Farewell Soho? Don’t panic, it’s not dead yet

SOHO’s a building site these days. The idle walker now has to navigate a tangle of roadworks that have turned the cut-through from Cambridge Circus to Oxford Street into an annoying obstacle course.

Apparently it’s down to Westminster Council’s decision to shut 14 streets to traffic to allow regimented outside boozing once the lockdown lid comes off.

The al fresco plan is supposed to be temporary but, in the nature of such schemes, might well end up being a fixture.

You have to have some sympathy with the owners and staff of the local restaurants and bars that have been shuttered for months and who want to pull in as many paying punters as possible once the all-clear sounds.

The trouble is that every such official initiative to “revitalise” Soho invariably ends up making it less vital.

Successive attempts to make it fit the tourist board image of London’s “energetic, cosmopolitan entertainment hub” have effectively knocked the stuffing out of a neighbourhood that attracted generations of chancers, ne’er-do-wells and misfits.

Even the bureaucrats recognise the risks. When London’s well-meaning Night Czar, Amy Lamé, met the locals a couple of years back they agreed they must work to prevent Soho “becoming bland”.

Some of the old-timers would argue that’s a lost cause. Already in 1989, when the play “Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell” hit the London stage, celebrating the life of the eponymous roué, alcoholic and Soho chronicler, one reviewer noted:

“It is a lament for a Soho that has now passed. All the bohemian characters have now been replaced by wannabes, striking poses rather than living lives.”

It seems a similar sentiment is expressed in Fiona Mozley’s Soho novel “Hot Stew” that came out this month, starring two of the neighbourhood’s declining cohort of sex workers. It’s on my list.

The Guardian reviewer said it’s not just about Soho, “it’s about how money strips the heart from cities, and how we must learn to cherish what little grime and seediness remains, before it’s lost to the plate glass and brushed steel of the developers.”

Even the tourism marketers pay prudish lip service to Soho’s seedy past, an area known, according to the Visit London official guide, for its “lively and, at times, risqué vibes”.

With an eye on the pink dollar, euro and pound, they neverthless positively revel in Soho being the focus of London’s “vibrant” gay and LGBT+ community.

(Why are gay people forced to endure this curse of vibrancy? Can’t they be allowed to have an off day? Can you imagine a municipal handout from the other side of London inviting you to “experience Bromley and its vibrant hetero community”?)

Hopefully, come D-Day on April 12, they and all the other Soho revellers will be back or else, in the words of a histrionic appeal by local business owners, Soho will be dead.

Calling for more bailout dosh from the government, they declared Soho to be “the beating heart of London – famous worldwide for its diversity, independent small restaurants and late night venues, music and theatre, and of course being London’s centre for the LGTBQ+ community.”

Yes, yes! OK. Get on with it!

“As Soho flatlines,” they concluded, “culture flatlines, creativity flatlines, individuality flatlines… If Soho dies, London dies.”

I doubt it. I’ve lived through many death-of-Soho moments since being introduced to the area by my parents at about the age of nought. Those were the days of the Soho Fair when you could still dine at the old mama and papa restaurants without taking out a bank loan.

Before the 1959 Street Offences Act pushed prostitutes indoors, a refined Catholic lady down from Scotland remarked on the groups of pretty girls idling on the street corners. When my dad quietly explained, she gasped: “Surely not on a Sunday!”

As teens, we used to hang out at Amalfi’s in Old Compton Street – sadly long gone – where you could get a plate of pasta for five shillings. Chuck in a glass of wine, and you’d still have the bus fare home. It was a time when the legendary Gaston Berlemont was still serving half pints – pints were banned – from behind the bar at the French House.

Soho means different things to different people. I used to jump on the number 53 almost every Saturday morning to spend hours browsing the shelves of the bookshops in Charing Cross Road before nipping through Manette Street and down to Brewer Street and the Lina Stores, where I could pick up exotic ingredients such as garlic and pancetta that you couldn’t find in South London in those days.

