Into Dark Soho

In which I discover the seedy underside of London…

In Keith Waterhouse’s play, Jeffrey Bernard, reminiscing about his life having been locked into the Coach and Horses, imagines himself at the bedside of the dying Soho, mourning the loss of this once unique and vibrant corner of London:

“Sitting by the bedside of dying Soho, holding her hand but wondering, wouldn’t it be kinder to switch off the life support system”

Keith Waterhouse, ‘Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell

Soho, squeezed between the bright lights of theatreland and the busy, crowded shopping streets of the West end, has always been a place for those who don’t quite fit into the mainstream: musicians, artists, writers and performers have always found friends in the dark backstreets of Soho. There is a seedy reputation to the area. It was a gay cruising area in the Victorian era, when Oscar Wilde would seek out the exciting, dark underworld of gentleman’s clubs around the Salisbury Hotel. In the 1970’s, it was home to ‘Revue Bars’, where topless dancers would entertain their shady audience. Along with these came ‘adult’ shops and telephone boxes full of hand-written postcards, advertising surprising and unlikely services. When I first visited the area in the 1980s it was to seek out second-hand record shops and music clubs in Wardour Street and Charing Cross Road. I pretended not to be shocked by the peep shows, or by the alarmingly dressed and coiffured punks who wandered the streets.

It seems that Soho was always known as a place for outsiders and misfits. In 1907, Arthur Ransome, better known for his sailing books, wrote his account of London’s Bohemian underworld. Even then, Soho was well known as a place where:

“irregulars of all sorts flock to lunch and dine. Still, in some of the upper rooms of the streets where De Quincey walked to warm himself before sleeping on the floor.”

Arthur Ransome, Bohemia in London

Ransome considered himself a Bohemian intellectual and went on to visit Russia in the days before the Bolshevik revolution. He returned home with a Russian wife and the suspicions of the Foreign Office.

Thomas De Quincey, Journalist, essayist and opium addict, had come to Soho to observe the “mighty heart” of the city. Sometimes, he slept rough in Soho Square but, eventually, found a meagre house on Greek Street, where he and an orphan child huddled together for warmth beneath a blanket on the bare floor. The house has long gone, it’s place now taken by an upmarket restaurant: one of many that crowd Soho’s streets.

41 Dean Street, Soho. Once the home of the Colony Room Club

There have always been clubs here, since Johnson met his assoiciates in the coffee houses of Gerrard Street. Journalists, writers, artists, actors and comedians have all had their specialist clubs here. The most famous of these is probably the Colony Room. The artist Francis Bacon was a lifelong member and a permanent fixture at the bar. Here he entertained his artistic circle, including Lucien Freud, under the eye of Muriel Belcher, the club’s famously rude proprietress. William Burroughs was a member, as was David Bowie and, in the 80’s, it attracted a new clientele from among the YBAs: the artist’s circle that included Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. The club closed in 2008, much mourned by many, and is now a Chinese restaurant.

In the 50’s, there was the Gargoyle club. Darlings of London intellectual life would gather here: people like Noel Coward, Graham Greene and Osbert Sitwell. They entertained up-and-coming young writers. Dylan Thomas once outraged Sitwell by ordering a staggeringly expensive claret and quaffing it from his own shoe. The building has had an interesting life: in the 70’s, it became a ‘striptease’ club, called the ‘Nell Gwynne’ and, in 1979, the top floor became the Comedy Store, ushering in a new wave of anti-establishment, ‘alternative’ comedians. It is now an fashionable hotel. Just a few steps down Meard Street was another club: the Mandrake. This had a similar clientele of artists and poets. It became a gay club and, in the 80’s, the birthplace of the New Romantic movement. It is now a posh, and very pleasant, burger bar, where I had lunch on my journey to discover the dark underworld of London.

The opulent interior of theDog and Duck on Frith Street.

I met my drinking buddy, Mr. Scott, at the Dog and Duck on Frith Street: a typical London boozer. Squeezed into a narrow space to keep rents low; on a corner to maximize street frontage and advertising space. Long and narrow and dark, but with decorated mirrors and opulent chandeliers doing their best but struggling to light the dark wood interiors. This was one of the favourite pubs of George Orwell, so I ordered a pint of Fuller’s London Pride and read A Clergyman’s Daughter, while I waited for Scotty to arrive. Perhaps it was the surroundings, perhaps it was the reading material but this was one of the best pints I have ever had.

