Dan Cruickshank looks back to Soho’s glory days as an exotic, seedy urban village and how it’s now been regenerated into a tourist-friendly district
Review by David Eimer
Soho’s glory days as an exotic, raffish and seedy urban village incongruously parked just south of decidedly unbohemian Oxford Street came before and after the Second World War. Back then, Soho was an oasis of European-style cafes, restaurants and 24-hour nightlife in a London of Lyon’s Corner Houses and last orders at 11pm. It’s no wonder that the area acted as a beacon for anyone looking for something more than a pint of mild or a bowl of brown Windsor soup.
Dan Cruickshank can’t help but look back wistfully at those times, when Soho was a byword for louche entertainment and the likes of Dylan Thomas and Francis Bacon brushed shoulders with aristocrats, celebrities and gangsters in once-legendary clubs such as the Gargoyle and the Colony Room. Nor is he the first writer to do so – there are any number of nostalgic refrains for the Soho of old.
But as Cruickshank’s slightly mournful potted history of the area and its architecture reveals, it’s not just the once-prominent sex industry that has largely disappeared from the streets of W1. Plenty of historic and culturally significant buildings have gone, too, as Soho has regenerated into a tourist-friendly district that its former flaneurs would no doubt disdain.
Cruickshank points to rising rents as the reason why Soho is a less edgy and more homogenous neighbourhood than it once was. Certainly, gentrification is changing the character of many parts of London, but Soho started losing its unique status as a little corner of the Continent in England when immigration began to transform London into a truly global city in which you can find any cuisine and culture. No-one needs to head to Frith Street anymore in search of real Italian coffee or to Greek Street for authentic foreign food.
However, the death of Soho has been predicted since the 18th century, when Huguenots fleeing France replaced the well-to-do original inhabitants and Soho started to be known as a place for people who didn’t fit in anywhere else. That reputation has endured, even if the buildings haven’t.