DIARY 17 November 1967 King’s Road, Chelsea. Part 2

Swinging down the King’s Road, Chelsea. Part two

King’s Road or Kings Road? I go for the apostrophe; it was originally ‘The King’s Private Road’, literally. King Charles II had it built for his own purposes to allow him to travel between London and Kew.

Mary Quant opened her boutique on King’s Road in 1955 when young people were beginning to demand their own fashions. Property prices shot up as it became the boutique centre of London; gentrification set in, squeezing out the bohemian artists and writers. By the late 1960s, King’s Road became the place to be seen and its regular customers were the new celebrities of swinging London.

Many boutiques sold clothes designed and made by the shop owners, similar to established fashion houses. Prices (still in guineas[1]) were out of the reach of many people, especially students on a grant. My student colleagues at Chelsea College showed very little interest and I would walk alone past the colours and noise of the boutiques. King’s Road, however, had competition; Carnaby Street and Portobello Road were becoming even more lively and cheaper.

Carnaby collage.jpg

I was introduced to Carnaby Street by a young woman I met in a café one day. It was just a friendly encounter as we both tried to find somewhere to sit. She was shopping in King’s Road but said she didn’t like it because the shops were too snooty. She was about 19 and dressed in the short-skirted fashion that identified her as a ‘dolly bird’ in the sexist slang[2] of the time. I had finally met my first real Londoner, complete with East End accent. She called herself Debs.

This was not a pick-up ruse.  She told me about her boyfriend, Courtney, and I told her why I was in Chelsea. She promised to take me to Carnaby Street which she said was much more fun. A few days later we went there and she showed me the brasher, less pretentious boutiques. She headed straight for Aristos boutique and went upstairs saying she knew the owner. Aristos Constantinou[3] was sitting cross-legged in traditional tailor pose sewing the finishing touches to an orange mini-dress. We sat in the shop, drinking instant coffee and deafened by the pop music coming through the speakers. Despite, or perhaps because of, the noise, there was a steady stream of customers.

It was certainly more fun than Chelsea. The clothes were more affordable, made in the tailors’ workshops and sweatshops of the East End and Finsbury Park. This was where their customers came from too, rather than the well-heeled corners of Knightsbridge and Sloane Square. They developed their own fashions, including military jackets, trouser suits for women and patterned suits for men.

Aristos Constantinou became known as ‘the power of Carnaby Street’. He later joined up with his brother, Achilleas, and set up Ariella Fashions which supplied department stores and boutiques. The new fashions spread across the country at prices anyone could afford. And if you couldn’t get to a boutique, you could order fashion by post from Biba and many other mail order companies. The ‘rag trade’ expanded with old and new companies opening boutiques. A well-established fashion chain called Lewis Separates, selling women’s skirts, blouses and cardigans, opened a shop on King’s Road selling the new styles, renamed it Chelsea Girl; it became the first nationwide chain of boutiques.

Even then, I couldn’t afford the clothes. My mother offered to make me a dressing gown which she did after I had described the kaftan style and paisley pattern I wanted. I would wear it as a shirt but it still looked like a dressing gown.

I met Debs and her boyfriend a couple of times when we might go to a club such as the 100 Club. Once, she even arranged a blind date but there was nothing I could say to Sandra, a bouffanted, powdered trendsetter and she wasn’t impressed by me as a hairy scruffy student. I realised that I was out of place and let Debs and company drift away.

But, I had a taste of trendy London and it was pleasant. I was still alone but if I was lonely I did not feel it at the time.

[1] A ‘guinea’ was 21 shillings. A pound (£) was 20 shillings. This was a ruse to make prices look less than they were and was commonly used for fashion and high value items. The practice fell out of use with metrication in 1971 to be replaced by prices ending in 99p. 

[2] I never really got on with much of the slang of the 1960s such as ‘fab’, ‘groovy’ or calling everyone ‘man’.

[3] Aristos Constantinou became very rich and moved to Bishop’s Avenue, Hampstead commonly referred to as Millionaire’s Row. By coincidence, I lived near his factory in Wood Green in 1985 when I heard that he had been shot dead in unconfirmed circumstances. Despite hanging round these parts of London I never met anyone else who could be described as a ‘celebrity’.

