhibition of his Bowie masks and artworks and is currently scouting a suitable space in which to mount what promises to be an amazing show. This could well be followed by a ‘Blitz era’ exhibition, as Wardel not only has a large collection of Polaroids from the period but has also taken life casts from Boy George and (shortly before his untimely passing) Steve Strange. “It’s strange, but with the weight of history behind it and a young generation’s fervent interest in the period, those long-ago Soho days, which really formed the ‘Big Bang’ of much of British pop culture, have never really gone away…”

To read more about Mark go to his website

Kate Bryan

Kate Bryan


Words Kirk Truman

 Photography Joseph Lynn


“What was really needed next was somebody to nurture the art of the Houses…”

Kate Bryan and I are walking around a familiar setting… except it has been turned a little on its head. We’re passing through the library in the reception area up into the newly revived Soho House, Greek Street, on its opening day. As you approach the familiar oval bar, you find yourself trying to figure out where in the former building you are. How much of this is the old Greek Street site we once knew, and how much the Kettner’s Townhouse we didn’t? There’s a real elegance about the place: every wall, installation and artwork tells a new story, one which connects the past of the Soho House brand with its future. That’s where Kate Bryan comes in, as Head of Collections at Soho House & Co.

Soho House is about feeling perfectly at home when you’re away from home. Let me give you the quick backstory, which most Sohoites will already be familiar with. Back in the 1990s, founder Nick Jones opened a new private members club at 40 Greek Street. This marked the birth of Soho House, and the eventual expansion and franchising of the brand across London, and on into the US and across Europe. 23 years since the first Soho House opened its doors, entrepreneur Jones has expanded the brand to cover lifestyle, design, interiors and even the creation of an in-house publication, House Notes. The brand has evolved over the years but remains true to its essence. Walk through the recently reopened doors of 40 Greek Street and you realise that the DNA is the same, it’s just that the details – the walls, the bars, the corridors have changed – sometimes (in a good way) beyond recognition.

The new 40 Greek Street sees Kettner’s next door and the original Soho House meet in the middle. Kate Bryan has a confession to make as we begin talking: “I was always a Groucho girl really,” she laughs. She spends time both at The Groucho Club and the two neighbourhood Soho Houses, and is equally fond of both clubs. Kate writes and talks about art; she has presented programmes for Sky Arts, Sky Arte Italia and contributed to episodes of BBC2’s Culture Show. In October 2016, she was appointed Head of Collections at Soho House. The role is unusual, exciting and, in some respects, unknown territory.

“Before I arrived here 18 months ago, the art curation was always done by a brilliant external curator, Francesca Gavin,” says Kate. “It was an organic thing; there was never any intention to build this enormous art collection at Soho House. It’s happened slowly and evolved organically. What started out as an experiment in having work on our walls has exploded into the collection which we have today. Ultimately, the collections were becoming victims of their own success. Somebody would come in to curate a space, and then leave it be. Eventually, what was really needed was somebody to nurture the art of the Houses, that’s how my permanent role came about. There was nobody really in the company who was focused on art until I came in; there was nobody to be its custodian. When I first met Nick Jones, it became clear quite quickly that we were going to have to start again and think about the responsibility and curation of art across all Houses. My role is an opportunity to acquire art globally and future-proof the already outstanding collection of work while enhancing the art strategy and identity of Soho House.”

With the reopening and reimagining of 40 Greek Street, Kate faced the challenge of bringing new life (and art) to the walls and interiors of the enhanced Soho House. “In the case of the last few Houses which have opened, the art has been factored into the interiors in an entirely new way. In the example of Malibu Beach, it is more grown-up and there is more colour,” she says. “With 40 Greek Street, I’ve worked closely to help curate the art alongside the interiors and architectural teams. The decisions around where the art must go and what it would be had to be made way in advance so that the spaces could respond and react to each and every art piece.”

There are a number of collections on the walls of 40 Greek Street which you may not know the backstory of from the relationship with Soho’s characters and supporting young artists in London. While walking the corridors of the newly opened house, Kate tells me about ‘Walk the Line’, a series of 20 drawings made by a series of notable artists without removing their pencil from the page. However, some of them did try to cheat! “It was how they broke the rules which fascinated me,” laughs Kate. Another collection, perhaps my favourite, is the 40/40/40 collection: 40 pieces of work, by 40 artists, all under the age of 40. “The art at 40 Greek Street is a cultural conversation and a homage to the story of Soho. All of our design decisions and activities are done internally, so each building requires a plan of action for the walls and the stories we want to tell within the space. We are in constant collaboration in order to give the artists we work with the best spaces and platforms for their work,” she explains.

Today, Soho House has accumulated a large art collection, in excess of 3,000 pieces, across its many Houses worldwide. Kate’s role now takes her around the globe, and each House will benefit from her expert eye and instinct for matching the art to the location. So, next time you wander about your own House, wherever in the world it might be, look a little closer at what’s on the walls, and think about the stories it tells. Behind these stories is Kate Bryan.

