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Carnaby

Carnaby


Words Kirk Truman

Illustrations Lucy Bayliss


Really, London started here for me. As a teenager and a then indie/MOD-type some 5 years ago, I started my first job here in London, along the brick pathway of Carnaby Street. Though it wasn’t The Jam soundtrack roaring out of Liam Gallagher’s newly launched Pretty Green flagship store, likely as my new employer that took my attention, but my undeniable fascination with a street so poignant and defining of this corner of Soho.

Seemingly, the 1960s have become overwhelmingly synonymous with a certain street that runs between Beak Street in the south and Liberty of London in the north. Though, this area has a rich history and accounts of land exchange dating from the 16th century. Thomas Poultney, a landowner, came to acquire two then adjoining fields. These together were to be known as Six Acre Close on which there was a well and windmill, thus making for the site of Carnaby Street as we know it today.

Taking its name from Karnaby House, originally erected in 1693, Carnaby Street was laid out around 1685. The street itself has gone from fashion to fashion and has always been synonymous with trade; with a market having begun in the 1820s. In his 1845 novel, Sybil, Benjamin Disraeli referred to a once famous carcase butcher in Carnaby market, which would’ve no doubt sat among a mass of traders. From 1850 to the early 20th century, the area became heavy populated by tailors, dressmakers and ancillary trades, thus serving West-End shops and Savile Row tailors nestled behind Regent Street. Trade, however, was soon encouraged with the opening of clubs and music venues around Carnaby; The Florence Mills Social Club (a jazz club and gathering spot for advocates of Pan-Africanism) being opened by Amy Ashwood Garvey and Sam Menning in 1934 at no. 50.

By the late 1950s, men’s fashion had begun its lasting descent upon Carnaby when His Clothes was opened in 1958 by Glaswegian John Stephen. He was the first entrepreneur to identify and sell to the young menswear market which began its emergence in the 50s and 60s. A widely regarded pioneer, Stephen became one of the most important figures of 1960s fashion, voicing the bold claim “Carnaby is my creation” in 1967. Stephen was widely regarded as the founder of men’s Mod fashion, whether Carnaby was indeed his creation is a matter of debate. Nonetheless, he was a purveyor and designer of sharp tailoring and clothes for the 1960s Mods, with his exuberant array of clients including staples of the era such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Small Faces and Jimi Hendrix.

By the mid-‘60s, Carnaby Street had become the UK’s thriving home of men’s fashion, with Carnaby, Newburgh, Ganton and Kingly quite literally inundated with fashion boutiques all chasing Stephen’s own endeavour. Stores such as I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet, Kleptomania, Mates and Ravel, to name a few of the array, honed in on the area. Soon designers such as Mary Quant, Lord John, Merc, Take Six, and Irvine Sellars were to come to locate themselves on Carnaby also.

The trend that Garvey and Menning began in 1934 with The Florence Mills Social Club continued below the very surface of Carnaby, with a variety of underground music bars nestled beneath the boutiques above. Music bars, such as the Roaring Twenties, in the surrounding streets became the norm: with bands such as the Small Faces, the Who, and the Rolling Stones frequenting the area to shop and socialise. Infamously, Carnaby quickly became a staple destination of the Swinging London of the 1960s. Awareness spread to North America and internationally in April 1966 when Time magazine published an article detailing the role of the street in Swinging London, describing Carnaby Street as three-blocks crammed with a cluster of boutiques.

Amid this clustering of boutiques and clubs along the buzz of Carnaby and its many corridors, it is no wonder that it came to be pedestrianised in 1973 by the Greater London Council, and now vehicular access is restricted between 11am and 7am. A comparison of the number of pedestrians entering the pedestrianised area indicated a 30% increase of a flow into Carnaby Street as a result of the pedestrianisation. A campaign commenced early 2010 to call for a similar exercise to be undertaken in the adjacent area of Soho.

