Outside a bar in Soho, I’m talking to a man in his early fifties called Aubrey. He asks me for a lighter so I hand him my Clipper; then he realises he’s out of cigarettes. I give him one of those, too, and he rewards me with an anecdote.
“One of my dearest friends was a doorman called John,” he tells me. “John had worked on doors for 35 years before I met him. He gave me this piece of insight – he said, ‘Do you remember, Aubrey, when we were young, people walking down Oxford Street from Tottenham Court Road would never turn left, because left meant they were going into Soho? And Soho was this dangerous place, full of people who would rip them off.’”
He pauses, exhaling a delicate plume of smoke, and continues: “Now it’s become a theme park. It’s homogenised. John said, ‘Aubrey, all the rides are safe. When we came here, none of the rides were safe.’”
Danger isn’t something I’m nostalgic for but I sympathised with Aubrey’s (and John’s) sense of loss – for this transformation of red-light district into “theme park” has been accompanied by what the sociologist John Hannigan once described as “a wider trend in which various foreign cultures and domestic subcultures are appropriated, disembowelled and then marketed as . . . sanitised versions of the original”. As central London fills with yet more chain bistros and theme cafés, the originals are fast disappearing.
That night, I was in town for the closing night of the Lorelei, an Italian restaurant run almost single-handedly by Giacinto Bravin since 1967. His wife, Faye, had waitressed there for 28 years. Ever since I stumbled across it a decade ago, the Lorelei had been a home from home, somewhere I could read a book for hours, nursing a single cup coffee, without feeling hurried – surely a remarkable thing in the heart of London.
Its dim light, chipped Formica tables and 1960s coffee machine gave it a shabby air (as did its toilets, located in sheds in the backyard), but Bravin took pride in his fastidiousness. Though once a manager of hotel restaurants across Europe, he seemed content at his livingroom- sized pizza parlour. (“I would pay money to be independent,” he told me.)
Old Soho was a darker, seedier place. In earlier decades, local gangsters would idly attempt to make trouble. One time, a mafioso asked Bravin why he wasn’t paying any protection. Exasperated, he replied that he was paying the police, meaning through taxes. The hassle stopped. It was only later that he realised what the racketeer had probably assumed – that he was paying off Soho’s bent coppers.
Despite sharing this sort of history with its neighbours, the Lorelei was never about criminal glamour. Visiting it was like visiting family. Bravin would talk for hours with the regular customers about his passion for mending things – his car, his espresso machine. Faye would sometimes doze in the corner; my partner, Zoë, recently showed her how to work out a few maths problems.
Outside the bar close by, I ask Aubrey if he knew the Lorelei. It turns out he’s been going since 1979, eating the same meal each time: a margherita pizza with extra anchovies. He’s sad to see it go: “What we’ve lost is that comfort of going somewhere that remains the same.”
If you ever get lost in Soho, there’s a mnemonic to help you find your way: “Good friends drink well”, referring to the ladder of Greek Street, Frith Street, Dean Street and Wardour Street. The Lorelei was on Bateman Street, a short passage between Greek Street and Frith Street. That’s why I always thought of it as an open secret between good friends.