Goddess of Soho

31 x 2015

babette2.jpeg
babette2.jpeg

Almost exactly a year ago, I posted a blog entitled ‘The Triple Goddess of Soho’. Time marches on and Mandana Ruane still presides Athena-like over the Academy Club, sustained by that god-in-the-wings Andrew Edmunds. The Trouble Club of Jo Lo Dico is in temporal abeyance as she continues her bravura career as journalist and ponders the availability, cost and travail of reopening in a district whose ‘left bank’ tradition is rapidly being eclipsed by millionaire trendies. The third of the goddesses, Babette Kulik, has with her partner led the Society Club on to the new Soho of Shoreditch, where their exquisite second bookstore/bar has just opened. Yet with typical bravery and at risk of doubling her ‘trouble’, this wonderful goddess has kept the Soho club going.

For this, we veterans of the no longer mean streets of the district are grateful, immensely. People arrive at the friendly, well-lighted place for a drink, perhaps hardly aware of what sacrifice has gone into its making. Creative folk – the kind who attend our poetry nights – are sometimes too preoccupied to recognize the risk and personal over-extension involved in provision of what is enabling for them. We should always be aware, especially in London of now, of the long treks staff must regularly make from bedsits at the end of some tube line, of late night bus rides and wee-hours’ strolls through conclaves of drunken cat-callers. Exuberance in our city has its dark side of unspoken tension. Whether financial, physical or simply psychological, it lurks. We must be kind to each other.

Poetry nights can be fun purely. They can also be time and place for catharsis. Who knows the fear behind words when someone new answers the bell to read from her work for the first time? There may be tears behind laughter in an old guy’s jaunty ballad or a youth’s perfectly rhymed Petrarchan sonnet. Death of a gay lover or decades-gone joy may be clapped for an instant, then we go back to light chat and the next sip of a cocktail. And all the while the ones behind the bar are working. And there is a host trying to shape an evening’s pleasure. And shadowing all are the hidden anxieties, petty or real fears, quotidian sorrows, egos and physical quirks.

It takes a true goddess to make a place like the Society Club work – first to provide the venue, second to make it attractive, third to make it ever welcoming, fourth to transform it into a family, fifth to keep that family loving, sixth… Well, I won’t go on. Those of you who watch and who know can fill in the rest. We of the Society Club, Soho, are all devoted to Babette. Out of the aether she has captured a delectable dream and through diligence formed it into an entity we have all sorely needed. Long may it last. And long may she preside over it.

Break Time

If a week is a long time in politics, so two years is in Poetry Nights. For a break, we have retarded Friday revels until September 25th. By then faithful attendees will have restored their rhythms and melodies over summer break and rentree. Meanwhile, in place of our regular comment, we post a contribution from one of our favourites - Lail Arad - a song as worthy of being considered a poem as any, which she has sung for us brilliantly in high moments of our Fridays to date. Lail will be there in September for the start of our new season, open to all members and others for fiver, and themed for a change - love, death, youth, age, lust, peace, war or what-you-will, to be announced.
Ah bientot and alla prossima!
C  

 1934 (A Song For Leonard Cohen)

I would have been your lover
probably not more
my survival skills
would have danced me to the door

but for a time I'd be your muse
let me amuse you with the image
up the hill in Hydra
or down in Greenwich Village

and the sun would turn me olive
and I'd pose for the sleeve
the cold would keep us warm
under blankets thick as thieves

sólo es música
a poor man's prose
sólo es música
a rich man's woes

I'd be high on hormones
you'd be low on cash
we'd uncork a bottle
smoke into the stash

just when I'd feel like I'd arrived
you'd say you have to leave
I'd be left looking at myself
on your record sleeve

and I'd grow jealous of Olivia
and of your Olivetti
stop playing the artist Lenny
"I tried, but he won't let me"

sólo es música
a poor man's prose
sólo es música
a rich man's woes

I try to take it stoically
we all take what we can
how it feels to be the lady
of a ladies' man

head held high I walk this town
I've taken what I can
and I still hear you whisper to me
"I'm your man"

