It is he who prescribes the location; the rendezvous is presented as something of an esoteric initiation rite. For the New Piccadilly is one of those select few establishments that exert a powerful emotional hold on the Maddox psyche. Resonating centres of a mysterious force that the corporate world seems determined to pulverize into inexistence. Adrian Maddox dedicates an increasingly large proportion of his time to preaching their salvation, and doggedly cataloguing their decline.
Fings ain’t what they used to be
He has been called ‘the Pevsner of mid-century cafe architecture’ and ‘a Daniel Farson for the post-Nathan Barley generation’—Pevsner being the tireless notary of English architecture, and Farson being, of course, the writer whose dogged adhesion to the periphery of 50s bohemia made him the foremost cultural chronicler of Francis Bacon’s Soho. Maddox leaves alone the churches and monasteries—his monomaniac speciality is the classic English (but invariably immigrant-run) working mens cafe, the singlehanded excavation of whose history the now vast and labyrinthine Classic Cafes website celebrates. And with his messianic fervour for the world of sugarpourers and tea urns he also has the edge over Pevsner, the aridity of whose prose alone renders it distinguishable from ditchwater.
Meanwhile, although he has perfected the dishevelled enthusiasm and shows promising signs of a genuinely Farsonian binge-bloated waxy pallor, half a century after the heyday of bohemian Soho few artists of note make themselves (and their money) available for all-night champagne and oyster bunfights. This constitutes no inhibition to the Maddox narrative, however: for he is a periphery unto himself, whirled in an eccentric orbit about his own ego, the gravitational force of which is so pronounced that on occasion (and doubtless intentionally) the man will seem to have actually produced by sheer force of will the people and places that inspire his fervid delirium.
To say of his presence in the Piccadilly, the rightly celebrated Denman Street establishment that serves as cathedral to his seedy caff-worshipping cult, that he ‘acts like he owns the place’, would be severely to understate the case. It doesn’t take long, after he has welcomed us to his fabled ‘office’—a cramped corner booth flanked by two worn wooden benches, around a slab of vintage yellow formica—before his dervish ranting in support of the proper iconic status both of himself and of his caffological charges begins to make it seem that this imperfectly-preserved formica palace might actually be a figment of Maddox’s own tea-drenched cranium, dandy proprietor Lorenzo a pure product of his HTML-addled post-literary imagination. Among the welter of weighty questions thrown up by this feat of trompe l’oeil psychotopography: which came first, classic cafes or Classic Cafes? How has Maddox singlehandedly managed to drag the shiny happy network technology of the dotcom revolution into a lowlife slough of wilful despond at the same time as raising modest establishments such as the Piccadilly to the status of cherished masterpieces? Is it all an exercise in postmodern fetishism, retro chic; is it just one lonely man’s obsession; has he genuinely managed to eke out the dying breath of british bohemia for another generation, or is he a deluded hyperreal puppeteer trying to make the corpse of cafe society dance? And why does this tea taste vaguely fishy? (Some light—albeit of an apocryphal nature—is shed on this last by the legend that the Piccadilly boasts its own exclusive water supply, drawn from one of the ancient subterranean sources of the Thames.)
Non domandare all’oste se ha buon vino
Retiring further west to chew over these conundra for a while, sheltering from the rain in Shepherd’s cafe in Mayfair (yet to be awarded with the Maddox imprimateur), we return to the Piccadilly to find a celebration underway, albeit one whose occasional pretext is unconvincing (an unspecified, but presumably successful, Harley Street medical procedure for the grand homme of the establishment). Nevertheless, any doubts soon take their leave as the effects of Lorenzo’s proprietary (chemically formulated?) Italian cava begin to tell on our party.
Shadowy acquaintances make fleeting appearances on the benches, some testifying to the media currency of Maddox’s current incarnation (a journo working up a piece on the caffista for the Grauniad), some recalling past adventures in the ‘creative industries’ (an adman with a fetish for military uniform taking a risotto break from editing M&S commercials).
Maddox and Englishmen
Diners (tired businessmen, japanese tourists, unemployed actors) look up testily from their ham egg and chips as the champion of cafe culture launches into another stream of spluttering, undirected profanity, whilst Lorenzo, cravat unruffled, looks on with the resigned gaze of a indulgent dog owner watching an scrofulous cur scrape its arse along the ground in mixed company. Occasionally, between completing the crossword, maintaining the ambience (Classic FM with a switch to Radio 4 for The Archers) and teatowelling the china, he will drop in a well-timed bit of banter. There is undoubted mutual profit here—the two constitute a mutual theatre of parasitism, Maddox lolling in the glory of the inflated legendary status he has created for the establishment and its proprietor, Lorenzo pulling in the punters off the back of the Classic Cafes mediaplex franchise.