On into the 1970s and 80s and Carnaby continued on as a destination for youth subculture. From the likes of punks, including the Sex Pistols, to rockers and goths; Carnaby continued to be a home for youth and inventiveness, where individuals flocked to leave their shells. In the late 70s, a Mod revival struck, helmed by bands such as The Jam, led by Paul Weller who was as much of a regular face of Carnaby in his teenage years as he still is today. This again brought the humming sound of a small army of Lambrettas and Vespas to the area, a humming which is still heard today on Carnaby from time-to-time. The energy itself is captured in the very fibre of the area in its distinction, quality shops, pubs and restaurants.

The narcissistic Mods that came to Carnaby to be seen and heard in the 1960s have come to helm the face of Carnaby’s history. Though still, beyond the heyday of this street which lasted but 10 years is a well- hidden tale of Soho’s rich heritage of trade and craftsmanship. Though it seems oh so tempting to cross thoughts of Carnaby with the Mods and peacocks of an era we shan’t forget, Carnaby is more than just a place, it is a rich heritage of the Soho we know today – a dedicated follower of fashion, a welcomer of the world.

George Skeggs

George Skeggs


Words Kirk Truman

Portraits Etienne Gilfillan


“There used to be a saying about old people that when you become old you become invisible. Some old people are invisible; they’re just waiting for that last step into the grave…”

They have become a rarity in recent years… Soho’s characters. Where dandies and mods once hung at street corners to be noticed, people now go about their routines, unaware of the eccentric creatives that flourished in this area. Though there are still, in present day Soho a handful of the old brigade of artists and writers wandering the streets of Soho, many luminaries have passed while countless others have started to face their untimely extinction. But one seemingly immortal Sohoite stands out. Though well known well by residents and transients alike for a curiously chic sartorial sense, this man has a lot more under his hat than a distinctive taste for clothing by fine tailors.

To the many that espy him day-by-day, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine George Skeggs had some work related link to fashion, what with his eye-catching choice of tailoring. Little do those who stop to stare and photograph him realise that behind this impressive veil of style is a brilliant pop-art/surrealist artist. From a working-class background, George is one of four children. As a youngster, he was urged by his family to find a serious job that would keep him afloat. Though he never attended art school, a teacher recognised his talents at an early age, and recommended a creative vocation. Some early work was included in the London Schools Exhibition touring China. He then went to join in art workshops at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, while years later, his work was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts and the National Museum of Wales.

As a youngster, George long aspired to be in a skiffle band, having played a homemade bass instrument. His relationship with music is coincidentally what led him to Soho for the very first time. A Rock ’n’ Roll enthusiast at the mere age of 14, George came to Soho upon hearing that 1950s Rock ’n’ Roll BBC television show,‘Six-Five Special’, was to be broadcast live from The 2i’s Coffee Bar, Old Compton Street. “It was like another world; there were girls on the street propositioning men and pimps on the street,”says George on his first trip to the area. Later, he returned with a friend, arriving at Tottenham Court Road tube station. “It had that edge; it was dirty, flashy and seedy. You could always smell Soho, it always had that special smell. When you were walking up from Oxford Street, you could literally smell it. It was the place to be, it was our playground.”

His younger years in Soho brought him face-to-face with the often dark reality of the neighbourhood. From the scene of a shoot-out between drug dealers at the Nucleous Coffee Bar, forward through to befriending a young prostitute who’d had her throat slit by a client, George has come to witness the true nature of the neighbourhood first hand. Despite these memories, there is one that is particularly significant. George and friends had come to regularly frequent the amusement arcade Lots of Fun on Wardour Street. It was here that a man offered him and his friends free-play on the pinball machines as well as cigarettes, proceeding to ask where they lived (the East-End) and offering them a lift. Little did they know that this man was the henchman of the Kray twins, who were parked outside in a black car:“Being streetwise, we enjoyed his hospitality and decided to leg it by sneaking out of another door and running right across Leicester Square to safety,”he recalls.

