we just heard that the splendid institution and cultural treasure trove known as the Victoria & Albert Museum is having an exhibition about 80s clubland in London.
and – well – we used to be there – in the Clubland of the late 80s and early 90s in London – as well at the V&A, of course.
we *did* write a short story about Those (were the) Days.
would you like to read it?
you are Most Kind.
Glitz, no Glam.
It was a crucifix: a full-scale be-jeweled-encrusted rough-hewn wood inlaid with ruby red glass beads crucifix. Annie took a lollipop from the large jar on the hall table and pointed it at the crucifix as it came through the door.
“Can I ask why?” she said.
Amanda did not answer. She was frowning at the top of the door in case the artwork nicked the paint. “Careful!”
With the crucifix safely in her bedroom, the door half-closed behind her in the breeze, leaving a cloud of vintage YSL. Amanda pointed to the fixing on the wall, waiting for the artwork. The workmen got paid and got the hell out.
Annie put the kettle on and sat down at the kitchen table to wait for an explanation. None came. She realized Amanda was taking her nap before heading out to the club by nine. By now she would have popped a couple of tranquilizers and slid under the purple satin coverlet, curtains drawn, veiling the sun from her newest addition to the baroque boudoir.
The kettle squealed for a few seconds and Annie snapped back to reality. She made a cup of tea and opened the fridge but the milk was off and smelt bad so she threw the tea down the sink, the milk in the bin and took the bottle of red wine from the table back to bed instead.
She needed to sleep. The red wine would be her tranquilizer. For the hundredth time that month she wished she had a TV in her room. It would nice to watch old Bette Davis movies while getting plastered. She stared up at the ceiling counting the cottage cheese indentations until the bottle was empty and she slid into the abyss.
When she woke up the flat was full of burning candles and Amanda – or Miss A as she was known after nightfall – was into her pre-club ritual.
Annie grabbed a Chinese silk robe and padded into the living room; still sleepy. The room was ablaze with candles, some blowsy French 1960s movie projected onto the wall, bouncing off the reproduction full-size Vogue 1930s prints over the fireplace. Miss A was in full drag: a sharp vintage dress suit, corset and wedge cork sandals, her short crop slicked down, her cigarette was being lit by an androgynous beauty.
Annie took a Gitanes from the pack on the table and looked around for a lighter. No one from this crowd would light her cigarette in her current state of disarray. Miss A was in full swing, building up to a night running the hottest night in London since that Fashion Director held his end of the decade party in the depths of Leicester Square.
Several pairs of limbs became entwined on the sofa and a third person fell onto the floor. They stayed there and no one helped. Annie exhaled and realized the movie was Godard’s Breathless with the gamine beauty Jean Seberg.
“She met an unhappy end,” murmured a voice from the couch.
“Yeah,” said Annie, taking a drag and considering Miss A’s outfit with interest, “Such a sad story.”
Amanda took a closer look at her lodger, “Aren’t you going to get dressed?” she snapped, “You can’t go out like that – we are so over tousled geisha,” she said pointing at the Chinese silk robe.
Sometimes Annie wondered who denoted what ‘we were into’. She could not understand where these fashion forecasters of the underground club scene hung out. And if Miss A and her crowd were the pinnacle of the London night creatures, influencing style later reflected in Camden Market and, eventually, in the magazines, the question was: who were these observers? Those unseen creatures taking note of their every whim? Or was it, as the psychologist Carl Jung said, merely a collective unconsciousness, a sea of style in which Miss A swum before most dared.
“I knew her,” said the woman on the couch.
“Jean Seberg? Really?” Annie was tired, she was not interested in pointing out that Godard’s movie was shot quite a long time ago.
“In another life,” the woman said, earnestly.
“Right,” said Annie and headed to her room to rustle up an approximation of Miss A’s East Berlin Cabaret ensemble. She didn’t have to dress like Amanda, but it helped. She had done so ever since she first saw Amanda gleaming on stage as she MC-ed the opening night of the Valentina Club.
It had been one of those freezing cold London February night where despite a layering of fake fur and scotch, the cold gripped her bones threatening to crack them in two. The waitress-life lost whatever glamour it had once possessed. Her debts were mounting and there was that unused photography degree for a passion she had once vowed to give up sex for. Flickering through stolen copies of Cropped at a friend’s house she decided to start a project and send layouts in.
