The most popular (and vulgar) image of SoHo is that of a secret quarter of vice and debauchery, like the red light district in Amsterdam or, at one time, the Pigalle district in post-war Paris. Now that all kinds and forms of sex can be found on websites, SoHo's former sex industry has become something of a museum piece, an exotic excursion into the forbidden past for tourists. The SoHo crowd doesn't notice that kids walk to school in the mornings or that churches don't close their doors. Here are the editing studios and screening rooms of major film studios, as well as the offices of impresarios and literary agents and design firms. It's a parallel life in SoHo: the local paper is published here, charity events are organized, street vagrants are helped to survive, the streets are kept clean, monuments are protected and racial harmony is fought for. Old-timers say, "Soho ain't what it used to be." Indeed. Zinovii Zinik tells us what's left of his youthful neighborhood today.
Soho is like Russia. It is a country that is nostalgic for its past, but at the same time is not very sure what that past actually is and how much of it is its own. The aristocracy finally left the neighbourhood (leaving us with the names of most of the streets) centuries ago, complaining even then about the dominance of immigrants, prostitution, music halls, cabarets, exotic restaurants and noisy taverns.
Since the Huguenot era, Soho has become known to Londoners as the 'French Quarter'. That's why the area is home to Notre Dame de France Church, which is located in an alleyway on the border between Chinatown and Leicester Square. The church was built a couple of centuries ago. Even then, French pastors began to express extreme concern about the decline in morals among London's Catholic flock, especially women. But it's not the church itself that's legendary, it's what's inside the current modernist space: the church was rebuilt from the ruins after the bombing of World War II. Few Londoners know that in 1960 the Parisian Jean Cocteau (at the invitation of the French attaché in London) almost in a week decorated the three walls of the chapel in the nave to the left of the altar with striking frescoes - an elaborate single-line drawing. It is a scene of crucifixion with Roman soldiers and the weeping Virgin.
Through Chinatown we head for The Coach & Horses on the corner of Greek Street and Romilly Street, where the Spectator authors used to congregate. For Geoffrey Bernard, its columnist, the pub was a second home: it was where he received his mail and sent his diary - nowadays we would say "blog" - called "At the bottom", where he recorded various stages of intoxication in the most unpredictable circumstances, with philosophical insights into politics and literature, almost like Venichka Erofeev. Hundreds of regulars scuffled behind the bar with Norman the pub-owner, a benign big man; but only Geoffrey Bernard managed to turn him into the legendary brute, the comic embodiment of callousness and moneylaundering.
Not far from the pub is the miniature French café Maison Bertaux, which has existed almost since the century before last. Here a tourist can sit all day with a cup of coffee, a book or a notebook, imagining himself as Hemingway in Paris.
The French did open London's first French restaurants in Soho, and, say, L'Escargot (still on Greek Street, but too bourgeoisized) was one of those that accustomed modern Londoners to the perversion of butter-baked snails.
I even think that it is no accident that the Russian restaurant ZIMA, which is on neighbouring Frith Street, was originally called Jean-Jacques - as a branch of Moscow's Jean-Jacques, also not without French influence. Perhaps the Russian dumplings can even compete in culinary ingenuity with the French snails (although their origins are undoubtedly Chinese).
By the way, the Russian restaurant ZIMA neighbors with the legendary jazz club Ronnie Scott's - it was founded by a political refugee (from McCarthyism) from the United States.
And right opposite the Russian restaurant is Bar Italia, which these days has become a pilgrimage place for knowledgeable tourists and has become civilised. But once upon a time it looked like a commonplace bar somewhere in the proletarian quarter of Rome: a narrow penthouse with a rattling giant TV screen at the end (sports and Italian pops), to the right of the entrance a bar counter with a coffee machine and freshly sliced sandwiches; to the left, by a mirrored wall, a row of high stools (they are screwed into the floor) before a narrow shelf where you can put a cup of coffee and a small platter with a huge sandwich (the best prosciutto and mozzarella buffalo in London).
