ICafe Confessional: The Star, The French & Iron Foot Jack

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Coffee Cup coffee bar, Hampstead High Street, 1954 (Hulton Archives)

The end of Old Compton Street, where it meets Charing Cross Road, had two of the best caffs in Soho in 1954.

On the right was the Star Restaurant. More of a caff, it was run by a very friendly Greek, Andreas, plus a couple of part-time waiters at the weekend.

The décor was spartan at best: Rexine tablecloths and simple wooden furniture. The toilets were in an alley which led directly onto the street (handy if you were taken short and had no money.)

The menu was chips-with-everything, nothing remotely Greek. My personal favourite was two sausages and chunky chips, a slice and a tea - one and eight pence.

1954 was the era of the trad' boom and the trad' musicians had adopted the Star as their meeting place before going off to the gigs at Cy Laurie's, Ken Colyer's or Humphs' - all within half a mile.

There was a Saturday ritual for jazz musicians: afternoons spent in the Tatler News Theatre in Charing Cross Road to see the latest selection of Warner Bros cartoons; then into the Star to meet peers and arrange gigs; then, at about seven-thirty, off to play in a trad' club cellar.

Opposite the Star was the coffee shop that was, without doubt, the place to go for the artistic community in Soho.

Simply called the French (not to be confused with the French pub in Dean Street) it was ostensibly a tiny newspaper shop selling French papers and magazines. Very narrow.

There was a counter on the left and one row of tables along the right hand wall. A few more tables were in an area at the back.

The newspapers only appeared in the shop window but the main business was coffee. The owner was a lugubrious Belgian, Bernard, and he brewed up excellent coffee in a proper pot. Tea was also available but there was nothing edible other than a couple of croissants under a glass dome on the counter.

The décor was all brown: floor, walls, ceiling, furniture. No decoration of any kind. A sullen unsmiling Irish girl served occasionally behind the bar. She always wore a brown overall.

Despite these gloomy surroundings - or perhaps because they were completely different from the glitzty Italian coffee bars that were opening in Soho - the bohemian artists and intellectuals of Soho loved the place.

On a daily basis Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Victore Passmore, Frank Norman and Quentin Crisp popped in for a coffee and a chat in the Gauloise fogged atmosphere.

It was also, for better or worse, the haunt of the notorious Ironfoot Jack, the self styled ' King of the Bohemians.'

The portly Jack flaunted long hair, a Homberg hat and a long black cape hung over his short leg which was elevated by an iron boot. He would approach the unwary and try to sell them copies of his poems on pieces of grubby paper.

Jack's abysmal personal hygiene - he was the man who put the BO in 'Bohemia' - meant he always had plenty of leg room in the French.

Another denizen was a grotesque noisy harridan named Eileen. She, like Jack, worked occassionally as an artist's model in the life classes at St Martins, the Central and Chelsea art schools.

She was always in the French. From there she would sally forth on her visits to the smart shops and restaurants of Soho where she would cause outrageous scenes on any pretext. The hapless shop owners eventually realised that leaving a ten bob note for Eileen at the door would save them a lot of aggro.

There were always interesting faces and conversation to be had in the French. Playwright Bernard Kops wrote this Guardian piece about one particular regular, poet Dom Moraes:

"I first met Dom Moraes in the mid-1950s. He walked into the French caff in Soho's Old Compton Street, our main artery, lighting up the den and the denizens with his light brown beauty.

He had an aura of obvious innocence. Soho was sanctuary for all those who could not fit into the dark cold war world outside. The end of the world was nigh, and everyone was broke, but then, in the 1950s, everyone was broke, and those days were poverty-stricken bliss.

But Dom, gentle and quiet, and not yet out of boyhood, had a different aura, with his white suit and touch of eastern promise. He had a little money and was extremely generous, which immediately endeared him to all the citizens of Soho. He joined the tribe, and the word soon got around that his father was the famous Frank Moraes. He boasted about this, but we indulged in his largesse and forgave him.

He looked you straight in the face, and spoke with a soft, slight sing-song. He had dreamy doe eyes and long lashes. Before gay, I first thought he was queer; it was generally believed he would not last long. He was too ardent, too honest. He also bought me and Erica, my new-found love, coffee and croissants. That could not be bad. We all fell in love with Dom immediately.

'You've written a play, I hear. But is it a masterpiece?' were his first words to me. 'I do hope it's a masterpiece.' Me, in my green arrogant years replied, "Yes. It probably is a masterpiece.' 'Actually, I am a poet,' he said, earnestly.

Surely, he could not be as awful as that. All poets were shits; the higher the art the greater the shit. But in a world where everyone was self-absorbed, Dom actually listened.

That morning, he took me around the corner to Greek Street, where David Archer had opened a brilliant and pristine bookshop; needless to say, it did not last long. David owned a third of Wiltshire, and could not wait to give it away. Dom introduced me to David and sang my genius, although he had not read a word of mine. I was not embarrassed, and did not contradict him. I asked David about his ability to recognise talent. 'Dear boy, I know absolutely nothing about poetry. I just have a certain instinct for certain people.'

So Dom took me to David, and David pointed me in the right direction. There and then, he commanded me to ring an American producer, and my writing life and career was born. I owe both of them a song.

Later, Dom drifted away to study at Oxford. Then he got involved with the upper demi-monde, the hard drinkers of the French Pub, the environs of Hades - the vicious, lost, successful souls like Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, and the Henrietta, a beautiful, sexy, booming Junoesque empress, whom he married.

Empress Henrietta departed for a sad and quite early death, and now Dom has gone, perhaps to battle on with her in God knows where. And so he disappeared forever from our lives.

Dom was an apparition from another age, another time, another class. Whenever he entered the caff, the whole place burst into light. You could not take your eyes off him. But soon Soho died. Everyone scattered, became respectable, and were swallowed up by this age of hype.

Someone later uttered, 'But he was a fantasist, not to be believed or trusted.' If this is the real world, long live fantasy. Forty years on, his face still floats back to me, young, innocent, beautiful, alight; seeking some sort of Parnassus."

© Steve Fletcher



Coffee Cup coffee bar, Hampstead High Street, 2004

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