A Tale Of Two Sohos
A crocodile of tiny tots heads past brothels and strip-clubs to their school playground. Nobody bats an eye. Welcome to Old Soho.
London doesn’t have an old quarter, but it once did – Soho was named after a hunting call, and there are plenty of signs around that it was once the home of hunters who were drawn to its abundant marshes, as the ‘Dog & Duck’ pub sign still testifies.
Although its first inhabitants were high-born – there were just 78 houses in the neighbourhood – one generation later it changed dramatically, and an influx of immigrants brought Italians, Germans, French and Russians to the quarter. Its literary and artistic origins are born out by its roll-call of residents; Hogarth, Reynolds, Newton, Marx, Blake, Mozart, Casanova, Lawrence, Darwin, Constable, Reynolds and er, Jessie Matthews, whose father had a stall there. A full history can be found in Richard Tames’ excellent ‘Soho Past’.
Soho started as the Parish of St Anne’s – the church is still there – and became hemmed in by four large roads to form an almost perfect square. The first buildings went up on the Eastern side along Colman Hedge Lane (now Wardour Street) in 1650. The Western side – the half between Wardour Street and Regent Street – came later, bringing black jazz clubs, foreign restaurants and a cosmopolitan nightlife.
Soho gained a reputation for licentiousness, so much so that in 1928 fifty members of Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad raided the dodgier nightclubs. The area’s perceived sexiness drifted into decadence and squalor with ‘near-beer’ bars fleecing punters, strip-clubs and prostitutes giving way to drug dealers. The seedy image stayed through until around the year 2000, when the last of the old drinking dens closed. For thirty years I worked among the brothels, strip-joints and nightclubs in the centre of Soho, and loved it.
The upheaval of the new Crossrail line brought chaos to the Eastern half of Soho, and defined a change that had gradually been seeing the area split into two distinct halves. The fine Edwardian warehouses, pubs and offices to the West retained their identity while the older buildings to the East have been gutted. New restaurant and hotel chains have now been built over the site of old carparks and bomb-sites. For decades the massive bomb-site next to St Anne’s Court remained, and only a hotel’s mosaic front door step stood there, leading to nowhere.
An argument has been made which says that gay bars moving into Soho and replacing strip clubs brought clean money, which brought gentrification; this is nonsense, as there were dozens of tiny gay bars in Soho throughout the 20th century, with no discernible change. Now the most famous of the latter years, Madame JoJo, is to close down.
The strip king Paul Raymond is dead, his empire is dispersed and his reputation is tarnished. Madame Jojo’s has been around for about 50 years, which makes it something of a grande dame. As has been pointed out, it was a rarity in having a seven-nights-a-week 3am licence. There was never trouble here, and Westminster council’s response to a single isolated incident has been to take away the licence. It’s not about trouble, of course, but real estate.
Now a hipster hotel chain has been settling, Tardis-like, into the gaps. Nowhere is this more exemplified than in Ham Yard, once one of the scruffiest back-alleys in Soho, now a chi-chi courtyard with a monumental sculpture and outdoor tables. Downstairs is a bowling alley, a large cinema with balcony, and a garish seventies-styled bar. The response hasn’t all been good. As the Independent says; ‘It just doesn’t feel like Soho. It feels like a gated community built to keep Soho out. If you were a film producer needing to entertain an American financier, Ham Yard would be perfect.’
So we have two Sohos. Left and right Soho, half gentrified, half not. The film and music industries have moved out, Berwick Street market has all but vanished, the privately-owned Italian, Spanish, French and Malaysian cafes have been replaced by pert, twee little ‘street food’ chains – and yet coming out of The Sun and 13 Cantons, one of my favourite pubs, and turning into Carnaby Street (weirdly deserted on a weekday evening) it felt like Soho was being reborn in a way that’s not necessarily all bad.
True, the drinking clubs and strip-joints have mostly gone, but were they ever really that great? Sitting on kitchen chairs drinking warm bottled beer with pissed, inarticulate writers in various smoke-filled dives didn’t make us feel more intellectually stimulated – we did it because it was cheap and near.
Soho is no longer cheap, as anyone who’s visited the disco seafood joint Randall & Aubin will know, but at least it’s safer, if less friendly. Once the parish primary school in Great Windmill Street sat between a brothel and a strip club. The school is still there (for now) but the area around it is unrecognisable, and soon there will only be a few of us left who remember how much fun – and how awful – it could be.
The new Soho is spreading fast. My old building, which once housed a cinema and a nightclub with a glass dance floor, is about to be turned into millionaires’ apartments, and the only thing old about Soho will be the rooftop chimneys.
So the two Sohos will now have another resonance – the pristine left side is spreading, so the shiny new replaces the forgotten old Soho. For a fuller picture of Soho, read my memoir ‘Film Freak’.
Oh, and here’s Keith Page’s lovely drawing of Bryant & May in Soho, by Paul Raymond’s revue bar, which runs across the alleyway one floor up.