London on a hot afternoon: Soho, The Royal Academy and Savile Row

Phew, what a scorcher! As The Sun would say. London on Monday was hot, muggy and very busy. Sandra and I drove up from Cheltenham and divided forces, me to the West End to meet up with her son Jay to buy a smart jacket and she to Wimbledon with our friend Charles to watch Nadal, Hewitt and Clijsters battle it out on the Number 1. Court. To be honest, I am not a big sports fan and the two times I did go to Wimbers with her, we were rained off. As it happened, she had a fantastic day with bright sunshine and lots of good play…

Anyway, the Central Line from Northolt [the most boring place in Greater London and shamefully where I spent the first nineteen years of my life] wasn’t crowded and I arrived at our meeting point [Oxford Circus] just before noon. Jay was to have had a casting for a modelling  job but as his call wasn’t until 1.30, I had a couple of hours to amuse myself.

Oxford Circus is at the junction of Oxford Street and Regent Street and always teems with tourists. Monday was no exception, with crowds of young travellers and tourists milling around, taking in the exhaust-laden atmosphere. Suddenly adrift in central London, I wandered down Argyle Street, past The Palladium, round the back of Liberty’s and into Soho. I often seem to head in that direction not for the obvious reason but because if you are feeling overwhelmed by the City, that area of small Georgian shops and squares is less crowded, the buildings are on a human scale and there is always something interesting going on.

Soho in the broad light of day is a very different place to the den of iniquity it supposedly becomes after dark. Small film production companies rub shoulders with chinese veg shops and it has a bustling gaiety with is lacking in the City or along the Tottenham Court Road. There are plenty of coffee shops in the area and I was thirsty but that wasn’t what I craved. When I was in Namibia, people asked me what I missed about England. The answer was obvious. My friends and English Beer!

A couple of days after arriving back in the county, I took my friend, accountant and ex-client Ann out for a meal at The Birch, near Woburn [I highly recommend the lamb’s liver mmm!] and asked the barman for some “real” beer. Unfortunately he was Australian and had it not been for some fancy footwork, I would have ended up with an ice-cold pint of Fosters…

One place you can guarantee a decent pint in Soho is The Lyric pub, just opposite The Windmill Theatre. It’s been refurbished a number of times since Jimmy Edwards, Frankie Howard and Eric Sykes entertained the punters between shows of naked “tableau” just after the War but it still manages to retain a late Victorian, rather seedy rundown atmosphere which really appeals to me, for some reason. I ordered a pint of Fuller’s London Pride [mother’s milk to me], and it slipped down a treat. An amber liquid of a subtle, malty flavour. A heady bouquet redolent of Kentish hop-fields. Aaah! I was home. Two pints later, I was ready to face any foe and  strode through Piccadilly towards the Royal Academy.

The Royal Academy Summer Show is the biggest open art competition in the world and one of the best. If you are a member of South Cheam Art Group or an RA, you can enter a work and have a chance of it being hung. It is democratic in a mysterious way and very English. I entered the gates of Burlington House and into the rather wonderful 18thc courtyard and paid over my eight-quid to see what the British art scene had been producing over the previous 12 months. The exhibition halls were double-hung, triple-hung and quadruple-hung with oils, pastels, watercolours, etchings, prints of every description. Each room was themed; portraits, animals, landscapes, abstracts as I tried to make sense of this indigestible meal set before me.

Oh yes, everything is for sale and on that note, here are a few observations.

What won’t sell: anything priced over 5,000 pounds, portraits of people, large abstracts.

What will sell: anything priced under 1,000 pounds, portraits of dogs, small prints of the English countryside.

I browsed from room to room, laughing at the in-jokes that seem to be a perennial of British art and noted the few exhibits that made a genuine impression. Interestingly the two I remember the most were firstly a series of three huge prints by David Hockney called something like Twenty Large Trees Between Spar and the Petrol Station on the Maidenhead Road . The three images depicted the trees in different seasons  and spoke to me about the respect we should give Big Trees. They have seen it all having been planted before there was a such a thing as a supermarket or a motorcar with a  bit of luck, still be there when we have all moved on… The other image was by the artist we all love to hate: Tracy Emin. For those non-Brits who haven’t come across her she won the Turner Prize with an installation called Unmade bed, complete with stains from various sexual encounters. She also created a tent like structure embroidered with the names of all the men she has had sex with. There were quite a few…  Personally I’m not bothered by her sexual preferences and interests, what got me was that she didn’t embroider the names herself. A nice lady in Kent did that for her… Baaah!

