At Hazlitts HotelThu 29 Nov
Japanese game avatars, genomics, bio-informatics, vintage magazines, tattoos, and the rhetoric of 12-step recovery.I was stuck in the doorway of Number One Frith Street, the Soho Centre for Health and Care. It is a large, welcoming doorway which was just as well as it was raining. I was talking to a recovering addict who had popped out of a meeting of Narcotics Anonymous for a cigarette. Next to us was a very excited man having a heated conversation with his mobile.
I was finding it hard to concentrate on the sad, shattered story Jackie was delivering between drags on her fag. This media type, with his messenger bag tucked between his legs and his phone nestled between ear and shoulder wasmore compelling, energised by blossoming systems of thought and new ways to commodify. I felt guilty as I eavesdropped on his conversation while Jackie’s well-worn monologue rehearsed the cause of her downfall. I was stuck in a doorway but it wasn’t just any doorway because it was a hub for the transfer of diverging strands of information. Between Mr Mobile and Jackie I was stuck in the middle of nowhere and stuck in the middle of everything. Frith Street, which connects Soho Square to Old Compton Street is like that. It begins in a simulation of rural repose and ends in the clamour of a high street.
Digressions are necessary in the telling of the history of Soho. I spent a lot of my time in Soho listening to stories in pubs. Most of them ended in drunken mystification. Some had a punchline that I subsequently forgot. Most of the people I have known – Tricky Dicky the burglar, Jackie the clipper, my Mother, my Father, myself, and a showgirl called Mariella, have spent a lifetime chasing shadows down Soho’s streets. Chasing some younger version of ourselves, perhaps. Or chasing the hope of finding something or someone new, something or someone that will make us feel alive or that spending all this time on Frith Street, Archer Street, Wardour Street has been worthwhile. That we are not, in other words, wasting time.
In my case, once I had shaken off Jackie and Mr Mobile I could resume my fruitless search for the defining spirit of Soho. I was hunting down the ghost of William Hazlitt, a conundrum of freedom and imprisonment. In the absence of a Full Spectrum Camera or EVP Recorder, I resorted to old-fashioned tactics: I tried to imagine what it was like when Hazlitt lived here and why it was so apposite that he should.
When first he came to London in 1798 Hazlitt lived just north of Oxford Street. Towards the end of his life, in 1830, he moved south of it. This move to Soho was the radical essayist William Hazlitt’s final homecoming. He found a room on Frith Street. The street name derives from a speculative developer named Richard Frith. His trade was bricklaying, and started paving Soho Fields in the 1680s. A century before Hazlitt’s residence here, the houses were tall, graceful mansions inhabited by in turn, a duchess, a viscount, a marquis, a Lord of the Admiralty and a Secretary of State. Alongside them were Mr Hume’s Dancing School and Anthony Fert, a French Dancing Master. In 1764, a child prodigy named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart stayed at number 20 with his father and sister.
Moving into Hazlitt’s lifetime, the aristocrats leased their mansions to the arty set. Tenants included the comedian and star of Theatre Royal, John Bannister, the novelist and playwright, Elizabeth Inchbald – a woman well ahead of her times, the quarrelsome parliamentarian, Horne Tooke, and Arthur Murphy, the scandalmongering, mischievous biographer of Dr Johnson. Predating Hazlitt’s residence by twenty years, the landscape artist John Constable lived at 49 Frith Street, within strolling distance of the Royal Academy.
As well as the rest of Soho, Frith Street had a strong French presence that went back to the influx of Huguenots from the 1680s onwards. In 1803, the French Comte de Caumont, a refugee from the Terror, arrived at number 1 to take over a bookbinding workshop. French ideas of republicanism and free trade, Bonaparte’s ideas,came with him. They were what made Soho so provocative to the shop-keeping English. Bonaparte was a hero to Hazlitt.
On New Year’s Day 1830 the Thames had frozen. In the January or February, Hazlitt moved into a small room on the second floor of number six. His room looked on to a frozen courtyard. The weather was horrendous. Lakes of mud, slush and snow made it impossible to get around. Mail coaches reported obstructions on approach roads into the capital. Through no fault of his own, Hazlitt was in debt, and finding it difficult to keep warm or make the weekly repayments that were keeping him out of the “Lock-Up House”. It was at this point that he wrote one of the first of the Frith Street essays that make his stay here so notable.
