Walking with Nick Mai in Soho, London
In December 2016 I joined the sociologist and filmmaker Professor Nick Mai for a walk through Soho in London. We had originally planned a walk in Marseille, but Nick wanted to walk in Soho for reasons that will become clear in the following narrative.
Nick arranged to meet me outside the Hippodrome, next to Leicester Square tube station.
Fig.1. Hippodrome Casino
Nick, it’s really fabulous to be here with you in London. I am really looking forward to walking with you. Could you say where we’re going to walk? Just give me an idea of the route.
Fig.2. Nick Mai
Borders, risk and belonging: biographies of space, place and memory
Yes, so today we are going to walk around Soho, around its borders and inside Soho and we will explore some of the ways in which I am related to the place, some of the features of the place and also, unfortunately, some of the ways in which it has changed, because Soho has become a very, very different place. So we are going to start here at the Hippodrome which is not any more a disco, it used to be a disco back in 1988 when I first came here, so there’s a lot of memories in this walk.
That is excellent, my hope is that your biographical links with London, as well as your work biography of making films and researching sex work and migration, will interweave really naturally in the walk.
I hope so. Well, they coexist quite a lot in my head! So I am here in 1989 in front of this place which used to be one of the biggest discos in London and now it is a casino. They used to have a gay night on Mondays and I was like eighteen then. For the first time in 1989, I could actually go into the Hippodrome on a Monday because the first time I saw the Hippodrome, which is why I knew about the gay night, was when I was fifteen years old and I came here on a language holiday in the summer in London. That was the first time and that’s when I discovered Time Out, the fabulous gay and lesbian section of Time Out which used to be extensive, you know? I came from a small town in Italy which wasn’t very intensely homophobic, but it still was a very small place in quite a conservative country. Suddenly I have seven pages of events including gay canoeing or tennis playing. Not only clubbing but a life, there was a life to be had here.
So that stuck in my head for a long time. As we were passing by with a typical kind of rucksack that was popular amongst Italian kids people were shouting ‘gay night, gay night Monday night’ so it stuck in my head for a few years. So on that famous evening of 1989, we went in me and a friend of mine who was on yet another language course [laughs]. You know by then we were quite fluent, but never mind.
And then we entered Soho and London gay life and it was very interesting because London in those years was like a magnet. This was a poorer country, a divided country, Margaret Thatcher, the AIDS crisis… It was a very political country in a very different world. The Berlin Wall was still up and so a very, very different place. There were lots of migrants in the disco and it was very interesting to see how for many of us London in those years was like an articulation of ourselves that we couldn’t express at home.
Because of the pop music that emerged, the gay pop music specifically like Marc Almond or Boy George… Those people used to be in Soho and so it became a place where we could actually imagine to be. So on that note, I think we can now move along Charing Cross Road and go to Tottenham Court Road.
I think we should start with the borders of Soho, this is definitely a cornerstone of Soho.
The Leverhulme Fellowship is about borders, risk and belonging and your account of the importance of this first landmark really speaks to these themes.
Yes, definitely risk, because in those years the AIDS epidemics was rampant and unknown. We didn’t know half of the things that we know now in terms of how to cure it and how to prevent it. It was still framed as a gay disease and also as a deadly one, most importantly, which it was! So for us coming here, we were also taking a massive risk. But that didn’t stop us, it didn’t stop us from coming here even though it was very risky and I was very concerned. I come from a generation that survived the epidemics of injecting heroin because Italy was one of the corridors through which heroin came from, you know the Middle East into Europe, and so it was badly hit, and my city Modena, was a crossway of that.
The generation before me was wiped out not so much by AIDS because it was earlier than that but by overdoses. We were very alerted… We were warned very often about the dangers, so the combination between that history and the association between homosexuality, AIDS and death made the presence of risk very, very real.
Fig.3. Black wall
Let us stop for a moment. This black wall that you see over here is what we are talking about. Today we are going to see a very gentrified Soho or a Soho that is being gentrified. All of this is now going to be rebranded into a string of higher end restaurants and chains. This is what’s going on in Soho, restaurants which did not belong to chains before are now being bought and transformed into chains. The whole neighbourhood is being boarded up and restructured, the whole thing It is quite an intense and violent intervention. There is a site, and we’re going to see it now, in Tottenham Court Road, where the Crossrail comes in, which is very significant. It’s the intersection between infrastructure, business and Westminster council’s desire to upgrade, whatever that means, this very central area that makes it particularly vulnerable to gentrification, to high scale gentrification. You’ll see, I think the place is being gutted.
Fig.3. Black wall hiding the development work
Gentrification, monoliths and the machine…
And as you say this black wall that we are standing in front of is symbolically a really powerful image, a monolith of retail and restaurants.
Yes and look ‘Connecting Brands and Consumers’… That’s quite a slogan, isn’t it? “The destination to engage with consumers and deliver a truly original immersing experience…” These slogans capture what’s going on here in Soho. Whatever was nice and unique, which was its queerness not only in sexual terms but in broader in termsof transgression of norms, in terms of creativity, it’s still very much there but is now being branded as something that can be sold to people. Whatever Soho used to be, it now becomes the backdrop of commodification and communication.
