This is Iron Foot Jack – the Uncrowned King of Soho (London). I was living and working in London in the early 1950s and most of my leisure time was spent in the newly-opened coffee houses in and around Soho. These were the haunt of the bohemians – artists, writers, `resting` actors, musicians and `characters` closely followed by students, nurses and people like me who had a good day job but enjoyed their company in the evenings. It was a mainly harmless pursuit – we would meet at one given coffee bar and during the course of the evening make our way onto a couple of others. The new Gaggia coffee machines were installed in most of the places – huge, glistening chrome affairs that hissed steam into the air to mingle with the cigarette smoke for nearly everyone smoked and the atmosphere was pretty fetid. Coffee cost 9d (old pence) and usually we would all make one cup each last all evening.
We would sit and talk and talk and talk – putting the world to rights. No drugs ever came my way and indeed had that happened I would have refused. I only knew two of the circle who took drugs – Benzidrine Bill and Penny – we actually felt sorry for them. Most evenings someone would bring a guitar along and another person bongo drums and a sing-song of mainly Folk Songs would begin. One particular coffee bar – The Gyre & Gimble had a resident guitarist – Dorian – who would play softly in the background and compose witty ditties about the customers which he would almost speak in his educated drawl as he played. In one place – Bunjies – one of our group composed a song which went something like this `Sitting in Bunjies my heart began to throb – for one cappuccino would set me back a bob. And for a sandwich I`d have to sell my soul; for six weeks I`ve saved up to buy a sausage-roll`. The owner didn`t like that tune much and would threaten to throw us out. But it was mainly Folk Music with the odd Rugby song thrown in if the University students were about. .
Of course this music played in the coffee houses was the beginning of the Skiffle and later Rock `n Roll era which I just missed. Apparently Tommy Steele used to come into the Gyre & Gimble and play his guitar rather tunelessly and people would ask him to stop!
Which brings me round to the title of this post and the reason for the rather lurid bookjacket (from the 1950s) shown below:
Iron Foot Jack loaned me this book back in the 1950s – he took rather a shine to me and personally I never found him to be the drunken, scrounging old character that people have since called him. He wrote poetry and would hand it out to people on rather grubby pieces of paper. He had one leg considerably shorter than the other and the difference in length was compensated by the boot he wore with a long iron cage on it – you could hear him coming from a long way off. Anyway he loaned me his copy of My First Two Thousand Years – the story of the Wandering Jew and I read it avidly and, of course, returned it. I have vaguely looked for it over the years but not very seriously. The other day when I was on the Amazon site I typed the title in and there it was! So I now have my own copy with, I might add, a much more tasteful cover.
The very physical presence of this book has led to me reminiscing of my many hours spent (or maybe mis-spent) in the coffee houses and remembering the innocent fun we enjoyed together. Quite how I managed always to be up on time to get ready for work the next morning is something of a mystery though but I always did!