Sunday, 4 August 2013

The Empire Cafe & The Sad Valley

1. The Empire Cafe                                                                                  

                                                  www.gitnews.com


As a haven for the unloved, the eccentric and the lost,  the Empire Cafe was perfectly situated in a little corner of Soho. It also prided itself as a home for those on their way up and a passing place for those on the way down. 
It had been known over the years by several different names, some of which you most definitely would have read about, but its charm was in the fact that it had served coffee, and later tea, from the same premises for over three hundred years. There is a signature carved into the wood that suggests Benjamin Franklin had happily visited the place and it is known that Samuel Pepys mentioned the Cafe in his diaries.

If you’ve ever been to London and drifted around that part of town then I know you must have passed it. Perhaps you drank in it and were unaware of where you were. Perhaps you hadn't see the Cafe because you were looking up at some other building or maybe you had just been checking your appearance in the reflection of the Cafe’s window; but the place is there, I promise you.

One sunny afternoon, just after I returned home from a bad war in North Africa, I walked through its doors and never really left. I sometimes feel the place had been waiting on me. 
It was run by Mister Chestnut and he was never referred to as Andrew Chestnut, or even Andy. He was just Mister Chestnut, plain and simple, and when he and his Father both ran the place, then he was simply known as Junior. 
In the mid 1700s, it was rumoured that the Hellfire Club met in secret at the coffee shop and that one night it was lost on the turn of a card. One of Mister Chestnut’s ancestors was asked to hold on to the property until the rightful owner came to claim it. He never did, and there was talk that the owner had been killed in a duel. So through this one act of God, the Chestnuts became part of the Soho establishment. 
I was taken on in 1946 as chief dishwasher and toilet cleaner and I loved it, every grimy second of it. Those who used the place were a who’s who of all the movers and shakers of their day. In the late evening, when we closed up shop and over a hot cup of Java, my employer would tell me stories of the past, those he had witnessed and those he had been told about by his Father and his Grandfather; all the wonderfulness that had been passed down through the family.
Regardless of claims by other establishments and by other people, Grandfather Chestnut swore that he had watched Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels spend most of their days in the corner table furthest from the door, writing the Communist Manifesto.
“Always with the one coffee between them” his Grandfather had told him, “one coffee for the whole day”, he added, then he would let out an eruption of a laugh. 
Mister Chestnut told me of  the “saddest man who ever walked through those doors”.
“Must have been February, yes it was, it was February..”
“What year?” I asked him.
“Let me think. 1895, as sure as eggs is eggs, ‘cause it was just after my fourteenth birthday. In he came, all broken. He sat down over there and I asked him if he wanted something to drink. ’Hemlock, dear boy, hemlock' . I asked my Father for hemlock and he clipped me around the ear. ’Don’t be so bleeding stupid’ said my Father, ‘You must have misheard him.’ So I walked back towards the table when I spotted that he was sitting with a young man, older than me but younger than him and get this, they were holding hands. The young man read from a card that the older man has passed to him ’For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite – Good God Oscar, my father can’t even spell. The ignorant beast.’
“I only saw the older man once again when he came in a few weeks later. He had aged so much in that short time, and as he sat down all the rest of the people in the cafe got up and left. Apparently he went to prison  not long afterwards."

 "But there was a more curious one than that” said Mister Chestnut, “just let me put on another pot of coffee as I think you may need it.”
When the coffee had been brewed and we were both sitting comfortably once more, the storyteller continued. 
“He was a little man, spoke with a German accent. Now I know what you are thinking young man, you are saying to yourself that the description would fit many people. And you would be correct to make that assumption, except I remember him for something he said. He shouted at me that I was to bring him a coffee and that is what I did. As I approached the table I could hear him laughing, so I smiled back at him. A happy customer is a returning customer and I was just about to tell him to recommend us to all his friends when I saw what he was so happy about, on a newspaper sitting on his table were the headlines ‘Over fifteen hundred sank to death with giant White Star steamer Titanic’. “Bloody rich Jews” he said, “best place for them”
“To say I was shocked, disgusted even, that a man like this could say such evil things about other human beings. I was about to ask him to leave when a second man came in, his brother Alois, I had seen him in the cafe before. If I remember correctly, he and his brother Adolf had lived in Liverpool for a while to avoid conscription to the Austrian Army.”
“Not Adolf Hitler?”I asked.
“The very same.” Came his reply. 

