One For Sorrow
A nostalgic walk through Soho in Spring
“Can I get a return ticket to London please?”
He’s burly, and grumpy. Sat in a Perspex cage watching a tiny television in the corner of the room.
The station is quiet for a Tuesday morning. So quiet a ragged mouse has ventured towards the bins and is standing brazenly in front of them.
I pay with my credit card. He doesn’t look up. Just coughs a deep cough through the intercom and then puts the tickets through the hatch. That’s supposed to be the end of our interaction, but I don’t leave straight away.
“Did I miss the 8.50?” I ask.
He looks at me for the first time, with a certain kind of rage, then shakes his head and points at the information screens behind me.
I leave him to it. The screen tells me the train is running 2 minutes late, and as I make my way through the barriers to the platform I see the train approaching in the distance.
Earlier that morning I had seen two magpies outside my house. This must be the joy I thought. The luck I was owed from seeing the magpies.
When I was twelve or thirteen years old I was walking through a field with my mother during the summer holiday, and we saw 13 magpies grazing or whatever it is magpies do when they are not flying. Neither my mother or I knew the nursery rhyme beyond the first few numbers, sorrow, joy, girl, boy. And this was before the internet existed in the palm of everybody’s hands. Before we carried the entirety of human knowledge, and superstition, in our jacket pockets.
Anyway, a few days later I looked up the rest of the lyrics. It turned out that, according to the poem, my mother and I had seen the devil himself. Resting in the fields near Dawlish.
I like the idea that the Devil travels across the earth as 13 magpies. Though it must be logistically difficult at times. I’ve only ever seen thirteen magpies again once, one afternoon on the grass of Parliament Square a few years ago. Makes sense I suppose.
I was trying to remember the rest of the poem as I found a seat on the train and propped my head up against the window. I wanted to use the train ride wisely and write something. It is hard in my house at the moment to find distraction free time but for these two hours I had no excuses.
The only problem was I couldn’t think of anything to write about.
Spring was making its first advances on the Winter and there was a passing warmth in the air that landed on the buildings and the platform and made things feel a little more hopeful than they had the day before.
As the train moved I stared out of the window into people’s gardens and over the roofs of their sheds and yawned. I tried to write something again, but nothing came. Not even a sentence.
I started to fall in and out of sleep. I even dreamt a little. That I was an enormous metal disk rolling down a hill.
“The next station is London St. Pancras where this service will terminate. Please make sure you have your belongings with you when leaving the train.” The voice came rattling over intercom. I had slept almost the entire journey. My neck was stiff and had locked to the side from resting against the glass.
I was in London to talk to some people about my work and within a couple of hours I had met with them both and the talking was done and I could have gotten back on the train and gone home. But I hadn’t been in the city for a while and I wanted to feel its shaking and its madness for a few hours.
So I walked towards Soho, in the late morning and felt it all. Everything on the brink of collapse, on the very edge of itself. Everyone knows it and feels it but no one seems to discuss it.
The people walked past me and kept their heads down and I peered at them like a lost child. I like the ones who smoke in the morning. Even though they are unfashionable now. I like to watch them and nod to them. I think they are dying for the rest of us. The rest of us seem to have given in to it all.
Give in to what?
To the sheen. To the wax tops and fakery. To the plastic roses and AI lovers. To whatever it was we were fighting against.
There’s no room for raging in this age. Don’t you realise that? How crass you are. How pathetic. To rattle against it. Can’t you see how marvellous it is? And all you are interested in is the filthy old smokers who contaminate the air in the morning? Well, it’s ridiculous. Really can’t you see how fabulous and modern it all is? And what does it matter if you don’t? What more could you want? What could be more fulfilling than our ‘loop you ins’ and our ‘circle back rounds’? It’s all here if you want it. Don’t you realise, soon we will all live forever! In the wires! You know that don’t you? But you really must stop raging.
But I don’t know if I want to live forever. I am getting older, yes but-
It’s not about old or young. You just don’t get it. The world has changed for the better. It’s all here. The new world is digital, it is shining and it beautiful!
I don’t think it is beautiful. Sometimes I wonder if it is driving me mad.
I don’t know what is wrong with you. Im surprised you haven’t realised yet. You were only ever rebelling against yourself. Don’t you realise that?
By the time I got to Soho it was early afternoon.
I don’t know where to go in Soho these days. In another life I would’ve waited till the 12 bar opens and got drunk with Andy and played pool and watched the bands until late. But it closed down years ago.
In another life after that I used to like going to The Society Club. My friend Tom worked there and I’d get in for free and drink free negronis. But that closed too, after the landlord tripled the rent over night. It’s an art gallery now. A lovely shiny art gallery.
