Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Soho’s Swan Song

Soho! What was once a hunting cry, over the centuries became synonymous with the search for the entertaining, rougher, side of life, where one could let free their bohemian spirit- even if it was only for a weekend! A visit to London’s Soho used to be an adventure. Behind the bright neon lights of Piccadilly Circus was one square mile of hidden jungle, alienated from the law abiding, bland and boring world of respectable society. It’s small streets and dark alleyways filled with temptations of illicit sex and illegal gambling; where, if you were not careful, you could be fleeced of your weekly wage in the time it takes to give birth to a sucker!

Besides the punters who were on the hunt for erotic pleasures, Soho was also the Shangri-La of youngsters in search of a different kind of thrills such as music, dance and fashion. Starting in 1948 with the Club Eleven, Soho became the breeding ground for many music styles over the years. The 2i’s Coffee Bar, which opened in 1958, was probably the first rock club in Europe. The 60’s came and Mod culture made legends out of clubs such as The Flamingo and The Scene. Who has not heard of Carnaby Street, the centre of Mod fashion in the sixties? Soho’s Wardour Street was the home of the legendary Marquee Club, where many famous bands were baptised with their first performance, including the Rolling Stones in 1962. It was in Denmark Street, where groups such as the Rolling Stones, Kinks and Sex Pistoles cut their first records.

The streets of Soho are rich in the history and memories of those who created it. Karl Marx lived at 54 and 28 Dean Street; Mozart lived in Frith Street as a child, which is also where John Braid first demonstrated television! Casanova lived there during his stay in London. It’s main thoroughfare Shaftesbury Avenue is famous, world wide, for its theatres; as is Leicester Square for its film premiers. The Soho name has been imitated by other entertainment districts such as Soho, Hong Kong and Soho, New York. A little known fact is that the famous brand of cigarettes smoked by rugged cowboys is named after Great Marlborough Street, which was once the location of Philip Morris’ original London factory.

Most of the Mods that tramped through Soho’s warren of streets and alleys in the 60’s were either unaware, or didn’t care that local gangsters, who carried colourful names such as Charley Soho and Mick the Greek, controlled the illicit trade that went on in the one square mile. The Mod's world ran parallel to the racketeers, in fact the two never clashed. In the years that I frequented the West I had very little to do with the red lights; although I did drop some blues! The 60’s, I would dare to say, were Soho’s golden years, the clubs steamed with raw new music sounds, there seemed to be permanent movement on the streets, and fashion was showing its face to the mainstream, the United Kingdom was coming out of the shadow of World War II and opening itself to new ideas, and Soho was one of the guiding lights. In-between the strip clubs and the clip joints, gamblers and punters, Britain's youth culture was making its voice heard; a cry, which would go out and rock the world!

Sadly the past is soon forgotten, and  today the streets of Soho dance to another tune, to that of the builders and bulldozers. The flimsy, erotically clad woman on the street corner has been replaced by a skip. The legendary clubs are long gone. Slowly Soho’s bohemian heart is being ripped apart and being replaced by nerdy unexciting high-street brand names; the entertainment pulse of London is being Starbucked! Buildings that could have told us stories of a more adventurous past are being made in to expensive offices and apartments. The independent businesses, some who have been there for many decades, are being forced out by the high rents. It is an open fact that the Westminster council are out to turn Soho into a pedestrianised bright and shiny modern shopping area, with restaurants owned by top five star chefs. Soho is losing its spirit and colour; tragically it is being domesticated and tamed so its wild sharp edges won’t cut the tourists that visit it. Should someone wish to look for Lola, they’ll find she has packed her bags and is gone.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great post, Alex, and I find it a shame what is happening to London's Soho. In 1971, our middle school class went for a 2 weeks educational trip to London. Coming from a provincial town in Western Germany, and at the age of 14, Soho, and Carnaby Street in particular, and watching the "real people" in the streets for us was like entering a higher dimension. Almost 30 years later, I went to Soho again, and found it utterly boring already then, when in a few years it will have turned into yet another clinically clean, new millennium-style comply designed for profit. G