To read more about Soho House, Greek Street visit their website

Marc Almond

Marc Almond


Interview Marc Wardel

Photography Etienne Gilfillan


“Soho was this mythical place I’d seen in movies and read about in books, and I thought it was really the heart of London…”

A constellation of spotlights bounces and reflects off steel, mirror and glass, casting soft-focus infinity images of Dietrich and Bowie-beautiful across the room… It’s a suitably decadent backdrop for a conversation with a star, someone who can truly be called an icon of music and pop culture – the unique Marc Almond.

We are in the Light Lounge, Soho, and Marc is looking splendidly sepulchral in a beautifully tailored jet-black suit and matching Hugo Boss shirt, open at the neck to afford a glimpse of his trademark custom-made gold skull-and-crossbones nestling against the palest of pale skin. He’s balancing on a pair of black high-heeled ‘Beatle’ boots by YSL and drifting in the air of this Soho afternoon is his delicious fragrance (‘Une Amourette’ by Roland Mouret/Etat Libre d’Orange, if you’re curious). Once the photo-shoot is over he slips into an original Iggy Pop Paradise Garage ‘leopard’ T-shirt by John and Molly Dove and settles down onto a long leather banquette for a chat.

Mark Wardel: Marc, last time we spoke we discovered that we both came from similar Northern seaside towns where, as teenagers in the early Seventies, we had summer holiday jobs in the fairgrounds and arcades. I wondered whether, like me, you felt that the bright lights, transient population and seaside landladies – who always looked like hookers with the heavy make-up and beehive hair dos – had in some way primed you early on for life in Soho?

Marc Almond, Well, I came from Southport, where I had holiday jobs in the fairground on the ‘hook-a-duck’ stall (laughs) and the bingo… and that seaside ambience is very important to me in that they are strange, melancholic places where there’s always a seedy kind of ‘showbiz’ vibe and a sort of trashiness that I love… as there is in Soho. Really, all my inspirations come from that kind of feeling. Actually, I met my first love in the Southport theatre where I also worked as a stagehand – I was underage and he was a pantomime giant!

MW: Was he big all over? (laughs)

MA: (laughs) Yes, actually, he was fantastic! He was an actor and he used to come to the theatre in fur coats and would tell me about Jean Genet, Our Lady Of The Flowers, and all that kind of thing. And so I first came down to London to stay with him – he really introduced me to London, although I had been down once before on a school trip, where instead of the museums I wanted to see the legendary Biba store. It was like the temple of glam rock, because of Bowie and Bolan and the others who shopped and performed there. Unfortunately, on the day I went it was closed, so I just stood outside looking in. I was devastated, but in a strange way looking in from outside was enough.

MW: So, you discovered Soho a bit later?

MA: Yes, I really found out about Soho at art school in Leeds around 1978/79, when I had an affair with a boy called Paul who I met at an underground gay club called ‘Charlies’, which was full of Leeds rent boys, heavy lesbians and a rough gay crowd. And this Paul was the one who said, “You must come to London,” as he knew all about Soho and was friendly with the rent boys and so on. Soho was this mythical place I’d seen in movies and read about in books, and I thought it was really the heart of London… which in a way it is. So, Paul took me down there, and I met some of his ‘friends’- i.e. clients. One was called Ginger John and someone else was called Mother Ratbag… (laughs) and there were all these old queens who paraded up Piccadilly. We actually got arrested one night outside Cecconi’s while Paul was calling one of his clients from a phone box.

MW: Did you give a false name?

MA: Yes, I was terrified it would get back to my parents, but nothing ever came of it. And then in the art college holidays I got a job in a Soho clip-joint taking money on the door from punters who, once inside, would be fleeced by the heavies for £300 bottles of Asti Spumante! It was all a bit criminal really, but it was fantastic and thrilling and I just became addicted to the idea of Soho. I knew it was where I really wanted to be.

MW: That comes through very much in your music, going right back to Soft Cell. There’s a continuity, I feel, right through to the new album, which sounds like it could almost have been played or performed in the Raymond Revue Bar during the Profumo era.

MA: Yes, I always try to keep that kind of flavour, that kind of thread, going through… and I have great memories of those times and of the late 70s and early 80s wearing a long black priest’s cassock and a black turban, out on the town with Molly Parkin, getting drunk and ending up in strange beds. (laughs)

MW: And we both had places on Brewer Street back then too. My art studio was above MCA records and you were…

MA, 1-3 Brewer Street! That was the first flat

I ever bought in London. It was literally opposite the Raymond Revue Bar and a caff called the coffee pot where every night through the windows you’d see this big, tall transvestite with an Alsatian dog, and there’d always be a row of boys sitting along the window doing transactions under the counter. But every morning at about 2 or 3am, a Black Maria would turn up and haul them all off to Bow Street! With all the hardcore porno cinemas, strip clubs and drunken violence, Soho was a hairy, scary place to live in

those days.

