Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Gyre & Gimble Coffee House: London 1950s

In the ongoing documentation of the history of London nightlife, I have mentioned before the cellar coffee bars of the West End in the 1950s. One such place was the Gyre and Gimble Coffee House (obviously named after the line in Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky), situated near to Charing Cross Station in John Adam Street.

In 1956, Johnny Booker (1934-2007) took over as manager of the Gyre and Gimble (sometimes known as 'the G's') and began to play music there with friends who became the nucleus of The Vipers, one of the foremost bands in the 1950s skiffle scene. They had a number of hit records, with Booker (recording as 'Johnny Martyn') as one of the singers). Other musicians hung out at the coffee house, including folk guitarist Davey Graham, Long John Baldry, Rod Stewart and soon-to-be English pop star Tommy Steele (as writer and fellow G's habitué Michael Moorcock recalls).

In the book The Map is not the Territory, artist and Situationist Ralph Rumney, recalls an encounter in the G&G with Steele that the latter would probably rather forget (he doesn't mention in his 'Bermondsey Boy' autobiography):

"There was a place called the Gyre and Gimble in a basement in Adams Street that one used to go in at night. and you'd buy a coffee and they'd let you nod off on the table. And Tommy Steele used to come in there and twang on his guitar and sing and make an awful racket, and all of us were just trying to have a quiet kip and we kept telling him to shut up and he wouldn't. And I had a very large friend at that time - Gerald, he was called - who was a bit of a thug...

Anyway, he came down one night - well, he used to come down every night - but he came down one night and Tommy Steele was twanging away as usual - Rock Island Line and skiffle - Rockin' with the Caveman - it was really tiresome. because he didn't have much of a repertoire in those days. And from the top of the stairs Gerald yelled out STOP THAT RACKET. and Tommy Steele didn't. So Gerald just put his hand on the banister, leapt over it. and landed on Tommy Steele, feet first. and cracked about four of his ribs, so he had to be taken to hospital. Which got us barred for about three days [laughs]. And we never saw Tommy Steele there again".

There's a more positive account at the excellent Classic Cafes: 'A dingy narrow doorway, with the name of the establishment in barely-legible swirly lettering, led down stairs which opened up into a very large basement area. The smoky dive had low crude wooden tables and chairs and the whole place had a rustic feel. A sort of menu was scrawled on one of the dark walls, but I had no appetite for eating there. Most of the customers looked as though they had not seen daylight for some time. The coffee however was very good and in generously large cups... Polly and I became regulars at the Gyre & Gimble and joined an informal group of pseudo-intellectuals who used to meet there on Sunday evenings. They had dubbed themselves The New Day Dadaists and in the spirit of Marcel Duchamp discussed ideas to mock the art establishment. They even got as far to putting out an advertisement for an exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite painting at a derelict house in Bloomsbury. Really radical'.

Certainly some interesting cross-cultural/counter-cultural traffic through this place, prompting questions about connections real or imagined: did anarchist Sci-Fi writer Moorcock know Rumney? Was the latter one of the 'New Day Dadaists'? Could history have taken a different turn so that Rod Stewart ended up with the Situationists in Paris in May 1968 instead of touring the States with the Jeff Beck Group?

17 comments:

Colin said...

The quote from Classic Cafes was about right. A bar at the back could be closed quickly without trace. I was there when a scout came round asking if anyone played the guitar. I'm sure it was Tommy who said "Yes" and he was carted off to the 2 Is. That was the last we saw of him at the G & G.
Habitue

Anonymous said...

The quote from Classic Cafes was about right. A bar at the back could be closed quickly without trace. I was there when a scout came round asking if anyone played the guitar. I'm sure it was Tommy who said "Yes" and he was carted off to the 2 Is. That was the last we saw of him at the G & G.
Habitue

Anonymous said...

any body remember a guy called Beth, and another calledPat Cunningham, we spent our youth keeping out of the sun in the G&G we were at camberwel art school together, during the late 50s we frequented Cy Lauries jazz club as well, the names boxer, dirty dave, iron foot jack , pip and adell also com to mind, also hung out in a coffee bar called the neuclas in monmath street.

