Sunday, 23 February 2014

The Charm & Sleaze of London's Soho

Each To His Own
I often take my bike on the train from Canterbury to London. Most of the time I find myself drawn to the same areas. My bike and I enjoy nothing more than cruising the seedy backstreets. 
Some travellers will always feel an aversion to certain environments. Best they stay away then. Personally I hate very commercial areas - places with gift shops, out of place shopping malls, tea shops selling tacky gifts, smack in the middle of areas of outstanding natural beauty etc. I notice lots of TripAdvisor reviews by people who hate seediness, sleaze and low-life areas of cities. Yet the latter is a big cultural draw for some visitors, and I am with them.

Image courtesy of
Sleaze is hard to avoid in cities. All cities have a low-life, sleazy zone. Some cities are all sleaze, some would say. Often in the past such quarters were populated by immigrants, especially Chinese. Most still are. Usually they encompassed the red-light industry and with it a fair amount of gambling and crime. Desperate people find themselves here, living on the margins. Yet in a world full of artifice and 'Disnification', I find such locations to be the warm beating heart of 'real life'. Locate this area of any city and you will find it to be where the gritty writers, musicians and artists hang out. Here you can find people enjoying the 24hr buzz and excitement, who are willing and wanting to show and share their true selves. It's where music is made, new trends develop and genius is born. Yes, yes I know, it's also where diseases are spread and people are killed – get over yourself. 

Down Among The Low-life In London's Soho
Undeniably, in England amongst all of the sleaze available, one of the major hotbeds of such culture is to be found in London's Soho. This place smoulders with intrigue, passion, illegality and barely hidden attitude. It's been smouldering for a long time. There were opium dens here run by industrious Chinese immigrants long before Carnaby Street played host to Mods and Rockers. And where there are drugs there are sex and crime. Even the Chinese supermarkets in Chinatown hint of an exoticism beyond what is displayed on the shelves. Back in the early 1980's I remember going with a Chinese friend into the basement of one of these supermarkets. Amongst the sacks of Napa Cabbage and Star Fruit it housed a dimly lit illegal gambling den. Men in dirty white vests betting their entire month's wages or their restaurant' takings in a game of cards or Mahjong. Later I asked another friend in London (a cop) about it. Almost casually he said; "We allow the Chinese in the Gerrard Street area to police themselves. So long as they keep it local and under control, we find it's actually safer for everyone outside."

The Police keep an eye on Soho but often exercise a soft touch. Image courtesy of

Over time Soho has blended at its edges into other areas, such as Covent Garden. This is a less sleazy area but is now very trendy. It benefits from being adjacent to Soho and tourists easily find themselves there after walking up from Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus or Leicester Square. Especially those put off by the hustling and the overt risk of robbery in the central Leicester Square area. But if frock and shoe shopping or tourist cafes are not your bag, I suggest you take some time to seek out some genuine charm in the seedy backstreets of Soho. Here you will find real London culture. Low-life culture, some might call it, but for me the low-life atmosphere is all part of the draw.

Alternative Brides - image courtesy of

Eating Out In Soho
Outside of the sleazy atmosphere and the colourful characters on every street corner, Soho has other charms. It is a great area for foodies. The cafes and small restaurants along Store Street, St Anne's Place, Wardour Street and Berwick Street became popular in the so called swinging sixties but popular culture had discovered them long before that. Some have not been redecorated since the sixties! You can find good food here served in laid back, often confined environments. 
Those looking for Chinese food will find most of the busier places in Chinatown, around Gerrard Street and Lisle Street, Gerrard Place and Newport Place, plus the tiny 'China Village' passage of Newport Court. In Gerrard Street particularly, you will find top-end restaurants frequented by celebrities alongside busy Chinese supermarkets where the locals and the restauranteurs shop. Be careful, not all of these restaurants are good. Some are squarely aimed at tourists and non-Chinese. Lee Ho Fook and the tiny 'Poons' were always reliable but both have sadly closed. Quality goes up and down, especially as restaurant owners win and lose fortunes in big gambling adventures, so it's best to check review sites. I tend to check the Chinese Community Network magazine . 
In the narrow confines of Newport Court you will find seedy Chinese Dumpling shops / cafes where you can hardly believe you are not in Asia. The fact that few menus are in English here and one can't expect politeness, is usually a sign for me that I am in the right place.

Image courtesy of

Backstreet Charm
For those seeking the backstreet charm I have mentioned above, there is a hint of it to be found in Newport Court and in the cheap Chinese / Japanese cafes around Newport Place at the top, but it's a little to close to the bustling tourist centre of Leicester Square so I suggest heading north to the other side of Shaftesbury Avenue, over to Wardour Street, into the Berwick Street market area via the steps just after the famous Windmill Theatre (based on Paris' Moulin Rouge). Here one can find genuine character and a fair amount of tasteful sleaze (a bit of tasteless sleaze too). Wander around these back streets, behind the theatres, up Archer Street and along the charming Brewer Street and you will find the real heart of the old West End. There are so many great places to discover and mostly fairly cheap. Shops selling old vinyl records, vintage shops run by vintage old people selling catering kitchen equipment or briefcases, perched comfortably alongside others selling whips, chains and black plastic dresses. There are also some great vintage pubs. Best not to flash your wealth or naivety around here, by the way. Once in the back streets, well-heeled visitors are considered fair game.

BM Records (25 D'Arblay Street) image courtesy of

The Dog & Duck in Bateman's Street is rarely as quiet as this. Image courtesy of

A Literary Walking Tour
I have a particular penchant for visiting cities with a novel or a book of short stories in my pocket. Stories based in that area. Some of my favourites for bringing with me to this quarter are Fergus Linnane's 'London The Wicked City', Barry Miles' 'London Calling', Nigel Richardson's 'Dog Days In Soho' and, especially atmospheric, 'The Pimlico Tapes,' by A.K. Anders. Such topical books prove far more interesting and more rewarding, I would suggest, than following a traditional guidebook to discover an area.


A few other practical recommendations: 
For a traditional trolley service Dim Sum (the last in London), I suggest you go to New World Chinese Restaurant in Newport Place. For real Chinese dumplings, go to Baozi Inn, in Newport Court. It is tiny. If you are on the large size you might not be able to sit down. For a night out on the fringes of Soho, see if you can get into Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club, at 47 Frith Street or one of the stand-up comedy venues, like The Comedy Store in Piccadilly Circus. Better still I would suggest you wander around and look for yourself. Do that for half an hour after dark and you can be assured that something interesting will happen.

1 comment:

  1. This has always been one of the colourful areas of London...and one of the few that still is. Saddened by all the attempts to ''develop' it and run the prostitutes etc out of town. Just what the Victorians did in the 1860's when the railway took over.... we learn nothing & are the poorer for our ignorance.