MW: It’s very different now. What are your thoughts on the changing face of Soho?

MA: In the past couple of years I got really upset about the way it was all changing – it was really stressing me and bothering me… but I think in a way it’s because you feel you are losing part of yourself.

MW: We’re mourning our youth.

MA: Exactly, but I feel I’m of an age where it doesn’t really matter to me now. We’ve lived through the most amazing periods and pop culture movements, and I’m optimistic that young people coming up will rebel against the conformity that’s happening worldwide. There’s a sense, like with vinyl for instance, of people going back to when things were real and beautiful – trashy but real. I can see it happening – a revolution and the resurrection of the old spirit of Soho.

MW: Yeah, places are always changing and of course young kids love it now… it’s their time and I guess people in the 1800s, 1920s or 1940s would also have been saying exactly the same things we are about Soho changing.

MA: You can still find pockets of the old Soho mixed in with the new. It still has character and will always be great and really, everyone has their own Soho, their own period. Wherever we are, we all carry that Soho with us in our hearts.

Marc’s new album Shadows and Reflections is out now on BMG records.

Eddi McPherson

Eddi McPherson


Words Cary Gee

Photography Etienne Gilfillan


“Everyone was welcome, and being famous made no difference. I knew Francis and was more than friends with Lucien!”

Eddi McPherson arrived in Soho with a plan. “It was 1959 and I was going to the ‘Big City’ to become a famous singer, and live happily ever after.” Like many before her, and countless others since, Eddi soon discovered that Soho contains enough crooked alleys to confound even the most determined visitor.

“I had no real picture of how or what it would be, just this blind optimism that it was all going to be wonderful.” This sounds almost touchingly naïve coming from McPherson, a woman who, to many in Soho, epitomises the very character of the London village she came to live in. “Challenging”, “open-minded” and “tolerant” are just some of the carefully chosen epithets friends use to describe her. I put it to her that less cautious acquaintances might describe her as “exigent”, “unyielding” and “refractory”. It’s safe to say that despite an uncommonly fierce loyalty to her friends, Eddi Mcpherson has no time for those she regards as fools.

Eddi was just 18 when she interrupted a promising career singing in the jazz clubs of Manchester for a new life in London. How did friends and family react to her departure? “I didn’t tell them!” Headstrong is another often-used sobriquet to describe the woman in front of me. Remarkably, Eddi had never even visited London before. “I loved a musician; he lived in London, so I just thought I’d come to London myself and make sure everything was alright. I knocked on his door. He was absolutely shocked to see me!” I ask who the musician was but Eddi either can’t remember, or is maintaining an unusual degree of discretion. “I was still a virgin! Not a promiscuous lady!” she laughs, reaching for a glass of Prosecco, the only drink you’ll ever see her in her hand. “I wandered into Soho and just skippered for a while. It’s what they used to call sofa-surfing. Or I’d sit up in cafes all night. In those days, Soho was still filled with prostitutes, pimps, artists. Proper Bohemian society. It felt very welcoming, very safe. I had no enemies. I mean for a young girl wandering about on her own… nowadays it would be horrifying.”

Despite her ambition to pursue a singing career Eddi had no gigs lined up in London. Instead she worked at coffee bars or cafés, often working all night and sleeping on other peoples’ floors during the day. “When you’re young you have all the energy in the world.” Is it a life she would recommend to a girl in her position today? “God, no!” Eddi downs her fizz and looks aghast. “But in those days, it felt safe. There was a group of prostitutes who worked Dean Street. They clubbed together to raise the fare for me to return home to Manchester. They were so worried about me.” In the end, Eddi defied expectations – as she has resolutely continued to do – and opted to pursue her dream in London.

She soon managed to save enough money from gigging as a jazz singer, often performing in the same coffee bars she waited in, to find a place of her own. “It’s all so long ago, it’s a bit of a blur. But I didn’t drink. I didn’t do drugs, and was so innocent I wouldn’t have known if the people around me were.” After a year spent in Jersey – not somewhere she has any desire to re-visit – Eddi returned to London, where she met her future husband and promptly lost her innocence. “He was a heroin addict. I had no idea.” How did she find out? “I walked in on him in the bathroom one day. He was injecting into his hand! I flushed his gear down the toilet and smashed his hypodermic. It was a crazy thing to do, but he did come off heroin.”

Despite the New Musical Express having already bestowed upon her an award for Best New Jazz Singer, Eddi was no longer performing by this time. She and her husband moved to Hastings, where her son Graham was born. If the name McPherson sounds familiar, it’s likely because Graham grew up to become Suggs – Madness singer, renaissance man, and one of the most recognisable faces in Soho. Realising that her marriage was “a joke” – by now her husband had replaced heroin with alcohol – Eddi beat a retreat to Soho, where, after a few false starts, she was offered the flat where she still lives. “I just couldn’t imagine living anywhere else,” she says. I ask if she had any concerns about raising a child in Soho. “No. Not at all.” She dismisses my question with a slightly imperious wave of her arm. “Graham was always a very sensible kid, alert to the potential dangers of city life.” Perhaps wishing to save her son from disappointment, Eddi hoped he would become a graphic designer. “But there was always music in our house.”

