Thursday, 11 July 2013

Postcards (5): Soho

It was only for one night, but it was still strange.  I mean, who stays in a hotel in their home town?

And yet, there we were.  Right at London’s heart.  Or the centre, if not the actual heart.  Not anymore.

We got out the cab on Shaftsbury Avenue not so long before midnight.  The walk to Frith Street, up the Soho Square end, was interesting.  It was all hustle and bustle and people who should know better the worse for wear, but it felt fake.  Soho’s changed so much, even in the twelve years I’ve been living in London.  I guess it’s for the better.  The open doors and scrawled notelets blue-tacked to broken light-switches, the dark passages and broken steps leading up corridors where the paint bled with damp have mainly disappeared.  There’s still the odd one, but it stands out as an exception.  Even the less discrete neon sign that used to bellow “models” on the corner of Old Compton and Dean Street has gone dark, its shell a blister of broken plastic.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s nicer.  There are less sweating nervous men doing laps of the block as they build up their nerve, being watched by people like me from what was once the Intrepid Fox and now is a joint of George Osborne’s favourite upper class burger joint.  I bet cockroaches don’t come out the soft drink spout anymore.  There are no menacing guys, not bouncer burly, but psychotically wiry muscles, the sort who won’t think twice to fuck you up.  They used to lurk in the neighbouring doorways and berate you for not heading up to see one of their lovely girls or downstairs to a strip tease.

The hotel wasn’t like that.  Yes, it’s from Soho’s past, but further back.  A Georgian townhouse that was the deathplace of an essayist and now, in the twenty-first century, refuses to let go of its history.  We wandered around, late at night, once everyone else has retired.  On every corner, on every surface was an artefact – a sculpture or painting – loudly reminding us of from whence it came.  The stairs sloped dangerously as though the whole building had lurched from one generation to the next and, despite all the effort, insisted on carrying on.  My fiancé loved it.

‘Forget the house, we could just stay here,’ she whispered outside someone else’s door.

I did a quick mental calculation.  We’d run out of money alarmingly fast, even taking into account the deposit.

Of course, Soho is better without all the nastiness old, but it was also part of its charm.  You used to feel like all of London could be found in those few streets, penned in by Shaftsbury Avenue, Regent’s Street, Old Charing Cross Road and Oxford Street.  Theatre Land, China Town, old book stores and high street fashion circling and inside, respite for anyone out of sorts.  A place for anyone who didn’t know where else to go.  If, in years gone by, society’s more unusual elements found that they could be themselves in London, then Soho was where they really meant.  Sex, yes, but also, well, just life.

Sure there was the Groucho club and the other members only black doors marked by big black guys in black suits and black ties with black ear pieces curling across their shoulder, but they were exclusively open.  Everyone could see themselves getting in there one day, if only once.  From the street market to the record shops, from the tower block to the tatty bistros, from the down at heel pubs to cheap office space, writers, musicians, artists, performers, everyone not used to wearing a tie found themselves in Soho at one time or another. 

A famous journalist or writer – whose name I forget and the book I referenced it from is in storage - used to spend most mornings in Soho Square trying to shake off the booze sweats, trying to bring himself to life for the coming day.  They used to say that when he was gone there’d be a statue of him sitting there, slumped.  There isn’t.  There wouldn’t be now.

The old Victorian tenements are going, torn down and replaced by swanky flats with tall glass fronted retail units.  The face changes, and behind that it all shifts.  Who goes and buys second hand records anymore?  Who buys second hand books anymore?  Who buys porn DVDs anymore?

It’s becoming increasingly bland.  The Italian coffee shops overshadowed by the usual suspect chains, along with the station patisseries, the burger chains, the painfully expensive noodles and sushi bars.  All the people who went to Soho looking for help are being forced out.

In the old days, at least there was a sense of camaraderie – and just occasionally it even felt friendly.  I remember once, years ago, I staggered down Berwick Street just before Christmas.  I can’t remember where I’d been.  Maybe it was the Champion, maybe somewhere else.  I was heading for the station even though I’d missed the last train and in Soho the streets were still alive.  A light dusting of snow filled the air, back before it routinely ground the city to a halt for three weeks.  It was still a novelty, especially a few days before Christmas.  A cheer went up and people swarmed, many arm in arm, a couple dancing a jig as they made their past the dirty film cinema and the alley packed with naughty mag shops.  A couple of girls lingered in doorways, having had enough for the night, one even opened the creaky old sash window on the second floor and stuck a Santa Stop Here sign in the otherwise unused window box.  It wasn’t for me, really, but you know, it had a sense of humour.  It had a heart.

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