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Adultery, violence, crime – ah, how I miss them

Published 6 May 2012
News Review
980th article

Michael and Geraldine at Quo Vadis with co-owner Eddie Hart (Zdenek Kastanek)

Soho ain't what it used to be. In the 1950s and early 1960s I had an office and a movie cutting room there. It was wonderful. Like a village. There was Jack Carlton with his Prego coffee bar, where I went every morning at 11am and had a bagel with smoked salmon and a cup of tea. Jack later found his wife in flagrante with one of his waiters at another restaurant he owned in Marylebone. He left Old Compton Street.

Next to him was Cyril Henry the hairdresser, a very small, fat Jewish man with a gargantuan blonde shiksa (non-Jewish) wife. She went off. Cyril left.

Next to Cyril was the Soho Record Centre, owned by Alex Strickland. He and his wife Josie stayed together. On the corner of Old Compton Street and Dean Street, Jack Spot, a Jewish gangster, and Albert “Italian Al” Dimes, a renowned enforcer, had a fight in broad daylight, slashing at each other with old-fashioned cut-throat razors. Very messy.

Further down Dean Street was a mambo club run by a nice man, Mr France. I went there one day to see him. He lay in a pool of blood on the floor. Probably hadn’t paid his protection money.

At the bar of Wheeler's in Old Compton Street I sat at lunchtime with Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. In those days I had a tiny office in Dean Street next to Don Arden (nee Levy), father of Sharon Osbourne. He was bringing over American acts. I met Jerry Lee "Great Balls of Fire" Lewis and his 13-year-old child bride, plus many others.

Don famously hired the Everly brothers for a British tour. In those days pop concerts offered 10 or so acts each doing about 15 minutes. Don's show was on the road when he decided he didn't need the Everly brothers, who were the costliest act on the bill. He got people to go to the gig and boo and shout, "Go back to America," and other nastier things. So the Everly brothers said, "They don't like us here," and quit. Those were the days.

Now Soho is overcrowded, full of pseuds fighting to get into the Groucho club. The movie companies, which had great window displays all along Wardour Street, have gone. The ladies of the night (and day) have decamped.

I try to avoid Soho. However, I was tempted back three times to visit Quo Vadis in Dean Street. The first was when Marco Pierre White took it over, bringing Fernando Peire from the Ivy as restaurant manager. Fernando held tables back for celebrities at every meal service. They never turned up. Marco sold the place.

Two very posh brothers, Eddie and Sam Hart, took over. I tried it again because everyone said they’d made it so good. It was okay. I went to a birthday party in their private room. The most incompetent debacle ever. As Eddie explained when I was in recently, they were serving food that cost too much to buy and was too expensive for the clientele. So in January this year they changed course. It's now cheap and moderately cheerful.

Much as I admire Sam and Eddie, I still find the premises close to revolting. White walls, hard surfaces, ghastly lighting. Noisy beyond belief. But nice for the Hart brothers, as it seems to be doing well.

My starter was hare soup. Odd. Not unpleasant. Wouldn't order it again. Then I had rabbit and duck pie. Hearty stuff. Pastry on top like rubber. They should get someone from the Women’s Institute - they're brilliant at pastry. Seeing I'd left most of my pie, Eddie explained: "Pies are designed for rugby players in their twenties." If I meet a 20-year-old rugby player, I'll ask him if he likes rubber pastry.

Geraldine was pleased with her liver.

When my dessert arrived, the waiter said: “Excuse me, sir: your little lemon posset.” He wasn’t kidding. It was in a tiny bowl not much bigger than an egg cup.

I wish Sam and Eddie great good fortune. They're lucky people. They won’t see me in Quo Vadis again. In fact, I'll never be in Soho again either.

  • Important news: Laurie Taylor conducts a one-hour interview with me on Sky Arts tomorrow, starting at 8pm. It's like the John Freeman interviews years ago: two people against a black background. Cancel all life. Glue yourself to the telly. If you can't get unstuck, tell your wife to pull harder.

  • From Nick de Mowbray in Co Cork. A petrol station owner put up a sign: "Free sex with fill-up." Hymie pulled in, filled his tank and asked for his free sex. The owner told him to pick a number from one to 10.

    "If you guess right, you'll get the sex."

    Hymie said: "Eight."

    The garage owner responded: "Close, but it was seven."

    A week later Hymie pulled in with his friend Abe for a fill-up. Again he asked for the free sex.

    This time Hymie guessed: "Two."

    The owner said: "Sorry, it was three."

    As they drove off Hymie said to Abe: "I think that game is rigged. He doesn't really give away free sex at all."

    Abe replied: "No, it's definitely genuine. My wife won twice last week."

    Michael's missives

    Glad you enjoyed Easter in my neck of the woods at Coworth Park. Shame about the food. You should have wandered across the road into Windsor Great Park. There's a burger van there that always has a queue.
    Julia Slingsby-Breach, Berkshire

    Will you be representing Britain at eating in this summer's Olympics?
    John Finnegan, Co Cavan

    You told us last week about your long-wheelbase, special-edition Bentley Brooklands Mulliner and your chauffeur. I drove myself to our local fish and chip shop in my Skoda Octavia vRS (short wheelbase). I suffered no ill effects whatsoever.
    Charles Gordon, Wolverhampton

    On a British Airways flight from Malaga to London the cabin crew offered cardboard boxes with Cellophane-wrapped sandwiches in them. I had ham and cheese with pickle. The bread was virtually stale, the "use by" date being the day of the flight. It was disgusting. Why can't BA get a decent sandwich maker? I can imagine you reading the riot act to Willie Walsh.
    Stanley Silver, Hertfordshire

    The Italian restaurant at Harrods was awful. Food poor - soggy chicken livers. But its ice cream parlour was wonderful. We were treated to opera from the pizza chef.
    Penny Fisher, Kent