Mister Chestnut kept me on for most of ’46 and ’47 washing and cleaning until one day he took me into his office. I had been there for two years and this was my first visit to the inner sanctum. It smelt of liquorice and tobacco and looked as if it was decorated for a fortune teller rather than a cafe manager. 
“I want to promote you, my boy. Enrique is old and leaving at the end of the month and I will need a waiter. Of course it will mean more money for you and also the Olympics will be here soon. I will need a much younger man to deal with all our visitors and friends."

So that was that, I had a few more shillings in my pockets and no more cleaning of the toilets. I handed over my brushes to the new boy, donned my waiter’s apron and started whistling.

He was correct, was Mister Chestnut, the year of the Olympics was the busiest I could remember.We worked every day from sunrise to almost sunrise the following day. Naps had to be taken, when and where we could find the time. There was a little store room out the back where I managed to take forty winks now and again. 
I remember one night I had just splashed water on my face to waken me up when this very distinguished gentleman entered with a young blond girl in tow. The two of them asked for the quietest table, which was always the one at the back next to the toilets. Now I tell you this dear friends, I will go to my grave believing that it was the Queen’s husband whom I served that night and the blond woman was not his wife. This is not the place to tell such a story since he is not able to defend himself but I promise you - if it was not Philip Mountbatten, the Duke of Edinburgh then I will eat my hat. I looked over at Mister Chestnut and I know he recognised the man because he put his finger to his lips to warn me to say nothing.
On Christmas Eve 1950 I asked Maria, the most beautiful girl who worked in the restaurant next door, to marry me. She accepted and we got married in the New Year holding the reception at the Empire Cafe. We invited all the regulars. It was a night I shall never forget.
One day in 1951, Mister Chestnut took me into his office for only the second time and told me that it was all mine. “The time has come - you have a family to consider” he said “I will be seventy this year and enough is enough.” There was no son to pass his business on to, "God's will", he would say. So he considered me the nearest thing he had to a son and the Cafe was to be my inheritance. He slapped the keys in the palm of my hand, put on his big overcoat and never crossed the threshold again. 
My neighbours were actors, jazz musicians and more recently Chinese. After Limehouse had been bombed in the war, the Chinese had begun to move into Gerard Street and the areas surrounding it. This brought with them, the Chinese gangsters - as if there weren’t enough British ones in Soho. 
Talking of gangsters, the first time I saw one of the Kray brothers he was sitting having a coffee, minding his own business when the coppers  rushed in and dragged him out of my cafe. He had apparently deserted from national service in the army for the fourth time.
 
What I also remember about the Fifties was the music. Now there are some who will tell you that the birth of British Rock and Roll started in the 2I’s coffee bar in Old Compton Street, but I say it was at the Empire Cafe. On Saturday nights we would have Tommy Steele, Wee Willie Harris, Cliff Richard and Hank Marvin. The Cafe was always crowded at weekends, so much so that some of those that couldn’t get in, moved to the 2I’s, which was a bigger venue. Perhaps that is why they claim to be the birthplace but I know the truth, we were first.

