Sunday, November 21, 2010



Left: Policemen on duty in Soho. Cover of Life magazine (1946)

I have a lot of books on the history of Soho and this is my favourite- ‘An Indiscreet Guide to Soho’ by Stanley Jackson, published by Muse Arts Ltd in 1946 – consisting of a series of essays, personal reflections to counter what Stanley considers the ‘nonsense’ written by novelists, journalists and film screenwriters about his beloved Soho. He brings it to life in inimitable fashion. Here is an extract from the first essay: ‘Soho Ghosts’. Enjoy.

Forget for a moment the Soho of to-day with its thumbed menu cards, delicatessen shops and sallow little men on street corners. The phantoms live in a world without ration books, cover charges, football pools and atomic bombs. De Quincey slouches into that house on the corner of Greek Street and Soho Square. His lodgings are cold and dismal after the inns and coffee-houses; a bundle of old law papers serves him for pillow. The landlord comes in rarely and always in a hurried search for money or a clean shirt. He looks over his shoulder while he talks to his lodger; the police are on his heels. De Quincey moves to Greek Street and one day discovers a chemist in Oxford Street who supplies him with opium ...

A twist of the kaleidoscope and the little restaurants, waiters' agencies and vendors of permanent wave apparatus disappear from Greek Street. You see Becky Sharp; young Thomas Lawrence nervously handling a brush; Casanova pursuing a subtle intrigue; Gainsborough finding a model for his " Blue Boy," an ironmonger's son; Karl Marx hiding 'at the back of a barber's shop and writing until daybreak; Greeks, miserable and poor, dreaming of Hellas as they sink to their knees in Hog Lane, now Charing Cross Road.

In Wardour Street Charles Lamb potters about, fascinated by the old violins, the books, the strange plaster casts. The famous cellists, etchers and makers of rare cameos form a colony in Old Compton Street. A hosier's son, named William Blake, is born at 28, Broad Street. " Songs of Innocence" is written round the corner in Poland Street lodgings. Mrs. Siddons sweeps majestically into her new house at 54, Great Marlborough Street.

The church of St. Anne's in.Dean Street is now blitzed, a battered shell with a moth-eaten garden where waiters sit and scratch their raging corns. Once it was so beautiful that Whistler could not rest until he had made an etching. Its musical services were a magnet for Court and Society. John Evelyn . . . the Countess of Dorchester . . . even George, Prince of Wales. Two tablets, sooty and crooked, commemorate two very different men in the courtyard. Hazlitt, killed by cholera; and Theodore, a hard-up German noble­man and adventurer, who reigned over Corsica for a short time and died in a Dean Street garret, befriended to the last by the exquisite Horace Walpole.

Frith Street (then Thrift Street) where young Mozart gave concerts in his rooms, and the pompous Macaulay took lodgings on his first visit to London after Cambridge. Gerrard Street, long before it was discovered by Mrs. Meyrick. Dryden, writing immortal verse ; Edmund Burke preparing his indictment of Warren Hastings ; Joshua Reynolds at the Turk's Head tavern presiding over orators, wags, painters, politicians, critics, the rooms fragrant with hot punch and tobacco. In Brewer Street walks the ghost of an undertaker who made a coffin from the wreck of a French ship sunk in the Battle of the Nile. Lord Nelson stares musingly at the coffin and orders it before setting sail for Trafalgar.*

Even in Golden Square, with its seedy parking-place attendants, woollen merchants and victims of adenoids it is possible to dream of Angelica Kaufmann who painted exquisitely and received Royalty in her studio. One thinks of Lord Bolingbroke and Mrs. Cibber, and the fashionable demi-mondaines who sinned in style. Even more vivid than reality is the Golden Square of the Victorian novelists. The Yorkshire woollen merchants and their London agents cannot quite embalm the ghosts of Ralph Nickleby and Henry Esmond in serge or worsted.

Jean Straker (UK, 1913 – 1984) founded the Visual Arts Club in Soho in 1951 ‘for artistes and photographers, amateur and professional, studying the female nude’. He was a prolific photographer, and his photographs are now part of the collection of the National Media Museum in Bradford. See:

Many a pint of bitter have I tucked away in Greek Street's " Pillars of Hercules," and more than once thought of the unfortunate man who wrote " The Hound of Heaven." Into this pub would stride Francis Thompson, full of verse and laudanum, to drink gin and write poetry, reviews, devotional tracts. A lean figure with straggling beard, battered hat, billowing brown cape, his face seared by drugs, and over his narrow shoulders the famous basket in which he carried books for review. I don't know what he would have made of the flip talk of Dean Street's film-cutting rooms or of the barrow boys who swagger in, their pockets bulging with currency made on the kerb from vending expensive peaches and bunches of grapes. Perhaps he would have smiled gently at the vision that appeared in the bar the other evening. She wore slacks and an Ethel Mannin coiffure with dandruff on the velvet collar, and she had apparently come from an excitable Communist meeting. Overwhelmed by beer and a half-digested Comintern, she was violently sick in an ash-tray.

The barrow-boys went on discussing the peculiar ways of grey­hounds ; the newsreel men continued to slander Arthur Rank; the Monegasque waiter from Josef's Yugoslav restaurant swallowed his mild and bitter and rushed back to work; the landlord cleared up the mess with a frown; a Chinese chef slid across to the bar and ordered a drink in a ripe Cockney accent.

Soho to-day . . .

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