A story in three parts...
Part 1 - Foe
It’s 1982. It’s early in the morning. My birthday. It’s dark outside and my curtains remain drawn. I lie awake.
Something is buzzing through my head that I cannot let go.
In the corner, a pile of presents can be seen in the light from the landing, winking through a crack at the door. Amongst them, among a set of indistinct boxes and carton shapes, I can see the, tell-tale, twelve-inch square shape of an album. I’m no genius, but I know that this will be the new Adam Ant album. I’m excited.
But it isn’t this excitement that keeps me awake. It’s something different.
I don’t know whether we owned a video recorder at this stage of my life. I cannot recall. But – even if we did – I doubt I had recorded much from the telly at this point. Pop videos were still something that I would see once and then have to hold in my memory. No round the clock MTV in my house. Just Saturday morning TV and Top of the Pops. But it’s a video that is causing me to lie awake. It’s been nights on end, now.
I’m troubled because, although I have only seen it once, I know that one person clearly plays three completely different roles in Adam Ant’s “Friend or Foe” video. For no apparent artistic reason. He is just there. In the Royal Box looking down at Adam on the stage. Then, dressed differently, he is in the stalls throwing cabbages. Finally, he is there, dressed in scrubs staring at the camera while Adam’s heart is being ripped out by the female surgeon.
So, the night before my birthday, I am still awake trying to find a relevance or meaning. It’s Adam Ant. He is all about grand gestures. I’ve convinced myself that there must be an artistic reason.
A few days later I’m too wrapped up in “Here Comes the Grump”, “Man Called Marco” and “Crackpot History” to care.
The video is forgotten.
And I no longer worry. I lose no more sleep. And I forget.
It’s 2016. It’s April. Dusk
I have returned to London. It’s grey. It’s cold. And I am utterly uninspired. I’ve arrived and become immediately despondent. I’m going through the classic, immediate state of regret at the decisions that I have made. I suppose that many suffer this after making a big change. I’m not worried, but it eats away at me. Within minutes of being back in town, I’ve grown weary of the tube and am finding the arrogance and self-importance of Londoners too much to bear. I’ve been gone eighteen months and the city is no longer my home. I’ve had a couple of near arguments with joggers in Southwark and am bored and frustrated with the incessant noise and busyness of the capital. Which disappoints me. London is my home and I feel as if she has excluded me.
So I’ve dragged myself out onto the barren highlands that rise above Edgware with Lukey to try and find my sense of place. We walk. It grows dark. And we follow an old country lane that hangs above the tributaries of The Brent and drops down to the old Underhill stadium in Barnet. We get onto the standard time and place theories that we’ve discussed a hundred times before. We talk of the hedgerows and trees that have stood for decades or centuries as suburbia has swallowed their neighbours and relatives. We walk this Scarp – as Nick Papadimitriou calls it – that crawls from Rickmansworth to the River Lea and we get lost in psychogeography.
Lukey tells me that we know little of the Inca Empire because they view time differently to “Western” civilisations. The past, present and future are intertwined and blur as one. I forget the detail, but it seems to relate back to their obsession with the stars. Relative to the age of the universe, a human life is but a speck. Irrelevant. So, as a culture they never saw the need to record events and drop them into any linear, temporal narrative of history. Everything happened at the same time. Culturally, they were far more existential than we are or have been. Today, as I write, thinking back, I like it. I interpret it as meaning that we don’t age and you can always return to something that happened in your past and live it in the present.
So while I waited at New Barnet station later that evening, heading home, I was simultaneously awake in bed on the morning of my birthday in 1982, with no time and all time in between.
It was a worthwhile way to spend a few hours. It offered me a different perspective on everything and anything. I immediately started to find my feet again and feel at one with London.
A year or more ago, I said that I was going to write about the BT Tower.
But I am suffering from the same false starts that I ever was. I’m beginning to think that it’ll be an unfulfilled promise. But I am also thinking that I find it difficult because everything that makes me love the tower so much is still happening. Fluid and evolving. Back then, I wrote that I thought the tale would have an epic nature, while acknowledging that it lacked a start, a middle or an end. Perhaps the reason relates back to the Incan stuff that I’ve just spoken of. What am I to do, when the Tower’s influence still resonates in my past, present and future? The tale’s starting point is unclear, the middle stretches between never and forever making an end point an uncertainty.
So I am left with waffle…
But it ties into this post. Lukey and I stopped to search the skyline for the Tower when we arrived at the high ground of Barnet. It was the first building we tried to seek out. For me, it always is and always will be. The Tower is my marker for being back in London. Screw the Ravens at the Tower of London, if the BT Tower was to fall, we would be in real trouble. She looks after us.
