ILorenzo Marioni: Play Music to the Beast

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Lorenzo Marioni: Play Music to the Beast

By Dave Waller [Management Today / September 2006]



A double life of hypocrisy...

"We came over from Italy on 17 November 1949. I remember it very clearly. I'd never seen the sea before. I grew up by a mountain river, which was crystal clear water. When I saw the sea it was grey-green. It was fucking weird. But it was intriguing.

My family had cafes and trattoria up the whole of Denman Street. My father opened the New Piccadilly in 1951.

I've been working here since I was seven. I started out peeling potatoes, cutting chips and washing dishes.

My grandfather had come over before that, in the 1900s. I was part of the second wave, after the war. Over there we were living under Benito's system of fascism, and the church. You couldn't do anything.

Living in a small village there was no anonymity, you had to live a double life of hypocrisy, as everyone knows what you're up to.

So coming to Soho, it's the greatest square mile on planet earth. Anything goes. It was such a wonderful feeling.

My father felt proper freedom, the most precious thing on the planet. You could do anything without people being judgmental. I grew up in that atmosphere.



I don't think you'll look good swinging from a rope...

This café was one of the great places where everyone felt at ease. Surrounded by absolutely lovely gay men. I miss their personalities and outlook.

My father always said, get a café next to the stage door of a theatre. That way you've got the cast and crew constantly popping in and it creates a great atmosphere. People can come in and see an A-list star having egg and chips and think, 'they're human too'.

And he always told me to watch the door. You learn that ­ there used to be lots of trouble, so you watch and get to know who's around. I learned to identify all manner of humankind.

In the late '50s, after the Hungarian uprising, the boys that got away came to London. These tended to be the more streetwise people. The academics died, the street rats survived. And this cafe used to be their headquarters.

And you'd have the rockers... One night two of them rolled up on their motorbikes, and before we realised it the whole place was taken over by leather jackets, studs, bike chains, and greasy hair.

They were attracted by the jukebox. I got rid of the jukebox and banned them ­ customers won't come in if the place is taken over like that.

I was washing up and one of them took a steak knife and held it to my throat, saying 'I'm gonna do you'. In that situation you have to stay calm and talk your way out.

This was in the days of hanging, and I just said 'I don't think you'll look good swinging from a rope.' I painted a picture of the consequences for him, he hesitated and backed off. Everyone went off on their bikes, then came back.

I hid behind a pillar, my dad and brother hit the deck and they threw rocks and metal dustbins through the front windows. I was there behind the pillar watching glass flying past.

I waited for them to come back so I could give them the bill, but they never did. They'd be in their 70s now. But you just get used to it. Don't try to get heavy with the heavies ­ play music to the beast.



The lazy bastard's approach...

The café is my life. I know nothing else. I'm here seven days a week. People like to see the same face, it gives a sense of comfort and familiarity.

In some places, one waiter serves you the soup, and you get another one for the main course, because the first one got sacked halfway through.

One guy said he hadn't been here for 35 years, and that nothing had changed. Yeah, but why spend the money? If there's nothing really wrong you don't need to change it.

I couldn't say I know London. All I know is this area. I grew up in council flats over there on Shaftesbury Avenue, behind the fire station. I don't go east of the British Museum, and I've never been south of the river.

The west end is the centre of the world. It's true, I have lost touch with time ­ I'm living in the time I was formed. But I'm happy with that.

I've got no social life, apart from what goes on here. But we can get very social here, with partying until late. We were partying here till midnight the other night.

It's an organic living thing. I can close whenever I feel. It's the lazy bastard's approach. If I've had enough, I've had enough. I'm here seven days a week.

The captain's got to be on the bridge. If I go on a ship and don't see the captain he's the only one who can inspire confidence.



A modicum of understanding...

I haven't had a holiday for seven or eight years. Luckily I've got a very understanding wife. I want all my kids to become shyster lawyers ­ that's where it's all going nowadays.

It's a one-off bijou place. You have to have your regular core customers, they are the sea that supports your ship. Everything else is the cherry on the cake.

All these caffs are one-offs, with their own personalities. But these companies start off local, then aim to go national, then international ­ they're trying to take over the universe. Expand, expand until they implode.

These momma and poppa set ups couldn't manage, these family unit places couldn't handle the volume or expansion ­ we don't have MA s in business economics from Harvard to expand globally. It's a one-off expression, and it works.

The growth of the big chains is bordering on criminality. I know the only constant is change, but all these developers have no civic responsibility. Offshore companies can buy blocks of prime real estate and force the rents to whatever they want.

Never mind the people, or what they want to have in their area. No one can do anything about it, but there should be a watchdog or something. Big money wins, always, but there has to be a modicum of understanding.



Tea & food at street level...

I've nothing against capitalism, but capitalism with a heart. It can be a force for good, but it can also be a force for bad.

They push the rent up in the area, and then expect you to pay a certain amount because the guy down the road does. This is a form of price-fixing. If you are going to compare us, I want to be compared to what other cafes pay, not what Burger King pays.

Being here all my life I really feel that it's mine, but of course it's not. The big chains raise the prices up and we can't function any more. It defeats the purpose of these places, which is to supply tea and food at street level.

They can't make decent tea to save their lives, but they distort rental prices in an area. The money is in serving booze, not cups of tea. I'm being compared to places that have a license.

Here the beauty is you buy tea and food, and can bring wine in from across the road ­ that's what creates the atmosphere."

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