Venetia Welby is the author of Mother of Darkness, published by Quartet Books, February 2017. This is the twenty-first article in our regular series of “My London”.
The streets of Soho teem with the ghosts of its past. Here Dylan Thomas staggers out of the French House leaving his manuscript of Under Milk Wood under a chair; here Francis Bacon gazes adoringly at Muriel Belcher, the Colony Room’s impressively rude hostess, and Jeffrey Barnard props up the outer wall of Norman’s Coach and Horses, fag in hand. Karl Marx is forever holed up in Dean Street writing Das Kapital; the naked cry of the baby William Blake floats across Broadwick, and by the brothels of Brewer, David Bowie and Lucian Freud vie to dance with Sylvia Plath. Only knock on the right door and every shade you could ever wish to meet is there in some scabrous drinking dive, having the party of their deaths.
When I first saw Soho twenty years ago I was instantly enchanted. It was naughty, gritty, alive. It seemed there was nowhere more vibrant: this alternative square mile seethed with creative energy, liberty and diversity. It was a haven for misfits; a place where anything might happen and frequently did. But even then, the louche old Soho of yore, cradle of counter culture and rebellion, was attempting to resist the irresistible march of gentrification, the constant push for profit and the destructive construction of developers. Much of the old guard was still buggering on though, looking back with longing to the halcyon days, when Soho thronged with libertine artists, poets and musicians – and the odd gangster.
In 1997 I caught the ebb tide of Eighties debauchery that had brought waves of media and celebrity to new establishments such as Blacks, the Groucho Club and the Union – two years earlier Damien Hirst had won the Turner Prize and thrown his winnings, £20,000, behind the bar of the Groucho. Bacchanalia ensued. The gay and lesbian scene had flocked to Old Compton Street and beyond, transforming it through investment of the ‘pink pound’. Soho was a place of independent traders, of markets, community and deep, deep loyalty. It was the home and champion of eccentricity, bohemia and worldliness, the enemy of the earnest. To me it embodied the spirit of individuality and freedom. And fun.
I was always drawn to Meard Street, the mysterious little lane between Dean and Wardour flanked by venerable nightspots Gossip’s and The Gargoyle at one end and iconic rock pub The Intrepid Fox at the other. It struck me that this would be the perfect setting for a novel of nocturnal persuasions, where a character of sybaritic bent might gravitate to live out a life defunct, flitting from pleasure to pleasure. Sebastian Horsley, ‘Dandy in the Underworld’, artist of skulls and crucifixion and prolific drug addict lived at no. 7. His door reads, ‘This is not a brothel. There are no prostitutes at this address’, initially a sign to alert customers that he was actually running a brothel, and later to put off punters who mistakenly thought it still was, tricked by ‘clippers’ who took their money, promised them a good time and then directed them to Horsley’s door before scarpering. Before those days, Gossip’s had been Billy’s, a club of New Romantic notoriety, the Golden Girl Club had seduced passers-by and Beatnik culture had bloomed along the coffin-shaped tables of Le Macabre. Everywhere I saw raw, dark corners where stories might play out.
But Meard Street looks rather different now. The Mexican chain Wahaca takes up much of it. Burger and Lobster, another chain, is the view at the Dean Street end and at the other, the Intrepid Fox has mutated into a Byron Burger – yes, another chain. The Dean Street corner that housed Gossip’s was sold for redevelopment in 2007, where now stands the genteel and rather staid Dean Street Townhouse, concealing decades of club culture. And opposite, at 41 Dean Street the seedy glamour of the Colony Room is no more. Below its smoke spits the embers of one of many trendy, expensive hipster joints that can afford to pay the ever-soaring Soho rents. Someone once saw fit to draw a chalk door on a Meard Street wall; the protagonist of my novel, Matty, occasionally tries to open it, hoping it might lead to a secret drinking den… but they’re all gone.
