I joined The Union nearly twenty-six years ago…
I started in the days when the main room stopped at a wall right before the entrance to the dining room beyond the bar. That was it.
I was introduced to the club through a member who had been part of the BFI. After I had had a pretty bad experience with them (and who hasn’t?) he offered to get me a membership.
I had moved to London from New York City in the mid 80s, the East Village to be exact. Back then you could actually live like an artist – which meant that your apartment might be in a building with no front door, but the space you had was huge so you risked it. By the mid ‘80s the vibe that is so brilliantly portrayed in American Psycho was starting to take hold and Manhattan was becoming unliveable unless you were very rich or very poor. Plus my friends were dying from the killer virus of the time: AIDS.
I was tired of death.
I had thought about moving to Paris, the so-called African American mecca. I knew the city well. But I didn’t want to invest in learning French to an accomplished level; didn’t want to live among American ex-pats; didn’t want to live among African American expats, at the time so many were channelling Baldwin and Josephine Baker.
Back then it was still possible to invent London. People were broke so the fashion was unique and exquisite; so was the music and the guys. London could be a series of fantasies: “swinging London” and “Carnaby Street” (which I live near now) and 50’s louche “Jazz London”… that’s all I knew and cared about.
So when I came for that BFI apology lunch in Soho, it was to The Union. I saw famous faces there, but being a New Yorker (and more importantly being from the Southside Of Chicago) I “scoped” them side-eyed. The food was and still is wonderful and the atmosphere, too, and I could write there in the afternoons at Table 25, hear good jazz, have a glass of champagne, smoke Havanas.
You don’t really know anything until you’ve found a good club and can be there on your own, find your time there.
I got the news that my dad had died when I was in the club; “911” was going in when I was in the club; I came to the club after I got my OBE; I was back in the club soon after I had helped bury my mother back in Chicago and had pinned that OBE medal on her corpse. Where it belonged.
A new generation and new things are there now, and since I live close by I sometimes slink in and slink out.
But I walk past every day – and even in this lockdown, when Soho is a ghost town – I can still hear that music in the afternoon.