For most LGBT+ people it’s London’s gay village. But for Soho chronicler Clayton Littlewood, it’s much more than that…
Piccadilly. My stop.
I get off the train, step on the escalator, up the stairs, until I’m above ground, on the Dilly Boy “meat rack” of old, on the outskirts of Soho.
I walk down Brewer Street, past the Vintage Magazine shop, the NCP car park, my mood lifting as I draw near, following in the footsteps of my heroes: Oscar Wilde, Quentin Crisp, Marc Almond and Sebastian Horsley.
I first came here in the 80s, drawn by the Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret world of seedy films and sex dwarves. I’d stand outside Madam JoJo’s, gazing up at Marc’s flat, or linger outside the Trident Studios on St Anne’s Court (home to Bolan, Bowie and Freddie), hoping to catch a glimpse of him.
Then at night, I’d climb a rickety staircase on Wardour Street to the Pink Panther, mixing with the rent and the goths, East End criminals and West End toffs, drag kings and scene queens, “dancing, laughing, living, loving”. Ah, that was my Soho, so long ago.
From the dying embers of the sex industry (on Walkers Court), I cross to the film world of Wardour Street, turning into the gay world of Old Compton Street. On my right is Café España. On my left, St Quentin’s old haunt, the Black Cat (where he was beaten up by “the roughs”). The street’s awash tonight, with tourists and hen nights, Hari Krishnas and socialites, a melting pot of London life, thrown together on one street. Like a modern-day Hogarth painting.
I walk past the 2is (the birthplace of British rock and roll), a pack of bears outside Compton’s (the new Coleherne clones), bowing my head in remembrance as I pass the Admiral Duncan, breathing in the rich aroma from the 125-year-old Algerian Coffee Shop, until I’m standing on the Dean Street crossroads.
It was these magical few yards that Daniel Farson captured when chronicling Francis Bacon’s “gilded gutter life”, that 50s Love Is The Devil drunken period when he’d stagger from Gaston’s bohemian French House pub, to Muriel’s “concentration of camp” at the members-only Colony club, recovering over breakfast at number 50, Café Torino, where a ten-foot marionette once perched above the door, and where “dark Italians and pale young artists and poets” would search half-heartedly for jobs.
I have a connection to this building. This is where my partner and I once lived, in the damp rat-infested basement, just feet away from Elizabethan plague pits (and where I too would chronicle life on this street).
I walk up Dean Street, waving at Maggie, one of the madams from the “walk up”, heading for Meard Street, the little cobbled Georgian thoroughfare where the famous Soho clubs, the Mandrake and the Gargoyle, once stood, where Tallulah Bankhead danced, where Fred Astaire was entranced, where Farson took Josh Avery in the book Dog Days of Soho.
Meard Street is the prettiest street in the village. Whenever I’m in Soho I make a point of coming here. I stand outside number seven, the house with the sign that reads, “This is not a brothel. There are no prostitutes at this address”, and I remember.
For it was here that Sebastian Horsley, the Soho dandy, lived. I would ring his bell, the shutters would open and he’d lean out, in a black silk negligee with a marabou feather–lined neck, his face coated in a fine white powder, his eyes caked in last night’s mascara, and he’d purr, “Hello, Romeo, Juliet here. Welcome to Horsley Towers.”
And when he died his coffin was wrapped in blood-red tissue paper, draped in jewels and it was placed in a Victorian style horse drawn hearse. And the hearse went all round the streets of Soho. It was as if Sebastian was saying a last goodbye to the village that he loved.
Now I’m back on Dean Street, looking toward the Golden Lion (a one-time gay serial killer haunt). This was where I used to spot Pam, the local homeless “celebrity”. Wherever I was in Soho, Pam would be there too. If I was walking past the Coach and Horses, Pam would step out of a doorway. If I was having a coffee outside Maison Bertaux, her radar would home in on me.
Pam has been gone now for four years but I still remember her dressed in her usual attire: camouflage trousers, donkey jacket, “barn owl” NHS glasses, sporting a number-one haircut. “Gotta gold one for me?” she mumbles. I hand her a coin. She squints at it. She doesn’t seem impressed. “It’s all I’ve got, Pam.” Then she wraps her arms around me, snuffling into my jacket. “Thank you… Luv you!” And off she trundles, like something from Beatrix Potter. Pam, the Fag Lady. The hardest worker on Old Compton Street.
I turn right into Old Compton Street. Across the road is Costa. And look, there’s the woman with the striking eye makeup and the “bum length” multi-coloured plaits. And over there, that’s Michele, the aging tranny, shuffling past, in a moth-eaten fur. Like an ancient Romanov in exile. This street may be predominately youth-oriented, but the old return, often unnoticed, to remember, to reflect. They see a different Soho. The ghosts.
A minute later I’m sitting with a coffee on the corner of Frith Street, within sight of Kettners. It is said that Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas entertained their rent boys there. And a couple of decades before them, two other doomed lovers, Rimbaud and Verlaine, socialised in a public house on this street.
And this is what I love about Soho – sitting with my coffee, by the window, writing in my notebook, watching the mayhem outside. I imagine the artists, the writers and the eccentrics that have flocked here over the centuries, attracted by the cosmopolitan feel, the lure of sex, and the hint of danger that lies within.
You can’t transport this vibe. It’s in the brickwork. It’s in their footsteps. The high street chains may be moving in, but old Soho is still here if you care to look. There’s nowhere like it in the world.
And one day it will rise again. It always does.