Monday, 17 August 2015

The death of Soho

It would appear that my birthday celebrations have lasted a full eight days. I feel like the queen!

After a day of work, where I managed to complete noodling with the eight-minute epic song from Brass that I'd started yesterday, Nathan and I trolled into Soho for a belated birthday dinner with Fiona and Sam.

We had a lovely evening. Central London on a Sunday night is often charmingly quiet. All the city workers are at home, doing their washing and being sensible and all the louts have hangovers from Friday and Saturday, so you tend to come across a more genteel crowd hanging out in the cafes and bars. It's also rather lovely to spend time with people whom you've known for way over half of your life. Old friends become more important the more ancient you get. I met Sam properly on his sixteenth birthday. I was just fifteen. We were at a music residential course. He was covered in shaving foam as a result of some sort of birthday prank which had gone a bit wrong, and we sat on my bed in the dormitory until 5 in the morning, talking about music and looking out across a darkened garden, getting a little freaked out because the wall seemed to have a face in it! As I've written here before, I can't remember meeting Fiona, but it must have been at about the same time...

We ate in Soho. The plan had been to eat in Amalfi, but to our horror we discovered the restaurant had closed down. The rents in that particular part of London have sky-rocketed in recent years, to the extent that Costa Coffee closed down on Old Compton Street because they couldn't justify spending that sort of money just to have a presence on the street.

Old Compton Street, once solely the haunt of those who worked in the theatre and sex industries, and almost exclusively gay, is now a ghastly, shiny place which, for the first time tonight, appeared to us to be more straight than gay. Cue the tipping point. Even the gay bars no longer fly rainbow flags, one assumes for fear that they might frighten off the broader and straighter clientele needed to pay the ludicrous rents. It's a desperate and sorry sight. At one point Nathan raised a very interesting point; "what if you were a gay tourist and you'd heard all about the legendary Soho? You'd turn up here and wouldn't know which bars and cafes to go into. You'd probably end up feeling really disappointed!"

Other gay districts in other world cities - The Castro, West Hollywood, The Marais - proudly fly the rainbow flag so you can be in no doubt that you're in a gay area. Not a single rainbow flag flies on Old Compton Street. That's a little sad, I'd say.

Of course this may mean that being gay is so acceptable in British society that we no longer need a gay ghetto. All pubs and clubs are now as gay as they are straight. This is surely a sign of the equality I've fought for for my entire life? Am I simply complaining because I wanted people to accept me as different, but am horrified that being accepted now makes me the same as everyone else? Who knows.

Either way, I think it's sad that Soho is no longer what it used to be, if for no other reason than because the younger generation will never get to feel the excitement which used to reverberate through its streets.

We ate Turkish food and then went on a brilliant walk which took us through Leicester Square (where we bought Haagen Dasz), along the Strand and across Hungerford Bridge to the Southbank, which I would recommend to anyone at a loose end on a Sunday evening. The city lights were twinkling rather magnificently on the Thames, and in those parts even the beggars sing! 

Perspex art installation on the South Bank
It was a little odd to be walking past Giraffe, which has become so synonymous with Jem and Ian. Nathan and I both felt a real pang of sadness as we passed, remembering many a happy evening spent there with very dear friends.

We explored a little garden space on a series of terraces above the Hayward Gallery. It's such a beautiful place to wander through. There are genuine gardens up there full of beans and chard and pumpkins. I was astonished that we were able to walk about after dark without security guards rushing after us, but then again, things are always rather laid back on the South Bank. 

Above the South Bank
We had tea and beer outside a little cafe tucked around the corner from the National, and then trekked further along the South Bank, under a railway arch where a young woman was singing opera, down the dark and somewhat eerie Clink Street, past the Golden Hind and round the side of Borough Market, which, at night, is all a bit "Jack The Ripper."

Sam hopped on the train at London Bridge, and we walked Fiona back to Borough, where we got on the tube and came home. It was an evening I didn't really want to end, if I'm honest. I think we all need to spend evenings with friends from time to time when no one worries about time and everyone simply drifts about. It happened rather regularly in my early twenties, but then life, children and responsibilities get in the way... I feel like tonight has restored my factory settings and I can face what is promising to be a very hectic week ahead with a big old smile.

Here's to old friends!

Nathan at Borough Tube

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