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7 November 2017

If you felt small, broke and bitter, there was a man in Soho who put you right – but he’s gone

The area is still being gouged out, and there is sky where there used to be architecture.

By Nicholas Lezard

Back in London for a bit, and in Soho, to have a drink with Howard Jacobson. Yes, I drop a name. Why not? I’m proud to know him and every so often he likes to catch up on whatever my latest awful news is. In return, he pours red wine into me. (And into himself, but not quite at the same rate.) We always meet at the Groucho Club, and when he suggests we meet at the Dean Street townhouse I presume this is one of the urban cognoscenti’s terms for that establishment.

The walk from Tottenham Court Road Station to Dean Street is deeply upsetting. In recent years, I would approach Soho from the west, or Piccadilly Circus. Travel that way and you are spared the sight of the huge destruction that has been wreaked upon the area. You’d hardly know anything was amiss. Approach from the east, though, and be prepared for a shock.

It is as if a huge part of the city has been bombed, or gouged out. It’s still being gouged out: the huge diggers wheel and bite, and there is sky where there used to be architecture. Not particularly great architecture, but not bad either. And it was more than just architecture; it was history. One side of Denmark Street has gone for ever; and what is a street with only one side?

It’s all to help commuters travel from one side of London to the other without having to change trains. Well, whoop-de-do. It is about other things, too: creating a vast, antiseptic retail space full of exactly the same shops you see everywhere else. You know what they are: the same coffee, the same sandwiches, the same clothes, the same everything. A huge fist of conformity punching us in the face until everything collapses.

Soho was always the place for the dodgy, the nonconformist, the person who wouldn’t know what an office job was, let alone how to do one. And you can’t help but wonder whether the annihilation of Soho is deliberate: a reminder, from the people who build the offices of this world, and who compel everyone to work in them and to buy the same sandwiches, the same coffee and the same clothes during their lunch breaks, that they are boss, and everything that does not contribute to the corporate culture of late capitalism and its balance sheet is on borrowed time; time that has now run out.

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I arrive at 5pm on the dot; unusually, Howard has not, so I sit in the Groucho’s vestibule and brood. I was a founder member, but always took the message implicit in its title with a pinch of salt. Yes, this was the kind of place you wanted to be a member of. But in the end it got too expensive and the members became a little duller; they might have kidded themselves that they were bohemians but bohemians aren’t rich, and these people oozed a sheen of money, to the point where it coated their hides like sebum. I cancelled the membership some 15 years ago.

There was one good thing about the Groucho, though: Bernie Katz. Bernie, the manager, was a five-foot-nothing bundle of manic energy and happiness; professionalism, too, but he camouflaged it under an anarchic manner. To see him was to be made to feel that you, and not the celebrities, were the most important person in the club that evening. This would be a big deal at any club, but at the celeb-heavy Groucho it was a bigger one. Even though I had long since ceased to be a member, when I occasionally popped in as someone else’s guest – usually Howard J’s – Bernie would give me a big hug and a fat, wet kiss on the smacker. If you felt small, and broke, and bitter, Bernie was there to make you feel happy again.

He’s dead now. He was only 49. He died at the end of August, and I haven’t got over it yet. I’m finding it rather hard to write these words. When I last passed by the club and asked if he was in, and was told he wasn’t, I didn’t know it was because he was dying. So he didn’t know how often I asked after him, or how much joy it brought me to see him. I didn’t even know he was ill. He seemed like one of the immortals. And so I suppose we can now put an exact date on Soho’s death.

After 15 minutes, I wonder whether Howard meant to put a capital T on “townhouse”, and I ask the bouncer if there’s a place in Dean Street with that name. He points up the road at what used to be a Pitcher & Piano. I suppose it’s an improvement, but boy, do I feel like a rube. Mr Jacobson is there, waiting patiently to hear me. I begin.

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This article appears in the 01 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Boris: the joke’s over