A Soho Christmas Carol

Soho was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatsoever about that. The register of its burial was signed by the bookie, the bartender, the stripper, and the investigative journalist. Galliard signed it: and Galliard’s name was good upon Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Soho was as dead as a door-nail. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade.  But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Soho was as dead as a door-nail.

Hertsmere Galliard knew it was dead, of course. How could it be otherwise? Galliard and Raymond Paul had been partners in Soho for very many years. And even Galliard was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it by obtaining planning permission for a seventy-storey block of flats in Vauxhall. As he stepped out of the business lunch with the leader of Wandsworth Council, he was accosted on the pavement by two young urchins in skinny jeans and Public Enemy Christmas jumpers, who were campaigning against the closure of The Drowned Rat on Wardour Street. “Please sign our petition, Sir, otherwise there will be nowhere to go for the next generation of bands who have always made Soho famous; like The Beatles, The Sex Pistols, Kajagoogoo and Rialto”.

“Are there no prisons? Are there no welfare-to-work placements? What is the profit margin of your business? Bah humbug!”, snorted Galliard as he pushed past them, handed his parking ticket to the Council Leader, and jumped into his Range Rover. He returned home to take his melancholy dinner of cocaine in his melancholy penthouse, which was dreary enough, all the other flats in the building being kept empty by their Shanghai-based owners. Galliard hopped into his rooftop jacuzzi and was about to relax with the FT, when a rattling, jangling noise came from the lobby. Passing through the ceiling wafted a ghostly apparition; that of his old partner, Raymond Paul.

“You? But Raymond, you have been dead these last six years!”

“Yes, Hertsmere, but for the purposes of this moralising fable I am condemned to wander the world in these fluffy handcuffs, bunny ears, and chains of dildos, and you will meet an even worse fate if you do not change your ways! Tonight you shall be visited by three spirits, and they may represent your last chance to repent!”

Resolving to sack the concierge (and his dealer) in the morning, Galliard shrugged the incident off and went to bed. He was sleeping soundly until his iPad bleeped with a Candy Crush invitation at 1am. Cursing, he reached to switch it off, when he noticed a man in a camel coat, mod suit and loud kipper tie standing at the foot of the bed.

“If you’re looking for Blow Up, I think it’s in St Moritz nowadays. The Metro was knocked down after I got a compulsory purchase order from Crossrail, and a very profitable piece of business it was for me too”.

“I am not looking for Blow Up, I have come for you, Hertsmere Galliard. I am the Ghost of Soho Past.” The visitor began to fly around the room, pulled Galliard out of bed, and then the two flew through the open window and landed on the corner of Greek St and Old Compton. Billboards advertised the latest Julie Christie film, market stalls filled the streets and most of the shop units were formica-topped coffee bars, French bistros or family-run Italian delis. Galliard’s face was illuminated by a smile. “But this is just like when I was a young man!”

The pair strolled down to The Coach & Horses. Francis Bacon and Peter O’Toole were leaning on the bar, deep in conversation. “All these old faces I thought I’d never see again!” mused Galliard, before turning to his companion. “I wouldn’t normally do this, but, er, since it’s Christmas, what would you like to drink?”

Galliard found a spot at the bar next to Jeff’s stool, and took out his wallet. The wrinkled face on the stool shot a look of contempt. “I can’t stand Christmas, and all these damn amateurs who come out to drink once a year! What are you going to have? Advocaat, Tia Maria? Do be careful you don’t make yourself sick!”, he snorted, before bringing one leg of his stool down hard on Galliard’s foot. Undeterred, he caught the eye of Norman Balon behind the bar and held out a ten-pound note.

“Hello, two large vodka tonics, please.”

“Oh no you don’t, sunshine, you’re far too boring to get served in my pub. Take your money back and fuck off.”

Galliard returned to his companion with a glint in his eye. “Ghost, I inplore you, remove me from this place! Let’s go up Walker’s Court and see what films are on.”

The rest of the night was something of a blur, but eventually someone or something helped Galliard out of his chianti-and-bolognese-saturated shirt and into his bed, where he fell into a deep sleep.

This lasted until 2am, when the quiet of his penthouse was disturbed by the eerie rumble of a toy scooter. Galliard sat bolt upright. Perched on the edge of his bed, watching him, was a young man with a bushy beard and Cosby Show t-shirt, eating a bowl of Coco Pops. “Spirit, who might you be?”, quivered Galliard. The phantom spoke. “Basically, I was like, yeah? I’m the Ghost of Soho Present? As you might have guessed?”. Once more the apparition took Galliard by the hand, and out the window they flew.

