Soho So Good

Posted by in December's Magazine

There’s nowhere quite like London’s Soho. But its disreputable status is under threat discovers Kennedy Wilson

Soho, the square mile of central London that was once a byword for bohemian overindulgence. Sandwiched between Theatreland, Chinatown and Trafalgar Square this labyrinth of tightly packed streets and alleys was laid out in the late 17th century when landowners and developers built a mix of grand homes and workshops. Many Soho streets (Beak, Rupert, Compton) were named after the entrepreneurs who laid them out.



In the 1960s writer PD James called Soho the most sordid nursery of crime in Europe. But it has also long been a creative centre. At its far eastern corner is Denmark Street the UK’s own ‘tin pan alley’. At its centre Wardour Street where all the main film companies once had their offices and screening rooms. It is in Soho that the British Board of Film Classification has long been based. 

In Frith Street in 1926 a certain John Logie Baird demonstrated his first television. Ever since the area has been popular with media people. The exclusive hotel and club chain Soho House started as a media people’s club in Greek Street in 1995.

The area has always reinventing itself but now things are changing and the essential character of Soho is in danger of being lost. In recent years its countercultural spirit has been harder to detect thanks to the dead hand of gentrification. 

Clancy Gebler Davies, The Colony Room Club 1999-2000

First came retro shops, juice bars, galleries, trendy eateries and hipster barbers, where creatives can get their beards buttered. The coming of chain stores and corporate offices meant skyrocketing rents and that has really threatened the devil-may-care Soho vibe of old. Once there was cheap office space – Private Eye and Spare Rib magazines started in Soho – but that’s a thing of the past. Current plans to demolish two blocks and build a new Crossrail train station could well change the area forever – and for the worse.

Stephen Fry is leading a Save Soho campaign. It was he who called Soho the most creative neighbourhood in the world. Once in tolerant, cosmopolitan Soho, anything could happen.  

The Photographers’ Gallery, a resident of Soho for nearly five decades, has reflected the neighbourhood’s ‘notorious history, creative legacy and openness to difference’, writes the gallery’s director Brett Rogers in a new book Shot in Soho: Photographing Love and Lawlessness in the Heart of London: Karen McQuaid and Julian Rodriguez (Prestel £24.99). The book coincides with an exhibition of the same name at the Photographers’ Gallery, which runs until 9 February 2020. More than this the gallery has consistently commissioned photography projects and artwork in and around the area.

The book includes work by assorted art photographers including Corrine Day a fashion model turned photographer who discovered Kate Moss and whose work appeared in The Face and Vogue. William Klein, who made an overnight name for himself in 1956 after a remarkable body of work taken in the streets of New York is also featured – The Sunday Times Magazine published a notable set of colour images in 1980 of Klein’s sojourn in Soho.

The 1950s was the heyday of modern Soho. Postcards in alleyways advertised ‘French lessons’ or ‘model’. The place has long exuded a wonderful seediness attracting runaways, drifters, potheads, rent boys, drag queens, sugar daddies, actors, sleazoids, media whores, hacks, cheapskates, aristos, refugees, chancers, criminals, punks, bent coppers… disestablishmentarians of every hue. 

Attracting runaways, potheads, rent boys, drag queens, sugar daddies, actors, sleazoids, media whores, hacks, cheapskates, aristos and bent coppers

They came in search of strip clubs and late night pubs, gambling dens and basement jazz bars. Ronnie Scott’s attracted big jazz names and the Marquee Club, which opened in 1958, hosted every rocker from the Stones to the Who.

One of the most storied venues was the Colony Room Club on Dean Street (where Karl Marx once rented rooms), which had such regulars as Dylan Thomas and Francis Bacon. Matters were presided over by aptly named landlady Muriel Belcher who greeted regulars with a joyful “hello, cunty.” Bacon’s famous toast on ordering a magnum after selling a painting was “champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends”.

Soho was also home to London’s nascent gay community, Glasgow born boutique owner John Stephen – the man who invented Carnaby Street – started off hawking nylon posing pouches. Thirty years later Old Compton Street was an out and proud gay heaven.

By the 1970s Soho was best known for its porn shops and strip joints. Some of the neighbourhood’s seedy debauchery remains and looks a wee bit quaint. 

In the 1980s Soho gave birth to alternative comedy while YBAs like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin were hanging out at the Colony. Another magnet over the years was the 2i’s Coffee Bar, a haunt for both layabout wannabe beatniks and the famous (as varied as Tommy Steele and Jimi Hendrix). Before the Costas and Starbucks moved in Soho was famous for its cheap eateries. The Stockpot once attracted theatre workers after their day was done. And Crank’s was one of Britain’s first wholefood vegetarian restaurants.

Where next for Soho? According to Julian Rodriguez, co-author of Shot in Soho the area ‘is bracing itself for the footfall explosion that will result from Crossrail’s new stations’. You get the feeling that somehow Soho will survive.

Twitter: @KenWilson84

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