Even sex workers now are seen as adding character to the branding of Soho, instead of being seen as people who actually live there and work there. Everybody’s now become useful for this kind of venture. I think it is the society we are living in. Everything is being branded and sold.
Yes and so all that uniqueness is being enrolled into this machine…
It is, it is actually, broken into pieces. Let’s keep walking
And at the end of the wall, then you have this beautiful Church.
Fig.4. Desacralised church
The church used to be a nightclub called Limelight. Which was a desacralised church, in that it’s not consecrated any more.
And it used to be fabulous in the early 90s and late 80s. The atmosphere was like out of a music video… Behind the black wall, there was a very popular karaoke and gay bar and quite a few shops. God knows what they’re going to do with it… This is one of the things that’s been happening in Soho for a long time, the flee of gay people and businesses out of Soho.
For a series of reasons, like it started with people moving to Vauxhall. I don’t know the details of it but there’s been a lot of migration of [loud traffic noise] I’m just waiting for this big noise to go, of gay places to Vauxhall and then to Hoxton as well, later on.
Charing Cross Road: migration, risk and ‘becoming’
Right now we are on the Charing Cross Road. So we are looking at is the border of Soho. Going back to the notion of risk, in an article I published recently on my film Samira, which is about an Algerian refugee who crosses the Mediterranean twice over in order to have the life that she needs and wants to have, I problematized the way in which migrants who take risks to cross the Mediterranean are seen as irrational and as lacking agency. I refer to what I told you before about myself and my relationship to London in the 1980s and 90s to explain that when you feel that existentially you have a possibility of being who you are somewhere else, then risk becomes an opportunity. Risk is experienced as a limit to something you really want to be and so you just take it.
In the case of my migration, the risk was HIV and all of that, but we just needed to come here to become who we thought we were then.
Fig.5. Foyles bookshop
Look, this building in front of us, which is now the bookshop Foyles, used to be the St Martin School of Art and Design. They now have a very beautiful venue at the back of King’s Cross, which is part of that process of gentrification.
Returning to your point about the risk of migration, this is exactly what we’re finding with the migrant mothers who have no recourse to public funds, it’s a risk and an opportunity, an opportunity, especially for their children.
Yes, absolutely. Some of these migration projects are not only individual. They are also part of a system of family relations. People negotiate their desire to help their families, which is more than a desire, it is a necessity. It is a way of becoming subjects because in some cultures and social contexts you need to help your parents in order to be a good person, or a person really. These women make a lot of sacrifices to become the person they need and want to be. That’s what we did as well but in very different circumstances. I don’t want to reproduce the discourse that we are all migrants in the same way. We are not. I had my dad at home, he used to send me money. I had papers. When I was in danger help was one phone call away.
So I’m not saying oh my God you know we all had it so hard… I didn’t but I understand what the desire to migrate and the necessity to migrate to express and become a person is.. definitely.
So now here where there is more boarding is the other border of Soho. This is where the Crossrail site is.
Fig.6. Crossrail site
Crossrail Site at the intersection of Charing Cross Road and Oxford Street: ‘vintage’ gentrification and money, money, money
Look at the impact of it. They knocked down the whole thing! That is the back of the church that is in Soho Square. You can now see it from here.
That’s how far they went in. And this is the Centre Point which is now going to be revamped instead of being knocked down because it’s such an eyesore.
Fig.6. Centre Point
And look at that, it’s a bit like what they do with Soho they keep the façade as vintage.
And then inside they put corporate money and ventures. We should try and go and have a look there. It’s an opportunity for me as well because I always race through these places. I notice them, but talking to you and talking together makes it a bit more real because we engage with the present a bit more.
Fig.7. Nick stops to talk about Busby’s gay club
This is one of the places I wanted to take you to. On this particular corner, there used to be a gay club called Busby’s. One night I went to the Hippodrome, it was a very transformative night, some young people promoting a club gave me a badge, they gave me the entrance to this place which is now gone, together with the whole building. There used to be the Astoria here, which was a theatre running concerts and clubs.
So, right here there was a place called Bang, which used to be free on a Monday and on a Thursday. We used to consider ourselves real clubbers and go out mostly on Monday night, Tuesday night and Wednesday night. These were the nights because the rest was for normal people… We were so ‘in’, weren’t we? So it was here on a Monday, it was down to The Fridge in Brixton on a Tuesday… Wednesday was, oh of course Heaven! On Wednesdays, they ran a club called The Pyramid. Thursdays we were back here. You could also go clubbing on Friday, Saturday and Sunday but the problem also was money because it was much cheaper during the week to go out clubbing, like free entry, a few drinks. So I remember when I first came down here at Bang, because the disco was downstairs, my experience of gay clubs and discos in Italy was very limited. I had been to some very marginal, very small places which were OK but nothing particularly exciting. Here there were hundreds of young people from all over the world, very sexy with music like Stock Aitken Waterman. It was very kind of dance easy and there were lost of go-go boys like wearing Union Jack boxers and all that… I remember going down here and looking up at all of this and thinking ‘I want to live here’ [laughs] Basically I said I want to live in this place because there is all of this desire and it was so joyful. So here I am, many years later, but here I am.
