Soho is for sex: They thought they were cleaning up the place but they were killing it

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The Independent Online
When, no more than a decade or so ago, London was still a collection of real villages rather than the ersatz villagey creations of the estate agent's brochure, each area of the town had its own function. Clerkenwell was for watch-makers and Italians, Bayswater was for cheap hotels and the tarts that went with them, Knightsbridge was for shops. But no London village was more certain of its identity and its function than Soho.

Soho was contained within the strict bounds of Shaftesbury Avenue, Oxford Street, Regent Street and the Charing Cross Road, and the function of Soho was to provide good honest filth. True, it provided some good restaurants and a few odd drinking clubs that still affected a smug and down-at-heel bohemianism, and there were the remnants of the old musical instrument business still around, and the tailors and trimmings shops in Berwick Street, and the film offices in Wardour Street.

But the sticky mortar that joined all these commercial bricks together was sex. Cheap hookers, dirty bookshops, strip clubs, mucky cinemas, peep-shows, clip joints where gullible Danes were sold near-beer by sullen topless waitresses, sex shops where giggling copy typists dared each other to go and ask the price of the improbably pink vibrators, shifty men selling soft porn masquerading as the guaranteed triple-X-rated real thing in shrink-wrapped bags, grubby cards at the foot of grubbier staircases promising that the model upstairs was new and 18 and particularly friendly. Sex was what Soho was for.

It was tasteless and oafish, but then isn't the Trocadero on the other side of Shaftesbury Avenue tasteless and oafish, or the soppy theme-park pagodas in Chinatown?

The difference is that people keep on trying to change Soho, to make it something more tasteful or cleaner or safer. The cool fashion-victim shops that had come to Soho because of its very seediness suddenly decided that seedy was what they didn't want after all, and so they formed themselves into prissy little trading associations devoted to tarting the streets up with tourist-sucker signs telling us we were in the nonce-village of West Soho.

'West Soho' is as much a fiction of the self-aggrandising boutiquire on the make as is the 'Theatreland' legend that now appears on the local street signs an invention of a local council which believes it runs London's own Disneyland. The sex shops became licensed according to a set of subjective and unknowable rules based on the mad premise that there was a 'suitable' density of dirty bookshops and a lesser, but equally reasonable, number of peep-show houses, and that while 10 or a dozen strip clubs might outrage public sensibilities, three or four somehow would not.

And then, week by week, the style sections of the broadsheet papers reported one renaissance or another for Soho. A frock shop would open on Brewer Street and the papers would write about Soho's coming fashion revolution. An overpriced beechwood and frosted-glass restaurant would open and the word would be that the new Soho restaurant revolution was around the corner. A brace of shops would start selling clever cloth remnants by the yard and Soho was briefly hailed as the centre of the new rag trade. A couple of gay bars and leatherware shops started up and Soho was suddenly the gay quarter.

And none of it made any difference. On Friday nights the streets were still thronged with stray knots of conference delegates down from Bromsgrove telling each other that of course they'd never done this sort of thing before, but what the hell. It was full of Americans hoping to get offered what they wouldn't dare ask for in Times Square. It stayed as full of sad old drunks and scrofulous beggars as ever it had been before any of its rebirths

The truth is that the renaissance of Soho will never happen. It can never happen. Soho is not Covent Garden or the Docklands, where the old function of the area has been moved away to allow the new function to blossom. Everything that happens in Soho happens because of the sex.

We may never push our way through the tatty plastic streamers that hang across the doorways of the bookshops, nor consider for a moment turning in at the sign of the 40-watt bulb along Berwick Street. But it's the sex that tells us we're not in any other part of London, not dining in the safe inner-city suburbs, nor clubbing in the wastes of south London nor drinking in the local at the end of our road. And the point about sex is that it can't be cleaned up and theme-parked like the rest of London, any more than the Thames can work as a tourist attraction if it's concreted over.

By all means ban the bookshops from Kings Cross and Islington, chase the kerb-crawlers away from Balham and Finsbury Park, render the rest of London safe for our children to walk through without our having to turn their innocent heads. And if you want to sell this week's chic and you don't want your fastidious cust-omers passing the Ann Summers shop on the way to buy your clothes or your food, then set up stall in the Kings Road or Camden Passage. But don't complain that Soho's dirty. Dirty is what it's meant to be.

(Photograph omitted)

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