The truth is I never felt at home in either of those places. It’s easy to look back and imagine it differently. But I was mostly on edge when I was in the 12 bar. I always felt out of my depth there.
There was something magic about it though. There was an old Irish guy called Vince who used to do the door and run the open mic. The toilets were always smashed up. And sometimes the punk bands would play so loud the whole building used to shake.
But at least I didn’t feel like it was trying to lie to me. It felt like we were just playing with the moment back then. Lost in it. Hoping for more but mostly lost in the now. It’s getting harder and harder to feel like that as I get older. And it’s getting harder to go anywhere and not feel like you’re being lied to.
But I’m probably just out of the loop. I know there’s bound to be a hundred places in London with truth and guts. Music till the early hours. etc. etc.
Still, it does feel like something has been eroded in the city. That something good has been irrevocably destroyed. But I suppose it always feels like that, for every generation. Places close and new ones open.
I waste some time flicking through the records at the new Third Man London and then do the same at Sounds of The Universe. I watch a film crew trying and failing to shoot a scene without passers by getting in the way.
I walk past an office that used to be a bar, where I sat once long ago and saw a girl I was in love with for the last time.
By three o’clock I find myself at The French House and drink some half pints of Guinness because that is what my grandfather would have done. I’ve never been much of a fan of day drinking, but I persevere. I’ve been trying to quit smoking because my five year old tells me it’s bad for me, but I smoke a few cigarettes outside with a man named Terrance. He tells me about his children. They are all grown up and live abroad and he sees them seldom.
I can’t work out if the French house is lying to me or not. Whether it really is what it is or whether it is trying to be something it used to be. There’s great stories about it though. Like Dylan Thomas giving away the original manuscript of Under Milk Wood to some guy at the bar because he decided he didn’t like it anymore.
After an hour or so a friend of Terrance’s arrives who is drunker than both of us and keeps repeating himself. I say my goodbyes and walk on. I pass Ronnie Scotts and Bar Italia. I remember meeting my first manager there when I was seventeen, who’s email address I’d found on the back of a David Ford record. I pictured us drinking espressos as he tried to explain the music industry to me. I remembered playing the open mics at Waxy’s and The Spice of Life, and a dozen other afternoons and evenings that are all shadows now.
I decide to walk past the old 12 bar and to my surprise it’s been turned back into a music venue. I wonder if I’ve actually just passed out on the kerb and am hallucinating.
It looks a lot more swanky and up market than I remember. The toilets probably work now. What a shame. Part of me wants to go in for a drink but most of me wants to walk past it, so I do.
Soho sleeps and wakes at the same time. People shuffle amongst the sirens. Waiters smoke on street corners and birds ignore us on the rooftops.
I stop at a couple more pubs as I walk, The Swan and McGlynns, and drink halves outside and wish I had my own cigarettes to smoke.
It seems to me that smoking is an efficent way of communing with the moment you are in, a sort of direct line to eternity, and I’m yet to work out how non smokers manage to do that very efficiently or even at all. Maybe it’s mediatation. But it’s difficult to slip outside and meditate every 20 minutes or so without looking like you’re losing it.
Slowly I wind my way back towards Kings Cross. By the time I reach the station doors I am drunk and it is raining heavily. I pass an old friend of my brothers who I haven’t seen for ten years or more. He asks me how my brother is and I tell him he’s good and we say we should meet up again and then we go our separate ways because it is raining heavily still, and we are getting soaked.
I make my way inside and then up to the platform. The train is full this time, with commuters making their way home. I try to find a seat but there is none left so I stand by the doors and wait for them to close. I sway a little from the alcohol and try not to appear drunk.
London shakes through the train window. Ten million people all crammed together. And twenty million rats. All defecating and eating and trying to experience it as best they can. Hoping that the nukes don’t come any time soon.
As the train pulls out of the city I see a single magpie take flight beside the train and fly alongside us a while. She flies majestically through the air, darting in and out of the wind currents caused by the movement of the train, playing with the moment she is in.
Oh good, I think to myself getting out my notebook. Sorrow. Now there’s something I can write about.
THE NOSTALGIC’S GUIDE TO CLOSED DOWN LONDON (For paid subscribers)
Descriptions of some of my favourite closed down bars in the city and my memories of them.
The 12 Bar (24 Denmark Street, Soho)
It was a wild place. The “menu” was made up of different versions of Jagerbombs, where they'd substituted the red bull for rum or absinthe. They were all a fiver. Out the back you could sit on benches in tin pan alley, listening to the bands rehearsing
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