So what year was that Nick?
That was still 1989.
And then we came back here in 1990/1991. 1989 I think was called the Second Summer of Love. It was when acid music was bursting. Clubbing in those years was really amazing because there was a vibrancy to it… It’s not only about nostalgia for being young, there was a particular salience. Everybody thinks that when they were young it was more bright and alive than now because we were more bright and alive, but there was a specificity to that cultural moment, that historical moment with Thatcher in power, homophobia being rampant, HIV and also poverty. The UK was where it was happening. I mean at least for us… For us young Italians coming here each summer. It was really powerful. In a way, Margaret Thatcher brokered then what we are now witnessing in terms of the political and cultural and economic ethos of our times. She was groundbreaking, but unfortunately in a wrong way [laughs]. Let’s cross over because I want to show you another place.
Yes, it’s been happening a long time, hasn’t it?
Oh God forever! It’s huge because they are restructuring the whole area but underground there are many, many floors, there are trains running through. The whole block here was taken down.
It’s also interesting to see the layers behind, looking at this gorgeous façade.
Yes that’s old London isn’t it, that’s London proper. I don’t think we’re going to be able to go through but I wanted to tell you that behind that façade and on that corner particularly there was a gay café called First Out, which we used to go to as well. They used to expose art and have vegetarian food and play alternative music. So we used to have Kylie Minogue and Samantha Fox during the night and during the day it used to be more cultured with alternative music like The Smiths, the Cure…
And we liked both intensely! We would never admit to actually like Kylie Minogue, well I would, but we would agree it was fun to dance to.
So thinking about your biographical map this spot is so important and related to what drives your work, thinking about your description of the Thatcher years.
Oh yes, absolutely.
I was just thinking that your work has a real political bite, lots of political traction and envisioning something different; so it kind of feels like this combination of the 80s is so relevant.
Yes, you are right, I think I never thought about that in that way but I was brought up in a very politicised environment. Modena, my city of origin in Italy, has historically governed by the left and the whole region of Emilia-Romagna is called the red Emilia-Romagna because historically it’s been a red stronghold. Thank God for that! It was quite a progressive place but also very political. In my family, there was a huge debate at the time because my father was more of a socialist while my mother was more of a communist.
The communist party in Italy was an edgier version of a Social Democratic Party by then. It was still quite radical but not adverse to private property. Modena was one of the richest cities in Italy capitalistically speaking so there was this contrast between wanting money but also wanting redistribution, so it’s that kind of model. It was very political all the time, everything was about politics and debates, maybe too many but possibly this is why I really appreciated the Thatcher years. This country was in such turmoil, it was really exciting and Act Up, Outrage and all of those people …they were so right about everything and it was so needed. In Italy people didn’t talk about sexuality in the same way, they really didn’t with the Vatican and everything.
Yes of course.
Do you know how long it took us to have a bloody campaign to get people to wear condoms? A never-ending debate about whether we should do it or not because we don’t want to offend the Vatican or anybody…
The Sounds of Soho
The sounds of Soho are now the sounds of construction sites. This is it, this is what you hear all the time. We are now in Oxford Street, going towards Soho.
And is this somewhere that you would walk through quite a lot?
Yes, I live here. My partner lives in Soho. Last night I stayed in Soho and at least two/three nights a week I am in Soho to be with him.
So that’s another bit of Crossrail. So they knocked down… Oh, my God, they put up another building here! The thing about London is that there are always new buildings coming up quite suddenly!
Right, Wow Nick, yes.
Fig.9. Crossrail walkway
Yes, so there’s, so that’s another part of Crossrail and we are going to go through there.
Fig.10. Tottenham Court Road boarding
Look, more boarding…And then we are going to go into Soho. Hopefully, it’s going to be a bit quieter.
Fig.11. Great Portland Estates construction advertising
So you see, it’s going to be shops, shops, shops. Luxury flats, luxury flats, the whole bloody city’s being converted into luxury flats. Luxury flats, luxury for who? Who can afford it?
Fig.12. Nick examines some more information boards
And look at that, it says 5 billion spent on Oxford Street every year, it’s phenomenal.
Fig.13. Map showing the size of Crossrail’s expansion
Yes, it is really impressive. Last time I was here I didn’t notice this. This is Crossrail again. I have not been here for about six months, I would walk around here when I visited Jim, and as you say, the sounds of construction are all around.