Aristis collage

Aristos in the late 1960s, with his brother and his Carnaby Street shop

© Derek Perry 2017

Please get in touch if I have used your picture without acknowledgement.

 

DIARY 2 November 1967 King’s Road Chelsea part 1

Swinging down King’s Road Chelsea part 1

If you are new to London, don’t bother with an expensive sightseeing tour bus unless you like an open top in the rain and commentary in 12 languages. Just take the number 11 bus. I would get on it near Manresa Road on King’s Road and it would take me eastwards towards Victoria and thence to the City. It would pass Sloane Square, Victoria, Westminster, Trafalgar Square, The Strand, Fleet Street and the Bank. Get off anywhere and within a short walk you will find most of London’s worthwhile sights.

Although I would arrive at South Kensington station in the morning and walk to college, the most useful bus was the number 11. It would take me to cinemas, clubs, demonstrations, galleries; or I could simply stay on until the terminus at Liverpool Street and take in the sights.

That is, if I wanted to escape from King’s Road. In 1967 it was the epitome of swinging London with new boutiques pioneered by Mary Quant and others, bars and clubs frequented by pop stars, lurid colour schemes applied to both buildings and vehicles, and bright young things in their mini-skirts and paisley shirts.

Collage Kings Road

Of course, I quite liked it. The vibrancy, the music that blared from shops, cars treated as art objects with two fingers in the face of stuffy 1950s London. Here I was in a place that seemed unique and promised to be the centre of a new expanding universe providing what some of us young people wanted.

It might have looked wildly chaotic to the staid observer but it was really not much more than a fashion statement, however revolutionary the mini-skirt and psychedelic colours appeared. The celebrities were pop stars or the entrepreneurs themselves such as Mary Quant and Alvaro Maccioni the restaurant owner.

There were some attempts to show that this was a dangerous place; but King’s Road was no Haight-Ashbury with its free love and drug-taking. I recall a popular sensationalist magazine called Titbits which asked the question ‘Are our girls in danger in swinging Chelsea?’. This headline was above a picture of a group of young women walking down King’s Road arm-in-arm. They need not have worried. These women were all known to me as fellow students and with their knee-length tweed skirts and sensible shoes they were completely incorruptible. King’s Road, with its new shops and restaurants patronised by some of the better-off was something of a breath of fresh air in a London still showing the scars of the Blitz, dirty buildings and grey streets. I had to go to Soho or Covent Garden (still a vegetable market) or the East End to find the darker places where there might be danger.

Collage My places

Not that I could actually go to many places in King’s Road. As a penniless student I could not afford the entry fee or the price of drinks and I knew no-one who could introduce me. Fortunately, there was a new concrete shopping centre called King’s Walk with a Boots and a supermarket where I could buy my essentials. The places I could afford were the Picasso Café where I ate my first proper spaghetti and the Six Bells which served ghastly Watney’s keg beer; I was forced to drink bottled brown ale. I chose this pub because Dylan Thomas had been a regular and they had jazz upstairs on Fridays; this was old bohemian Chelsea. I could buy a meal at The Chelsea Kitchen or The Stockpot. It was free to go into Gandalf’s Garden where you could lounge on large cushions and drink herbal tea. Late at night you could have tea and a sausage sandwich at a stall in Sloane Square; this is where I witnessed the cliched conjunction of a man in evening dress, a drunk, and a ragged homeless man all together at 2am one morning.

In the evening, I would meander back through the streets of South Kensington and take the Piccadilly Line back to Turnham Green and unremarkable Acton.

 

© Derek Perry 2017

DIARY 12 October 1967 First days at university

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The impressive frontage of Chelsea College along Manresa Road[1], London SW3.

An open book

I joined the other freshers for our introductory talk in the wood-panelled lecture theatre which dated back to the 1890s. The lecturer must have been in his thirties and, due to his low status in the academic hierarchy, he was given the job of introducing the college to us oiks. We would not be introduced to the senior lecturers for some time.

This lecturer was dressed in the academics’ relaxed garb of tweed jacket, knitted tie and slacks. No academic gown but the college had only just become a university[2]. He was as bemused as we were; he commented on the fact that two or three of us men were wearing pink shirts which should not have been surprising since we were just one hundred feet from the boutique-laden King’s Road, Chelsea.

