In Soho with the author Clayton Littlewood
“We would like to honour you as a woman” says a girl cheerfully as I turn my head away from the Soho Theatre posters I have just been studying. She looks very young. Her equally young looking friends nod approvingly. The girl is holding a shiny, red apple - that sort of apple that Snow White must have fallen for, while one of the men is offering me a white garden flower. “Please choose your gift” he says and smiles an innocent smile. It’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and they’ve been walking the streets offering their gifts to women. I choose the flower and we chat. They ask me where I’m from and what I’m doing here. It turns out we are all a very cosmopolitan bunch which is perfect as it is all happening in Soho. “I’m off to meet Clayton Littlewood here. He has written a couple of fantastic books about Soho.” I explain. “I think you’ll now end up in my blog post about him…”
I’m walking past Algerian Coffee Stores, a paradise for coffee lovers - “Just Pure Caffeine” but for the first time ever it is the shop on the corner I’m interested in. As I’m standing there holding the poor looking flower, I wish I could travel back in time, perhaps to that ‘COLD, BLUSTERLY, WINTER EVENING” in 2008 that Clayton Littlewood describes in the opening lines of Goodbye to Soho. Instead, I’m trying to imagine him as he sits beside a window in his little, red, chair observing the life passing by and writing about Sohoities: his friends and strangers, the fashion queens, the homeless, celebrities and prostitutes. It strikes me how fortunate Clayton and his partner Jorge were to run the designer clothing store in the heart of the most colourful square mile in London. Sadly, Dirty White Boy shop is no longer there and instead I’m standing in front of Fifty & Dean.
34b is a tiny café and very much Soho. We sit down by the window. “That's my chair you’re sitting on says legendary Clayton and I offer to swap but he just smiles and lets me stay on his usual observation spot. We spend quite a while talking about… me instead of him. His interest is genuine and he seems to be all ears. There’s something about Clayton that just makes you share your life stories with him… No wonder his characters in Dirty White Boy and Goodbye to Soho are full of life. After all, they are real and so are their stories.
“I haven’t been there since we went bankrupt and had to leave. I don’t think I could walk into what was once our shop and our home” Clayton admits openly. “Dirty White Boy was on the ground level and we lived in the basement with no windows. It was cold and damp and we shared it with rats. There was no bathroom, just a toilet and we had to go to the gym to take a shower. There was a brothel upstairs and we got on well with the girls. We looked out for each other.” At this point, I mention one of the stories he has recently shared in his interview on the Soho Radio. “Yes, it is absolutely true” he assures me. “When we moved in we would often get leaks from upstairs as the girls took a lot of showers and sometimes left the tap on. When it first happened, I was offered a compensation from the girls – a neighbourly gesture of ‘a blow job on the house’. I didn’t take the girls up on the offer and ended up with a “credit note”. A couple of years ago someone called and asked if I could donate something to a Soho charity. So I donated that ‘blow job credit note’ to them.” I absolutely love those stories and I remember how I often laughed while reading Dirty White Boy in the middle of the night as I found myself unable to put it down.
“I know that Soho must be full of ghosts now as you walk around… Dirty White Boy is no longer there and many other places have shut down. Some Sohoities, friends you write about in your books: Chico, Pam the fag lady and the Thong Man are sadly gone.” I say thinking also of Sebastian Horsley, an artist, writer, dandy and one of Clayton’s friends. The mood shifts slightly to the one of the melancholy as we are reminiscing…
"From our shop window I watched all these people walking past. And one day I spotted Sebastian Horsley. He lived just round the corner in Meard Street. Nobody dressed like him. Nobody looked like him. He wore a black Victorian-style suit, red velvet waistcoat, white shirt and a three foot tall stove pipe top hat. With dyed black hair and a white powered face he reminded me of the Gary Oldman character in Dracula. So I started to write about him as if he was a vampire, luring hookers back to his lair. And eventually he got to hear about it. So I emailed him and said, 'I hope you don't mind.' And he replied, 'I would only mind if you didn't write about me. But remember, whatever you write, it must never be true.' I am watching Clayton’s face as he is talking about his late friend. There’s a lot of affection in his voice. He speaks just as he writes in that beautiful, tender and warm way, sometimes making the reader laugh or at least smile, sometimes making them grab for a tissue…
“I always felt in awe in his company. Sebastian was so funny and self-deprecating. He didn’t think of himself as a great artist. But actually, what he did do, was turn himself into a piece of great art. People like Sebastian only come around every few decades. He was a London eccentric. In a long-line of London eccentrics. There is something about London that produces these characters. He was also very intelligent, witty and very quotable. He had a most wonderful way of writing. His emails were like prose poems. I’ve kept them all.” At this point Clayton reaches for the notes he had brought for me and we both admire the way Sebastian described Soho: “A madhouse without walls. Men impersonating women, women impersonating men, human beings impersonating human beings, millions of people being lonely together. Soho is about hunger and Soho is about need. It is a creature possessed of nothing but a stomach and a penis. I have never loved a place more.”