As for the gangs, the Krays had always stayed up east and the Richardsons to the south of the river. One night the Kray twins came in and took a table from a couple who were already sitting at it. The boyfriend got up to challenge them and Reggie Kray slapped the boy and threw him and his girlfriend through the door. I was about to say something  when Ronnie Kray told me that if I knew what was good for me, I would get them coffees and leave them alone. 
I learned that night, if you wanted to stay in business in Soho then you had to see nothing and say even less.
Luckily my wife, Maria, didn’t see any of this as she was now at home looking after our two sons, James and Robert. I have a photo on the Cafe wall of  James with Bobby Moore when he and his wife came to the Cafe just before he flew to Mexico for the World Cup. 
As the Sixties turned into the Seventies, Robert began to take on more of the responsibility for running the cafe. James had decided to work in computers and had joined an IT company over in Putney. He and his wife moved into a flat in Chelsea and very rarely ventured into the West End.
In 1976 I became a grandfather for the very first time and Maria suggested that I took more of a back seat in the business. We stayed in Dulwich for a while but I still insisted on visiting the Cafe three or four times a week.
In 1980 we moved to Deal by the sea; it was  Maria’s idea and was probably helped by Robert who may have felt that I was interfering too much in his business.

There are so many stories about the Empire Cafe that I want to tell you. Ones concerning prime ministers and princesses, rich men and poor women,  writers and painters, musicians and kings. All of them true and all of them from the Empire Cafe. 

I will, one day, I promise.
  
I am well into my eighties now and the Cafe is run by Robert's own daughters and sons. It’s been years since I last laid eyes on the place, but if you happen to be passing then why don’t you pop in for a coffee and ask them for a story? 
Tell them I sent you.



2. The Sad Valley 

                      www.retronaut.com

Tommy was tired of waiting for his life to start. 

He had given it more than enough chances in his nineteen short years, thank you very much, and still there was nothing to get excited about. So Tommy thought he might as well begin his life without any help from anyone.

His current dream was to watch the World Cup football final at Wembley and if something was going to happen, it was going to happen there. After all that was London, it was 1966 and it was most certainly the place to be. 

Tommy had made a list of some of the people he would probably meet: Julie Christie, Mick Jagger, Jean Shrimpton and Terence Stamp for starters. He’d seen all of them in newspapers and all of them seemed to like walking down King’s Road, Chelsea on a Saturday.

There was just the small matter of earning enough money to get him south and the small matter of keeping a roof over his head when he got there. 

After his Grandfather had passed away, Tommy was given the choice of any piece in the old house. He settled on a small, beautifully carved, wooden box that once held his Grandfather’s pipe tobacco and a watercolour of the hills above the village, painted in his Grandfather’s own hand. These would be the two possession he would take with him to start his life.

To raise the cash, Tommy worked on Sid’s farm from sun-up until dusk, then at Bella’s cafe until nine at night, followed by the Climber’s bar until one in the morning. When he had finished, he would deposit all of his day’s earning in the beautifully carved tobacco box and collapse onto the bed. By the morning, he was like a new man and would be itching to start all over again.  

The day he left, was just like any other one, he awoke with the sun rise and decided to slip away before the rest of the family rose. It was easier that way. He lifted his rucksack and prepared to walk the twelve miles to the railway station.

The weather was kind and he arrived with plenty of time to spare. Tommy decided to spend a couple of his hard earned pennies on a cup of tea but anything as frivolous as a cake was not to be entertained.  He reached into his sack and discovered that his mother had packed several sandwiches in a brown bag. He smiled to himself. They were his favourites – all filled with cheese and onion, and as he lifted one out to take with his cup of tea, a note fell from the brown paper bag.
It said “You can’t start a life on an empty stomach. Love Mum”

There were enough sandwiches to feed a small army and would easily keep Tommy satisfied on the journey south. He couldn’t remember mentioning he was going to start his life to his Mum but that was mothers for you. They knew everything, sometimes before you even knew them yourself.

The journey was perfect as he sat eating his sandwiches and watching the well remembered hills getting swallowed by the distance. 

The train whisked through towns with black smoke and cities with grey people but the nearer he got to London, the more excited he became. He knew he was going to start a life and that made him happier than anything else he could imagine, even more than the inflatable Yogi Bear he had received on his fifth birthday.  

When he opened the train door he could actually smell London and it spoke of streets of dreams, and hopes and people that would become his friends. He felt as if he already belonged, and although there was no one there to meet him, it seemed as if everyone was there to meet everyone else. What a place to start a life and what a place to call home. 

