Getting into Martin’s

First published Billy Blue Magazine

Number 41 September 1980

(Martin’s was the original hipster bar, avant la lettre.  For twenty five years, from 1965 to around 1985/90, it loomed over Oxford Street like the Colossus of Cool. Well, perhaps not that long, perhaps the light began to dim around the late 80s. To  be perfectly honest, I have no recollection of when it closed. But I do know that following story, published in 1980, won the inaugural Billy Blue magazine literary award. Reading it again, it’s not bad. But the best thing about it is a peek through the keyhole of time. Sydney. Oxford Street. Before the rainbow pedestrian crossing.):IMG_1083

A friend of mine is between marriages. He and his ex-wife are both good friends and you know how dicey that can be.

Anyway, not so long after they’d parted, and he’d turned forty, he met and became happily involved with a twenty year old woman. It seemed to make him feel a lot better.

He rang me from the country and said he wanted to come up for the weekend to see Manhattan, and asked would I come with him. Ha. Sure. We went, and both enjoyed it, especially my friend in spite of the ending.

Then he said

“Let’s go to Martin’s.”

“Yeah, let’s go to Martin’s”

When he lived in the city, this friend of mine, well, he was a bit of a lad. And I think the movie and the city and the reminiscing all went to his head a bit. Because when we got to Martin’s he became very involved in chatting up one of the barmaids.

The barmaids at Martin’s, for those of you who have not solved the problem of Getting into Martin’s are topless. Not in the normal flashy, brassy sense. But almost casually, by accident, their (usually) small and well shaped upper halves are exposed. They wear shirts, but not buttons.

I once confessed to a raucous friend of mine that I didn’t know quite where to loo  when ordering a drink at Martin’s.

“Jeez I do” he replied broadly. Still, it requires a certain…balance. Too pointed eye contact is as much to be avoided as yokel-like ogling.

I moved down the bar  a bit, pretending not to notice all this feeling, well, old. But I couldn’t help hearing what they were talking about. I had to strain a little, but I heard. All the usual stuff, where do you live, what’s your name, and then my friend said:

“How long have you been working here?”

“Oh, ages, about two years.”

“Two years. Ha. I haven’t been here for a while. But I used to come here a lot when I lived in Sydney. I, ah, used to come here when it first opened.”

“Gee. When was that?”

“Aaah, 1965, 1966, something like that.”

“Wow! I was only four then!”

I’m glad  I wasn’t looking at his face. Still, he seemed to recover quickly.

Martin’s. I can’t think of Oxford Street, that great and seedy jugular vein of our city  without seeing a fat and supercilio0us Englishman in a grubby duffel coat leaning against a parking meter. Usually talking to (or over the heads of) a gaggle of well-dressed kids. The kids are a bit arty maybe, long hair, scarves and beads, but they’re definitely good middle class kids. Out of place on Oxford Street.

That was, of course, Martin’s little stroke of genius. Anticipating the drinking habits of a leisured middle class. Turning a tuppeny dark plonko bar into a Wine Bar! Unthinkable in our parents’ days. But in the vanguard of a social revolution in 1965.

Is it really fifteen years since Martin’s opened? Is it really fifteen years since the (then) love of my life got a job behind the bar, and I, crazed with jealousy, sat at the other end of the bar all night every night waiting for her to finish. Waiting, just waiting, for anybody to make a pass at her.  Jesus.

Then, the red Martin’s barrel hanging off your key ring was, if not exactly a red badge of courage, visible proof that you’d discovered the secret! Solved the mystery! Of Getting into Martin’s.

For half a generation of Sydney’s publicists, journalists, photographers, actors, artists, architects and poseurs, Getting into Martin’s has been a strange and baffling process. No rules. No form. No recognised procedure.

Apparently, once you got into Studio 54, unless you were one of the beautiful people (Roy Cohn, one of the beautiful people?) it was mildly disappointing. Except for the luscious little boys in hot pants picking up old outfits off the floor, Studio 54 wasn’t all that different to the VIP disco over Les Girls, ripped vinyl seats and all.

Bit Martin’s, inside, was all Martin’s It reflected the personality and predilections of its owner, patron, doorman and designer, Martin de Berry. About whom, I hasten to add, I know nothing except what I have seen over the years in his bar.

In the fifteen years I’ve been going to Martin’s the bar, I’ve probably said no more than 75 words to Martin the man, all of them in groups of three or four. Words like “Good evening Martin” or a favourite of his, I understand, “How are you Martin?”, sometimes the more obsequious “Thank you Martin” before staggering into the night with or without female company gracefully acquired.

