Getting squiffy on English gin and French champagne in the company of a Swiss magazine editor and an Italian rake ah, Soho as it should be, says Andrei Navrozov
Getting squiffy on English gin and French champagne in the company of a Swiss magazine editor and an Italian rake — ah, Soho as it should be, says Andrei Navrozov
eard Street is Soho as the Bright Young People last crawled it in the 1930s. Opposite the offices of The Drawbridge at No 2, a printed notice on the door reads: “THIS IS NOT A BROTHEL. THERE ARE NO PROSTITUTES AT THIS ADDRESS”. Of the Dandy of the Underworld, Sebastian Horsley, who, when he’s not drinking the blood of virgins, dwells within, Bigna Pfenninger will say nothing. She’s Swiss.
Blacks is the black house round the corner, leering at the Groucho across Dean Street. It’s Sunday morning, and we start in on the litre of Hendrick’s Gin that one of Bigna’s handmaidens won the night before as the most nubile attendee at a literary collation.
Then Giuseppe Mascoli arrives with an excellent bottle of Krug, as befits a successful entrepreneur: Giuseppe owns Franco Manca, the Neapolitan pizzeria in Brixton recently judged best in town by Time Out. He also owns Blacks, the private club whose membership committee is all women. Blacks is the birthplace of The Drawbridge, the literary magazine edited by the siren Bigna that is upstaging Granta.
‘I have no objection to champagne socialists,’ pronounces Giuseppe, ‘other than that they usually drink Lanson.’ He knows whereof he speaks: another of the Positano-born intellectual’s playthings is Terroir, which imports what he calls ‘real wines’ from Italy and the south of France, ambrosial sfusi with bright, full-bodied cheapness to recommend them to Blacks’ 1,000 members. Giuseppe won’t namedrop, but the highbrow John Gray and the lowbrow Kate Winslet are among them. Egalitarian or what?
Giuseppe returned to London in 1989 to teach political science at the LSE, where he had taken his graduate degree a few years earlier. ‘But then they told me I couldn’t sleep with the undergraduates. Not only with those from my own department, which one could perhaps tolerate, but with none at all from any of the departments! Imagine the absurdity of it. So I say to them…’
Here he collapses into his best Neapolitan pizzaiolo brogue: ‘So I say, with the moneys you as pain’ me, I go lookin’ for other job now, an’ good-bye to all a’ you.’ In 1992, in the middle of an evident recession but inspired by such fleshpots of the epoch as the Arethuse in the Fulham Road, he opened Blacks. Orlando Campbell had sold him the membership list of the defunct Globe in Notting Hill Gate. Jeffrey Bernard, in a temporary disagreement with the Groucho over swearing policy, was soon unwell on the premises.
‘You need alter egos in life,’ Giuseppe muses as we return to the gin, ‘and the only people who’d disagree are those who think they can’t afford them. But reinventing oneself costs next to nothing. Personally, I believe it’s embarrassing not to have alter egos. It’s like a grown man living with his parents.’
At a modest, recession-proof £350 per annum, Blacks offers a bespoke reinvention service, complete with an evocatively cavernous interior, ritually mismatched furniture and the cosmopolitan presence of polymath sylphs such as Bigna, who now says: ‘A trend is a trap by another name. What one wants to build is a Vatican, a fortress against mutability, a time capsule wherein each can remake himself as he will.’ These two hardly glance at each other, communicating through their nostrils, complicit in their roles.
he idea of The Drawbridge, born in a discussion over dim sum back in late 2005, was that in its pages writers would reinvent themselves for fellow writers, with a wide moat between themselves and the commercialism raging without. Bigna pays her contributors, who include the grandest and most established names in world literature, absolutely nothing, apart from the occasional ex gratia bottle or two from the cellars of Terroir. The journal’s circulation — much of it unpaid, as is only fair and logical — is nudging 10,000: wildfire success for a quarterly of such rarefied interest.
‘Why the moat? Well, good writing centres on selection, exclusion, rejection,’ offers Bigna between goes at tepid Hendrick’s. ‘It’s not all acceptance and inclusion. A writer’s consciousness is his membership committee, and he’s only as good as it is strict. Many writers make books. It’s not literature, it’s a kind of epidemic.’
‘Yes, it’s something Nietzschean we’ve got going over here,’ the good Dr Mascoli sums up, with a smirk that a politically correct or slightly timorous onlooker might describe as a quarter gleeful and three-quarters vengeful. Myself, I imagine him in twhe Commedia dell’Arte doctor’s costume, a demijohn of wine in one hand, a bucket of quicklime in the other, amid the pestilential ruins of Naples after the great earthquake.
One thing’s certain. There are no prostitutes at this address either.
67 Dean Street
London W1D 4QH
Tel: 020 7287 3381
Portrait by Sasha Gusov. Interior by Stuart Jackson.