November 28, 2014

It’s the People, not the Place: London Then and Now Courtesy of Dr. George Berguno

While London has seen several alterations throughout the years, some things never change...the London Underground has been a key part of the city since 1863, photo courtesy of the Museum of London
             2014 is a glorious time to be living in London. The city is teeming with life and the smell of opportunity lingers in the air over young and hungry inhabitants in this success-driven society. London itself has undergone major changes throughout the years and unquestionably the people living here undergo changes vis-à-vis its influence. I had the pleasure to talk to one of my psychology professors at university, who has been living in London since the 1970s. Dr. George Berguno gave me his perspective on how the city’s developed and what life in London meant for him at the height of its booming expansion and social excitement. The following interview just goes to show that everyone has a story to tell if you take the time to sit down and listen to them. While London is eternally beautiful, it is nothing without the people you cross paths with here, the people you can share the beauty with.

             I would like to give a big thank you to Dr. Berguno for making this interview possible.

Laura Rutkowski: When did you first move to London?

Dr. George Berguno: Well, this is my second time in London. The first time I came to London, it was just before my 14th birthday and I came with my family, so I went to school for three years here. I don’t have a lot to say about London for those three years, because my life consisted of going to school and going home and that sort of thing. As a teenager, I didn’t really go out that much in London. After that, I moved to Paris and I did go out a lot in Paris, but the first time I came to London, I didn’t really see that much of it.

Then I came back to do my bachelor’s degree in psychology, so I was 20 when I came back and I came on my own. I didn’t come with my family and I lived at university, but I was in London every weekend and often the middle of the week as well. I’m talking about the 1970s, so London was a very different kind of place then. It was an exciting place, but it was also a very quiet city in many ways. For example, I remember Sunday was one of those days where there weren’t very many places to go that would be open and you could do things. London wasn’t the kind of city that stayed open all night, except for certain areas like Soho, which never slept. It was a very different kind of city, a much more relaxed city than it is now, so that was in the 70s.

Soho's Bar Italia (opened in 1949) at 22 Frith Street was formally the home of  John Logie Baird. From there, he gave the first public demonstration of the television in 1926, photo courtesy of Time Out London
In the 80s I moved to Fulham, southwest London, so fairly central and that’s when really I suppose my London life started, after graduation. Not when I was a student so much as after that and my favorite place was, and maybe it still is, Soho. I used to go to Soho a lot. Maybe I should tell you this - when I was at school, I had a friend called Leo and Leo was a jazz enthusiast. I wasn’t, but we were very close friends and his love of jazz was so infectious that we ended up going to jazz concerts a lot and so in the days when I was a university student, in fact I think maybe before, we used to go to Ronnie Scott’s.

We would get in for a pound, because Ronnie Scott, who was the owner of the club, liked us and so he would just allow us in for a pound and I think we did this when we were underage as well. We were not supposed to be there and we didn’t have money, so we would just buy one drink and sit in a corner. We would make that one drink last the whole night and the whole night meant we would get there around 9:30pm, because that’s when they opened the doors. I don’t know why, but the band never came on before 10:30pm and then they would play until about four in the morning, so one drink for quite a long time. In a way, the waiters and waitresses were very happy with that, because they didn’t have to serve us, but we would go regularly. I was at Ronnie Scott’s every week. I got to see a lot of famous jazz musicians at the time and so that is what I remember about London - Soho, Ronnie Scott’s, and there were a lot of jazz clubs in those days.

Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club is still going strong as one of the oldest jazz clubs in the world; for more information, visit their website here, photo courtesy of LondonTown
Now there are only a handful of jazz clubs compared to what there were back in the 70s and 80s. It was quite remarkable. I don’t know whether some of these clubs are still going. I don’t know whether the 100 Club is still going. We used to go there as well, but I know clubs like the Fleet Jazz Club, which was very prominent in north London, closed down. I don’t know why, but I remember life revolved around Soho mainly in those days, because there weren’t many other places to go.

