DJ Taylor: There are a few Soho watering places where veteran bohemian Liza Radley and her cronies are still welcome


Click to follow
The Independent Online

The world was a great deal younger when Liza Radley first came to lodge in Shepherd Market, London W1. Soho – just a few hundred tantalising yards away to the east – was Soho then, Carnaby Street had yet to be discovered by the Sunday supplements, and living legends were visible on every corner: Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon drinking in the Coach and Horses, and Paul Raymond's chauffeur-driven Roller cruising down Shaftesbury Avenue. Nowadays the place is full of Japanese tourists and there are expensive restaurants where the Italian delicatessens used to stand.

"I am a bohemian," Liza will proudly declare, on the rare occasions when questions of identity or personal affiliation are being discussed. But what does being a bohemian mean in 2014? In Liza's case, having a pale old white face that stares out incongruously from its frame of dyed red hair, smoking pungent cheroots, and wearing bizarre agglomerations of clothing (feathery jackets with lime-green platform boots, A-line 1950s skirts above scuffed plimsolls) that 40 years ago would have had you laughed at in the street but nowadays attract only the merest nod. That's the problem with being a modern-day bohemian: nearly everybody looks weird now. It takes a real effort to stand out.

Happily, there are a few Soho watering places where Liza and her cronies – very ancient cronies, they are – are still welcome, and where the swoop and eddy of their high, reminiscing voices can be heard above the throng of businessmen and media types. Liza is always good value at these times – she has a particularly good anecdote about finding George Melly dead-drunk in a lady's lavatory – if a little reticent about her personal life. Newcomers to her circle can be surprised to find that she once worked as a literary editor and taught French at St Paul's Girls' School.

And where does the modern bohemian go each night to lay her head? For the past 20 years, Liza has lived on a houseboat on the Thames at Battersea Reach. There was a Mr Radley once, but nothing has been seen of him for decades. The only other occupants are two cats, Buck Mulligan and Molly Bloom. As to what ravens feed her, who can tell? The only thing that can be said with any certainty is that her probable future does not bear thinking about.