In 1985 after I was made redundant from Tim Rice and GRRR Books, I was approached by Guinness to write a title for them. They had themselves been propositioned by a publishing design house to put together a chronology of rock and roll and need someone to write it. Of course I jumped at the chance and shortly afterwards had a meeting with Bart Ullstein and Bruce Robertson. I adored them from the start. Bart was about as Jewish as you could get without the full Orthodox or Hasidic regalia. He reminded me of my great uncle’s business partners around Stoke Newington. Smart people with a wicked, self-deprecating sense of humour. Tim’s agent, David Land, in a garret above whose office I started out, was cut from the same cloth. They were good business men too. I don’t just mean wealthy business men, successful business men, smart business men – I actually mean good business men.
Bruce, on the other hand, was what Father Christmas did between January and November. A large man with a full white beard to match. A huge striped shirt barely contained by broad red braces. He was the creative genius.
I did actually get one over them that first day. We had just agreed a weekly amount for my writing (Always a better option than a fixed fee) and they asked me how long I thought it might take to write. I very nearly came right out and said six months, which would have been an honest appraisal. But the devil popped up on my shoulder and I replied about a year, which is what it eventually took. I didn’t stretch myself.
And the remainder of this story is really about my once week trips for the rest of that year. Each Thursday I would jump on the train to Kentish Town and visit the Diagram Group’s offices at 195 Kentish Town Road. I would hand in my latest batch of work, pick up some proofs for correcting and get my cheque for the week. Then I would pop across the road and bank the cheque, draw some cash from the hole in the wall, and make my way to the pub. It may have been the Abbey Tavern from looking at Google Earth. It’s hard to tell as everything has changed so.
In my day, at 12 noon on a Thursday in the mid-eighties, it was a quiet pub. The clientele were mostly Irish and there were about two of them propping up the big London counter bar. There must have been some sort of skylight as I remember great pillars of light encapsulating the dust and smoke as they streamed down on the bar. I sat on a stool ensuring we were nicely spaced out from each other and got my own Guinness. Then I pulled a Marlboro Red from the packet and lit up. Supping, smoking, and contemplating. That was how the next hour or so of my day would pan out.
There was a fruit machine I’m sure but no-one else was playing it and it seemed rude to break the atmosphere with the savage kerching of money going down the pan. So drinking, smoking, contemplating, maybe scribbling a few lyrics down as I often did when I was in the pub on my own.
There was one more player on this stage though, each Thursday lunchtime, in the mid-eighties. Not the barman, they were taken for granted of course. No, this player was in a small booth somewhere near the entrance to the pub. She was a woman, possible in her fifties. Maybe younger but had lived a difficult life. Her skin was certainly etched with the trials and tribulations of a working woman. I don’t believe anything she had, had come easily to her.
There was ample skin to see too because her entire existence for the next 45 minutes was to shed her clothing – of which there wasn’t too much in the first place – and reveal what lay beneath. She was the stripper. Thursday lunchtime was when she rehearsed. At least, I truly hope she was rehearsing because if this was her main performance we were doing her a great injustice. Her entire audience of three were all just sat at the bar smoking, drinking, contemplating, and a little lyric scribbling in one case.
She didn’t seem bothered. She just got on with it. Popped her CD into the player. Oh yes, a CD player in 1985. She was clearly a progressive stripper. My memory is pretty sharp despite the drinking, and I am quite convinced that she danced to just the one piece of music. It was Drive by the Cars. Already welded to my psyche by Live Aid, this drivel was now going to be locked inside my head as a stripper song too.
In the beginning I wanted to feel sorry for her. A woman past her prime, reduced to dancing for money in a seedy little pub in North London. Then I contemplated myself. A drunk, scratching a living writing for other people whilst pissing what I earned up the walls and making my lungs itch.
There was no-one to feel sorry for. We were just players in life’s rich pageant. A stripper and a drunk; a drunk and a stripper. Play on!