I tell Clayton that Sebastian Horsley’s house in Meard Street has become part of my guided walk in Soho and that I will have to add Dirty White Boy story to my route as well…. He looks genuinely pleased. I’m dying to find out more about the home of the late and the great Sebastian – “Horsleys Towers” and the author is happy to oblige. “There was a big fireplace, a collection of human skulls above it, a row of Victorian syringes and a lot of photos of Sebastian and art works he had painted. I remember there was a bullet hole in the ceiling.” I think it was accidently made by a prostitute who was playing with a gun.” Clayton explains as I scribble madly in my little notebook.
Time flies as we are talking about old Soho and places that are no longer there. I’m feeling genuinely envious that Clayton was fortunate to live right here, in the heart of Soho when the Colony Room Club was still open. The launch of his book Dirty White Boy was the last event to take place in that legendary institution. “The Colony was perhaps the size of this café. There is a film you have to see Nika - Love is the Devil. It is set a lot there, with Derek Jacobi as Francis Bacon, Daniel Craig as George Dwyer. Tilda Swinton plays the notorious landlady Muriel Belcher. If I could travel back in time, I would love to meet Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud in the Colony in 1950s.” I can picture Clayton there in a tiny place, green walls covered with art and Francis, Lucian and Clayton sipping their drinks and talking art, life and Soho and Muriel calling them ‘Darlings’…
“It would be wonderful to go back to 1930s and meet young Quentin Crisp for a coffee in the Black Cat” I can see sparkles in Clayton’s eyes as he is talking about one of his heroes. “Quentin was 19 when he discovered Soho in 1920s. The Black Cat café or The Chat Noir was in Old Compton Street and many of its customers were male prostitutes who worked in the Piccadilly. There’s a film Naked Civil Servant where you can see Quentin sitting in the Black Cat” This time Clayton does not say “You must see it” but he does not have to. I just know, I must see this film…
“I would also like to go to Kettner’s on Romilly Street in 1880s or early 1890s at the time when Oscar Wilde was dining there with Lord Alfred Douglas and Alfred Taylor. It was Alfred who introduced Wilde to the rent boys. Wilde lavished them with money and cigarette cases, entertaining them in a private room in Kettner’s. This was that “feasting with panthers” he spoke about later on.” I decide it may be better for the time being, if I don’t let my wild imagination picture Clayton as one of Wilde’s panthers…
“And I wish I could go back to our shop when it was a cafe called Cafe Torino’s," adds Clayton, after what feels like a proper time travel around exciting Soho. Just before it is time to say goodbye, I hastily ask him for ideas where I could go during my 24 - hour stay in Soho. The idea is to hang out in Soho for a day and night to learn more, with no sleep, fully awake and alert, and needless to say write about it in my blog.
“You will see Nika that the morning is when Soho is more like a village with locals going about their business. Later during the day it is the media crowd, in the evening it’s time for party – goers. By 3 o’clock in the morning Soho gets quiet and shows its darker side…” We look together at the list of places and I recognise some of my favourite haunts: The French House, Maison Bertaux, The Secret Tea Room, and The Society Club. Stockpot is on the list as well where apparently I can eat for L10, observe life and eavesdrop in search of stories and inspiration the way Clayton did while writing his books. Walker’s Court is mentioned as well and we both feel sad as we think of the wind of change coming… It is tonight during our chat that I find out from Clayton that a legendary nightclub Madame JoJo’s that was part of Soho for some 50 years has been forced to shut down this week. My heart sinks…
We both have to go back to our family lives but promise to meet up again. I stay behind for a moment and chat to a waitress. Her name is Marta and she’s been working here for 16 years. I’m surprised to learn that the café has been part of Soho for some 20 years. “They’ll be closing it soon as the lease expires. It will be a big change in my life” says the waitress. I promise I will be back this coming Saturday during my ‘Soho 24 hours’.
It is still an early evening and on the surface Soho looks the same as a week or a month ago. I spend my journey home wondering what will happen to Soho as chains move in and places like Madame JoJo’s shut down. I remember the final words in Acknowledgments in Goodbye Soho about this most colourful square mile: “There’s nowhere like it in the world. And it will rise again. It always does.”
I so much hope, Clayton is right.
About Clayton Littlewood (from About the Author in Goodbye to Soho)
“His first book Dirty White Boy, was published in October 2008, with a book launch at Soho’s infamous The Colony Room Club. The book was named GT Book of the year (2009).In June 2009 Clayton turned the book into a play and appeared on stage at the Trafalgar Studios (…)”
A book launch of Goodbye to Soho took place in legendary Madame JoJo’s that has been forced to shut down.
Learn more about Clayton Littlewood at www.claytonlittlewood.com and follow him on Twitter @claylittlewood