‘Once our beer was frothy but now its frothy coffee…’ – Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’be by Lionel Bart
In 1959, the great Lionel Bart turned Frank Norman’s London set play ‘Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’be’ into a musical comedy about ‘low-life characters in the 1950s, including spivs, prostitutes, teddy-boys and corrupt policemen’. This was a time of great change in post-war London – what with the ‘birth of the teenager’ and the Swinging Sixties looming on the horizon – and not everyone copes well with change, of course.
London is changing again, too, though not necessarily for the better. Online, I see a litany of news stories about classic cinemas being converted into apartments for the super-rich and the destruction Tin Pan Alley – the home of British rock n roll. Indeed, the Soho of Bar Italia, Ronnie Scott’s, Norman and Jeff in The Coach and Horses, or Francis Bacon and Derek Raymond in The French House seems long dead or dying.
Ironically, the 50s coffee bars so disparaged in ‘Fings’ are now lamented as they are replaced with over-priced, homogenised sandwich bars and ‘frothy coffee’ seems decidedly risqué.
My books Guns Of Brixton, Cold London Blues, and A Rainy Night In Soho are violently comic tales of London low-life, occasionally rubbing shoulder with the high-life. All three books focus on the Cook family – ageing London gangsters who aren’t adapting to change too well. All they have left is the shitty weather.
Here’s a clip from COLD LONDON BLUES :
‘Father Tim … looked out across the London skyline. The inky-black night had melted into a grubby-grey January morning. The city was waking now and the windows of the other granite tower blocks outside were starting to light up.
A cold wind, as sharp as a razor blade, sliced through him and Father Tim fastened his leather biker’s jacket as tightly as possible. Dark, malignant clouds crawled ominously across the sky.
‘Pissin’ miserable weather,’ he muttered to himself. ‘Pissin’ miserable country.’
He took a crushed packet of Marlborough cigarettes from the back pocket of his Levis, fished inside with shaking fingers.
On the opposite balcony, a tall man with long black hair took breadcrumbs from a plastic bag and threw them in the air. Black birds darted down from telephone lines where they had been lined up like notes on sheet music. The birds flew towards the tall man, landing on his balcony and sometimes on him. His raucous, joyous laughter brought an unfamiliar smile to Father Tim’s face.
On the street below, he could see a branch of a small general dealer with a bright green logo above the door, as well as an old bicycle factory that had recently been converted into a Wetherspoons pub, and a stretch of hip bars, including Noola’s Saloon, its green neon sign flickering intermittently.
The street bustled with the drunken debris of the previous night’s New Year’s Eve parties. The still-pissed and the newly hungover mingled. A massive skinhead in a leopard skin coat walked up to Noola’s Saloon and pressed a door bell. The door opened emitting a screech of escaping metallic music as he slipped inside. Iggy and The Stooges’ ‘Search and Destroy.’ A sense of longing enveloped Father Tim. A feeling of time passing like grains of sand through his fingers.
Father Tim felt his rheumatism bite as he inhaled his first cigarette of the day. His chest felt heavy. If ever there was time to get the hell out of London it was probably now. The quack had told him to piss off to Spain, or somewhere as sunny, for a bit, for his health’s sake. It wasn’t a bad idea, either. He could even stay at his sister-in-law’s gaff in Andalucía if he wanted. But he knew he wouldn’t stay away for long. London was in his bones. His blood. His lungs. For better or for worse.’