Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Ghosts of Soho Restaurants.

Soho Restaurants.

Restaurants. Do we regret the loss of Tomato when it turned into Barrafino? No.  L’Epicure when it turned into Waikkiki? Yes. Waikkiki when it turned into Bar Shu? An emphatic no!  In Soho we see them come and we see them go. Very few are mourned to tell the truth. It’s a hard place both physically and financially to run a restaurant.

We lived in Old Compton Street for ten years and could never quite get away from the smell of cooking.  We opened the window onto the street, and it was Opuz and Amalfi.  We opened the bedroom window one story up and it was Margot Henderson making trotters at the French House.  All of our household objects were covered in a very thin film of cooking oil.

A slice of Soho_Sunday Times Magazine 1968.
Below us then was Duke’s Bar, which changed hands several times before becoming Opuz Kitchen (now Pepe’s).  I was then a film critic on The Independent.  One evening I happened to see a Michael Winterbottom film called Wonderland (1999), and thought the location looked familiar. A large part of the film had been made twenty feet below us, without our ever noticing.  Such is Soho.

By 2008 I had become a restaurant critic for the Zagat Guides, the US equivalent of the Michelin Guides, now owned by Google.  Since then Soho has been reviving its foodie credentials, but there’s been a corresponding haemorrhage of good, cheap places to eat.   The area may have gained two or three Michelin stars and won restaurant of the year two years running in the Tatler, but where to the waifs and strays eat these days? Especially now that Stockpot is destined for the stockpot?

Soho dining originally was quite grand. Casanova’s mistress Teresa Cornelys first brought Venetian small plates to 18th century Soho (revived again by Polpo in St James bailiwick centuries later).  At the super exclusive and fashionable Carlisle House in Soho Square the food wasn’t just Venetian.  She had Brunswick pastry-cook Louis Weltje working in the kitchens; he later went to feed up the Prince Regent.  But cheap restaurants? The impoverished poets Rimbaud and Verlaine were able to dine cheaply on food that smelt of home in Old Compton St in the 1870’s.

This golden period of cheap dining was to last about 50 years. Here’s Thomas Burke in 1917 talking about Soho, bewailing to loss of bargain eateries. ‘Gone are the shilling tables-d’hote and their ravishing dishes…not in 1917 do you see Old Compton St as a line of warm and fragrant cafĂ©-windows…gone are those exotic food which brought such zest to a jaded palate’.

Passport to Soho.

I rather miss L’Epicure with its fantastic gas-filled flaming torches, and its doddery waiters seemingly auditioning for a Victoria Wood sketch.  But there again Bar Shu with its Sichuan Fuschia Dunlop menu, in the same site, is one of my favourite restaurants. I remember that old-school 1950’s Italian family restaurant in Green Court, but it’s now replaced by Yalla Yalla, which is better.

A succession of awful restaurants on the site of Arbutus have been replaced by Arbutus (whose future is now sadly in doubt). One of the best new restaurants in London – Sri Lankan slice of happiness known as Hoppers – is on the site of the little-missed Alastair Little eaterie at 49 Frith St.  Bao offers brilliant cheap food but you have to queue for 40 minutes to get it.

One of the Italian restaurants I remember with particular fondness was Presto on Old Compton St, which was beloved by Derek Jarman, who lived nearby, and Sebastian Horsley.  You only ordered the ravioli, because that’s what Derek did.

Recently Young Cheung’s on Shaftesbury Avenue has closed, a particular sadness to me, not because it was the best restaurant in the world but because it was good and cheap and had the air of old Soho to it.  But it did help that I have a Chinese partner who could read all the special menus only in Chinese.

Also vanished, ECapital was a superb Shanghainese mid-priced restaurant at 8 Gerrard St, where the overpraised Haozhan is now.  Its chef David Tam is now at China Tang at the Dorchester – that’s how good it was.  Delicacies included pressed pig's ears, filleted duck's feet with celery, Lion's Head meatballs, Beggar's Chicken.  The actor Johnny Rhys Meyers was a regular after I took him there.
And we also loved China Experience on 118-120 Shaftesbury Avenue, and I remember the Swindon-based owner telling me he was spending £5,000 week in rent.  They had paper-lantern shadow beef and golden fried prawns.  The subsequent restaurant used the Zagat listed stickers for years afterwards, quite illegally.  Royal Dragon is still in Gerard St, but was ruined like Kettners by a revamp, and we followed our friend who manages it next door to Golden Dragon (her name is Jackie and we’ve known her 25 years).

