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THE VILLAGE OF SOHO


(From the archives: June 2019) I was lent a book last week. 'Soho in the Eighties' is a memoir by Christopher Howse, an assistant editor and writer for the Daily Telegraph. Beautifully and plainly written, the Soho which the author re-inhabits here is an intense, if insular description of a place which I knew reasonably well from the late 1960s to the late 1980s.

The much-mythologised London village of Soho consists of multiple worlds, all interlocking and overlapping, rather like a Turkish puzzle ring. Here the worlds of film, theatre, pop music, clubs, pubs, drugs, the sex industry, restaurants, business, religion and more co-exist, if not always happily together, then at least, without coming into conflict with each other too often.


Christopher Howse’s Soho revolves principally around The Coach & Horses, The French House and the Colony Club. Here we meet the writer Jeffrey Bernard and his two brothers, the artist Francis Bacon, the former TV presenter Daniel Farson and a number of other late luminaries. The common denominator here is that they're all locked together in the slow-motion suicide pact which some call alcoholism. Considering the collective wit and erudition of this once-brilliant constellation of burning stars, the ensuing scenes don’t often come across as that startling. These people, great as some may have been in the bloom of youth, hardly differ in middle-age from any other bunch of drunks found in far less-celebrated boozers.


Witty and wise at the outset of a drinking session, they become bitchy, morose, self-pitying and sometimes downright nasty after an hour or three. Frequently lonely or in fractious relationships, upon closer inspection, you sometimes find that they live in a mess too. Often more prey to the blows of random misfortune than the average person, finally their bodies surrender to the onslaught and they die. Never doubt, however, that in the “You had to be there!” world of drinking, legendary laughs will have been had by the assembled company.


The company frequently fell out with each other, too, often employing the cruellest and foulest language to attack each other, all selected from what must have been a considerable armoury at their disposal. Suddenly, about halfway through the book , you realise you're reading a boots-on-the-ground despatch from the frontline of the War on Sobriety.

It's a war, like most, which everyone loses: combatants, their families, observers, and many civilians within its range. If you read Kessel and Walton’s 1965 study, Alcoholism along with Howse’s Soho in the Eighties, then, really you've got the whole grainy story. While all these ripping tales of non derring-do were happening round at The Coach, The Colony and The French House, what else was going on in old Soho?


Well, tons, is the short answer. I was there for some of it. Even in my own little world of recording music in a Denmark Street cellar, all manner of things happened to me during my time there. Having finished recording late one night, for instance, I went to sleep in a doss-bag under the mixing desk. Early the next morning I was awoken by someone buzzing at the door. Pelting upstairs in t-shirt and pants, I was confronted by a man from the Dorchester Hotel. “John Hurt's shoes,” he said. “I expect he does,” I replied. John Hurt had, apparently, been back for a late gargle that night with Captain Sensible after they'd performed in Mike Batt’s show at the Albert Hall. I never woke up because I was a-kip in a sound-proofed room. The actor had left his shoes behind. I searched the office.

They were in a paper bag on the desk. I gave them to the man from the Dorchester then dressed and wandered across Soho Square to have breakfast at the Star Café. An averagely downbeat sort of day. That’ll be five pounds, please.


I have a million stories about what I saw in Soho, many of them unprintable Did I ever tell you about the Denmark Place fire which killed 37 people in August of 1980? No? Well neither did the national newspapers. Until many years later. Or how about the night when the Times journalist, Giles Smith and I, eating in a Vietnamese restaurant in Carlisle Street, were suddenly locked in by the patron, for our own safety, while some rugged individualist with a blade fought it out with passers-by outside.


I tell you, there's always something zany going on in Soho: good, bad, funny, heart-warming and genuinely brilliant at times. But you're not going to see much of it if you never leave your bar stool, are you? Christopher Howse is a great writer. There is practically no one to touch him for instance on the subject of Christian Faith. I bet he'd be fascinating on the story of the French Masonic Church in Soho Square. I would dearly like to see another book by him about Soho. Soho, after all, is a centuries-old London village, which is worth a lot more than the sum of its self-celebrating bohemian drunks.

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