Christopher Howse

Soaking up the Atmosphere

John Heath-Stubbs was blind and carried a stick, but not a white one. It was more like a cudgel. One July day, thirty years ago, fearless of street excavations and dogs on leads, he walked with three of us from the French pub in Dean Street, Soho, over to the Coach and Horses. And as he walked, he sang.

I’d found him in the French pub by chance that morning, with his friends Canadian Jo, as we knew her, a legal shorthand taker, and Brendan, a postman. It happened to be his seventieth birthday. He mentioned he’d first been to the French fifty-four years before, which would make it 1934 and him sixteen. He’d have been one hundred this summer.

Walking down Romilly Street, John sang ‘Champagne Charlie’, unselfconsciously. We had been enjoying some champagne, which the French regularly sold in quarter-bottles. But in those days it sold no food. At the Coach, the food that day turned out to be cheese sandwiches. John said it made him feel like the rat in John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk.

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