Soho is full of ghosts, most especially, the ghosts of restaurants.

©Roger Clarke 2016 Twitter
Roger Clarke@Skionar

The Soho Food Feast, Sat/Sun 2-3 July 2016

Supporting Soho Parish a small primary school situated in the heart of London on Great Windmill St.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Soho and the Cholera outbreak of 1854.

The Modern Myth of Soho’s Dr John Snow.
History often gets things wrong either because of the way in which events are initially reported or as a result of later re-interpretation.

Such is the story of Dr John Snow who persuaded the Board of Guardians to remove the handle of the water pump in Soho’s Broadwick Street at the height of the 1854 cholera epidemic.  Memorialised by the John Snow pub and the replica water pump, which used to stand nearby on the corner of Poland Street, many today are of the mistaken belief that the Victorian doctor was the only scientist to discover cholera is a water-borne disease. 

Water pump in Broadwick St. removed whilst building works carried out.
Snow’s work did not make national headlines and newspapers in the 1850s were not brimming over with reports of Snow’s discovery, or that the handle removal had saved lives. 

Over 480 people died of cholera in and around Broadwick Street between late July and the middle of October 1854, but at the time the role played by Snow was not seen as particularly significant. Contrary to popular belief, the removal of the pump handle did not improve London’s sanitation overnight, and whilst Snow correctly concluded that cholera is contracted by ingesting tainted water, his work was overshadowed by others working in the tight-knit medical establishment and the widespread conviction that cholera was spread by foul-smelling air.

It is not all that surprising, therefore, that following his untimely death in 1858, Snow’s contribution to science was largely forgotten. In Bloomsbury when the new building to house the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine was opened in 1929, it incorporated a frieze around the top of its exterior into which was carved the names of those considered to be of outstanding importance in the field of hygiene. Snow’s name was not included.

Yet today the story of the removal of the pump handle is seen as a symbol for scientists working in the field who fight - as Snow did - for effective and swift action to prevent the spread of epidemic disease.

Snow’s story is remembered because it was re-told in the early twentieth century by the American public health expert, William T. Sedgwick who, in his 1902 textbook, Principles of Sanitary Science and the Public Health, called Snow’s work ‘a monument of sanitary research.’  

Since 1902 science students in the United States have been taught the story of Snow and the pump handle removal and as a result many Americans who come to London are keen to visit Broadwick Street to see the replica pump.  Until recently the replica was situated on the corner of Poland Street, unfortunately some distance from its original position, potentially contributing to a re-interpretation of historical events. 
The John Snow Public House (1973).
Few realise the site of the original pump is to be found closer to the entrance of the John Snow pub. Its position is marked by a single red granite kerbstone and a discreet sign which incorrectly implies that Snow alone discovered cholera is a waterborne disease. Sadly little is known about Snow’s groundbreaking work on chloroform or his conviction that alcohol was a danger to health.

History has re-interpreted Snow’s story so that today the one lasting memorial to this visionary scientist - and one of the Victorian era’s greatest advocates of temperance - is a Soho pub.

Join us on Thursday, 6 Oct 2016, when author, linguist and historian, Amanda J Thomas, will be our guide on an historical journey through Soho in the time of cholera at Blacks Club, 67 Dean St. W1D 4QH.
Doors open at 7pm, talk begins 7.30pm. This is a Free event exclusive to mosoho followers and Blacks members.

Space is limited so please book early to reserve a

Amanda Thomas is the author of ‘Cholera: The Victorian Plague’ (Pen and Sword Books, ; ISBN 978-1783463503), and ‘The Lambeth Cholera Outbreak of 1848-1849’ (McFarland; ISBN 978-0786439898). Further information can be found at and on Amanda’s Amazon Author’s Page:

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Remembering The First Gay Pride.

West End

Wednesday 23rd June 1971, age 35

My first attempt at Gay Pride.
I’m at a Gay Liberation Front meeting at All Saints Church Hall in Notting Hill listening to Micky Burbidge of the counter-psychiatry group describe ‘aversion therapy’ to several hundred outraged gay people. ‘In this so-called “treat­ment,”’ he says, ‘gay victims are restrained and stimulated with erotic photos while electric shocks are administered to their genitals.’ After the cries of shock and outrage have died down, he asks for volunteers to march down Harley Street and paint black crosses on the doors of the guilty psychiatrists. I’m one of the many volunteers who raise their hands.