“London Solitude” was published towards the end of March. It described the “pennyless solitary” pacing the streets passed and unseen by fellow poets “that musically sing of human feeling”, priests “that preach the religion of mercy”, the wealthy “who pity the sorrows of the poor”. At night Hazlitt described retiring to his bedless garret, sitting cold and hungry by his empty grate.It is a matter of record that his landlady, Mrs Stapleton, did provide him with a bed and basic furnishings, as well as shelves for his books and bust of Napoleon. But his despair was real enough.
His debt problem was growing, the pains in his stomach were more acute, and spells in bed were becoming more frequent. Hazlitt was in a desperate state. He wanted to leave his son enough money to be comfortable. But by the end of June he had been prescribed opium for the worsening pain in his gut. He wrote one of his most powerful essays, “The Sick Chamber”. In it, we can see into his second-floor room, the “unwholesome dungeon”; the “tumbled pillows”, the medicine bottles, the cordials. As he lay in Frith Street, close to the churchyard in which he was to be buried, he recalled his old battles, and particularly feuds with his former friends, the poets Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey. The essay was published unsigned the month before he died, by which time it was clear he had cancer.
Hazlitt had come to Soho to die. Still he continued to work, correcting proofs of his biography of Napoleon for his publisher. But with doctor’s and solicitor’s bills to pay, his panic increased. He owed Mrs Stapleton rent in arrears and he wanted to leave something to one of the servant girls who had been taking care of him. One day in his room in Frith Street, his voice hoarse and his body shrunk and feeble, he dictated a letter to a friend. It was addressed to the editor of the Edinburgh Review:
“Dear Sir, I am dying; can you send me 10l., and so consummate your many kindnesses to me? W. Hazlitt.” His editor sent £50 by return post. It arrived after Hazlitt’s death.
On Saturday 18th September, Hazlitt spoke his last words. His biographer, Duncan Wu, reckons them as controversial as any other he spoke.
“Well, I’ve had a happy life.”
Hazlitt had known poverty, he had been fundamentally at odds with the society around him, his marriage had failed, his love life was catastrophic; his literary reputation was constantly under attack. He had been subject to loneliness, frustration and disappointment. But, crucially, he had written through it all. No one had ever said to him:
“Believe this, do that, say what we would have you; no one has come between me and my free-will.”
The striptease artist Rusty Humphries once said, “After ten years, get out.” My Soho story started in 1986 when I joined Waterstone and Co., Booksellers, on Charing Cross Road. It ended around 2004 when I was barred from the Academy Club on Lexington Street for writing a story that appeared in the Independent on Sunday. It was mildly scurrilous and featured well-known habitues of the journalist Auberon Waugh’s favourite drinking hole. The members were outraged to be caught in their cups – by one of their own. I had betrayed them. For me, burning my bridges was the only farewell I knew how to do, and I had long outstayed my welcome.
In her time-capsule flat at 55 Frith Street, the folk singer Diana Matheou was grieving. “I’m the only controlled tenant left in this block. In here it’s still 1959 but I am being paid off to move out. I heard the other day that Silver Place is going to have a Chanel in it. Soho is losing its soul. It’s becoming sanitised. It’s the end of an era.”
Pop-up cafes and flat whites, random bloggers, street-food and tattoo artists, super-trendy quirky clothes stores, gamers, Shoreditch and the criss-crossing tracks and hoardings of Crossrail make it hard to free associate, and pubs are just sad. Unless you’re on social media, all the interesting people are in recovery now, or they’re dead.
When I set out on this story of Soho there was still fun to be had, surprises in store. To a certain extent, there still are. The last time I went to a drinker was to meet a screenwriter friend who was working on a real-life story about a renegade British officer who had gone native in Israel during the Second World War and become a fanatical Zionist.
