Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Deconstructing Soho - London South of Holburn

Jane Birkin, Soho, London, Serge Gainsbourg

Two weekends ago I visited London's West End to watch Quentin Tarantino's mighty Django Unchained movie. Afterwards I was yet again amazed by the sheer amount of people in the Soho area as late as a quarter to midnight on Saturday night in light of the number of closed pubs and restaurants in the vicinity due to the ludicrous British licensing laws and the continually broken London Underground connections.

Alike Covent Garden - though fundamentally unlike historic literary Fitzrovia to the north - the atmosphere of this wonderful area seems to be undermined year upon year by the increasing level of tourists and suburban (in both senses of the word) human traffic through it in modern times.

The following day in North West London in turn I witnessed similarly extraordinary examples of crowds in a renowned early 19th Century public house in one particular world famous suburb once associated in days of yore with bohemian and political intellectual appeal yet now linked with futuristic property prices.

Some postings ago I mentioned Soho in light of a BBC documentary about the British folk scene in the Sixties and footage used therein of the German-Jewish refugee Judith Piepe walking through a wonderful twilight Soho on her way to the Les Cousins basement club in Greek Street. There were also clips of her at Bunjies Coffee House in Litchfield Street off Charing Cross Road.

Only yesterday in turn on youtube I watched a great atmospheric clip of cine-footage from the Soho of the Eighties placed against a soundtrack of Soft Cell's driving A Man Could Get Lost. Some public commentary underneath noted:

Brings back such memories of a once great city - a London that has now vanished completely...

Brilliant upload. Super 8 ey? tidy, well tidy. Fucking magnificent in fact, and Soho when I was in my late teens and early twenties, pervy as fuck, smell of fish everywhere. Glasshouse Stores pub on Brewer Street with a pint of Sam Smith Old Brewery Nut Brown from a proper pint bottle. Tidy times...

Yes, I know, there are about 7 Starbucks. Loved the Italian sandwich bars where you could sip a cappuccino, have a tuna melt and watch the people for hours....I see no reason to ever return to London now...

Soho was originally grazing farmland until the early 16th Century when it was acquired by Henry VIII as a royal park - many believe that the name derived from a hunting cry for smaller prey. By the later part of that century immigrants began to settle in the district and it became known as London's French Quarter. It never became an area for the rich and fashionable alike nearby Bloomsbury to the east or Marylebone to the west and indeed by the middle-half of the 19th Century it was associated mainly with prostitutes and the music hall. It was in the early part of the last century and right through to the Sixties that it became firmly synonymous with bohemians, artists and intellectuals.

Soho - as an area generally considered bordered by Oxford Street, Leicester Square, Charing Cross Road and Regent Street - has mainly been associated in modern times with the music and sex industries alongside significant importance for the theatre world and cinema. With regard to music the Club Eleven on Great Windmill Street was regarded as the home of modern jazz in the Fifties while London's first skiffle club was also opened on Wardour Street in the early part of the same decade. The legendary 2i's Coffee Bar on Old Compton Street arrived in 1956 and Ronnie Scott's in 1959. The Marquee Club in Wardour Street - future home of The Who's Maximum RnB - also opened in the same period while Denmark Street off Charing Cross Road is still an important part of the capital's music culture.

The area has of course been associated with adult-orientated financial transactions for over two centuries with the Windmill Theatre providing motionless nudity between 1931 and 1964 and over one hundred strip clubs in business there by the Sixties.  London's first sex cinema opened in 1960 in Old Compton Street while the infamous Harrison Marks ran a studio for glamour photography from Gerrard Street in Chinatown until the late Sixties.

Nearly sixty sex shops were in existence by the mid-Seventies though a radical decline had taken place by the Eighties due to police and council crackdowns. By the time of my own arrival in the capital in 1987 there was - in stark contrast to the present day - a significant amount of peep shows, Lola-style clip joints, general soliciting, strip clubs, blue movies, bed shows and shrink-wrapped bootleg porn magazines on offer. These days the sex shops are indeed a listless and empty reflection of past times off the back of the digital revolution and ironically - given the public school makeup of our current whiskerless and dodgy political leadership - even a well known spanking bookshop on Old Compton Street has ceased trading.

Perhaps the tragic 1979 suicide of beautiful British porn queen Mary Millington before her scheduled appearance in Emmanuelle in Soho (as originally conceived as a gangster thriller Funeral in Soho) was indeed a portentous and fateful omen regarding the slow and steady decline ahead for London's once-heaving red light district. Marianne Faithful starred as a middle-aged housewife turned Soho glory hole service provider in the much-panned Irina Palm six years ago while the area still remains a major entertainment centre for the London gay community.

Much has changed in Soho during my time here in London - and indeed as discussed in the early part of last year in a particularly interesting British newspaper article. Hence Jimmy's basement Greek restaurant has shut alongside the political bookshop on Charing Cross Road, The Astoria music venue, The Intrepid Fox pub, St Martin's art college, the condom shop in Rupert Street, Sportspages bookshop on Charing Cross Road, The Marquee itself, the left-handed shop, the Moulin Cinema in Great Windmill Street, Wheelers fish restaurant, the Helter Skelter rock bookshop on Denmark Street, Bunjies Coffee House, the foreign language bookshop on Great Marlborough Street, several second hand record shops, the sausage butcher on Berwick Street and even the Raymond Revuebar as the World Centre of Erotic Entertainment in 2004.

As for the past calendar year itself - and aside from the aforementioned demographic swamping of the district at weekends - the pedestrianisation to be seen at the end of Brewer Street, the ongoing Biblical works at Tottenham Court Road tube station, the horrific second world-condition of the eastern half of Oxford Street and the depletion of so much character from the once bookshop-lined Charing Cross Road all suggest that the character of the area may indeed be undergoing a period of radical and historic change for the worst.

The intersecting background of modern London's house price hyperinflation - to a degree that has left property in its ten most expensive boroughs surpassing the worth of housing stock in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined - and utterly extraordinary population surges are surely shortening the odds that physical changes in the fundamental fabric of Soho's streetscapes can be anything but a foregone transition to safe commercial Carnaby Street-style banality and expensive self-congratulatory travel guide fodder.

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