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

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.