At what point did she stop telling Suggs to get a proper job? “I think it really hit home that he was famous the first time he appeared on Top of the Pops. I watched it with a neighbour, clutching a cushion. Graham was wearing a little plastic trumpet as a brooch. It fell out and all I wanted to do was pick it up and stick it back on.” Eddi admits to a vicarious prestige from being the mother of a ‘national treasure’ but takes no credit: “His success is entirely down to him.” The bars and clubs in Soho where Eddi continued to work, including the legendary Kismet on Wardour Street and the Mandrake on Meard Street, no longer exist. “Each year the old faces of Soho become fewer. I really do feel like a survivor.” Indeed, Eddi is now considered something of a celebrity herself, not that she sees herself as one. “It’s something other people tell me.”

I ask what makes Soho Soho? Eddi quickly changes the tense of my question. “It was the diversity. Everyone was welcome, and being famous made no difference. I knew Francis [Bacon] and was more than friends with Lucien [Freud]!” How long did the affair last? “About a week! He was a terrible gambler and the worst driver I knew. We once crashed into the back of a police car. He told me to scarper, so I did. I’d walk into the Colony and Lucien would wave his hand and shout, ‘Give the lady a bottle of Champagne’.”

Eddi has witnessed is the evolution of Soho’s ‘gay village’. “In the old day, nobody cared if you were gay or straight. Why have gay pubs and straight pubs? We just need pubs!” She blames the need for separate venues on decades of homophobia, and it makes her furious. That’s not to say that she doesn’t still enjoy a night on the town. A perfect day might entail “watching what’s left of my world go by” while lunching with her son at Bar Italia or Prix Fixe, a bottle of fizz on an overstuffed sofa at Quo Vadis or a nightcap at Gerry’s, which (like Eddi herself) has somehow survived. It would seem that after more than half a century of whipping up a storm in Soho, this particular force of nature is not ready to blow over yet.

Gosh! Comics

Gosh! Comics


Interview & Photography Etienne Gilfillan


“We’ve benefited enormously from the custom of those working in the creative industry that keeps Soho buzzing”

With a 30-year track record in the industry and enthusiastic, knowledgeable staff, Gosh! is one of London’s must-visit stores for anyone who loves the medium of comics. Stocking everything from European bandes dessinées to superhero graphic novels, stylish children’s books to cutting-edge small press publications, Gosh! has something for everyone. Journal spoke to owner Josh Palmano about his comics emporium’s ongoing Soho success story…

Tell us a bit about the beginnings of GOSH! and your own background.

My first exposure to comics as a kid was through the Beano. I joined the Denis the Menace fan club and remember keeping my membership wallet, replete with furry Gnasher badge and other membership paraphernalia, in a crawl space in the cellar of my parents’ home – a space where no-one else in the family was small enough to go. I graduated to war comics, very popular in the UK in the 1970s, and then had a fleeting flirtation with the American superhero genre. But at that time the opposite sex came fully into focus, and comics fell by the wayside.

It was at a Specials gig in 1979 that I met a guy who worked at a comic shop called Forbidden Planet, which was then in Denmark street, on the edge of Soho. We gelled, and he told me there was a Saturday job going, if I was interested. So, it was the lure of cash that drew me back to comics; what I learned was that as well as being entertainment, they were also a business.

A little further down the line I was dealing in comics independently; and seven years later, with school finished, I opened Gosh! opposite the British Museum in Bloomsbury. I was 19, and though I had a reasonable amount of comics knowledge under my belt, I had very little life experience. The first years were quite a learning curve!

Tell us about the look of the new Shop in Soho.

In 2011, the building we were trading from was sold and my new landlord’s plans didn’t mesh with my own. Also, the area had changed markedly; the interesting book shops disappeared and were replaced by touristy trinket shops and cafés. In fact, we’d long outgrown the unit we were in anyway, so I started to look in earnest for a new site to relocate to.

I looked at 1 Berwick Street at the behest of a lettings agent. While the rent was in excess of what I’d budgeted for, the space and the location just felt right, and I was convinced I could make the figures work.

The unit was an empty shell, ready to be stamped with our new identity. I went online, looking for a designer who would be sympathetic to my sensibilities and found an article in which Callum Lumsden discussed the process he’d taken when designing the Tate Modern book shop. When I called him up, he was busy designing the retail spaces for Harry Potter World. I’m extremely grateful to Callum that he gave me his time, ear, expertise and I’m pretty sure, a keen price for my project. We ended up with a beautiful, spacious interior which was a big departure from the classic image of a comic shop. We were in a much better position to serve the industry in the way I’d envisaged. We have space to hold signings and book launches. We’ve hosted film screenings, talks, workshops, live music and more. We run a number of regular events, such as Drink & Draw, where anyone who is interested can get the chance to create with professionals, our monthly book club, Reads, and an occasional Feminism and Comics discussion group run by Let’s Talk Intersectionality.

