Any poetaster with a taste for the maudlin will tell you that the moon looks brighter from the gutter. The same can be said of Christmas lights viewed through the bottom of a glass idly emptied in a Soho boozer. Arriving early at the Coach and Horses on Greek Street, I sip my pint of Chiswick alone as I wait for my friend Oliver Harris, a London crime novelist. Around me is a bustle of post-work revellers celebrating Friday.
It’s an unfamiliar crowd. The regulars must still be in their own corners of the capital, out of sight but most certainly on their way. Any pub or bar worth its salt has them – people you can be sure of running into most nights of the week, a glass of wine in hand, a friendly word at the ready, their steady patronage a welcome affront to the churn of the city. But what do they do over Christmas, when the boozers close?
The first to step through the door is Alan, a fiftysomething theatre worker I’ve known on and off for almost a decade. After the usual hellos, I ask him about his Christmas plans. He shrugs. The previous year, he tells me, there was a lock-in at a Soho pub on Christmas Eve. But this year: “I don’t know . . . I’ll probably watch a movie and have a drink.” The conversation moves on.
Oliver arrives and buys me a drink. We relocate to the tables outside, where a succession of homeless men importune us for very specific amounts of change. I inform Oliver of my lack of success in extracting heart-warming Christmas stories from regulars. The night before, stumbling out of the New Evaristo at the end of the road, I’d bumped into Luca – the youngest son of the club’s proprietor, Trisha. “Christmas for me is Stressmas,” he told me.
Oliver tries to console me with the suggestion that drinkers don’t have to manifest their festive spirit overtly, as they commune with it every night: “People in northern climes like Christmas to be about warmth and cosiness – that’s why they fake things like frosted windows. You don’t get the humidity and condensation in shops but you do in pubs, because there’s real human warmth.”
The evening wears on. I say goodbye to Oliver and wind up at the New Evaristo once more. Since the demise of the Colony, this 68-year-old club has been the oldest in Soho. I buy a beer and head out to the smoking area, reached through the toilet, where I find myself talking to a writer called Joe, who tells me he’s finishing his first novel while working night shifts at a hotel. I ask him what Soho has given him in terms of the “Christmas experience”. He thinks for a moment and replies: “Crazy elf sex.”
After about half an hour, Trisha’s friend Natasha comes out for a smoke. We chat about nothing in particular and then I bring up the holidays. She beams and says she loves Christmas. “Lots of people don’t understand it – they think it’s just this great big piss-up. Which is fab, but it’s not just that. It’s about spending that one day with friends. It’s completely different to being in a bar.” I ask her who she’ll be spending it with this year. “I take in every waif and stray,” she says. “It’s like an open house – me, Trisha, [Trisha’s friends] Helen and Kim, we’ve been doing it for 25 years. We take turns. It’s Trisha’s house this time.”
Do any of the regulars ever come along? “Yes, people from the club who have nowhere to go. It’s a time of year when I couldn’t see anyone on their own.”
Oliver had told me earlier that Soho boozers were a kind of refuge. Who knew that this was so literally true?