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 contributing writer for 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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.