Now, if I got to know Martin, if I managed to pierce through that carefully cultivated ennui (if I could be bothered) I don’t even know whether I’d like what I saw. But that matters for nothing.  As I learnt some time ago, you must often separate the man from his art. I mean, you might love, say, the way Van Gogh paints. You don’t have to love Van Gogh the man.

And Martins art is his bar. His genius, a peculiar genius for such a pointedly antisocial man, is providing a milieu for the sociability of others. And by God he does it well.

In Amsterdam one night I was taken on a tour of the brown cafes by an Amsterdammer. A strange little bar owned by a Jewish jazz pianist, who sang like Louis Armstrong in Dutch. Another, frequented by, and owned by, lovers of opera where the patrons linked arms and bellowed out their favourite arias. Each one reeking of time and personality and the quirks of  its owner. Martin’s is like those brown cafes. In a city without much social history or recent tradition, it has a history, traditions and, especially since the addition of an upstairs bar and restaurant, a geography.

Downstairs is the original bar, and the home of the old guard. Christ, you can walk into Martin’s downstairs and see people you haven’t seen (or thought about) in ten years. Downstairs are paintings and prints and postcards and posters. There’s one of those letter boards you find in old clubs, holding cards sent by travelling habitués from Alexandria or Alabama. The poster advertising the photographic trio of Trevor Kyle, Ian Potter and Ken Petrie went out of business in the late sixties (but for Ian Potter who snaps on).

And the one that baffled me. The  poster advertising the 50th Anniversary piano recital by the Alexander Hmelnitsky Foundation, sporting what looks like a photograph of Vincent Price.

And, cheek by jowl, on the way to the ladies, to the left of Rangda, Jimi Hendrix and Albert Einstein. And then there’s the graffiti. A sad commentary on the time sis to be found in a comparison between the women’s graffiti (biting, pungent, witty) and the men’s graffiti (derivative, melancholy and silly). Women’s graffiti of the year: definition of a man – life support system for a prick.

Downstairs I have spent many drunken nights packed shoulder to shoulder, sucking on cider or wine (before the license broadened to allow spirits and beer) deep in earnest conversation, forgetting the other purpose  of a bar (Larry Rivers, American artist and toper defined sex and loneliness as the twin purposes of bars) surprised from the depths  of my earnest conversation b y the opening bars of the first movement of Beethoven’s seventh into realising, once again, that all the best women had made their choices. It wasn’t until about five  years ago that I listened to the second or third movements of the seven, the first connected forever in my mind with endings and loneliness.

I’ve seen lovers walk out of my life at Martin’s, met some of the loves of my life and, recently, spent quiet afternoons upstairs, reading the papers (kindly provided) to the warmth of the flickering fake gas fire.

Upstairs, though, I don’t know so well. The de Berry themes of fine woodwork and fresh flowers have travelled well. Along with a few recent aberrations. A hologram that’s not really a hologram of a winking lady. Ancient stage lights. A ghastly twinkling head of the Statue of Liberty (Libertine?). And, as mentioned, the morning and afternoon papers. Upstairs caters for a slightly, well, glossier crowd. Why? For what reason do people segregate themselves unerringly by type?

The restaurant, at time of writing, is terrific. Run by a small band of dedicated New Zealand women (and the Egan sisters) with, I am led to believe, a Finnish cook, it offers only fresh foods in season, prepared and served with delicacy, imagination and charm, accompanied by a short but adequate wine list. And you can walk in at eleven o’clock in the evening, order a full meal and finish it without being told to hurry along please.

Does this sound like the kind of place you’d like to call your own? Well, if you are a member, come back, all is forgiven, if not forgotten. Martin, you may recall, has a phenomenal and legendary memory for names among many other things. But I’m sure he won’t hold it against you (it was so long ago) unless you were unspeakably crass.

That’s something he can’t stand. Bores, punks, thugs, drunks, fighters and fallersover.

If, on the other hand, you are not a member of Martin’s and would like to be, take heart.

Especially if you are a woman. Approach the hidden entrance. Ring firmly on the bell. Accost Mr de Berry. Brandish this article at him. Demand at least a temporary membership  card while you prove your mettle.

If you are not female, well, it is a little harder. Martin, like Robert Graves, will probably

‘…always over value woman

At the expense of man.’

You can try. Arrive alone, or, if accompanied, bring a woman friend. Or a member friend. Supply character witnesses, depositions. Teach him a new word. Engage him in battle of wits.

But do, if you value quality and personality in this age of quantity and anonymity, try to become a member.

