Gasworks Memories

Today we’re pleased to welcome Luke Honey to the Dabbler. You can find Luke writing about food, drink and the finer things in life over at his blog The Greasy Spoon. We start by revisiting a west london institution redolent of the swinging sixties…

Hands up who remembers The Gasworks?  Twenty odd years ago, I started my glamorous career in the so-called Art World – as a porter at a well-known auctioneers to be found in the grotty fag-end of The King’s Road, London; humping antique brown furniture from lorry to saleroom, and stacking shabby Victorian paintings against the brick walls of the warehouse. A favourite after-work refuge was The Gasworks restaurant (a last gasp of the myth that was Swinging London), in that no man’s land between Chelsea and Fulham- a former haunt of Princess Margaret, the Rolling Stones and, if the internet is to be believed, Noel Gallagher.

Where on earth do I begin?  This was a London institution, where eccentricity became a creed. Outside, it looked a bit like a private house, with its green painted stucco, latticed windows of stained glass, garish window boxes, and niches filled with ponderous busts and Neo-Classical statues. The proprietors were- how can I put this politely?- different. Shells (Cheryl?) of Wagnerian proportion, fag in mouth and forthright opinion, ruled over her kitchen, offering a choice of rack of lamb (some lover-ly lamb, dearie?) or duck ‘all orange’.  Jacks (her husband) was a thin, dapper man with a trimmed grey beard and silk stockings. Rumour had it that he had previously held some sort of vague career in the antiques business. He liked to join you for an after dinner cigar- this had more than a whiff of Reggie and Ronnie about it.

The dining room was reminiscent of an Edward Gorey illustration or a Pinewood set from that early 70’s meisterwerk, “The Legend of Hell House”.  Here was the perfect place to lie on a chaise longue, sip a gin and tonic and admire the Victorian bric-a brac: pornographic chess sets, oil paintings of dubious antiquity and provenance, heavy gilt frames, doubtful portraits in the manner of Greuze, and wall-mounted taxidermy; all set off by a long, polished mahogany dining table, high-back ‘Jacobethan’ chairs and a massive chandelier.

Choice was not a word in The Gasworks’ vocabulary: champignons en croute (a nice bit of tinned mushroom poised daintily on a slice of toasted Sunblest) or avocado pear; rack (‘racked’ being the operative word) of lamb or assassinated duck; some sort of gateaux horror topped with UHT cream from a spray-on aerosol. Indeed, The Gasworks seemed to be almost obsessed with the trend setting avocado: their seemingly endless supply was stacked up high in the corridor which led to the bogs, which, in turn were lined to the ceiling with amusing nineteenth century erotica.

I held my 30th birthday party there  (I was less interested in food, then), and as that night finished in the wee wee hours (Jack locked the front door at midnight) and the alcohol flowed, my memory is decidedly hazy. Pearl, the long-suffering waiter, rather sweetly made me a little chocolate cake with the word ‘Love’ piped on the top in very shaky handwriting.

If they approved of you for some reason (as a wannabe auctioneer, I was in ‘the biz’, Guv), everything was just dandy. If they didn’t (and this could change on a daily basis, as when my brother in law had a bit of mutton bone pointed directly at him, and told that he was ‘evil’), you couldn’t even get past the oak studded door. An earnest European couple in immaculate Loden coats, enticed, no doubt, by the cosy Englishness of the bow windowed exterior and the enchanting prospect of avocado vinaigrette, had the door slammed in their faces and were told to ‘get lorst, and don’t even think of comin’ back!’.

But a few months ago I did go back. From the outside, everything looked the same: Jack’s black Rolls-Royce corniche (fitted with darkened glass and vanity numberplates) was still parked opposite, and the house looked immaculate. But most ominously, the menu had been taken down. We threw gravel at the upstairs windows, but the net curtains remained firmly closed, and we didn’t even get a twitch. Sadly, it looks like Jacks and Shells are no longer plying their trade. I do hope they haven’t gone to the great gasworks in the sky, and are enjoying their retirement. That fast changing corner of SW6 won’t be the same without them. Even without the duck.

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17 thoughts on “Gasworks Memories

    February 17, 2012 at 12:54

    Fascinating post Luke, bins and gones, the older you get, the more of them you accumulate, Buddy Holly, Brian Clough, Mao…the list is endless, lived in London in the swinging mid sixties, swing they did not, except for a few students with pocket money, easy parking, even in Birdcage walk. The only movie that has come close to capturing the mood of the time was Sparrows Can’t Sing. The park scenes in Blow Up came pretty close to the alleged swinging bit.

  2. Worm
    February 17, 2012 at 13:32

    great stuff. Im sure I remember reading about this place in a Mad Frankie Fraser book about gangland london – it was where Princess Margaret used to hang out with her gangster squeeze John Bindon and other nefarious types… from a Daily Mail story about their escapades:

    ….Then Lord Glenconner made a startling suggestion.

