I remember walking through the closed and traffic-free streets of Soho a decade ago (almost to the day), thronged by suits and hats and egos, while far ahead at the tip of the crowd plumed horses pulled the carriage that carried the corpse that once had been my friend. It was a nice walk, as these things go, and the weather was fine. Sebastian Horsley (artist, artwork, bon viveur and crucifixionado) was dead, and so (people screamed) was Soho. They had screamed before, and they are screaming still.
The soul of Soho is in its nightlife – once the dangerous thrill of it truly flatlines, the rest will become increasingly disconnected before eventually following suit
The latest “Save Soho” strategy sees Covid-19 and its economic consequences as the real threat; after extensive consultation Westminster City Council is looking to enact a temporary pedestrianisation scheme. The plan goes, so far as I can follow, that for the remainder of the Summer months certain hospitality-heavy streets (all the major players; Dean, Frith, Greek, Old Compton, etc.) will close their roads to vehicles from around 5pm, whereupon the pavements will flood with socially distanced restaurant seating, and all will enjoy responsibly infection free repast until around 11pm (timings differ slightly on weekends), when the taxis can come to take everybody home, so long as they’ve remembered their PPE. Lovely.
These ideas are exciting (three months without so much as a Waiter is quite long enough, thankyouverymuch), and though the current intention is for this to be a strictly short-lived response to the pandemic, the word on the pedestrianised street is that it could well act as a thin-end-of-the-wedge, toe-dipping sortie into more permanent precedent. Variations on this project have been flirted with since those halcyon days of free universities and a hereditary House of Lords, when in 1999 the freshly minted Urban Task Force (not, in fact, a ruthless squad of rough-justice vigilantes) published the much-feted report Towards an Urban Renaissance, with the modest aims of identifying the causes of urban decline, and establishing “a vision for Britain’s cities based on the principles of design excellence, social well-being and environmental responsibility”. In brief, it decided that roads should be built around houses and not the other way round, that development wasn’t dense enough, that design and aesthetics do actually matter (clearly this finding has still not reached the desks of planning authorities), and that cities should be built for people, and not just for their cars.
All of this lead, remarkably speedily by today’s standards, to a year-long trial scheme of a car-free Soho from 1999 to 2000. Generally speaking, this was not deemed a success. Local businesses and taxi drivers denounced the move, fearful of increased rents and rates, logistical disruption, and generally agreeing that, as Ivan Massow, then chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, said at the time: “Pedestrianisation schemes have turned Carnaby Street into a sad parade of Dunkin’ Donuts and Covent Garden into a permanent stage for strangled attempts at ‘La Bamba’.” The consensus was that this sort of safe, commercialised, overly accessible inaccessibility could only hasten the death of Soho. Once the trial period was concluded everyone seemed happy to forget it had ever happened and revert to form, reclaiming the “Old Soho” of bustle, grime and exhaust.
It was Sebastian who introduced me, in it’s final years, to the Colony Room. Those hallowed walls were the closest I ever got to the Old Soho that we’re cursed constantly to mourn the passing of, and Sebastian took pride in my miseducation. I had been at the funeral of Michael Wojas (the club’s ultimate proprieter, dead from cancer at 53) just weeks before Sebastian’s own; the competing Princes of Soho had fallen out by the end, as had many regulars, over his decision to close the Colony and the controversial auction that sold off the bulk of its accrued (and not insignificant) treasures. Some have claimed that this unresolved (and now unresolvable) feud was what lead Sebastian to his final, fatal heroine binge; I do not believe this to be the case, for reasons I will not commit to text. At Micheal’s funeral the weather was better, and the overlapping crowd dressed in green and black at the Kensal Green Crematorium, and mourned the death of Soho as intensely as they had when the Colony finally shut its doors permanently, two years prior.
By 2015 enough time had passed since the abortive millennial efforts for Christian Wolmar, in his unsuccessful bid to become Labour’s candidate for London Mayor (losing to Sadiq Khan), to once again propose pedestrianisation to save our Soho. “Is it rational to allow a few cars in, when you’ve got hundreds of people walking in the streets? … It’s a different way of thinking of urban planning and thinking how do we design an attractive city for 20 years time rather than thinking ‘how do we accommodate all this traffic’.” This baton was picked up again in 2018, when Zaha Hadid Architects made their Walkable London proposals for multiple “car-free zones”, Soho included. They even discussed a soft transition, similar to the restricted timings of current plans, whereby the walking routes could be enforced “just on weekends at first, so it becomes a tangible proposition.”
