“…than the evening of an Etruscan grove”: Soho in the bones

The following short piece was commissioned by Beeker Northam at Dentsu London, for a Newspaper Club project they were planning to do on the Soho district, but which for whatever reason never happened. Textual references date the piece to some point late in my tenure at Nokia, but it otherwise stands up pretty well, and as it’s never seen the light of day I thought I’d share it with you here and now. Enjoy.

For the past two years, I’ve found myself working for a gigantic and rather dowdy global corporation, an organization whose sterile pile of a headquarters is tidily located on a nowhere-ish expanse of motorway. For better or worse, this is where most days of my life take me.

By way of compensation, perhaps, our London office is nestled in the heart of Soho. For a lover of urban texture, of course, this is nothing less than a dispensation of grace: depending on the particular corporate-approved hotel I happen to be stashed in, my route to work will see me cutting beneath the Pillars of Hercules, past John Snow’s water-pump or the hallowed 100 Club. And not infrequently, loping down a narrow lane lined with Korean restaurants, courier services and “licensed” sex shops, past an unremarkable-looking strip club called the Windmill.

I had some sense of the postwar Italian wave, of course, and the tutelage in coffee, wine, sharp suits and scooters that particular wave of immigrants brought to the district. I knew that Soho, as one of London’s premier red light zones and later its gay ghetto, was a lazy byword for louche. The things that happened in these streets in blistering ’76 and the Jubilee summer of ’77 — these were all stories I learned growing up an ocean away in Philadelphia. And of course, as a consequence of my work, I am unavoidably and intimately familiar with the more recent gloss of ad agencies, consultancies and new-media shops that’s settled over the district like a hip miasma.

But for the lattermost set of circumstances, though, I had all this knowledge intellectually, by way of books and films and an obsessive, near-lifelong interest in the Mod and punk subcultures. It wasn’t and isn’t body-knowledge: in its phenomenological, affective and kinesthetic particulars, I could no more reconstruct an average pill-driven night of Soho 1963 than I could the evening of an Etruscan grove. Except in the most pallid, attenuated way, those sensations and experiences are lost to history.

What happens, then, to places — and this neighborhood more than most is filled with them — where what happens on, at, in and to the body is the very point of their existence? Their stories are lost to history in a most particularly annihilating way. You’d never, ever know it from the sad table-dancing club that currently occupies the site, but in twentieth-century British history, the Windmill turns out to have been one of the more important such places.

Behind the rather aggressive touts stationed at the door of the club lies a place where the daring, the salacious and, I’d argue, a particular modern conception of female beauty were engineered. Like Anna May Wong‘s ferocious performance as Shosho the Chinese Dancer in the 1929 silent Piccadilly, the “girls” of the Windmill moved as though they were willing modernity into being with their bodies, beneath what was then still the high-technology glamour of electric light.

The club’s audaciously nude tableaux vivants just skirted the indecency laws, made erotic entertainment safe for consumption by the middle class. (The gentry, of course, had always had a pass.) The sense you get from contemporary descriptions of the audience is one of delight in their own naughtiness, Thirties London’s equivalent of the nervous, giggling New York couples of 1975, who rushed to see Deep Throat so as to earn their bona fides as true children of the Sexual Revolution.

And there’s no way for any of us who came of age afterward to know what any of that felt like, to experience the deep-down, giddy-electric, liberatory thrill of it. The meaning of the place didn’t stick to the stones, to the point that years later I could walk down Great Windmill Street and not have so much as the foggiest clue of all the things that had transpired mere meters away. Those experiences would have had to have been continuously reanimated, reinscribed with acts of the living body, and were not and are not — today’s strip club, in fact, by offering just about the least interesting gloss on the site’s history, quite thoroughly inverts the meaning of what came before.

Who among us who was not there can really say what this Soho felt like in the bones, whether in the blacked-out days of the Blitz, as it came to an espresso-machine boil at the end of the Fifties, or during the anarchic summers of punk? Those brassy coffee bars, narrow doorways and dark chthonic stairways, even where physically extant, just don’t mean the same thing. Even if we were able to interview them at length, those with the relevant memories would find — no doubt to their own dismay as well as ours — that they can no longer quite conjure up the gestalt.

I point this all out not by way of licensing nostalgia but, if anything, just the opposite. What I’ve understood from my immersion in Soho’s history is that we are all of us making and remaking the places we live in on a constant basis, speaking them into reality through the things we say and the comments we leave on blogs, knitting them into being with bicycles and cars and our own two feet. We bring them to life with our custom and our traffic, our peregrinations and the exercise of our habits. And if we want to leave legends behind, we’d better get busy. These particular streets, richly shrouded in story as they are, demand no less.

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