yes I would have been your lover
no I wouldn't ask for more
it's just shame that you were born
in 1934

sólo es música
a poor man's prose
sólo es música
a rich man's woes

sólo es música
a poor man's prose
sólo es música
just a rich man's woes


Time Passes

Time passes. We have a new website, we have new books on the shelves, we have new poets and readers and rapt listeners. Yet much remains – regulars Erik and Leon and Gregory, with their new or old songs and verses; relative newcomers Emanuele and Charley and Chimet, who are game to try out their voices whenever they arrive. We are fortunate for the new as well as the old. And the new have included some with slim vols already published or with recordings you should hasten to download, not only our faithful Lail Arad but also multilingual Camilla Mathias.

Multilingual – polyphonic – a space of liberty – that’s what we are. On the last night of May two further newcomers began, Marie-Charlotte with Heredia’s ‘L’Empereur sanglante’, Lydia with a traditional verse in Chinese about a son leaving his mother to become a state official. The globe began turning. Nina read the poem by her fellow-Bengali Rabindranath Tagore which Nehru recited to the nation on the famous midnight when India threw off the raj. Then George read Cafavy’s ‘Ithaka’ in Greek, with Katina translating in English. Sheera followed a famous piece by W. H. Auden with a lyric in Hebrew. At the end of the evening Camilla sang a romantic ballad half in Italian.

We are cosmopolitan, as is this unofficial capital of the world. The provinces of all countries come to mix here. Meanwhile, among native speakers, Leon in his softly modulated northern accent recited two original pieces, while Jennifer in indelible Amerikin told one of her tales of Baghdad. Jen, not American, nonetheless read a passage from Ginsburg’s ‘Kaddish’, bookending a series which began with me reading a section out of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. In between came Keleigh Wolf, whose new poem in honour of club regular Charlotte extended the range of her already formidable Ginsburg-ian or perhaps Whitmanesque oeuvre. It was big; it was bold. A rich evening.

All our evenings are rich in their way, even the ones which followed Sophie’s departure in April after a party so festive that some may have thought it was an end. If it was that, it was also a new start. Mark Fiddes appeared to delight us with sly comic jibes at George Clooney and at the oligarch carry-on dominating the Chelsea Flower Show. We had Louise Stern whose communication by hand, eye and expression only enhanced the charm of her performance and the depth of her tales. A stalwart is Barney, whether reading his own work or a passage from Douglas Dunn, hitting out at hypocrisy in subtle modulation of humour and rage. Nor least has been Leila reading passages from her book of stories set in Cuba, laconic yet tidily detailed about place, personality and interpersonal perfidy.

I stand by the bar and ring the bell, and things happens. It is almost always different from what I’ve expected, even when coming from me. It was perhaps just desserts that when I tried a sequence of Shakespearean sonnets, our stalwart Will halted it by clapping after a line which ran ‘But fires flicker still, I’m not yet dust’. Who would want to hear about dust in this lively place, let alone what may come after? Merciless Death is banned, or retarded, however it may lurk as subject. Poetry countenances all, but on our Friday nights it is many-tongued Love and polyphonic brio that rules.

AT FIRST THERE WAS NO ONE

It was a blessed night on which everyone came. At first there was no one, and I wondered if I were going to have to perform for all. Of course I like to perform. Everyone who’s ever performed more than a few times will have sensed that it’s an excitement not quite like any other and can grow to become an addiction. But like all addictions it has to be curbed. I run the poetry evenings; I don’t want to dominate them. And so when no poets or reciters or readers are there, I feel morose.

But then they began coming, and surprising us with their amazing differences. There was Boots Bantock, who performs on the streets, announcing a mock horse-race in which all the runners are the maladies that catch up with us in advancing life. Then there was Benny Higgins remembering Bobby Burns’ ‘Red Red Rose’ for the Swedish blonde on his arm. Our veteran Leon arrived with an impassioned recollection of a London illuminated by his muse. Then Lail sang with dark humour and light irony of what becomes of young beauties as they wile away the years living a life ‘so artistic’.

