Looking at the stars


I’m always falling down memory holes. One minute I’m minding my own business, the next I’m hurtling towards another dimension, re-living conversations, and remembering tastes, smells and objects long forgotten. I tell myself this is the writer’s lot, that I’m particularly attuned to the past because of my interest in uncovering universal truths. But actually, we all do it. Nostalgia is just part of the human condition.

Flickr: Jerzy Durczak

 

So there I was the other day, lying on the floor in a pitiful attempt to relieve the agony of a ricked back (caused – oh age! – by picking up a cushion from the sofa), and I suddenly recalled the stale aroma that used to greet me every time I went to work at the Embassy Club. Instantly I was transported back to that weird little episode of my young life.

It was boredom that took me there in 1982. I’d been working in the Mayfair showroom of a Venetian glass company and in the month I was there, not a soul crossed its doorstep except for friends of the Italian owner. The hideous glass chandeliers cost the earth, one batch having been ordered by the Shah of Iran just before he was deposed, their etched glass flecked with gold. I would stand and gaze out of the window and wonder what the hell had happened to the forward-motion of my life after graduation.

So when a friend said that he’d heard there were jobs going at the Embassy Club, my ears pricked up. I had been going there on Sunday nights and loved it – great music, sexy crowd, the perfect blend of smart and sleazy. The Studio 54 of London, they called it. So why not work there? If I had to have a basic job while I sought my real vocation, it might as well be somewhere fun. A few friends were horrified, as though I’d said I was considering moving into prostitution, and on reflection their fears weren’t exactly unfounded.

I had a successful interview with the manager, Stephen Hayter, and immediately gave Murano glass the heave-ho. My new job was as the drinks waiter in the downstairs bar, tucked away from the big dance floor with its muscled bartenders and flashing laser lights. On the surface this was an altogether more sedate space, but just like a gliding swan, there was a lot of movement going on below the surface. Facing the busy bar was a line of tables that was my domain and an archway through to a small eating area where co-owner Lady Edith Foxwell held court, every night entertaining a large group of hangers-on who would, from time to time, slip into the cupboard where I kept my dustpan and brush to have sex or snort something. I had to knock first if I wanted to get my duster.

I wore shorts and a cap, as all the staff did, but I doubt I pulled off the look, not like the muscly boys upstairs. Nonetheless, I do remember being pinched and patted as I moved through the busy crowd, simply accepting it as part of the territory. After a shift I often found a phone number scribbled on a torn-off piece of cigarette carton stuffed in my pocket – I would feel a frisson of excitement but never dared do anything about it. I got used to Steve Strange greeting me with a kiss and a demand for a bottle of champagne. I watched as Elton John’s manager John Reid worked the poker machine most nights before his crowd arrived. I tried to look cool when bands like Duran Duran dropped by. I smiled and cleared tables and delivered drinks and had cheeky chats with people I recognised off the telly. I got to know the sycophants and the hangers-on and to recognise those who were almost permanently off their faces.

This odd clip from French TV shows the people, the fashion and the bustle of the downstairs bar that same year:

After a month, I began to ask myself what I thought I was doing. I was clearly the wrong person to be working there – far too prim and priggish – but I did enjoy witnessing this other world, cocooned in its shadows, where the floor shook when the Piccadilly Line tube rumbled past only a few metres below. I was scared of drugs, and even a bit scared of sex, despite these being the pre-AIDS days, but I was fascinated by those who weren’t.

It couldn’t last. I remember walking through the doors one evening and being met by the familiar, sour reek of cigarette smoke, spilt booze and rancid perfume. As I prepared for the evening, I was told that I would be working at a private birthday party for Freddie Mercury. Tiny white shorts would be supplied and I think fishnets were mentioned. My job would be to carry around trays of drinks and lines of coke. It was my moment and, going the full Lady Windermere, I said, “I most certainly will not” and I left.

I regret that, in the same way I sometimes regret saying no to an evening with Elton John and his chums at the Walhamstow Dogs. What a tale to tell, I now think. But I was always too risk averse, too aware of the what-ifs. After all I knew it wasn’t my conversation they wanted. Entering another world is always fascinating but being part of it is another matter.

