Freed at last from what he saw as ‘the crazy petty atmosphere of army life,’ Julian left the depot at Southend on the morning of Monday 9 August 1943, which he thought of as ‘Release Day’. He then made his way to the station and boarded the London train.

As planned, he moved into the fiat he’d found. To celebrate his emancipation he treated himself to an extravagant shopping spree, unwittingly reprising his father’s youthful improvidence. Of the money Jonathan Cape had paid him, he spent most of it on a flashy new wardrobe. Reacting against such a prolonged period of being confined to drab army uniforms, he kitted himself out with a crimson jacket and cream suit, both in corduroy, plus a black astrakhan-collared coat, a maroon cummerbund, a mustard yellow waistcoat, and a silk Schiaperelli tie with a bold pattern of French newspaper headlines on it. He also acquired a pair of sunglasses, a rare accoutrement then, rendered doubly unusual by their American aviator-style frames. He took to wearing these most of the time, even when he was groping through the blackout, his unwillingness to remove them provoking wearyingly repetitive enquiries as to whether he was blind, or disfigured, or wore them ‘to hide behind because of a psychological need.’ The desired gangsterish connotations were diluted by the rest of his outfit, the cream suit more evocative of the Riviera, the malacca cane more redolent of the fin-de-siècle foppishness he’d embraced as a teenager. In an era of uniformity, of wartime austerity, his appearance ensured that he was as conspicuous as a Technicolor interloper in a monochrome movie. And it aroused inevitable suspicion that he was, in the parlance of the day, queer.

Proudly attired in his latest get-up, his coat habitually draped round his shoulders in the style of a smooth but sinister Hollywood hoodlum, he passed the long summer evenings reacquainting himself with the riotous wartime Soho pub scene. Sometimes he went to the huge, high-ceilinged Swiss Tavern on Old Compton Street, its subdued lighting lending it a murky intimacy. Normally abbreviated to ‘the Swiss’, it had a raffish ambience that made it popular with painters and writers – Julian’s old acquaintance Mulk Raj Anand among them – who didn’t mind the tarnished walls and the barman’s dirt-soiled white mess jacket. Unable to afford pricey bottles of black market booze, he had to rely on the normal ration of, at most, two pints of beer wach night. Drinking there one evening, Julian got into conversation with the wiry lean-featured conscientious objector, would-be writer, and fellow Graham Greene aficionado, Stephen Fothergill, who made the mistake of telling him the story of how he’d been banned from a nearby pub ‘on account of his staggering.’ From that moment onwards Julian, quick to reduce people to the status of eccentric supporting characters in his personal drama, called him ‘Staggering Stephen’.

On another night there, soon after his arrival in the capital, Julian was buttonholed by the flamboyant, ruthlessly egotistical Tamil editor of Poetry London, Jim Tambimuttu. Slim and somewhat pale-skinned with sinuous black hair, his appearance made even more distinctive by his battered calf-length blue overcoat, buttoned to the chin against the cold, its velvet collar turned up, ‘Tambi’ – as he liked to be known – was then at the height of his renown as a literary impresario. Appropriately enough for the man who claimed to have coined the term ‘Fitzrovia’, Tambi squandered the majority of his time in pubs and cafes, seldom without a flock of awestruck hangers-on, captivated by his bohemian glamour, his courteous, disarmingly relaxed and cordial manner, not to mention his deep and melodious voice, the vowel sounds elongated, confiding phrase ‘y’know’ peppering his speech. Within a few minutes Julian too had been swept along on one of his nightly pub crawls, their departure supposedly prefaced by Tambi’s solemn warning against the danger of contracting ‘Sohoitis’, of ‘stay[ing] there always day and night and get[ting] no work done ever.’ 

