The Spice of Life

Added by: julian moseley
1 December 2003

This one has regrettably been given a make over, but here’s how it was:Variety, according to my dictionary, is a collection of unlike things. In its theatrical use, the word means entertainment – a series of short unrelated performances or acts. The Spice of Life public house in Cambridge Circus in the late 1980’s was all of these, and more. Perhaps its location so close to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Palace Theatre had some significance. The performers in “The Spice” as it was known had no professional status. They were amateurs in the plainest sense of the word. Wide eyed, they were there against all odds, out of time, out of place and, to the casual observer, well out of order.

To the passing glance, The Spice was the sort of pub you would never go into for fear of catching something. Outside, its bilious green paint and shabby peeling walls, with grimy curtains hanging from their rails and front door that looked as if it had been kicked open and shut mercilessly for years were enough to deter the casual tourist.


This one has regrettably been given a make over, but here’s how it was:Variety, according to my dictionary, is a collection of unlike things. In its theatrical use, the word means entertainment – a series of short unrelated performances or acts. The Spice of Life public house in Cambridge Circus in the late 1980’s was all of these, and more. Perhaps its location so close to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Palace Theatre had some significance. The performers in “The Spice” as it was known had no professional status. They were amateurs in the plainest sense of the word. Wide eyed, they were there against all odds, out of time, out of place and, to the casual observer, well out of order.

To the passing glance, The Spice was the sort of pub you would never go into for fear of catching something. Outside, its bilious green paint and shabby peeling walls, with grimy curtains hanging from their rails and front door that looked as if it had been kicked open and shut mercilessly for years were enough to deter the casual tourist.

This pub was sited on the main culture-tourist drag, hemmed in on all sides by dusty secondhand book shops, strip clubs, cheap eateries and the gloomy Les Miserables all contributing to give it an air of down at heel faded grandeur. From within, the occasional American tourist could be seen approaching eagerly then slowing noticeably as the detail of the place became apparent. Finally he would come to a stop outside embarrassed that he had clearly made a mistake and consult the chalked menu outside, before turning his hopeful gaze upwards to the first floor in search of some face-saving clue then eventually dumbfounded, moving away in search of somewhere more respectable. Hardened Northern European tourists of course would enter without hesitation, doubtless assuming something like a live sex show was taking place inside. They were easy to spot with their anoraks, mysterious lightweight suitcases that could have contained blow up sex dolls and dreadful plastic shoes that must have come from some cheap Scandinavian department store. However even they scarcely did more than set foot over the threshold for a penetrating stare into the gloom, then turn and depart disappointed by the lack of sexual display. The Spice didn’t provide entertainment for everyone’s tastes. For this was a most misleading establishment. The presence outside of motorcycle messengers grabbing forty winks lying on top of their machines was also deceptive. It was no bikers pub either. They were only there because of the new concrete auto-flush toilet resembling a giant Sony Walkman and the proximity to their dispatch office opposite.

At lunchtime before the crowd gathered, it was possible to take in the full charm of the decor. The carpet was so black with beer and ground-in dirt it looked like tarmac. In the centre of the floor was an ill-fitting trapdoor which gave the impression that the unwary drinker might at any time drop through it into a vat of green slime. Five years earlier they might have splashed out on some Christmas decorations. All that were left now were some scraps or gaudy tinsel randomly Selotaped to the walls. The dusty velour curtains hung limp on their brass rails and on closer inspection seemed to be in the process of decomposition. Hand written notices were glued to the walls offering hot pies, containing what it was never clear. Wallpaper hung off the ceiling where the effects of nicotine and hastily botched repair jobs with paste and paint had failed to make good. In one corner there was a square hole in the ceiling where something once suspended had come crashing to the floor bringing the plaster work with it.

Behind the bar there was a prominent sign informing everyone present that last drinks would be served at 10.45 p.m. There were also two TV monitors revealing other forms of life within the establishment. Upstairs was a pool room. Downstairs was where you’d find the ladies toilet. Not only the ladies toilet but also a room where ladies sat morosely smoking, looking as if they were waiting for something to begin. Life maybe. The corridor leading to it suggested it was the entrance way to some Gestapo torture chamber.

So why , particularly in the evening, was this most unprepossessing of establishments so full that it took ten minutes to struggle from the front door to the bar? How did it take in so much money? So much in fact that the owners McMullens Brewery in Hertfordshire must have assumed from the soaring sales graph that they had a prime West End location and therefore could see no reason to tinker with success. Had they stumbled upon some new theme pub? The desolation look. No need for an expensive refurbishment here when the takings were quite astronomical.

What made The Spice work? Fun is the answer. It represented the closest thing you could find in a big city to the cosy, out of the way pub you would find in the heart of any small English town. Towns like Hereford, Halifax and Harlow. It was the sort of pub where young people would go to drink and hear loud music. Their place, somewhere evolved not invented. A coming together of elements by chance not plan. It took years to get this tatty. And the regulars felt it was their home. Their place. Somewhere to hang out that the rest of the world had neglected and passed by. Ironically McMullens were quite right to leave it alone. If the pub were to be refurbished, it would lose everything. It was the exact opposite of the brewers intent, yet succeeded where every attempt to tailor something for the young always fails.