Do you get a different mix of customers in Soho than you did in Bloomsbury?

We hung on to our regular customers when we moved, and oddly, we see as many overseas visitors now as we ever did. The British Museum holds the accolade of the UK’s most visited tourist attraction, but Soho sees its fair share of visitors. We’ve also benefited enormously from the custom of those working in the creative industry that keeps Soho buzzing. We thought that when we moved, that given Soho’s reputation, our small children’s book section might dwindle. It’s actually gone from strength to strength and we recently had to reorganise our ground floor to give it a little more space.

Any memorable anecdotes from the multitude of amazing signing events you’ve hosted?

The Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill events would sometimes run for seven or eight hours, with seriously long queues. I remember at one Saturday morning signing – for the release of a new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen book – the madam from the brothel on the other side of Peter Street came down to complain that her customers were shying away! “We’ve usually broke even by this time on Saturday; my girls are up there twiddling their thumbs!”

You specialise in European, underground, indie comics/graphic novels as well as beautiful illustration books from publishers like Nobrow.  What are particular favourites of yours or big bestsellers at the moment?

A deserved bestseller is Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez. It’s aimed at the 7-10 age group, and tells the tale of a young girl overcoming loneliness with a vivid imagination. Baking with Kafka by Tom Gauld is doing extremely well – and his Moon Cop was our bestselling book of last year. Like me, customers are lapping up Tom’s gentle, thoughtful and touching look at life. Jillian Tamaki’s collection of short stories, Boundless, offers up more of her masterful blend of emotion and humour.

What are your favourite Soho haunts and shops?

I love my food, and I love to cook. Lina Stores have some great charcuterie and offer key ingredients to create a knockout risotto. Old Compton Street’s Algerian Coffee Store and Gerry’s provide most of my liquid refreshment and I often find myself dawdling in the aisles of Chinatown’s supermarkets looking for that rare ingredient for my next adventure in the kitchen. My most recent discovery is dried bracken fronds, which were rehydrated and added to my Dolsot Bibimbap. Favourite place to buy my morning coffee: Timber Yard – lovely staff and great coffee.

Any future plans for Gosh!?

Our focus over the next few years will be to continue to develop our own exclusive lines. We work with artists to produce exclusive prints, either digitally or as screen prints. We’ve commissioned art from Jamie Hernandez (Love & Rockets), Mike Allred (I-zombie), Charlie Adlard (Walking Dead), Kevin O’Neill and many more.

Last year we took an iconic Brian Bolland panel featuring Judge Dredd and Judge Death from a back issue of 2000AD and created a stunning A2 screen print limited to an edition of 200. We sold out pretty much immediately, with orders coming in from many countries around the world.

I currently have a couple of favourites in our range. ‘Amour de Soi’ by Alessandra Criseo is a repeat pattern piece depicting the artist herself. The depth of the screen-printed colours beautifully accentuates the artists simple style. And ‘Octopus Salad’ by Junko Misuno – my girlfriend’s a chef and this piece is Junko’s interpretation of a recipe she supplied. Each print comes with a copy of the recipe!

Tom Baker

Tom Baker


Words Kirk Truman

Photography Joseph Lynn


“Back home, there was a big punk scene with a lot of people customising their own clothes, so I think thats where the seed was planted…”

Tom Baker and I are talking music, clothes, Soho and everything in-between. We’re on D’Arblay Street, mid-afternoon, as he shows me around his studio space. He’s strikingly tall and cooler than cool, and his voice has a Northern twang that’s music to my ears. “You know, I’m quite philosophical,” he says, looking over my shoulder. “That fitting room behind you is like a barber’s chair. I’ve been called the mid-life crisis tailor who gets men back on the saddle. I guess you could say I provide a service. Clothing is half the job – the other half is purely psychological,” he laughs.Tom grew up as a young punk in a small Scottish town, developing a passion for music and clothing, which has helped him build his eponymous label. Today, he’s a familiar face in Soho, known for providing his own individual take on tailoring.

Each of the great Soho tailors has distinct stylistic differences. You might describe Tom as the gentleman-punk – as well as the tallest tailor in the neighbourhood. He specialises in both traditional and avant-garde bespoke tailoring. Tom began his training quite late, aged 25, spending five years at Hardy Amies, Savile Row in the early 90s. It was on Savile Row that he was taught to cut and fit in the classical English style. After completing his training, he started his own label, Sir Tom Baker, in Soho. His traditional skills combined with his own natural flair put him at the forefront of bespoke tailoring today. “I was completely self-taught until I began training on Savile Row. I didn’t really think I was going to make a career out it… aspiring to be a tailor wasn’t what people did in the Scottish town I grew up in. It was all rugby and that shite,” he says. “Back home, there was a big punk scene with a lot of people customising their own clothes, so I think that’s where the seed was planted and my influences were born.”

