The Phantom Of Soho

It finally struck me when I walked down Berwick Street yesterday evening. It's never been the fanciest of places, and after the market stalls have closed up it feels abandoned, dirty, a bit sad.

But all of a sudden that feeling has gone up by a factor of ten. There's fancy new paving underfoot, which just accentuates the litter. And the shops on the right hand side, under the awning, are gone. All of them. A run from the Co-Op to the pub that used to be the Endurance. Reckless Records, Beatroot, that funny little pound store, the bookies. Vanished behind a sweep of hoarding that features photos of the shops and businesses that have just been wiped off the map.


This is not an elegy for the Soho that was. I come not to mourn the place. Progress has to be made, and Soho has been a shithole for as long as I've known it. But we have history, the old neighbourhood and I. And Lord knows, it's weird to see it slip away.

I've been here for twenty-five years, from runner to VT op to telecine op to “colourist” to… whatever the hell I am now. I've lost count of the times I've been offered sex and drugs. I've lost count of the times I've been asked if I can supply them. I've dodged the whores and the trannies and the pimps and the dealers, side-stepping the puddles of puke and piss and blood–some of which were my fault. It's an ugly place, Soho. A rat's warren of alleys and narrow streets where you could scare up pretty much any thrill that tickled your tiny mind. On a night shift you could feel the vampires lurking round the corner.

I've worked here for a very long time, and it's never looked worse. Because it's a building site now. And what's emerging from under the scaffolding is a monster.

I mean, I've never liked Soho, but at least we knew where we stood. A cantankerous relationship. Her in last night's dress, lippy smeared across her face in a crimson snarl. Me with bags under my eyes you could tote home the groceries in, tottering drunkenly after one too many shifts on a leaking wetgate. We'd been around each other enough to keep the knives in our pockets, out of sight. We'd spit at each other then back off, and that was a victory we could live with. It was horrible, but it made a kind of sense.

The Soho coming out of the chrysalis now is a different sort of ugly.


We're back in Berwick Street, and the chippy on the corner by The Blue Posts has closed for the last time. If you want fish and chips now, you have to go to the Golden Union, where they'll charge you almost double for something half as good. The pubs are cleaning up their act, and bumping their prices at the same time. Soho was never the cheapest place to drink, but they're taking the piss. The site of The Endurance now houses a “Chinese gastropub” called The Duck And Rice, that will cheerfully charge £7 for a pint of their custom home brew.

And don't get me started on the coffee. Or that there seem to be more tapas bars per square yard here than in downtown Barcelona.

Even the people are different. Clean. Nice shoes. Shiny hair. I hate every last bright-eyed one of them.

I walk past the places where I used to work. TVP, my first gig, a post-production company that took a chance on me for reasons I still can't quite fathom. The Golden Square site is office space now. The Poland Street site is a hole in the ground. Most of the Dean Street side of the last film lab in London, the place where I made a name for myself and earned some film credits, is a hotel. The rest will no doubt be following soon. I feel like a ghost, watching the world I knew remap itself.

Is there still a place here for me? Well, there's the question. TLC and I cashed in our two-bed end-of-terrace in Walthamstow for the house we now call home ten years ago. I commute in, gazing out of a train window as the green fields outside Twyford and Maidenhead are taken over by industrial estates and smoke-grey brick. Four days work a week. The fifth is used up just by traveling to and from Reading. I fill the time with writing, but it's still a slog.

Yet I'm still here. Twenty-five years, while most of the people I knew have moved on, and the town and the job mutates under my feet. I wish I could tell you why I can't let go. Maybe it's cowardice. Maybe I'm just scared to find out what happens when I have to find something else to do with my time.

But as the neighbourhood changes so irrevocably around me, maybe the choice is already being made. I can't let go of Soho, but there's no reason why Soho can't let go of me. One day, we'll cease to recognise each other. She's got a new dress on and a fresh lick of make-up. Me? Fuck, I just look old.

And that's the day when I leave her to the bright-eyed kids in the tapas bars. That's when I get on the train for the last time, and watch dry-eyed as the landscape outside my train window reels back from grey to green.

I have a feeling that it won't be long now.




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Writer. Film-maker. Cartoonist. Cook. Lover.

5 thoughts on “The Phantom Of Soho”

  1. Great piece Rob.
    Soho has always for me been an area of London where anything goes!
    I used to go there as a young teenager and visit the amusement arcades. I wasn’t as cautious of it then as I am now. The Girls Girls Girls neon sign didn’t really have meaning to me. The roughly scribbled word ‘model’ on the doors of the famous Soho walk ups meant nothing to me.
    Then as I and some mates got older we would go up there for a laugh! Visiting the peep shows and buying poppers in the sex shops! The record shop on Brewer Street was great.
    Ahh the memories!
    But it is a shit hole. You are right. But it’s a gem of a shit hole. The mother of all shit holes. There is no other place in London that comes close. Hoxton and Shoreditch are the only other places that bear any resemblance.
    When I turn into soho from either Oxford St, Regent Street, Shaftesbury Avenue or Charing Cross Road I always get a strange feeling of going into the unknown. Leaving my comfort zone of the main roads and entering an area where I should expect the unexpected or indeed expect the expected! I hope Soho always maintains its seedy side, it’s fashionable parts and its shit holeness!

    1. Thanks, Rich. I think it’s taken a while for Soho to feel the sting of Hoxtonisation, but it’s happening. I don’t want to cling onto the past, but Soho doesn’t have the air of inclusiveness it once had. You need money to make your mark now. And that’s a real damn shame.

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