Magazine article The Spectator

Seedy Side Up

Magazine article The Spectator

Seedy Side Up

Article excerpt

THE LAST LAMPLIGHTER: A SOHO EDUCATION

by Stephen Fothergill

London Magazine Editions, L (English pound)10, pp. 144

Quentin Crisp once described the author of this book as Mr Fothergill the Silent. In Philip O'Connor's Memoirs of a Public Baby, he appears in dirty white tennis-trousers and is renamed Ernest. Others have called him Stainless Stephen and Seriously Soho.

Soho is what these beautifully written reminiscences are mainly about. Stephen Fothergill first discovered this 'incredibly romantic and exciting' part of London on the outbreak of the second world war and though he now lives in East Acton still plunges into the 'melee' most nights. He has been a regular at the French House in Dean Street for nearly 60 years.

The Last Lamplighter has an antique aroma to it, more of Woodbines than Sobranies. At times you can almost taste the watery wartime bitter served in Soho's pubs and hear the thwack of fisticuffs when people are invited to 'step outside'. Fothergill is remarkably tolerant of everything and everybody and bemused by their goings-on. People 'urinate with the door wide open', make 'peculiar strangled sounds' or in the case of Philip O'Connor emit 'a shrill whinnying noise'. Others punch the air fiercely or 'scowl, turn green and lurch out of the room'.

Major and minor figures jostle together, if not come to blows, throughout this book. Kathleen Raine tells the author, 'You must never, absolutely never put cheese in stews.' Stephen Spender lectures him gravely, 'enunciating every syllable with care in the manner of a parson delivering a sermon'. From Thomas Beecham come 'elemental forces of a truly awesome nature' which inspire Fothergill to go out and buy a baton for himself at Boosey and Hawkes.

A particularly piquant chapter is given over to the People's Poet, Paul Potts, whose standards of personal hygiene eventually forced the French pub's landlord Gaston Berlemont to tell him:

It really is too bad, sir, As soon as you come into the pub my customers leave in droves. You really must do something about this awful smell, otherwise... well... it's quite impossible.

The dome-headed poet shuffled off in a huff, but the loyal Fothergill continues to visit him at his excrement-encrusted lodgings and movingly acknowledges that Potts was 'incapable of penning a single sentence that did not come from his heart'. …

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