Dancing Sailors

I found the most extraordinary volume in a second hand bookshop yesterday. I thought it was fairly odd at the time, but it was only getting it home that I realised just how peculiarly encased in 1930s aspic it is.

Twice Round the London Clock, published in 1933, was written by one Stephen Graham, about whom I can find virtually nothing, but from his writing appears to have been a newspaper columnist, writing for The Sunday Chronicle. In the book, Graham goes to various bohemian parties in Belgravia, slums-it round the East End, and eats at old City establishments, making witty comment as he goes. The illustrations are by the Chronicle’s resident artist, Rick Elmes. The pair of them – oh, how they get into scrapes, largely surrounding Graham’s portly figure, and the gaping yokels they come across.

There’s nothing about Greenwich in there, chiz, but I was highly intrigued by the chapter entitled Dancing Sailors where Graham and Elmes visit a North Woolwich dance hall. I obviously haven’t a clue what Graham was really like; I imagine a tubby posh bloke with a cut-glass BBC accent condescending to talk to the hoi-poloy in an excruciatingly patronising tone…

“The interior of California in North Woolwich is something like part of a ship…perhaps that is why an otherwise ordinary public house has become one of the gay spots in Dockland,” he informs us. “The sailor ashore looks for something like a boat, and they are almost all sailors who dance there.”

Interestingly, despite it being 1933, Graham really does mean ‘gay’ in the modern sense. But more about that in a minute.

The California’s clientele is from around the world – Graham spends time describing the colourful array of costumes, skins and languages of the various Jolly Jack Tars whose ships have brought them to the port of London. He describes their conversation – their finding out about each other’s worlds, their customs, what they want in life – and there are definitely those who are there for the local girls.

“The barmaids are buxom, well-cared for and independent. Sailors treat them respectfully. But the dancing girls, in their smart stockings and shabby everything else would really be kept out of the public houses except that they bring more custom. “

They’re dancing to a “the shabbiest piano, with its top partly removed to let out more noise, and then to a one-man jazz band of the kind that used to be the wonder of children in the streets.”

Eventually, Graham works out that “the men did not get off with the girls at all;” but “danced together in the funniest burlesque style.”

Graham is not at all sure about This Kind Of Thing. He blames that very fast music Jazz, which has “infected ships by way of radio and, as, except on passenger ships, there are no women the “nancy boys” dance together.”

He gradually gets used to it all though, noting that “when there is shore leave one may see hundreds of couples of sailors dancing together,” especially at The California. Apparently, according to Graham, “the Navy dances much better than the mercantile marine.” He’s even worked out why – ” the Navy has more time for it and the discipline helps.”

Graham sits with a couple – a sailor and his new on-shore friend. When the friend discovers that the sailor is a butcher, he’s all for going back with a car and loading up with provisions from the ship. The sailor doesn’t seem particularly happy about this and Graham changes the subject – “he evidently hoped we’d forget – which we did for his sake.”
Graham and Elmes later pick up a couple of girls, just in case the reader was getting any ideas about him.

“The dancing ladies are by no means averse from sitting down to a plate of ham if they can find a man who is willing to pay for that form of entertainment.”

Watching women eat ham, eh. Whoooarrr. Of course, they have websites for that kind of thing these days…

So there you go – a curious little snippet, locked in the pages of a truly bizarre book hidden beneath a pile of dusty tomes in the musty basement of a bookshop on Charing Cross Road. I’m not really sure what it’s saying – merely,perhaps, that there is a whole underbelly of History still to be discovered. In that one chapter, Graham touches on class, poverty, gender, sexuality and race-relations – fascinating to us seventy five years later. There is still much to be learned. Much to be discovered and discussed.

I thought you should see the pictures. The top one is of the California itself – check out the burly couple in the middle. But the one below gives me the creeps in its very smugness – a couple of East End girls overwhelmed by Lord Snooty and his motor carriage…

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