Rupert said...

Clive Palmer of the Incredible String Band has said to me that he used to hang out at the Gyre and Gimble with Wizz Jones before he went to Scotland....

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I remember the Gyre and Gimble - used to go there with various bods after the Ken Collyer Jazz club.Not on a regular basis though. There was a guy there who claimed to be an astrologer - coffee was good. Those were the days....wild...

Anonymous said...

i remember the astrologer , his name was ernest, do you recall anyother names? Beth

Anonymous said...

Ca't remeber any other names - it was sooooo long ago!!!

Jean said...

Diz Disley used to call in the Nucleus in Monmouth St.........Oh lordy those were the days. Also the Gyre & Gimble was referred to as The G&G NOT the Gs

Jean said...

Tommy Steele was Tommy Hicks in those days & he first came in with a tea chest, broom stick & string....

Jean said...

There was a guy called Tony who had a gingery beard & a deep brown voice & he used to sing "Way Down In The Mine" with Johnny on guitar.
We were heavily into folk stuff, but Tommy Hicks/Steele wanted more middle of the road stuff which is why Gerald landed on him......Oh yes !

Anonymous said...

We called it the Two G's (my friend Ettie and I).We were very young but were totally safe there!

jan murray said...

I used to go there after the jazz clubs and missing the last train back to Epsom. Couldnt afford a coffee but they let you hang around till morning. RememberLong John Baldry regaling those who were awake one night.
Met Clive Palmer a few years later in Paris(1960?) - and Wiz and Mick Softley.

Jon said...

I remember it as the G's. Tony Zemaitis used to play there when he was making acoustic guitars. Always very open about about what he played and how. Unlike Davey Graham who sometimes used to cover his hands up with newspaper.

Ian Douglas said...

The astrolger was named Ernie Page an ex postman, Long grey hair, hunched shoulders and carrying a small suitcase with his astrology charts. He used to prefer Sam widges Coffee bar to the 2Gs. He often kept company with a ladyboy prostitute called Angel.
Both the G's and the Nucleus were places to sleep but always noisy and for cheap food we would use an all night cafe in Fleet street, a large chunk of their bread pudding would keep you going for hours.

thomas salter said...

I remember all of us leaving the Gyre, and Gimble in the early hours, and catching the milk train for a day out in Brighton arriving in the morning. We called ourselves Bohemians, and were before the Beatniks playing guitars, 3 chords, and singing folksongs. I was still doing my R.A.F National Service stationed at Bentley Priory, and trying to hide that aspect. Dressing up in our so called bohemian clothes. I met lifelong friends in those days, mostly at the Nucleus where Cliff Pritchard was the owner, and we all went off to Cornwall where he married Caryl.Also the Coffee House in Northumberland Ave where I used to sit withTerry Donovan sorting out the worlds problems, before he became a famous photographer. Best of all I met my wife at the Nucleus.


Buelligan said...

It was always G's to me & my friends. I'd been going there for months before I noticed, or was shown, the name Gyre & Gimble over the door at street level. On the ground floor was a dubious bookshop selling Spick & likely magazines. The best nights there, for me, were when Long John Baldry was there with his 12-string guitar singing classic old blues numbers. Wizz Jones was a regular, with his shoulder length hair. Around street level he got verbal abuse from tourists & office workers because of it! He had long hair even before Barrie Humphries was around! I well remember Ernest, the elderly astrologer (well, I was early 20s) giving me a reading for the price of a coffee or two!
Around that time '59 to early '60s I moved from Bramerton Street to Rathbone Street, & the West End was an inspiring place to live.

Anonymous said...

It's coming up to 22nd. March. Diz Disley died on that date in2010.
Bet you're keeping them buzzing up there lovely man. Miss you. XXX