Tom’s relationship with Soho started when he moved to London in his early 20s, where he landed himself a job in the home section of famed department store Liberty of London. Soho quickly became his stomping ground, and it was here that he explored the changing music and fashion scenes while training as a tailor in his spare time. After qualifying as a tailor, Tom started working from a small studio on Berwick Street, just around the corner from his current D’Arblay Street studio and shop. “Training on Savile Row was a big chunk of my time… five years in total! I got to know a lot of the different tailors around. I knew if I was going to make a go of it, I had to get on with it as young as I could do, otherwise I always thought I’d just be seen as an apprentice,” he says. “I didn’t want to be seen as the guy with zero experience; I wanted to be taken seriously to the point where I was fully fledged. In tailoring, you don’t get to properly flex your muscles until you really start to do it yourself. You’ve gotta jump in, go out there and do it.”

Tom built his business up from scratch to the success it enjoys today on D’Arblay Street. “What tends to happen, when you’re not an established tailor, is that you decide to go it alone and end up poaching customers from existing tailors. That wasn’t the route I wanted to take,” says Tom. “I completely went it alone on Berwick Street. I literally stepped out with a set of keys, looked left and looked right, and thought: shit, I need to get out there and get some customers.” Tom’s ability to work closely with his customers helped him build a reputable client base and loyal following with time. He has worked with television personalities, musicians, actors, artists, industry professionals and politicians. Tom’s punk twist on tailoring has seen him dress gents from Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant to actor Rhys Ifans, from Noel Fielding and Jonathan Ross to the Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock, to name a few.

In the beginning, Tom started socialising in Soho bars such as The Colony Room to meet new clients, all of whom wanted to add a distinctive rock ‘n’ roll edge to their wardrobe. “The building of a celebrity clientele was a cornerstone, yes, but for me its always been about providing the best service, and offering the best look to whoever walks through the door,” says Tom. “Everyone is first, and you’re never bigger than your customer. The most important thing is enjoying it and having pursued what I love and believe in.” Tom’s store opened in 2008, having outgrown his Berwick Street studio, giving the brand a visible presence on the Soho high street. Working strictly in the traditional British bespoke manner, Tom takes pride in all of his designs and the clientele which he has worked tirelessly to build up. All Tom’s pieces are cut, sewn and finished by hand on site, under his personal supervision. He is a man with an obsession for detail who strives for perfection… with a twist. He is as much as an innovator as he is a tailor, the punk tailor of Soho; or, if you will: Sir Tom Baker.

Sparks

Sparks


Words & Portraits Etienne Gilfillan


“Jacques Tati wanted us to be characters in a movie”

On a warm September night, just minutes away from bustling Soho, the prestigious ICA is hosting a launch party for the release of Sparks’ latest album, Hippopotamus, which has just rocketed into the Top 10 in the UK. The room, dotted with palm trees, is bathed in a cool blue light that evokes the feel of a swimming pool and echoes the image on the new album’s cover. In one corner, two puppets representing band members Ron and Russell Mael stand under a gaslight in an old Paris street. It’s a set from their darkly haunting stop-motion video for “Edith Piaf (Said it Better Than Me)”, their next single.

Guests are piling in for tonight’s Q and A session – fans, music journalists and musical luminaries including Muff Winwood and Tony Visconti, both of whom produced classic albums for the band in the 1970s. All have come to celebrate a band whose sharp humour, skewed pop sensibilities and eclectic career have made them beloved popstars and honorary Brits, despite them hailing from Los Angeles.

Brothers Ron and Russell Mael started their musical career as Halfnelson in 1968. With disappointing sales, their label suggested a name change. Russel explains: “Albert Grossman [who ran the Bearsville label] was disappointed that the album didn’t have a wider commercial impact. He thought maybe the name Halfnelson was too obscure – that that was the only thing holding us back – it wasn’t the music.” Albert told Russel and Ron that they reminded him of the Marx Brothers. “So, he said: why don’t you be the Sparks Brothers? We thought that was a terrible name so we said we’d meet him half way, as he was an important person, and we took Sparks.”

In 1973, with commercial success still eluding them, the band moved to Island Records, who sent them off to the UK, believing that their brand of eccentricity might appeal to the Brits. It was a smart move. Sparks played The Old Grey Whistle Test and a run of gigs at Soho’s famous Marquee club, where one night, incredibly, one of rock’s soon-to-be legendary bands – Queen – opened for them. “They all lugged their gear wearing blue jeans, and then they went on stage in their white angel costumes.” The two bands never spoke, though rumours still circulate on the internet that Brian May was once offered the chance to join Sparks.

