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?
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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