Unreconstructed man: a crowd outside a Soho "sauna" in 1972. (Photo: Getty)
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Asked to pop down an alleyway by a working girl, I am relieved to find Soho not entirely sanitised

But it's unsettling to see a woman trying to make ends meet in such a desperate way, especially when dressed as if for the school run.

I went to a fancy restaurant in Soho the other night. Someone else was paying – I can’t remember the last time I went to a fancy restaurant and settled at least my own share of the bill. It was actually a publishing house that was paying and moreover the meal was for about 20 people at Bocca di Lupo, which gets good reviews but is stratospherically out of my financial league. But its co-proprietor sacked his Italian wine merchant when the latter called the Italian integration minister, Cécile Kyenge, “a dirty black monkey”, so it has good karma.

Anyway, it was nice to be invited. “Dinner with a publisher?” asked my old comrade Matthew De Abaitua. “Give my regards to 1997.” And there was something retro about it: the private dining room, the familiar faces, the way the waiters filled up my glass at the merest lift of my eyebrow.

I left earlier than the others, for I was tired – I’d been raising my eyebrow often – but I thought the walk back to the Hovel would do me good. It’s only about a mile and a half and besides it was one of those days when one was acutely conscious of a lightness about the Oyster card. As I walked down Brewer Street, a woman came up to me and asked if I had a cigarette.

It soon became clear that she was not only interested in me as a kind of walking tobacconist. Asking for a cigarette turned out to be near the upper limits of her English but through emphatic gestures and the use of the word “alleyway” – one of those words you don’t often use in everyday life but in certain professions comes with the territory – she began to get her point across.

At the time, because I was full of drink, I was more amused than embarrassed. It is also not easy rolling a cigarette for someone while they are grinding their crotch against yours; I thought it best not to rummage in my pockets for a filter.

My amusement revolved around the thought that at least Soho had not yet been sanitised beyond reproach. In January, Howard Jacobson wrote a very good article about the importance of keeping Soho’s squalid parts. When he was young, Soho had provided the answers to these questions: “what’s it like to do everything you shouldn’t . . . what’s it like to be in the hands of someone who knows more than you do and cares less; what’s it like to let flesh rule you without consideration for your parents, your girlfriend or your homework . . . but why go on? You know what I wanted to find out. What’s it ALL like?”

These are questions that I no longer feel any pressing need to ask and so I tried to steer the subject elsewhere and gently disabuse the woman of the notion that pestering me was worth her while. I asked her where she was from (Poland, she said; I mentioned my Polish ancestry but she didn’t take the conversational bait; also, I think she was from somewhere else); I told her I had a lovely girlfriend waiting for me at home; I started telling her I had only a tenner in my pocket to last me till the end of the week, which I probably now inadvertently owed her, but then decided that she wouldn’t believe me even if she could understand me.

I gave her the cigarette, disentangled myself, lit it for her and parted with an old-world-courtesy nod of the head and my best wishes. (I had been to a screening of The Grand Budapest Hotel the night before and was still feeling somewhat under the sway of genteel, Mitteleuropäische politesse.)

In the morning, I wasn’t quite so amused. I didn’t like the idea of someone with only the most basic of street smarts and opportunities trying to get inside the pants of the likes of me in order to keep body and soul together. That she was dressed no more provocatively than if she’d been doing the school run was also vaguely unsettling. I don’t want to clean Soho up – my feelings on the subject of prostitution are roughly those of St Thomas Aquinas (in brief: a blocked sewer poisons the water supply) – but it is sobering to rub up, so to speak, against the truly down and out.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images
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Tsipras' resignation has left Syriza in dire straits

Splinter group Popular Unity’s stated aim is to take Greece out of the deal Syriza struck with its creditors.

The resignation of Alexis Tsipras on 20 August was the start of a new chapter in the havoc affecting all sections of Greek political life. “We haven’t yet lived our best days,” the 41-year-old prime minister said as he stood down, though there is little cause for optimism.

Tsipras’s capitulation to the indebted state’s lenders by signing up to more austerity measures has split his party and demoralised further a people resigned to their fate.

Polls show that no party commands an absolute majority at present. It seems as though we are heading for years of grand coalitions made up of uneasy partnerships that can only hope to manage austerity, with little room for social reform. The main parties from across the political spectrum have lost legitimacy and the anti-austerity campaign is more marginal than ever. Many fear the rise of extremists, such as members of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. Thankfully, that is unlikely to happen: the party’s leadership is facing a number of grave accusations, including forming a criminal organisation, and its general secretary, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, is going out of his way to appear more moderate than ever.

It is to the left of Syriza that most activity is taking place. The former energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis has defected to co-found a new party, Popular Unity (an ironic name in the circumstances), joined by MPs from the radical Left Platform and, according to the latest information, Zoi Konstantopoulou – the current speaker of the Hellenic
Parliament, who had considered starting her own party but lacked time and support in the run-up to the general election, scheduled for 20 September.

Popular Unity’s stated aim is to take Greece out of the deal struck with its creditors, to end austerity (even if that means leaving the euro) and to rebuild the country. It is likely that the party will work with the far-left coalition Antarsya, which campaigned hard to guarantee the Oxi referendum victory in July and increasingly looks like Syriza in 2009, when it won 4.6 per cent of the vote in the Greek legislative election under Tsipras.

Yet it is dispiriting that few on the left seem to understand that more splits, new parties and weak, opportunistic alliances will contribute to the weakening of parliamentary democracy. It is perhaps a sign that the idea of a left-wing government may become toxic for a generation after the six months that took the economy to the edge and failed to produce meaningful change.

Despite this fragmentation on the left, the largest right-wing opposition party, New Democracy, has been unable to force a surge in the polls. Its new leader, Vangelis Meimarakis, enjoys the respect of both the parliament and the public but has few committed supporters. The apolitical alliance To Potami (“the river”) appears to have stalled on 6-8 per cent, while the once-dominant Pasok is unlikely to enter parliament without forming a coalition on the centre left, postponing its predicted collapse for a few more years.

The winner amid all of this is apathy. Many believe that a large number of Greeks won’t vote in the September election – the fifth in six years (or the sixth, if you include the referendum in July). The situation in Greece should serve as an example of what could happen to democracies across Europe that lack political unity: parties with clear ideological positions end up serving as managers of diktats from Brussels, while more extreme forces become the de facto opposition. In this harsh climate, many citizens will either abandon their politicians or, in a bleaker scenario, reject the democratic system that elected them. 

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism