THE BLOG

A Prince of Darkness Bids Goodnight To Soho

01/09/2014 13:50 BST | Updated 01/11/2014 09:59 GMT

Not many Soho club managers are associated in my mind with the memorably ferocious Bill The Butcher from Gangs of New York, whose modus operandi was "fear - the spectacle of fearsome acts". But the late Tom Bantock, loved by some, treated with - how shall I put it? - caution by others, definitely had his Bill-like moments. Or at the very least, liked to project a Bill-like image from time to time.

Mr Bantock was the first manager of Blacks on Dean Street, and it was his recent death, along with other shocking events such as the legendary Gerry's launching a web site, that really made me feel like the times truly are a-changing for the "classic" Soho club scene.

Blacks was one of the new wave of Soho hang-outs, riding on the success of the establishment of the Groucho in the mid 80s. But unlike Nick Jones' determinedly trendy Soho House, which first opened its doors in 1995, Blacks was a knowing throwback to the louche Soho dens of iniquity and notoriety, like the late, lamented Colony Rooms.

Mr Bantock was a close acquaintance of Andrew Edmunds, whose excellent wine bar and restaurant on Lexington Street remains a big success to this day. Established one year after the Groucho, Edmunds created in an 18th century townhouse a cosy candle-lit haven for couples in a romantic frame of mind, assorted hacks and media types, and typical Soho characters. In 1992, Bantock "borrowed" the entire formula and, with Guiseppe Mascoli, established Blacks in another 18th century townhouse, this time on Dean Street, as a members-only club.

Early adopters like myself were lured in by a membership committee consisting entirely of stunning young women (most of them never to be seen again after lifting a hundred quid out of our wallets), and by the promise of, if not Bacchanalian revels, then at least some Soho naughtiness, conducted in almost stygian gloom against a background of green wood-panelled walls, "distressed" furniture, and an eclectic, to say the least, art collection.

Lunch at a fiver and dinner at a tenner, accompanied by a limited but excellent wine selection, was usually followed by the clientele of artists, trustafarians, and general Soho lowlife, as much on its last legs as most of the furniture, narrowly avoiding falling into one of Neville Stephen's many, and astonishingly realistic, roaring gas fires, as we all drank and smoked ourselves into oblivion.

The favourite and much-sought after room in the club was the back bedroom on the first floor - it really did have a large, comfy platform bed, covered in drapes and cushions. Once you had claimed the room for yourself and your guests, a withering look was usually enough to dispatch any other members stumbling around in the dark searching vainly for somewhere to sit in the tiny club area.

Lording over the whole place was the tall, rake-thin, saturnine presence of Mr Bantock. Running the place like a debauched public school headmaster - think Sebastian Horsley instead of Dr Arnold in Tom Brown's Schooldays, and you are in the right ball park - Mr Bantock was a constant, frequently charming, occasionally menacing presence.

The rumours of his involvement in - or at the very least, his presence at - the death of a fellow who fell onto railings from a high floor on Lexington Street only added to the whiff of sulphur that seemed to follow the man around (he claimed he had been arrested on suspicion of murder three times, and each time the charges were dropped). His piercing blue-eyed stare and a large, vivid scar on his neck, supposedly the result of the rough hand-stitching he performed on himself after a bottle fight, added the finishing touches to this dramatic persona.

Woe betide anyone like myself who wasn't a truly close acquaintance, and dared to call him by his first name. The piercing eyes would settle on you with true malevolence and the words "Oh, it's Tom, is it?" would be uttered in a manner that made your privates shrivel.

Mr Bantock moved on to attempt to set up other clubs in both London and Berlin - I am one of a large group of suckers who ponied up a joining fee for at least one of those planned clubs which never progressed beyond its (extremely enjoyable and louche) launch night. He also resumed his earlier career as a "Norfolk poacher". He estimated he'd slaughtered at least 35,000 animals, and claimed to have shot every dog he owned when it could no longer work.

His last major public appearance was at Black's 20th anniversary dinner, where, as one observer described the scene, he held court from a decaying armchair lit by firelight, resembling nothing less than Nosferatu just risen from his coffin.

A mugging in Berlin had left him with broken ribs piercing both his lungs, but otherwise, not a lot had changed. Bantock claimed that the major inconvenience for him was being forced to switch from his usual three bottles of port a day to three bottles of sherry, in the hope that he would be well enough for the lung transplant operation that, in the end, never took place.

Blacks is now under new and ambitious ownership, and major changes are afoot - the top floors of the house, previously tenanted, are soon to become club areas, and the dining room on the ground floor and club room on the first floor have been swapped over. Heavens, you can even enter through the front door and not via the basement. But the new management are keeping the pleasingly bohemian feeling of the place, even while pursuing a scorched earth policy of shutting out members who have - ahem - never actually paid their membership fees.

It's that last part that makes me miss the grand old days of Soho. But it's the death at 63 of yet another real Soho character that makes me realise how much is changing in my neighbourhood.