Mainstreaming and the moral sanitisation of Soho
The thing about Soho is it’s basically one square mile, it’s so small but very concentrated. There’s lots going on. Now we’re going into Dean Street. All of this used to be buildings. They knocked it all down. Apparently, they’re going to make a square out of this, it’s going to be nice, but we’ll see… Look how big it is. That’s what they’re going to do. This is the ticket hall worksite. It’s massive.
Here they reproduce the vintage, spirit of Soho you know these are like the sights, this is the way it’s being parcelled.
The spirit of Soho.
That’s an Italian delicatessen shop which is historical, it’s great. When we were young migrants we used to go there and salivate over the Italian goodies. Because after a while you do miss it [laughs]. You actually start missing Italian food very quickly! One thing that changed positively is food. I mean when we came here in the 80s there was nothing that we could call food. I remember that kind of very pale olive oil and those tomatoes, do you remember those, the rubbery ones?
Yes, beef tomatoes.
Oh my God, we would just say “OK let’s have something else, let’s have something British because at least it’s meant to taste like that!” [laughs].
Yes absolutely, oh gosh yes the food issue.
It was terrible then but now it’s really good. I keep telling my friends that London is one of the best places for food.
It’s true and yes and I love it. When I come down for the research we go for a debrief afterwards in fabulous deli – just amazing food.
Yes, but Bethnal Green is also one of the places which has been most gentrified. I don’t think the gentrification is necessarily negative, it depends on the scale. The introduction of new life and capital into a place can be very vivifying, very positive. Let’s have a look at that. There used to be a lesbian club around here, I think it was where the London Salon is.
What happened is the mainstreaming and the moral sanitisation of everything. The lesbian club is now a salon as if we didn’t have any other salon.
Fig.14. The London Salon
Well, maybe it was this one. Oh my God, it would so ironic if the lesbian club became a gentleman’s club…
OK let me look up the name of it on google. Candy, Candy something…
OK, so this is Carlisle Street.
I think it was called the Candy Bar. Right, Candy Bar. It closed in 2013. That’s what the Guardian article says. Now it’s a gentlemen’s club, the irony of it. It was very good actually. I went there a couple of times with my lesbian girlfriends and it was very nice to go there as a gay man because you’re in somebody else’s place but feel very welcome. And there’s no pressure for you to be attracted or to attract anybody [laughs] so you can just like get pissed and dance [laughs]!
Well, that’s my experience of going to gay clubs but for me and for me it was sort of late 80s and into the 90s. We used to go to the gay club in Stoke-on-Trent and do the karaoke. Great fun! We had great times, they were really happy times and the energy and then there was another place we used to go for after-hours drinking with karaoke.
Across the road, we see signs of space and pavement ownership
Fig.16. Space and ownership sign
This is the Soho Theatre. I come here quite a lot.
Fig.17. Soho Theatre
They have fantastic shows, lots of them with drag queens, which I’m very fond of. That show with Jinx Monsoon I have actually seen it with my boyfriend. She’s a star because she was in a TV show called RuPaul’s Drag Race, which is very popular. RuPaul is a very iconic drag queen. He’s running this competition between drag queens and it’s very funny. It’s very good because it’s very culturally specific and it’s uncompromising. It’s well done.
Fig.18. Quo Vadis club
And let me show you this. This club, Quo Vadis, has just been rebranded. This is where Karl Marx used to live. There is a plaque there.
Oh, it’s so great to have Marx as part of our walk.
It doesn’t happen very often, does it?
He lived here for four years. This is a nice club.
Fig.19. Warner Bros
This is Warner Bros. Another very important component of Soho is the film industry.
Still very much here yes.
Fig.20. Sunset Strip
And this is the sex industry, another very important component of Soho. This strip bar is very active, lots of very scantily dressed girls all the time.
Let’s go down to what I think is the height of the tour…
That dark building was another construction site, they are everywhere, absolutely everywhere.
Fig.21. Dean Street Express sexual health clinic
This a sexual health clinic, maybe you’ll have to get a picture when there’s nobody going in [laughs]!
Right, so now we are going to Old Compton Street, which was THE gay street. We used to hang around there as if it was our hood. Even if we lived in Italy, France or in Spain that was our street. It was a safe space. Talking about risk and borders gay people used to hold hands as they entered Old Compton Street from Charing Cross Road and stop at the end of it because this was like a safe space from homophobia. The feeling of belonging to Soho is very, very strong.
Fig.22. Orlando killing painting
And there is this gorgeous painting. This is an artist who paints lots of different things on walls, usually film stars. This particular painting was for the Orlando killing. I think it’s not by chance that he made it next to a sex work establishment.
Gentrification, food and pleasure
Let’s go left a second because I want to show you something which I think exemplifies what is going on in Soho in terms of gentrification.