It was not to the Swim but to Soho’s northern annexe that Julian more often gravitated. Since he’d first got to know the area, the Fitzroy Tavern had remained physically unaltered, yet it had lost its bohemian cachet, its decline hastened by the annoying number of gawping sightseers who converged on it. Indeed, it was well on the way to becoming more famous as a homosexual pick-up joint, mainly frequented by sailors. The reputation of the place, sufficient for it to be declared out of bounds for army personnel at one stage, was confirmed by the presence of Paul, the bearded, kilt-wearing pianist – ears adorned with little gold earrings, wrists sheathed by bangles – who played stride-piano and sang bawdy songs in a camp, high-pitched voice. Conscious of the Fitzroy’s associations Julian preferred the Wheatsheaf. In the run-up to 6.00pm, he’d be waiting outside the front door. When opening time at last arrived, he’d breeze through the Public Bar and into the Saloon Bar, always making a beeline for the extreme lefthand end of the counter, where it was easiest to get served. One elbow propped on the back of the tall settle to his right, he would stand there, casting an ironic, surprisingly observant eye over noisy, jostling throng, his upright posture emphasising his height, his already precise and inhibited gestures constricted by the paucity of space. Neither the faint smell of food filtering down from the upstairs billiard-cum-dining room, nor the plangent wail of air-raid sirens, nor the dull thud of exploding bombs and the accompanying stutter of anti-aircraft fire could dislodge him from the Saloon Bar, its reassuringly cosy atmosphere enhanced by tight-fitting blackout boards over the windows. Periodically, though, he had to relinquish his spot, wriggle through the crowd and up the packed stairs to the gents’. If he returned to discover that his place at the bar had been usurped, he would slowly but inexorably shoulder aside the intruder.

Finding himself in the company of devoted drinkers, nursing their precious pints, he began to increase his alcohol intake. Most of the time he drank acidic, suspiciously watery Scotch Ale, served by an ill-assorted trio of bar staff. The landlady was a short, plump spinster named Mona Glendenning, who ran the place with her similarly rotund brother, Redvers, and his wife, Frances, a spindly woman in a tweed suit and pince nez. Except on Sundays when he wore a battered-looking suit, Redvers – ‘Red’, for short – favoured shirtsleeves and braces, his stomach spilling over the waistband of his trousers. In recognition of Julian’s growing value as a customer, Red started providing him with extra beer and the odd additional measure of strictly rationed White Horse whisky.

Unlike the Fitzroy, the clientele of the Wheatsheaf tended to be a less boisterous, more diverse group. The predominantly middle arid upper middle-class artistic and literary types, whose appearances tended to coincide with when they were on leave from the military coexisted but seldom interacted with a fluid blend of businessmen, civil servants, black marketeers, criminals, deserters, elderly locals, and the occasional whore. While the pubs in the southern sector of Soho were overrun by foreign soldiers, sailors and airmen as well as male and female prostitutes taking a breather from servicing the servicemen, the Wheatsheaf’s comparative distance from the West End meant that few of the foreigners or the whores found their way there. An exception was the demure-looking prostitute nicknamed ‘Sister Ann’. Outside the evening rush hour when she stood on Tottenham Court Road, snagging prospective clients as they walked towards the tube, she was often to be seen loitering in the corridor between the two bars, her subdued appearance giving no indication of her trade. Two of the Wheatsheaf’s most loyal customers were Wilf, an ancient member of the Home Guard, a line of medals arrayed across his chest, some of which dated from the Zulu Wars; and a tiny, cantankerous octogenarian named Mm Stewart, rumoured to have been a beautiful streetwalker in her youth. Always neatly dad in an anachronistic black dress, she would, like Julian, arrive punctually at opening time and head for the Saloon Bar. In a voice so garbled she was barely intelligible, she’d buy herself a bottle of Guinness and sit on the settle directly behind him, a newspaper spread out across the table, timing herself with an alarm-clock as she ploughed through a crossword puzzle. As Julian – a self-confessed crossword addict – was to discover, she’d take umbrage if anyone tried to help her with a tricky clue. She could also be offhand with well-meaning people who volunteered to stand her a drink. But Julian was so solicitous of her welfare, his attitude towards her chivalrous if a shade condescending, she soon accepted him, along with the drinks he bought her.