From here we walked to Meard Street for lunch and then South along Dean Street. Past the Colony Room, past the Groucho Club, famous among the acting and musical communities but also with its fair share of literary members. Terry Pratchett was a member, as were Neil Gaiman, Stephen Fry, Fay Weldon and Zadie Smith. We continued to the famous French House with its tricolores waving proudly in the street outside. Originally called The York Minster, the French House also became a gathering place for writers. Brendan Behan and Dylan Thomas visited the pub; it is one of the places that claims to be where Thomas left the manuscript to Under Milkwood. Sylvia Plath also visited when she was living in London and dating Ted Hughes. It was absolutely packed out when we visited. It is more of a wine bar than a pub, famed for the quality of its wines and only serving beer in halves. Still, we stopped in for a couple of halves to admire the artwork that adorns the walls.

The famous Coach and Horses

From here, it is a short walk down Romilly Street to The Coach and Horses. The Coach, or ‘Norman’s’, as it is sometimes called, is a magnificent pub. From the light wood veneer bar, to the ripped vinyl furniture; from the garish carpet to the yellow walls and reinforced glass windows, this is a proper pub: it hasn’t changed because it has had no need to. It was run for many years by Norman Balon, who had the reputation of being the rudest landlord in London. Journalists were attracted to the pub for this convivial atmosphere. The staff of Private Eye regularly came here, as did Jeffrey Bernard and Keith Waterhouse. Waterhouse’s play, “Jeffrey Bernard is unwell” uses the interior of the Coach as a set. We had a very pleasant pint in there. Talking about pubs and how much this one reminded us of those we had visited many years ago: Scotty in Liverpool and me in North London. We felt comfortable in here; as if we were coming home after many years away.

We had one more call to make this afternoon, so we walked further up Greek Street, where the Establishment club once stood. This was where Peter Cook opened a club for comical satire, in 1961. It quickly gained a reputation as a place to see new comedians performing. Lenny Bruce performed here, before being banned from entering the UK. Barry Humphries took to the stage as Edna Everage here. John Bird and John Fortune performed here and Dudley Moore provided musical entertainment. Despite this line up, the club didn’t last long, closing its doors in 1964 but not before earning a place in comedy history.

We continued to the Pillars of Hercules, famed a journalists’ pub. Charles Dickens must have visited here: the alleyway at the side is called ‘Manette Street’ and the lodgings of Doctor Manette in A Tale of Two Cities were nearby.

“The Quiet lodgings of Doctor Manette were in a quiet street-corner not far from Soho-square.”

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

The pub has become a centre of the London literary world in the eighties and nineties. Clive James did much of his writing here then. He even called one of his books “At The Pillars of Hercules.” Martin Amis has frequented the pub, as have Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes. The beer choice, though not great, was acceptable and the staff here were lovely. They shared a joke or two with Scotty and I, even though we had been drinking for several hours and can’t have been at our wittiest or most sparkling.

We could not have continued for much longer, even if there were anywhere else to go. Soho seemed thriving to me as we left it: the subcultural capital of London hasn’t died, it just changes. The gay community on Old Compton Street is, I am pleased to say, still thriving after several attempts to drive it away, including the notorious bombing of the Admiral Duncan pub in 1999. The Chinese neighbourhood around Gerrard Street also thrives and still fills the area with the most tantalising smells. (John Dryden lived on Gerrard street: you can see the plaque that marks his home above a Chinese supermarket).

The magnificent interior of the Coach and Horses. Note the patterned carpet, reinforced glass windows and ripped vinyl furniture.

The Coach and Horses is still an unusual pub and continues to refuse to compromise. It now offers the only fully vegetarian and vegan menu of any pub in the country. Even more controversial, it has a nudist licence, allowing clothes optional events to be held there. There is a movement to keep the spirit of Soho alive. There is a ‘Save Soho’ campaign, that tries to keep the artistic heart of the area beating. Its supporters include Stephen Fry, Joanna Lumley and Terry Gilliam. We need to preserve the old buildings and old shops: keep them as conservation areas and stop the greedy developers from moving in, converting the area to flats and chainstores and sucking up the last vestiges of character. The area is an intrinsic part of the artistic history of the City and beloved of Londoners. It’s nice to know that there are people determined to keep the life support system switched on.

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