“What would you like to drink?”
“Oh, a Bellini, darling.”
This is my introduction to Violet. At first glance, she looks nothing more than the Nan everyone loves; a genteel elderly lady draped in pearls and bright pink lipstick, her petite figure lost in the lunchtime clamour of Duck+Rice, a Golden Chopsticks award-winning restaurant in the heart of Soho.
The second she starts talking, however, the naughtiest grin erupts across her face, her eyes instantly light up, and she juts her hand across the table to firmly shake mine.
“Hello. I’m Violet.”
A life long Londoner, it doesn’t take long to realise that she is somewhat of a local legend. No fewer than four times were we interrupted as we talked, with an array of supplicants coming off the street to pay their respects with warm hugs to this undeniable Queen of Soho.
“You’re quite the celebrity, Violet! Have you lived here all your life?”
“Oh yes. I love Soho. I love the people in it. Very friendly people. I’ve known some of these boys [pointing to the market stall holders outside] since they were babies.”
This is not a chance encounter with 91-year-old Violet (“I’m coming up to 92 next February” she proudly tells me), although I would have willingly sat down with anyone that exuded such character and warmth. It is not the Bellini’s, nor the award-winning food that draws Violet to Duck+Rice: “I was outside having a smoke one day when I got chatting to the Manager. We were talking about bingo – I used to go with the boys and girls from the market up in North London – he suggested that we start a bingo night here and I host it! I now have quite the following every month.”
That fortuitous meeting four years ago saw the birth of the famed and revered “Violet’s Bingo Night”, a monthly event held at Duck+Rice that, from the sounds of it, draws in quite the crowd. As we talk about the bingo her smile grows wider and her gesticulations increase: “We have been building it up and now we have many regulars. They come in and order their food and drinks and then sit down for the bingo, and it’s lovely.” Ever the professional, it is Kevin – the effervescent restaurant manager – who slogs away at the bingo roller while Violet holds court, calling out the numbers in traditional cockney rhyming slang as the balls are passed to her.
“Do you have a favourite number to call out?”
“Oh yes. Two fat ladies. 88. Sometimes when the fat ladies are in here they have a giggle at that one.”
It is then that she goes into character to give a little taste of what I am to expect when I experience one of her nights for the first time next month: “Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s lovely to see you all again, I hope you have a very nice evening and I hope you have your drinks topped up.” She looks at me, dead pan, eyes twinkling, “and then they all clap me and say “hooray, hooray”, and we begin.” She knows she’s a star.
It is obvious that she has lived quite the life. It is quite literally written all over her face, in her deep laughter lines and crinkled eyes. When asking her for memories of a life spent in one of London’s most beguiling areas, she is hesitant to answer. It has changed much for Violet, noting the lack of butchers, bakers, and fishmongers. “We’ve only got a Tescos now. And a Marks and Sparks.”
I push her for a memory, a story, this opportunity to talk away from her adoring fans too good to miss. She eventually relents (rather too willingly when I ask for a naughty one.) Her favourite time in Soho, she said, was during WWII, “it was fabulous! All these places were open to go dancing every evening, and when we would finish up we would end at the salt beef shop on Wigmore Street for salt beef sandwiches, it was lovely.” She later regaled a night when she and two girlfriends met some American Officers who took them for their first drink of alcohol – aged 19 – after a night dancing at the Astoria.
“…one of the Americans suggested we go to the Piccadilly Hotel and then asked us what we would like to drink…the waiter suggested a Pimm’s #1. The American Officer, James – I remember his name because he fancied me – asked if I liked Pimm’s, and I said “oh yes! It’s very nice”. That was a lie, I’d never drunk before!”
After a night of drinking and dancing the Officers had to leave Violet and her friends. Yet this didn’t sound like it was the last time she enjoyed the company of Officers; she would wear skirts made from their uniforms when they left her, as it was free material and she wouldn’t have to use coupons to buy new clothing. I didn’t dare ask how she got her hands on their pink trousers.
Obviously no longer a stranger to the drink, Violet proudly points to the cocktail menu. Violet’s Vesper. “They named a cocktail after me!” Gin, Vodka, and Lillet. The combination sums her up perfectly. “Sometimes it is one of the bingo prizes. Along with other drinks and vouchers for meals here in the restaurant, either £50 or £100 worth! Very good prizes.”
Before I left her, impatiently working out how long I would have to wait until I got to see her again at the next bingo night (September 23rd), I asked for some advice.
“When you live in Soho, whatever you hear, whatever you see, zip it!”
Many thanks to Duck+Rice for their continual hospitality.
Win a chance to meet the Queen of Soho yourself at Duck+Rice by entering our competition! Think you have a story as funny as Violet and her American Officers? Tell us here. Whoever makes us laugh the most will win £70 to spend at Violet’s Bingo Night on September 23rd.