No matter how long you have been here, you are a real denizen of Soho the moment you say, "That used to be the Partisan", or "This used to be the 2Is", or "The Marquee used to be here". You are a Soho-ite when what was here before is more solid that what is here now.
Between places both iconic (The French House) and obscure (the stage entrance to the Palace Theatre), you can eavesdrop on whispered encounters, while sourcing visual rhymes in saucy ads. Soho drives its admirers to connect the layers beneath the surface and to realize the palimpsest that is London. It brings to life what is germinating across the country. New life finds expression here – principally along the leyline of Old Compton Street, crossed by Moor, Greek, Frith and Dean Streets. This conduit has been the birthplace of every post-war trend to hit the national consciousness. Crucially, what the developers behind Crossrail don't know is that the other dimension is always involved when tracks are built over dinosaur bones, bellarmine pots and Roman coins.
It's changing again. For my generation, the change in Soho is unwelcome. For the Wifi generation it is refreshing to move quickly through old scenes. For them, distraction from student debt and un-affordable housing are found in media hubs and street food. For me, looking back is distraction.
When Peter Cook was running the Establishment Club at 18 Greek Street, he would have heard the strains of an acoustic guitar wafting up from the basement of number 49. Soho was about to give birth to a major movement in popular culture. "Les Cousins, Club Continental" opened on Sunday 4th October 1964. The name came from a nouvelle vague film directed by Claude Chabrol.
The film opens with a provincial student coming to stay with his sexually liberated cousin in Paris. Despite its continental origins, Les Cousins was resolutely Anglo-Saxon and pronounced Lez Cuzzins. There was something in the air of this tiny, unlicensed basement room that helped unleash “mythically revelatory performances”. The guy hunched on a stool breathing into the mic could be a visiting American like Paul Simon or Bob Dylan, or Bert “Angie” Jansch, or any other of the legends who began their careers in this room. Sometimes the musician hunched over their guitar was a woman, like Diana Matheou, who liked the place so much she married the owner’s son. Diana has been a full-time Soho tenant ever since her first visit to Les Cousins.
My father-in-law Loukas Matheou was a Greek Cypriot villager. Back on the island, he had looked after the family’s goats. When he was 13 his dad blew his hand off dynamiting fish. Loukas was taken out of school. He learnt early to work hard. He was a wild, strong man. But there was little for him in Cyprus. When the Brits gave villagers British passports in 1949 he came to Soho and paid £200 key money for this flat [number 55 Greek Street] and all its furniture. His son, Andy went to the local Soho school. At seventeen he started running Les Cousins as an all-nighter where live bands could play. He had been listening to Dylan for a while and even though the big thing then was discotheques - La Poubelle, Le Kilt and Le Discotheque had all opened – he started booking folk acts. He would ring people up and say ‘Can you play Saturday night’ Then he’d dash over to the Melody Maker and place an ad.
Before Diana's father-in-law acquired the lease, 49 Greek Street was the Oxford Dairies. Prior to that the basement had been The Skiffle Cellar. The poet Hilda Syms, who will appear in these pages later, ran the Cellar. Then it became a discotheque, which didn’t work out. The club was unlicensed, served soft drinks and opened every night at eight.
It took off through Chinese whispers. When someone tried to get protection money out of Loukas he leapt over the counter with a knife and attacked them. They didn’t try anything after that.
In the 1670s when Soho was a valley of fields and woods just outside Westminster, the first foreigners to make their homes here were Greeks fleeing the Ottoman Turks. By 1677 they had erected their own church, the first Orthodox chapel in the country. They built it on Hog’s Lane, now Charing Cross Road. A few years later they migrated to another part of London leaving the church behind them. But Greek Street had been born. St Martin’s College of Art now stands on the site of the church.
It was during the next few decades of higgledy-piggledy building that foreign immigrants, almost all of them French, began to settle in Soho. By the 1680s when Old Compton, Greek and Frith Streets were developed, artists and craftsmen from St Martin’s Lane opened art studios here. Then the taverns came and the doors opening on to the street welcomed migrants in. After1685 – a key date for Soho – because of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the Huguenots were expelled from France. Their arrival turned these new streets into a petty France with cafes and restaurants side by side with taverns. They also turned the chapel on Greek Street into a French catholic church. Many of the new worshippers were gold- and silversmiths, jewellers, engravers, clock- and watchmakers bringing in customers from the fashionable Court of St James’s.
At the beginning of the 20th century, in 1906, an inspector for the Metropolitan Police denounced Greek Street, as the “worst street in the West End of London . . . some of the vilest reptiles in London live there or frequent it”. Given that the media hangout Soho House now dominates the northern half of the street, many might conclude that little has changed.
“I was seventeen when I first came to Soho,” said Diana.
I went down the stairs and didn’t realize as I passed this chubby, woolly-haired guy on the door that he was going to be the love of my life. I just went in. The American banjo player, Derroll Adams, was playing. There were old sofas scattered around, and old chairs. The place was packed. I sat on a sofa and started talking to a guy called Steve Adams, who later became Cat Stevens. We talked all night and he told me how he was doing a bit of song-writing too.
After that, I came regularly. It was like being at the centre of the universe.
I met Diana in her sun- and memory-filled flat at 55 Greek Street. The furniture that Loukas had paid for in 1949 was still there; the kitchen was the film set for a monochrome homespun drama. Les Cousins, just a few doors along, had been the focal point of England’s folk movement. American singer-songwriter Tim Buckley was a regular. A struggling saxophonist called Davey Jones turned up one night and asked if he could play. But the guest list was full for that evening. He wouldn’t get a hit till 1967 with “A Space Oddity”.
 Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music. Rob Young. Faber. 2010.
For more on Les Cousins Folk Club, please see: Interview with Al Stewart
Next time: Madame Cornelys and Casanova