The Gargoyle Club — Hammie Writes About an Old Strip Club in SohoOctober 16, 2019
The following is a short fiction I wrote about a year ago, after finding a spooky + groovy video of a striptease happening at a club in Soho (London) in the 1960s.
The venue where this titillating show took place was called The Gargoyle Club (a neoclassical London townhouse which had been a glittering and sophisticated private members spot for London artists and intellectuals in the ’20s and ’30s). Francis Bacon partially drank himself to death here, alongside Lucien Freud + others. The place was designed by Matisse, and hanging in the dining room was a six foot by seven foot Matisse called ‘The Red Studio’ (1911) (recognized as one of his most “original and daring inventions”). By the ’60s the splendor had dulled and the Gargoyle Club had gone bankrupt, transforming into a lavish if seedy strip club. Later in the eighties the space would host ‘Batcave’ — a weekly club night associated with the birth of English goth subculture (dark cabaret, death-rock). Today the house is filled by the THE DEAN STREET TOWNHOUSE, which is an upscale hotel in Soho that looks very very nice.
The Gargoyle Club
by Hannah Nussbaum
Reality is not always probable, or likely.
Placed in a story, a once non-fictitious place can elude death and enjoy reconstruction as literature, writing non-fiction into fiction being something similar to the act of pickling an egg. What you’re left with is similar, but wholly different, something once compostable now sealed off from the grassy elements, for the most part, and of a different flavor and variety.
Holding a stack of paper, the fourth girl leans in and tells a secret: ‘I’ve written a very serious piece of work about a woman with a powerful gut feeling.’ She’s one of the exotic dancers––the fourth–– who’s just performed in the night’s Nell Gwyn Lavish Strip Tease, and she’s got the most incredible vinyl vermilion flower in her hair and white powder on her face that jumps when she speaks. She’s just emerged from the dressing room, and now she’s sharing her manuscript with the muddled crowd of philosophers and political pundits who’ve thrown coins at her all night––they’re friends of hers from many nights of amicable transactions, and she’s hoping one of them will sign on as her patron.
Next, reading aloud in a clear, drunken chime:
Ms. Nobelium was sure that the body was buried in a backyard in the southern-most corner of town, she had never been more certain of anything in her life. When her private eye confirmed that indeed, DNA had been found in the exact location under a patch of cornflowers, Ms. Nobelium’s itchy hunch yet again proved to be a deeply reliable well of knowledge. The chasm between certainty and feeling yawned shut for Ms. N time and time again, for she knew what she knew.
Today, the Gargoyle Club is an unresponsive vegetable in SoHo, and its body is demonically possessed by a hotel called Dean Street Town House––sadly, maybe needlessly, its death came even before the end of its life. In 1956 (long before it closed in 1979) the building was already a palimpsest of glamour and ghosts, and the drinkers found themselves almost compulsively talking about the past––who used to drink there in the forties (Johnny Minton from the RCA): how they swore there were fewer Rolls Royces in London these days: the kinds of sexual acts that were most common in the Edwardian period: agnosticism when the philosophy people from Gordon Square showed up: abjection and poverty. Most nights were punctuated by violent rows and cornball strip teases, which was really just a last-ditch effort on the part of management to generate funds. And add to all this the fact that the premise was literally haunted, making for strange supernatural feelings when you stood near one of the club’s full-length mahogany doors for too long (you could sense spirits coming and going).
All this to say: 1956 to 1979 was tough on The Gargoyle Club, tough here meaning fatal. Its post-war decline was an anticlimactic epilogue to its bright young things phase, which boasted attractions like a still-shining steel and brass staircase designed by Matisse, monographs designed by Matisse, and other works so iconic they can’t be mentioned here. In its heyday, it was filled with cloche hats and suit jackets and other trappings of fashionable society. But once it reached its moth-eaten, post-glorious (po-glo), sticky stage, The Gargoyle Club existed somewhere between the Ritz and the Gutter. This phrase is borrowed from Francis Bacon, who used it to describe the bipolarity of his bohemian London experience.
All of this, writing on the wall for Young Limbs And Numb Hymns, Meat of Youth, The Dance of Death.
