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Sohoitis XIII: Soho is Changing, But Into What?

By Sophie Parkin.

Things Change – that was the name of a David Mamet play that got made into a film with Don Ameche and Joe Mantegna; he was right.

I don’t know if Mamet ever came to Soho, London, but things have sure changed there and Westminster Council wants to change them some more, cleaned up in time for the Olympics.

When I moved to London aged 18, I traipsed daily into Soho to college at St Martin’s School of Art. I was frightened each time I turned the corner from Charing Cross Road where the college stood, into Old Compton Street. It didn’t matter if it was a Monday morning on the street, a Wednesday lunchtime or a Friday night the same thing inevitably happened. Strangers, male strangers, old young or middle aged, ugly or handsome, would approach me a few steps down the road and ask for the costs of my services. Sometimes they were polite, almost obsequious; other times they were rude and gruff talking body parts. It was 1980 and I wasn’t in the habit of dressing provocatively, unless you had vampiric tendencies or were of a New Romantic bent — think Beau Brummel rather than Spandau Ballet. I was firstly confused, then shocked and quite frankly amazed that they had the balls to be so forthright as to ask a girl — because I certainly wasn’t a woman — the price I would charge to have their bodily parts inserted inside me; maybe I was naïve. I wasn’t completely green, already a member of the Colony Room, but I wasn’t used to the brazen machismo or the open consumer exchange of sex. Though I had studied Cartier-Bresson’s louche Parisian photographs, walked through Pigalle, prostitution seemed another world, and not one I existed within, dear me no! I soon like so many things — smoking, drinking, hardly thinking, got used to it all as the wallpaper of Soho, as intricate and fascinating as a William Morris print and now Westminster wants to strip it bare Changing Rooms style.

Now Old Compton Street, that once throbbed with girls and sex and multicultural food stores and jazz bars, is a road where only the boys get propositioned and girls will be lucky to be asked the time, and food hardly gets a look in over alcohol. Where once shabby little clubs full of the extraordinary and glamorous ruled, now the clubs are all buff and the members are… Now even the Colony has closed, and some particular members (no names mentioned) are in litigation with Michael Wojas who used to run the club. I know they feel aggrieved that they have lost their home from home but really, Michael is hardly Sir Fred Goodwin, in fact he’s lost everything, and we are all the poorer for it. (Besides, they were always the boring cunts you dreaded having to speak to anyway.) I can hardly bare to walk down that end of Dean Street now and look at where once the Colony’s green doorway reigned and you knew that a hidden treasure of an afternoon lurked inside, and that not even the promise of a sunny day could cajole you out from the magic of some lost hours of laughter. Ah well that’s gone. Things have to change… even the sign has been removed.

Thank goodness for Dick!

Dick Bradsell who worked behind the bar of The Colony, who has invented more cocktails than is reasonable for one man, with all his energy and humour, imagination, vision and his… Tai Chi black belt. All of which he has taken with him into the cozy dark basement of 23 Romilly st, where each night he concocts and persuades different people to carry the torch of interesting entertainment: Monday’s book club with Salena Godden, later on industry drinks specialists, Tuesday’s Jeremy with Craic new Indie music, Wednesday’s Francis with Club Lola, for boys who like to be girls and girls who like to be boys and boys who like to be with boys who like to be grrrls — it’s a mixed up world, Thursday, well Thursday must be something and Friday is drinking night and Saturday is private party night. Suddenly life has returned to Soho and there is always a willing smile and an interesting cocktail to be quaffed until midnight.

So things have changed in Soho. But what Westminster propose is getting rid of the prostitutes and sex shops in case children are, families are… offended? Well, don’t fucking bring your kids there until they are old enough to appreciate it, go to Disneyland or Covent Garden but don’t Sanilav Soho and Jif wipe out the signs that make Soho, Soho. I hear the call… and where shall we slip into in the afternoon for that naughty Bloody Mary, where shall we bump into the love of our lives, how will we dream away five o’clock deadlines…?

Hilary at the French still does the Best Bloody Mary in Dean Street and that opens at 11, and there is always the faded Fifties glamour of the Black Gardenia, the gay escape of The Green Carnation, the rest you will have to work out for yourselves over a Beaujolais in the Bar du Marché in Berwick Street, as I will be working it all out anew in Rotterdam in the White Ape — A Brand New Adventure.

There is a neon sign on the Willem de Kooning Academy art school in Rotterdam that says “I must change to stay the same”. Surely it should read: “The more things change, the more they stay the same”? Well that’s how it seemed to work in Soho until now. So let me give a word of WARNING to Westminster Council: the council in Amsterdam cleaned up the red light district and 50% of tourists stopped coming to Amsterdam so they had to reinstate it again to get the revenue back but it was never the same. The moral of the story is that councils don’t know what they’ve got until it’s gone. Or as Joni Mitchell might have sung it: they changed paradise and put up a parking lot. And not my kind of Parkin Lot!

Sophie Parkin has written seven published books. Three grown-up novels (you can’t say adult, otherwise people think they might be pornography): All Grown Up, Take Me Home and Dear Goddess. For teenagers there is French for Kissing, Best of Friends, and Mad, Rich and Famous. She has also contributed to four other books, from short stories, true stories, long stories, to poetry. Mothers by Daughters, Sons and Mothers both published by Virago, Girls Just Want To Have Fun: the Cosmopolitan book of short stories, and POT 05 – Anthology of Poetry edited by Michael Horovitz. Her new book, Bazaar Nights and Camel Bites (Piccadilly Press), a teenage novel set in Tangiers and London, is out now. Sophie Parkin holds a monthly 3:AM Magazine/Pen Pusher bash at the Green Carnation in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, March 8th, 2009.