Others were peering from outside through the curtains and coming in through the doors, friends and unknowns, more and more appearing, as if for a moment it was here and now and nowhere else: a creative vortex, centre of the earth. Well, maybe it was. Who can say where and when it is? They stood at the bar listening and chatting and drinking. Stephen and Sophie had to rush, overborne, trying to fill multitudinous orders. At the tables the many laughed, waited and watched, and when the bell rang Erik stood up to strum his ‘Nightcrawler’ with Emil rumbling back chords on the piano.

Ah, the magic. How long can it last? But why ask. It will last so long as they keep coming, so long as there are a Happy Few. Olga was persuaded to recite Pasternak, in Russian. Emanuele read ‘The Alchemist’ by Pound and all the alembic terms rolled in his Italian pronunciation as if a sorcerer were incanting. After that his friend Nick treated us to the mystery of Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, and I wanted to retort with Yeats’s ‘Second Coming’, but Lail’s boyfriend Yayo had said that he preferred love to metaphysics, so I formed a little romantic arch out of lyrics by Shakespeare, Yeats and Byron.

‘We shall go no more a-roving’? Not yet, my friends – we’ll keep on. The night is young by last orders – almost 11 o’clock – and nobody makes a single motion to leave. Who could want to? It seems that the magic has only just begun. Greg stands at the bar marvelling: what hath Babette wrought in this velveteen space with its bookshelves enclosing us lovingly, its saucy photos and clever prints staring down from high walls – and a mirror behind the bar which has a story, at least so Erik tells me, though nobody seems to know quite what? Hound of the Baskervilles? Picture of Dorian Gray?

Needn’t ask. Feel the spirit. Silken night-time in misty Soho. A joyful, well-lighted place. A company. A club. An enclave of liberty and communion and being yourself, saying what you like, becoming addicted or not to performing, maybe just settling in as a voyeur... paradise for the eternal flâneur.

HOW THINGS END

How do things end? Love affairs, literary excursions, sojourns into divine counter-lives? How long can you linger, retarding the climax, holding back on what you know has to come? And when it can no longer be held back, what makes the climax and what flows in its aftermath? Glory, dejection, bitterness, exfoliation, calm? There’s an end. The cycle must begin again, a gradual build-up, one eye to the past, the other towards something new.

Temptation always is to go back, do it again, try to re-find the exquisite moment, repeat. But can you go back again, and if you can once, twice, twenty or two hundred times, can you forever? Is there forever ever on this side of the end – the complete end? Love and Death. Eros and Thanatos – what other subjects, finally, are worth poetry? And what more can be said about either? Journeyman worry that all has been said. The ones burning with life don’t pause to wonder. Life is flaying them onward; their cries and their sighs and barks of exuberant joy rise up in an agitation of pursuit. Onwards! Onwards! the rushing swirl – this is the atmosphere of poetry.

Gods, help me get out of the backwoods of schoolmasters and inhibition. Fuck the repression, let the sounds burble, erupt – let the lava explode from within. Or… What about those who have chilled, lost the glow or – worse still – never had it, yet know and rue what is missed? Somewhere in inhibition may lie the instinct too, what drove Emily Dickinson or T. S. Eliot, young and old. We can’t all be Shelley or self-destroying Pound. ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worse are full of passionate intensity’… Even Yeats was made fine half by inhibition – ‘Only the greatest obstacle that can be contemplated without despair lures the soul to perfection’.

Be brave: that’s the message. Nor do I cease to be amazed by how people manage to overcome fear and stand up to speak, however tremulously, or declaim to cover trepidation, even if unexpected – even if sometimes they don’t quite want to. So on a recent poetry night, which was quieter than our usual Fridays, came the observable tenderness of Steven trying something new, an animadversion on butchery, a brief shade of a deceased aunt; then Emanuele in Italian sharing the first verse he ever wrote, age fifteen – a meditation on the inadequacy of words against ‘primordial sound’ – then Charlotte joining in with Bukowski, then Rowan Pelling being persuaded to stanzas about a pathway that hides a wealth of unknown histories under busy feet which tread on it, lock-step in the provinciality of the present.

