I’ve loved Soho since I was at school. If the City was London’s original square mile, Soho was its un-square mile, irresistible to those looking for freedom of expression and a raffish sense of adventure. In Soho, they could be whoever they wanted to be. And that was often, quite simply, themselves.
Its magnetic pull has brought in generations of beatniks, bohos, poets and the kind of painters who weren’t also decorators.
I decided very early on that I didn’t care what I did for a living, as long as I could do it in Soho. For me, it was the beating heart of the greatest city in the world. And just three days after failing my last exam, I was working as a runner for an ad agency just off Piccadilly, delivering pieces of artwork, cans of film and spools of tape to the mazy streets and dark alleys of London W1F.
I’ve worked in around this postcode ever since but in the last few months, the sight of Soho, lying prone and silent, has made as sad as I’d feel at the funeral of a much-loved friend.
There’s no longer life on its streets. And these were streets which, in the course of 24 hours, had not one life but three. During the day they buzzed with the frenetic activity of advertising, film and theatrical people. Then round dusk, the restaurant and theatre-goers would arrive. Finally, under cover of darkness, Soho became the most famous red light district in the world. Between about 4am and 6am, it snatched a couple of hours’ sleep before the cleaners arrived to sluice away all vestiges of excess so the cafés could open for breakfast.
What makes Soho magical is something that can never be moved online: simple human contact. There is no public transport within Soho’s parameters. People routinely fall in and out of taxis but otherwise, everyone’s on foot. Which means it’s the ideal place to bump into people. On the rare occasions when I haven’t chanced upon someone I know, I’ve still enjoyed moving in the company of strangers. The area has always attracted a self-replenishing cast of them, and their verve and vitality are what makes it unique.
Soho eventually turned me from runner to writer and I’ve made hundreds of TV and radio commercials in its sound studios and cutting rooms. Also, before I started needing to go to bed on the same day I got up, I worked as a DJ in many of its subterranean clubs. But even at 2am, among the gangsters, whores and vagabonds, there was no place on earth I felt safer.
Recent years, of course, have seen Soho clean up its act. Unfortunately, it’s now so bland and sanitised that it’s in danger of losing the spirit that made it so special. Cold-eyed property developers have gatecrashed the party, building soulless blocks of offices and luxury apartments. They remind me of the sort of man who starts dating a funny, quirky and interesting girl, and then starts trying to change the very things that attracted him in the first place. This is why the heroic Tim Arnold set up Save Soho – to protect his beloved neighbourhood from people possessed by pound signs.
The movement has been spearheaded by Stephen Fry, whom I first met and worked with at a studio in, guess where? Ditto Suggs, Andy Serkis and Robert Elms, who are all passionate protectors of Soho’s bohemian soul.
So what’s happening now? Judging by its deathly silence, you could be forgiven for thinking that Covid 19 may hasten the area’s ruin but I have a strange feeling it could actually herald its renaissance.
Swanky new office buildings? With more and more people working from home, who’s going to want those? The developers were banking on Crossrail 2 to deliver the “footfall” they needed. They had plans to demolish the gorgeous Curzon cinema and replace it with a big new railway station to disgorge thousands of people on to streets too svelte to accommodate them. But can the government even afford to consider Crossrail 2 now with so many more calls on its coffers?
Without their flash new transport hub, without the high rents they were hoping to charge for office space and without the millions they were expecting to rake in from those snazzy apartments, developers might be forced into a radical rethink.
According to my friend Robin Smith, whose wonderful Soho Dairy is the last stall standing on Berwick Street market, this is where we start. The market has always been the spine of Soho, supporting everything around it and it needs to be revitalised. No-one’s suggesting a return to fruit, veg and wolf-whistles but that stretch could be put to good use.
It’s perfect for independent street food stalls to pick up Soho’s long tradition of introducing people to the scrumptious flavours of distant lands. Empty office spaces could be re-purposed as fringe theatres, music venues, workshops, cafes and bars. It’s not about preserving about Soho’s past; it’s about preserving its future because Soho is where whatever’s going to happen happens first. And when Soho starts to recover, other places tend to follow suit.
This whole idea might seem fanciful but Soho’s history suggests otherwise. Its 1950s heyday grew out of the misery and deprivation of the Second World War. And its later boom was the result of the grim recession of the early 80s. Now of course, Covid takes the blame for the bad times it’s currently experiencing.
However, as Soho emerges from its second lockdown, I truly believe it could be entering a new era.