Raise a Glass to Soho’s Beautiful Past

A handful of celebrities and area elders are joining ‘Save Soho‘ to lobby against the demolition of the Curzon Cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue. This is part of a long, losing battle to save the area from becoming a facile, commercial place in the image of Carnaby Street or Canary Wharf.

It seems as though they’ve been dropping like flies lately; the old clubs and Soho institutions. The Astoria, Madame Jojo’s, 12 Bar are all casualties of the past few years. There have been more raids on the rooms of the working girls, more bland cafes and restaurants popping up. Perhaps it’s only sentimental, or even luddite, to want to hold onto these places because, in truth, it seems as though old Soho died a while ago. Then again, perhaps we shouldn’t defer to corporate interests quite so readily.

It’s worth taking a look at Soho, at what’s being lost. It’s a unique area with a long history of being the capital’s beautiful gutter, London’s ID. Soho’s been home to weirdos and outsiders almost since it was built. The aristocratic families that originally moved into the area around Soho Square quickly bolted once the area started flooding with French Huguenots fleeing religious persecution. Soho then got the reputation of being London’s French Quarter, a fact attested to by the continued existence of Dean Street’s The French House (formerly the York Minster), where Welsh poet Dylan Thomas once left the manuscript of Under Milk Woodunder a barstool.

Soho has always belonged to artists, immigrants, sex workers and poor people. Karl Marx lived on Dean Street. One of the greatest love affairs of all time, Rimbaud’s and Verlaine’s, was partly prosecuted in Soho in the 1870’s, at a time when the place was awash with revolutionaries.

The 20th century saw Soho develop as a seedy entertainment district, full of brothels and bars. The red lights, the all-night secret drinking dens, the sense of mystery that Soho gave off, attracted many great artists and writers. The Spectator columnist and professional drinker Jeffrey Bernard recalled visiting Soho first at the age of 14, “and at that point he was never to look upward”. Bernard reigned for several decades as Soho’s resident raconteur, stationed in the famous Coach and Horses; and is alleged to have vomited on the Queen Mother’s shoes.

Another luminary of the local bars was Francis Bacon, who was attracted by “the gilded gutter” of a life spent drinking in the area. Bacon was fascinated by Soho because it allowed the likes of him, a very famous painter, to consort with everyone from members of the royal family and artists to pickpockets and prostitutes. It was a place of secrets. It was in Soho, in the famous Colony Rooms, that an imperious Bacon once ruined a young man’s painting. The enthusiastic young painter had thought to gift the establishment one of his works. It was still wet. Bacon shook a bottle of champagne, took aim at the painting and uncorked the bottle.

Bernard and Bacon are gone, but there are still places where you can feel Soho’s heady atmosphere. There are still secret, underground member’s clubs and a thriving population of people who work jobs outside of the law, alongside the area’s more well-heeled inhabitants.

The area is transforming rapidly. There are now, as far as I know, 12 high-end burger restaurants in Soho. There’s a particular stretch of Charing Cross Road was recently home to Foyles, Central Saint Martin’s, Borders, The Astoria, and around the corner, 12 Bar. It is now home to Foyles, TK Maxx, Chipotle, luxury apartments, an expanded Tottenham Court Road station, and soon, a place called “the Outernet”. The Curzon seems likely to give way to a Crossrail 2 station, despite the great efforts of Stephen Fry and Benedict Cumberbatch to stop this particular development in its tracks.

It wouldn’t be crazy to think that the people don’t have much interest in the cultural heritage of the area; and it shouldn’t be crazy to suggest that maybe there could be a middle ground between closing cultural institutions and replacing them with the same bland chains that can be found in any other city.

So they want to knock the Curzon for Crossrail to have more room. Crossrail’s stated aims are that “the new railway will reduce journey times, ease congestion and improve connections”, which sounds exciting… The space at St. Giles where 12 Bar is being knocked, is going to be home to “The Outernet”, which has a marketing video laying out its purpose. It proclaims “a new dawn for meaningful brand engagement”, it promises “branded real-time experiences that add value to people’s lives”. Worst of all, it swears to provide us with “up-to-date streams of content” and says they will offer “memories to share”!

These are people who would replace the National Gallery with a Pret and call it “regeneration”. These are people who would rip the beating heart out of a city and somehow replace it with a direct debit. These are people who think that “up-to-date streams of content” and “branded real-time engagements” offer memories for people to share. I suggest you regard them with extreme wariness, and raise a glass to Soho’s beautifully dirty history.

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