Farewell to Soho?

Soho’s under siege. Again. This time it’s for real. Madame JoJo’s faces evisceration, obliteration. Soho’s underbelly forever rumbles. A tradition of violence, inscribed in myths as blinding as a London fog: the Sabinis (think Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock with a twist of Peaky Blinders), Billy Hill, Jack Spot and “Mad” Frankie Fraser. Not so hidden-histories. Shared pasts. For Madame Jojo’s thugs-for-hire ended an “incident” with a pain-in-the-arse customer. With baseball bats.

Madame Jojo’s licence has been revoked and Soho Estates, the landlord, has repossessed the property. Demolition and redevelopment are promised. Dreaded gentrification. Commodification. Sanitization.

Celebrated as a symbol of the ‘swinging sixties’ this night club has hosted ‘everyone’, in the words of a letter from the newly formed Save Soho society to London mayor Boris Johnson, “from Adam Ant to Adele”. Madame Jojo’s is part of the local fabric. Living history.

Save Soho, a new campaign chaired by Stephen Fry, is supported by a Who’s Who of Britain’s artistic elite from Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul O’Grady and Eddie Izzard to June Brown, Roger Daltrey and Gary Kemp. These signatories posed two questions to Boris Johnson:

1. Will you support our newly formed coalition of performers, residents and politicians ‘Save Soho’, whose aim is to liaise with developers to achieve a compromise and halt the destruction of iconic venues?

2. Would you be happy to support a request to Soho Estates from myself and the performing arts community to reopen the venue under new management as soon as possible?  The council already support us on this matter.

Bojo has come to the rescue of Madame Jojo. Replying to Save Soho on 19th December:

I believe that culture is in the DNA of this great city. People from all over the world come to Soho to enjoy its unique character and history – its performing arts and live music, its gay and transgender scene and nightclubs. As a place where people from all walks of life come together, Madame Jojo’s has been at the heart of this distinctive London “village”.

I will be talking to the Leader of Westminster Council in the New Year urging her to protect the distinctive character of the area.

To respond directly to your question about Soho Estates, I know they are in dialogue with a number of community groups and that they would be open to engaging with you to explore all the options for the future of Madame Jojo’s.

Soho Estates, the porn-hub of Paul Raymond. Back in 1992 this fortune led to Raymond topping the Sunday Times Rich List, knocking the Duke of Westminster off his spot. In 2013 the current owners of Soho Estates, Raymond’s two grand-daughters, were valued at£329 million, more than the personal wealth of the Queen. Their gong awaits.

Soho Estates, malign widwife to the Soho village.  A statement opens their homepage: “Building the Future, Respecting the Past”, a plea, a commitment to the reincarnation of Madame Jojo’s and her environs “so that Walker’s Court continues to be at the heart of London’s creative industry.” Soho reborn.

Perhaps Tom Harvey, CEO of SohoCreate is right: “Rumours of the Death of London’s Soho have been Exaggerated.” They always have been, and will remain thus. Soho’s not the same anymore. Refrain immemorial.

Booze, birds and bohemian behaviour. Defenders of “old Soho” have for long traded upon her cosmopolitan, exotic and raffish reputation. Captured by the bloodshot memoirs of Dan Farson and immortalized in the persona of Jeffrey Bernard, these boozy journalists hark back to a Soho of the Colony Room and the patronage of artistic giants such as Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud. An oasis of colour in the monochrome grey of postwar austerity Britain.

The Colony Room closed its doors back in 2008. Cue funeral music: “It’s the last bit of old Soho”, so said Michael Beckett of the late-Colony’s governing committee. I side with Will Self’s obituary of the club: the iconic hardcore members drank themselves to death while changes in the licensing laws killed off the lure of the afternoon drinking club.

We need to glimpse further back into history to fully understand what’s going on in Soho today. Perhaps Soho’s character never recovered as the resident population fell from 24,000 to 7,240 people between 1900 and 1939.

And the ghosts of “old Soho” are familiar. Back in 1925 William George Morris wrote of Old Compton Street, the symbolic heart of gay London today, in The Purlieus of Soho:

might well have been lifted from some French town and dropped here. Many of its shops are devoted to the sale of comestibles dear to the Latin races. Windows display strange viands and wines, the names on the shop facades are not English, the majority of passers-by have foreign features, there is a medley of languages, and the children in the street are obviously of foreign parentage.

Yet we all see with different eyes.Three years earlier, travel writer Thomas Burke lamented:

Today Wardour Street, once a street of amusing little cafes and curio-shops, is an avenue of film offices … As for the cafes that still remain, they are if possible, even more commercial in spirit than the film-offices. Once upon a time  Greek Street, Frith Street, Dean Street and Old Compton Street were happy to serve the hard-up journalist, the small-time actor and the chorus girl … now nobody wants you … The whole thing has become regulated; a function, and tables are now booked. Tables booked – in Soho!

The romance of Soho. Deep roots. Alan Jenkins reflected on late-thirties London:

Soho in 1937 had all-night cafe-bars full of mandolins and Italian voices, and pubs where one could see poets and unreal characters with names like Count Potocki de Montalk, Ironfoot Jack and Overcoat Joe, waiting for some English Damon Runyon to write about them.

Back then, as the storm-clouds of war gathered, property speculators purchased parcels of Soho in anticipation of mass redevelopment around Piccadilly Circus. The stage was set for the unholy alliance between pimps, policemen, pornographers and property owners which blighted much of Soho’s postwar history.

“Must Soho Die?” asked the newly-formed Soho Society in 1973. This group of residents, locals employers and cultural entrepreneurs worked with Westminster City Council to limit the sex trade and preserve the community. The Soho village. By the 1970s, only 3,000 folk were living there.

Approximately 4,000 people live in Soho today.While the walk-up flats, sex shops, and odd clip-joint still exist,boosted by the recent growth in premises offering Thai “massage”, Soho’s still here. Never the same. One irony of the clean-up of Soho, has been the attraction of the pink pound and creative types, further fuelling preposterous property prices. “Traditional” industries were gone by the 1990s.

The ghosts of old Soho remain, though they’re more likely to be summoned in the French House than the helplessly self-parodied Coach & Horses. Support Save Soho. But do more than that. Visit the place. But you’d be wise to remember the worlds of Ian Board, owner of the Colony before he bought-it from the booze, responding to claims that Soho’s not the same anymore: “It never was what it fucking used to be!”

Want to know more?

Thomas Burke, The London Spy: A Book of Town Travels (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1922)

Dan Farson, Soho in the Fifties (London: Michael Joseph, 1987)

Alan Jenkins, The Thirties (London: Stein & Day, 1976)

William G. Morris, The Purlieus of Soho (London: Homeland Association, 1925)

James Morton, Gangland Soho (London: Piaktus Books, 2008)

Judith R. Walkowitz, Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012)











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