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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Losing our society: what next for the former home of The Tearooms des Artistes?

Some things you take too much for granted. Like who did not think there'd always be an interesting drinking place in the cranky old building once famously occupied by The Tearooms des Artistes, at 697 Wandsworth Road, London SW8?

Yesterday, walking back past the junction with Silverthorne Road and North Street, I see there are
This used to be one of the few real treasures of Clapham - the Tearooms des Artistes. Then it became this flashy restaurant, and now - who knows?
This old building, said to be partly a 16th century barn,  is a jewel of the
Wandsworth Road.  Home to the much-loved  Tearooms des Artistes until
2006,  then the much less interesting Lost Society bar and restaurant, the
 building is once again empty. What next?      Photo: Ewan Munro 
estate agent's boards all over the big brash pub-club on the corner, latterly the Artesian Well. Not surprised or even sad that place has gone, but unnerved to see that it is being sold without any  requirement to keep it as a place of refreshment.

But then, you see similar signs up on its neighbour, which in recent years has been a rather overcooked and expensive restaurant-bar-party place and sometimes theatre calling itself Lost Society. Big steel shutters over the windows, no messing here. On these boards they state they might be interested in restaurant proposals.

You can only imagine that any restaurant opening here in 2015 will be a couple a galaxies away in culture from the famously eccentric Tearooms which survived  and even thrived here through most of the 1980s and 90s.

It really was the strangest place, and only now does the absurdity of having such a gem on one's doorstep, and hardly ever visiting it, hit you hard in the gut.

Once, long before I lived in the area, a friend invited me to meet at what she said was a crazy and rather beautiful place near ILEA's Batttersea TV centre. I was living in Dalston at the time (1982 or so) so it was long cycle ride, but worth the effort: the Tearooms des Artistes on Wandsworth Road, about midway between Vauxhall and Clapham Junction, was even then a rare survivor of a genuine late-60s style alternative meeting place space. Part bar, part cheap veggie restaurant, part art-gallery, nightclub, performance space - a veritable mini-arts lab for the shrinking bohemian populations of SWs 8 and 4 and 11. Somewhere you could sit and read and talk most of the day and not spend afternoons.

Occupying what felt like farmyard buildings (and it did apparently incorporate much of a 16th century barn and -according to some accounts - slaughterhouse), with low-ceilinged rooms and passageways going off in directions, plus a garden area if you were adventurous, creaking floorboards and furniture, it seemed , sourced from skips across all 35 boroughs.

Want to bring some joyful bohemia back to Clapham?
Put on your sunday best, visit your bank manager,
then ring this number!
We met there at about 4pm and we were hungry. The chef that day, a young woman with blonde dreadlocks, showed us the choices: one dish. A huge aluminium  tray filled with the most delicious vegetarian moussaka I had tasted, before or since. We had several large tumblers of rough red wine and piles of heavy hippy-style bread with it. I can't remember the cost, but I do remember we she a had some trouble working out our bill and sort of shrugged and there was change from a fiver. OK it was 1985, but even then, this was ridiculously cheap.

What I also remember clearly was the background music - actually more foreground, especially when she cranked up the volume on the Fall's Repetition. As a sort of house in-joke I think she played this track twice, with a bit of Miles in between.

I had clearly found my spiritual bolt-hole - so why, when I moved into a flat less than a quarter mile from the Tearooms did I not become an habitué or fixture there? I wish I could explain my own stupidity as a 30-something cut-price yuppie. I always recommended the place and kept my eye on the listings mags, where more and more often you'd see the Tearooms' club nights starred up to the hilt.

I guess I already felt too old and drab to go there any more. The next visit I remember was in 1986, when I left a dreary trade magazine job. I was asked where I'd like my leaving do, and as many of the staff lived in the SW area, this seemed an obvious choice. So it was that the full staff of this mag, 12 or so of us including its thrusting new editor, sat around creaking tables in one of the upper rooms,  draining litre flagons of wine and consuming more slabs of delicious vegetarian lasagne.  You wondered if the floor would hold.

This bearded editor was clearly much more used to fine dining at expense account hotel restaurants, but he looked quite cheerful when the final bill came in. We left just as some DJ was setting up and a new younger clientele was arriving.

By all accounts the Tearooms flourished in the  E-fuelled clubbing boom of the late 80s-early 90s, becoming famous as a place to chill down at after a night at one of the more frenetic music barns of a Sunday morning. By morning, I mean 5am onwards - it was on the map as one of the few places that opened at this time. Hardened clubbers kept going right through the day, and it was in this milieu that some big-name djs - notably Rob Da Bank - cut their teeth.

His weekly Sunday Best slot on the Wandsworth Road was the little seed out of which grew his worlwide dj-ing empire and the Bestival festival on the Isle of Wight. Slightly bigger crowds, same basic ideas.

All I can remember is on some summer sundays, lying in bed and hearing weird and beguiling mixtures of house, disco, prog rock and world music drifting over from the Tearooms garden direction. Sometimes the sounds mingled with raves being held at the squatted Lease-Lend Cottage up on Hannington road.

If anyone reads this who was there, or has any other memories of this lovely place, it would be great to hear from you.

At some point in the early 2000s,  the Tearooms finally went belly-up, but after a while - in 2006, I am told -  it was thoroughly tarted-up and re-opened as Lost Society.

The new place attempted to keep the arty bohemian spirit going, but in a much more lavish, way. You can see some photos of the interior as it was on the website of interior designer Lee Broom,  from 2006.

It had cjhnaged, of course it had, everything had changed. But it did still put on some good music nights, as well as setting up a theatre spot. The Reggae Philharmonic were playing gigs there in recent years. But clearly rents had soared and the emphasis went more and more onto pricey food, and party nights for well-heeled.

It was no longer a place for misfits. It had a rather nice fit with the rich kids of a wide swathe of south west London, thank you very much.
To let - SW8's noisy nightclub for loaded teens , the Artesian Well, is no more, now premises up for grabs for anyone with enough cash.
 It still had a clubby atmosphere, but now it was more of the OK yah stockbroker-belt house music genre, or so it seemed to grumpy old fools like me. It all just seemed horribly snotty and dismal to some of us old ex-punks, rare groovers, acid-house ravers and undead freak-out-o-philes.

Good god you'd even see stretch limos parked up along poor old Wandsworth Road, although they were even more likely to be dropping people off at the Artesian Well next door - a rather grim meat-market for the well-off youth of the Surrey fringes. That too is now closed.

A search for the history of the Tearooms has not so far turned up very much of interest, apart from this review by Serena Mackesy from the Independent in June 1994 (so it was till going then). She described it as "a delightfully eccentric bar-restaurant in a former slaughterhouse (for a while holes in the walls where the blood used to run out remained open to the air) on the corner of North Street, and serve very palatable vegetarian food and lashings of plonk".

Adding: "They also provide a weekend service to insomniacs by opening (for a pounds 2 entrance fee) for breakfast, board games and wacky ambience from 5am on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Close to Clapham Common."

Oh, please let's get back to some of that wacky ambience, for pity's sake!

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