I went into town a week or two ago (by ‘town’ I mean central London), to have dinner with someone I’ve known for over twenty years. I emerged from the stygian depths of Tottenham Court Road tube and turned right into the top end of Charing Cross Road. I do this pretty much every time I come into the centre, because I generally need cash for the night and I habitually acquire it by taking a cut-through behind the hulking presence of the Astoria theatre, and thence into Soho Square, at the bottom end of which lies Frith Street, which holds a couple of ATMs.
But that evening, the Astoria wasn’t there. Instead there was just an empty space, surrounded by hoardings.
The Astoria was just plain gone.
I realised, as I stood there open-mouthed, that this has been coming for a while. A very long time, in fact. Fifteen years ago I worked for a slightly pointless association whose members were already up in arms about the proposed ‘Crossrail development’, which involves — for some reason I still don’t quite understand, and probably never will — an additional tube line being built under this very central area of London. As part of the process the block which previously held the Astoria (in days of yore a significant theatrical locale, more recently a battered and pleasingly seedy gig/club venue) has been demolished. It’s… history.
If you’d asked me ahead of time, I probably wouldn’t have thought that I would care much: but as I walked past the void its destruction has left — on the way to dinner, and back to the tube station afterwards — I remembered a few things:
The Astoria was the only venue in which I’ve played guitar to a sizable audience. Twenty-some years ago I was part of a four-man comedy troop, which (back when it seemed we might be, like, famous and stuff) were featured on a big TV show recorded in the venue. I got to play my Strat very loudly on the Astoria stage (actually it wasn’t my Strat, in point of fact, which proved to have a major shielding problem and fed back like a bastard; I had to play a replacement Strat rapidly hired from a place on nearby Denmark Street, instead). The show got cancelled a year later. So did our performing careers, eventually. We’re now a barrister, writer, writer and writer, respectively — and probably much happier for it.
It was also where I saw a band called Gun, twice. Both occasions were with one of my oldest friends, Howard (not the person with whom I went out to dinner, as it happens). Both were astonishingly good gigs. I remember the band strolling onto stage one by one, already casually rocking out, in a manner which will always define rock and roll for me. Later in the evening I also recall getting outlandishly stoned in the higher tiers of the venue. At the second gig, both my now-wife and my then-and-still editor came along. Gun were key to my listening life for a few years (Gallus remains one of the greatest rock albums of all time, according to me), then had a big hit with their cover of Word Up (previously a live favourite, which Howard and I heard morphed fabulously into Enter Sandman, at the first gig), became a bit shit for a while, and then vanished .
The Astoria was also the only venue where I’ve seen a gig from the VIP area. I’m fortunate to know the keyboardist of a certain band (I say ‘fortunate’ because I like the guy, and his wife, very much, not because I got to score a VIP ticket as a result). I don’t care how vapid this makes me sound, but being in VIP areas is cool. There’s space for more of that in my life, now any vague dreams of rock stardom are long-gone. Other bands, take note.
The Astoria was finally the place where, a couple of years ago, I went to see another gig with an old college friend, William Vandyck (again, not the guy went to dinner with on the night I’m talking about, but he was one of the guys in the comedy group (the one who became a barrister), and thus on stage at the same time I got to play my guitar). We went to see Bowling for Soup, the pair of us feeling about a bazillion years old, surrounded by excitable teenagers — and realising both that we really needed to get a grip on our music tastes and that some bands are far more acceptable on record than they are in real life.
These were all nights that mattered, but the truth of it is that I’ve only actually been inside the Astoria a handful of times. Its main role has been as something I navigated by or around. Were I a stone age man (rather than just behaving like one, sometimes), the Astoria would definitely have earned its own petroglyph in my mental map of London. It’s a building I’ve walked past hundreds and hundreds of times over the course of a quarter of a century — glimpsing posters for bands I’m not cool enough to like, or upcoming club nights I’m not gay enough to wish to attend. A place that had a significant physical bulk and heft, and behind which lay one of my quietly treasured little short-cuts, a quick duck-and-dive that doubtless looked scary and I-don’t-fancy-that to passing tourists, but which actually led to a sudden haven of quiet through a couple of dank side streets which threaded like narrow canyons between towering Victorian buildings, before re-emerging into a side road which led into leafy Soho Square. It was a secret corner of the very centre of one of the most amazing cities in the world, which few people knew about — a rat route than made me feel I knew the city in a way others did not. That made me feel like a Londoner.
That cut-through has gone. My secret way has disappeared. All of the above events have gone, in fact, at least in terms of the physical space in which they occurred. I have another very good and very old friend (the writer Nicholas Royle, who, predictably, was also not the person I went to dinner with on the night in question; but whom I met while working for the association whose members cared about Crossrail; and who was also the first person to accept a short story of mine for publication), who I’ve accused of having ‘emotional routes’ — geographically-dubious means of getting from A to B, which have very little to do with spatial efficiency and a lot more to do with ricocheting between locales of previous emotional significance. I realised only on the night I went to dinner that cutting around the back of The Astoria was one of mine.
I guess this is simply what getting older is like. Places go, demolished in the name of subway routes which you can’t see and have no need for, but which, you assume, are generally agreed to be a good thing for someone else. And that’s fair enough. People go, too. Dreams dissolve. Relationships die and friendships fade away. And yet we go on living, and keep on doing the best we can with what remains of what once was… and with what cool new things may come.
There’s no real narrative to this, let alone a moral. It’s just an event in my life, and I’m marking it in the only way I know how. The past is the past and nothing more, and the kicker is that I had a lovely evening that night — with great food, a good friend, and several hours spent bantering about stuff that matters now, rather than wallowing in back-in-the-day. That’s what life is really for — the endless now — and the loss of the Astoria made me realise how much I do have, especially when it comes to friends, and not just the ones whose lives have happened to once meander with mine through a place which is no longer there. You’re a bunch of utter bastards, but I’m very glad to know you all.
ps: On a tangential note, the Nicholas Royle mentioned above has recently started a publishing imprint, called Nightjar Press. He’s kicked it off with a couple of chapbooks, one of which is written by me. Don’t feel you have to buy that one — buy the other, by Tom Fletcher, which is excellent — but do check the site out either way. Nick is one of the very goodest of the good guys, and small presses like this have long been the lifeblood of genre fiction. If there’s a one run by Nick Royle, you definitely want to be reading what it prints.