To have her days free, she would need to work by night. The Valentina Club was hiring – but you had to be a redhead. So she took the bus to south of the river. Her friend Stephen looked at the packet of hair dye.
“The trick to a great Flame Red is stripping the hair to white first,” he said, as he tried not to scar her scalp with bleach. They waited for the color to take, and sat draped in towels, drinking vodka and eating crumpets slathered in unsalted butter while watching “The Killing of Sister George”, Stephen’s favorite film.
“I’m tired of London. Should we move to New York?” said Annie, toweling her hair dry. She looked in the dusty mirror and realized she would have to buy a whole new make-up kit.
Stephen considered Annie’s new look, “You’d do much better in Berlin,” he drawled. “Besides how could you leave your practically perfect basement, er, garden flat?”
“Ah, well, they sort of objected to me not paying rent for the past two months.”
He looked across at her suspiciously over-stuffed bag and patted the sofa with a sad smile. “Once more, my sofa is your castle. Plus you know how much I hate drinking alone. Now let’s get some slap on that face and get you out the door to audition for this crazy night-club.” Annie was grateful – grateful and desperate.
So that was the night she met Miss A. Although she had read about her before in the club pages of The Face and I.D. long before. She was notorious with her sharp green eyes, heavily fringed and mascara-laden gaze, always the same half-profile shot, lips slightly pursed as if she had unexpectedly swallowed the lemon slice in her G&T. There was a scent of danger about her and a dark back-story.
Later Annie would find out that Miss A never touched gin; always preferring a vodka gimlet. “Like in the movies” she purred but never specified which ones exactly. The moue look was to make her cheekbones more prominent.
But that night, the night of the auditions for new redheads at Valentina Club, Miss A was stone cold sober and very calculating, giving a swift up and down to the hopeful parade of flamed beauties looking for a job at her club. The one before Annie was summarily rejected with a curt, “Sweetheart, those thighs were not meant to be seen in fishnets.”
Annie was not concentrating. It was so cold, she had not eaten since yesterday and she was terribly nervous. The line snaked slowly around Covent Garden’s less salubrious alleyways. Then there it was, the cavernous mouth of hell that Miss A had created to make her creatures of the night feel right at home. Miss A stood at the door scanning the crowd. She spotted Annie reading a book, innocence radiated out of her. Miss A was slightly taken aback.
The book was Cecil Beaton’s wickedly funny memoirs of working at Vogue during the late 20s. Annie pulled the pages closer and tried to imagine she was somewhere warm and well fed and already had the deposit for a flat somewhere nice for a change.
“Oh!” screeched Miss A, “what do we have here -an INTELLECTUAL?” And she flung out her arms encased in black satin gloves to the elbow to stop Annie passing. The book went flying and Miss A’s eyebrow rose when she saw it was Beaton. She loved Beaton.
She had never actually read any but the covers promised a life of late Jazz Age glamour and that was her theme de jour so she approved.
Later, at the late night coffee shop, Annie sat with thirty other newly-hired redheads as Firebrand Brown, the former cheer-leader from Texas and “head bitch” as she called herself, proposed a toast.
“Girls,” she smiled wickedly, “you are in for the ride of your life at Valentina. We intend to have fun, create fun and just BE fun!”
Annie was tired but relieved. She would make enough to get by this month. Hell, she’d do a lot more if she could get a double page spread of her photographs in Cropped. She fumbled in her tiny black sequined purse for her tube pass and hoped Stephen was still up. Her hands touched on the disposable camera she carried everywhere with her.
As she stood up to go, she quickly took a shot of the assembled group. Everyone was so high, drunk or tired they did not notice. Firebrand’s head whipped round towards the door as she tried to process what the sudden flash had been but Annie had slipped out the back door and made a run for the last night bus.
A few weeks later Annie was stacking up the glasses on the bar when Kara, a classical ballet dancer from Essex, looking for a break into West End musicals, told her that Amanda’s name was not really Amanda; or Miss A, for that matter. Annie thoughtfully wiped down the bar with a dirty rag and threw it in the bin. Kara sighed and pulled it out and placed it carefully in the laundry basket behind the swing doors.
“But if you are going to change your name, why choose something as posh and establishment as Amanda?” Annie asked. Kara shrugged and jerked her head towards the little table by the DJ booth where Amanda was frowning over the accounts with Mr. Herne the accountant. Handing Annie a new dishcloth and pointing out the wet glasses in the sink, Kara whispered, “I heard it was homage to Noel Coward.”