“It’s like Lawrence of Arabia, but Jewish”, he said. He was hugging his laptop with glee. We were in the Whisky Bar above Milroy’s on Old Compton Street. My friend’s producer was there, smoking a fat cigar. I couldn’t tell if it was an ironic cigar or if this bulky, whisky-swilling figure was believing his own hype. When I told him I was writing a history of Soho, he said, “I am the history of Soho.” So there is still fun to be had in Soho, even if it’s at someone else’s expense.
According to the Londonist website, “soon Berwick Street will have a boutique hotel, swanky flats and a row of smart retail units”. As for Old Compton Street, according to the same website, “it’s one of London’s main LGBT+ hubs”. Old Compton Street is where I last saw the artist Sebastian Horsley parading with a Fifties pin-up girl on his arm en route to the Soho Theatre for the first night of the play based on his life. He invited me to the after-party but I told him I didn’t like parties. He said, “Neither do I.” He was struggling with an addiction to alcohol and heroin. He told me, “I don’t want to drink.” I know that feeling. I want to stop, I want to go home, I want to find peace, but I can’t. I have to keep doing whatever it is that will kill me. One day, shortly after my career in Soho ended, I did stop. Sebastian didn’t. The day after the first night of the play based on his life, he died of an overdose.
There used to be a second-hand book stall on Rupert Street, which kept me interested. I got my copy of Keep the Faith, Baby there. It is an account of Soho’s young drug addicts by Father Ken Leech, the parish priest of St Anne’s in the Seventies. He founded the homeless charity Centrepoint, by inviting rough sleepers to the basement of St Anne’s. What is left for me is the palimpsest. For all the rest, there are other, newer dreamers communicating with the streets of Soho. They know what to make of it. I will go back to visit Hazlitt.
On the Tuesday or Wednesday after his death, some friends arrived at 6 Frith Street to pay their respects to their late friend. They were saddened to see a “Room to Let” notice at the window. They knocked, and Mrs Stapleton answered the door. For a small tip she allowed them the privilege of viewing Hazlitt’s remains. His coffin was on trestles alongside the bed, covered with a tablecloth. His hat and gloves were on a table. A few of Hazlitt’s books were still on the shelves. Apparently she was holding them hostage until his rent was paid.
For many years, it is said, Hazlitt’s landlady, eager to let his room, would tell the story of Hazlitt’s last days to would-be tenants. The house has always attracted writers. More recently, it has been known as Hazlitt’s Hotel.
In the summer of 1830, William Hazlitt, mocked as a “Cockney lecturer on Shakespeare” was buried in St Anne’s. To protect his body from the predations of graverobbers his friends paid the sexton to dig five feet deeper than usual. They even watched over him to ensure that it was done. They also paid for a stone to be placed over the tomb, bearing an epitaph. The longest in church history it is also one of the most subversive. For forty years it went unnoticed. But under Victoria’s reign, the long arm of social convention caught up with the liberty of Soho and the inscription was removed.
It was not until 2013 that Hazlitt’s tomb was restored with its tribute. In a ceremony presided over by the Labour politician Michael Foot, Soho reclaimed William Hazlitt.
Born April 10, 1778. Died 18 September, 1830.
He lived to see his deepest wishes gratified
as he has expressed them in his Essay
‘On the Fear of Death.’
‘To see the downfall of the Bourbons,
And some prospect of good to mankind’:
was driven from France 29th July 1830).
‘To leave some sterling work to the world’:
(He lived to complete his ‘Life of Napoleon’).
That some friendly hand should consign
him to the grave was accomplished to a
limited but profound extent; on
these conditions he was ready to depart,
and to have inscribed on his tomb,
‘Grateful and Contented.’
The first (unanswered) Metaphysician of the age.
A despiser of the merely Rich and Great:
A love of the People, Poor and Oppressed:
A hater of the Pride and Power of the Few,
as opposed to the happiness of the Many;
A man of true moral courage,
Who sacrificed Profit and present Fame
And a yearning for the good of Human Nature.
Who was a burning wound to an Aristocracy,
That could not answer him before men,
And who may confront him before their Maker.
He lived and died
The unconquered Champion
Of Truth, Liberty, and Humanity,
‘Dubitantes opera legite.’
This stone is raised by one whose heart is with him, in his grave.
John Bull, 1823