And A Tale Of Old Soho...

Christopher Fowler
12143128236_73ea77877e_b I briefly mentioned this in 'Film Freak' but was reminded of it yesterday, walking through Soho on a day when veils of grey mizzle were drifting across the empty streets, and I passed the building where it happened. It illustrates what we put up with then. It was raining hard on that day, too, when a glamorous female MGM executive arrived at our Soho office in a pale blue twin-set with bobbed California-blonde hair, looking like a Barbie Doll that had been dropped in a filthy pond. She had got caught in the downpour and had become hopelessly lost on the journey from Knightsbridge, where it seemed all Americans stayed. At that time we were in the middle of moving our film edit suites from the second floor of a two hundred year-old old terraced house with a collapsing roof in Greek Street. The building was half-emptied and in semi-darkness as my business partner Jim showed the Hollywood executive upstairs. Somewhere above her, rainwater was piddling through the ceiling. The only hall light had fizzed and burned out half an hour earlier. We needed her there to view a film cut, and the only remaining Steinbeck was stored on the top floor. Our Californian executive was reserved but game, and soldiered on in her pink patent-leather high heels until she fell up the stairs in the dark, laddering her tights, her hair falling down over one eye. And still she went on. She had brushed against a sooty bannister and blackened her jacket. Jim looked at her bravely struggling on in the dark on all fours without a word of complaint, and welcomed her to the London way of doing things. On the way out after, a tramp accosted her for money. She reminded me of my admiration for Hollywood women, who bore the brunt of male chauvinism and made names for themselves. But it was not unusual for Soho to throw you into a ditch filled with filthy water, or dump you in a toilet next door to a live sex show, or abandon you in a damp-reeking basement of a screening room. After my earlier piece, 'A Tale of Two Sohos', many people pointed out that we don't need more pristine coffee shops to come along and replace the rundown emporia of old, and I agree, but playing devil's advocate, we also remember with fondness an image of Soho more than its reality. Pickpockets, junkies and thieves blighted us - my offices were burgled maybe two dozen times, girls were harassed, pools of sick had to be cleaned up daily, and fights often broke out in the late night streets. Soho's new sterility is horrible, but the alternative was not acceptable - especially as many of the police around there were on the take and turned a blind eye to bad things happening.
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Jo W (not verified) Thu, 27/11/2014 - 12:39

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Yes Admin,time does paint a rosy picture of how things used to be. Although I have wandered through its streets nowadays, I wouldn't have dared to thirty or forty years ago. The nearest I got was coming out of the side exit of Foyles. It was definitely keep to the main roads for a girl on her own.

charles (not verified) Sat, 06/12/2014 - 01:18

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I used to get my haircut in a Soho basement in the 60s as a young boy; they had a great collection of comics, and as a six to 8 year old I remember Caspar the Friendly Ghost and Superman especially fondly. It seems my mum got suspicious of my dad's motives for taking us to this progressively more seedy area, and we had to be removed from the dodgy goings on around us.

I would return in the late 70s and early 80s for very late night coffee from Bar Italia, cakes from Maison Bertaux, and groceries from Fratteli Camissa… And the late great Nina Simone's erratic, but brilliant, performances at Ronny Scott's; would she or wouldn't she appear, swear at us all and tell us she was a serious musician and this was all beneath her…