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Mark Baxter

Mark Baxter

Words Jason Holmes

Portraits Kirk Truman

“Anyone can fit in up here in Soho. We’re all chameleons…”

He harks back to an age when a man’s word was his bond, when deals were sealed with a handshake and when the world turned, so it seemed, at a far slower pace. He’s the author of Elizabeth, Peter and Me, Tubby Hayes: A Man In A Hurry and the co-author of The A-Z of Mod and The Mumper, but he’s better known to the denizens of Soho as the über-connected, go-to public relations man who walks this small corner of central London with a rare, old world sensibility that sees him bring people together, be they bar owners, writers, rock stars or tailors – and all for the greater creative good.

Upstairs at the French House, Mark Baxter looks out into the mid-morning street, removes his spectacles, stirs his cappuccino and takes stock. “I live south of the river, and when I was a little kid my mum and my old man would bring us over here to do typical sightseeing stuff like Trafalgar Square and the lights of Christmas. Back then, I realised how close we were to Soho. It’s something like 25 minutes on the bus from Camberwell in south-east London, which to me is sometimes an angry place. Nothing’s ever been easy down there. It’s hard to make a living. There are some tough people. And me, I won’t take no for an answer. My old man used to say ‘If you can’t go through the door, go through the window’. In other words, don’t give up.”

But as a kid in the early ’70s, he was still taking it all in. “As I got a little bit older, and I’m talking 12 or 13, I used to get the number 53 bus from school on the Old Kent Road straight into the West End. That’s what I used to do, regularly. I remember Soho back then – I remember all the peep shows – but it was pretty seedy to be honest. But all my mates stayed locally, played locally and worked locally. I saw a different world up here, but it was quite hard for me to get people to come with me to see it.”

Baxter, like a lot of London kids, would play the Red Rover game: you’d jump on a random bus on a day fare and see where it took you. It broadened his horizons. “Coming here opened my eyes. When I had my first real job on Fleet Street in 1982, in the print trade, I started coming to Soho with a bit of money in my pocket and started enjoying the clubs and the clothes and record shops. Me being a curious person, I started checking out a lot of art galleries and museums. You had to seek this stuff out because there was no Internet back then, obviously. By travelling around London, I’d see posters for things like a Terence Donovan or Terry O’Neill exhibition. I’d check them all out and it was a big step for someone like me, from the place I came from. By exposing myself to a new world, the world of Soho, and walking around and seeing stuff, I began to meet like minds on my circuit.”

Baxter’s voice is a deep south-east London reverberation that fills the room. The words come in rapid waves, their sentiments unashamedly upbeat about what can still be achieved in this historic square quarter mile. “Anyone can fit in up here in Soho. We’re all chameleons. A lot of people I know up here, we meet for a coffee for an hour or so, and they’re either seeing their tailor or they’re here for a casting or a voice over. No one’s dwelling in the box for too long. Everyone’s flitting between things. I mean, this area is still full of great talent, but maybe back in the 1950s someone might have been in the pub all day, long drinking. These days Soho is a different place. You can’t live your life that way now, not if you want to make a pound note.”

He cites Mark Powell, Michael Caine and Paul Weller as inspiring working class figures who worked hard to prevent their creativity from being stifled. “Despite where you start, it’s where you finish that’s important,” he says. “I identify with guys like this. Most of my mates have moved to Kent or Essex, but I’ve always loved the multicultural atmosphere of London. I’ve always been a people person. I think that’s probably what it comes down to: what people bring to the mix, what they’re wearing, listening to or reading. To me it’s always endlessly fascinating. I always wanted to learn, but transforming ideas into making them happen is the hard bit. And trying to get someone to pay you is another matter. My grandad was a rag and bone man, and that is basically selling. So I’m convinced that it’s in my genes. It doesn’t matter what it is, I can find an angle to sell you something. I’ve always had that, and to me it seems fairly obvious sometimes. People like my grandad were the early recyclers. Everything was about profit. This comes from a really mixed background, that working class work ethic. It’s pure graft. There’s no other way out of this: you’ve just got to graft your way out.”

When asked about Soho’s future, he’s frank: “Soho’s on a tipping point. Family-run businesses are being offered silly sums of money for their businesses, and if you’re of a certain age and think that you might want to retire… I can see Soho changing very quickly as new money comes in and buys people out. So we should make the most of Soho now and get the best out of it while it’s still here with the last vestiges of the past. Places like the French House should be celebrated.”

The French tricolour outside the window is whipped into life by the wind, and Baxter eyes it. “You can still find a little piece of old London here in Soho, that’s evolved naturally, organically; but money always wins in the end. The pound note will dictate what survives and what prospers. Soho is trying to attract new people. Old locals are few and far between these days. The balance has been changed – and massively. If rents go through the roof, these agencies and businesses around here are going to go elsewhere. We’re hoping against hope this place is not going to change, but inevitably, it will. It always has.”

Martin Freeman

Martin Freeman

Words Jason Holmes

Portraits Sandra Vijandi

“I love the romance of old Soho, it’s a world I never knew and that had vanished before I was born…”

Martin Freeman tells me upstairs at Little Italy on Frith Street. “…so I look back and, of course, I romanticise it.” We’re across the street from Ronnie Scott’s, the spiritual home of British jazz, and Freeman is cutting a sharp, pensive figure in wayfarers and loafers that wrap a tattoo across the tiled floor and make him look as if he’s travelled back in time from 1966 to take a look at what has become of old Soho. A waiter appears and pours him a glass of mineral water from which he sips.

