“Old Soho” and my barber


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The 1950’s Gaggia coffee machine

When I first worked in Soho as an assistant film editor it was still possessor of its rakish charm. The cutting rooms that my editor, Keith Judge, had hired were in “Hammer House” – yes, that Hammer, famous old home of British horror classics. The editing room had a lot of old brown furniture; the equipment was rickety but functional in chipped Hammerite paint with Bakerlight knobs. Film editing was done standing up at a Picsync using a Movieola and a Steenbeck to view on. There was an old swivel chair like the ones newspapermen have in “B” movies; I fantasised that Hitchcock or Alexander Korda had sat on its worn, horsehair-sprouting leather upholstery. In the corridor, thirty-five millimetre film bins hung with the trims of soft core porn films and the whole place smelt of film, coffee, unswept carpets and long dispersed BO. The film we were working on was “Upgrading Fire Precautions” for the COI (Central Office of Information). One day Keith sent me off with some graphics to get rostrum camerawork done. He gave me an address in Meard St and with a wink, said, “Be careful”. It transpired that the rostrum camera studio was sandwiched between the upper and lower floors of a brothel; a rather nice looking West Indian girl asked me if I wanted any “business” as I rang the bell and a much older, peroxide blonde asked me the same as I left. In those days proper Italians ran the coffee bars, it was one of the few places you could get a decent coffee in London. Occasionally you would see people like Sir John Gielgud sashaying down Wardour St on his way to a voice over. It was summer and Keith and I used to go up onto the roof of Hammer House to eat our lunch, one day we saw three girls sunbathing topless on the roof below. In another cutting room (where Agent Provocateur is now) we were opposite a violin maker’s workshop and as I sunk up rushes I watched old chaps in white shirts and black waist-coats carving tops and gluing the instruments together. Any errand out on the street was to be amongst the bustle of the film industry – feature film editors rolled towers of film cans on hand carts to dubbing theatres, pasty-faced editors made their way to the Blue Posts or Sandwich Scene for lunch. Producers and directors trailed assistants who looked like supermodels.

 

I was put in mind of all this, as I always am, when I visit my barber in Soho. To protect the innocent I will refer to him as Carlo. Carlo is second generation Sicilian, he speaks with a London accent but when one of his countrymen comes into his shop, he reverts to rapid fire Italian. Whenever I am there, an ever-changing cast of characters pop in for a cut, a shave or just to say hello. There is an octogenarian chap who comes in to be ribbed about his much younger (50s) girlfriend and his discovery of Viagra. Another chap talks of his flat being raided by the police the previous night on a search for drugs and working girls, he is of course, innocent but has spent a night in the cells. Once Carlo was charged with looking after his teenage nephew but had allowed him to stray into the lap dancing bar up the road where he had been “lost” for some hours. I was in Carlo’s for a trim a couple of weeks ago just after Arsenal had been knocked out of the Champion’s League (Carlo is a huge Arsenal fan). A man in a dark overcoat slipped through the door and embarked on what can only be described as a Pinteresque monologue about the frailties of Wenger’s side, goading Carlo about his loyalty to such a flawed team, “How long do you think the Gooner Massif will put up with this existential management?” – his genius knows no bounds, keeping his best player on the bench like that?” All the time the man kept his eye on the street as if watching for a traffic warden. Eventually he left with a friendly sounding, “Anyway Carlo, I leave you to think on that”. As the man left another kind of customer arrived, a rather too smart man of about thirty wearing an expensive suit and tailored shirt, no tie. He didn’t look as if he needed a haircut. Rather than wait his turn like the rest of us in the guilty pleasure of reading the complimentary copies of The Sun, The Mirror and Corriere dello Sport (that Pink, Italian football paper) he strode up and down making calls on his mobile in three languages including Russian.

 

The barber’s shop is a family business originally started by Carlo’s uncles who were definitely part of the old Soho; they once held the contract to barber all the Savoy’s waiters. One imagines that they shaved and singed and trimmed all manner of jazz musicians, strip club low-lives and plain, old fashioned, London gangsters and maybe the local bobbies too. Only one of the original uncles remains, still giving great haircuts, an immaculately turned out silver fox of a man who must have had matinee idol looks in his youth.

 

Carlo is gregarious, he is a very good barber but part of the reason for going there is to hear his non-stop banter about wives, cars, football, sex, Soho, Sicily and porn (he once had a short fling with a porn star). His energy for chat, as good as any improvising stand-up comic, is extraordinary. I have never heard him repeat himself. Win or lose, his enthusiasm and cheerful acceptance of the ups and downs of Arsenal are a constant, which seems to have won him friends in high places. He occasionally talks of being invited to the director’s box at the Emirates. I don’t think he has Facebook page but if he did he would have a lot of friends.

 

In the back of the shop they have a 1958 Gaggia machine and if you are lucky you get offered a coffee. Carlo believes it makes the best tasting brew in London and is full of stories about the search for parts and finding engineers who can craft solutions to the machine’s survival.

Like the Espresso machine, Carlo’s barber shop is frozen in aspic. As Soho has been “cleaned up” and corporatized, the character of its streets changing from the nicely sleazy world of film and sex to the more serious and truly sleazy world of television and new media, Carlo’s has endured a sanctuary of old-style maleness – only the cost of a haircut has changed.

 

“Tonic, sir?” says Carlo.

“It doesn’t seem to be doing much good Carlo”, I reply.

“Yes, sir, but think how much less hair you would have without it”.

 


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