I originally wrote this for NOW. I was inspired by this lovely link, showing Soho though the decades.
So here is a trip through my Soho in the last few decades.
My next door neighbour had a distant dad. He worked in Carnaby Street. Once every couple of months she was summoned to visit him at his office. I went with her a few times.He would treat her and me to a sandwich from a shop in Fouberts Place. And then go back to work.
We must have been all of thirteen, and co-incidentally, we also took the 13 bus to town. Fouberts, the sandwich shop, is now a burger bar.
My sister was working at a film production company in what I now guess is West Soho. I took my school buddies on a trip to visit her.
We wandered up from Oxford Circus, through Berwick Street, along Brewer Street. We probably got lost. But I loved it. I loved the street market and was amazed to visit the same flower stall that my Mum and her Mum used to go to.
They however were horrified by the grubbiness and the lack of expected glamour.
Home of Raymond’s Revue Bar, but for us, it was the venue for the Comic Strip. Apart from sniggering that we were effectively in a titty bar, we never felt threatened or out of place.
Lower Regent Street
My first job was in Margaret Street, I don’t think I knew I was anywhere near Soho. And the idea of Noho didn’t exist.
Noho to Woho
I worked in Noho proper for a while, in Howland Street. Easy enough to walk to from home if there was a tube strike (there were lots). The account moved and we moved with it, this time to Piccadilly. Not quite Soho again, but creeping closer.
Far from Soho
I was secretary to the CDs at a small agency in Farringdon, an area that was really not cool at the time. There were bugger all restaurants and no shops to speak of other than Leather Lane. As a temp it was my task to cater for the in-house lunches. I took a bus to M&S and schlepped large carrier bags back. I got the permanent gig.
Wardour Street 1
There was a headhunter based in the very building I am working in now. He was very pally with an Art Director friend of mine. I asked him once if he could help me to get into a TV Dept. He said “all you little girls want to be PA’s”.
This time an agency buyout brought us back to the West End, North side. And got me into a TV Dept. So “Ha!”
The Creative teams and I used to spend a lot of time walking to and from Soho, to post houses and recording studios. We would stop and see my Mum who worked in Fitzroy Square, and yes, we charged for taxis when we could.
My sister moved from the vaguely sleazy film wold to work for Peter Boizot at Kettners, which at the time was the hub of the Pizza Express Empire. That dining room with its faded elegance, the piano, the delicious ceilings. And serving American Hots and Hamburgers with thousand island dressing . We went there for giggly girlie lunches and party dinners and of course lost evenings in the champagne bar. It stopped being a cheap and classy date a long time ago, but we still gathered at the bar. And now it is closed. Another gorgeous building in the hands of Soho House.
Nail Bomb at the Admiral Duncan
This brings back really visceral memories. We had been at Rushes BBQ at lunchtime, and then trotted back to Regents Park. No Twitter, no round the clock news, we must have got a phone call telling us about the bomb.
I know exactly where we were in the office and what we had been talking about regent– a tricky budget that needed to be inputted on a scary new system.
Such a shock.
Rushes Post Production phoned me at home on Saturday morning asking if we had any playouts due that day. They of course couldn’t get into the building and pre digital, had to find ways of ensuring they know what needed to go out and how to physically get the spots to the stations.
Having freelanced pretty much everywhere for years, I settled in Wellington Street. Covent Garden felt a bit far away, but again an opportunity for a good satisfying walk to sessions. Looking back, it offered much of what we love about Soho, but with more obvious tourists.
The Wilderness Years
We can draw a veil over time spent in South Kensington, and Canary Wharf. Focus on the more hip stints in Shoreditch and the elegant months in Mayfair.
The good news is as a producer I am never chained to my desk, so can escape to cooler climes. But the travelling, be it cab, tube, bus, or even DLR is dull and time consuming.
Back Home. Wardour Street 2.
And now I am at Now, happily, elatedly, back in the heart of Soho. And of course Soho is changed, some of it heartbreaking. Berwick Street would not scare any schoolgirls, unless they have a fear of street food and trainer shops.
Those who can’t walk more than 8 steps without a latte have nothing to be scared of. Food from around the world is now available everywhere, and Chinatown, for the time being, is still a place to go for things that smell funny but taste amazing.
Stopping at Aesop for a gloop of free hand cream is a fun and fragrant new Soho tradition.
Yes there is a stall selling mops to replace That’s Andy’s, and you can get mass-market greeting cards at Scribbler or personalised online, but without Zest where can you fill your prescription and buy a nodding dog on the same trip.
The essence of Soho, its maze of streets and alleys, remains pretty much untouched (I even found a passage I had never seen before the other day).
And some may call the classier boutiques and eateries progress. Sometimes I do.
Some of the sex empires were indeed tasteless and sleazy and exploitative, but the loss of Raymond’s Revuebar and Madame Jojo’s leaves it mark. Apartments built for billionaire businessmen who will never live in them is nothing but tragic, chains selling coffee three doors down from another one of the same franchise are frankly ridiculous.
More and more shops, businesses and independent companies are driven away by the rising rent, and with them the personality that draws me back again and again.
Lets hope that the inevitable doesn’t happen, that it will retain its spirit and individuality, and that it doesn’t get flattened and become Soho Cross. Although it would be quite convenient by the time I want to return on my mobility scooter.