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 All the bohemian characters have now been replaced by wannabes, striking poses rather than living lives.”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!”