No register, no class timetable, no uniform, no compulsory sports, time off to read. We could even smoke in lectures although no-one did. It wasn’t much like school after all. I reckoned I could deal with this. I had a good education, passed my exams to get there, there was enough money to get by, and I had somewhere to live.

I tried to make friends but it was not long before I discovered how different I was from my fellow students. They, mainly men but a few women, appeared to have all grown up in the suburbs of London or Surrey. The first person I tried to strike up a conversation with had grown up in Surbiton which already had a reputation as the archetypal suburbia with social pretensions[3]. Several were the children of pharmacists or doctors; I decided to keep quiet about my origins.

They all had middle class accents; no sign of Cockney, not even the odd ‘gie us a butchers’. I was looking forward to meeting my first real Londoners but it would not be at Chelsea College. There weren’t many regional accents either. My Birmingham lilt confused some who asked if I came from Liverpool and did I know the Beatles? I admit to trying to change my accent, not because I was ashamed of it but because I was fed up with explaining that that I was not Liverpudlian. I did notice a distinct drop in interest when I revealed from whence I hailed so I just said I was from Acton.

I didn’t make any friends at college. They all went back to Surbiton or Wimbledon at the end of the day whereas I was on a voyage of discovery. No-one was interested in poking around the pubs of Soho, or the bookshops of Charing Cross Road, or slumming it in Covent Garden (still, at that time, a fruit and veg market, not the tourist trap it is today). I wanted to explore not just places and events but culture and ideas.

Chelsea_College_Library_at_Manresa_Road,_1970s_  manresa-road-ref-copy

The public library, Manresa Road, outside and inside, where I discovered much.

I had not read much as a teenager; science exams and spending evenings at a youth club left little time for inspirational or enjoyable reading. At school the fiction I read off-curriculum was a couple of Hardy’s Wessex novels, a bit of Tolkien and I quite liked Dylan Thomas. Whilst growing up, however, we had a small library at home; an alcove bookshelf next to the fireplace and behind the television. These had been bought by Dad either in bulk round about the time I was born or through a book club. Most were published by a company called Odhams whose books you rarely saw in shops.

My father will never know how grateful I was for this library. There were encyclopedias, history books, photograph albums, novels, popular science texts, how to make and do things. I must have read them all, several times. Then I would go to the public library in Bournville to find more books. When I had read everything of interest in the children’s section, by the age of ten or eleven, I was in the adult section absorbing anything that appealed at the time including Scottish history, steam engines, electronics, radio comedy scripts, Punch magazine, philately. Not much imaginative writing however; no novels, just a little poetry.

Diary 671002 First day at university

I devoured these brilliant books. And more, including Turgenev, Camus, Kafka, Anouilh etc.

In Chelsea, the public library and the college next door were symbiotic; I could borrow books using my college library card. It became my haven where I discovered French and Russian novels; German, British and American poetry, existentialist literature, absurd theatre, modern English and American writers and so much more.

I was on the road to ruin; I would never be the same again. In the evening I would go back to Acton, to Mrs Haggar, Jeffrey and Rusty. With no television or even a radio I would carry on reading.

[1] The building was sold off to property developers and by 2015 Manresa Road was considered to be the third most expensive street in England with average property prices approaching £7.5 million. As I write, a seven-bedroom flat is for sale at £25.5 million. Just a few years ago it was the home for students, artists, writers. Now it is an expensive sterile desert. I also think this is a photoshopped picture – the building was never this long!

[2] The college was built in 1895 as a high level academic institution devoted to science and technology, as opposed to the humanitarian objectives of established universities. Other advanced institutes were established as ‘polytechnics’ at the time, taking their inspiration from the Ecole Polytechnic set up by Napoleon in Paris. The college awarded degrees endorsed by the University of London until it was given university status in 1966.

[3] A popular British sitcom of the 1970s, The Good Life, was set in Surbiton. It contrasted the lives of neighbours, one couple attempting to be self-sufficient by turning their suburban home into a small holding and their upwardly mobile, snobbish neighbours.