And so on and so forth. The philosophers and pundits are all leaning in now, standing in the dead center of the crowded main salon, with its 22-karat gold plated ceiling, and the whole thing is starting to look like a geometric number from a Busby Berkeley musical, because there’s a crowd drawing in around them in the shape of a pentagram, and the stinky red furniture is mostly upturned like showgirls doing high-kicks. A.J ‘Freddie’ Ayer is listening with half-lidded eyes to the girl reading out loud, and his fingers are twitching with excitement. Something has been translated to him, and he’ll write about it later.
‘what a good girl. Let me have a look at the rest of the manuscript. Have a chartreuse lozenge’
Topography in fiction has an uncanny register, J. Hillis Miller would say, because it exists through the looking glass, not quite in the text, not quite in the mind of the author, not quite in the mind of the reader, but in a ghost world created by language that can’t be eroded by time. The task here is to preserve and reconstitute a dead space through launching it into this literary ether, where it becomes plastic, and also necessarily true, according to Hillis, who sees literary worlds as preexistent to their writing.
So what happens when you write a real place into this not quite space that Hillis describes?
The answer, it would seem, is that you function as any historian––writing about the past with a dubious claim to historicity, that you may or may not acknowledge. In fact, history seems to be the windowless room at the center of Hillis’s writing about the geography of fantastical space. Writing fiction is a process of producing a cartography of a pre-existent world (a world that exists in language already, Hillis would say, which sometimes writers pluck up and transplant into text). Doesn’t this sound suspiciously like the job of a historian? To construct something, then once it’s constructed, deem it already. Could there be something to say here about arbitrariness and blind cultural specificity as meters for writing about the past? Is writing about the past always a fantastical act?
A Phd student from UCL who goes by Loger Taylor enters the scene, and everyone is distinctly impressed with his hair style and slouchy pants. wow. The second dancer this time arranges her impossibly flat hat and gold chain, and makes her way over to him. They order a round of fairy oysters and ice cream and ice wine, and under the tinny light their conversation turns to pataphysics, which may well provide them with answers to the question of post-war unemployment. After exhausting the topic, they move on to discuss an alternate taxonomy that Taylor has been developing––one that might help historians better make sense of the war and its ripples over England and Empire. He’s created a list dividing all people into ten categories of ‘post-war subject’.
• Those that are no longer with us
• wives of those deceased
• those that are trained in useful post-war industry
• Fabulous people
• public servants
• American entertainment stars
• Americanized Italians
• Defeated Germans
• Those that belong to certain clubs, for example, the Gargoyle Club (a sub-taxonomy)
Last night a man fell down the stairs here, all the way down, having missed entry into the sliding metal gate that leads to the elevator, instead stumbling towards the flight of steps lined with mirrors. Tonight his wife is in mourning, drinking scotch-soda with a black silk scarf knotted around the stem of her glass.
Actually, he hadn’t quite been her husband, but she won’t give us any more information about their status, at present. Picture last night: he’s particularly inebriated, so much so that tonight people can still hear him thudding around on the dance floor and can still smell his lit cigar, and can still hear his voice railing against the remaining older club members––vestiges of pre-war social society whom the newer members refer to as ‘the dentists,’ for reasons unknown. Accounts abound from people who have seen his reflection several times this evening in the mosaics on the walls (also a design of Matisse, an emulation of his favorite eighteenth century chateau). The maître D is keeping a backlog of these supernatural encounters in his diary; what he’s creating is a time-capsule of invaluable import.
The dead tend to linger on in the mosaics here, just flashes, giving a disco gruesomeness to the place that makes it both more and less of a party. Charles II’s mistress Nell Gwyn is one of the ghosts who haunts this place, and it’s on account of her that the strip show is so eponymously named.
Ayer leads the fourth girl through a pair of double doors, past the mourning scotch flute, into a vault where he’ll lift key points from her manuscript and insert them into his latest essay, The Problem of Knowledge. He shuts the doors, clunk, and on cue, the Alec Alexander band launches into a song, and the mirrored tiles begin to break loose from their grout and hang like teeth. A young person clutches his drink, something called a Summer Canal-Side Special, and he weaves towards a velveteen fainting couch, where he’s joined by Lucien Freud.
This, a faithful account of what can only be described as a typical evening at 69 Dean Street. All omissions and inclusions have been intentional, at the humble service of pinning down a fair portrait of the deceased. ♦
BITS OF READING / GOOglin :