As the title alludes, London was my friend and foe when I returned. I think that London behaves like a cat. I returned to my home in April, but London decided that given that I had gone away for 18 months, she would turn her back and ignore me for a while. She’d drag out the time before she would let me pet her. I can return, sure. She won’t and can’t stop me. But she chooses when I am welcome, again. She chooses when I am back in her realm.
It’s now June. I think I have been forgiven. London is talking to me, again.
Part 2 - Friend
Wednesday June 1st. 4-30pm.
I’m sitting in Jerusalem. Jerusalem in Clerkenwell. It’s an old pub in an austere grey brick, Victorian street set up on the valley of the River Fleet, above Farringdon. Inside it’s a rabbit warren of small rooms with green/grey painted wood panelling. Every corner feels like a snug. The pub is far from full, it’s mid-afternoon, after all, but the cramped interior makes it feel full and busy and loved. I find the single table that isn’t occupied. Ironically, it’s the largest in the house. I sit, alone, perched in the furthermost corner of the pub.
Early. I’m waiting on Lukey, again.
An hour before I arrived, I had had a meeting about my future in an office on the other side of the Fleet valley. Up toward Hatton Garden. I’d visited the office a few times before, but this is the first time I had noted that you can see the top of the BT Tower on the horizon. It was doffing its hat to me. Another sure sign that catlike London was welcoming me back into her life. It was as if, out of the blue and after a period of turning her back and ignoring me she had strolled into the room and weaved through and rubbed against my legs, letting out a little mew of welcome. But, by noting its renewed friendly and warm behaviour toward me, I should have been forewarned that something unusual was about to happen.
You see, this is what regularly happens when Lukey and I meet up in the shadow of The Tower. The best made plans evaporate, the most sensible ideas go out the window and our paths are usually taken somewhere unexpected. It’s happened a myriad of times… like when we realised that the infinite monkey cage principle was old hat, because the entire works of Shakespeare had already been written by a chimp. Don’t believe me? Explain the spelling. And the made up words… Chimps!
Before reaching Jerusalem, I’d dropped down into the heart of the Fleet Valley. I’d gone for a stroll at the north end of Saffron Hill, where it drops down onto Ray Street and you realise how deep the valley actually is. I’d guess that you are only a metre or so from the remains of the river at this point. I’ve read that this is one of the places that – after heavy rainfall – you can still hear The Fleet as it surges through the pipes beneath the road. All I heard that day was the sound of a shift on a fenced off and scaffolded building site finishing. But I could sense the river was there. Passing. Constantly passing beneath my feet.
You’ll note that I made a point earlier about walking near a tributary of the Brent. Now I am waxing lyrical about the Fleet. Yes. I am obsessed with London’s rivers. We all should be. They may at times be invisible, but they will never go away. At a level they will live and flow on. Transferring energy. Forever. In Inca terms, for all time. If you let yourself, you can sense the movement of energy when you are close to water. If you want, you can choose to accept it and channel it. I want. I need to latch on to it. I feel rejuvenated and invigorated by rivers. They are a life blood.
But back in Jerusalem.
“How do you spell chicory?”
I glance up. The guy who I clocked as I sat down is looking at me. He stands up. He’s 6’5” maybe 6’6” tall. Without a hat. But he has a hat. A Bowler. It adds a few more inches. He stands tall. Lean. Square jawed and clean shaven. Youthful but looking as if he’s been around the block. Piercing eyes. It’s an understatement to say that he’s imposing.
Since I’d taken my seat, Lukey had arrived and we had had a chance to explore personal admin – family, new houses, the “Bristol yes/no question”. Throughout, the gentleman had been crouched over a munchkinesque table nursing a pint of cider, studiously ignoring an open tabloid paper and scribbling with a small book maker’s pen on slips of paper that may, once have been a notebook. Even when silent, he filled the room. His size and attire just made you look; made you take him in.
But now, Lukey has gone to the loo. For a wee. I’m alone…
“C H I C H O R Y”, I spell out. Immediately doubting myself and buying for time… “Like Chicory Tip?" I offer.
The tall man bites back. “Son of Your Father. You’re too young to remember that!”
His eyes narrow. He glances down at me with suspicion. I feel alone, small and utterly exposed on the little bench seat at the back of the pub. I’ve never had my head kicked in because my spelling is poor. Not even by Miss Buck. Junior school. 1982.
I buy more time. I parry; “Older brother. Georgio Moroder fan.”
He continues to look at me. Weighing me up.
“C H I C O R Y”, I hastily offer. Time bought and paid for. Success. I am a spelling bee.
Happy, he sits down back down at his dolls house table. He continues to write. I’ll hazard a guess that he adds the word “chicory” to a sentence.