And hang out they did. On a good night, a Tuesday or a Thursday – even the nights of its greatest success were the neglected partying nights of the week – you could hear voices from Nottingham and Newcastle. Word of mouth brought people to The Spice from all over Britain. It was the place to go in Soho. A piece of home in a foreign land. Only once in thirty visits did I see any trouble, contrary to the embattled air of the place. Undoubtedly the American tourists balking at entry were reluctant to enter because they – like deer – sensed danger here. When two football hooligans started making trouble the entire pub rose up against them. The boys from behind the bar leapt out from behind it and the offenders were swept out into the night never to be seen again. There was a clear sense of correct behaviour in The Spice. Maybe it was brought on by a fear of trouble and the possible threat of closure. After all this pub was operating on the edge of respectability. Once I saw a man enter with a cake in a box from a nearby patisserie only to have it booted across the room by one of his friends. The select crowd who gathered here came for one good reason. They were here to relax, if such a thing were at all possible, because there was one dominating factor which drew people in. The juke box. The mighty Wurlitzer SG8000.

Two things struck you immediately about this machine. In the evening it was incredibly loud, filling the confines of the main ground floor bar. Yet it had a wonderfully keen fidelity. It was the voice of The Spice. As if the pub itself were singing to you. And with what variety it regaled the listener. To hear Al Martino sing Spanish Eyes on this machine was to discover the record ‘s glory for the first time. The entire congregation would lustily roar ” …You and your Spanish eyes will wait for me” along with Al at the end of the song, cheering as the final note hung in the vapour charged air. Iggy Pop’s The Passenger was the crowd’s theme music. We were all passengers on The Spice’s road to oblivion. Hear it this loud in this crowd and you’d always wonder why this wasn’t a number one hit for weeks on end. Patsy Cline’s I Fall to Pieces held a mirror up to the crowd’s vulnerability. Booker T and the MG’s Green Onions was its mark of defiance with the angular slashing guitar. Echo and the Bunnymen’s The Cutter made you a convert to all things new. You were forever young in The Spice. At peace with your fellow man.This wasn’t a pub. It was a club with no other membership fee than your own soul.

And while your senses were uplifted in the aural assault, your thirst slaked by a rather poor range of overpriced beers it must be said – in flagrant contradiction to the cliched claim outside offering the finest traditional ales – you took in the show. The spectacle. The very life of The Spice.

This again fell into two clearly distinct categories. Before the evening pageant came the lunchtime scene. At noon you could be standing at the bar. The staff would be darting around still clearing up from the night before. Dexy’s Midnight Runners would be warbling on about Geno and before you knew what was happening the place would be filling up in the seating areas with pretty young girls avidly smoking and chattering, tired looking accountants returning from dismal bankruptcy meetings and the occasional stripper in for a chat with the bar staff before setting off for an afternoon’s squirming and writhing in the peep show opposite. The lunchtime atmosphere was low key, limbering up at best. A sense of time passing slowly. As if the pub were airing itself out, taking a breather before bracing itself for the evening’s onslaught.

A Scotsman in a kilt sporting a ponytail would wander in. The Charing Cross Road coursing by Soho was apt to throw up all manner of strangeness like a frog suddenly disgorged from a fast flowing sewer. On one memorable occasion a lean rangy Irishman in what must have been his very best outfit – wide lappelled check jacket, garishly patterned shirt and wide kipper tie all in contrasting hues breezed up to the bar. At the time I was inquiring from the bar staff whether The Pogues record we were hearing was based on a traditional Irish tune. “You bet your life it is”, volunteered the colourful Irish rover at my side. It transpired that he’d just flown in that morning from Cork to check on the workers on the scaffolding next door at the Palace Theatre. Was he working there also, I asked? “No. I’m the top man” was his reply. “Look at that totty” he cried hungrily rushing across the room to chat up two young punkettes with all the appetite of a man recently released from prison. Later on when his ardour had cooled I asked him about his dazzling jacket. Without a trace of irony he showed me the label. “Look at that. Twenty per cent pure wool,” he said with pride. I had to be impressed.

Ah but the evening was a different matter. In summer as the sun disappeared behind the buildings of Wardour Street the whole of Old Compton Street would be bathed in a glorious golden light, the neon signs vibrating blue and red in a warm exotic intensity. At six you would enter The Spice perfectly in time with the guitar riff in David Bowie’s China Girl making you feel like an adventurer entering some oriental palace of delights. A sign of a T made with two hands communicated your request for a pint of Tennants to the barman. You handed over the money, raised the glass to your lips and sank into its inch thick foam while turning to look back through the crowd to the sunlit streets beyond the doors where the unknowing commuters bustled up and down to the train stations. And in here in the darkness, paradise found. You had reached Phase One.

Phase Two usually clocked in at around eight when the pub was full and the whole crowd swayed as one to Led Zeppelin’s Good Times Bad Times. Chatter tinkled across the top edge of the aural spectrum as people shouted into each other’s ears trying to communicate. Sometimes it was easier to keep locked on eye contact and speak slowly on another sound plane altogether. Grinning from ear to ear, Phase Two was like ecstasy without the drug.

And finally Phase Three. Wild abandoned drunken joy. In a blur of laughing pink faces, you would be leaping up and down, ironically bellowing No Fun along with Johnny Rotten. All around were scenes of wild enjoyment as you too howled Spanish Eyes for all you were worth and yes out into the street you would go at ten past eleven, the shock of the cool night air evident in columns of steam rising from the sweaty boozy bodies of the ravers stumbling out through the crashing doors. For a few minutes you calmed down and took stock chatting to your new friends from Yeovil or Luton. Sometimes there would be the police and a white van looking for trouble. They rarely found any. Yes you’d be back on Thursday evening next week. Where else was there to go? What else was there to do that freed you so totally from reality?

Six months later McMullens gutted The Spice and turned it into just another pub with brass fittings, bookshelves and preprogrammed music. Maybe Andrew Lloyd Webber had protested, it being so close to his newly refurbished theatre. He’d never know what a real musical evening was like.

Address:
6 Moor St
London
United Kingdom

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