From #Soho24 to #SaveSoho
2014 is coming to its end as I am writing this post. A couple of months ago when an idea occurred to me to stay in Soho for 24 hours with no sleep, I didn’t know it would take place shortly after the closure of the much loved legendary Madame JoJo’s. There was no particular reason behind my Soho 24. For once I wanted to miss that last train home and have time on my hands and explore. My stay in Soho coincided with the march organised to commemorate Madame JoJo’s and draw everyone’s attention to the fact that Soho is losing its artistic, inclusive soul. Madame’s JoJo’s petition and the March were organised by theatre director Alexander Parsonage and performer Abigail O’Neill. Tim Arnold aka The Soho Hobo who led the march is a singer, songwriter, and Soho resident of many years. It was Tim who founded Save Soho: a coalition of performers, residents and politicians who want to ‘protect and nurture iconic music and performing arts venues in Soho that are disappearing at a terrifying rate.’ The chairman of Save Soho is actor and writer Stephen Fry.
Learn more about Save Soho at http://savesoho.com/about/
Since Soho 24, some more sad news has come. 12 Bar Club in Denmark Street is closing down this month. Tim Arnold’s concert there on the 6th January 2015 was one of the last events in this venue. Unfortunately, I couldn't attend this event but you can read about the gig in the blog post written by @Lndonaficionado
The article below is My Soho 24 Part Two. To find out about my first 12 hours in Soho, please read the previous blog post My 24 hours in Soho - #Soho24 Part One.
9 am Saturday 29th November 2014
It’s been 12 hours into my Soho 24. I’m halfway through my tale of exploration and endurance. I’ve just left the legendary Bar Italia and soon find myself outside the festive looking Algerian Coffee Stores. I walk in and smile at one of my favourite signs in Soho “Men are like coffee. The best ones are rich, warm & can keep you up all night long”. I take a deep breath and inhale a fusion of coffee and tea varieties. There is no seating here but their coffee tastes heavenly. I recognise some of the staff. They are Hungarian. ‘Yo napot kivanok’ I greet them and they praise my Hungarian as limited as it is. If my mother had married her Hungarian boyfriend, my Hungarian would be fluent…
Berwick Street is bathed in sunshine this morning and as I pass the Reckless Records shop and look at the photo of Oasis album displayed in the window I start humming “(What’s the Story) morning glory?” I turn my head, look back and wonder how much the place has changed since 1995… I’m looking forward to my breakfast at La Tosca at the end of the street. At first I think I got it all wrong and my brain and senses deprived of sleep and fuelled with caffeine have failed me at last. La Tosca is not here anymore. One of those tiny independent cafes with family atmosphere, fresh food and fabulous cappuccino is gone. I wonder what happened to that lovely Italian couple that ran the café. I don’t even know when it closed down. Back in summer I had no idea that my first coffee in La Tosca was going to be my last one in fact.
I desperately need something to cheer me up. I just need some good news. I look up and spot and elderly man in a window. I realise he is one of the tailors working on this Saturday morning. I take a photo as if I wanted to freeze this moment in time. He notices and smiles. I wave to him and he waves back. I can’t possibly imagine Soho without tailors…
I turn my head just in time to see the sign of Stich & Co shop, a Soho institution and one of the few specialist shops left in the area. I’ve never been inside. It’s 9.30 am. The note on the door says ‘open from 9.30’. I buzz. After a little while that feels like an eternity, a man with a friendly though a bit surprised face and an impressive bushy hairstyle lets me in. I explain that I am not really a customer but someone who loves Soho and writes about it. I know I am stretching it a bit but explaining the idea of Soho 24 doesn’t seem right. He is happy to leave me alone and excuses himself to finish up mopping the floors upstairs.
