The independent London newspaper

Should we mourn the end of ‘epic’ Soho?

17 September, 2021

Soho sketch, detail

• I WAS sketching in some Soho alley near Berwick Street. Then a fellow pensioner approached me while I toiled ineffectively with my pencil.

He started talking to me about the Soho he had known, back in the 1960s. He recalled prostitutes and beggars could be gunned down in the streets.

A shop that didn’t pay protection money might be filled with bullets one unhappy night. Pubs were expensive and brutal. There was a grim suspicion the police themselves were collaborating with Soho racketeers.

Cruel, yet at times chivalrous, gangsters would obviously expect the top table in any Soho club. They appeared to be everywhere. It was not the police who seemed to govern the pulse of London.

The chap who chatted with me reminisced about one bar where huge glass tanks allowed girls to do underwater striptease.

Soho could have been described as a turbulent magnet for artists, such as those two rogues, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. Soho was never safe. Part of it was historically known as “Knaves’ Acre”.

As he walked off, I began to think perhaps we should intone a big “good riddance” to the so-called “good old days”. But maybe the sordidness and danger of Soho were linked to a creativity that isn’t there any more.

The soul of Soho has been gelded and caged by ugly and impersonal corporate greed. Soho is unfortunately degenerating into a sanitised and tame theme park where tourists with cameras can gawp at the eccentric and exotic inhabitants.

Should we mourn the end of “epic” Soho? Yes, I am afraid.

Mackenzie Close, W12


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