The cast of Christopher Howse’s fond alcohography would typically exceed their recommended weekly units by lunchtime, before finding new ways to fall out with each other in the afternoon
Like one of those giant rulers stuck in rivers to measure the height of floods, Soho ought to be fitted with a device to record legendary tidal peaks of alcohol.
Levels have been receding for years now in London’s historic drinking district, but in the eighties the river of booze still ran at full spate, requiring a heroic commitment on the part of its bathers to not just remain afloat, but attempt to drink the entire thing.
Christopher Howse’s Soho in the Eighties then, focuses tightly on three particular establishments, the Coach and Horses, the “French” and the late Colony Room Club, their legendary senior management and the cast of grotesques (himself included) who diverted a now unfashionable percentage of their income to sustaining them.
Anyone looking for intel on what the dramas of the day were at Liberty thirty years ago, say, or Wardour Street’s relationship with the film industry, may end up devising strategies to get their money back.
Those eager for a memoir of “the places where poets, painters, stagehands, retired prostitutes, actors, criminals, musicians and general layabouts met to drink and converse, or shout at each other,” will consider it cheap at twice the price.
The eighties was effectively last orders for Soho Bohemia, although they didn’t know it then, and bellowed abuse at each other as if there were no tomorrow.
“Look at yerself, you ‘orrible blob…Tedious…F***ing idiot…No wonder Muriel hated you….Detestable…Dyed Hair….Failure….Dreary old c***…I don’t care tuppence…Get out, get out!”
No matter how paint-stripping the rudeness, everyone would be back in position at their preferred drinking hour the following day.
In between causing and taking offence, they would trade stories, many of which were untrue, and repeated them frequently, in spite of their shared belief that “anecdote is not a form of conversation.”
There is the one about a barman accidentally offing photographer John Deakin by serving a down-in-one gin that turned out to be bleach, or the one about the same Deakin naming Francis Bacon as next of kin because he knew the painter “would hate seeing his dead body.”
“That’s the first time I’ve seen Deakin with his mouth shut,” was said to have been Bacon’s reaction to the corpse.
There was also great camaraderie and even a sense of surrogate family, although not the variety ever labelled “happy,” but when Howse, now an assistant editor at the Telegraph and a writer on spiritual matters, says “it was all very funny indeed, and of course ended in disaster,” he is not joking.
The deterioration of some of these terrifying old lushes is most unpleasant.
Yet at full, headlong gallop they were a force of nature that the next generation had no hope (or, perhaps, desire) of emulating. “Most of all they [young people] lacked the death-or-glory commitment to a bohemian life without security,” he writes, as one of the very few to emerge intact.
But “It was no great achievement to survive it, for it was Soho that fell away from me and disintegrated.”
This review first appeared in Issue 4 of Strong Words. To buy back issues, or indeed current issues, go to www.webscribe.co.uk/magazine/strongwords