Where new writing finds its voice
Literary London

Parton Bookshop, Soho

Anna Goodall

In the first in our series exploring the city’s forgotten literary locations, we look at David Archer’s legendary Soho bookshop

London in the late fifties and early sixties was a place of creativity, of engagement with politics and society, and a sort of casual generosity mixed with threadbare debauchery. Those who remember it seem to be less looking back in anger than with nostalgia, forgetting a little, or at least somehow celebrating the difficulty and relative hardship of the era and the instability of the talented people who populated its makeshift stage.

Soho in particular was daily crammed with members of London’s artistic scene: Francis Bacon, Kenneth Tynan, Michael Hastings and Dom Moraes all jostled for room on the Charing Cross Road with young confident students on the cusp of the swinging sixties.

Amidst the hubbub, David Archer ran his small, apparently unremarkable, bookshop, there since the 1930s, which according to the poet Christopher Logue, who discusses Archer in his autobiography, was (unusually for the area) ‘clean, sleek and uncluttered’. No 4 Parton Street became a regular haunt for writers, many casually leaving their books with Archer in the hope of shifting a few copies. The ceiling of the shop was covered in portraits of poets – the work of Italian graphic designer Germano Facetti. This was the same ceiling that caught Allen Lane’s eye and eventually took Facetti to Penguin books as designer. Even the girl serving the endless free coffees was the famously beautiful Soho siren Henrietta Moraes, muse to Bacon and wife of Indian poet Dom.

Archer also ran Parton Press, which before the Second World War was the first to publish Dylan Thomas, David Gasgoyne and WS Graham among others. But despite his own significant talent for spotting and publishing important, new poetic work, stories about Archer suggest that he was modest and self-effacing to an almost ridiculous degree.

He was all but disowned by his father, at least in part because of his sexuality. Nevertheless, coming from an elite family who, it was said, owned a third of Wiltshire, he was considerably wealthier than those around him. He used his money to run the shop and the press, and to support the burgeoning talents of those who stumbled in to see him.

Amongst those who visited were Logue and playwright Bernard Kops, both of whom recall Archer with great fondness. Logue writes, ‘David, now quite forgotten, was a man always anxious to help others.’ Similarly Kops remembers that ‘he spoke as if he had two pounds of plums in his mouth and was stiff as a guardsman. […] Here was another wonderful giver, lousy taker.’ Both recall how Archer would encourage people to just take books for free, or if he wanted to hold on to that particular volume, would rush out to buy them a bottle of wine in apology. He often turned customers away with mild disgust when they unsuspectingly proffered the requested price.

Kops goes on to note the seeming disparity between form and function on his first meeting Archer at the shop: ‘This was the man who had started Parton Press, yet when you met him it was as if he had just emerged from a forest and was suffering his first contact with these things called human beings.’

Like many influential figures from the period (Logue and Kops included), Archer’s personal life was troubled and it is left to Logue to note, sadly, ‘He died alone, in poverty.’