SOHO FACES

PART ONE

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”[1]. 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”.

[1] 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

Mr drif field

Mr drif field

79 Golborne Road W10 5NL
7703152508website

The book dealer Driff Field (aka Drif, Driffield and Dryfield) used to publish a guide to secondhand bookshops, when they were numerous across the UK. Most of those bookshops have now disappeared, and drif’s guide ceased publication in the mid-1990s. Now drif is back on the Revisionist, offering his guide to charity bookshops, with a twist, a rant and a grudge. “Now is a great time to be a book collector, as long as you do not go to charity bookshops. If you have the cash and the space, the price of ordinary books is being forced down daily by the internet. But for the rare, oddball items, charity shops still offer surprises. The best charity bookshops are in the Home Counties, really. But I shall start with a tour of North London."

House of Hodge

House of Hodge

174 Blackstock Road N5 1HA
020 8127 4765website

This is undoubtedly the best stocked charity bookshop in London, and open to discussions. If only it was open more often, although it does claim to be so on a Sunday. [Ed’s note: Suzanne, one of the volunteers, told me that the last major donation from House of Hodge went to a cat sanctuary in Kent called Rhodes Minnis. The shop is named in honour of Hodge, Dr Samuel Johnson’s favourite cat, immortalised by Boswell in his Life of Johnson and by a statue outside Johnson’s house on Gough Square. The shop’s founder was Dr Doreen Rolph, a “well-read cat lover”.]

Palmers Green Red Cross Bookshop

Palmers Green Red Cross Bookshop

385 Green Lane N13 4JG
020 8882 5215website

This shop has a high calibre of books, and indeed looks more like a book fair, but it has similar prices to match. There are bargains to be had but you have to wade your way through several thousand very ordinary books first. [Ed’s Note: Martine the manager, says: “People keep telling us how nice the bookshop is because we have a good variety. We don’t just do bestsellers or fiction. We try to have as wide a range as possible. Generally customers say we are better than the other charity bookshops. We try to stock not just the books that sell but to keep the shop interesting with variety and quality. When people come they know they can browse and find something unusual. There’s a bit of mystery of it.” Les is the assistant manager. He runs the media department “amongst other things” and says the strength of the shop is “in its donations”. The other lady who volunteers there is Yolonde. She is from Luxembourg. Martine is French. They are all very friendly.]

Oxfam Bookshop Crouch End

Oxfam Bookshop Crouch End

22 Park Road Crouch End N8 8TD
020 8347 7942website

It is reliably open but the stock seems to be declining. If anything I think the eight charity shops in the high road are more rewarding. [Ed’s note: Chris, the manager, said: “We do best in art and design and the humanities. This is a reflection on the Crouch End community which has a lot of people in the media and entertainment. We serve a recycling function, taking unwanted books. We find homes for them. The money we raise goes to Oxfam. We support artists and have exhibitions to support arty projects. We are also a music shop. We are at the heart of the vinyl renaissance. We have been plugging vinyl for twelve years and now everyone wants it. But the enthusiasm started with shops like us. Next week, we will be doing a window with an old radiogram complete with all the vinyl they would have had in those days.”]

Oxfam Bookshop Muswell Hill

Oxfam Bookshop Muswell Hill

376 Muswell Hill Broadway N10 1DJ
020 8883 5171website

Seems more commercially minded than other Oxfam bookshops, but can be expensive.

Kentish Town Oxfam Bookshop

Kentish Town Oxfam Bookshop

166 Kentish Town Road NW5 2AG
020 7267 3560website

Not exactly outstanding. [Ed’s note: Nick is back on Thursday]

Animal Aid

Animal Aid

200 Blackstock Road N5 2LL
020 7359 0294website

Unreliable opening hours, but open to discussions about the prices. [Ed’s note: According to their website, this bookshop is run by “a voluntary animal welfare group, committed to rescuing and re-homing abused and stray cats in the North London area”.]

Second Chance

Second Chance

161 Blackstock Road N4 2JS
020 7359 8129website

Well worth visiting if you are in the area. Very reliable about opening hours but does not open Sundays. It regularly holds half-price sales. [Ed’s note: Shanawaz, the Minister of Highbury Quadrant Congregational Church told me: “We have this shop in order to be visible in the community. It’s been open for twenty to thirty years. Money raised goes to Open Doors, Christian Aid or towards Macmillan’s coffee mornings and International Leprosy.”]

Wanstead Oxfam

Wanstead Oxfam

1 Clock House Parade, High Street E11 2AG
020 8530 3413website

From Wanstead tube exit on north side towards Snaresbrook. The shop is on the right. This is about the best of the Oxfam bookshops. It is not obsessed by having everything in mint condition, but it is still quite highly priced on average. The good news is that it opens on Sundays. As far as I am aware there are no other secondhand bookshops in the whole of East London. I would be happy to be proved wrong about this.

Bloomsbury Oxfam

Bloomsbury Oxfam

12 Bloomsbury Street WC1B 3QA
0207 637 4610website

This place is appalling, I had not been in it for years, as the prices were so high. I could not even afford to look in the window. When I went in recently I could scarcely bear to stay, they have priced everything to its upper limit. However they have a stock that is better than most of the few antiquarian bookshops that are left in this part of London. The only way Oxfam can have kept this stock is by over-pricing the books, and hanging onto them for years. It is noticeable that there are no books in less than perfect condition, and you have to wonder what has happened to all the books that don’t measure up to this ridiculous standard? At a quick appraisal they had books that were priced up to a total of roughly £250,000-£500,000. The other difficulty with charity bookshops generally is that most of them are not open to offers. It is their divine belief that somehow they should be exempted from reality. They want to be in the commercial world, but they do not think they should have to join in with commercial realities. If you are prepared to do deals or give bargains then you will get the customers back! Giving discounts is not a mistake, it brings the customer back. Oxfam claims that it is there to help the poor, and yet they are now sitting on a stock that if they sold at sane prices they could help people now!

Heart Books & Music Shop

Heart Books & Music Shop

94 Streatham High Road, London SW16 1BS
020 8664 7490website

Only worth it if you are in the area. The Heart shops are now going in for books more and more but have some bizarre practices like asking £15 each for a two-volume set. The only thing to do in situations like this is buy the first volume, and wait until they reduce the price of the second. The problem is that most charity shops are not sane enough to do so.

Fara Charity Bookshop

Fara Charity Bookshop

34 Broad Street, Town Centre, Teddington TW11 8RF
020 8943 0876website

Very reliable with their opening hours, but mainly paperbacks and shiny dustwrappers. Having said that, I have found bargains here.