Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The death of Soho

My day started in that chi-chi district behind Bond Street where everyone is so impeccably dressed that people like me instantly feel like a bag ladies. It's like something from the Umbrellas of Cherbourg round there. The shop assistants wear the most beautiful designer suits, and their customers preen themselves like peacocks. There was a woman standing in the middle of the street, plainly with nothing to do, in a glorious 50s inspired twin-set with a hat carelessly strewn (read meticulously fixed) to her chignon.

The purpose of my trip to those parts was to meet a theatrical agent, whom I happened to like rather a lot, so watch this space for more news!

I went into Soho for lunch and discovered that mushrooms are horrible when served raw. I also discovered, much to my deep chagrin, that the Soho I once loved is officially dead. The charming, sleazy decadence which made it incredibly special has almost entirely disappeared. I think when Raymond Review Bar and Madam Jojo's were closed to make way for a mega casino, the final nail was driven into Soho's coffin. Old Compton Street, which used to be a mish-mash of grotty sex shops, cheap diners for West End actors and gay bars, is now a hub of fancy ice cream shops, sushi bars, artisan bakeries and clothing boutiques. The call girls and rent boys have moved on. Beautifully-dressed freaks no longer prowl the streets, and all the customers in the cafe where I had my lunch were straight boys in slick suits.

Many people reading this will think my description of the old Soho sounds like hell on earth... But it was OUR hell: a place for gay people and actors. An artistic district entirely lacking in machismo and the binge-drinking culture of surrounding areas. An oasis of streets where we all felt safe.

I mourn its loss because it's already clear what's coming in its place. They're labelling it a "pleasure district" but it will be sanitised, a "blue plaque" theme park for hen-dos and lads-on-tour who'll pay through the nose for a bit of titivation... They gamble and neck glasses of absinthe in a "bohemian theme bar" next to a mega-Macdonald's where bored secretaries will take pole dancing classes in a mirror-lined room called the "Hanky Spanky Zone." The last remaining gay bars will close, unable to afford the soaring rents, their clientele threatened by this new breed of Soho-ite. And bang, genteel Soho will become an extension of Leicester Square on a Saturday night, with people vomiting on every corner and seething aggression seeping out of the cracks in the pavements,

Of course, as the LGBT community slip unnoticed into society at large, the question becomes whether gay people even need their own districts. A great deal of recent research has been dedicated to the fact that the gay community has enjoyed an incomprehensible surge in popularity in the UK in the last fifty years. Being gay has gone from being illegal to being considered no more shocking than unmarried mothers or divorcees. We are unlike any other minority group in this respect, so perhaps part-and-parcel of living in this newly inclusive society is the lack of need for anything which resembles segregation.

I'm still going to miss Soho though...

Nathan and I found a voucher which meant we could have tea in Cafe Rouge for a tenner. It was a much-needed bit of "us" time before I skedaddled my way back down to Hove so that I could be with PK early enough to do a good day's work on Pepys. I had a cheese and mushroom toastie. I'm sure they call it something much fancier than that, but a toastie it was... And rather delicious.

Someone sent me a photograph this evening of the Drama Barn on the campus of York University. It was bathed in glorious early-evening sunlight, which is exactly how I remember it always being in the summer term. The Drama Barn was where we did all our shows. It was the drama society's space. We could rehearse there whenever we wanted if we were friendly enough with the porters who held the key. I regularly ran rehearsals which went through the night, because I felt it was important to break down people's inhibitions by making them exhausted! I remember nicking a pint from a milk float on the way home from one rehearsal, as the first rays of dawn burst across the sky.

The drama society is currently raising funds for the space, to modernise the equipment and so on. They're crowd-funding, so if anyone reading this remembers the old place as fondly as me, and fancies sticking a tenner in the pot, please do so...

1 comment:

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