Howard Jacobson: Wine, women and Soho

For half a lifetime, Jacobson has been obsessed with this much-maligned corner of London, watching its fortunes fall and rise. It's where he discovered sex, where he now chooses to live and where he found inspiration for his new novel. Here, he explains why
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The Independent Online

Soho is London writ large. Whatever there is in London – excepting open spaces, and who cares about open spaces? – there is more of it in Soho. I am tempted to say that "when a man is tired of Soho he is tired of life; for there is in Soho all that life can afford." But that is at once to overstate and to understate the case. All of life isn't here, but then it isn't meant to be. For Soho is a sort of joke on life, a very English tease, now seeming to give you all you want, now taking it all away again. Which may be why, in vexed middle age, I have decided to live here. And why I love it.

Soho is London writ large. Whatever there is in London – excepting open spaces, and who cares about open spaces? – there is more of it in Soho. I am tempted to say that "when a man is tired of Soho he is tired of life; for there is in Soho all that life can afford." But that is at once to overstate and to understate the case. All of life isn't here, but then it isn't meant to be. For Soho is a sort of joke on life, a very English tease, now seeming to give you all you want, now taking it all away again. Which may be why, in vexed middle age, I have decided to live here. And why I love it.

That I have set my new novel, Who's Sorry Now?, in motion in this place, allowing it to propel my characters into more trouble than they can handle – more happiness and more unhappiness, because the one hangs on the other's coat-tails in Soho, as surely as tears follow laughter – is a further proof of my affection. "Twilight agitates madmen," wrote Charles Baudelaire, himself a great haunter of the inner city. By which I take him to mean that twilight also makes sane men mad. The Soho twilight, with its dulled-down allure, does damage to my characters' minds, anyway. But this may be a little soon in the piece to be talking twilight.

As an example of Soho's daylight teasing, take Berwick Street market, which runs between Broadwick Street and Brewer Street – the confusion caused by such similar-sounding, rabbit-warren, tarts'-hideout street names (all wicks and whores and Bs for every sort of bastardy) being but a further extension of the joke. On a good day, if you are lucky or if you know exactly which stall to shop at, you can come away with luscious fruit and fresh vegetables from Berwick Street. Essentially, though, that isn't the point of it. Essentially, the point of Berwick Street market is to make you think of all the great delectable street markets you have been to or read about in Paris or Tangier or Bangkok, and then to make you forget about them, for this is nothing of the kind. "A pound a scoo' 'ere," the fruiterers shout – a "scoo'" being what it sounds, a scoop, a stainless-steel bowl that might have unripe plums in it, or string beans, or carrots, depending on what has to be got rid of fastest. Sometimes, if the fruiterers are feeling inventive, it contains a medley: one plum, five carrots, and half a kilo of string beans. In a Naples market, you can buy basted quail on a bed of spinach and pesto gnocchi, one eye stuffed with truffles, the other with walnuts marinated in virgin olive oil; in Berwick Street, you pick a scoop.

Some mornings, when I am shopping, I believe I see polishing the pears the very man who stopped me in Peter Street the night before, wondering if I needed a woman, and who, the night before that, tried to wink me into the butt-plug and vibrator emporium in Walker's Court. They have a guilty, otherwise-occupied air, the Soho stallholders, as though fruit and veg is just a sideline to their business proper, the numbers racket they're operating on Great Windmill Street. This is the charm of it. On hundreds of markets throughout the country you are encouraged to believe that what you're buying – the roll of lino, the Limoges china tea-set – has fallen off the back of a lorry; only in Soho do you get the feeling the tomatoes have, only in Berwick Street do you ask for a scoo' of bananas sotto voce, in the hope the police aren't watching. But then that's why you're here – to walk on the wild side.

Turn right from Berwick on to Broadwick and you'll see Agent Provocateur, presently undergoing a facelift after what must have been a very good year, if the line of men waiting to buy their Christmas presents there throughout December – locked out because the shop was full and overheated – was anything to go by. Agent Provocateur does racy lingerie, as do many other establishments in Soho, but Agent Provocateur does it postmodernly, ironically referring to the tackiness of those other establishments even while rivalling them for it. In the windows of Agent Provocateur are lumpy models usually dressed in bloomers more capacious than your grandma's. But lewdly so. Work that out. Inside you'll find slinkier stuff, but almost always knowing – bejewelled dog collars, for instance; whips encrusted with stones. If you must be beastly, be it in style. If you must be stylish, remember you're a beast. Thus, in the best spirit of Soho itself, it takes even as it gives.

