The penniless exiles of Soho

A farewell to Soho Pam, the local beggar Pamela Jennings.

New Statesman
The French House pub in the mid-1950s. Photograph: Wily Ronis/Gamma Rapho/Getty Images

One time, I listened to a tall, silver-haired man holding court in the smoking area of the New Evaristo Club in Soho, London. Challenged by a fellow drinker to explain why this was the greatest place on earth, he rambled on about the area’s much-mythologised history – it had long been the sinkhole of noble misfits from Francis Bacon to Dylan Thomas, all sozzled enough to get along – and claimed that it even had a patron saint. OK, not a saint but a foreign king, who had died a beggar on the streets above us (we were on the lower-ground floor). This king, he said, was buried somewhere close by.

How this hard-luck story proved Soho’s greatness was beyond me but it was too late in the evening to split hairs. At the time, I assumed it was just another tall tale to add to all the others that clung to this part of the capital. But a quick look at Peter Ackroyd’s London: a Biography later revealed it was true: the king was from Corsica; his remains were interred in the churchyard of St Anne’s in the mid-18th century. “This penniless exile might almost be considered the true monarch of the area,” Ackroyd wrote.

Not so long ago, the sad news spread that another of Soho’s penniless exiles had died: the beggar Pamela Jennings, better known as Soho Pam, a familiar sight to those of us who drink at the Coach and Horses, the French House or any of the other pubs on what was her nightly circuit. Pam was a diminutive, fortysomething woman with closely cropped hair, glasses that framed curious eyes and an uncanny ability to extract a “donation” from even the most hardened Londoner.

Like many, I saw her around and considered her a part of the city – if, indeed, I ever considered her at all. To me she was a stranger, at most an occasional but benign presence in the dimmest corner of my eye. Others I spoke to at the Star and Garter, the Coach and at Trisha’s (as regulars call the New Evaristo, after its proprietor) reported a similarly remote relationship but they were full of local lore about money given to her and then returned; about drinks she had bought for hard-up friends; about the “cuddles” she’d give.

Those who knew her better celebrated her life in the press and online. Bar Italia posted on its blog: “Goodbye to another proper Soho character”; the artist Robert Rubbish called her the “queen of Soho” and wrote: “She was a very sweet lady and refreshing to see.” Alastair Choat, landlord of the Coach, told the West End Extra: “There’s a lot of hardcore regulars or locals in Soho that started to look out for her, that she would always come to for a little bit of moral support.”

With the nearby Crossrail development at Tottenham Court Road Station due to be completed in 2016 and the area’s rental prices ever rising, the Soho of popular imagination is fast being swept away, its characters and all, by TK Maxx, Patisserie Valerie and the like. Ackroyd wrote: “In Soho, every street is a memorial” – but now, it seems, even these memorials are fading from view.

The Chinese-American geographer Yi-Fu Tuan once posited, “If we think of space as that which allows movement, then place is pause.” The strange spaces that surround us are transformed by these pauses, these stillnesses we create whenever we invest a piece of ourselves in our haunts. In some small way, they become our homes. Yet this sense of place is brittle; places change, as do their associations. “There is no there there,” wrote Gertrude Stein, recalling a trip she took as an adult to the city of her childhood, Oakland, California, and finding that what intangible connection had made it her own no longer existed. I thought of this as I sat on one of the benches outside the Coach: Soho Pam’s “there” is no longer there. Rest in peace.

Yo Zushi's most recent album of songs, "Notes for 'Holy Larceny'", was released by Pointy Records (£9.99). His new song "Careless Love" can be downloaded for free here. Follow him on Twitter at @YoZushi81