In the course of his visits to the Saloon Bar, he came across all its other stalwarts. There was the strapping, overtly lesbian novelist, Kay Dick, emphasising the aptness of her surname with mannish clothes. There was Charles Wrey Gardiner, the amiable, bespectacled, formally attired proprietor of the Grey Walls Pres, which Julian dubbed ‘the Grey Balls Press’, There was the venerable, floppy-hatted Augustus John, sitting at the other end of the bar, eavesdropping on whatever was going on around him. There were the two Roberts, Colquhoun and MacBryde, very different painters from Augustus John, both Scots, both belligerent and caustic yet as inseparable as the most devoted young married couple. There was the drug-addicted, homosexual John Booth-Palmer, secretary to the theatre critic James Agate. There was the charismatic, long-faced young artist John Minton, ‘boyishly diffident’ in ‘the blue reefer jersey he usually wore.’ There was the sardonic hack James Graham-Murray (better known by the sobriquet, ‘James the Shit’), respectable-looking were it not for three or four missing front teeth, the legacy of a misjudged quip. And there was the exhibitionistic, sexually undiscriminating painter Nina Hammtt. Then in her late fifties, her face mottled and puffy, her teeth decayed, her figure concealed beneath fetid and shapeless secondhand clothes, her helmet-like hairstyle topped by a beret she never seemed to remove, she carried herself with panache, undaunted by her miserable circumstances or meagre finances, greeting friends and acquaintances with a jaunty ‘Hullo, ducks’. Every so often she’d go round rattling the tin where she kept her money, soliciting donations with the well-worn phrases, ‘Got any mun, dear?’ or ‘You couldn’t buy me a drink, could you, love?’ For the price of a beer, she would tell oft-repeated anecdotes about her outrageous and happy-go-lucky existence in 1920s Montparnasse, about modelling for Gaudier-Brzeska, hobnobbing with Picasso, dancing naked for Van Dongen, meeting James Joyce, and chalking up affairs with Rodin and Modigliani. ‘Modi said I had the best tits in Europe,’ she was fond of remarking. At the faintest provocation, she’d peel back her pullover to reveal breasts far better preserved than the rest of her. ‘You feel them,’ she’d say. ‘They’re as good as new.

Other intermittent patrons of the Saloon Bar included the abstemious, thirty-something Quentin Crisp, dressed in the functional uniform of wartime women, a jacket worn over a blouse, trousers and medium-heeled lace-up shoes, hair meticulously coiffed and hennaed, fingernails glossy with lacquer, face subtly made up. Equally irregular visitors were Toni del Renzio, spewing tall stories about being related to the Romanoffs and having inherited the Italian title, ‘Count del Renzio’; Stephen Spender and John Lehmann, both radiating a palpable sense of unease in such flamboyant company; George Orwell, taciturn and watchfull, pausing just long enough for a quick half; the ageing aesthete, Norman Douglas, sheltering in England for the duration; as well as the notorious Aleister Crowley, now overweight and seedy, his speech hesitant and doped. Aside from del Renzio and Crowley, the latter of whom claimed to have set fire to the lining of Julian’s coat by putting a spell on it, Julian came to be on good terrns with all these part-time Wheatsheaf-ites.

Whereas most of the regulars affected a heavily stubbled, self-consciously rumpled look, Julian was always scrupulously clean-shaven and fastidiously turned out. To go with his cigarette holder, cane, and furled gloves, he took to wearing a fresh pink carnation in his buttonhole and dispensing pinches of snuff to his acolytes. All part of the persona of ‘Julian the Writer’ which he’d created. Such was his aura of impending literary stardom, of someone possessing a privileged insight into the world, a huddle of admirers, many of them girls, attracted by his poise and good looks, would indulge him. They’d by him drinks, play Spoof with him (which earned him yet more free drinks), and challenge him to name the characters and publication details of obscure novels. His memory was so exceptional, his reading so phenomenal, spanning nineteenth and twentieth-century English, French, and American fiction, he’d invariably meet the challenge. The group clustered round Julian also provided a convenient audience for his waggishly outrageous pronouncements and interminable monologues, punctuated by long drags on his cigarette-holder. Brushing aside any attempts at small talk, he’d hold forth about the books and films he admired, quoting passages or acting out scenes with no effort to distinguish the characters by modifying his voice or gestures. He’d talk about the mechanics of publishing. He would, assuming there were no women within earshot, tell smutty stories and brag about his sexual exploits – something he’d never been prone to do in the past. He’d eulogise the suave villainy, the scene-stealing brio of the Hollywood actors Sydney Greenstreet and Eduardo Cianelli. He’d discourse knowledgably on the careers of infamous murderers such as Henrik de Jong and Eugen Weidmann. And he’d proclaim the books, plays, and filmscripts he planned to write, Weidmann forming a recurrent subject.