Their TV appearances and live appearances in the UK paid off handsomely, with their next album, Kimono My House, spawning their most famous and highest charting single “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us”, an operatic glam-pop oddity which nevertheless got to number two in the UK charts, as well as hitting the Top 20 across Europe. Sparks had finally found a home for their unique brand of crazy and Brits took hyperactive Russell and deadpan Ron to their hearts. Subsequent albums Propaganda and Indiscreet cemented their popularity. An album recorded with Giorgio Moroder in 1979 ushered a change of direction musically. Moroder’s distinctive electronic sound propelled them back into the Top 20, with “The Number One Song in Heaven”. “Prior to that, Giorgio had worked with solo singers like Donna Summer – so we were coming from a completely different mindset.”

Sparks’ success was in no small part due to a musical, lyrical and visual style, artful and ironic, that appealed to a British audience on the cusp of what would become New Wave. They brought a cinematic flair to their album covers, too, which perfectly reflected their counter-cultural leanings: Propaganda saw them bound and gagged in the back of a speed boat racing across a vast expanse of water, while Indiscreet had them surviving a plane crash with uncommon style. And on Hippopotamus, once again, the scene looks like a still from a lost Surrealist film: Ron And Russell, dressed in bathrobes, look on in bemusement as a hippo invades their swimming pool. “We’re always hesitant to name an album after a track because it tends to point too much attention to that particular track. But in this case, it just seemed an arresting word, and the cover is literally translating what this song is about in a visual context. We’re very happy about the renaissance of vinyl and the chance to have prominent artwork, aside from the audio aspect. An image really matters now, and we were also able to return to those early Island albums where there’s no typeface on the front.”

It’s no coincidence that Sparks’ visual flair seems to evoke the cinema, as their career has so many links to motion pictures. A little-known fact about the brothers is that early in their career someone at Island records put them in touch with legendary director Jacques Tati, who was planning his follow up to Playtime. “They hooked us up with him and we met in Paris. He wanted us to be characters in a movie for which he had written a rough screenplay.” The film in question, Confusion, a story of two American TV studio employees brought to a rural French TV company, never got made due to Tati’s declining health. But that didn’t end the Maels’ cinema career. When Kiss dropped out of 70s horror flick Rollercoaster, Sparks stepped in, featuring in the opening concert sequence playing two songs. More recently, Sparks have regained their cinematic mojo, working with cult director Guy Maddin, providing the music for one of his films and collaborating on a radio play/film proposal, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman.

 

Sadly, it proved too expensive to produce, but the brothers are working on a new film project, with Adam Driver and Michelle Williams already attached and cult director Leos Carrax at the helm: Annette, a musical drama written by Sparks, could well prove to be the perfect merging of the brothers’ musical and cinematic ambitions. They met Carrax at the Cannes Film Festival, after he’d included one of their tracks in his previous feature, Holy Motors. “He’s a very interesting director,” explains Ron, “so when we returned to LA, Russell said why don’t we just send him this project which we’d finished recording, and see what he says. The intention wasn’t that it would be a film project but a live theatre thing. He apparently had been looking for a musical project, but wasn’t able to find anything, and he really responded to this thing strongly. We were shocked and happy.”

Annette is currently in pre-production, but in the meantime Sparks are busy touring Europe, Japan and the US to promote Hippopotamus. Even this sounds like a walk in the park compared to their ambitious 21-night London residency in 2008 when they played every album they ever recorded, live and in full. “We rehearsed for four months! People don’t have 21 albums normally… but to say you’re going to do all the songs!”

Centre Point

Centre Point


Words Kirk Truman

Illustrations Ross Becker


“…a celebration of everything that makes London a world-class city.”

Here, in the few square miles which make up the West End, there is little that rises above 10 storeys. The Post Office Tower and Senate House are among the most familiar beacons in this part of London, though there is perhaps one architectural fixture that’s even more instantly recognisable. Sitting on the borders of Fitzrovia and Soho, Centre Point has been for half a century quite literally at the centre of London life. Praised, damned and often disused throughout its existence, the story of Centre Point is the story of a brutalist icon and a national treasure.

Designed by architect George Marsh of R Seifert and Partners, on a site once occupied by a gallows, the building was constructed between 1963 and 1966 at the crossroads of Tottenham Court Road, Oxford Street, New Oxford Street and Charing Cross Road. Sitting atop distinctive angular ‘dinosaur legs’, at 117m (385ft) high it was one of the first skyscrapers in London, comprising a 34-storey tower and a smaller, nine-floor building to the east linked by a first-floor footbridge. With the popularity of Brutalist architecture on the rise in 1960s London, Marsh had a vision of a concrete honeycomb-inspired exterior. This sort of repetition of modular elements, distinctly articulated and grouped together into a unified whole was a key characteristic of the brutalist movement. Centre Point’s precast honeycomb segments were produced on the Isle of Portland in Dorset out of fine concrete utilising crushed Portland Stone and then later driven to London by lorry. The building was the first of its kind in the city, capturing the spirit and inventiveness of 1960s London. The result is a now iconic building that remains raw and unpretentious, contrasting dramatically with the highly refined and ornamented buildings constructed in the Beaux-Arts style that surround it. Though it hasn’t always been seen as an asset to the area, Centre Point received Grade II listed status from English Heritage in 1995.