I confess I didn't always get this about Soho. Maybe it was less subtle once. Or maybe it's gay Old Compton Street, undermining itself for all its worth, parodying sex with even more sex, drinking latte until it comes out of its ears and thus making a fool even of coffee, that has taught me to read it both ways. There were no such equivocations on my mind anyway when I first haunted the place in the Sixties, catching the train from Cambridge to Liverpool Street, then the tube to Tottenham Court Road, a boy on fire, ready to do such things, or have such things done to me – I didn't distinguish – as would have got me sent down for ever had they been discovered, a disgrace to the English faculty, a shame to my old school, and a disappointment to my family.

And what things were they? Better you don't ask. Suffice to say that at that time, all Soho-centered imaginings found their consummation, not to say their come-uppance, in the strip show. Friends of mine who didn't go to strip shows wondered how watching women less attractive than the girls we knew at Newnham and Girton taking only some of their clothes off under bad lighting and to predictable music could be arousing. Which, of course, entirely missed the point. What was arousing was not knowing what would happen to you once you paid your money at the door and were allowed to pass inside. Most times, all that did happen was that you were ushered through curtains into a car park where you were either left feeling a chump, or escorted across the rubble to a real strip joint – there was only one in those days, all the others were mere façades – where you were charged again and left feeling a bigger chump still. But you lived in hope.

Later, whenever I brought my Australian wife to the capital, I took her to Soho because it was the only part of London I knew. Letters she sent back to Australia described London as much smaller than she had imagined. "About 10 streets, every other shop a sex shop or a peep show, prostitutes on every corner, and no sign of Buckingham Palace." It was only when a third party showed her Regent's Park and Chelsea that she realised the nature of the man she'd married.

Now, half a lifetime on, I understand rather more about myself. It was the twilight that drove me insane. The opportunities for voyeurism as well, naturally, for no novelist was ever not a voyeur, but it was the twilight, the peculiar Soho twilight, that did it. There are red-light districts where darkness falls at once, where the bars turn dangerous in an instant, where the day people vanish suddenly and just as suddenly the whores of either sex appear, beautiful and beckoning, as though loosed out of hell, and where you will risk getting your throat cut for one bite of the voluptuousness on offer. Soho is not like that. Soho darkens slowly, allowing you to chart the change-over – the film editors and television producers slowly leaving, if they leave at all; the homeless changing shifts; the Les Mis and Mamma Mia! lemmings coming in off their buses to dip a little toe into the wickedness, and not a beautiful whore of either sex to be seen. You get time to acclimatise, that's the thing; you have the leisure to enjoy the furring of your skin as it passes from the stewardship of Dr Jekyll to the possession of Mr Hyde. Twilight is thus the pivotal moment, the equinoctial point between doing something sensible, that is to say doing nothing, and doing something foolish. And what's so seductive about it, here in Soho, is that it isn't seductive at all. You can choose. You can resist. There is nothing that you see that you absolutely must have. So if you go ahead and take something – well, you can't say you didn't give yourself the chance to do otherwise. And you shouldn't really be disappointed in the aftermath, because you were disappointed before you started.

If Soho is London in a nutshell, then this offer of breathing time between good and bad, this sensible dampening of expectation as the light fades, is the purest expression of Englishness.

That the English are capable of going more spectacularly off the rails than any other people on the planet is, I think, down to this liberty of choice they grant themselves. That's the story I have chosen to tell in my new novel, at any rate. As for myself, I am entirely safe. From my balcony I can see the London Eye and it can see me. You could say we keep an eye on each other, voyeur to voyeur. Just two more out-of-towners looking to be on the razzle in Soho.

Howard Jacobson's new novel, 'Who's Sorry Now?', is published by Jonathan Cape on 25 April, £16.99

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