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.