They returned to the same spot; Bar Italia was still there, the Coach likewise, but the latter was full of Japanese tourists taking afternoon tea. The streets were a bit tidier, but the small coffee bars had made way for a large Caffé Nero and there were more chain restaurants, generally offering cheap snacks at Michelin star prices; think gourmet hotdogs. One posh restaurant seemed to be pushing bread and dripping. Most of the old knocking-shops had been converted into vintage clothes stores, emblazoned with the words ‘POP-UP’, as a particularly crude fig leaf for the evident and large-scale capital investment. “Notice much difference?”, prompted the Ghost. Galliard looked troubled, but tried not to show it. “Well, footfall in the area is still very positive, and a concentration of well-loved chain cafés makes Soho more welcoming for the visitor with money to spend. People find familiarity comforting, that’s why it succeeds.”

“Let’s uh, like, kind of go somewhere else?” suggested the Ghost, and lifted Galliard high up above the rooftops. They soared into the skies together and flew over Holborn, The City, Shoreditch, Hackney Marshes and the Olympic Village, before descending and landing on a suburban high street. “Where the bollocks on toast is this dump?”, sneered Galliard. “So this is totally, like, Leytonstone, and there’s this amazing clubnight happening in the Ex-Servicemen’s club”, replied the phantom. They entered to find themselves at an old-fashioned working men’s club. There was a buffet, people of all ages were mingling and drinking, and onstage the two campaigners who Galliard had pushed aside earlier were DJing. Everyone was having a great night out. “Basically, they’ve been driven out of Central London, yeah? There’s like, nowhere for young people to go? So all the things that made Soho a bit different, and a destination for people, are having to, like, happen in Zone 3 & 4?”, the ghost whispered in Galliard’s ear. Galliard turned away. “O Spirit, take me away from this place! I have seen enough! This area is cheap, attracting creatives, and ripe for gentrification. I must buy up every property before my competitors do!”, and with that, out he stormed to catch a taxi into London, already mentally composing the eviction letters as he did so.

Back in his bedroom, at 3am Galliard was woken once more when a fierce wind blew his window open and the chill cold air filled the room. A tall, stooping figure with a scythe, whose skeletal face was barely visible underneath its drooping hood, grabbed Galliard by the scruff of the neck and held him dangling above the floor.

“I suppose you’ll be the Ghost of Soho Future, then?”

“Sorry darling, members only tonight,” growled the ghost, before drop-kicking Galliard out of his window and onto the pavement below. Except that the elegant Georgian townhouses which had formerly dominated the street were long gone, replaced by curved glass edifices. One could not have called the scene bohemian. There was a Starbucks, a Boots, a Gap and eight Pizza Express. There were American tourists with backpacks, and large families pushing buggies six feet wide. It looked like any suburban shopping mall. To the end of the street, crowds in Soho Square were transfixed by a top-hatted man covered in gold spray paint, and another eating fire whilst riding a unicycle.

“I really must say, Ghost”, shouted Galliard back up at the open window, “I think you and your pals have been peddling a very simplistic narrative tonight, of a rose-tinted Soho of the imagination that never actually existed; or if it did, was just as cut-throat as I am. You make it sound as if ‘cleaning-up’ an area is a bad thing, and we should turn a blind eye towards the trafficking and enslavement of prostitutes so that you can enjoy a frisson of the illicit. Why is exciting, innovative cuisine from top new chefs worse than a clip joint where some girl tricks you into paying £500 for a small glass of Ribena? And anyway, isn’t change a healthy sign for a city that thinks itself one of the greats? Wouldn’t it be just as theme-park, just as inorganic and artificial, to try and keep the 1960s preserved in aspic? And don’t you think the old Soho grandees were pushing an agenda of ‘sleaze’ to keep prices artificially low while they went around hoovering up cheap property which they could sell for a huge profit when the great “tidying-up” came? I know Crossrail will turn Soho into a third Westfield, but have you seen how overcrowded and disrupted the trains are every morning, don’t you think we need Crossrail to take some of the heat? And now, Sir, I shall bid you goodnight, I have a meeting in the morning at which I hope to sell the French House to Nandos.”

Merry Christmas to all my readers, God help us every one.

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