Neil Gaiman, Cafe München & the Comedian

Cafe München: long-gone… but perhaps not entirely forgotten? This London bar was home to so many stories, including Forbidden Planet signings by Neil Gaiman, Dave Gibbons, Bill Sienkiewicz, Alexei Sayle and a host of 1980s comics luminaries.

In a recent video, the lovely John Rogers takes us on a walk down and around one side of Fleet Street. Rogers gleefully shares remarkable tales of some of the buildings in what he calls this London “street of stories and myths”.*  Every building he passes will have been at the centre of abundant historical events and stories, yet only rarely is this history commemorated, or even remembered. Standing in a Fleet Street shopping arcade, Rogers says:

“You get these stories everywhere around London. You would never know, there are no markings or anything to indicate that such a historic event as the divorce of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon was negotiated right here, where I’m sure people have a cheeky wee after a few pints in the Old Bell.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the stories that places in London and elsewhere in the world can accrue, only for the world to forget all about them. I have a perfect example of this: 15 St Giles High Street, London, once home to a place called Cafe München. For a short time in my teenage years, this place played a tiny but fondly remembered role in the story of my life.

A brief audience with Alan Moore and co.

I was a comic-obsessed kid. As a teenager. I took this obsession a step further by travelling to London for signing sessions by some of my favourite comic artists and writers. Most of these were organised by the Forbidden Planet comic shop, then located at 23 Denmark Street. The signings happened just round the corner at Cafe München.

In my memory, Cafe München was a brightly decorated, neon signed, late-1980s yuppie night spot, possibly even that most unheard-of thing where I grew up, a wine bar. I was 13 the first time I went to a signing there, so this was likely my first time ever in a place licenced to sell alcohol to grown-ups. Looking back, it seems an odd choice for a venue that would open its doors to lines of spotty teenage comic geek types well below drinking age, nervously awaiting their chance for a brief audience with Alan Moore and his contemporaries.

Besides Alan Moore, I got to meet so many other luminaries of the late-1980s comic world there. Elektra: Assassin artist Bill Sienkiewicz, for instance, was so kind as to draw me a quick Elektra sketch when he saw how thrilled I was to meet him when he showed up as an unannounced guest at one signing session.

ElektraSketch

A then unheard-of John Hicklenton (RIP) – who was hanging about in the bar while a 2000AD signing session was in progress – gave me a photocopied page of art from his upcoming run on Nemesis the Warlock, which was just about to start in 2000AD.

JohnHicklentonPhotocopy

My Cafe München memories resurfaced over Christmas. Having recently taken possession of my old comic collection after decades apart, I started to wonder: Was the actual Cafe München anything like the none-more-80s yuppie watering hole I thought I remembered? Could it even have been some kind of hub for London creative types?

Whatever Cafe München once was, it seems to have left little trace in terms of historical record.

From my many wanderings around London’s west end over the intervening decades, I know that Cafe München is long gone. The building that housed it no longer exists. Google Street View reveals that where once all was München, there now stands a towering edifice of modern apartments.

15StGilesHighStreetViaGMapsMay2021

Ghosts of an MJCarty past

JohnLloydCafeMunchen

In search of historical evidence of the Cafe München of my memories, a little googling brought  back something extraordinary.

I found a treasure trove of not just pictures but moving pictures of exactly that place in exactly those times. This was a 1987 episode of LWT (London Weekend Television) programme South of Watford, entitled Attack of the Killer Comics.

John Lloyd investigates the late-1980s explosion of interest in comics aimed at more mature readers (spearheaded by Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns and a great many other titles). Having grown up in Buckinghamshire (somewhat north of Watford), I had no idea that the London-only South of Watford TV show even existed, let alone that it had a comics episode, let alone that the comics episode captured pretty much everything I remembered of the London comics scene of that era.

Watching this video in the run-up to Christmas 2021, I saw places from my past conjured up before me. Ghosts of an MJCarty past, if you will.

This episode of South of Watford feels uncannily as if it is tracking the exact locations I would visit on my trips to London back then. A comic mart at Central Hall, Westminster. Forbidden Planet at 23 Denmark Street. And midway through, there it is: Cafe München itself! John Lloyd staggers up Denmark Street from Forbidden Planet with a huge stack of comics, settles in at Cafe München to read them over an alcoholic drink, then ambles across the bar to interview none other than Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, about their excellent 1987 graphic novel Violent Cases.

NeilGaimanDaveMcKeanJohnLloydCafeMunchen

Reeling from the memories, I tweeted a link to this video to Neil Gaiman. He was so gracious as to reply, sharing the video with his own followers. It seems he remembers that programme very well indeed.** Mr Gaiman said:

NeilGaimanSouthOfWatfordTweet

“South of Watford, circa 1987. John Lloyd was interviewing and presenter. My very first TV interview. I was terrified.”

Cafe München and Neil Gaiman are by no means the only things to be covered in Attack of the Killer Comics. Lloyd offers a wide-ranging survey of the key comics of 1987. The show includes interviews with Dave Gibbons (discussing Watchmen), Myra Hancock, Wendy James (of Transvision Vamp fame) and Lenny Henry. There is also a chat with none other than comedian Alexei Sayle, who tried his hand at comics writing that year with his graphic novel Geoffrey the Tube Train and the Fat Comedian.

AlexeiSayleSouthOfWatford

I’m a keen listener to The Alexei Sayle Podcast, so I emailed the podcast makers to share a link to Attack of the Killer Comics, and to ask if Mr Sayle might consider talking about his foray into comics in a future episode.