My other favorite place was the South Bank, but the South Bank was very different from the way it is now. Now it’s a very crowded area, full of shops, but back in the 70s and 80s, there were no shops at all, so there was nothing to do and of course they didn’t have concerts in the daytime. They only had concerts in the evening, so in the daytime, it was one of the quietest areas in London to go for a walk. You could walk along the Embankment and it’s very beautiful, but now if you go there, especially on the weekend, it’s just overrun by people and it’s loud and there are restaurants and [everyone is] packed next to each other. It’s not the same anymore and Soho has also changed. Soho has become even more vibrant than it was before, but it also means it’s overrun by people and of course a lot of tourists gather there, so it doesn’t have the same feel about it, but I remember I’ve always had fond memories of Soho.

I can testify that walking along the South Bank (pictured here with St. Paul's Cathedral and the Gherkin), especially at night, shows London in a very majestic and romantic light, photo courtesy of South Bank Employers' Group 
LR: What do you think has been a good addition to London and a bad addition to London?

GB: A good addition? I’m not sure; I’ll have to think about that one. I’m not even sure that there’s a bad addition. It’s just changed. I don’t regret that it’s changed. I don’t regret that it’s become a different kind of city. In a way, what made this city for me were the people that I knew and they’ve all moved away, so of course for me the main thing is it’s not the London I knew because Leo moved to Brighton at some point. I think what happened is that London just became very expensive, an expensive place to live in. I think he married young and had children and just found London to be a very expensive place to have a family, maybe not the best place to have a family either, so he moved to Brighton. Other friends also moved out; gradually they moved away and so I think that that was something that changed London for me. I’m not that concerned with the physical changes to it or the fact that it’s more crowded. I don’t mind it.

London has welcomed many physical changes to its skyline, as seen here in the 1970s (top), the 1980s (center), and 2014 (bottom), photos courtesy of Flexioffices
I think the other thing was that I used to, when I was at university, play guitar as a hobby. I was competent as a guitarist and I applied for a job as a classical guitarist in a quartet. I auditioned and I got it and so for a year I played while I was a student. I played for this classical quartet and mainly we played baroque music, but I was more interested in folk music. While I was at university, I made a friend called Carlos, who was a jazz guitarist, so it’s a little bit like Leo. He infected me with a love of jazz and so gradually I started moving away from classical and folk and ended up playing jazz guitar on a nylon-string guitar. In the last year of university, he was studying computer science and I was in psychology, we gave some recitals, but they were jazz recitals and suddenly we were in demand.

We were being asked to play here and there and so somewhere in the mid-80s, we did a lot of gigs, a lot of shows. These were professional shows. Carlos and I started playing in 1979 when we were still students and then in the early 80s we gave recitals and not many, about five or six a year. Somewhere in the mid-80s, we started playing a lot and we played at most jazz clubs in London. We kind of hit the jazz scene. We never did Ronnie Scott’s, but we did all the other clubs. We played at the Southbank [Centre] many, many times and we did recordings. I did session work. I produced some albums, but Carlos and I only played for a short period, because he also moved to Brighton and found it too stressful to come back to London.

The Southbank Centre (built in the 1960s), one of the venues where Dr. Berguno and his quintet used to play their jazz shows, photo courtesy of Building Design
In the end, I had to get other musicians and I formed a quintet. That period of about 1984/1985 to about 1990/1991 is about a six-year period in which I was doing a lot of jazz and that was a period when I thought I was really living London a lot. I mean, I saw all the good things and the bad things about London, because when you go and you do a show, you go to all kinds of places. Another beautiful memory of London is those years that I was playing jazz, but then I decided to go back to university to do my master’s and then eventually my PhD, so I put the guitar away, but I met a lot of musicians. I knew John Martyn, don’t know if the name will mean anything to you. John Martyn was a very famous guitarist who was part of a folk revival in the United Kingdom. I knew Bert Jansch. I knew Van Morrison and I was very friendly with Isaac Guillory, who was a very good friend of mine, a very close friend, and he was a guitarist I greatly admired.