At other times he’d recite anecdotes, culled from his experience, their cast often recruited from among his fellow drinkers. Each anecdote would be told again and again, every retelling accruing embellishments and carrying it further from its source. Bit by bit, it would gain authority as well, the drama becoming more distilled, the dialogue terser and more incisive. Eventually it would reach a point where it stopped evolving, at which it was ready to be transcribed in his obsessively neat handwriting and then submitted to the editor of a magazine, the story’s title as carefully considered and well-tested as the tale itself.

His ostentatious bearing and seemingly impenetrable forcefield of affectation alienated numerous Wheatsheafites, who restricted their dealings with him to distant nods and mimed hullos. Yet he could be ‘genuinely kind and approachable’. When he was introduced to the young aspiring writer Derek Stanford, who had published what, Stanford himself conceded, was a ‘bogus’ essay on Wyndham Lewis in the Fortune Anthology, he could have made some sneering comment. Instead, he congratulated Stanford ‘in the most genial fashion.’

Apart from the way his normally unobtrusive eyelids lowered as the hours drifted by, Julian was capable of consuming any available alcohol with no tangible effect. He was so inordinately proud of this that he often used to boast about it. Slowly but steadily soaking up the booze, he’d cling tenaciously to his spot at the bar until closing-time approached. Or until the supply of beer ran out – a common occurrence on particularly busy nights in most wartime pubs, where chalked signs declaring NO DRINK would spring up.

Once last orders had been called just before 10.30pm, the familiar cry of ‘time gentlemen, please’ cutting across the hubbub, Julian would take advantage of a fortuitous discrepancy in the licensing laws. Due to the different regulations operated by the two boroughs of Holbom and Marylebone, the boundary of which ran right down the middle of Charlotte Street, the pubs on the opposite side of the street from the Wheatsheaf closed half an hour later. As did those on the other side of Oxford Street, the main section of Soho falling under the aegis of the City of Westminster. Picking his way past the fights that raged most nights in the street outside, past the swaying drunks who shouted slurred insults in his direction or launched unprovoked attacks, his trusty cane coming in handy as a means of defending himself, Julian would sometimes simply transfer to the Marquis of Granby or the Duke of York. Unless, of course, they had run out of drink already.

Positioned at the tip of the diagonal intersection between Rathbone Place and Rathbone Street, the Marquis had a well-deserved reputation for rowdiness. Its sleazy clientele mostly comprised small-time gangsters, bookies, guardsmen, and homosexuals on the lookout for rough trade, their amorous advances often precipitating punch-ups. If Julian wasn’t in the mood to brave the hurly-burly of the Marquis, he’d navigate his way through the blackout – fragments of shrapnel crunching underfoot – to the other end of Rathbone Street, where the Duke of York offered a less hectic alternative. While its Public Bar tended to be packed ‘with the bearded, heavy-fringed, proto-beatniks whom Julian termed ‘Bums’, the posher Saloon Bar was occupied by the literary crowd. Behind the counter, staffed by the irascible ‘Mad Major’ – Major Alf Klein – and wife Blanche, an orthodox Jew who insisted on the pub dosing during religious holidays, there was a large placard proclaiming the landlord ‘The Prince of Good Fellows. Not that he displayed much fellowship towards some of his bohemian customers, his high-handed attitude towards them earning Julian’s dislike. Alternatively Julian would join the column of laughing, shouting, shrieking revellers lurching southwards into Soho proper. Beyond the funereal Black Horse, on the final stretch of Rathbone Place, its narrow frontage giving no indication of its roomy, unalluring interior, he and his drinking buddies would turn right onto Oxford Street, then left down Dean Street, arriving at the lively, scruffy Highlander just in time, if they were lucky, to squeeze in an extra pint.

