A Knight’s Tale (66: Horse And Dolphin Yard)

In 1975 Jessica, Michael, and I settled in Horse and Dolphin Yard in the centre of London’s Chinatown.

This photograph of Jessica reflected in the Peel Boys’ Club taken in July that year suggests that our move took place in the summer. The flat was one of two in an historic courtyard building owned by the City of Westminster, and obtained for me by Bill Ritchie, then Director of Social Services. The ground floor was dedicated as a storeroom to the parks and gardens department. There followed five Soho years during which a mine of stories was quarried.

It was probably in 1976 that Jessica photographed me with, from left to right, Pete, Michael, Matthew, and Becky. This was the one occasion on which I visited a favourite family holiday resort mentioned in my last episode – too basic for me. There was no running water, which was gained by means of a cold pipe on the hillside; everything was damp; you had to walk past next door’s chained up snarling dogs straining to get at you, and dig a pit every morning in which to bury the contents of the primitive Elsan. The family loved it.

Pete lived in an estate opposite us at The Peel. He and Michael became friends there and continued their relationship afterwards.

In no particular chronological order, there will follow a series of Soho stories.

Michael, in his early teens decided to keep and breed rabbits.  Now, there isn’t much room in Chinatown, so there was nothing for it but a rooftop farm.  Michael, always inventive, built a runway across the roofs in the Yard, using ladders to circumvent the different heights of the various roofs he had to pass before reaching his chosen site.  This was the flat roof of the then offices of Boosey & Hawkes, the largest sheet music publishers in the world. The staff there, incredibly, had no problem with what was happening. In those days produce for the myriad of Chinese restaurants in Gerrard Street came in wooden boxes which were discarded and left for the binmen.  These boxes made good firewood, but Michael had other uses for them.  He used them to build rabbit hutches and to make a safety barrier for his pets around the perimeter of the roof.

An elderly woman in an upper floor of a block of flats overlooking the area received so much pleasure  from watching the rabbits frolicking in the sunlight that she took to leaving vegetable scraps on our doorstep to supplement their diet.

One of the ladders reaching from our roof to the next one spanned a skylight which was so begrimed as to be invisible.  That is why, when one of Michael’s friends decided to jump instead of using the ladder which Michael had carefully placed to avoid such an eventuality, he went clean through it.  I was summoned, peered through the smashed window, and saw Simon in the clutches of a gentleman who had no intention of letting him go.  I rushed round into Gerrard Street, managed to work out in which building the boy was being held, searched through the warren of rooms until I came to the right one, and persuaded the man to release him. The lad was unharmed.

Years later, Becky sent me this photograph of her own daughter,

Florence, outside the entrance to this yard, which, now containing up-market

eating places has totally changed from even then. In the mid-seventies £1 could buy you a good set meal in Gerrard Street