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1961 - 62: Mike's café

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Jan. 1st, 1970 | 05:25 am

Most of these memories were recounted by Harold Chapman, the photographer who took photos in and around the Beat Hotel during the 1960s.

"I ran into a friend of Mike’s in Paris, who told me about a tiny café Mike had bought in a seedy part of London which was very rough, and asked, would I like to visit Mike in London?1

This friend of his was a journalist working on a local paper in the area where the café was. His name was also Chapman, absolutely no relation whatsoever of mine. He told me that Mike was quite upset, as the police were constantly raiding the café, but never finding anything: just sheer harassment, I imagined. Chapman the journalist wrote an article about this in the local paper. The harassment then ceased.

Mike had explained to me that the café barely made a living, because the only people that came in there were a rough crowd of young delinquents, engaged in all sorts of nasty activities, such as collecting protection money from small shopkeepers, small robberies, muggings and the like. The previous owner had sold up because he didn't like the tough customers who had taken over the café! He could have got it for peanuts. Any other customers had long since been driven away by police harassment.

Naïve as I was, I thought that that would be a wonderful opportunity to take pictures of these characters. So, moving into the café and sleeping on a couple of tables at night, I helped out during the day serving behind the bar.

This area was a war damage/slum clearance site; the cafe was more or less a dump. As far as I can remember, there was no flat or anything above it, and Mike certainly did not live on the premises. When he went home, I simply cleaned up, tidied up, and slept on a couple of tables pushed together. It was very small.

I explored a tiny cellar below the cafe which was, as I saw it, a disused gambling den with a couple of small tables for playing cards. It could be that when the café opened up again, the police thought the cellar was being used as an illegal gambling den, but certainly nothing was going on while I was there.

I had my camera round my neck all the time, so that everybody would get used to it, and I should, once I had gained their confidence, be able to take photos of them.

I can clearly remember them; a small gang. They definitely were not teddy boys, mods, rockers, greasers, and certainly not punks as that was still sometime away.

There was probably a floating group of about six to ten young teenagers, scruffy, uneducated, and dressed in neutral clothes ... just the typical grey working-class clothing of the time. They were all white, with short back and sides haircuts or "crew-cuts" but not skinheads. They were certainly not in any way Mods or any other sub-group. They were just what was called roughly at the time 'layabouts'.

The leader of all this was quite tall and older, also wearing grey clothes, and he was the one who everybody followed, as I saw it.

They were always trying to wind him (and me) up, with a whole lot of silly tricks, such as heating up soup spoons by placing them on a heater, putting them in the soup bowl, and saying, 'the soup is cold, heat it up again', hoping we'd pick up the hot spoon and burn our fingers, which no doubt would have delighted them no end.

However, both he, and I, were quite observant, and used to pick the soup spoon out with a tea towel and replace it with a new one.

I remember Mike saying, they all came from the high rise concrete flats that were being built to replace the rotting housing, a lot of it war-damaged, but this was a slum clearance area anyway. I remember one day, one of them rushed in, very dramatically, shouting, 'Put this away, Mike,' and handed him a jemmy, and rushed out. Mike quickly hid it, and never made reference to it again, and nor did I.

He always kept his cool and remained quite impassive and was unprovokable, but the atmosphere in the café was permanently tense and almost about to burst into a café wrecking spree, so I never was able to take the picture.

After about a week of this, I went out to get something from the car that I had parked out there. Scrawled on the dusty windscreen was ‘YOUR FACE NEXT’, and one tyre had been badly slashed. I decided to heed the warning and left, there and then, and returned to Paris.

I can quite clearly understand why he wouldn't talk [to girlfriend N.B.] about his past. He must have got himself together somehow, and completely changed his lifestyle, and could do all those amazing things later on; it's quite clear that he would have never had that cafe later on in life.

This, as far as I can remember, was in the so-called beatnik era. I cannot remember the name [of the café], but the juke box was endlessly playing ‘Hit the Road, Jack’, which is all I really remember that could date it.2"

Perhaps it is this period in his life that Michael was contemplating, when he said, in a TV Times interview in 1973: “Most of us are channeled into various functions, for better or for worse. This is how things are constructed, but you always get the odd one who slips through, who doesn't fit too well. I mean, people either find something they like doing or they end up gangsters or just plain bums. It comes down to that, doesn't it?”

Michael's former girlfriend from that period, 'Jazz', remembers: "I’d go to his café in Kentish Town, 96 Torriano Avenue, NW5. They were a mixed bunch there, mainly teenagers, who, in retrospect, were perhaps a bit deprived. Michael made soup and sandwiches, tea and coffee for them, if my memory serves me right."

More of Jazz's memories are here

1Michael must have been running this café during 1961 - 62.

2 “Hit the Road, Jack” first came out in 1960.

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