down in old Soho where they drink champagne and it tastes just like cherry-cola” So sang the Kinks in 1970 which is now nearly half a century ago. The tale of the transgender sex worker Lola in a club was set in a Soho that was already a long established red light area. To judge from reports in the News of the World , which I read avidly as a child, it was a place of street workers, clip joints, sleaze, vice, crime, practically Sodom and Gomorrha in the heart of London.
When I finally went to Soho it was to a place that was rather different to what I had expected, a place associated with rock’n’roll (the 2is coffee car was in Old Compton Street and a plaque adorns the building) Mod culture (Carnaby Street and Wardour Street) with a wonderful array of independent shops, restaurants, and cafes. In short it is an interesting and vibrant place so different from the commercial blandness of Oxford Street. Then, of course, if you did want a paid sexual encounter…….
I was there a few weeks ago, had a drink in the Dog and Duck pub on Bateman Street which sadly I don’t own, had lunch in the unfairly maligned Gay Hussar on Greek Street and generally mooched around. The sex workers are not exactly in your face, the only sign I saw was a couple of handwritten cards on doors in Wardour Street advising of the presence of a ‘friendly model’ upstairs.
I didn’t know then that Soho’s tradition of easy going tolerance is threatened by the Metropolitan Police. They have written to Soho Estates the major landowner in the area threatening them with prosecution if premises of which they have the freeholds are used as brothels. Consequently, leases have been cancelled and, on Tuesday women were evicted from a flat on Romilly Street. More evictions are expected to follow. The following day the English Collective of Prostitutes organised a demonstration outside Soho Estates offices in Greek Street which you can see here.
The Met are behaving in an underhand way. They would normally be required to go to court and produce evidence of illegal activity to be able to close premises used for sex work. By leaning on the landlord they are effectively bypassing proper legal process. In any case many of the working flats are occupied by women working alone. These are not brothels in English law so nothing illegal is taking place in them.
You will notice the weasel words of the Soho Estates’ representative on the lines of “I don’t want to do this I really don’t but…..” I, however, have the impression that they are not minded to resist police bullying because there is serious money to be made as a wave of gentrification sweeps in, bringing corporate uniformity in its wake.
Soho residents support the sex workers (see the contribution of the Soho Society representative 5 minutes into the video) first and foremost because they are part of the community, friends and neighbours, but also because the many independent traders see this as the thin end of a wedge. After all who needs an authentic family owned Italian coffee bar when you can have Starbucks? Or a traditional London pub serving quality real ale when you can have a designer bar serving ice cold lager? This is not just about sex workers, it is about defending the unique character of one of the last genuinely interesting areas of central London. Please give them your support.