    “He turned to John and said: ‘Ma’am knows about your advantage in life and would really like to see it.’ ”

    Tennant, of course, was referring to Bindon’s manhood – a sight so spectacular that he routinely displayed it with five half-pint beer mugs dangling from it.

    So he didn’t think twice after the extraordinary request. “He jumped up,” remembers Vicki “and with Princess Margaret and her lady-in-waiting in tow, walked along the beach.

    “Then he took out his appendage. The Princess examined it rather like a fossil. We all gasped….

  3. Brit
    February 17, 2012 at 13:56

    Superbly evocative stuff, I feel I know Jacks and Shells …welcome to The Dabbler, Luke.

    February 17, 2012 at 15:05

    Great piece and The Greasy Spoon is an excellent blog. It does sound that the caff’s menu was more ’70s than swinging ’60s – the ‘prawn cocktail years’ as the blog quotes Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham. Bizarre, looking back on that supposedly ‘sophisticated’ food. You don’t specify ‘black forest gateau’ but I’ll put money on it. Was this the first rumblings of the supposed British food revolution?

      February 17, 2012 at 16:09

      Thank you. Yup, I first went to The Gasworks in the mid 80’s, so the food there was still very much a last gasp relic of The Prawn Cocktail Years. Yet, somehow, the place- for me at least- represented that old London which has now been eroded by American bankers, chain shops, shopping malls and cleaner streets. Chelsea ain’t what it used to be. London pub gardens used to smell of wet soot and tea-leaves. I’m not sure that they do now.

      I do seem to remmber Jack and Shells serving “Black Forest Gateau with UHT” there. The food was darn awful, but quite often “good” food is only one of the many reasons to visit a restaurant, don’t you find?

    February 17, 2012 at 15:11

    Thank you all. Worm, you’re absolutely right on that one. Isn’t that Sixties/Early Seventies netherworld (where toff meets London gangster) especially fascinating? Lucan, The Cleremont Club, Aspinall, Victor Hervey, chemmy parties, Stephen Ward. Piers Paul Read covered it brilliantly in “The Upstart”.

      February 17, 2012 at 16:12

      I have always wanted to write a book about the late David Litvinoff (among much else the ‘dialogue coach’ for James Fox in Performance), who epitomised that netherworld. As did that movie. There are, apparently lengthy autobiographical tapes, and many of those who knew him remain alive. But stum. Definitely stum.

        February 17, 2012 at 16:23

        Absolutely. It’s an interesting concept, and there isn’t a great deal published about this sort of thing. Patrick Marnham’s splendid ” Trail of Havoc, in the steps of Lord Lucan” might be of interest.

        But wasn’t James Fox terrific in Performance? Love the way he twitches the shoulder of his camel hair Crombie; that bit when the mobsters tie the chauffer to the front of the Royce.

        And only four years or so before he was the perfect hooray in The Servant. Superb actor.

          February 18, 2012 at 15:03

          ‘I don’t do solicitor’s letters. I prefer a bit of…pressure’. Ah, used to have it off by heart.
          Performance, for me, is the Sixties movie. I first saw it, on a speed come-down, in Amsterdam in autumn 1969, since it had yet to be released in London. Seemed the ideal accompaniment. Blow-Up was fun, but mere gloss, albeit so too was the ‘swinging London’ it represented. For those who want further detail, I recommend Colin MacCabe’s monograph on Performance, published by the BFI:

  6. Worm
    February 17, 2012 at 15:49

    …never heard of The Upstart before….so I’ve just scuttled off to Amazon and bought a first edition hardback for 30p

      February 17, 2012 at 16:02

      It really is the most terrific book. And the moral of the story is: “never poke fun at someone for wearing the wrong sort of dinner jacket”; as you will discover…