Her new work was rather effective though. A large canvas was divided into three, by washes of colour and scrawled on the canvas in black and red paint were the words  “I still love you, but sometimes…” Sounds crap, I know but none the less was very effective. Strange that.

Jay and I met up in The Duke of Argyle for a drink at about 2.30 and then we tried to shop for a jacket.

I needed a smart casual jacket, that was all. With Jay as my style guru, I thought I couldn’t go wrong. No chance. Top Man Oxford Street – Crap. All the boutiques in Carnaby Street – Crap again. Barbour – Crap in wellies. There was only one solution to this problem, Savile Row.

We popped behind Regent Street into the quiet of a short street faced, by plate-glass shop fronts full of the most amazing gentlemen’s attire. They were awe-inspiring in the way they assumed their superiority over you. We walked past Ozwald Boateng and I was immediately seduced by a beautifully cut black jacket, cut from a waffle-iron cotton with a lime green silk lining. Tongues hanging out, we entered the cool, dark interior. We were immediately ignored by all the staff who busied themselves with other tasks. We found the jacket and waited. After ten minutes or so, I said “let’s go” but Jay could see we had found something special and urged me to remain. Thank goodness he did. In his own time a very well suited gentlemen glided towards us and helped me in the kind way you would if you were fitting someone with an artificial leg. Courtesy itself.

I saw myself in a glass, darkly.  My God! I had never seen myself look so slim, so tall, so good-looking.

“Eh, how much”. He stated a figure, I reeled. It was already in the sale. “I’ll see what we can do”. He scurried off and returned with a new price, exorbitant but within the realms of unreasonableness. “Sale!” I cried. Never in my life had a spent so much money on a single item of clothing. Well Ronnie, there goes the last pay cheque I got from the British Council in Namibia… But what a jacket!

Jay wasn’t able to stay for a celebratory meal in Chinatown and had to hurry back to Beaconsfield but “thank you” anyway.

I will post a pic of me looking like  Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Samual L. Jackson or Russell who happen to by some of my Savile Row tailor’s other clients!


About stevehollier

Steve Hollier is the editor of AZ Magazine, an English language lifestyle magazine based in Baku, Azerbaijan. He began his career working for a firm of stockbrokers in the City of London then went on to attend the University of Essex where he was awarded an MA in Sociology in 1984. After a career in arts and cultural development work, he became a freelance arts consultant, writer and photographer.
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5 Responses to London on a hot afternoon: Soho, The Royal Academy and Savile Row

  1. I feel as if I went there with you. An excellent account, Steve.

  2. stevehollier says:

    Thank you Charles. More to follow [including a pic of me in the jacket]!

  3. charlespaxton says:

    Savile Row suavity – if you’ve got it, flaunt it!

  4. Hugh Paxton says:

    Lovely writing, Steve. Charles got it just right – I felt as if I’d been there with you, too.

    Actually, I will be there at the end of July for a family catch-up. The problem is you won’t be there. You’ll be in Central Asia. I call that inconsiderate! Not much chance of Fuller’s London Pride in Az, methinks. But I’ll have a few for you before reeling off in search of Ozwald’s with jacket and penury in mind!

    Call me Victorian, but, while I’ll follow in your footsteps 99 percent, I’ll give the sex stained sheets a miss. Hiring somebody else to do the embroidery may have saved the artist valuable time, but it smacks of art fraud. Until DNA tests have been conducted to confirm the veracity of the sheet’s tawdry history I shall content myself with other more honest distractions!


  5. Steve Hollier says:

    Actually, I think there was a lady from Tunridge Wells from whom she outsourced [out-sauced] the stains…

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