ICafe Confessional: Gyre & Gimble & the skiffle years

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Moulin Rouge, Oxford Street, August 1954

'... seventy-odd new coffee bars have opened in London, fitted
with Italian-style espresso coffee machines... '
(Picture Post 'A Red Head In Search Of Black Coffee'
Hulton Archives

Every Saturday night the London art schools took it in turn to put on a jazz concert and dance. One week it was Chelsea, next week St Martins, followed by The Central, Goldsmiths or Camberwell.

It was 1954 and traditional jazz that was the art students' favourite sound. In spite of rock 'n roll having just arrived in the shape of Bill Haley (Elvis would follow) there was a backlash against contemporary American culture by some sections of British youth.

Bohemian students had adopted as their own New Orleans jazz and blues from some 50 years earlier, a musical form totally ignored by their peers in the States.

The original pure forms had however become slightly diluted and anglicised to become 'skiffle'. It was propagated by the likes of Ken Colyer (who had joined the merchant navy to get to New Orleans) Lonnie Donnegan and Acker Bilk.

Soon every coffee bar had a skiffle group - a couple of guitars, (acoustic, of course), a single snare drum, a tea-chest base backing up the vocalist (harmonica optional), accompanied by plenty of wailing on about how badly black folks was treated in the cotton- fields down South.

The great thing about 'trad jazz was that it was highly syncopated music and once the band struck up you had to get those feet onto the dance floor.

Teddy Boys, who were rock 'n roll fans, jived; so too 'modernist' fans of be-bop and Charlie Parker. But 'trad jiving was by far the most exuberant and athletic variant, being a modified form of jitterbugging and lindy-hopping.

It was at one of the St Martins art school dances - whilst jiving of course - that I met Polly. I was a pretty good jiver, having picked up the moves in visits to that sterling outpost of trad', the Wood Green jazz club.

Polly and I were kindred spirits. She was like a whirlwind, leaping about the floor in great looping strides, always on the beat and with great arm movements. Dressed in black from head to foot, she had short cropped black hair, black knitted sweater, black tight trousers and, of course, dark glasses.

The band that night were The Alberts, a group of very eccentric intellectuals in Edwardian striped blazers, steel rimmed glasses, long beards and moustaches. They were fronted by a diminutive clarinet player who had at his feet, or rather his waist, his huge pet St Bernard dog.

Half way through one number he suddenly stopped playing and hurled his 'liquorice-stick' into the heaving throng of jivers and then instructed his canine chum to 'fetch'.

The animal dived into the crowd, which parted like the Red Sea, to retrieve the instrument and returned to his master who continued to play the saliva-soaked clarinet as though nothing had happened.

Art school dances always closed at eleven and I offered Polly a lift home on my Lambretta, but said we would stop at a coffee bar I had heard about, the Gyre & Gimble.

The G & G (not being much of a reader I had no knowledge of the connection to the Lewis Carroll poem) was in John Adam Street at the side of Charing Cross Station.

A dingy narrow doorway, with the name of the establishment in barely-legible swirly lettering, led down stairs which opened up into a very large basement area.

The smoky dive had low crude wooden tables and chairs and the whole place had a rustic feel. A sort of menu was scrawled on one of the dark walls, but I had no appetite for eating there.

Most of the customers looked as though they had not seen daylight for some time. The coffee however was very good and in generously large cups. Later, a guitar player, called appropriately Johnny Guitar, played some very good solo pieces.

I took Polly home. She lived in a huge house in Paulton's Square, just off the King's Road, her father being a top civil servant who drove about in a 1935 open top green Bentley racer. I was impressed.

Along with having a very passionate affair, Polly and I became regulars at the Gyre & Gimble and joined an informal group of pseudo-intellectuals who used to meet there on Sunday evenings. They had dubbed themselves The New Day Dadaists and in the spirit of Marcel Duchamp discussed ideas to mock the art establishment.

They even got as far to putting out an advertisement for an exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite painting at a derelict house in Bloomsbury. Really radical.

I got very serious about the delightful Polly, but she was a bit of a free spirit as were in fact her whole family. One day I was walking down the King's Road to go to her house when the Bentley pulled up beside me. Polly jumped out and kissed me. "Steve," she announced, "we are moving to France."

With that she jumped back into the green monster and off it went into the mists of Chelsea.

I never saw her again - and I never went back to the G & G.


© Steve Fletcher

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