I have a friend who always asks me what my intention is when I start doing something. It is sage advice and I use it frequently. When I was asked to write a review for Jeff, the manager at The Kings Arms in Soho, I asked myself that question. I mulled it over for a while and eventually came up with the answer, “I want to bring as many like-minded punters into the Kings Arms as possible because right now it’s my favourite place on earth”.
If you have roughly eight minutes to spare, (I know it’s that long, I’ve timed it), and you are remotely interested as to why a middle-aged writer’s favourite place on earth is a pub in Soho, please try and stay awake and fight your way through to the end of this review in order that you might be encouraged to visit the next time you are in town. However, I am aware that time is your most valuable commodity. So for those of you busy, busy people with very little time to spare, one word. Music. For those of you leisurely folk, like me, who enjoy nothing more than a stroll through the park on a Tuesday afternoon sniffing the daffodils, thank you for taking the time to read this review.
Let us gently roll the clock back thirty years or so in order to set the scene. A teenage slip of a thing is working in a very well known gay bar full of the bright and the beautiful in Old Compton Street. Visions of crop-tops and tight shorts appear on the horizon. Sequins, sass, Southern Comfort lime and lemonade are the order of the day. You get the picture. I had fun, for sure, but I never felt like I fitted in, or found anyone remotely attractive. One day, my skinny, seductively-sleazy street-walking friend Anthony and I slithered through Soho on our way to somewhere new. In a uniform he had chosen for us specifically of MA1 flight jackets, faded 501’s and some nice big boots to go with our recently shaved locks. We marched through Soho totally unrecognised by all our friends as they poured towards us in a tsunami of Westwood and Versace throwing glitter at all and sundry. We suddenly turned sharp right into Poland Street. I had no idea where he was taking me. As we approached the Kings Arms, he gently held my head in his hands and looked me in the eyes as he whispered in all sincerity, “You are gonna love this place. But if it gets a bit out of hand, I’ve got some butcher’s off-cuts in my handbag. If you need saving just scream as loud as you can and I’ll chuck some meat in the middle of the floor and we run”. Trembling like a Chihuahua on a comedown, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and repeated the mantra I always use when walking through doors the likes of which I have never passed before, “Tonight Matthew, I am going to be, fabulous”.
Oh dear, dear Anthony, where are you now? I hope life is treating you with the kindness you deserve, wherever you are. Please know that you will always live in my heart for having taken this shivering wreck of a boy into a bar that would change his life in a way that the man sitting here writing this today could never have imagined. And I have a vivid imagination. Believe me. The tired and tested old tropes are the only way I can describe the experience. Kid in a sweet shop. Died and went to heaven. Found my tribe. All of the above. And more. Oh, so much more. Anthony left me on me todd and disappeared upstairs with a truck driver from Leeds quicker than my Vicar did that time I bumped into him in coming out of the darkroom at Backstreet. But I needn’t have worried. After a few small sweet sherries to calm my nerves, I realised the big burly beauties all around me were not as scary as they seemed. Appearances can indeed be very deceptive. Within twenty minutes John, a hairdresser from Penge, resplendent in his face tattoos and a rather fetching dog collar to boot, was telling me the simplest way to prevent a soggy bottom when preparing quiche. Mind, quite frankly, blown.
I had a splendiferously stupendous time. But, also, a sort of epiphany at about ten-thirty pm while chatting to one of the many hot barmen. Why was I surrounded by pretty little butterflies all the time in Old Compton Street? The bright lights suddenly seemed not so bright. I had an overwhelming desire to be where the wild things were, in their small den tucked away behind Oxford Street. So, I located the manager and flitted outrageously in order to try and get a job behind the bar. Success! Without even looking I had found myself a new set of doors to swing through in Soho. So, the second time I ever walked into The King’s Arms was to work behind the bar. On a side note, many years later it was revealed to me that the only reason I got the job was that I had the same name as the manager’s dog. Flirting skills-0. Lucky name-1.
I do not say this lightly when I say some of the happiest memories still floating around between the Swiss-cheese size holes in my brain, are of my time spent in The Kings Arms. Whenever I am there friends and lovers past sit with me as I suddenly get presented with flashes of the fun and general debauchery that has taken place in this small haven over the last three decades. I am never alone there, ever. To this day I still get surprised by recalling something I had totally forgotten. Only last Saturday for example I laughed out loud to myself as Damon sang his heart out about liking Boys who also like Girls. Out of nowhere, I remembered one particularly outrageous lock-in that occurred one party weekend. An image instantly came to mind involving one ex-manager that I genuinely hadn’t thought of since it happened. Still hilariously shocking after all these years. And no, never gonna tell, so don’t ask.
I have mainly been living in Malta for the last decade or so, as my lovely readers will know, only returning to my home town of London for periods of no longer than a few weeks at a time. I popped into The Kings Arms on and off over the years, but it wasn’t the same. I wasn’t a regular anymore. I didn’t get to know the staff properly and felt like I was losing touch with an old friend. It was all terribly sad. But things have reversed slightly. I find myself yet again living in London now, and visiting Malta every so often instead. Funny how life has plans in store for us we least expected. So today it fills me with a magnitude of pleasure barely comprehensible that I now find myself back there every Friday and Saturday night. Who was it that said, “Everything changes in order for it to stay the same?”. Whoever it was knew his oats. Of course, the decor is slightly different since my clunky caterpillar boots stuck to the carpet in the early nineties, but the ingredients have remained the same. The recipe ain’t broke and no one is trying to fix it neither. The staff are the heart and soul of the place. Always have been always will be. Jeff, Nancy, Jesse, Will and all the other friendly people who work there, are the best bar staff in London. Hands down.