There is nothing stale when people try the surprising or new. A performer rehearsing what’s been perfected before is in effect hawking commodity. An admirer reciting that performer’s words pays an homage, which is different: he is remaking himself and making the other new. ‘The living give life to the imaginings of the dead,’ Yeats also said, or something like it. It is part of our purpose: to treat the dead to love, to bring back their spirits, to live their loving again and let it inform our own. Because our Eros is not the first or perhaps even the best, though it may seem so as we feel it. Nor is our Thanatos, however intensely it may flay us, however particular a tragedy. Humility in the face of the universal is part of the process. Erik came to sing a song at the end of the evening. His voice had a new element of defeat in it, a kind of resignation which gave it unexpected authority.

How do things end? Perhaps the essential question to ponder before attempting any new start...

THE GODDESSES OF SOHO AND THE SIRENS OF FRIDAY NIGHT

I don’t suppose the sagacious Carl Jung ever tripped the light fantastic of Soho. But if the contra-Freudian devotee of the Triple Goddess had lurked in present-day environs of Lexington Street, he might have skryed her incarnation in the mistresses of its triangle of literate clubs: the Academy, Trouble and the Society. I doubt that Mandana Ruane, Joy Lo Dico and Babette Kulik would like to be identifed strictly as the Hera, Athena and Aphrodite of the district, so let’s agree that each partakes of the tri-partite deity in differing phases. All are goddesses in what they offer us mere mortals plying our odysseys through the mean streets, searching  for some cove to wash up in lest the songs of Sirens lure us onto the rocks or the charms of some Circe metamorphose us into pigs.

Moving among novelists, politicos, journalists, diarists, feminists, post-feminists, secret masculinists and glorious would-bes, the seeker in quest of a bohemian shore may hear the sounds of his secret Lorelei best once he has supped with Mandana, been stimulated by Joy and arrives at Babette‘s. Her cadre of young centaurs and nymphs serve delectable cocktails and radiate love for the forlorn as readily as the famed. The Society Club might almost have for its motto Dylan’s ‚‘She knows there’s no success like failure/And that failure’s no success at all.‘ Indeed, it may be the message of its first publication, memorializing a year of Poetry Nights in which no Name is included but every inclusion has the freshness and lived quality of genuine inspiration. Wonderful woodcuts by barman Tom illustrate it. They are so good that you might think them real motive for the slim vol’s existence.

Handsomely framed, they gaze down from the walls over Babette’s bookshelves, blessing the revels. Buy them now while they’re cheap, for their unfamed creator may shortlly be one of the Club’s shooting stars. Thus we come to the secret lurking around Babette‘s banquettes, where the unknown and unhyped are quietly gestating into the famed of the future. On poetry nights the youngest  test their words and their sounds, while the elder who‘ve been at it for arduous decades may find an audience new and renewing. All proceeds under the benign eye and blithe spirit of this goddess, whose faith in the risk she is taking – the unrehearsed dream she pursues – is in itself amply inspiring to other stray argonauts who are blown through her door by Soho‘s winds foul or fair.

We start a new year now. On the last poetry night of the old, two tables competed in praising a muse – Adam at one end his Sylvia, Helen and Bobby and Mike at the other their Charlotte. Will got his voice finally with a stanza of Byron, while Kate added ‘She Walks in Beauty‘ and Joachim evaded promoting his book on early cartoons of Hitler by reciting ‘ The Sick Rose‘ by William Blake. Original work came from Leon, and Katey Miller displayed her genius for song at piano. As the evening ended, Babette retired to a banquette to listen to Tom, so much more than a barman, perform ‘ The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock‘. Fierce acclaim. Then George, our events man, enthused us with a vigorous ‘Amsterdam‘. Not a bad evening when you consider that many favourites had already fled to L.A. or elsewhere for Christmas. I trust they had fun there, but I’d bet that they spent more than a mauvaisquartre d‘heure longing to get back to this magic corner of Soho where the goddesses reign.