Fig.23. Old Compton Street
For example, let’s stop here. This, which is now yet another Sushi and Bento place, as if there were not enough, used to be a Costa café. You might say that Costa is yet another chain but this Costa here in Old Compton Street was a very important place for gay people because downstairs there used to be a very large sitting room with lots of sofas. It was a very nice place to meet up and to talk, or to work. That Costa and the Café Nero that we’re going to see now were the two places where you could actually meet up people, friends but also dates or whatever. Café Nero is more cruising, this was always more social. Now it’s gone and replaced by this anonymous Sushi and Bento place. I’ve got nothing against it. I sometimes buy food here, but how many do you need in Soho? They are everywhere! Very aseptic places, where you are supposed to stay only for the time strictly necessary to eat. This used to be a unique place where you would read the Boyz magazine, flirt a bit, relax or read a book.
When I used to travel with work to other European countries, Germany and Austria, I would love to visit the cafés where you could just sit all day with newspapers and I love that and so I think about you growing up in that kind of culture which is a lot slower.
I think Austria is more appreciative of pleasure. It’s a Catholic country where pleasure is supposed to happen and be forgiven [laughs].
Yes, I love that idea, I was raised a Catholic, yes it’s true.
Oh right. The principle is that you should not sin, but if you do you are going to be forgiven. I was not brought up as a Catholic but you know if you’re Italian it’s in the script.
Sure, sure, absolutely, absolutely.
And in a way indulging is something that is actually part of culture.
Yes, I used to feel great after confession.
Really? Well, that’s good, it’s supposed to help, isn’t it. I never confessed. I think it’s fine, absolutely. I’m not anti-religious but my dad is anti-clerical viscerally and an atheist. I remember that he was really campaigning. He was libertarian as well so he used to say ‘you do what you want’ but he kept saying that religion was something for grown-ups. ‘When you are eighteen years old if you want you can convert’, he used to say. However, he also used to say ‘do not come home and tell me you want to be a priest, because that I just couldn’t cope with it!’
It’s like this to him would be like the failure of everything he stood for. He also used to tell me ‘when you go to the church if they touch you, you come and tell me, it’s not your problem but you tell me’. It is quite shocking now that I think about it, but he used to say it.
I think his anti-clericalism might have been prompted by something he witnessed because he kept repeating something like: “don’t worry about it, have fun but if someone comes close to you in a way you don’t want, you come and tell me. There’s no problem for you, but I have to know.” I was like ten years old, twelve years old, so when I went to church I was very worried [laughs]!
Yes, what a great dad.
Yes, that way he was really cool.
Fig.24. Muriel’s kitchen
This is to me is the example of what shouldn’t happen in Soho.
Muriel’s Kitchen. This is plastic food, very normative, you could be anywhere, another chain. Look, look at this, it’s all so normative. I don’t mean it should be transgressive but Soho has become a bit same-ish and it didn’t used to be. In the afternoon it’s full of tourists, which is the other big thing that’s happened. Soho is now on the main tourist map and it’s being normalised a lot.
We need to go over there now because I have to show you two places. I used to live in Soho myself. It was very short, only for four months.
Fig.25. Frith Street
I used to live here at 40 Frith Street. Right next to the minicab.
Fig.26. Nick’s old house
On the fourth floor, you see the little windows there?
It was fabulous, but it was too intense, particularly because I had the room at the front. In Soho, you should never get a flat with a room at the front because it’s very noisy. It’s not so much the people but the emptying of bottles from clubs, sweeping and cleaning. At one o’clock at night, they would just discharge entire lorries of glasses and bottles. It’s just very, very noisy.
Next door there used to be a brothel. They were the only neighbours who didn’t bother us, we never heard any noise from them.
Yes, it’s really funny because I would have expected actually to hear some sex-related noise like moaning, some screaming… But we never heard anything on. But people using the minicab company next door were super noisy because they were very drunk. There was lots of drunken fighting. But the flats in front used to be the reason why it was very distracting. This is quite funny, I think. There were quite a few male escorts renting these rooms. They often had the windows or curtains open and they were often doing them-self up. Most importantly, they were very beautiful and so if you have to write a paper it’s very distracting! Because you cannot not look if they are there, they would see that and say hello… I just think Soho is not the place to be concentrating on writing! [laughs].
That’s really funny.
It’s funny because when I was here as a kid, as an eighteen-year-old, or a twenty-year-old, I was on holiday. I was working in a restaurant and all I had to do after work was having fun. However, 20 years later and needing to write a bloody article or something requires a lot of concentration, impossible in Soho unless you have a flat with a room at the back. My partner has a studio at the back now and you can’t hear anything. It’s really strange because he lives right in the middle of it but it’s still very silent. So Soho can be quiet as well, but let me show you what I really wanted to show you which is like all this string of bars being done up or rather boarded up.
Fig.27. More construction works
Soho Estates, Soho stories and Crossrail…
There used to be La Bohème Café which used to be very nice, now it’s all boarded up because they’re going to make a mega Soho House place, you know Soho House is a private club, like Quo Vadis, but much bigger.
OK, so it’s a club.
Yes, it’s a private club, which has now become so big it’s almost not private any more. Members have been complaining as well that it’s lost its character because the whole idea of having a club is that it’s exclusive. Look at that. It engulfs the whole block.