Famous singer-songwriter Van Morrison frequented a jazz café in Notting Hill, where he would watch Dr. Berguno's gigs, photo courtesy of Flickr
Isaac, at one point, moved into the same area. We both were living in Fulham. We were walking distance away from each other. We had a Tuesday night ritual where we would always meet at his house for dinner and seven or eight hours of playing guitar. We had this sort of thing, which was really very, very nice and we never performed together. We were very different kinds of musicians, but I really loved his music and then I thought when I finished my PhD, I’ll go back to music a little bit in some sort of way, but Isaac died. He died young. He died the year that I finished my PhD in fact. When I was getting ready to go back to this, somehow his death was symbolic for me and I never went back to music then.

I don’t regret giving up performing, although it was an exciting time, was an exciting way to live life in London. I do regret giving up session work, because of all the things I did, the thing that I loved the most was being in the studio recording. That was an extraordinary experience. It suited me better than being on stage. I wasn’t really good as a performer. I didn’t have a great stage presence. I was good at playing the guitar, but in the studio I felt that was really my element, so I regret giving that up, so that’s a shame. That whole period from the 80s until the early 90s, I thought I was really into London thanks to music and thanks to these two friends I met at school and at college, who were jazz enthusiasts.

LR: If someone visited you in London, what are the must-see places you would take them to that people wouldn’t necessarily know about?

GB: There are certain areas of the East End which if you do go to at night, you would see London as it was back at around about 1900. I mean, it really is very interesting. I discovered it by accident once. I think I’d gone to some sort of job interview somewhere and I lost my way and I ended up in an area called Bow. It’s in the East End and it was getting dark and I remember walking around thinking this is Charles Dickens country. It was really very strange; there was nothing modern about the area, so I think that that’s what I would do. I would take them to something like that and tourists don’t go there at all. You see London, you get a sense of London as it was, say, a hundred years ago.

Venture to the East End of London to discover what Dr. Berguno calls "Charles Dickens country," photo courtesy of East End Tours
LR: That’s interesting. I didn’t know that.

GB: I guess your average tourist doesn’t really want to do that. I mean, they want to go see the Tower of London and the Crown Jewels, but that was an eye-opener when that happened to me. There are parts of the East End which haven’t changed at all, haven’t been developed in any way, and you can still see the original buildings at nighttime. You feel transported back in time. 

LR: You mentioned before that you’ve met some memorable people. What can you tell me about them?

GB: [chuckles] Oh yeah, lots of memorable people. Well, they were mainly musicians. Van Morrison I met because I used to play regularly in a small club in Notting Hill and he used to live in that area and he used to frequent a café that I frequented, so we bumped into each other a lot. He used to come to my concerts [laughs], because he lived in the area and he would sit quietly in the corner and just listen and then in the break I’d get coffee for him and that kind of thing, so he was not a friend, just someone I knew for a little while.

Isaac actually was also a famous musician in his time. He was a virtuoso and he was recognized as one of the great folk innovators and I mentioned John Martyn and Bert Jansch. I’ve met them regularly over the years and they were great, great musicians, absolutely great musicians. I was friendly with Peter Whitehead, the filmmaker. We’re still friends. Peter Whitehead became famous in the 60s. He did a number of films. He did a film on the Rolling Stones. In fact, he was the Rolling Stones’ diary keeper and I met Peter in the 70s and so in the 70s and 80s, we met very frequently. It was films that drew us together. I got interested in films.

Dr. Berguno is friends with film director Peter Whitehead, who produced the Rolling Stones' first documentary film, Charlie Is My Darling (1966), photo courtesy of Circle Cinema
I met him through a strange coincidence in Soho again. He had a flat in Soho Square and I borrowed one of his films one day when I was still a student and I took it to university and showed it and, I don’t know if I should mention this, but it was a film that was censored. We weren’t allowed to show it publicly, but I did anyway, so I did that twice and that caused a stir at the university. It’s a story about incest and Oedipus, but very clever, very clever. He became known as sort of a cult figure in British cinema and he’s always avoided the limelight. [He’s] kind of elusive and a recluse, but his films are always offbeat and uncompromising, never compromised in any sort of way.