Two days later, I enter Cavendish Square to see a tiny group with a banner: ‘NO TO AVERSION THERAPY’ but am ashamed to admit I don’t dare join them because they look so few and so vulner­able! I will myself to do it but fail. Nor can I walk away but instead pathetically follow them along a parallel street listening to them chanting:
‘Give us a G! … give us an A! … give us a Y!
What does that spell? – Gay!
What is gay? – Good!
 What else is gay? – Angry!
I silently mouth the replies but still can’t join them which, unfortunately, confirms another thing Micky said: ‘Self-oppression is the ultimate subjugation which only succeeds when gay people believe straight definitions of what is good and bad.’ Chastened but thoughtful, I stumble home alone.

Next morning I realise that yesterday was a watershed for me all the same because acknowledging my own self-oppression is the first step to over­coming it.

West End

Saturday 28th August 1971, age 35

Taking Pride

The GLF Youth Group have organised a protest march against the male age of consent and this time I’ve eliminated any chance of copping out by wearing my jumpsuit embroidered with ‘Alan’ and ‘Gay Love’ on the epaulets and a rainbow on the breast pocket, plus all my gay badges and a peaked cap also embroidered with ‘Gay Love’ and my name. So I already feel ‘Out and Proud’ as I set off for Marble Arch tube where I find more happy gay people than I’ve seen in my entire life – and also discover that just ‘being in the majority’ is a liberating experience in itself.

Now we’re ambling down Oxford Street past crowds of Saturday shop­pers ‘protected’ by the police. It’s true that yesterday I thought people might throw stones at us but today I observe that most simply aren’t interested; a few look scared but many are cheering us on – so, by the time we reach Bond Street I’m so elated I go up to a gorgeous, curly-haired bearded onlooker and say: ‘You’re lovely! Can I kiss you?’

 The Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalised ‘homosexual acts between two men over 21 years of age in private’ in England and Wales only’ excluding the police, the army, the air force and the navy.

‘Yes, if you want to,’ he says. So I do! Then I do it again with another! And again, for the rest of the day – till I’ve kissed more divine men than I knew existed! I spot two elderly women huffing and puffing at a bus stop, clearly outraged, but today we’re the majority and they’re the psychologically disturbed.
Photograph, Nigel Robinson.

Every now and again I step out to watch my fellow marchers go by and am struck by what a complete cross-section of humanity we represent. We could be a crowd from any railway station in the rush-hour, from ordinary to amazing – especially the dozen drag queens sashaying at the front – and from my onlooker’s vantage point I carefully note how many protesters pass each minute and so, once arrived in Trafalgar Square, am able to calculate that there are about 900 of us altogether.

At one point I spot a young policeman wistfully shaking his head as he hears us chanting: ‘Two, four six eight, is that copper really straight?’ and when he sees me looking he gives me a secret smile.

Next day every national newspaper has front page photos of our dozen drag queens but not one of our 888 ordinary gay women and men. Thus stereotypes are maintained and our struggle continues.

"Fragments of Joy and Sorrow - Memoir of a reluctant revolutionary" by the late Alan Wakeman.

Gemini Press June 2015 - an Imprint of Fantastic Books Company © ALAN WAKEMAN 2015


In 2017 the BBC is marking 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. The BBC is crowdsourcing photos, memories, film footage, historic documents, club flyers, outfits, protest banners, posters, music, diary entries and much more to help tell the story of LGBT+ life in Britain from 1967 - 2016. Do you have photos of Soho of yesteryear? Footage of past Prides?
Memorabilia from past Soho clubs, pubs or cabarets? We will be making an interactive crowd sourced archive of LGBT+ life and a BBC television series based around some of the stories, objects and memories contributed. Is there something that has defined your life as an LGBT+ person over the last 50 years? Get in touch and let us know what you have at:

Tweet: The BBC is crowdsourcing photos, posters & more to explore #LGBT+ life in Britain 1967-2016. Share what you have:

Featured post

Soho and the Cholera outbreak of 1854.

The Modern Myth of Soho’s Dr John Snow. History often gets things wrong either because of the way in which events are initially reported ...