George first moved to Soho in 1963. “I married a local girl, she worked for a famous shoemaker’s in Drury Lane.”He went on to find work with West One Studios, the offset printers and commercial artists. By the 1980s, his marriage having faltered, he succumbed to drink. So badly, that one careless night, he drank so much, he fell and broke his neck. This ended his relationship with the bottle, leaving him with scaffolding around his neck for 3 months.

Having never been to art school, it was at this time that he became involved with the Arts Laboratory scene in Covent Garden and Seven Dials, which was frequently raided by the police. “In being a creative and artistic person you are there to be picked at, you’re there on the wall. Personally, I don’t care. All I care about is just doing it,”he remarks on his work. In addition to his work in recent years having been exhibited in Paris and Caracas, he also produced the album cover sleeve for ARK of the Covenant, based on a painting from his King Arthur series.

With his self-confessed obsession with clothing, from his Stephen Jones hats and Mark Powell Bespoke suits, George has always made style an important part of his life. “Fashion is the enemy of style. Age is no barrier to style, some people just can’t work that out. I’ve become more refined and particular about what I look like as I’ve got older. There used to be a saying about old people that when you become old you become invisible. Some old people are invisible, they’re just waiting for that last step into the grave.”

Soho has become a part of the social fabric of George’s life and many in the neighbourhood think of George as one the area’s characters. Though superficially he feels much of the area looks much the same, he feels it’s very different today. “You walk up Old Compton Street now and see brand new shops appearing. I think of other shops in the area and then realise that they’ve gone. I think it’s lost its edge, its saucy, sleazy side. It feels more interesting to live in a world where you have to take chances or be streetwise.” Now living near Seven Dials, George spends much of his time these days visiting art galleries throughout London. And though he might describe himself as retired, he has recently begun work on his self-proclaimed ‘swan song’; a detailed pop-art/surrealist series centring on Soho. Though keen to keep the details of the series a secret, he revealed that the first piece he has started on will feature the Kray twins, and reflect a highly personal point of view, based on his own experiences in the neighbourhood. “Creativity shines in the dark. You’ve got to bring it out of the dark and put it out there!”

Molly Parkin

Molly Parkin


Words & Photography Robert Chilcott


“I met Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald, all people of that ilk. All people of that ilk. Where else would you meet them except in Soho?”

Molly Parkin is 83 and now prefers life in the garden, a veritable paradise of palm trees and plastic Buddhas, castaway in Chelsea’s World’s End.  Currently appearing on BBC4’s Bohemian series with Victoria Coren-Mitchell, she reminisces over a Fentiman’s Ginger Beer, about the halcyon days of post-war Britain, and the forbidden allure of W1. “Sohoitis, the state of it, really applies to those who live on their addictions. And Soho is utterly addictive. It’s not a dreamy state of being, Sohoitis.” She laughs. “You don’t go to Soho for a pleasant afternoon, perhaps tea out and then go home! Soho is limitless in the hours that you spend there. It did take over my life. The very first time that I went there I knew that something so extraordinary was in the air.”