Shall we have a look? Maybe those pictures explain what I want to say. It’s kind of counterintuitive because the whole idea of a club is that it is something private and discreet, while here it occupies the whole block.
Fig.28. Francis Bacon & Lucian Freud
These are iconic Soho people, you know, like Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud… They used to go to the French House, we can have a drink there if you want afterwards, at the French House. I don’t think that you can go to Soho without having a drink at the French House. It’s a very nice place as well.
Fig.29. Soho stories
Tracey Emin… You see this place has always been such a special one in London. Lots of artists, lots of interesting things going on.
Look at this! Oh my God presented by Crossrail, I can’t believe it!
Yes, yes. And the Museum of Soho, right? So we now have become a museum, we have become accessory to big capital.
Yes, it is museal.
Museal, yes. Isn’t it shocking?
Fig.30. Museum of Soho
Here is Amy Winehouse, let’s go and have a look, there’s more. Well, they use anything to brand the place…
You know this kind of enrolling is just
It’s very violent and all-engulfing, nothing remains outside of it.
Adam Ant, wow!
Yes. Back in the day, yes. And then, of course, we’re on a walk and here we have ‘back in the day walks’.
They are the ones destroying the neighbourhood and then they even organise a back in the day walk. Ours is a different kind of walk.
It is, no it’s shocking! It is part of consuming London, isn’t it?
And then, oh look, you can also do a sound history of Soho.
Fig.30. Sound history of Soho
But the tragic thing is that Soho is being killed by the same people or the same kind of dynamics that are memorialising it! We had to see this, I hadn’t seen this actually, I hadn’t seen this wall.
Fig.31. Hard hats everywhere
My God! Oh no and just in terms of seeing people on the streets, there are so many people with the hard hats on, they’re blending in almost with the tourists, you know these guys with the hi-vis vests.
Oh, they are everywhere, they are part of the new population of Soho.
Yes I mean this is just crazy.
Fig.32. Kettner champagne bar
This is the kind of dynamic that we are witnessing, they just destroy and rebuild entire blocks. The Kettner was a champagne bar at the back, like the Bohème on Old Compton, different establishment all subsumed by one big corporate one. It’s so violent.
It’s so violent.
It’s just been gutted.
It has been gutted, the whole thing.
Oh, that’s so sad. How does your partner feel living here?
Biography and Place
We are very sad actually, Johnny and I, we are a bit sad about Soho, we are a bit sad about London and the UK.
Because living here while this is happening given your biographical history.
Yes, he’s got a very big history with Soho as well, perhaps even more than me. He’s British but he was here when he was young as well very similar experiences. I don’t know why we didn’t cross each other before, but we could have. Even so, we have shared memories and we are both gutted because this is our own place and a lot of people feel like us so, about Soho, they feel it’s their own place.
Fig.33. Maison Bertaux
Maison Bertaux, of course, is an institution in Soho yes, Maison Bertaux!
Have you been there?
I haven’t, no.
We have to have a look.
And it’s holding on.
And those cakes.
I know, they’re gorgeous aren’t they.
My God! Maybe later
Yes definitely, we should definitely come back for tea and cake and a sandwich.
A heuristically meaningful tea.
Yes definitely, definitely there has to be.
The Kettner used to be such a lovely restaurant. It used to be really nice. I came here to celebrate the release of Normal, my first film. It’s now destroyed. I mean, it’s been incorporated into this monolithic Soho House.
Fig.34. Soho house
Soho House, just thinking about the relationship between house, home, belonging and it is a monolith.
It is a monolith, look a grey spot with the red lights, I’m sure they put the red lights because they wanted to convey some kind of Soho feeling but it’s not working is it. How can you put a tank like this in the middle of the city? And it’s such a major intervention if you think how little Soho is and how symbolic that particular corner of Old Compton is. The heart of Soho is basically Old Compton and a few streets around it. If you make such a massive intervention right at the beginning of Old Compton then you change the whole feel of the place.
Wow! It is massive, isn’t it?
Yes, but I’m sure they are going to do you know a good job, it’s going to look good at the end of it. I bet they are going to keep the outer shell of the building. Right, let’s go now, let’s go to the back of the Soho House construction site and then back on Old Compton. That’s St Anne’s, that’s the church of Soho. The spike you see on the other side.
Fig.35. More developments in Soho
So they keep the signs of previous establishments because they might reopen it but I don’t know what’s happening to the places that were here. I went with Charlotte Worthington the producer of my film Normal to celebrate, it was such a special night. I didn’t even know I was a filmmaker, you know because you realise you are one very gradually. You start making films and then little by little you realise you are a filmmaker.
Yes, I loved it when you were deciding to do the masters when you were based at London Metropolitan University. It’s just such a massive contribution.
Thank you. They were very nice in allowing me to do it, I didn’t pay for it, the university allowed me to do it.
