Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Harlequins and Dominatrixes in Fitzrovia and Soho

Working away from 'home', my route from Kings Cross took in Fitzrovia and Soho.

I've passed through Fitzrovia countless times over the years, but never by exactly the same route. I always know roughly where I'm going but never precisely, the Post Office Tower acting as a sort of surrogate compass when a reference point is needed.

In Fitzrovia I encountered dipictions of two figures. The first a Harlequin, painted on the exterior of a bizarre toy shop that appeared to belong to an earlier age. Pollock's Toy Museum does indeed date back to the 1960s but it felt like it had been there much longer. The strange Victorian toys in the window display made it more akin to a cabinet of curiosities than a Hamleys or Toys R Us. While in the immediate vicinity of the shop I briefly felt transported back to a different time, a slightly sinister foggy one, with a cane wielding top hatted Lon Chaney figure lurking on each corner instead of a Japanese sushi takeaway establishment. The moment passed as I left the shop's field of gravity and was thrust back into contemporary Fitzrovia. A safer, more sober and less interesting place than in my brief imaginings or it's much written about postwar heydey.

The Harlequin, a character dressed in a mulicoloured diamond costume and usually wearing a black mask, originates from the Italian comedia del'arrte. The character is associated with both foolishness (possibly contrived in order to confuse and cause chaos) and trickery. The Harlequin is also associated with dextrous physical acrobatic skills. A variation on the character arrived in England in the 1700s and a bit later was paired up with the contrasting clown figure, developed by Joseph Gramaldi (who is buried a couple of miles away in the park named after him near Angel, where you can dance on his grave and make it play a tune).  The Harlequin, along with the Jester, was used extensively in the symbolism of Marillion's record covers and song lyrics in the 80s. This association brought about a slightly unwelcome earworm. I needed something a bit more upbeat than Fish's pained wailings at this time of the morning.

The second figure I discovered in Fitzrovia was a grotesque Teresa May/Marilyn Monroe hybrid. An apparition as horrific as it was no doubt intended. The shop it was painted on had closed, the window newspapered up. A situation no doubt exacerbated by the malevolent presence of Marilyn-Teresa.

Parts of Fitzrovia are being disrupted by Cross Rail. A cynic might say a sneaky excuse for getting rid of the remaining interesting pubs, cafes and restaurants to replace them with the latest corporate number nine models.  I noticed, with alarm, that the Sam Smith's pub 'The Champion' was being refurbished. I wondered why, it was perfectly alright last time I went in. The wooden, William morris-ey darkness of Sam Smith's pubs are always welcome places of escape. I hope they don't spoil it. There is another up the road, The Blue Posts and I'm sure I've once been in a third in Fitzrovia but i've never been able to find it since.

The Harlequin, is often characterised as a trickster or devil, a bringer of chaos, the fun sort of chaos.  The Marylin-Teresa figure seemed to represent the exact opposite. An authoritarian order of brightly lit dull piped music temperate horror where you do what you are told to do or suffer the consequences. I'm siding with the Harlequin and will shout him a pint in the 'Posts.

Across the divide of Oxford Street into Soho, I found myself near the axis of Berwick Street/Great Marlborough Street. More depictions of May. In one she is in a band with the Queen and Angela Merkel called 'The Dominatrixes', all three dressed as such. A horrific and disturbing vision which I was still trying to wash from my mind some time later.

On Berwick Street market, things were no less disturbing. Since I'd last visited, the shops under Kemp House, a large tower block that rises above the market, have been hidden behind boarding pending development. On one of the boards were images of LP covers from the Reckless Records shop. Reckless was never located here and still operates down the road. It was a place I used to go to a lot 'back in the day' when Reckless Records own label released a string of LPs by The Bevis Frond, still a musical favourite and a figure intertwined with London as it exists in my head.

Under Kemp House had been Sister Ray, which moved up the road a while back, and Music and Video Exchange which has gone from not far away to where the sign above currently stands never to return. The words, next to the Reckless covers, seemed to convey a spirit of defeat and resignation to the development to come.

I left the market hoping it would still be here next time I visited. Soon after I passed The John Snow', another Sam Smith's Pub, one I've never been in. Named after a Dr who discovered cholera is caused by drinking water infected by sewage, rather than 'dirty air' as was thought at the time. Not the Channel 4 news presenter (Jon).

Soon after I'd crossed Regent Street and New Bond Street and was in the heart of Mayfair. An area I have rarely visited and one I associate with dull exclusivity. From this vantage, Fitzrovia and Soho still seemed like places that still belonged to the Harlequin.

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