Denmark Street - that enticing and endangered link between St Giles High Street and Charing Cross Road - is much more than simply London's faded Tin Pan Alley, the once legendary home of music publishers and recording studios. It's the most substantial surviving remnant of old St Giles, one of the more notorious of the rookeries of mid-Victorian London. The wonderful early eighteenth century St Giles-in-the-Fields is yards away, and the area around was a stronghold of artisan radicalism 150 years ago. Denmark Street still has a handful of marvellous late seventeenth century buildings - and is still choc-a-bloc with guitar shops and music businesses which give it a wonderfully louche air.
It was also the spot where one of South Asia's most influential literary movements, the leftist Indian Progressive Writers' Association, was founded. The venue was the basement of the Nanking restaurant - and the date, according to the scholar Carlo Coppola, was probably the evening of Saturday, 24 November, 1934.
I've long wondered where exactly the Nanking restaurant was - whether it was a precursor of the Giaconda, the dining rooms where music magnates lunched (and now an up-market burger bar). With the help of a 1940 street directory in Holborn Library, I've cracked it. The Nanking was at number 4 (the street hasn't been renumbered), on the south side, and towards the St Giles High Street end. It was next to a labour exchange (that's now a Fernandez and Wells coffee shop).
After the Nanking, no. 4 became the Regent Sounds Studios, where the Rolling Stones put together their first album back in 1964 and where Black Sabbath, Elton John, the Kinks and Jimi Hendrix also recorded. So - quite a shrine to the golden age of British rock. There's more about the street's musical heritage here.
The main business in no. 4 today is Regent Sounds, not studios but a guitar shop specialising in Fender and Gretsch. And the basement - the spot where the IPWA met - is a bar and live music venue, the Alley Cat.
In the early thirties, Denmark Street was buzzing with Chinese and Japanese restaurants and businesses. The China Rhyming blog uncovered a description from the Queenslander newspaper (not quite sure why they were showing such interest, but I am glad they did) in 1932. Here it is:
“….enter Denmark Street, which is now almost wholly given over to Chinese and Japanese restaurants and emporia. Undoubtedly the most amusing of these places is The Nanking, presided over by Mr. Fung Saw. Mr. Fung is some thing of a politician, and to his restaurant come many of the more youthful of the budding Parliamentarians. These, together with composers and song writers, their publishers and film artists, comprise the chief of Mr. Fung’s clientele. The hall of feasting is reached by long, steep steps, which lead to an exceptionally large, light, and lofty basement. There is another and a mere prosaic entrance through a hall door on the ground floor, but somehow no one ever seems to notice it, and so we descend the more picturesque steps. Inside, the decorations are reminiscent of a Chinese junk, and the walls are decorated in vermilion and in greens and yellows, which only a Chinese artist is able to use to Oriental perfection. On the opposite side of the road are two Japanese restaurants, and just round the corner we can enter the banqueting hall of Wah Yeng, who contents himself with catering, to the exclusion of everything else. Mr. Yeng explained that he had a largo back room, which he reserved for Chinese business men, but as Chinese merchants do not so often come to London the hall at the back is usually thrown open to all.”
By 1940, there were only a couple of Chinese and Japanese restaurants on Denmark Street - though the East Asian aspect was reinforced by a number of Japanese shops and businesses.
But the directory demonstrates that by the outbreak of the Second World War, Denmark Street was already established as the centre of the music publishing industry - there were eighteen music related businesses in this single, short street as well as a handful of movie enterprises.
In his reminiscences, Sajjad Zaheer gave an account of the Association's first meeting: 'A Chinese restaurant owner of London was very considerate towards us and used to offer the back room of his restaurant free of charge. This small, unventilated cellar could accommodate forty to fifty people with difficulty. Our regualr meeting was held there.' (Zaheer wrote a novella about Indian student life in and around Bloomsbury, A Night in London - here's an excellent account if it and the context in which it was written.)
According to the novelist and founder member Mulk Raj Anand, it was at a monthly meeting of the Association at the Nanking restaurant in the followng year, 1935.that its manifesto was adopted. It opens with these stirring words:
Radical changes are taking place in Indian society. Fixed ideas and old beliefs, social and political institutions are being challenged. Out of the present turmoil and conflict, a new society is arising. The spirit of reaction, however, though moribund and doomed to ultimate decay, is still operative and is making desperate efforts to prolong itself.
It is the duty of Indian writers to give expression to the changes taking place in Indian life and to assist the spirit of progress in the country.
