WHERE IS LONDON IF SOHO IS GONE?
by Caitlin Moran, published in The Times - 21st March 2015
‘How much of historic, eccentric, transgressive London can you replace with apartments for foreign investors before people stop wanting to come here any more?’
All my life, I’ve been scared of sticking with skiffle. You know – those stories of people who, when rock’n’roll came along, said, “Ooh no, this isn’t as good as skiffle. A guitar, a washtub bass, a jug and a musical saw – that’s proper music. Not like this Little Richard fellow, or those Beatles. No, I’m going to stick with skiffle, thank you very much.”
So, no. I don’t want to be nostalgic for the sake of it. My default is always to be excited about the new thing – even if, sometimes, welcoming the new thing means discarding the older things, or letting them fade away. Sometimes, you have to burn up a little bit of the past to light up the future. I get that. That’s progress. I understand about change. I am not smashing the looms.
But there are times when things are about to change when you must say, “I think keeping this would be useful to us, actually. To change this would also be to change a million other, interconnected things. To change this is to take the heart out of something – the heart of something living – just to sell as meat. This thing needs to stay the same.”
And so, London. Yes, all the wankers live here. The very worst kind, the kind who actively ruin everything. But London is still also where you’ll end up in a room with the ten oddest, brightest, most on-fire people – half of whom will be furiously engaged in trying to stop the wankers previously mentioned – and think, “London still isn’t just a place; it’s an idea. Out of this room will come hundreds of small futures.”
But ideas need a place to happen, and they can only happen in certain kinds of places. If you look through the history of culture, you will see that ideas tend to come from attic flats, dingy boozers and nightclubs full of freaks. They come from areas with manky pigeons and tiny button shops, where all the misfits – women, gays, immigrants, shy boys, hot alcoholics, and people generally on a mission – can converge.
And this is why there is a campaign to save Soho at the moment (savesoho.com). For the Crossrail station is nearing completion and it seems the moment it opens its barriers, it will blow away those hundred tiny streets of Soho – the sticky basements, coffee houses, guitar shops and furtive corners; the boozers with gravy-brown tables, burnished by a million woozily sliding elbows – and replace them all with a new plan: executive flats and office space, rendered in uniform International Architecture.
That’s the plan: to monetise Soho. To take its name, known across the world, and use it to sell this new, gutless, hand-sanitiser wankers’ farm. To take the Soho out of Soho, and turn it into … Broho. Noho.
Where is London, if Soho is gone? Once they’ve seen Buckingham Palace and the Thames, what are the millions of tourists going to see, if the places are gone that the fleeing Huguenots built, that the Italians turned into cheap eating places, where Dylan Thomas drank and Bob Dylan played, where beatniks, strippers and drag queens rubbed shoulders? How much of historic, eccentric, transgressive London can you replace with well-appointed apartments for foreign investors before people stop wanting to come here any more?
For that’s the dangerous game being played with London’s “development” at the moment – that new, faceless skyline rising up by the Thames; Camden Market’s bland, chain-store ruination; the cherry-tree gardens of Hampstead being replaced with hulking, gravel-drived supermansions.
“I’m going to London.”
“Where is London?”
“I’ll be honest, it’s not there any more. But I can show you some pictures of what it used to look like.”
Where do you go, and what do you do, when you go to Paris, New York, Berlin or Dublin? You don’t just go to a place; you travel to see if you can see other times, too: you go to the old parts, to hunt echoes and ghosts. You look for the footsteps and fingerprints of Bowie, Dickens, Gainsbourg, Joyce – the thrill of being able to stand on a doorstep and say, “This is the doorstep they would have used. They came here for a reason and I have, too. This place is a matrix, a melody, a curation – a carefully constructed and unique thing – known across the world. To change too much of it is for it to cease to exist.”
London cannot be turned into one, uniform supertown – apartments and offices, all the same, from Heathrow to Stratford, from Walthamstow to Peckham. Cities need their villages, their tiny sheltered coves, among the otherwise sheer cliff faces of high-rise glass and steel. If Soho goes, then there is truly nothing left in this city that will not be sold. We have become cheap, shit-heel butchers, selling hearts for meat.
Caitlin Moran, 21st March 2015