Return to Soho (place)

Take a London Tube map, and fold it in half. Turn it around. Fold it in half again. Open it up and look at the point where the creases intersect. That's where I live. Soho: my home for three and a half years. I still get blank looks of surprise when I tell people that I live here. "Soho? Wow, I didn't realise that people lived in Soho..."

Two blocks up, there's the heaving mass of Oxford Street, packed end to end with frantic shoppers weaving in and out of the gaudy shops, loading themselves up with consumer goods, and emptying their wallets in search of the elusive brands that will make them acceptable.

Closer by is the place the people ebb and flow through the hours: in the almost square grid of Soho itself, from Oxford Street down to Shaftesbury Avenue, from Regent Street across to Charing Cross Road.

Soho is for everything but domesticity. I am surrounded by cafes and restaurants, and the most painfully fashionable bars of the moment. There are strip joints and sex shops, and endless handscrawled signs saying 'friendly, blonde model' pinned into walkup stairways. There are film companies, ad agencies, and the post-production houses creating all the special effects that will make you gasp and coo six months from now.

There are patisseries, and delis, and street markets overflowing with the most perfect food you can imagine. There are record shops filled with the concentration of want-to-be DJs watching the real thing choosing their newest selections of vinyl. There are publishers and art galleries, and photographic labs, drug dealers, junkies and policemen. There are bike messengers sprawling in the park, being admired by grandmothers herding their duckling charges along the path to the French Church. There are dozens of bright rainbow flags fluttering over bars and shops.

There are people, everywhere, drinking coffee, beer, the latest smart drinks, lounging around and watching the rest of the world stroll past. There are strutting models, and avant-garde designers. There are tramps and winos, hovering around the pavement tables outside late-night cafes, wrapping themselves in blue sleeping bags and hoping for a little money to get them out of the cold night air. There are drunken hordes, teetering on this season's essential kitten-heels, and giggling with the gaggles of mini-cab drivers who tout their business on the most profitable corners.

But this is Soho, and this is where I live. Every now and then, I get the urge to pick up and move, move on, move out, get more space, move away. We flick through the listings of flat after flat, and do the round of estate agents and viewings, but, I never can quite make the break away from this part. I've never lived anywhere so long in my life. It's expensive, and cold and small. The bathroom leaks like a fountain. The view is across a low roof and straight into the bathroom windows of the restaurant next door. I'm often woken by the doorbuzzer, with frantic calls for working girls who have never worked here. People piss on the doorstep, or litter it with discarded beer cans.

But, I love it here. I'm a local. This is my part of town. I've never had that sense before.

I'm a local, a regular, a creature of habit haunting the same few places. I look forward to the reassuringly ordinary chats with the booksellers who know what I like to read, the coffee merchant who knows that I always buy beans and not ground and have a weakness for the 99 per cent cocoa chocolate, the vegetable man who gives me extra tomatoes and teases me for being a "little 'un", the spice lady who tells me about her holidays, the pub landlady who swaps notes on unnatural hairdyes, the old guy in the deli who tells me off for buying canned beans and not dried.

This is a small corner of the city, one of the old villages that sprawled together into the mass of London. It's a real place that no-one in their right mind would have planned. It's an old place that's struggling to keep up.

Some days I hate London. It's falling apart. It's filthy--the streets are pockmarked with discarded gum and fluttering paper from fast food packages. It's noisy. The public transport system is creaking to a halt from years of underfunding and lack of care. You descend into the Underground (walking down unsteady spiral staircases because so many of the escalators have ground to a halt) and wriggle into the non-gaps on the packed platforms, squeezing yourself between sweating suits and the splutter-coughing masses into the next train, because you can't stand back in the flood-flow of ever-forward movement. But the roads are jammed with too many cars, gridlocked and spewing filth into the air. Walking, you can spot the real Londoners--they weave seamlessly in the crowds, rarely breaking step except to hiss or curse at the daytrippers who stop dead without warning.

Some days I long for the wide open spaces that don't exist in this country. Those places where you can walk all day and never see another person. The places that are drowned by the size of the sky.

You can't see the stars in the orange-purple haze of never-darkness. But the other night, walking back from Marble Arch, a perfect full moon hovered huge and bright, closer than Centrepoint, and I fell in love with Soho all over again.

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