Jeff in particular grabbed my attention early on. No, you saucepot! Not like that. Of course, one noticed how handsome he is, who wouldn’t? No, I meant in a purely professional way you filthy lot. I spend a lot of time observing. I was immediately struck by his friendly and relaxed manner when greeting punters. It is indicative of how The Kings Arms greets friends old and new. One little word of advice if you have never been before, there is a bin outside the Marks and Spencer’s department store opposite the pub. If you’ve got any garments on you with a bit of attitude tucked away in the fabric somewhere, please remove the offending item and kindly place it in said bin before going in. I say this for your own good. It won’t survive the hour. Unlike other bars in Soho, attitude doesn’t wash well here. And no swinging from the chandeliers either. Like my wild friend Ethel always tells me, there is a time and place for everything. Something the staff at The Kings Arms understand only too well. Jeff is constantly scanning the horizon for danger, like a meerkat, ready to jump in if a customer appears to be enjoying themselves just a little bit too much. More than once I have been asked if I am okay when someone slightly tipsy has engaged me in conversation. I’m a big boy now, and through my years working in the industry I have learnt how to deal with someone who has had a few too many sherbets, but knowing Jeff and the team are keeping their eyes peeled for everyone’s safety, and enjoyment, is terribly comforting. On several occasions, I have seen him gently but firmly avoid any potentially awkward situation in a flash with a few soft words and a smile. Let me tell you, that is not as easy as I just made it sound. Trust me.
So far you may have ascertained that I visit frequently because I have such scrumptious memories and the service is top-notch. All true. But the icing on the cake, as I said at the beginning, is without a doubt the music. It is currently at its peak. My weekly social visits have provided me with several near-religious experiences at times over the last few months. DJ Fannar dropped a tune a few Fridays ago, out of nowhere, that transported me to a land far, far away. It took me back in a heartbeat to one particular night in my teenage years. I was with playing with four hundred of my new best friends in an abandoned warehouse with the delights of a Roland 303 squelching away and a few strobes kicking about. I got chatting to a very sweet Hell’s Angel about my bad headache. He was so terribly kind and gave me a small black and red capsule to help ease the pain. It was tremendously efficacious. As the painkiller kicked in, I felt fantastic, almost ecstatic even. My headache disappeared without a trace and I danced my cotton socks off. At the height of my joy a tune came on that I had never heard before. Every cell in my body exuded pure unadulterated bliss. I have not heard that track out loud again until Fannar expertly slipped it into his set. We just happened to look at each other as it dropped. He could instantly tell by the dramatic change in my facial expression that he had taken me to a happy place. If that is not an example enough of how good he is, he dropped the BPM by roughly ten beats or so, making it just that bit more chilled. Perfect for a middle-aged man with a walking stick in Soho on a Friday night, as opposed to a gurning teenager doing the running man in a warehouse on a Sunday morning. Not only does he have a knowledge of music rarely found anywhere in London, he knows how to work with it. Anyone can pick up a paintbrush. Not everyone is Carravagio. Clever, clever man.
And the astounding thing is, Fannar is not the only jewel in The King’s crown. Last Saturday the marvellous Albert Twatlock filled the air with the sweet sounds of Anita Harris, The Slits, Chris Rayburn and even lovely little old Lemmy, just to name a few. Saturday nights have a totally different vibe to Friday nights in The King’s Arms. I have ridiculously eclectic tastes in music and am quite frankly astounded that most of my tastes get pandered to by just one venue. As I closed my eyes I found myself in the middle of the dance floor at ‘Popstars’ in North London with my friend Helen. All of us indie darlings of the mid-nineties would take over the place swigging brandy from the bottle while Jarvis took control of our bodies. The memories just kept flooding back. I defy you to find anywhere else in London on a Saturday night that can take you from a stomping smoke-filled Wigan Casino to a sunny field in Glastonbury via a mosh pit at The Astoria at the drop of a hat. Ten Brownie points for anyone who comes close.
So, that is why The Kings Arms is this middle-aged writer’s favourite place on earth right now. If you have survived this far, I applaud you. As a token of appreciation for your patience and persistence, if ever you see me in The King’s Arms I would like to offer you one night’s membership of The Small Sweet Sherry Club. This is not to be taken lightly. This club is one of the most exclusive in the world and our members all move in very different social circles. I am usually the only member in The King’s Arms, but very occasionally other members appear from time to time. We are all terribly friendly chaps, please do say good evening. Come and say hello and you shall receive a complimentary glass of sherry, one night’s membership, and a smile. However, if I appear before you sitting on the stool resembling Bernini’s Saint Teresa with eyes closed tight, head flopped back and a huge grin on my face, give me a few seconds before saying hello. I am in my happy place. And I like it there. A lot.