He spent the first night in a small hotel near Victoria station. It was run by an old woman, of maybe forty years of age, according to Tommy. She insisted that he call her ‘Twiggy’. He’d never seen such an old woman wear such a small revealing dress. 

“We calls it a mini skirt in these parts, young man”  

Tommy thought it was a very fitting name for such a short skirt. He mentioned to the old woman that he was in London to get his life started and all Twiggy would say was “Fancy that”.

At Breakfast, Twiggy was wearing an even shorter skirt than the night before and there were several business men in the lounge who kept dropping knives and forks so that Twiggy would bend over.
Tommy asked some of the men if they knew where he could get a ticket for the final of the World Cup. All of them, without exception, started laughing. “Oh, that’s a good one”, “That’ll keep me chuckling all day. Thanks lad”, “Aye, thanks”. 

The door closed behind him asTommy stepped into the London street still hearing  the laughter from the Breakfast room. What was so funny about what he had asked? 

There was now two days until the Final; surely someone was willing to sell him a ticket? To be honest he didn’t really know where Wembley Stadium was. “Somewhere in the north of the city, or the west” was how his brother had described it. So Tommy started walking. He felt it was best to avoid buses and The Underground until he knew London better.  

Within an hour, he’d arrived at Camden Lock and this place was alive with music and flags and laughter. It appeared to be the centre of the world for celebrating England qualifying for the Final. There were parties in windows above him, people on roofs dancing. A conga line made up of a dozen or so very happy people came out of a bar, slithered its way across the road and into a bar opposite. All these people, thought Tommy, had already started their lives and this made him grow even more excited to start his.

As he neared Kentish Town, he noticed a small cafe on his left. The place smelt of coffee, looked as if it was in Morocco and had the mellow sounds of jazz drifting out through the door. This was heaven. 

When the waitress served him his coffee, he thought he had been given the wrong cup, “Excuse me, but I think someone may have already drunk from this”
There was only the smallest amount of coffee at the bottom of a very tiny cup. The waitress smiled and moved on. Tommy noticed people piling sugar on top of the coffee and so he did the same. He shouldn’t have swallowed all the contents at once; he realised that the moment he went dizzy,  

“You okay man? Like, are you cool?”
The question came from Herbert, who spoke with an American accent but really came from the east end of London.
“Here, try one of these” said Herbert “Just call me Herbie, all my friends do” and he handed Tommy a French cigarette.
“I don’t smoke” said Tommy. “This ain’t smoking, this is living” said an agreeable Herbie. So if it meant his life would start sooner rather than later, Tommy decided to smoke a cigarette. 

Before he knew it, Tommy was lying on the floor - apparently in a room above the cafe.
“We carried you up after you passed out” said the ever present Herbie. “I guess the cigarette was too much man and maybe the coffee, man. You got to take that coffee wisely, man. It can floor a buffalo” 

Tommy wasn’t sure if his life had now officially started, or he had just pulled into the side of the road to let the rest of the traffic go past.
“Where’s my bags?”
“What bags?”
“I didn’t see no bags, man. Too many people carrying too many bags in this life”  

Tommy shot woozily out of the room and down a very narrow staircase before slipping the last few steps into the bar and crashing on to the floor.
He could hear a girl in the corner say “That’s the second time that man has landed on the floor, what do they put in the coffee here?”

By the time Tommy got back up to the room, Herbie was dancing naked on the kitchen table to Highway 61 Revisited. Tommy’s bags had been stolen along with his money and his chance of ever seeing the World Cup final at Wembley.
Naked Herbie asked Tommy “What World Cup Final, man?”
So Tommy and Herbie became the best of pals. Tommy stayed in Herbie’s room but kept his clothes on at all times, unlike a lot of Herbie’s other friends; Herbie’s room seemed to be the place to get naked in Camden. 

England won the World Cup and that made Tommy happy. Herbie gave Tommy some of his shifts in the Cafe downstairs which let Tommy start to save some money again. 

One evening in October, after Tommy had just finished working twelve hours in the cafe, he heard a sobbing from the room, when he entered there was Herbie crying his heart out. 

