Here comes a regular: Christmas in Soho

Any pub or bar worth its salt has its regulars, people you can be sure of running into most nights a week, their steady patronage a welcome affront to the churn of the city. But what do they do over Christmas, when the boozers close?

Any poetaster with a taste for the maudlin will tell you that the moon looks brighter from the gutter. The same can be said of Christmas lights viewed through the bottom of a glass idly emptied in a Soho boozer. Arriving early at the Coach and Horses on Greek Street, I sip my pint of Chiswick alone as I wait for my friend Oliver Harris, a London crime novelist. Around me is a bustle of post-work revellers celebrating Friday.

It’s an unfamiliar crowd. The regulars must still be in their own corners of the capital, out of sight but most certainly on their way. Any pub or bar worth its salt has them – people you can be sure of running into most nights of the week, a glass of wine in hand, a friendly word at the ready, their steady patronage a welcome affront to the churn of the city. But what do they do over Christmas, when the boozers close?

The first to step through the door is Alan, a fiftysomething theatre worker I’ve known on and off for almost a decade. After the usual hellos, I ask him about his Christmas plans. He shrugs. The previous year, he tells me, there was a lock-in at a Soho pub on Christmas Eve. But this year: “I don’t know . . . I’ll probably watch a movie and have a drink.” The conversation moves on.

Oliver arrives and buys me a drink. We relocate to the tables outside, where a succession of homeless men importune us for very specific amounts of change. I inform Oliver of my lack of success in extracting heart-warming Christmas stories from regulars. The night before, stumbling out of the New Evaristo at the end of the road, I’d bumped into Luca – the youngest son of the club’s proprietor, Trisha. “Christmas for me is Stressmas,” he told me.

Oliver tries to console me with the suggestion that drinkers don’t have to manifest their festive spirit overtly, as they commune with it every night: “People in northern climes like Christmas to be about warmth and cosiness – that’s why they fake things like frosted windows. You don’t get the humidity and condensation in shops but you do in pubs, because there’s real human warmth.”

The evening wears on. I say goodbye to Oliver and wind up at the New Evaristo once more. Since the demise of the Colony, this 68-year-old club has been the oldest in Soho. I buy a beer and head out to the smoking area, reached through the toilet, where I find myself talking to a writer called Joe, who tells me he’s finishing his first novel while working night shifts at a hotel. I ask him what Soho has given him in terms of the “Christmas experience”. He thinks for a moment and replies: “Crazy elf sex.”

After about half an hour, Trisha’s friend Natasha comes out for a smoke. We chat about nothing in particular and then I bring up the holidays. She beams and says she loves Christmas. “Lots of people don’t understand it – they think it’s just this great big piss-up. Which is fab, but it’s not just that. It’s about spending that one day with friends. It’s completely different to being in a bar.” I ask her who she’ll be spending it with this year. “I take in every waif and stray,” she says. “It’s like an open house – me, Trisha, [Trisha’s friends] Helen and Kim, we’ve been doing it for 25 years. We take turns. It’s Trisha’s house this time.”

Do any of the regulars ever come along? “Yes, people from the club who have nowhere to go. It’s a time of year when I couldn’t see anyone on their own.”

Oliver had told me earlier that Soho boozers were a kind of refuge. Who knew that this was so literally true?

The neon lights of Soho. Photo: Getty.

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Triple Issue

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Miners against coal: the pit where former Welsh miners are protesting alongside climate change activists

The Merthyr Tydfil miners’ long history of struggle is spurring them on to a whole new form of action.

The retired miners and factory workers at the working men's club in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil are no strangers to hard times. Our second son was born during the 1984 strike and we had nothing for 12 months, one member tells me. The town continues to struggle with unemployment – last year the rate for men was nearly double that of the UK as a whole – over three decades on from the miners’ strike. But these days the atmosphere at the club is more resigned than radical. A singer croons his way through “Only the Lonely”, while talk at the bar is of better times: days when work was plentiful, days when, “you went down the mine a boy and came up a man”.

When the deep pits closed in the 1980s, Merthyr became a dumping ground – quite literally. Not only is the nearby landfill one of Europe's biggest, the valley is now home to the largest opencast (open-pit) mining operation in the UK. Its towering spoil tips throw a Mordor-esque shadow over the community below, coating homes and lungs alike in dust. 

Even former miners lament the small number of poorly-regulated jobs the Ffos-Y-Fran pit currently provides. Opencast is lorry driving, not mining, is a sentiment I hear repeated across the town, from the club bar to chip shops to the office of the miners’ union itself.