Samira is going around and Travel is now beginning to have its life little by little. It takes a bit of time for films to find their own way. Little by little people who come to screenings or festivals ask to see them and then that’s it. Normal has a life of its own now. I’m going to make it available on a platform that is available for universities and libraries because quite a few people want to use it for teaching purposes.
Fig.36. Bar Italia
Bar Italia, oh now that is a massive institution [laughs].
When we used to come home from clubbing…
That’s where you went.
Yes absolutely, to have some pastry as we were starved because of the alcohol.
To round it off.
Yes, I’d forgotten about that! [laughs]. They had all the paraphernalia, they had the Panettone for Christmas, I bet they are there. Bar Italia of course… We were a diasporic group, an Italian queer diasporic group. There were many women as well, many of them were not gay but they were still mesmerised like we were by this cultural phenomenon because it was bigger than being gay really.
Fig.37. Ronnie Scott’s
Yes, that’s where it is. It’s still there. There’s a lot that’s still there, which is why we need to save Soho.
God but will it, but will it be saved? Are there some small gains?
I don’t know, if it will be saved it’s for marketing purposes because they will understand that if they alienate its character so there will be nothing left to sell tourists. The council might decide to preserve some of it for commercial reasons, which is better than nothing. Even if it is for the wrong reasons, at least there would be a stop to this.
Yes, not good. What is that place over there – Mozart’s?
Fig.38. London Casino stage entrance
Oh, Mozart used to live there, the actual one.
It’s the London Casino stage entrance.
Fig.39. Mozart sign
It’s great that Mozart lived here in Soho. I love him. You’ve got to love Mozart.
So what’s the next stop?
The next stop is the area that used to be… Let’s go on the pavement before we are going to be run over. It’s the place where they made a massive intervention. It’s a great example of what I call moral gentrification, which is a concept that unites sexual humanitarianism and gentrification. What I mean is that there is a trend to use sexuality as a way to legitimise major scale interventions forcing privileged moralities and lifestyles on underprivileged populations and areas. The problematisation of sexual behaviour, such as sex work, clears the ground to intervene. Social interventions like rescue raids against trafficking are complicit particularly in Soho with the logics of gentrification. What happened in Soho is that anti-trafficking has been used very strategically to clear properties that became desirable.
This high scale violent gentrification this time was carried out by the very same people who brought the sex industry to Soho. The heirs of the late Paul Raymond, who became a millionaire thanks to the sex industry, own Soho Estates. They managed to clear Walker’s Court in order to build a very luxury building in a place which used to be full of sexual entertainment venues. We are going to go there now. This is another big construction at the corner of Old Compton.
Right, they’re at the other side, aren’t they?
Yes, yes everywhere. You are right about the hats, the builders are part of the landscape now.
Fig.40. Italian delicatessen
I forgot this one was here. Can you smell this?
Oh, it’s gorgeous.
Come and have a smell, the smell of Parmesan and all this mix, it reminds me of when I was a kid.
My granny used to have a shop like that. I was not allowed in but I always found a way.
I’m sure she let you in.
She tried not to because I used to really predate on candies and to be sick afterwards. When you are a kid you can eat a kilogram of candies… She used to ask “why don’t you eat today?” at lunch and when I replied that I was not hungry she would say “a boy who’s not hungry has already eaten”! She used to find stashes of wraps [laughs] Then I was in trouble for a bit. Right so look at another construction side, massive.
Fig.41. Soho estate
Building The Future, Respecting The Past. It’s a joke, isn’t it?
Yes, it is totally. A sad joke.
They are cleaning their act. They became millionaires on the back of sex workers and sexual entertainment venues and now they’re cleaning their act. ‘Building Our Futures, Respecting The Past’ that’s just a joke.
Fig.42. One of the main sex work places
This is one of the two main sex workplaces in terms of visibility because there are flats here and there but this has always been a place with American bars where people come and get drinks with girls.
These massage parlours were raided very recently during anti-slavery week. So the week including the eighteenth of October, which is anti-slavery day, the police in London in order deliver a message about anti-slavery they raided these establishments looking for trafficking.
Fig.43. White Lily Spa
They didn’t find any But they found thirty-five thousand pounds, which they confiscated, and they arrested migrants.
But no trafficking was involved. They didn’t find it, even though they were looking for it. So this is what I mean by moral gentrification.
Yes sure, sure.
This is very highly valued property in a part of town that the council doesn’t want to be associated with the sex industry any more. They clearly want to transform Soho into Covent Garden, that’s the model. One of the ways in which they are doing it is by allowing… I don’t want to blame the council because who knows who decided this, but there is a convergence of interests.
The council wants, would like to rehabilitate, I don’t know what words they use, to renovate the neighbourhood. The police are under pressure nationally to be seen as doing something against human trafficking and slavery and the convergence between this and lots of interest from estate developers and investors produces what I call moral gentrification, which acts as a sexual humanitarian macro governmentality.
But then there is money, as these things cost huge amounts of money.
Yes absolutely and that is at the heart of it.
