Vene­tia Welby

My Lon­don

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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 spit 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.

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