I started work somewhere else, thanks to a friend of Freddie Mercury’s, actually, who managed a jazz club in Covent Garden. It was so different. There I met legends who’d performed with older legends like Satchmo and Charlie Parker. Slim Gaillard showed me how to play arpeggios on the grand piano. And I stared into the eyes of Elizabeth Taylor as she pondered whether to have the artichoke or the avocado starter and I saw that they were, indeed, utterly amazing. I had entered another world again and ended up staying a whole year before I really found my groove. But it was a good one, nearer the stars than the gutter. And one whose memory holes I still occasionally and quite happily drop through.

Did you ever work at the wrong place?

prim and priggish

Categories: memoir, Other, WritingTags: , , , , , , , , ,

20 comments

  1. Loved reading this, Colin. So evocative and so very interesting. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I remember moving from the safety of my sleepy village to the ‘wild’ life of London…WHAT an eye-opener it was for me, a naive, shy and inexperienced young man who was struggling with his sexuality! A lot of what you recount echos with me, but now that I am older and have many of life’s experiences to draw upon, I can happily reflect and be nostalgic knowing that in some instances, I had dodged a bullet! The life of ‘the Stars’ was very attractive to an impressionable young guy like myself but I manage to avoid being sucked in to what I saw as a shallow life. Great post.

    • Dodging the bullet is exactly the phrase. i often wonder how many of those people who were having such a wonderfully wild time are alive today. Rather sobering. As you say, it’s good to have the luxury of nostalgia. Thanks for your lovely comments!

  3. Wow, what a picture you paint! Mind boggling! I will be falling down a few holes myself picturing you in that array of outfits and potential outfits …
    What was your favourite job in London, btw?

    On the subject of memory smells, I often get whiffs of 70’s Italy – wood smoke, sunshine following a downpour, damp concrete, drains(!) and it makes me long to be back there.

    Another btw – I’m very much with the Shah. I hanker and hanker after one of those over the top gilded Venetian chandeliers!

  4. Tiny white shorts and fish nets! I think I might have gone the full Lady Windermere as well. I think you showed a very good instinct for self preservation. Working as an articled clerk in a city law firm in the 80s was definitely the wrong job for me. By far the worst working experience of my entire life. Then my working clothes were the exact opposite of white shorts and fish nets!

    • Might have been a completely different kettle of fish, as it were, with fishnets and shorts… I’m sure your experience will emerge in some written form at some point. No experience is for nothing, as I like to think.

  5. I loved the article. And talk about going down memory holes:
    I remember watching that French music program as a teenager, and how they mostly covered the British New Romantics music scene (La “New Wave”!).
    And re Steve Strange, I would have listened to “Fade to Grey” hundreds of times…
    And re the venue, you did well: I personally only lasted one night working in a short-lived gay night-club in Cardiff!
    What a great photo of you as a very handsome young man by the way!

    • Glad it evoked your own youthful memories – I can only imagine what a club in Cardiff would’ve been like…. Steve Strange was really very nice, actually, when he stopped posing, and I was rather shocked when he died a few years ago…. As for the photo, thank you. Even if I am now the ‘picture in the attic’ today. 😄

  6. Great to read about these memories.. remember well being intrigued by who my brother had bumped into that day!

  7. Très amusant! And very wise to channel Lady Windermere! Besides, no-one looks good in fishnets. They just think they do. What a disaster 80s fashion was. What were we thinking?!!!

  8. I just noticed mention of the ’80’s’ in your insta and ran to see your post here. What a fabulous experience! I was sewing my own clothes and watching Visage on Countdown in the outer suburbs of Melbourne at the time, I so loved Fade to Grey and all the new romantic music. You did well to remain at the edges of the scene, fascinating though it was, and know when to move on…

  9. Superb slice of a former life. I was never into the club scene but I did find myself in a few sticky situations in my youth where what felt like a difficult choice had to made. Sounds like you did the right thing in staying true to who you were — and are! But, oh, to have been at that birthday party!!! 😁

    • Funny how sticky situations of the past have a rosy tint when viewed today, isn’t it. But learning when to say no, when enough is enough, is such an important life lesson, not usually properly understood until much later… Ah, I did like Freddie Mercury, though. 😊

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