You’ve read about the sack of Rome, the siege of Carthage, the looting of Persepolis – well, the b*stards are it again. This time they’re plundering Soho. Sidle down Walker’s Court, that suppurating alleyway of sexual half-promises that connects Peter Street and Brewer Street, and you sense the despondency. Sex shops have closed; sex clubs are semi-shuttered; sex itself seems to have given up the ghost and gone home to play on its computer.
Those who have their claws into Walker’s Court will tell you it has to go because it’s sleazy, but sleaze, for the millions who have come here looking for a good time over the years, or even better for a bad one, has always been the point of it. Sleaze not dispiritedness. Sleaze not despair. The sleaze that passeth all understanding.
FORGET YOUR HOPES. THEY WERE WHAT BROUGHT YOU HERE is how Clive James brilliantly translates Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate – the inscription above the gates of Dante’s hell. The words catch something of the fatal if illusory allure of Soho’s yards and alleyways, but we mustn’t make the mistake of confusing Walker’s Court, in the days it was aflame with squalid possibility, with the Inferno of Dante Alighieri and Clive James.
One important difference is that you could always get out of Walker’s Court. Another is that you rarely wanted to – unless you’d got what you were looking for, and that wasn’t likely. If we are to talk of hell at all, here is the distinction we must make: hell isn’t sin; hell is waiting for the bulldozers of gentrification to arrive. Hell isn’t sex; hell is another shopping mall.
I know whereof I speak. Long before I came to live in Soho, when I was young and full of hope, I would sidle down Walker’s Court myself – a sidle being the only way to approach it – and I can tell you it was paradise I hoped to find, not hell, albeit a paradise gaudier than the one aspired to by people who say their prayers regularly, keep a clean tongue in their mouth and dream of an eternity eating low-fat food at the same table as their Maker.
The paradise I sought, aged 17 and fresh off the train from Manchester, was a palpable answer to the questions that haunt all boys possessed of curiosity – what’s it like to do everything you shouldn’t; what’s it like to go off the rails for an hour or longer in the company of a person who might rob you blind or riddle you with disease that leaves you even blinder; what’s it like to be in the hands of someone who knows more than you do and cares less; what’s it like to let flesh rule you without consideration for your parents, your girlfriend or your homework ... but why go on? You know what I wanted to find out. What’s it ALL like?
How many of those questions Walker’s Court answered I am not obliged to say. The important thing is that a place existed where they could be asked. Call no city civilised that doesn’t provide educative amenities of this sort to the young, and consolations of a comparable kind – for the wondering is never altogether over – to the elderly. To complain that Walker’s Court is sleazy is like complaining that there are too many wine bars in the City or too many clothes shops in the West End. Our needs must be catered for, and sexual enlightenment – which comprehends the hopes, the let-downs, the compromises and the lessons – is more than a need; it’s a necessity.
The enemies of Walker’s Court are the ones you would expect: custodians of public morals, abhorrers of prostitution (who present their abhorrence as concern for the welfare of prostitutes, no matter that their concern is neither welcomed nor informed), planners, developers, and owners of estates that will do nicely when the strip clubs come down and the boutiques go up. The irony is that the latter should be owned by the family of the late Paul Raymond, the one-time king of Soho sleaze himself. Thus does the whirligig of time bring all things round. They who suffered the contumely of the censorious have joined the sniffy chorus of the censors themselves.
It wasn’t for this that I came to live in Soho a decade ago. I don’t say I wanted to be offered the company of a “lady” every time I left my front door, or that the omnipresence of sex toys for adults – an oxymoronic concept with which I am still struggling – made up for not being able to buy a decent loaf of bread. But the attraction of the place was the hum of infamy it generated. I came to live a life of introspection among the louche of Soho. Today the hum you hear is that same loucheness leaking lifelessly away.
Yes, I can at last buy the loaves I hungered for. More fresh baguettes are baked in Soho than you’ll find on Rue Mouffetard. But all that means is that eating has replaced sex. Soho always was where you came to dine when the other appetites had dulled – pizza washed down with a glass of valpolicella somehow told the story of all that had gone wrong with the night. Now, though, there’s nothing but Mexican food (not so much an accompaniment to disappointment as a disappointment in itself), cupcakes and chocolates dearer than the Ritz.
Reader, I could lead you Virgil-like to a place from which, if you love chocolate, you will leave without a penny to your name. This is how a young man besmirches his family’s reputation and goes to ruin in today’s Soho – not whimpering in wrinkled, bejewelled arms in Walker’s Court, but chewing on muscovado caramels and myrrh truffles.