Monday, April 28, 2003
Soho (Needless To Say)
Ever since the early-nineties, due in part to the pink push eastwards from the Earl's Court Road to Old Compton Street, London's Soho has been the centre of metro-hip, darlings. With that status have come ever-rising property prices, and the disappearance forever of one-off pubs and family-run businesses which have been around for generations.
Much as I enjoy the delights Queer Town has to offer me, I find it sad that, pretty soon, much of Old Soho will have gone, and all we'll have left is some sort of sanitised gay theme park, where everyone will fit in perfectly as long as they're wearing the right label, flicking through the right mags, snorting the right drug, and holding a membership to the right club.
But look hard enough, and you can still spot bits of old Soho peeking out through the glitz, valiantly holding their own against the Costas and Prêt à Mangers. Caffs and nosh bars, delis and drinking dens, still existing in a time-warp of the 1950s where Tommy Steele's playing the Two I's coffee house round the corner.
The Coach and Horses belongs to that era. It's a seedy, messy pub – no, not a pub, but an honest-to-badness boozer - just off the main Soho drag. In the fifteen years I've been getting pissed there, I can't recall it being redecorated once; the ceiling is still the same shade of nicotine-brown it's always been. The formica-topped tables are rarely wiped clean, the ashtrays seldom emptied. You won't hear a juke-box or fruit-machine here, and I don't think I've ever spotted a Bacardi Breezer. You can get a door-stopper of a cheese sandwich for one quid, however.
I like to go there during the day, long before the post-work gangs, the art students from St Martin's, and the pre-clubbers take it over, paying decent prices for surprisingly good wine, and rip-off prices for warm Stellas. By noon, the old soaks will already be stationed at their regular stools, sipping that second glass of malt. Later they'll watch the racing on the pub telly, while rolling Golden Virginia beneath the sign forbidding smoking in that part of the bar.
Occasionally, for the price of a double Scotch-and-easy-on-the-soda, they'll tell me Stories. Stories of the skiffle-bars in the fifties, or the Vice in the sixties; Fleet Street in the seventies when some of them got sacked and never held down a proper job again. Remembering Jeff, their best-known regular, or gossiping fondly about "Helen of Troy" and her drinking club; laughing about No-Knickers Joyce. Or usually just slagging off Norman Balon, famously the rudest landlord in London, but one who’s always ready to lend his regulars a couple of quid, "and you'll f**king pay it back with interest by Tuesday, you bastard."
Gents, every single one of them, even the red-nosed old roués, making it, so I'm told, one of the few London pubs where a single women isn't made to feel uncomfortable. Or a single bender, for that matter.
In twenty years' time, when you come looking for me, forget about The Edge, or Bar Code. You can even pass on Comptons,with its posh new polished wooden floor. I'll see you in the Coach. And mine's a double. And then I'll tell you Stories. . .