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by Barnaby Rogerson
on Travel Intelligence
A London Evening (St Barnabas House, Soho)
Miss Edna Funnell is in the highest category of guides. After 48 years she has become at one with her house, presiding over its now and its various pasts with equal ease and intimacy. She wears her powder blue beret, like her store of knowledge, at a firm but rakish angle and clutches a chain of jangling keys. She is, like me, a little deaf, but this is to an experienced guide is more of a professional tool than an affliction. Armed with a little light deafness you can cut your way with ease through awkward requests and unwanted questions from visitors. If you are feeling cruel you can ask them to repeat jokes while if you are in a kinder, more creative mood you can shape their questions, with a little aural distortion, into something useful.
Fortunately we had no need for such elaborate gamesmanship. I am Everyman, she is Knowledge and we meet in the 18th century hall of the House St Barnabas In Soho. Together we close the heavy original door, decorated like Old Compton streets most extravagant leather-jacket, with a pelethora of chain, stud and bolt accesories. Together we shut out the sharp eyed world of late-20th century Greek Street and bathe in the forgotten glory of the house. Here in the heart of cutting room, studio screening, “Darling I thought you were making a commercial movie”, cafe nodding, club networking, table watching, bar slouching Soho is a pure-piece of undisturbed baroque heaven. Only destitute women now get to wander through these ample jewel like interiors, kicking their heels like so many bored millionaires. The rooms are guarded by a succession of bold imaginative doors, the walls are alive with a sumptious plasterwork of floral wreathes, eroded shells, scrolls, chinese clouds and plump cherubs. It is iced Mozart - but one that has been given a nasty whiff of reality from the sparse furnishings and the all-pervading smell of instutional cooking. Mozart would have felt uneasily at home here, for he was employed for a year as a tutor to the precocious children of the Beckford brothers, one of whom built this house. The Beckfords were the original sugar-daddies; rich beyond avarice, and all from the profits of vast misery soaked slave-plantations in Jamaica that fed a world hungry for rum, treacle and sugar.
A nasty whiff of Cholera in the mid 19th century quickly cleared the gentry out from Soho and their sub divided mansions were let out to such poor immigrants as Karl Marx and family, all eight of them tucked up in just two rooms above the comfortable dinning room of Quo Vadis on Dean Street. It was in this period that the old Beckford house was brought up by a Church of England charitable commitee that continues to quietly provide shelter for those in need. The garden, an almost impossible luxury in this part of town, is shaded by a plane tree described by Dickens and the last Mulberry to survive from a Hugenout silk orchard thsat once stood on this ground. It is bordered by a splendidly bizarre piece of Victoriana, a pain-staking attempt to recreate something from the Cathedral Crusade of the 13th century. In this case they tried for the first Cluniac chapel but created something altogether different.
But it was here that Miss Edna, her eyes shining, sketched out for me another city. Her London shimmered with the sort of spiritual activity that one had foolishly consigned to the romantic past and the exotic distance; to Sufi Bukhara, the Buddhist monasteries of Tibet or the Umbria of St Francis. Her London housed hidden orders of charitable Anglican brotherhoods, ecumenical committees, sage teachers who took a delight in diversity whilst devotedly pursuing their own mystical quest. We went back to the drawing room window that overlooked Soho square where she pointed out her landmarks: the spire of an old Hugenout church run by a female minister who had converted from Islam, a venerable Orthodox synagogue that has made room for a public art gallery, a church busy with Irish and Italians and the bombed out hulk of St Anne’s.
I hurried off to Fleet Street to find the stone knights that still lie on the floor in the medieval chapel of the Knights Templars. They lay quiet still, giving no hint of why they should build a model of the holy sepulchure on marsh land beside a muddy tidal stream. It was time to find a pub.
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by Barnaby Rogerson