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Saving Soho

I like to think I am a fairly adventurous person, open to new things and adaptable to change, but this week I’ve been uncharacteristically nostalgic.

I have been drinking in Soho for over a quarter of a century. In my final year at art college, I was desperately in love with an artist, just a year older than me, but who seemed to know everything about art and the world.

He took me to the French House and we spent the evening with two other painters and a writer, ending up at Jimmy the Greek’s – the only bit of which I remember is the awful Retsina. This was my introduction to Soho; it was bohemia, it was glamour and it was where I wanted to be.

Last week a good friend and I met at the French House, our evening following the usual format of a bottle of wine (or sometimes two ….) followed by dinner at the restaurant Amalfi’s in Old Compton Street. It has been there for over 50 years and I’ve been eating there for about half its life-time.

This old-school Italian with painterly daubs purporting to represent the Amalfi coast on the walls and murals with cherubs in the ladies has been my backdrop for romantic dinners, birthdays, good days and bad and countless laughter-filled, Chianti-fuelled evenings.

My friend and I instinctively followed the path around the corner from the French into Old Compton Street, less than a fag smoke away, but were shocked to find Amalfi’s wasn’t there. Immediately I thought we’d drunk more than I thought and had wandered too far down the road, but the inescapable and heart-breaking truth is that this unique jewel with a story to tell has been replaced by a mass-produced bauble.
It has become a Belgo, a brand which a decade ago parcelled it’s mussels and chips into a Ron Arad shaped package and appealed to our notions of being European and sophisticated, but which with multiplication now just looks dull and a bit cheap.

What struck me was not the inconvenience of finding somewhere else to eat or because there was nothing to eat at Amalfi you couldn’t get elsewhere, but the overwhelming feeling of loss. It was less someone placing ‘a carbuncle on the face of a well-loved friend’ and more like the death of the friend. It was like the passing of the New Piccadilly Cafe in 2007 (was it that long ago?) and of course every friend you lose takes with them that part of your life you have shared with them.

I am not alone in being enchanted by this small cross hatch of fag end strewn roads populated by the most interesting people in the capital.

No-one here is impressed by city suits or money. The character – and characters – and the individual features which make Soho an exciting place to be, are being sacrificed to the mammon of commercialism in the interests of corporate profits and Westminster Council’s balance sheet.

The Council is raising commercial rents and forcing the few small independent traders which remain out of business allowing the bland, uniform chain outlets to paint a uniform façade across Soho’s imperfect, but bewitching façade.

I am not alone in my lament. The Save Soho  campaign is calling for the area to become a heritage site. I support the call. London’s history is there. My history is there. It’s a small piece of bohemia in an increasingly dull and colourless capital.


  1. Well said Jayne! Love(d) Soho and spent many a happy evening in its environs. It would be a crying shame if it were turned into something resembling Covent Garden with all its chain shops and cafes.

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