“Gosh! Private Lives – a classic,” Annie looked over at her boss and rested her chin on her hands. Amanda looked up from the accounts and did her famous moue. Annie sighed and went back to wiping up the glasses.
After the shift that night Annie went back to Kara’s flat in Tavistock Street. Kara was sub-letting from a Foreign Office friend of her uncle’s and it was walking distance from Valentina. They climbed out of the casement window and lit candles and cigarettes on the roof. “Can you imagine what it was like here during the war? Watching the East End burning and planes flying overhead?” said Annie.
Kara took a long sexy drag of her cigarette. She was considering seducing Annie who was horribly naïve but very pretty. But the non-sequiturs of her conversation really stumped her sometimes (that and the fact that Miss A was swiftly colonizing Annie herself, not that the sweet one noticed).
Annie yawned and stretched out her arms. They were covered in scratch marks from catching her elbows on the jagged side of the bar. Kara reached into her bag and took out some ointment and rubbed her scratches until they were no longer red. Annie kissed her on the cheek and stayed silent. Kara’s intensity scared her somewhat. It was not as scary as Miss A’s heightened passion and ferocity for life but it was close. All the redheads in the bar tried to ape Amanda’s aura and, at times, it was less a nightclub and more of a flame-haired copycat cult.
The next week Annie moved in to Miss A’s place just over the River Thames. Nestled behind what used to be the high street circa Shakespeare’s time, the house had once been grand but was now split inelegantly into flats of varying sizes and odd layouts. Miss A owned the entire building apparently and took possession of the ground floor with very high ceilings and French windows that opened out onto an unfinished courtyard. Miss A was not what one would call a gardener or landscaper. She barely went out during the day as it happens.
It was less of an offer of somewhere to live and more of a command, Annie reflected, as she unpacked her bag and tried to feel at home. The room faced a brick wall but plenty of light came through the double height windows. The wall opposite had once shown an advertisement for hot cocoa. Now faded and sad, it was a remnant from the wartime propaganda in its “us-against-the-enemy” fireside scene. Two tousled curly headed children could still be seen, sipping cocoa, mugs in both hands.
Annie got to know every inch of the advertisement over the next few months and even named the children. Miss A – who never knocked – stood in the doorway once and demanded to know whom Felix and Jemima were. Without turning round, quite dreamily, Annie pointed at the 1930s moppets outside her window.
She tried to understand why Miss A asked the workman to come by and whitewash the wall so soon after.
Kara knew. “She’s jealous,” she whispered, as they stood waiting for Miss A to inspect them before the club opened. Usually Firebrand did the dimply thigh and roots that needed touching check. But for the past twenty-eight days, Miss A had done it – and not with good grace – while Firebrand was in the Detox unit in Charing Cross hospital again.
She smoothed Annie’s bob, making it fall into line. Kara strained to hear what she whispered as Miss A made a kiss curl on Annie’s forehead.
“Cats,” said Annie, as they set up the bar later, “she bought two cats today.” As Annie walked away to tidy her area she overhead Miss A tell another Valentina girl that Felix and Jemima were perfectly flame-colored.
Kara wondered if she picked them out like that or if they got their fur dyed at the feline beauty parlor. Sadly she shared this witty observation with one too many people. When Firebrand was released, Kara got fired.
“So what’s the crucifix for?” asked Annie for the hundredth time as she teased the new kittens with a piece of cold spaghetti.
Miss A did not answer. She was staring out of the French windows onto what would have been a verdant terrace if either of them bothered to water the plants.
“Are you religious?” she persisted, determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.
She wound the cold spaghetti through her fingers and considered eating it until Miss A snapped, “No carbs, you’re getting fat.” It stung and it was meant to.
Annie reached across the table and pulled the cigarettes towards her, carefully selecting the one turned upside down in the middle of the pack. It was a small act of rebellion and it thrilled her. She walked away and locked herself in the bathroom and stared at the wall until she felt nauseous from too many cigarettes and not enough supper.
Stephen was not sympathetic. “You chose to work there and then you chose to move in with the boss. You are asking for it. I hope the sex is worth it.”
Annie knew enough not to tell him anything more. He would disown her. There was nothing sexual about her relationship with Miss. A. But she could not tell Stephen that. He was her one stable influence, as crazy as that might appear.
Once he dropped round to get Annie to go bowling (“It’s the latest craze,” he promised her. It wasn’t.) Miss. A had greeted him and then exited swiftly. “She’s a Vampire,” he exclaimed, with admiration in his voice befitting one who owned many of Anne Rice’s early works.