Just as the town's fortunes rose with coal, so they have plummeted as the industry has declined. While the fuel still accounts for around 10 per cent of UK electricity generation on any given day, last year generation fell to its lowest level since the 1950s. The need to decarbonise also looks set to reduce demand further. The effects of last December's Paris climate agreement – and its aim to limit warming below 2C  are already being felt in Wales: the Aberthaw power station is a key destination for Welsh coal, but recently announced plans to reduce its output.

The club's secretary can only think of one member who still works in the mine. Others I encounter chase shifts at the local meat-packing factory, or have to travel for over an hour outside the town. Support for jobs unsurprisingly usually trumps support for climate change deals: “If it brings in work, we don’t have a problem with it,” is the general consensus inside the club. If someone tells you they're against the mine, they're probably from England, not Wales, says a resident of the nearby village of Fochriw. 

The people of Merthyr, however, are also no strangers to fighting perceived injustice. In the early nineteenth century, Merthyr's thriving ironworks made it the largest town in Wales. But when depression hit in 1831, low wages and sudden dismissals drove many to despair. By the start of June that year, thousands gathered to march against the iron masters and coal barons. And for the very first time, the red flag of revolution was raised on British soil.

185 years later, while club members sipped their drinks, others are writing Merthyr's history afresh. Up on the hills above the town  beyond the litter-strewn fields and the “Danger: No trespass” signs  around 300 campaigners from across the UK gathered to call for an end to coal.

Led by the climate activist group Reclaim the Power, many of the camp’s young attendees work for Westminster MPs and NGOs. A litter-pick was followed by the rapid erection of communal kitchens and sustainable loos. There were safe spaces, legal training, and warnings not to disturb the nearby nesting birds.

On Tuesday morning, the activists occupied and (temporarily) shut down operations at the mine – tying themselves to machinery and lying across access roads in an attempt to symbolise the red line that carbon emissions must not cross. Their action is the first in a fortnight of global anti-fossil fuel protests  from plans for train heists in Albany, to protesting in kayaks in Vancouver. And while global reach counts for little without local support, the climate campaigners at Ffos-Y-Fran are not alone.

Since 2007, members of the United Valleys Action Group (UVAG), a group of local residents and ex-miners, have also fought the mine's planned expansion into the nextdoor valley. On Tuesday, many joined with the activists to blockade the entrance to the mine's headquarters. One member, 56-year-old Phil Duggan, has worked in the pits from the age of 16. And while he is “no tree-hugger”, he is tired of accepting jobs at any cost.

I don't want my children to suffer the ill health I have,” he says. “To some extent we [ex-miners] have been able to claim compensation. But the way things are going now you're not going to be able to claim anything. The deregulation of employment is making people desperate  we're going back to an era that our fore-fathers unionised to put right.”

In a strange twist of fate, it’s these Merthyr miners history of struggle – their long fight to protect their livelihoods and communities  which now spurs them to action against new mines.


Phil Duggan entered the pits aged 16. Photos: India Bourke

Wayne Thomas at the National Union of Mineworkers says he recognises that, unless carbon capture technology can develop apace, the Paris agreement looks set to speed up  coal's decline. But he also believes that British coal has its place in responsibly managing the transition to renewables – a place that includes reducing foreign imports, cleaning up the dirty acts of private mining companies, and putting control back in the hands of local communities. If you're going to phase out an industry, you've got to put something in place to limit the damage.

For evidence, he need point no further than the co-operatively run mine at Tower colliery, where an independently-managed fund ensures that, when the time comes, the opencast site will be carefully regenerated. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the privately-owned operation at Ffos-Y-Fran for certain.

Last year, the Welsh Assembly voted in favour of a moratorium on opencast mining. The government has yet to act, but this may change depending on how the balance of power falls after Thursday's elections. Assembly candidates from both the Green party and Liberal Democrats voiced their support for the UVAG campaigners at a meeting in one of the villages effected by the new pit proposals.

Utlimately, the decline of some of Welsh coal's main customers  the steel works at Port Talbot and the power station at Aberthaw  is likely do more to undermine UK coal than the red lines campaigners draw. But, along the way, new alliances between climate idealists and unions could breathe new life into both movements. In the words of Merthyr Tydfil’s ancient motto: “Nid cadarn ond brodyrdde”  Only brotherhood is strong.


Chris and Alyson, founders of United Valleys Action Group.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.