And a closing thought: Denmark Street sports a blue plaque celebrating Tin Pan Alley. Shouldn't there be one for the Indian Progressive Writers' Association too, perhaps on the outside of the Alley Cat?
'Ouvert Jour & Nuit' ... as they say in St Giles. I spotted this tremendous ghost sign right at the heart of London only yesterday, when loitering with intent with an old friend in and around St Giles-in-the-Fields. It's on a gable wall overlooking the churchyard, obscured by a tree and probably only visible at all when the leaves have fallen.
The sign is for the 'Continental Garage' - and I guess the splash of French is just to show a touch of sophistication, though there was a Francophone community in nearby Soho right down to the Second World War. At some stage, the sign has been altered to read 'Prince's Garage'., but the earlier rendition remains more legible.
This splendid sign was new to me - but is of course known to ghost sign aficionados. There's more about it, and a photo taken eight years ago when the sign was a touch clearer, on this specialist blog. And there are some images on Flickr, this one from 2009.
The church and this garage front the rather sad stub that is all that's left of St Giles High Street, on its truncated run from High Holborn to Denmark Street. This was once a rookery, as was Seven Dials nearby ... in popular song and literature, the roughs of St Giles was often set against the toffs of fashionable St James. This song sheet from the 1860s is from the British Library's online collection and in a similar vein Douglas Jerrold wrote the 1851 potboiler St Giles and St James, now available online.
But when it comes to churches, give me St Giles - and its immediate environs, Flitcroft Street and the community gardens behind - any day. Such an overlooked treasure and so close to Tottenham Court Road tube.
The church was designed by Henry Flitcroft in the 1730s, and merits the two full pages it gets in Pevsner. It's truly magnificent, with a three-sided gallery, crowded with wonderful memorials, not the least of which is a blue plaque to George Odger, the mid-Victorian radical labour leader, moved from St Giles High Street when Odger's old home was cleared forty years ago.
This area was a stronghold of O'Brienite artisan radicalism - followers of the Chartist Bronterre O'Brien - in the second half of the nineteenth century. The O'Brienites met at the Eclectic Hall just yards away on Denmark Street, better known as Tin Pan Alley, where a handful of late seventeenth century houses still survive (though whether the music industry will cling on here is much less certain).
Denmark Street has another claim on the interests of historians of radicalism. The hugely influential Indian Progressive Writers' Association was founded by Sajjad Zaheer, Mulk Raj Anand and others in the basement of the Nanking restaurant on Denmark Street. I haven't worked out where exactly it was - but I'm working on it. .
Of all the old central London localities, St Giles has been squeezed into almost nothing. St Giles High Street - it still exists, indeed there's a solitary 'Borough of Holborn' street sign - is so anonymous, you need to have done the knowledge to know where it is. But St Giles is worth the search.
Within the shadow of Centrepoint, St Giles in the Fields is one of the most marvellous of London's old parish churches. Built in 1734, with a fine, and well maintained, Palladian interior.
Head out of the gates towards the northern end of Shaftesbury Avenue, and you find two of the city most atmospheric retailers. I am not sure who shops there, but I am so glad that someone is sustaining these venerable institutions.
James Smith and Sons ('established 1830'), umbrella makers and sellers, has about the best traditional shop front in London. A hundred yards away, Arthur Beale ('established four centuries'), yacht chandlers, claims even more ancient antecedents.
Head the other way, and you are on Denmark Street - the original Tin Pan Alley, and still a slightly disreputable mix of music shops, instrument repairers, and seedy-looking clubs. I sometimes stroll along Denmark Place, alongside the entrance to the '12 bar club'. This was where London's OBrienities - followers of the Chartist and socialist Bronterre O'Brien - met in the 1870s and 80s.
St Giles was a stronghold of artisan radicalism. And there's a vestige of that in the church - an LCC blue plaque for George Odger, a working man radical. A sign below explains: 'The George Odger plaque, formerly on 18 St Giles High Street, was placed here in 1874'. The novelist Henry James stumbled across his funeral procession, and wrote kindly of it.
If you stroll along the side of the church, you come across central London's most hidden oasis. Flitcroft Street takes you past the renovated Elms Lesters Painting Rooms, along a passage, and to Phoenix Gardens. This is simply the best designed small garden in London. It's looked after, well looked after, by a local private charity. The photo gives a sense of the place - and this is just three minutes from Oxford Street.
Phoenix Gardens boasts that it has the only frogs in the West End. Well, perhaps. It is sadly about the last of the communatarian ventures started in Covent Garden and Seven Dials a generation ago. Perhaps the last vestige of the old St Giles radicalism. But it's still there!
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