Because no matter how difficult, how labyrinthine the task, Getting into Martin’s will always be worth the effort.


8 thoughts on “Getting into Martin’s

  1. Cracking read…Martin’s was indeed unique…so too the man. Unlike the writer, had many a conversation with him…he was a good friend of my girlfriend of the late 70’s. I was taken there first late 1972 by Ron Keeley (Radio Birdman drummer)…and all the guys from that band (once it formed a coupla years later) were regulars…downstairs was like our loungeroom…wander in anytime and encounter any number of close acquaintances. Could write a chapter of my life story on Martin’s. So utterly sad he’s no longer with us…have yet to encounter anyone who knows where he was over his last 10 or 12 years. No idea how he died or when…but I loved that bar…legendary and unique indeed. Cheers, Jules

  2. Martin and his hospitality will remain forever etched in my memory, both for his er….manner, and how much of a part his establishment played in my life story!

  3. A friend introduced me to Martin’s back in 67 or 68. The standard drop then was Hardy’s Bin 454 red, if you wanted something nice to drink. I think they also carried Bin 636 and whatever white Hardy’s was making then. The house red and white served in carafes was, well, vile. The cider was great though, and different crazes for other drinks went through the crowd I was with (mostly advertising people, with me as a hanger-on.) Bianco and soda, Green Ginger wine on the rocks etc etc. In the early days there was a man named Tony working in a tiny kitchen, cooking the best schnitzels I have ever eaten, over a single gas ring. Nothing flash, just a schnitzel the size of Tasmania and couple of bits of cold pickled broccoli on the side. Tony left to open his own restaurant, Bill and Tony’s, can’t remember what year that was. Around the time No Names became famous. I went there for years, until family matters interfered with rampant drunken Saturdays. One Sunday sticks in my mind, though. The friend who introduced me to Martins turned up on my doorstep, between 71 and 75 this was, and said Martin had rung him up and asked him to round up a few interesting characters and meet him at this Greek restaurant on Elizabeth Street, overlooking Hyde Park just near Museum Station. (Cannot recall the name of the place). We arrived to find Martin sitting there with half a dozen bottles of plonk, waiting for company. A long, wine-filled afternoon was had, with the restaurant plying us with Greek nibblies all arvo. When the plonk ran out, Martin asked who had a car close by, and he went off with the driver to his own bar, returning with another dozen and a half bottles of Hardy’s Bin 454. Martin was sociable, talked with everyone at length, and this was the first time I’d actually had a proper conversation with him. Several times after that, I met him at parties thrown by that same friend. The last time I met him was in the early 80s, I was lunching in the lower part of Oxford Street, with (you guessed it) that very same friend, and Martin walked in off the street. I knew the bar had closed (he’d taken on a partner in the business by this stage and it all went sour) and he was saying he was broke. He also said he had diabetes and urgently needed some sugar. He was not a well man at that meeting. We bought him lunch, and he walked out the door onto Oxford Street, and I never saw or heard of him again.

    • To my recall, the last time I saw Martin deBerry was later in the Eightys, about ’87, in an Italian restaurant in Victoria St, near Orwell. He was his usual laconic self, not unusual for a Londoner, but I did sense that something was not all well. Could have been his being deprived of the interactivity that we gregarious types crave.

  4. Very sad story Ian. That he had to that he had to get someone to round up a bunch for lunch, and the end. You’ve got a better memory for the booze we drank than I do. I remember only red liquid. I’ce still got badges for the two institutions that I miss: Martins (#3599) and The Journalists’ Club (#345), that last number I inherited from my mother. Nowhere like either place in Sydney now…or maybe there is and thry just don’t tell us old fogies.

    • Other bits and pieces come to mind. I seem to recall he told me once that he’d served in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. And another funny story just came to mind. It was the custom, after the second floor bar was opened, for the first drink over the bar to be ‘on the house’, and as I worked in the city in those days, I was always trying to be there first at 5 PM to score a free Cooper ale. One day I hurtled up there on my trusty motorbike, scored a park in the street alongside the courts, and hurried back to Oxford Street, The lights were against me and a torrent of traffic was roaring past and then – some bloke and his lady were at Martin’s door! Drat. There goes my free Coopers. When I got over there, Martin opens the door and says. “Ian Taylor. Snap.” “Eh?” says I, and Martin replies “That’s also Ian Taylor going up the stairs.” I went up and introduced myself, and sure enough, it was another Ian Taylor and we all had a good laugh. But what are the odds, to arrive at Martins on a random night, and the first two customers have the same name?

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