But Annie had not mentioned the crucifix. She felt it unwise. Perhaps it was art, she thought brightly, in her more relaxed moments at home. Or shock value. But when you thought about it, a crucifix was not that strange to someone so deeply fixated by ritual and a love of candles and incense.
A waft of vintage YSL came through the door. Amanda was home. “For you!”
She was standing in Annie’s room holding a beautiful jacket.
“For your interview, I thought.” Her eyes were smudged. She was drunk, or worse; probably high on shopping perhaps.
It was impossible to keep a secret in this town. So Annie had told her about the go-see at Cropped, the achingly hip photography magazine in North London. Just a go-see: five minutes with the section editor to show her portfolio. Amanda had not asked to see the pictures. Annie, by now, knew she wouldn’t.
But it wouldn’t stop her looking when the portfolio was lying around. So the pictures of Valentina were hidden behind the harshly captured night scenes of Leicester Square, the back streets of Chelsea, a Saturday late afternoon among the detritus of Camden Square market, the stallholders wearily packing up as teenagers ran for the last bus to suburbia for their tea.
At the Cropped offices, the Valentina shots were pounced on. No one had been allowed to take pictures inside the club – Miss A forbade it.
“You must have faded into the background,” said the art director, as if that were a good thing. Annie stayed quiet. She was terrified of being here in the supernaturally bright studio lights of the magazine’s editorial offices at the top of the Angel, Islington. Unimaginably wan young men carrying black boxes of prints swung through the reception doors and the most glamorous art students on work experience made endless cups of strong black coffee.
Mari, walked by, carrying a small valise. She was the Editor-in- Chief and on her way to her house in Brighton for the Bank Holiday weekend. The art director stopped her with a seemingly casual “Worth a look”, nodding at Annie’s 10 x 8 prints on the table.
The jacket felt itchy. It was beautiful, a brocade, almost cut like a riding jacket with tiny mottled buttons. But it was not what Annie would have worn. It was clear that head to toe black was the uniform here. She blushed against her too-red hair and felt out of place. Wrong: too fat, too much, just too much.
Mari took each print in her hand and considered it with a practiced eye before moving onto the next. Finally, she put a hand through her straight black hair and found a marker behind her ear. She put crosses on five prints and crop marks on four more.
“Print these – like that” she said and gave a half smile to Annie. No money was discussed; there was no need. Other people did the money. Mari was the inspiration, not the bookkeeper.
Annie looked at the crop marks and saw what Mari had done. They were too close: too intense.
What had once been wide shots of club scenes – reportage, in effect – of a night at Valentina’s: the girls getting ready, Firebrand taking a cigarette break on the roof, Miss A adjusting a tabletop and removing a smeared glass, a full ashtray – these were hidden moments originally. But Mari had made these snapshots of a night the focus and, as a result, revealed, exposed the exhaustion, the repetitive nature of the work and, tellingly, the utter lack of glamour.
When the prints came back from the darkroom Annie realized how she lived. The pictures she had taken revealed a bunch of girls in their very early 20s trying to look like creatures of the night from a Berlin cabaret. They looked horribly young and very tired.
Mari brought in a man called Max who sneered at Annie as he handed her an envelope to pay for her work. Annie took the envelope and stumbled down the white stairs and out into the gray London afternoon.
The art students queued up for teas and iced buns for a shoot at the greasy spoon cafe downstairs and snuck white paper packets into the pockets from the bus boys smoking on the steps. Mari emerged from Cropped’s doorway, her black hair hanging like a crisp sheet from a perfect parting. She opened the taxi door and saw Annie looking bewildered. Pausing, she remembered the pictures and realized Annie had talent, so she might be useful.
“Get in,” said Mari. Annie took a deep breath and got into the back of the black cab.
Miss A was not at home when Annie packed. She placed the kittens in a straw basket like peaches at a market and slung her other bag over her shoulder.
Opening the door to Amanda’s bedroom, she stood and considered the crucifix glowing in the half-light. Carefully hanging the jacket on the outside of Miss A’s wardrobe, she folded her Valentina outfit on the chair by the bed.
Then she pinned her favorite shot of the club onto the crucifix with a silver drawing pin, put her keys in the lollipop jar and ran all the way to the train station catch the 5.15 to Brighton, a box of black hair dye nestled between Felix and Jemima.