Soho in the Eighties
by Christopher Howse, bloomsbury,
Soho in the 1970s, with its strip joints and steamed-up caffs, was an exciting place for a teenager to explore. I used to play truant there from my school south of the river. The sex industry was then at its peak as the vice barons were in cahoots with the police. Red lights glowed everywhere. Outside the peep shows on Old Compton Street were bouncers who worked for local Maltese gangsters. One of those Maltese, a great brisket of beef named Big Frank Mifsud, ran pretty well all the blue-movie fleapits, dirty bookshops and near-beer parlours in London’s West End. He died in some poverty in 1999 back home in Malta, where he had begun life as a traffic policeman.
Today, of course, Soho’s sex business is dominated by the Albanians, who fleece punters in much the same way as the Maltese did, with a promise of sex that never materialises.
Soho at the dawn of Thatcherism was not the gay-dominated, hipster playground it is today. One of the great overlooked British films of that time, Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End, starring Jane Asher and Diana Dors, immortalised the Soho locations that I had got to know so well. It follows a teenage school-leaver called Mike into a West End underworld of adult sexual desire and exploitation. How I identified with callow, wide-eyed Mike. At one point in the film a prostitute offers him a discount because her leg is in plaster. The education tendered to me by Soho was thrilling if morally questionable. After every visit, I wanted to submerge myself in a vatful of Dettol or become a Catholic priest; St Patrick’s Church in Soho Square offered promise of renewal.
Christopher Howse, an assistant editor at the Daily Telegraph and a practising Catholic, knew the old louche Soho as represented by the Coach and Horses pub on Greek Street, the York Minster (now called the French House), and the Colony Room run by the excoriatingly rude Muriel Belcher. In the 1980s, when Howse arrived on the scene, Soho was on the cusp of change. Low-lifers and high-lifers alike still lurched into the Coach and Horses, where the Spectator columnist Jeffrey Bernard held court. But the Soho that had been celebrated with such a tart black comedy and vaudeville sauciness in Deep End was being gutted and demolished to make way for expensive flats.
Ominously, the Groucho Club (founded in 1985) ushered in a new culture of so-called haute cuisine – always the first sign of an area’s incipient loss of soul. The only thing “gastro” about the Minster or the Coach in Howse’s day would be “enteritis”, it has been joked. Now, almost unbelievably, the Coach and Horses advertises itself as “London’s first vegan pub”.
Howse, who finds a lugubrious comedy in human failings, chronicles Soho in the 1980s with his customary elegant prose and eye for telling detail. His book, a mosaic of character sketches and colourful gleanings, is a delight to read.
Among the many eccentrics to be found here are Tom Baker of the Doctor Who series (and, unknown to me, a former Catholic monk), the minor painter Diane Hills, who had been a student at the Royal College of Art under Professor Carel Weight (who was my godfather), the Catholic convert and former Private Eye editor Richard Ingrams, and the cadaverous, black beret-wearing
Old Etonian crime writer Derek Raymond (author of the scabrous Crust on its Uppers). The book’s real hero, however, is the “dazzlingly handsome” Bernard, whose “Low Life” column was a treat every week in the Spectator until he died in 1997 of kidney failure.
After six large ones (or more) Bernard could often turn quite vile. Among his obsessive dislikes were Greenpeace, the dungaree-wearing militant feminist Andrea Dworkin, joggers, nut cutlets (“Cranks is a damned good name for a health food chain”), after-shave lotion and women Guardian readers. He loved his “leg-over”, horse racing, vodka, Graham Greene and Lord Nelson. His narcissism and vinegary humour were unforgettably mimicked by Peter O’Toole in Keith Waterhouse’s play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, first performed in the West End in 1989.
Along the way, Howse throws up startling facts. I did not know that the Catholic poet and Arthur Rimbaud translator Oliver Bernard was Jeffrey Bernard’s brother. (Bernard’s 1962 Penguin Rimbaud served me well for a dreadful play I wrote about Rimbaud while at university in the 1980s, with Tilda Swinton in the role of the French poet’s mother.)
And now? Perhaps only the scruffy 18th-century Academy Club on Lexington Street retains something of the old Soho. Run until recently by the smoulderingly beautiful Persian-Irish goddess Mandana Ruane (and her Border Terrier Jezebel and Collie mongrel Heathcliff), the Academy still is a place where nothing matters but your conversation, which is the essence, really, of old-school bohemianism. Howse, who says he no longer drinks alcohol, has done Soho proud in this superlative, sour-sweet documentary.