Tommy put his arms around Herbie and held him. Maybe it was one of his family that had died but Tommy had never heard Herbie this upset before, even the day he’d cooked the breakfast naked.
“It’s this, man” and he showed Tommy the newspaper. “All those beautiful children”

In the Green Hollow Valley in Wales, a mountain of coal mining waste had slipped in the heavy rain and covered a primary school.“We got to go man. You and me, we got to help those people. Those children” and Tommy sat beside Herbie and they both sobbed into each other’s arms. 

Tommy had saved enough money to get him and Herbie as far as Merthyr Tydfil and then they would have to walk the rest. It was dark by the time they reached the village, but there were lights everywhere, all the way up the mountainside. No matter how tired they felt they got to work right away, digging the slurry that covered the school and the little ones. 

Sometimes you give up on the world, believing that everything is greed and bad but now and again you can see the best of people even in the worst of situations. 

At least several hundred children, teachers and parents were missing. The slurry had slipped across the school and into the houses opposite. Tommy was digging between the houses and the school and as he looked up he saw Herbie carrying a child with a cover over the body. Herbie looked at Tommy and his eyes spoke of a million things he had seen that evening. 

Important people came and went; The Queen, The Duke of Edinburgh and The Prime Minster but Tommy and Herbie never once wavered from the digging. A couple of times Herbie fell asleep but Tommy would notice and waken him up again. 

This is not to say that the boys were heroes, everyone was a hero that weekend. Everyone pushed themselves beyond what they thought they were capable of, to release the little bodies. Herbie was told to take a break and he reluctantly did so. He went over to Tommy and shared a French cigarette and Tommy smoked it with him. 

“I don’t think I can cry anymore” said Herbie.  

A bearded man stopped and asked if he could possibly have a cigarette and Herbie invited him to sit. The man told them that his child had been ill that day and had stayed at home with his wife. His other child had gone to school and he had survived but the slurry had taken his home with his two darlings.
“How does that happen?” he asked them, how indeed.

It had been a long time since any child, or anyone for that matter, had been brought out alive and although Herbie and Tommy believed they could hear shouts for help, it was only the tiredness calling.
By the following morning 120 bodies had been recovered but many loved ones were still waiting to be found and brought home. 

There are times in your life when you know that something you have taken part in or witnessed will change your soul. Tommy knew it. It didn’t make him bitter, it just made him realise that we are each other’s keepers and we are all in this together. Good and bad times.

On the Monday morning Herbie, dirty and exhausted, felt it was time they returned to the cafe.
“Who’s gonna make the coffee, man, eh?”

Tommy tiredly agreed and they started off hitch-hiking back towards Merthyr. 
There were so many cars, ambulances and trucks transporting everything back and forth that getting a lift wasn’t so easy.  Tommy decided the best thing to do was split up and meet back at the railway station.
“I’ll have a Frenchie cigarette waiting on you man” was the last he heard of Herbie. 

Tommy sat at the station for several hours before he felt that something was wrong. He tried the Merthyr Tydfil police station to see if maybe Herbie had hitched naked and been arrested. It was just a thought to cheer himself up. The policeman informed him that they were too busy and that all missing reports were being centralised in Cardiff. He would be better going there. 

It was Tuesday before he found Herbie’s body lying in the morgue. It seemed one of the trucks taking slurry from the school hadn’t seen him in the lashing rain. He had been hit and died instantly.
Tommy got back to the room above the cafe on the Thursday and only then did he weep. He wept for the children and for the parents and for his friend, Herbie. 

And that is when he realised that you don’t ever wait to start your life. It begins the very first day you are born. Tommy was living when he was at home, he was alive when he was in the room above the cafe and he was most certainly living when he was with his best friend Herbie. Tommy had been alive all his life, he just hadn’t realised it. 

So Tommy did something he’d never done before, he took off all of his clothes in Herbie’s room and stood naked.
“This is for you, my pal”


And somewhere out there, he was sure he could hear Herbie laughing.


bobby stevenson 2013

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