In recent years, there’s been a real interest in reevaluation of his work, but he doesn’t live in London either now. He moved; he used to live in South Kensington, so we used to meet in South Kensington a lot, but he doesn’t really have much energy now for doing interviews and that kind of thing. I think you might find some interviews on YouTube where he talks about the Rolling Stones. [There were] other characters who were a bit discreditable, but I don’t want to name them. I knew a lot of interesting people in those days.

LR: What has been your favorite and worst experience or memory of living in London?

GB: Gosh, I don’t know if I have a best, because I have so many good memories of London. One of the problems with London is it has a dark side and I did witness an armed robbery once, which was shocking to see someone rob a place with a gun. You really only see it in the movies, but it happened and I was inches away from the gunman, standing right next to him.

LR: What did you do?

GB: I stood still. He actually fired at the owner of the shop. He fired the gun. When he fired the gun, he dropped the bag of money and it fell at my feet and then the money poured over my shoes. That’s an ugly side to London, but I came out of it unscathed. It’s not a nice memory, but I have too many good memories to know which one would be the best one. You get the chance to meet so many people and I met Derek Jarman, a film director.

Patisserie Valerie in Soho has stood the test of time, photo courtesy of the Museum of London
I had tea with Derek Jarman in Valerie’s in Soho. It was a crowded place and the waitress said there’s only one seat left and went up to the man who was there and said, “Would you mind sharing?” It was Derek Jarman and we chatted about films and he was a very interesting character. Colin Wilson, the writer Colin Wilson. I remember I spent an evening with him. Do you know the book The Three Faces of Eve? [She] had these personality changes. I met her. She was on her sixteenth personality at that point. I met her, talked to her, and had dinner with Bianca Jagger once [laughs]. Yeah, London was a good place!

Bianca Jagger in 1979, photo courtesy of Andy Warhol
LR: If you could relive just one day from the past, what would it be and why?

GB: Oh gosh, I don’t know. Too many beautiful days to relive. I don’t know about a particular day, but if I could have a particular experience again that I don’t have anymore, then I suppose I would like to spend one day back in the recording studio again. That would be an extraordinary thing. That would be a major event, but even the musicians that I played with, I had a quintet, they’ve all moved out as well. They’ve all gone.

LR: Would you say that the people make the place then?

GB: Yeah, people made the place. It was the buzz and the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life and that was the nice thing about music. You could meet people from all walks of life and maybe why I liked studio work was because it allowed me to just meet people who normally I wouldn’t associate with and so I never turned down a session job. Whatever the band, whatever music they played, I always accepted their offer, so I remember playing once with a punk band. I don’t listen to punk music, but I played with them and I absolutely enjoyed the whole experience. I played with an Indian band without knowing anything about Indian music and it was quite clear from the beginning I was out of my depth, but I enjoyed it. I mean, that kind of thing, that’s what London was.

LR: If you could bring something back from the past to the present, what would you bring back?

GB: Well, it wouldn’t be anything to do with the city. Actually, I’ll change my answer to the previous question I think. Instead of a day in the recording studio, I wouldn’t mind having a day with Isaac.

Folk guiatist Isaac Guillory, fellow musician and friend of Dr. Berguno's, photo courtesy of Nick Drake
LR: Did you ever have any experience in Carnaby Street? I know it was really big and bustling back then.

GB: I’ve been many times to Carnaby Street, not a particularly favorite part of London for me. I always preferred Soho and places where there were old bookstores, like near the British Museum. I like that area a lot; I still do. I still frequent that area. There are still a lot of nice bookstores around there. I could spend the whole day just browsing.

A glimpse of Carnaby Street in 1973, photo courtesy of Time Out London
LR: I think that’s all I have for you, so is there anything else you want to talk about or cover?

GB: No, I think I’ve given a good idea. It was a nice trip down memory lane [laughs].

LR: [laughs] I’m glad!

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