    February 17, 2012 at 19:47

    My hand is up, Luke. Remember? Why, how could I forget…
    How could anyone forget the bastard spawn of Arthur Daley’s Winchester Club and Mrs Wilberforce of The Ladykillers? Dragged there in various states of delapidation in the 70’s the food, if it ever appeared, was completely irrelevant; the complete experience was the thing. Batty Eastern European hags, West-End spivs, whores from central casting, the odd rock star and a few people ‘from the fashion industry’. Remember a French ‘cook’ who got the job because of his origin, not because he could cook – he obviously couldn’t. But I do remember a wonderful piece of mutton (nothing else, just mutton), the like of which I have never tasted since.
    Thought it would be a wonderful idea to go back about 15 years ago with my now grown kids – a very bad idea. Yes, the antique shop (by day) had been turned into a caff for the evening, and yes, our booking for 8 people had been noted but food, by sight or smell, was not about the place. There were sounds of activity, but no panic. There being no menu, duck was suggested, and we all nodded furiously. The avocados that had been carried past us earlier in a wooden box, were miraculously transformed into a starter, with the addition of some oil (possibly Duckhams 20/50 from the Roller outside), but were so hard nobody could lay a tooth on them. The Fuck of Duck was so overcooked and blackened that what was left of the meat was not even duck-shaped, but had become a worthy facsimile of a Phillips Stick-A-Sole. It came, my wife has just reminded me, on a bed of tender mushrooms – tender because as far as we could tell, they were not exactly al dente….more…..raw, shall we say.
    The only upside of the evening was that I was not evicerated by the two lads dining near the door when I ‘suggested’ that the ‘sovs’ (thank you Arthur) they were looking for represented very poor value, bearing in mind that we were all, by this time starving. Let’s just say an ‘adjustment’ was made.
    Part of me quite likes the idea that ‘mad’ places like this can survive in this pc world of rules and Health & Safety – just don’t ask me to go back any time soon.

    February 17, 2012 at 20:31

    Top commenting MM, that ones going into the Whisky short list for sure! Here’s some more about David Litvinoff, John Bindon and Perfomance…

    Marianne Faithfull: They hired real gangsters, like the late John Bindon — who got life for beheading someone in a pub — as actors, and a genuine mob boss as adviser. This was David Litvinoff. Part of Litz’s job was to be James Fox’s tutor in infamy. The only gangsters he knew were one from central casting. This alone must have seriously fucked with James’s head.

    James Fox: The was a ring of protection around me, Johnny Shannon was my minder. I was in on the social life of some pretty rough people. I spent hours listening to tapes of people like the Krays and the Richardsons. I met Ronnie Kray. He wasn’t the direct inspiration for the film, but he was a big inspiration to David Litvinoff, who was the key inspiration to Donald. There was this sense that the Krays were the big-business-men of the time. Well they were, weren’t they?

    Christopher Gibbs: David Litvinoff was a mercurial, wandering Jew — intelligent, uneducated and terribly funny. He didn’t have an affair with Ronnie Kray, but he used to pick up boys with him sometimes. I remember being flagged down, in Sloane Street, aged 18 or thereabouts, by this car with Litvinoff in it and these frightfully sinister-looking people. One of them was Kray.

    John Clark: I did a lot of work with Litvinoff. He was very good on details. All the things for Chas’s apartment: the colours, ashtrays, phones. Litvinoff was a shadowy character. He had this massive razor slash across his face.

    Christopher Gibbs: David liked gambling, which he did under the Krays’ auspices — until he couldn’t pay his debts. David’s version was that he found himself hanging upside down, cut from ear to ear, somewhere near [former department store] the Derry & Tom’s roof garden, hearing the CND marchers coming up Kensington High Street singing ‘Corinna, Corinna’.

    Stanley Meadows: Actors model themselves on screen gangsters. But that wasn’t the case. John Bindon certainly wasn’t acting. He’d been involved in collecting protection money. In a casino in Battersea one time, someone was unwise enough to pick a fight with him. He clobbered the guy over the head with a roulette wheel. I think he went down for that. But he definitely had something on screen: this angelic smile and, of course, sheer physical presence.

    Johnny Shannon: Johnny Bindon used to wag his three-piece about. He loved all that. He was one of the ‘chaps’. I never met him before Performance, but we knew all the same people. He used to enjoy telling these terrible stories about himself. People would laugh, but when he was out of the room people were horrified. He frightened the actors.

      February 20, 2012 at 13:16

      It’s very amusing how the name of Mr Christopher Gibbs seems to crop up the moment anyone mentions Marianne Faithfull, Mick Jagger, Paul Getty, Donald Cammell…

    February 17, 2012 at 23:42

    “…a nice bit of tinned mushroom poised daintily on a slice of toasted Sunblest” – those were the days, before TV chefs came along and ruined everything with the notion that you actually had to cook.

    February 19, 2012 at 02:45

    Wonderful, evocative piece, thanks…the Gasworks…the memories come flooding back; or they would if I hadn’t been so bloody drunk whenever I was there… can’t remember any food after the avocados. I don’t know whether that’s because I didn’t eat anything else, or because the relevant neurons have been destroyed. Anyhow, I think they (the avocados) were the only edible thing on the premises. The wine was as caustic as the management. It was one of those places, like the Colony Room, where the fact that you could be thrown out at any moment was in fact the main reason you wanted to stay. The whole thing was like an alcoholic Edwardian illusionist’s neglected boudoir. Pearl I remember, and hazily the vintage porn in the loos. I think the furnishings had been bought wholesale from a delapidated Scottish castle – gothic furniture, ooh la la etchings…stuffed animals…battered gilt candelabra. If there’s anything like it now, I don’t know about it.

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