A few minutes later he has joined Lukey and I at our table. He’s excited. How our interaction and conversation went to reach this point, I cannot really recall who started talking to who? It’s all blurred. Not an alcohol blur, but blurred because we seemed to discuss everything and nothing for a while but forever. I know it featured a brief talk about Ramsgate and Worthing and how any spare cash we could pull together should be invested in property in either town and ended with Lukey saying;
“What about investing in Bristol?”
And I noted, immediately, that his demeanour changed. His eyes darted low right. I read it as him dropping into “reflection”. The word Bristol appeared to immediately trigger him to access memory files that cause him pain. I guessed this based on some training about human recall and subconscious signs of truth and deceit that I once undertook. To make it easier, he reached up and touched his lower right jaw as if in pain.
“I cracked two teeth in Bristol. 1979. A gig. Adam & The Ants.” He confides.
My music geek clicks in. Expert.
“Dirk Wears White Sox?”, I ask… … … If you don’t understand, look it up.
It registers; “Yerrr… … Yeah! Probably that tour.”
He’s still rubbing his jaw. He still looks pained.
It’s at this point that he joins us. He now wants to talk. And things start to go a bit odd. A quick catch up with Luke turns into an exploration of Soho’s underworld from the late 1970’s to the present day. This is what happens when I meet Lukey in the shadow of the Tower. And meeting on the banks of The Fleet, we stood no chance. Inevitably, an energy flowed and we were in its wake.
He introduces himself. Phil Dirtbox. Feel free to do your own internet searches, but he is someone who – at the back of my mind – I think I knew existed but don’t know how. Subconscious. I didn’t know his name and/or realise that he was an actual being. But his history would have jumped out of magazines and club listings or through reports from friends and gossip columns throughout my late teens and twenties up to the present day. I’ve spoken with him, now. Shared stories, jokes and experiences. And as a result, I am less sure that he really exists. He seems strangely timeless. Of the past, present and the future. A stream of energy. An apparition. Seemingly, like the type of River Spirit that Ben Aaronovitch writes about or a physical manifestation of life; lived out in “Incan” time.
Dirtbox takes us on a glorious, self-promoting tour of his Soho years. Through the early 80’s, shacked up with Siobhan Fahey from Banarama, as opening act and compere for Madness through to his nomadic Dirtbox club nights that moved to take advantage of the empty warehouses around Farringdon and Smithfields in the early 1990’s. He brings us up to date. Poetry and a Christmas single that he will release this year.
“From Lands End to the Gorbals. Polish up your baubles”. I kid you not. You will all be singing it…
He tells tales. But does not share secrets. No real gossip. He’s not a grass. But the names and the hints that he dropped were wonderfully alluring. Trust me, I’m probably far happier making the stories up on my own than worrying about the truth. Dirtbox’s sheer size and stature means that he cannot help but impose. He is eloquent, charming, funny and warm. He listens as much as he speaks. He pulls you into his world and his stories. Clever. But throughout, there is an edge that says do not push too hard, observe the boundaries. I suspect that he doesn’t suffer fools. I wouldn’t want to cross the line. I suppose, that is how you survive making a living at the edge of Soho’s underbelly.
Throughout the conversation, he is pushes us toward Google and YouTube to demonstrate his truths. Showboating or fearful that Lukey and I will think him a fool, I don’t know. So we Google and follow the links. And there he is. I have a browser history that attests.
Dirtbox’s love for Soho was overwhelming. Which is perfectly understandable. I mean, how many people who live in London and have sampled the nightlife don’t have a few stories that will live forever based on dubious decisions made in Soho’s dark corners? I do. Plenty.
Dirtbox raved about clubs, bars and pubs that I never knew as they evolved before I found them but several that are close to my heart. The Coach & Horses, The Ship and French House. I’ve known them all at one stage or another. The darkness at the heart of Soho can be warm to an outsider. Although I appreciate that there is real darkness associated with the sex industry, as a suburban boy, it feels seaside comic when you first see the clubs at the bottom of Berwick Street or get offered drugs and/or sex in Great Windmill and Rupert Street. Dirtbox still feels the warmth and has latched into the community that is still there and still thrives. He still promotes gigs and events in the area. His work – voice overs – is centred there. He is the “Unofficial Mayor of Soho”. I’m not kidding. He is.
Therefore, it seems odd to meet him off patch. But Dirtbox lets slip that he no longer lives there. He has moved to Camberwell. He’s even more pissed because the gaff that he had to leave, on the top floor of a four storey building – above a couple of brothels – lies empty. It’s owned by a millionaire who hasn’t done anything with it. A waste.
