DIANA MATHEOU

Diana Matheou finished her story of the folk movement and her family shortly before leaving her rent-controlled flat in Soho (see Field Guide).

"In the late 70s a shop called American Retro opened and I thought, oh something’s changed. I went in and bought a red check jacket. The woman who served me turned up her nose at me and I thought, ‘Oh I know. You think you’ve got a new thing going on and you’ve conquered the world.’ Then Del Monico’s closed. That was where David Clulow’s the optician is now. We used to get all our wine there. Jerry’s wine shop used to be a Spanish deli. There was a lovely old jeweller’s on the corner of Frith Street. It’s a private house now.

There was a definite shift from the end of the Sixties. There was the four-day week. I remember rubbish piling up, rats. Then The Eighties brought a retro theme. It still felt as though London was centred on Soho. People were still being drawn in. The Discotheques faded out but the musicians were still playing at the Marquee –  the Liquid Gig they used to call it because there was no air conditioning and they were pouring with sweat. Ronnie’s was still going. Wheeler’s had rollers driving up. Mick Jagger would get out. We had a tenor singing us to sleep every night because of La Dolce Vita restaurant next door.

Every Sunday the Salvation Army would march up and down and sing outside the women’s shelter. The Italian Church was in the square; there were still lots of Italian families. Every Sunday the women would be outside the church and the guys would be outside Bar Italia polishing their cars. The Queen’s Horse Guards would come through for exercise in the mornings. At six am every morning the bells of St Patrick’s rang. They still do.

I think of Soho as the hub of a wheel. Soho’s always been edgy, but it’s at the centre of things. Immigrants and artisans have gathered here. Now it’s Hoxton and Brick Lane. There were a lot of hidden gay clubs. Danny La Rue had a discreet club on Bateman Street. We used to see him down there late at night with some of the guys. There were all types of people – winos, a lot of Irish, old soldiers who couldn’t get back to life after the war. There were interesting characters. They felt they could be absorbed here. There was a lovely guy wuo used to sell single roses. He would sing ‘Let it Be’ over and over again. We used to stop and talk to him. There was another guy whom Andy called Divinity because he didn’t have anything but he was happy. He was homeless but he was always dressed in bright clothes and he managed to get by. We all were getting by.

It was different in the Seventies. Women’s Lib started up. I was working in a women’s refuge and working with kids who needed containing. Soho started to go downhill. There were lots more strip clubs, and a lot of those were fronts. You paid your money, went in and god knows what happened then because there was nothing there. There were still lots of girls on the streets. We had working girls on top of the restaurant Loukas was running where the Cousins had been. At the back was a black gambling club which was heavy. They used to get people up there and take their wallets. There was a light well and the number of wallets that were dropped down where we were in the basement was incredible. The girls on the street would be up to the same game. One day Loukas and his wife arrived and there was a body lying there.

Loukas wasn’t to be messed with but the dustmen would leave your rubbish all over the street unless you bunged them. There were all kinds of rackets. You could pay off inspectors or buy a load of scampi that had been purloined from somewhere or other. In the early days when Loukas’s father came over from Cyprus in his traditional pleated tunic, he witnessed a shooting on the street outside.

In the mornings we’d be woken up by the steel shutter going up in the Maltese strip club opposite. We knew it was midday then. There was a still a greengrocer and butcher on Old Compton Street on the corner here. On the other side was Parmigiani’s, with a fierce old lady, and a cigar shop. The area was bleak. The buildings were derelict and the upper storeys were unoccupied. There weren’t a lot of children for our daughter to play with locally but Soho Square was her playground. Loukas would take her there. The other local children would be there and Loukas would chat to the old men who gathered there."