In which The Author goes on the World’s Least Successful Pub Crawl
There was a time when I knew Soho pretty well. Even though I never went into any of the pubs in that mythical area of London W1, I could get around without too much trouble. I knew where to find all the secondhand book and record shops, as well as the ‘niche’ retailers for which Soho was renowned in the 1980s, and which aren’t suitable to be described in a family blog.
Sam and I once spent a couple of hours sourcing material for a dress her friend Cathy K. was making for her. There were loads of textiles shops where you could buy material off the roll.
Then there were the legendary afternoon drinking clubs, and the area’s many pubs and clubs, not all of which were of the seedy variety. Today I found a green plaque (?) on the site of the 2i’s Coffee Bar, the birthplace of British rock’n’roll. Not everything’s changed, though. Valerie’s Patisserie is still going strong, as is one of the oldest shops catering for gay men. Soho still represents heavily concentrated diversity in a comparatively small area of the city centre.
Martin H. used to work around here in the 1980s. He worked as a driver for a company which rented gear to the top recording studios. This is where you’ll find them, along with film editing facilities and small production companies trying to break into the industry. As a result, Martin knows the area as well as any cabbie or despatch rider.
When we were here in July 2013, Martin took Huw F. and I on a whistlestop tour of some of the landmarks in British musical history, before we repaired to the Coach and Horses (a.k.a. Norman’s) for a well-earned pint.
This afternoon I completely lost my Soho mojo.
After my appointment at Charing Cross Hospital, I headed back into town and jumped off the tube at Piccadilly Circus. I wanted to look for a book (which unfortunately, isn’t available in paperback yet).
I’d come out of Waterstone’s, headed straight up Air Street towards Golden Square, and then completely lost the plot. Instead of heading east along Brewer Street, continuing into Old Compton Street, and then diving down Greek Street to Norman’s, for some unknown reason I kept going.
When I arrived at the southern end of Carnaby Street I knew something had gone badly awry. It took me no less than forty minutes to get from Waterstone’s to the Coach and Horses. During that time I passed any number of historic street-corner watering holes from which I daresay Jeffrey Bernard was barred at some point. Not to mention Keith Waterhouse, Francis Bacon, Daniel Farson, Lucien Freud, John Osborne, Dylan Thomas, Tom Baker, Peter Cook, Frank Norman … I passed them all – otherwise I’d have been as pissed as any self-respecting Soho boho by now.
A couple of weeks ago I found Mr Waterhouse’s novel Soho propping up a wobbly pile of books in Barbara’s shop. I started reading it the weekend before last. It’s a very funny tale of a young lad from Leeds exploring this extraordinary corner of London for the first time. With a fairly contemporary setting, it taps into the soul of the area. No doubt some of the models for the characters who drift in and out of the narrative are around this afternoon. Names have been changed to protect the guilty.
Still, at least nobody’s brought a body in (yet!) That bizarre incident may or may not be based on historical events. In the book, the recently-departed’s mates take him on one final pub crawl. It sounds like the sort of thing that would happen in this place.
Last Friday, almost as skint as it’s possible to imagine, I took Soho to Aberdare Jokecentre with me. We never get called on time, so I thought I’d read it while I was waiting. To my unending joy, I’d somehow contrived to use a £5 note as a bookmark the previous weekend. It paid for some emergency supplies and a pint in Spoons. That’s a Soho story, right there, right now.
If I had the money and/or stamina, a Soho pub crawl could quite literally be the death of me. Probably best to start in Norman’s and go from there, though – just in case I got barred.