Every space in the room is filled with all sort of chandeliers, lamps and candelabras. This is your ideal place to buy and renovate period lighting. I manoeuvre my way around feeling like a bull in a china shop. At the back there is a workshop with an old furnace. It is like stepping back in time. This business has been run by the same family since 1870s. “I started helping my father when I was 5” says James. He mentions some of their famous customers including National Trust and Royal Family and adds that they are expecting chandeliers from St Paul’s cathedral today. We talk about Soho and how you can never take things for granted. You never know when another place you like, will disappear.
Outside I’m suddenly bombarded by the noise of road works further down the street. The sign says “Open for business”. That includes Berwick Street market, sadly reduced this morning to a few stalls with fruit and vegetables. I spot delicious looking clementines – 6 for £1 and decide they will make a lovely if unusual breakfast. I chat with the seller and find out they will have to close the market for two weeks over Christmas due to the works.
There was a market here already in 18th century and it is allegedly here that a grapefruit was first introduced to London. I feel like buying one now and keep it as a souvenir. You never know when you can buy your next one at Berwick St market.
‘I’ve got you under my skin’ sings Frank Sinatra as I am having my late breakfast, brunch or early lunch that consists of fried eggs at Soho Joe. The song makes me think of my husband and daughter and I give them a ring while watching the life go by through the window: two Italian looking tourists wearing sunglasses, a young dad in a T-shirt pushing a pram, a Chinese woman with a small girl walking out from a health shop just opposite. ‘Night and Day, you are the one’ continues Sinatra and I’m thinking of that wonderful musician I met months ago in the French House playing and singing his own songs as well as Sinatra’s. I was standing just next to him at the bar completely unaware back then that I was listening to famous Kenny Clayton… Another thing I wasn’t aware of was that mobile phones are frowned upon in that unique Soho institution.
It’s more and more a tale of endurance than exploration. Soho Square with its benches looks tempting. Would it be too bad if I took a nap? I could pretend I am reading. Suddenly, I get engulfed by a wave of people. Some wear suits and hats and there is a girl in a cabaret costume. Some carry umbrellas, others hold white single roses. I notice a coffin and overhear a passer-by asking; “Has someone died?” Indeed it looks like a funeral procession. Madame JoJo’s which has been a performance club for over half a century in Soho has been forced to close down… I join the march and we all get to the corner of Walker’s Court and Brewer Street. I recognise a man in a white suit and dark sunglasses – musician Tim Arnold known as Soho Hobo and next to him I can see a woman with gorgeous ginger hair. I learn later on she is a singer, performer Abigail O’Neil. There is no speech, no appeal but the slogans say it all: “Save Madame JoJo’s” and “Save our Soho”. I can hear someone repeating like a mantra ‘Who was Madame JoJo…” I think what a kind and generous ‘hostess’ Madame JoJo was. A place where everybody was welcome and a place everybody could afford. Diverse, exciting, refreshing and fun! A Soho place. I chat with a girl collects signatures under the petition. A man comes up to us and leaves his business card with her. He is from the scooter club at Bar Italia. I take photos, tweet and walk away with eyes filled with tears… No wonder, I have just been to a ‘funeral’. Before I turn round I get a glimpse of a man in his 80s in an immaculate tailored-made suit and hat. I’m trying hard to recall his name… In vain, but I know he is an artist and he lives here. A true Soho-ite.
So what do you do, if you have just been to a funeral. If you are in Soho you may just as well go to a sex shop before they all disappear. It is not however the urge for some excitement or the need to buy a surprise gift for my husband that makes me walk into Dean and Fifty on the corner with Old Compton Street. I decide I will actually visit and see the place that once was a famous Dirty White Boy shop run by Clayton Littlewood and his husband Jorge. The young girl doesn’t seem to know what was here before but her colleague is happy to chat. He admits he hasn’t read Clayton’s books yet. I walk downstairs where the sight of all sort of accessories wakes me up immediately. I look around and try to picture this as a basement flat that Clayton and Jorge shared. Somewhere here there was a toilet but there was no bathroom.
