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

Marvel Studios
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In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, every other line reeks of a self-help manual

This lame sequel suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing.

The 2014 romp Guardians of the Galaxy boasted the budget of a blockbuster and the soul of a B-movie. What that meant in practice was that audiences had to endure the same biff-pow battle scenes and retina-blistering effects as any space adventure, but they were rewarded with eccentric characters and tomfoolery for its own sake.

Despite the Marvel Studios imprimatur, the film showed the forces of intergalactic evil being fought not by superheroes, but by a ragtag band of bickering goofballs: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord, a self-regarding rogue in the Han Solo mould; the green-faced alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana); Drax (Dave Bautista), a literal-minded hulk; Rocket, a racoon-like warrior (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and Groot, a piece of bark that says “I am Groot” over and over in the dulcet tones of Vin Diesel. Movies this odd don’t usually become $770m smash hits but this one did – deservedly.

Those characters return in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (the “Vol 2” reflects Peter’s love of mix-tapes) but the new film suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing. Gags are rehashed; several sequences (including an interminable slow-motion section involving a laser-powered arrow) are dragged way beyond their desirable lifespan. Late in the day, Rocket tells his shipmates that they have too many issues, which rather pinpoints the problem with the screenplay by the director, James Gunn. Gunn has saddled his characters with unreasonable baggage, all of it relating to family and belonging. No matter how far into space they travel, all roads lead back to the therapist’s couch.

Peter, raised by his late mother, is delighted when Ego (Kurt Russell) materialises claiming to be the father he never knew. The old man makes grand pronouncements, only to undercut them within seconds (“’Scuse me, gotta take a whizz”) but, on the plus side, he has his own planet and pulls the whole “One day, son, all this will be yours” shtick. Gamora also has family business to contend with. Her blue-skinned sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), wants to kill her: Nebula has never quite got over Gamora being Daddy’s favourite. To be fair, though, he did force them to fight one another, replacing parts of Nebula’s body with metal whenever she lost, so it’s not like we’re talking about only one sister being allowed to watch Top of the Pops.

The more Peter gets to know Ego, the less admirable he seems as a father, and soon we are in the familiar territory of having parenting lessons administered by a Hollywood blockbuster. The reason for this became obvious decades ago: the film industry is populated by overworked executives who never get to see their children, or don’t want to, and so compensate by greenlighting movies about what it means to be a good parent. Every other line here reeks of the self-help manual. “Please give me the chance to be the father your mother wanted me to be,” Ego pleads. Even a minor character gets to pause the action to say: “I ain’t done nothing right my whole life.” It’s dispiriting to settle down for a Guardians of the Galaxy picture only to find you’re watching Field of Dreams with added asteroids.

Vol 2 gets by for an hour or so on some batty gags (Gamora misremembering the plot and star of Knight Rider is an especially juicy one) and on the energising power of Scott Chambliss’s glorious production design. The combination of the hi-tech and the trashy gives the film the appearance of a multimillion-dollar carnival taking place in a junkyard. Spectacular battles are shot through scuffed and scratched windscreens, and there are spacesuits cobbled together from tin pots and bubble-wrap. This is consistent with the kitschfests that inspired the Guardians aesthetic: 1980s science-fiction delights such as Flash Gordon, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

If only Vol 2 had mimicked their levity and brevity. Gunn ends his overlong movie with a bomb being attached to a giant brain, but this is wishful thinking on his part. He hasn’t blown our minds at all. It’s just a mild case of concussion. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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