He’s a BAFTA award-winning actor, yes, but also a man with a deep and not oft publicised love of music that began in his childhood. To those in the know, therefore, his involvement in a new documentary about the life and times of an all but forgotten jazz legend comes as no surprise. Narrated by Freeman, written by Mark Baxter and directed by Lee Cogswell, Tubby Hayes: A Man In A Hurry is a documentary that hopes to do for one of this country’s jazz greats what Searching For Sugar Man (2012) did for Sixto Rodriguez. Half a century ago, Soho was a place of light and dark, of neon and shadows, a world of vice and art, of love affairs conducted against the soundscape of a new post-war music. It was a world in which the crash and burn story of Tubby Hayes took root.

Edward Brian “Tubby” Hayes was a tenor sax master, vibes player and multi-instrumentalist of rare sensitivity and talent. Born in St Pancras in 1935, Tubby led his own groups in England from the 1950s and made his first US appearance at the Half Note in New York City in 1961. Throughout his brief, intense life he played with the very best from Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Roland Kirk to Henry Mancini and played on over 60 LPs, solo and with other artists. His legacy, though largely forgotten by a modern world, cannot be overlooked.

“A certain period of jazz, certainly the Tubby Hayes period, is absolutely knockout,” says Freeman. “And that music, which was new and rooted in all the jazz that had gone before it, was brave and played by men who looked incredible. That aesthetic had a huge influence on me. Men wore suits back then, you know, and I miss that, that sense of tribalism and taste.”

With the documentary comprising 21 interviews with people who knew Tubby, including one with pop art king Peter Blake, the life of this extraordinary musician has been resurrected; and it has taken a genuine music fan like Freeman to help do it. “My thing was the rude boy thing when I was young,” he says. “I’ve been buying records since I was 9 and 2 Tone was my first love. Then I moved onto reggae and r’n’b and soul. I bought my first jazz record when I was 16. It was an old Blue Note sampler that, I guess, I bought from Our Price in Kingston. Then jazz became part of that journey that, I suppose, all of us are on all the time. Once you become a huge fan of music, your search never stops. In fact, it was The Style Council that I went nutty over. That band made complete sense to me.”

It was in the early 1980s when jazz became an informing, constituent part of British pop music that gave freer rein to songwriters of the day. “Jazz is an enormous world, and every branch of that forest leads on to somewhere else. Most good musicians who have been making music for twenty or thirty years always allow influences in. They soak it all up. People like Paul Weller, Van Morrison and Stevie Wonder have made music drawn from many disparate sources. And so because there is blues and gospel in so many forms of American music, hearing jazz as a young man was not alien to me.

“I’d heard of Tubby Hayes when I was younger, but like many of us I didn’t know who he was. He was a white jazz player, he was English, and so I asked myself whether I was going to dig him.” But dig him he did, music for Freeman becoming a riptide that has lent momentum to his creative life, flowing beneath all his performances and through his private life.

“I’ll never get to hear all the music I want to hear. I like all kinds of music because I’ve got too catholic a taste,” he says, clearly not wanting ever to be creatively stifled. “I began visiting Soho in my 20s. The first time I visited Bar Italia was when I met my mum and brother here one day. My mum first came to Soho in the 1950s to spend the whole day and be surrounded by something that wasn’t suburban.” He smirks. “I think she liked a bit of trad jazz back then. But in the past 20 years I’ve begun to feel very at home in Soho. It’s also coincided with how long I’ve been a professional actor. All my meetings were here, all my auditions were here. It’s where struggling young actors would come to hang out. Soho is definitely my engine room because this part of the West-End is truly alive.”

He says there’s a modernist thread that runs through his life and through his engagement with the cultural world at large and adds that “he likes to be the only one”, not ever wanting to be pigeonholed, sub-culturally speaking. Mercuriality, after all, is an actor’s currency. Freeman appears to be a man interested in everything, alive to life’s possibilities while remaining wise enough not to trust any of it to the hilt. He watches the shifting terrain and adapts accordingly, somewhat disaffected by a world that has never quite lived up to its own apparent high standards. “This world of ours is grey, not black and white,” he adds, “and one has to think for oneself.”

With the passing years, he says that he feels mortal but that he’s felt that way since his early 20s. “I know I should take life one day at a time, but whether I actually do is another thing. I’m very fuelled by anger at a lot of things, and not even things that are political. On the one hand I wish that were not the case, but it’s what I am. But usually it’s directed inwards, and somehow it works for me. In my job – which has something to do with self expression – without that sense of the wolf scratching at the door, I’d be bored and I’d not get very far. But I think that goes for anyone in all walks of life anyway. We all need that urge to keep going.”

And then he pauses, smiling ruefully. “Tubby Hayes was a household name for 15 years, but he has been forgotten. And that’s a lesson for someone like me as to how fleeting fame can be. Tubby was riding high for so long and then, without warning, along came four scallies from Liverpool. And the rest is history. It’s a sobering thought, because you never know how long you’ve got.”