If you look at the mural in Carnaby Street, at the top of it you will see a woman, her robe cascading down, decorated with images of iconic places and famous Soho characters: from Casanova. Marx and Mozart to Ronnie Scott. She is St Anne at the heart of the community since 17th century… I'm standing in the gardens of St Anne’s church and my mind goes back to last summer and Soho Fete – a family event that has been part of Soho for 40 years. I picture my 4-year-old daughter during Spaghetti competition. A girl’s voice wakes me up from my dreams… I’m asked to take a photo of a group of young visitors and their guide. I ask the man if he often guides around and he says he is just taking some friends around. They want to know about me. I explain about Soho 24 and one of the girls says she’s been following my #Soho24 tweets…
Just as much as I want to keep myself awake I also need to make sure my phone is charged. I was planning to go for lunch to Stockpot – where you can eat well for a tenner. I have been told that the decor and the menu may have not changed since the 60s. A sign on the scaffolding says that Stockpot is open, but it is obvious I’m more likely to start a career as a builder’s apprentice there right now than eat something other than plaster. The guys tell me the place will reopen in 2 weeks or so. I have a feeling it may no longer be the place of the same simple décor and a low budget haven after the refurbishment.
I find myself at St Anne’s Court in front of Tostado which I am sure was called something else some months ago. I’m sitting by the window with some popcorn and tap water for a starter while waiting for my soup. Latin American waiters are friendly and happy to charge my phone behind the bar. ‘Can I answer, if it calls?’ jokes one of them. “That would me my husband…” I reply with a smile. My Ecuadorian potato soup served with a wedge of lemon tastes good. I’m watching the crowds and the crowds seem to be watching me. I’m feeling like a live ad – an eating mannequin. It makes me think of Mary Quant’s Bazaar famous window displays in Chelsea. A couple of tourists are pointing at me and my enamel bowl. They seem to be in two minds whether to walk in. I feel like waving to them encouragingly. I start thinking how many people have walked through this court over 300 years or so. From political refugees, tourists, musicians, artists, party-goers to people who live in flats of the Clarion House. It is amazing to think that The Beatles. Queen, David Bowie, Elton John and many others would come here to record their tracks at Trident Studios including one of my favourite ones: ‘Bohemian Rapsody.
Music and performing arts have always been the heartbeat of Soho. Many careers started right here in London’s Soho. Many more careers will start and flourish here as long as Soho doesn’t lose its diverse, inclusive character. As long as Soho doesn’t lose more places like Madame JoJo’s.
I’m back in Greek Street. The streets get busy. It is Saturday afternoon. I have 6 hours to complete My Soho 24 and no ideas, no plans and by now a tight budget. As much I would love to walk into L’ Escargot, I have to give it a miss. I could just picture myself inside paying as much attention to my food as to the art on the walls. I would obviously order snails. After all, it was the first restaurant where snails where introduced in England by M. Gaudin. Here he is above the door riding a snail with the motto “slow but sure”. I promise Mr Gaudin I will be back with a thicker wallet. I may be ’slow but sure’.
As a tour guide I ‘walk’ for a living but I can walk no more today. I need a nice warm haven for a few hours. Here I am in front of two Soho institutions: Maison Bertaux and The Coach and Horses. A tough choice but I can no longer drink coffee and I hardly ever drink tea unless with a slice of lemon… An idea of a pint for a change is too much to resist. The notorious publican Norman is no longer here and instead I get a warm welcome and sit content with my Staropramen by the wall. I am less content to see my face in the mirror though. The whites of my eyes are almost as red as my signature coat.
There is a football game on a little screen above and unless I ever check who played back then I will never know. I am more interested in watching a couple sitting at the bar. Slim pink jeans look very familiar and I recall spotting them during the Madame JoJo’s march. A shiny black jacket, stilettos, long blond hair and a black veil. She is all glamour as she is chatting affectionately to a woman who looks nice if a bit more like an ugly duckling by comparison in her grey coat and with no make-up on. Finally, the blond girl goes to the ladies and comes back 20 minutes later as a young man. The only thing that you can recognise is the same shiny black jacket, lovely smile and gestures… I feel like inside brilliant books Clayton Littlewood has written about Soho. The thing about this wonderful square mile is that you can always be yourself. Soho is for everyone.