However loath one might be to add to the unhealthy skein of myth, self-aggrandisement and misinformation that Maddox has woven around himself, it must be admitted that there is something about the man. As the evening wears on, we finally realise just what it is: a swarm of Lorenzo’s treasured drosophila piccadiliensis (a variant breed cultivated in isolation at the cafe over decades and now in great demand in laboratories worldwide), attracted by the tepid organic fug of overbrewed tea that surrounds the still-unflagging author: they are feeding on his words.
The waiters in their outsize busboy uniforms skate elegantly around the aisles bearing canneloni and risotto (although Classic Cafes dogma has it that ambiance far outweighs food in importance, both are highly recommended). They grin warily at the unshaven maestro’s anecdote recitations. Behind the counter where the imposing electric-pink espresso machine fumes silently, a copy of The Book itself is displayed under the solid wall of postcards whose faded technicolor array makes for something like a cheery holiday version of Bacon’s ideogram-littered studio floor.
Equally Baconian is the visual rhythm of the evening, heightened by the freely-flowing cava: the subsonic rumble of central London, forgotten like a bad dream but still grinding on beyond the chairs that block the doorway; the backwards-read neon sign grunting its monosyllabic EATS into the unconscious, bleeding into peripheral vision insistently like a premonition of a thumping headache; the hand-drafted bezier-curves of the formica twitching like a hair in the gate on a bad porno movie, or the broken capillaries of a bloodshot eyeball; and above it all (in volume if nothing else) the sheer, waxing torrents of Maddox verbiage (thus Lorenzo: ‘he’s so domineering after a bit of pomagne’). Randomly-batted disconnected phraselets chase each other raggedly across the sticky formica (‘It’s a sort of erotic dunking…they’re expecting a horde of locust bug-beasts…I’ve got a deerpark right outside my door…’)
Egged on, the potato-peeler from Pisa regales us with soho mythemes: Lollobrigida, Burroughs and the cheesecake, etc. And reveals the origin of the ‘no drinks without food’ notice still displayed amongst the theatrical posters: to keep out riffraff with rough trade in tow: only gentlemen who could afford to sit down and eat were allowed to play pocket billiards under the tables of the New Piccadilly. However, Denman Street’s most-photographed man assures us of his discretion: not even muckraker Maddox has managed to get names out of Lorenzo Marioni.
Welcome relief comes as, stepping through a threadbare plastic ribbon curtain into the spartan facilities at the rear of the premises, the whole cacophony is heard anew, smeared and muted as if monitored through a long subterranean rock tunnel, or bounced off the bare walls of a prison corridor, as in the opening sequence of Porridge. I almost want to lock myself in, but I know however long I wait, he’ll still be out there, calling for more cava.
Indeed, on returning, the pressure of the Maddox ‘wall of bull’ hasn’t let up: Now a bellowingly-inebriated Willam Hague soundalike who avowedly ‘gets all his clothes from Peacock’s’, now a righteous saviour of our heritage and rogue semiotician who ‘used to have vicious arguments
about logocentrism’ with his flatmate. We hear of the furious media and letter-writing campaign to pressure English Heritage into listing this fine establishment.
But there’s the rub: Is Maddox about to be recuperated, a part of the heritage industry? Will caff-culture eat itself? Will he be asked back after his first appearance on the Late Show? Shake hands with the heritage minister?
A mythmaker on a cottage-industrial scale, Maddox has no compunction about getting high on his own supply of full-english and formica. He’s a conservationist who fetishises decay, and so neccesarily on a trajectory of cultural autoasphyxia. He fakes up rollieflex portraits with a FinePix and photoshop, and he calls it Art. He has fraternised with the enemy, hooked new media up to old bohemia to synthesize authenticity in HTML, all the while affirming a cast-iron categorical distinction between his own lonely battle and the ongoing march of theme-park cultural reclamation. Unconvinced, Iain Sinclair has him down on his hitlist, right below Peter Ackroyd.
Right now, freeze-framed between the bowing ceiling panels and the buttercup formica, he is living in a strange place somewhere between wholesale adoption by the style troops and chronic outsider intransigence. It’s an uneasy place, it’s a queasy place: it’s exactly where he belongs.