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?