I’m sitting now at the bar at the same spot earlier occupied by the couple I was watching. The Queen Mother is looking down at me from the photo on the wall while some drawings remind me of Jeffrey Bernard who made The Coach and Horses his drinking-den, home and office. Bernard would be writing here unless getting infamously ‘unwell’. Some people are going through the bar and up the narrow staircase into the Secret Tea Room - it is indeed a secret place in Soho. While beer and an inclusive atmosphere are keeping me awake, the call of nature is too persistent to ignore. I am however reluctant to go, my phone is still charging and I don’t want to leave my stool. Should I ask the bartender to keep it for me? A rescuer comes in the shape of a young man who starts chatting with me. I excuse myself, ask him to watch my seat and the socket and shortly after come back from the ladies with a white rose I found there. It must have been one of the people from Madame JoJo’s march who has left the rose behind. I get another pint while my rose gets a glass of water. Alcohol makes me chatty and the man disappears.
I am thinking fondly of Janet who should be joining me at 6pm. I can’t believe that after a sleepless night in Soho she is coming back. I smile happily. ‘Oh someone is happy today’ a voice wakes me up! A couple of guys try to make a conversation. ‘I love Lucy Worsley’ says one of them. I must admit it is the most extraordinary chat up line I have ever heard. ‘She is a doctor’ adds his companion. ‘I love doctors.’ ‘What doctor are you?’ I explain I am not a doctor or PHD doctor or GP but a tour guide. They want to know what I am doing here on my own. I tell them about Soho 24. They think I am mad and won’t believe the only things that keep me up here in my madness is caffeine, beer and love of Soho. ‘No, I am not on drugs’ I say then tweet for help and pray for Janet to turn up. She does and I flee from ‘doctor lovers’. I’m sure I will be back at The Coach and Horses though.
The French is like a beehive on Saturday night. There is no other place like this. The bastion of Soho. A haven for wine drinkers but if you prefer beer, they serve only glasses except for 1st April. On that day once a year beer drinkers can enjoy pints and the profits go towards the Great Ormond Street Hospital. At the moment I wish it was 1st April and not a weekend. I can no longer stand and if I find no support I am likely to collapse so reluctantly we leave…
An amazing thing about Chinatown is that it has become a separate world though it is still part of Soho. The smells, the sounds, the colours are a powerful fusion engulfing us. I only wish I liked Chinese food… It is hard to believe that there was anything else here before Chinatown. Here in Gerrard Street Ronnie Scott’s opened his first club, Joseph Conrad would meet other writers at the Mont Blanc restaurant and Sir Joshua Reynolds would paint and entertain just round the corner.
It’s a miracle that Janet and I find seats upstairs in the Waxy Little Sister’s. I order another pint and wonder how on earth I can still function. We spend the last 2 hours chatting and I give Janet the white rose as a token of gratitude. When we finally leave at 9pm I am full of mixed feelings; happy I have lasted 24 hours in Soho deprived of sleep and that I will soon be back with my family and yet… There is this sense of anxiety that I will have to come back as soon as possible before things change even more, before Soho I know is gone….
I would like to thank Tim Garrett who is always there for me. My wonderful husband who encouraged me to spend 24 hours in Soho, with no sleep and without him by my side. I am also grateful to a friend of mine Janet @tenajtiger who came back! A wonderful sacrifice.
Finally, many thanks to Sarah Lynne Ward who got in touch with me on behalf of Save Soho at the time I was writing this post. I learned a lot about Save Soho, people behind this organisation and its aims thanks to Sarah who is their Web Administrator. You can follow Sarah @salyward on Twitter. You will find Save Soho on Facebook. Please show your support and help spread the word.
Save Soho: Keeping Soho inclusive, not exclusive.