Vignettes of a Life

Alan Bain
The Accordionist

An article written by Alan Bain in the 1990s

This picture was taken in the Gyre and Gimbal¹ Coffee House on 23rd July, 1956. I was 23.accordnionist

The stairs led up and to the right, through a door into a passage which led to the front door on John Adam Street, just off Villiers Street by Charing Cross main line railway station. I don’t know who took this picture or why now, but it may have been Morry – I forget his last name – who played a very sensitive guitar and from whom I learned many of the more subtle aspects of mainstream jazz chords.

Morry and I would play in the corner of the coffee bar (just to the right in the picture, where we would normally be sitting down) and would occasionally earn a few pennies from passing customers.

The place was owned and run by a Mr. Garfield (real name Garfinkle), a friendly but astute little Jewish man who reminded me a little of Lord Beaverbrook in appearance – it was the wide mouth. Morry, who was (surprise) also Jewish, would accompany me both musically and in person. We worked three venues: The Gyre and Gimbal, Mick’s Café (in Fleet Street) and occasionally another café in Covent Garden Market. Mick’s was an all-night establishment which catered for the print workers, and we were there most of the night, most nights. Covent Garden market was still a vegetable market then, and we usually went there for breakfast (the food at Mick’s Cafe was occasionally tested by cockroaches).

It was in the Gyre and Gimbal that we first met such later notables as Tommy Steele and Jim Dale. It was here in fact that Tommy was really “discovered” and not the café in Old Compton Street that was used for the film of his then fairly short life story and rise to fame.

Jim Dale went on to star in the “Carry On” films, but like Tommy, he started out as yet another young lad with a guitar – “three-chord merchants” was the term most musicians used for them, they were everywhere in the late 1950s and early 1960s, like a plague. Tommy Steele ( Hicks) did become for a time quite a good jazz guitarist, and I recall his asking me at one time to show him the shape of the chord of C seventh. Another lad, then around eighteen, who went on to make a name for himself as a folk singer, was “Long John” Baldry. He was really rather spotty in those days, and we used to talk about astrology from time to time. Years later I surprised him with a visit when he was appearing at a pub in Bristol in the early 1980s – he had lost his spots and grown a beard by then. When he realised who I was, he was a little embarrassed, as he thought his past was less than wonderful, though in fact he was a good singer from the start.

Just about everybody who was anybody in the music or artistic world was likely to appear in “The Gees” as the Gyre and Gimbal was affectionately known, though they weren’t always recognised, or even at a recognisable stage in life yet. A few years back, here in Bristol in 1990-ish, I met once again someone who had also been a gangling youth at the time, having just made his name as an author with The Outsider – Colin Wilson. In “The Gees” we met just the once, but it was a memorable occasion, as a fight broke out while we musicians – about five of us that night – were playing at the other end to my usual spot. Colin managed to stand aloof and out of it. It didn’t last long. Maybe this was why he still remembered me after all those years, though I was well-known enough in the area at the time, even if I didn’t go on to fame and fortune like some others. To give some idea, a friend on holiday in Belgium sent me a postcard addressed simply to “Alan Accordion, Charing Cross, London” – and it found me.

Around this time I opened the first “Bain’s Bookshop” in a room above the G. & G. with 24 pounds borrowed from a friend (Glyn Davies, who went on to have nothing to do with an organisation called SAROS) plus 25 pounds from the paperback supplier, Panther Books. The illustration shows Morry the guitarist looking through the window which opened onto John Adam Street, and through which the money was taken. The wire racks were supplied by Panther whose were the only books sold to begin with, although later there was a very wide range, including Penguin and even a few Pelican books.


The entrance to the shop as well as the Gyre and Gimbal was through a door to the right of the picture.

Morry didn’t buy anything …


1. Gyre and Gimbal: The more usual spelling of the cafe’s name is Gyre and Gimble.

About singinghead

druid, mathematician, blogger, gardener...
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