Wednesday 30 September 2015

Rendezvous at the Russian Tea Rooms

I went last night to the launch of the latest book by my good friend Paul Willetts, Rendezvous at the Russian Tea Rooms

As launches go this was one to remember. Not the usual hubbub fuelled by publishers' plonk followed by speaches followed by more booze (if there's any left) and purchase of a copy (bad form not to do so).

We had to turn up outside a specific pub in Marylebone at a specific time, where we would be approached by a 'contact' who would escort us to a secret destination nearby. The invitations were in the form of facsimile Ministry of Information documents on typewritten manilla paper, written in the mandarin Whitehall English of the 1940s. 

Paul is brilliant practitioner of what he calls non-fiction narrative. His North Soho 999 was a gripping account - or rather a meticulous re-creation - of a notorious gun crime in post-war London. His last book was Members Only, an absorbing biography of the Soho entrepreneur, property developer and strip club mogul Paul Raymond. This was the basis for Michael Winterbottom's film in which Steve Coogan didn't so mach act the part of Raymond as inhabit it.

Back to Marylebone High Street on a bright Autumn evening. A small group of us, some dressed appropriately in 1940s clobber and me in my usual shapeless subfusc, congregated self-consciously in the evening sunshine. Our contact was the actor Jon Glover, a friend of Paul's and mainstay of the Sohemian Society, which Paul co-founded. This is an irregular gathering of those of us who share a particular interest in the artists and writers and bohemians and deadbeats who used to hang around Soho and Fitzrovia, bitching about each other and drinking themselves to death.

Glover stood on a street corner like a scrap of flickering archive footage, in a brown suit and trilby, intently studying a period newspaper and drawing occasionally on what I suspect was a Craven 'A' cigarette, no doubt sourced in an archive. He led us up the road to the venue, which turned out to be nearby - the beautiful Daunts bookstore (and I'll admit to feeling agreeably disappointed, having expected a basement lit by a single bulb and tough-looking women in gaberdine trench coats drenched in cheap scent. I expected a tobacco fug. I mention this because Paul is startlingly, supernaturally adept at evoking the atmosphere and texture of places in the past - the light and aroma and furnishing so on).

Rendezvous at the Russian Tea Rooms is a scrupulous and absorbing account of an extraordinary episode during the so-called phoney war.  It cannot be easily summarised, and involves haute couture, crypto-fascists, double agents and no end of strange goings-on. There's also a brief appearance by Raymond Huntley, and if you don't know he he is you're no friend of mine.

Paul has the best author's website  I've seen, a real piece of work. You can see it here, including a film trailer for Rendezvous at the Russian Tea Rooms directed by Guy Myhill. You can, and should, buy a copy here.

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