But the most French-named pub, The French House on Dean Street (which has the best pasties in London and only serves beer in halves, French style, not pint-sized pints), is, oddly enough, not French at all. Back in the 1970s it was called The York Minster. It was owned by a German family before the First World War; Karl Marx probably drank here too (he once lived in a shabby apartment on the same street). In the atmosphere of anti-German sentiment, German Schmidt sold the pub to the family of Victor Berlemont; Berlemont was Belgian by birth but passed himself off as French in public, and his Soho pub became known amongst themselves, and later officially, as The French House. In my day the pub was owned by his grandson, Gaston Berlemont, a chartreuse and talker. They say he liked to kiss the hands of ladies to wipe the beer foam off his giant sideburns. They say General de Gaulle recorded his speeches to the French resistance here. In the '60s, the Irish debauchee playwright Brendan Behan scandalized at the bar, and the poet Dylan Thomas searched under a chair for a draft of his poem written on a napkin.
In the doldrums of the 50s, when other London boroughs had never heard of croissants (French) or olive oil (Italian), it was in Soho that coffee shops began to reopen. Not surprisingly, since, since colonial times, Londoners have been buying coffee beans in Soho. The Algerian Coffee Stores on Old Compton Street still sells every conceivable variety.
On the way there is Gerry's Store, which sells all kinds of vodka in the world, including dozens of variations of Dutch jenever - juniper vodka of different ageing and strength. The variety of vodkas even in Russian "Zima" cannot be compared with hundreds of varieties in the shop window.
If you want the illusion of being in Rome or Naples, check out I Camisa & Son on Old Compton Street for a long line of sandwiches at lunchtime. The Italian family has been supplying the Soho bars for almost a century, most notably the legendary Bar Italia.
Soho is perhaps the only square kilometre of London that resembles Europe, where restaurants and cafes, theatres and cinemas, cabarets, clubs and discos are all in the same buildings where people live and work, give birth and bring up children. Yes, yes. The crowd of visitors in SoHo does not notice that the children walk in lines to school in the mornings, that the doors of churches do not close. And everyone, for all the latent clan-community warfare, somehow manages to coexist peacefully. Even the cheeky shopkeepers at Berwick Street's colourful vegetable market pass for lighthearted banter. Even aggression is tolerated here.
On the perpendicular street is my Academy Club, founded by critic Oberon Waugh (son of writer Evelyn Waugh), where my first English short story collection (One-Way Ticket) was launched. It's true that it has long since moved to a room above Andrew Edmunds' restaurant, but the same cheerful chattering literary voices can be heard here.
But in the early 90s, Soho became home to expensive private clubs like the Graucho Club, a literary house. The Blacks Club across the street is also flourishing, hosting risky sadomasochistic shows under the guise of theatrical experiments. And the former orphanage, the House of St Barnabas, has become a chic arts club these days. The elite have also joined the Soho House club on Greek Street. But this kind of luxury has always been London. Membership in these clubs is expensive, for a thousand pounds (the fee for membership in the Colony Room was from 50 to 100 pounds a year, but to become a member was very difficult). And yet even these clubs try to emulate the enigmatic entertaining mix of all classes and professions, where the stars of London life sit at the same bar counter as the lifelong losers, as they did at the Colony.
When everything in the world closes (except, of course, the Italian bar), one road is the old basement bar Trisha's - Trisha's (the bartender's name) on Greek Street. It was founded in the 1950s as a meeting place for Italian war veterans and retired Soho residents; later, behind the bamboo curtains at the bar, it became an illegal but innocent gambling establishment (the Soho underground business was then under the thumb of the Craze brothers and the East End Jewish Mafia). Since then little has changed here and stylistically reigns shabby chic, that is, the cult of shabby and demonstrative squalor with rickety furniture: plastic tables covered with cheap oilcloth, chairs with plywood backs - all this, how would you say it? - liberating.
Before, in Soho, you had to go around giant piles of garbage bags; now you have construction fences. We Soho connoisseurs complain that old bars, cabarets, and restaurants are being closed down to be replaced by apartments for oligarchs from India, China, and Russia. The fact is that Soho is not so much a street, a neighbourhood, as a combination of doors and bar counters: you go from one drinking and clubbing space to another, as if you were going from one room of a large communal apartment to another. And this apartment is neither private nor private: it is precisely a communal apartment, and if you regularly look into Soho, you eventually get to know all your neighbors. Scandals and hugs, hatred and passion, lies and frankness are also communal, public, know no secrets. More precisely, the nature of these secrets and mysteries is constantly changing. Just as Soho itself changes - everyone's own.