Centre Point was built as speculative office space by property tycoon Harry Hyams, and despite its position at the heart of the West End and its then impressive height, the building remained empty for almost a decade after its completion and was dubbed ‘London’s Empty Skyscraper’. This was the result of Hyams’s plan that the whole building be occupied by a single occupant. He waited (and waited) for someone to meet his asking price of £1,250,000. At this point, skyscrapers were almost unheard of in the city, and the prominence of such a huge, empty, and unrepentantly modern building inspired many opponents in London. Hyams kept a distinctly low-profile, and when often flying into London over his creation felt that something was missing – a name. At Hyams’s insistence, several years after its completion, Centre Point was branded with its famed neon logo, with the lettering on the logo directly derived from the Optima font. In 2004 artist Cerith Wyn Evans utilised the logo for an outdoor art piece called ‘Meanwhile… across town’, with the replacement LED logo having been unveiled to Londoners this summer. Cerith will be returning to Centre Point with a neon light installation, his work ‘Forms in Space… by Light (in Time)’ is the 2017 Tate Britain Commission.

After remaining largely empty for many years – and even being occupied by housing campaigners for a weekend in 1974 – Centre Point eventually became a functioning office building. From July 1980 to March 2014, it was the headquarters of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), making them, at nearly 34 years, the building’s longest-standing tenants. More recently, it has provided space for US talent agency William Morris and gaming company EA Games. In 2011, Centre Point was purchased and then resold to property investment and development company Almacantar, who have a policy of transforming new acquisitions into prime products with sustained value. Centre Point stands as perhaps their most ambitious project since the company’s launch in 2010.

By this point, Centre Point’s status was uncertain: iconic – if not universally loved – and listed it may have been, but it remained as underused and underexploited as ever. Almacantar’s goal to bring to life a building that, despite being on a prime site right in the centre of one of the world’s greatest cities, had never fulfilled its huge potential. Perhaps now, with the redevelopment of the site for commercial usage at the base and residential in the main tower, we’ll finally see this essential part of London’s skyline celebrated and brought back to deserved prominence. It has undergone an intensive restoration, with every inch of its structure carefully restored and over 50 years’ worth of wear and tear removed in order to secure its future.

This means that for the first time in its history the tower’s famed beehive windows are to become living space. Almacantar began collaborating with Conran & Partners and Rick Mather Architects to restore and repurpose the landmark structure, carefully taking into account the character, neighbouring area and unique position of Centre Point on our city’s skyline. With stunning views of London to the east and west, Centre Point presents an opportunity for an unmatched home environment in Central London. When you enter the building, the first thing to get your attention is the sense of quiet. In the setting of the Conran & Partners designed interiors, this is a welcome break from the bustling chaos of the West End below. Under your nose is Soho, Fitzrovia and Tottenham Court Road station. To the west you can make out Kensington Palace, and to the east St Paul’s Cathedral, The Shard and the Thames. Such an escape from the sprawling city spread out below is a rarity anywhere in London, and to find it in the heart of the West End is practically unheard of. At the base of the building, residents will benefit from numerous amenities, including a club, 24-hour concierge, a spa and pool overlooking the newly renovated station below, screening and meeting rooms and a gym. Above ground, a series of 1, 2, 3 & 5 bedroom apartments make up the main body of the building. Spread over the 33rd and 34th floors is the duplex apartment; a rare opportunity to peer out over the city through Centre Point’s glowing eponymous logo. “The apartments at Centre Point are a celebration of everything that makes London a world-class city,” says Tracy Hughes, Residential Sales Director. “It is unmatched in terms of design, location and specification, and will benefit from an uplift from Crossrail. When we open Centre Point this year it will be a rare and distinguished residential address in London’s exceptional West End.”

 

Back at ground level, the area around St Giles High Street has long been a dull and slightly grimy spot and sometimes a magnet for anti-social behaviour. Repurposing the tower for residential use has also meant redesigning the base of the building, creating a 15,000-square-foot public space for the 21st century city. Looking back at the unexecuted building designs from the early 1960s, it’s possible to see how the new ground-level layout revisits and fulfils Seifert’s original vision for a true ‘centre point’ in London’s West End. This new public space at the base of the tower is to be lined with a series of restaurants and contemporary cafés, with names such as Rhubarb already set to join when the site opens later this year. The first-floor footbridge is also undergoing a transformation to make way for a restaurant overlooking New Oxford Street. The new Centre Point has not only restored this icon for future generations but created a space for the general public that will finally do justice to Seifert’s original vision. And with the upcoming Elizabeth Line providing links to Heathrow Airport and Canary Wharf, Centre Point will finally live up to its name: a national treasure at the very heart of London.