Matty spends a lot of time looking out of his window at the life below – it was important that he could see some. So I moved him up and down Meard Street dodging each gentrified molehill as it erupted, eventually settling on the Wardour end. Of course Wardour Street had long lost the legendary Marquee Club, devolved via Floridita into a bland, overpriced brasserie owned by a company that has thirty-five other restaurants in London. And no. 33 that had housed the Flamingo, the Whisky-A-Go-Go and the Wag Club had become another drab O’ Neill’s Irish theme pub. From this angle, however, Matty could see across to Peter Street where a bookshop of secrets and some Girls still remained, and beyond to Walker’s Court where the last vestiges of old Soho lived on. But the Girls were shut down and Walker’s Court is all boarded up now, and its jewel, Madame Jojo’s, is gone in all but name. Raymond’s Revuebar, once declared in neon to be the ‘World Center of Erotic Entertainment’ is now a branch of the Manhattan club The Box, a safe bet to bring in vast quantities of money, the only thing its owners, Soho Estates, seem to really value. This company, comprised of sex baron Paul Raymond’s granddaughters and son in law, have obtained permission to ‘develop’ the bridge and listed buildings of Walker’s Court, historic bastion of irreverence and mischief, into a glass monstrosity; they will make it as clinical and lucrative as its environs are fast becoming.
Go to Soho now and you will see cranes crowding the skyline erecting luxury flats, as independent shops, cafes and bars fight for their lives. Round the corner Denmark Street, long time home of the music industry and the 12 Bar Club has fallen to the developers and the Soho venues where musicians can perform are being ever depleted, making way for the curse of identikit coffee chains and uniform restaurant brands.
This imperative to multiply means individual institutions are effectively worthless. As a bar or restaurant you must have several identical versions of yourself – in itself inimical to creativity and quirkiness – simply to survive. A case in point is Patisserie Valerie in Old Compton Street. It spent much of the twentieth century as a lone establishment humming with ideas of cultural and intellectual liberty, stuffed with artists and poets. But in 1987 it was purchased by the Brothers Scalzo and has ever since been forced to replicate like a virus to earn its keep.
The Endurance, a pub I loved dearly and used as one of my many writing ‘offices’ in the area, is one of so many to fall to this chain mentality, the polar opposite of that individual Soho spirit. It has become yet another of Alan Yau’s empire of ersatz oriental diners. The Endurance, formerly The King of Corsica, stood in the middle of Berwick Street Market, colourful as a peacock and one of London’s oldest markets; it is currently protesting to the cold, deaf ears of Westminster City Council about their sudden decision to privatise it. Arthouse cinema, the Curzon Soho is in the crossfire of Crossrail 2 and waging a similar David and Goliath battle.
The story is the same wherever you look. And it’s not just in Soho but throughout London, not just London but throughout the UK, Europe and far beyond that the unspeakable death march of demolition and development corrects what does not fit its profit model. Unchecked, it will make of the world one great skyscraping bank of steel and glass where all dirt is sanitised, all edge is filed smooth and all soul is suffocated. Ask anyone who works in a lab… if you want to prevent a culture from developing, you sterilise the environment. The same fate is befalling Soho – and the loss of that culture, whose spores have spread for decades around the country and the world, may cost us dearly.
In my novel, Mother of Darkness, Matty inhabits Soho in crisis, watching the destruction of its identity as his own splinters. He yearns for the good old days, days he is too young to remember. But the myth of Soho lives on and always will, despite those who move into its luxury apartments lodging complaints about its noise and its spirit. We have lost so much already; we must protect the vulnerable that remain and make Soho a heritage area. Save Soho, started by Stephen Fry and Tim Arnold, campaigns for this very thing, urging the preservation of its historic buildings and culture, and pressing the authorities to dam the flood of developmental damage and greed. We must stop thinking money is more important than people. Or that money alone can sustain the character of a place when the people that did so have all gone.
Venetia Welby is a writer and journalist who has lived and worked on four continents. When not seeking out new countries and ideas, she is actively involved in the literary scenes London and Oxford. She lives in Bow, east London with her husband, son and Bengal cat.