That’s at the heart of it because whatever kind of flats you have access to here you can still make a fortune. Even if you pay an expensive rent you can still make up quite a lot of money because the going rate for an Airbnb in Soho is between a hundred and twenty and a hundred and fifty quid a night, so you will make money.
Maggie Soho has become for tourists, it’s not for us any more.
For tourists who know nothing about it, how could they know? Every place is complex isn’t it, it takes forever to get into the soul of places.
And particularly in Soho. God knows what people get out of it but it’s them that they target. This used to be another bar and has become a Bubble tea place… This used to be another commercial sex establishment.
Fig.44. Vegan Hippo
I think it is an eatery or burger place.
Right, so this used to be a sex entertainment venue.
It’s a bit like the sushi and bento place over there.
I mean these places are everywhere… Why? This used to be such a strategic place. Also, there were lots of livelihoods here that the vegan restaurant cannot provide. Not everybody can work there, migrants for example…
I don’t want to turn down the Vegan Hippo I mean I’m sure they serve fantastic burgers. I’m just saying that the whole place is changing very rapidly, which is why I wanted to show it to you.
Fig.45. Looking up the street from Vegan Hippo
That’s a very clear example of moral gentrification in Soho. This alleyway being cleared by raids. I wouldn’t be surprised if Soho Estates owned this as well, but they definitely owned that one over there, Walker’s Court.
Fig.46. Walkers Court
Here there used to be a gay club called Madame Jojo. It was closed in the context of moral gentrification. There’s been a campaign against its closure.
Fig.47. Madame Jojo’s
Once again, the boarding wall incorporates it. Madame Jojo is supposed to reopen again because of lots of pressures but who knows whether it’s going to retain its feel. This is such a violent intervention, the place is being killed.
This corner is a bit dodgy.
So that hasn’t been killed. We have bags and camera, let’s move on…
Yes but I quite like it, let’s just hang around and get that vibe.
Well, you don’t want to stay there with an open bag or anything. You never know what people get up to in this corner. Right, so look at that. The whole thing at the very corner here used to be the Escape Club, a gay club. Next to it was Madame Jojo which was a drag queen venue with world-leading performers and a very well established audience. A lot of people came here. It wasn’t only for gay people. A lot of people came here to celebrate, to watch the show. It was a cabaret, a drag queen cabaret and it’s gone.
Shocking! It’s really shocking!
This is where anti-trafficking maps the contours of moral gentrification more precisely, I’m going to show you at the back.
OK, and it ’s just seeing the Soho Bookshop as well.
Fig.49. Soho bookshop
Well actually, yes, that’s still there. I suppose some of it will stay because it provides the background for the branding; it’s part of the branding.
Fig.50. SNOG ice cream parlour
What about Snog Nick is that a chain?
[Laughs] Isn’t that horrible?
Yes, we have to have that, snog ice cream.
I wouldn’t go into a place called Snog to have ice cream it’s salivish as a concept. It makes you think that somebody licked your ice cream before.
Yes, I know and it is ice cream isn’t it?
Right. All gutted. All destroyed. You see? All of this is gone. Do you remember? Here there used to be peepshows. Oh, let me show you something. I forgot another anecdote.
Peepshows, naked ladies and English lessons
I told my boyfriend yesterday that I was going to tell you this. This dates back from 1985. In the dodgy place right here where… In front of Prowler Press there used to be a peep show place.
When they still existed you used to put fifty pence into a wall and you used to look at naked ladies. I came here for the first time in 1985, or 1986. I was fifteen and on a language course and with our teacher of English who used to be a post-1968 revolutionary dressed up like Mary Quant with very heavy makeup and very, very lovely.
She was amazing, she used to speak only English to us and this is the reason why we all speak English. Anyway so she took us to the sights, like the British Museum, Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, but all she could hear in the background was us wanting to go to Soho because we were frisky, we were fifteen-sixteen years old. We were so curious! So one day she just stopped. We were walking and she stopped. She said ‘OK, look I will take you to Soho if you promise me that you will never mention it again for the rest of the stay. I give you fifteen minutes. I’ll be here smoking a cigarette’ – she used to smoke a lot – ‘so you just disappear now and come back here. Don’t do stupid things, just be safe’. So we did, we were so happy!
So I put fifty pence into the peepshow, had a quick look and then we checked something else because we had to do everything in fifteen minutes! I went into a sex shop to look at everything and then we went back. We didn’t talk about it as much after, only between us, but we were satiated, finally, we had a look at it and it was enough!
She was lovely you know she was really very good and she taught us all the best of English literature, this is probably why I love this country so much as well, thanks to her.
Oh, that’s a really lovely story.
She was a very good teacher. Right, back to moral gentrification now. So this is very violent, I just feel very sad about this. This place is a theatre, the Box. What happens is that sexual titillation and sexual kinds of entertainment that used to be popular are now tarted up as burlesque and priced up.
So you know what used to be live strip shows became high-end burlesque… This has happened with the popular Soho eroticism.
It was branded up for the privileged ones.