It could, in most respects, have been a village fete anywhere in Britain. However, the first person to greet me had a parrot on a lead. And all afternoon, the parade of eccentrics was somewhat greater than would be customary anywhere else. The event was also more inclusive and welcoming than, say, the Home Counties norm – even though the venue, St Anne’s churchyard, has a 9ft wall to keep out the drug-dealers. But then this is no ordinary village: the churchyard is just yards away from the hordes on Piccadilly Circus.
The occasion was the 36th annual Soho Festival, and the turnout included a remarkable number of old Sohoites, now removed to places as remote as Amsterdam, Havana and even Kentish Town. Everyone was in agreement: Soho is not what it was; everyone used to know everyone else; now it’s losing its character and its characters.
Two of those characters are newly dead, at no age either: Michael Wojas, last proprietor of the Colony Room, the area’s louchest drinking den, and the dandy Sebastian Horsley. “Soho has completely lost its heart,” moaned Horsley before he died. “On a good night here 10 years ago you could get your throat cut. Now it’s full of weave-your-own-yoghurt shops and hairdressers.”
There is a more specific complaint, recently articulated by the TV presenter Dan Cruickshank: Westminster Council is trying to sanitise the district in advance of the London Olympics two years hence. Soho, horror of horrors, could end up like kiddie-friendly Covent Garden or Disneyfied Times Square.
Well, of course, the place is not what it was. Nowhere is. And Soho never was. Most of the old shops and businesses have gone, ravaged by rising rents. Only a handful survive: the Italian delis Lina’s and Camisa’s, the Algerian Coffee Stores, Bar Italia and the Gay Hussar restaurant.
Sometimes the dead can be resurrected, like the Nosh Bar opposite The Windmill, serving salt beef again after a 25-year gap. And most of the pubs have changed very little. But the butchers and fishmongers have gone, along with the small factories (though there are still plenty of tailors’ workshops). The buzzers these days show names like “Aramid”, “Omela” and “Lavish”, which, one realises with a tinge of sadness, are new media companies rather than exotic prostitutes.
Yet in certain respects Soho has definitely improved. The great, universally welcomed act of sanitisation has been the crushing of the “clip joints”, which offered punters alcohol and the hint of sex, but emptied their wallets without delivering either. And the place is far more overtly gay than ever before, rather than furtively and sometimes dangerously so.
And that is the genius of Soho. It contains multitudes (and the authorities don’t really know how many). London’s red-light district has always been far more than just that: a place of Sachertorte, freshly made pasta, jazz, genteel poverty, nostalgia and intellectual discourse.
Unlike most of the surrounding West End, it can be surprisingly cheap: a pound of cherries for £1.50 in Berwick Street market; £4 for breakfast; haircuts for £6; and (so I am told) quick tricks from £22. Prostitution has existed here since at least the 1640s. Since then, Soho has absorbed waves and waves of migrants from the Huguenots to the Gerrard Street Chinese community – and been broadened by their presence. Above everything, it is tolerant: a place where the law traditionally treads lightly and respects the blurry edges; a place where a chap might walk down the street naked and attract no attention except perhaps from a kindly tart, wondering if he might be cold.
However, paradise this ain’t. At the Algerian Coffee Stores, Paul Crocetta, the owner for 38 years, is phlegmatic: “Every time the lease goes up, we stay open longer to make up the difference.” At Lina’s, Antonio Saccomani is gloomy, listing rent increases, parking problems, the congestion charge, the internet, but, above all, the supermarkets among the curses. “We try to survive,” he insists.
Fiona Rhys-Jenkins Bailey, chairman of the Soho Society, says the biggest problems are “aggressive begging, street urination and drug dealing”. And this touches directly on the council’s concerns. Local councillor Glenys Roberts believes the area has become a victim of its own popularity. “You can get 5,000 people on Old Compton Street on a Saturday night and of course that creates a nuisance for the residents. The megaclubs attract young people from all over the continent. Sometimes it’s like Magaluf.”
Yet there is an extraordinary consensus that Soho’s most enduring traditions should not be swept away. Its higgledy-piggledy survival is somewhat miraculous: had the area not been in the grip of gangsters in the 1950s, property developers might have turned it to concrete. Instead, the next era belonged to the late Paul Raymond, who offered sex shows, but with a certain style. “It was super working for Paul,” recalls his costume designer Joan Martyr. “He gave me signing rights at all the shops. If I wanted gold lace or whatever, I could have it.”
Throat-cutting, in truth, has never been a major part of Soho’s business, and the streets have long been safer than those of many outer suburbs. And, with the clip joints gone, most establishments fulfil their promises. These include the flats where the front doors stay open and the passer-by has to weigh up the promise of the sign saying “Model – Second Floor” against the fear of the dingy staircase.
There seem to be remarkably few complaints about the “working girls” who inhabit the flats, and the consensus embraces the most surprising people. “The church has its view on sexual morality,” says David Gilmore, the rector of St Anne’s, “and I’m not going to go against that. But as the parish priest here I have to look to the safety of those involved. You’re not going to eradicate prostitution, and I think the women in the flats are the least of our concerns.”
Last year, Gilmore went to court to argue successfully against the closure of an alleged Dean Street brothel and won an Erotic Award for his efforts. He did, however, discover a prior engagement on the awards night and was unable to accept his trophy: a golden-winged penis. The girls have another supporter in “Big Jim” Sollars, for many years Soho’s village bobby: “Soho has always been avant-garde,” says Sollars. “It would be a shame if it became another town centre.”
Is that what’s happening? The evidence is conflicting. Sebastian Horsley’s characteristically stylish funeral was organised by his plumber, a drinking buddy. “That,” according to Glenys Roberts, “is very Soho and very nice.”
On the other hand, there really was a naked man on Old Compton Street the other morning. Wearing absolutely nothing, apparently. He had to run, though. Tradition of tolerance or not, the police were in full cry behind him.