We agree that, although Soho will inevitably change, it will always remain that little bit seedy. An outsider in the heart of the city. It will live on. But we all fear for the changes that the proposed North/South Crossrail may bring. The Curzon is already at risk. It’ll be demolished to create a construction access shaft. It is cheaper to rip the cinema down than build on Leicester Square. I know which I would rather see demolished. I’ve, since, seen that Berwick Street Market is at risk of being homogenised, it’s soul extracted by forcing stall holders to work with an agency rather than self-manage (look it up and sign the petition against the change. Do it!). But, on balance, I think Soho will survive. It always has.
We’re never likely to run into Dirtbox again. Which is fine. It’s right. But my google searches suggest that we were lucky that afternoon. The common thread online is that he is an enigma. He is a hard man to find and an even harder man to get to talk. Journalists tell tales of missed appointments, unreturned phone calls, failures to put them on guest lists despite repeated promises and interviews with his partner who arrives as an apologetic substitute. It all goes back to my observation, above, that I am less convinced that the giant in the bowler, waistcoat, tie, DMs and a beautiful gold braid, Vivienne Westwood frock coat – making him look like an extra from Clockwork Orange - actually exists. He is some kind of eternal spirit. The spirit of Soho that soars from the Coach and Horses into ordinary lives.
In late May I saw an odd film – Primitive London – from 1965 that searched to explore the depravity and social decay of Soho. It featured all the expected clips of the ‘gangster’ cabaret club scene, the grotty striptease acts but also the underground rock venues and commercial voice over industry as it was. Less than 20 years later and Phil Dirtbox had taken up the tale. And it has changed little. Today, he is still part of the same story. Given my theory that Dirtbox is this eternal spirit I do not know whether I should re-watch the film. I simultaneously hope, fear and imagine that I will see him in the background somewhere looking similar but not quite the same. Not returning calls but living at Soho’s heart.
Part 3 – 1982
Let’s step back to when Dirtbox initially joined Luke and I at the table.
Wincing in pain at his Bristol memory he turns to me and says:
“I’m a mate of Adam. Well, more Marco, but I knew Adam really well back in the day.”
“I was in the Prince Charming video.”
I was immediately in awe. Adam Ant is a hero. He is key to my youth; key to my childhood memories. Back in the mid 1990’s, I had an opportunity to meet him. It was after a play at The Drill Hall. Adam had played opposite Sylvester McCoy. I was with my brother in the bar with a bunch of his friends and had cornered Sylvester for a chat. Soon, Adam arrived. I clocked him out of the corner of my eye; quiet, alone and small near the exit. He looked out of place; almost, fragile. The antithesis of the hero figure from the early 1980’s. Despite my brother practically pushing me into him, I stood back unable to talk to him. I’d like to say that it was because he looked like he didn’t want company, but it wasn’t. I was utterly star struck.
You can see why I – if not Lukey – was so willing for him to talk. A friend of Adam’s is the closest I’m likely to get to Adam, himself.
“But I’m in another video, too. What’s it called?”
Dirtbox dips back to his memory files. No pain. Pleasure, this time. He’s smiling. But still dropping his eyes, low right. It’s one of his “tells”. I should play him at poker. Assuming that he didn’t use marked cards - which he undoubtedly would - I might win.
“Friend or Foe!” He exclaims. “Yeah. I remember that one. I went along with some mates. It was a right laugh.”
Dirtbox points at my phone. “Go on. Get it up on YouTube. I’ll show you.”
So I fire it up. Dirtbox, Lukey and I huddle together at the back of Jerusalem. Three stooges, staring at my little Samsung screen. And it unfolds. A trumpet playing, Adam surprises and is then chased through a theatre by an orchestra conductor. The audience are nonplussed.
“I’m all over this video.” Dirtbox chuckles. A deep, bass chuckle
His face is alight. Glee. It’s as if he’s not seen it since 1982. Perhaps he didn’t have a video recorder. Maybe he missed it on Saturday morning TV.
“Yeah. There I am!!!” He explodes, pointing and jabbing my phone. He has to stop himself toppling the table over. Disturbed, our drinks weep on the table.
But the moment passes in a second. It’s a fast cut sucker, is the Friend or Foe video. Fat fingered, I shuffle the video back and forth until it’s paused where he directs. It seems to take an age in the electric buzz of excitement from us all.
“Pause it on the word Foe”, Dirtbox offers. Sage, advice. But there are a lot of “foes” to choose in this song. It’s not easy but three times I succeed. Three times, I pause. Each time, a smiling Dirtbox - who seems 22 again - points himself out.
And it’s undoubtedly him. Looking similar but not the same:
Standing at the back of the Royal Box.
In the audience, wearing glasses, throwing a cabbage.
And staring at me from the screen, dressed in scrubs. Adam’s heart is held aloft.
June 1st 2016. 6:30pm. And It’s 1982. It’s early in the morning. My birthday. It’s dark outside and my curtains remain drawn…