I was surprised and delighted while listening to the Christmas 2021 episode of The Alexei Sayle Podcast, to hear co-host Talal Karkouti read out my email. It seems that Mr Sayle remembers that programme very well indeed. You can hear what he had to say about chatting to John Lloyd that day in 1987 at around the six-minute mark.

Cafe München has ceased to be

CentrePoint1966ViaRobBaker

The world depicted in Attack of the Killer Comics is long gone. The world of comics has evolved almost beyond recognition. For example, comics now dominate Hollywood in a way that the me of 1987 would never have believed possible. Better, the world of comics is now significantly more inclusive. I was taken aback while watching Attack of the Killer Comics to see just how singularly male was the crowd depicted at the 1987 Westminster Comic Mart. The world of comics – both in terms of the creators and the readers – is so much more diverse today.

A lot of the locations depicted in Attack of the Killer Comics are long gone, too. Forbidden Planet moved from Denmark Street*** to New Oxford Street, then to its current home on Shaftesbury Avenue.

Cafe München itself has ceased to be. I would guess that the building that housed it was a post-World War II creation, possibly built on the site of Blitzkrieg bomb damage? Wikipedia suggests that its 15 St Giles High Street location has at various points over the past 50-or-so years also been home to drinking establishments called The Conservatory and The White Lion. I have a feeling that at some point in the early 2000s, it might have been a Wetherspoons pub – could this be true? Certainly, 15 St Giles High Street latterly became the final home (for now at least) of the Intrepid Fox pub. The pubwiki website has a list of the various changes of ownership of the building itself over the years.

St_Giles_High_Street_15_June_2016

The building that housed Cafe München was demolished at some point in the past 10 years. The White Lion name is preserved for the apartment block that stands there today. The designboom website clues us in on the building now known as White Lion House:

“Considering the significant history of the area, the project by MICA placed an importance on incorporating old into new, while still creating a contemporary design. the building’s façades are therefore designed to make sense of the site’s historic geometries. The concrete façade, built in solid precast units, refers to the graphic appearance of the adjacent Centre Point complex, embossed with a chevron pattern from studying the existing tower elevation.”

The White Lion House of 2022 betrays no memory of the Cafe München that once was.

But it would seem that Cafe München lives on not just in my memories, but also in those of a few others. My online Cafe München research found a small handful of further references – most (but not all) involving Neil Gaiman:

  • A visit to Cafe München is described by Neil Gaiman in a Time Out essay, entitled Six to Six. You can read this in his book The View from The Cheap Seats. It is also available to read on the Time Out website.
  • Back in 2016, Rob Baker tweeted a 1966 picture of Centre Point, next to which can be seen The White Lion pub as it was then. Neil Gaiman retweeted this picture, commenting: “I love this shot. (it’s from St Giles High St, though.) I remember the White Lion, before the Cafe München.” David Quantick posted an interesting reply, stating that in his day, Cafe München was “full of rock journalists and comic writers”. So perhaps it was a hub for creative types in general, at least for a while?
  • In 2018, the Down the Tubes blog did a post with scans of Forbidden Planet 40th anniversary souvenir magazine, which includes at least one picture from a Cafe München signing (specifically the picture of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. I know for a fact that that signing took place at Cafe München, as I was there).

As with so many other places in London, 15 St Giles High Street has been at the centre of so many stories over the decades and perhaps even the centuries. It played a role in my own story for a short time in the late 1980s. It played a role in the lives of so many others. So many of these stories have left no trace. Or did they? I would love to know if there are any further tales of Cafe München out there.

If you have any memories of pictures of 15 St Giles High Street, of Cafe München – or of the late-1980s comics scene in London or anywhere else in the world – please let me know. Either post a comment below, or tweet me.

May today be nothing but kind to you and yours.

FOOTNOTES

* Here is the terrific John Rogers video on Fleet Street – London’s street of stories and myths.

** A little further googling revealed that Neil Gaiman also wrote about this interview in his online journal back in 2001. Here is what he said:

“The first time I was ever interviewed on TV was in 1987. John Lloyd (eminent UK TV producer and writer and stuff) was presenting a show called South of Watford and he interviewed Dave McKean and me about Violent Cases, in a pub called the Café Munchen (now The Conservatory, unless it’s something else).

We chatted before the interview, friendly and relaxed. And then it was time to turn on the TV cameras. They were turned on, and John turned to me and asked the first question.

I froze.

I froze utterly and in every way. My mouth slowly opened and nothing came out. I forgot how to speak.

John said, “Stop rolling,” to the camera people, and told me everything would be fine, and reminded me it wasn’t live, and then he told them to turn on the cameras and asked me the question again.

I’ve never been nervous or tongue-tied on TV since, but I can’t forget that time. It lurks in the back of my mind, a little adrenaline-kicker before every TV appearance.”

*** I can’t resist using this final mention of the 23 Denmark Street location of Forbidden Planet to share this 1981 episode of Danny Baker’s LWT show 20th Century Box (Also available on the The History of Iron Maiden Part 1 – The Early Days DVD)., which includes a short interview with Iron Maiden at Forbidden Planet. And do please keep watching for the cardboard guitars!

FURTHER READING

IMAGES

  • Bill Sienkiewicz Elektra sketch (1987) photograph by MJCarty (2022).
  • South of Watford screengrabs: I make no claim to the copyright for these images, and will remove them from this post immediately, if required to by the copyright holder.
  • Centre Point, 1966. This photograph was tweeted by Rob Baker in 2016. My thanks to Mr Baker for his kind permission to include this picture here. Please do follow Rob Baker on Twitter!
  • Intrepid Fox, Covent Garden, WC2 via Wikimedia Commons.
  • St Giles High Street 15 June 2016 via Wikimedia Commons.

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