When the two Roberts weren’t in the Wheatsheaf, they were usually to be seen amid the perspiring crowd that jammed into the Highlander’s pair of tiny, smoky bars. It was there that Julian first nerved himself to speak to ‘the wolfishly lean and sullen’ Robert Colquhoun. Having seen the latest exhibition of his paintings that afternoon, Julian went up to Colquhoun to congratulate him, only to be branded a phoney by the ‘gloweringly offensive’ Glaswegian-accented painter.

After the Highlander closed, Julian would move on to one of a plethora of cheap, handily placed cafés and restaurants. Occasionally he ventured down St Giles High Street, its pavements dotted with predatory homosexuals loitering near a French-style pissoir. Signposted by the obligatory heterosexual couple enjoying a quick knee-trembler against the wall, there was an unpromising doorway leading to the spacious, seedy basement that housed the strangely-titled Coffee An’. There you could get coffee an’ something else, though its impoverished clientele tended to miss the point, assuming instead that it was really called ‘the Café Anne’. Its brusque and swarthy staff, renowned for their readiness to threaten unruly customers with knives, served nothing more sophisticated than horsemeat steaks and salami sandwiches. These were eaten at long refectory tables, a couple of scrawny Alsatians loping hungrily round them. Against the backdrop of a large, crudely executed mural depicting a contemporary reinterpretation of the crucifixion, the Roman soldiers portrayed as jackbooted Nazis with swastiki armbands, their faces concealed behind sinister gas masks, writers and artists sat side by side with crooks and deserters, drawn to Soho because they could survive there without a ration book by purchasing unrestricted foods like salami, horsemeat, pigeon, and even sparrow.

On his visits to the Coffee An’, Julian would have seen the New Zealand-born Count Potocki of Montalk, who was there most nights, gorging himself on what was reputed to be the cheapest food in Soho. Not content with asserting that he was the rightful heir to the throne of Poland, Count Potacki of Montaulk also claimed to be the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Hospidar of Moldavia, and High Priest of the Sun. His waist-length hair plaited and tied with a girlish bow, he wore sandals, a billowing scarlet medieval robe with a silver star emblazoned on the front, and a heavy-looking gold chain round his neck with an ornate medallion on the end, the whole risible ensemble topped by either a crown or a velvet cap. He always carried with him a small stack of The Right Review, the hand-printed magazine that he hawked round the West End streets, its pages filled with a bizarre combination of decorous woodcuts, poems by writers such as Laurence Durrell, mad anti-semitic tirades, and convoluted genealogical justifications for his wide-ranging titular claims. Anyone prepared to pay for the Count’s meal would be granted a knighthood, the recipient forced to kneel down while the ritual was performed. Only a few months earlier, the Count had been lambasted by national press for ennobling a deserter.

As a rule, Julian tended to make for three of the fractionally more upmarket eateries in the environs of the Wheatsheaf. One of these, at 91 Charlotte Street, was Tony’s, an insalubrious ground floor cafe and cramped cellar restaurant where black market steak and eggs were served. Mainly patronised by spivs, huddled together in furtive conversation, plus pimps and their heavily made-up girls, each clutching a cheap handbag, ‘it was a place of “deals” settled by a nod’ and ‘money exchanged at the exact moment a parcel slipped surreptitiously under the table.’ Downstairs, braving the reek of fried onions and dry rot, Julian and a lot of writers, artists and misfits, notably Quentin Crisp, would sit at dirty white tables, eating and chatting. His other favourite post-pub destinations were a small Greek restaurant on Rathbone Place, and the rough and ready, sparsely furnished Scala, on Charlotte Street, where nothing cost more than about half-a-crown. The Scala’s speciality was the misleadingly titled Vienna Steak, in truth a particularly unedifying form of rissole. As a satisfying epilogue to his night’s drinking and socialising, he’d order goose pilaf from the Greek restaurant, Welsh Rarebit from Tony’s, or Spaghetti Bolognese from the Scala, washed down by a carafe of cheap, astringent red wine, and a cup of strong black coffee. 

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