Speaking at the Future Cities Presentation on Walkable London, Patrik Schumacher (principle architect) said “I walk around London all the time and instinctively you use secondary [routes] but then you are walking more, winding around, and you have to know London. There is a real problem if you don’t pedestrianise some of those lines. It is incredibly unpleasant and unhealthy to walk on the heavily trafficked routes.” Khan was eager to enact the plans, and was all set to establish a car-free Oxford Street within months of the report, only to be scuppered at the last minute by an unexpected U-turn from Westminster City Council. But was this ever about saving Soho, or was it more about appropriating it for a generalised London-tourism-strategy alongside the usual political point-scoring? Certainly there was little enough in the proposals that seemed specific to Soho, and the area was more-or-less treated as just another overpopulated, densely urban block in a generically globalised city.
A great deal, symbolically at least, rests on the reopening of Madame Jojo’s. Established by Paul Raymond in 1968, it soon became the grand dame of Soho’s gay scene, closing ignominiously in 2014 after a censorious Westminster City Council leapt at the opportunity to over-correct a contretemps between bouncer and disgruntled patron. Ever since there have been calls for its return, and the oft-termed “Princess of Soho” (Granddaughter and heiress to the infamous “King of Soho”, Paul Raymond) India Rose James is set to helm its post-Covid reopening; let’s all hope that India has more success than her Sister did in revivifying their Granddad’s Boulevard Theatre around the corner, which has returned to London’s now-dormant theatre scene as one of the blandest, most corporatised and characterless venues in the city, with no clear identity or, dare I say it, point. The website’s glib and neutered revisionism in terming their porn-baron patriarch an “entertainment impresario and property investor” is a representative microcosm; how can any venue be cutting edge when it’s so busy blunting itself? One objection to the Jojo re-licensing opined that “Another late night venue here will just add to the general madness that comes with that: drunk people, beeping taxis, drug dealers, thieves, litter, etc, etc.” If Sebastian taught me anything, it’s that in Soho “the general madness” is very much the point.
Last year, John Haxworth made a persuasive argument for pedestrianisation in London as the only realistic solution to the ever-escalating air pollution and road congestion; “it’s time to rethink our definition of pedestrianisation and take a more holistic view – recognising it as a means of creating an integrated infrastructure network that would see people leaving their cars at home and opting instead for walking and cycling on a daily basis.” Indeed, the outlined 5-11pm chunk seems a realistic compromise so far as integrated, multi-faceted approaches go; this kind of conscientiousness doesn’t have to be at odds with respecting the genius loci. In terms of resurrecting Soho, I don’t see why we couldn’t look to compromise and foster three separate timezones for three broadly different (but always overlapping) crowds, all with valid claims to the identity of the area; a retail focus with open roads until 5pm, pedestrianise for flaneurs and gourmands until 11pm, then as the taxis are allowed back in the night life segment lasts until 3 or 4 or 6am. Make no mistake, regardless of how exquisite The Palomar’s oxtail stew is, Temper’s smoked rib, or L’Escargot’s escargot: the soul of Soho is in its nightlife – once the dangerous thrill of it truly flatlines, the rest will become increasingly disconnected before eventually following suit.
I remember walking through Soho three years ago, surrounded again by familiar, ageing, black-clad roués, as yet another pair of plumed horses pulled yet another carriage that carried yet another corpse down a closed and car-free road, this time that of poor old Bernie Katz, just months after his ousting from the Groucho. On either side was written in wreaths, floral and proud, “Prince of Soho.” Once more, all cried that Soho was as dead as Bernie. The truth is, of course, that Soho died years ago, long before I ever knew it – the 80’s crowd merely puppeted the corpse for a while. Now that their strings have finally been cut, and though we might still see the occasional post-mortem muscular spasm, the only real life left in the meat is the fungus that covers it, and the maggots that glut on the memory of what used to be. But that still counts. Walking, crawling, writhing or driving; Soho is long, long dead. Long live Soho.
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