Molly first came to London from the Welsh Valley to live with her grandparents 1939. Fresh from studying Fine Arts, as a 22 year old chapel girl, she shared a flat with her friends, Judy and Betty in Earl’s Court. “I had chamomile lotion all over my face, very, very pale, lots of black pencil all around the eyes. A lot of black hair, I was really based on Juliette Greco.”  Her earliest Soho memories are of The Studio Club in Swallow Street, run by the artist John Minton. “I said to Judy, ‘These men are all asking me what I want to drink and I don’t what to say to them,’ and she said, ‘Oh you are so quaint darling. Well what you say is a gin and Dubonnet please, and make it a double because a single won’t begin to touch it.’” Molly reminisces on her innocence at the time. “Well I didn’t realise at the time – gin and Dubonnet – that’s two alcoholic drinks merged into one. I thought that Dubonnet was like cordial or something. So, when the next person asked ‘Can I buy you lovely girls a drink?’ I said ‘Yes, I would like a gin and Dubonnet, but make it a double because a single won’t begin to touch it.’ He burst out laughing. I asked, ‘can I have a straw please, because it’ll go down quicker then,’ as if it was in a candy shop. So I drank it all in one. And I smacked my lips and said ‘Wow!’” That wasn’t all though, as Molly continues her anecdote, “So his friend asked, ‘Can I buy you a second?’ ‘Yeah’ I answered, ‘I shouldn’t say so, but I said again, ‘make it a double because a single doesn’t begin to touch it.’ And he burst out laughing. Well, I was nearly carried out of there.”

It wasn’t long before Molly was introduced to the Colony Room. “I went up those scruffy stairs, I thought ‘Christ! What is this place?’ And there I was, quite frightened really, because I’d never seen faces like that – so lived in, and yet so sophisticated. Brendan Behan was there – and Colin MacInnes. There was pounding on the jazz piano. What was different was there were a lot of writers, and I started listening to how they constructed their sentences – it was a different way of conversation, the way they spoke, however much they’d had to drink. It was such a tiny place, yet brimming with benevolence. They all shouted ‘Come back, Moll. When will you be coming again?’ and I said I could be here tomorrow.” Molly laughs candidly, “and I was there tomorrow. You see, Sohoitis had already captured my heart and soul, introduced me to heaven. Not everybody would have thought it was heaven. But I knew that I’d come home.”

In 1965, traumatised by her first divorce, Molly’s painting muse disappeared. Molly’s situation led to her accepting the job of fashion editor at Nova magazine, in order to support her two small daughters, which didn’t sit lightly with her ideals, as she tells me of a mantra she learnt whilst studying: “If you had been trained as an intellectual, art for art’s sake, you can expect to be a waitress for the rest of your life, but move amongst artists. In art school they said if you are going to specialise as a painter you stick with other fine art students, and you avoid, more than anything, the shallowness of the fashion crew, who only think about putting clothes on models. And people who specialise in illustration, because when they leave they are going to be in advertising – the lowest of the low, culturally speaking. Well to be a fashion editor to me seemed like the lowest you can really sink.”

Molly says that during this time she never went to the Colony “I didn’t feel like I belonged there. I just used to go to Terratza. That was around the corner. I was slugging wine – that is when my drinking started to get out of control, and delightfully so. I started taking on a lot of lovers. I’d go to Paris and pick up things you couldn’t find in London from the collections. But I didn’t feel like I belonged with the intellectuals in the Colony. I so highly regarded it.”

After a stint at Harper’s, Molly found herself doing five years on The Sunday Times Look pages, “I was taught to write there, and strangely enough that’s when I started to go back to the Colony: again, with other writers. I was on the television a lot. It doesn’t take much, the hospitality of all of that, to make you lose your nerves. So by the time I got on the telly I didn’t know what I was saying.”

Molly gave up drinking at 55 and soon after her painting muse, absent for 30 years, returned. The life Molly describes, and the Soho she talks of does seem to have gone. Are people there still living that life, or are they simply living it somewhere else? I ask her, “You had to be free to give all of yourself to Soho. That was my experience. And now that I’m 83 and sitting in the garden, in the bower, I’m so thrilled that I had that time in Soho”.

It’s saddening to learn that Molly rarely goes to Soho these days. “It broke my heart recently – the final downturn for me was when, arguably one of the best art stockists, Cowling and Wilcox, ‘round the corner from Berwick Street market, that’s gone. I said to the lovely chaps that sell vegetables, it’s as if the soul of the place has disappeared from the body. It’s too depressing for words what’s happening to London. I never thought I’d say this: the Sohoitis, it doesn’t exist anymore.”