Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for May 31st, 2007

Soho Days, Soho Nights

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 31st May, 2007

paul-willetts-soho.jpgI had lunch today at the French House in Dean Street, with my great friend, the former Observer journalist (and now novelist), Mark Frankland. I’d not been to eat at the French since I researched my little volume Soho In the Fifties and Sixties — the only one of my books which sold out! The establishment is all very smart now, compared with what it was when Dylan Thomas, Francis Bacon and others were around.

My mind has been cast back to that period and milieu as I’ve been reading a new book about gangsters in the area — or more accurately, Fitzrovia: North Soho 999, by Paul Willetts (who wrote an earlier, acclaimed biography of Julian Maclaren-Ross, Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia), pulished by Dewi Lewis. The new book takes as its starting point a violent robbery at a second-hand jewellers in Charlotte Street, in April 1947. The prose reads like fiction, but it is all fact, based largely on police records, witness statements and the like. And as such, the book works brilliantly on two levels: as a crime story, and as a portrait of a familiar place in a bygone age.

I look back with nostalgia to a time when the Metropolitan Police expected to be able to get a cop-car to the scene of any crime in Central London within three minutes of a 999 call. But in other ways, London has improved immeasurably. Apart from the fact that there was still rationing in 1947, and the city was drab beyond words (and bomb-damaged), sixty years ago, Soho was about the only place you could find continental food and alternative lifestyles, whereas now London is the most cosmopolitan and diverse place on earth — and much the richer for it.

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