On Friday evenings, when I was around 16, I’d pop into the poetry readings upstairs at the Dog and Duck, treading in the footsteps of the likes of George Orwell.

As Jeffrey Bernard might have said: “What a little prick!”

Limehouse blues: From Fu Manchu to the Gang of Four

IT’S barely a century since Limehouse occupied the popular imagination as a snakepit of drugs, degeneracy and vice overseen by sinister and ruthless Chinese immigrants, a vanguard of the so-called Yellow Peril.

Western paranoia had been growing throughout the 19th century that the Chinese would one day wake from their slumber to challenge the white man for world supremacy. Sound familiar?

Limehouse, a one-time seafaring enclave on the Thames northern shore, wedged between Wapping and what is now Canary Wharf, had attracted Chinese settlers over the years.

The 1921 census revealed that by that year their number had risen to 337, no doubt an underestimate but nevertheless somewhat short of an invading horde.

That did not deter the Daily Express from concluding, beneath the headline “The Yellow Peril in London”, that there was “a vast syndicate of vice” at work in the East End.

The Yellow Peril myth had received a boost in the inter-war years thanks to the British writer Sax Rohmer, creator of the sinister oriental mastermind Dr Fu Manchu who runs a worldwide criminal empire from his Limehouse HQ.

He claimed his character was inspired by a visit to Limehouse for a magazine article. Rohmer went in the footsteps of the fictional Sherlock Holmes, who had gone there in search of opium. Dickens was another early adopter of the Limehouse myth.

The reality of London’s first Chinatown was more mundane than either Rohmer or the Daily Express suggested. The local Chinese were more likely to run a laundry than an opium den.

Hence George Formby’s 1932 lyric: “Mr Wu, what shall I do? I’m feeling kind of Limehouse Chinese laundry blues.” Not to be confused with the 1922 Limehouse Blues: “In Limehouse where yellow chinkies love to play/ In Limehouse where you can hear those blues all day.” The lyrics have since been sanitised.

Apart from the laundries, there were Chinese shops and lodging houses for the itinerant Chinese seamen who made up much of the street population. They would meet at the local coffee shops to exchange news from home.

Many of the old slums and alleys began to be demolished in the 1930s at the same time as a slump in maritime trade. The blitz did the rest. By the end of World War II, the Chinese community had faded away, many to the emerging Chinatown south of Soho.

If the Limehouse of legend ever existed, it’s certainly gone now, although the Chinese heritage is recalled in names such as Canton Street, Pekin Street and Amoy Place.

The shipping has weighed anchor, the Sailors’ Mission has been turned into flats, and the old slums have made way for swish apartment buildings. Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay runs a restaurant in Narrow Street, while thespian Ian McKellen and Evgeny “Baron” Lebedev run the local pub, The Grapes.

The estate agents’ blurbs don’t even mention the Chinese connection. “Limehouse is known for its picturesque views of the Thames and a walk around the Limehouse Basin is one of the most distinguished in the capital,” runs a typical example. A lot of homes are expensive “but there are some more affordable ex-council properties”. That’s alright then.

I agree about the Basin though. The former Regent’s Canal Dock is now a yacht haven surrounded by luxury flats. But it still has a whiff of the old docks and the open sea. It’s at the mouth of a canal that stretches all the way to Paddington via Bow and Islington. Try walking the towpath sometime.

Limehouse was still a bit of a slum when bold gentrifying pioneers such as the Labour politician David Owen moved in to tart up the abandoned riverside buildings (today’s pic from the foreshore). It was at his home that the so-called Gang of Four Labour rebels sealed their breakaway from the party with the 1981 Limehouse declaration.

Who knows what Clement Attlee, the former prime minister and Limehouse MP, would have made of it. Attlee was born in the same year as Sax Rohmer and outlived him by a few years.

Rohmer wasn’t all bad – he was blacklisted by the Nazis – but his Limehouse fantasies reflected the casual racism of the day. The author lived to see his character serialised on TV in The Adventures of Dr Fu Manchu.

He died in 1959, a victim of the Asian ‘flu.