Soho and the ‘power of the cell’


Soho represents the perfect stereotype of the places that I desperately try to avoid. Wherever I am. Alone, or not. Always. It’s a messy, dirty, noisy place. There is no way to get a drink or enjoy food in silence (enjoy the silence, Depeche Mode were used to sing, time ago). Loud waves of tourists, Londoners, teenagers, androids commuting from the City flow all around the district and the tiny streets. Too much for an antisocial personality like mine (but I secretly love tiny spaces like Tuscanic).

Time ago Soho was a different place. A district of bohemians (or Sohohites, as they loved to be named) in the 50s and 60s. And the site where the first jazz clubs of the nation had life. And the underground magazines, and the punk, and the new romantic of the 80s; it was the heart of global counter-culture.

London Calling from Barry Miles is a good starting point to discover what Soho and West London was.

Soho and London’s West End are at the heart of London Calling because it has been there, as Miles writes, “that the magnet that draws people to London” is located and from 1945 to the 1990s, the period that the book primarily covers for the creative and counter-cultural life of the capital.

I have to make an effort then, and see Soho from a different perspective. Not easy.  But the book helps. It flows easily, like a novel. His method is anecdotal rather than analytical, giving due weight to events such as the Oz trial and the seminal 1965 poetry reading at the Albert Hall, but always looking for less celebrated moments that capture the flavour of an era.

What’s most important to take from this history, though, is what might be called “the power of the cell”; how a tiny group of disaffected outsiders can create a sensation, or a movement, or even change the world. Important cultural activity invariably begins small-scale, maybe finding a focus in a grotty bar or a club or some barely-selling magazine.

It’s a shame that most of the sites painted in the book have disappeared or left space to burger restaurants and noisy chains. But it is funny to get around and discover what Soho was, looking for its incredible past.

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