My intention was only to pop into Evans Cycles in Holborn for a quarter of an hour and from there to carry on down to South Kensington on the Piccadilly Line. Yet, here I am on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road, about to embark on another of my spur-of-the-moment “walking adventures”. This time the object of my exploration is Soho. Not in-Soho, but outer-Soho. Its periphery, its urban borders; the imperfect rectangle that means so much to misfits and outsiders.
Not that it was always that way. Henry VIII’s former Royal Park’s delusions of grandeur were dealt a reality check with each wave of migration; from Algerians to Greeks (in fact one of its roads is called Greek Street), they all opened their small businesses here. However, Soho has been chiefly known for a long time for its sex shops and strip shows.
Unfair, I would say, as I traipse up Charing Cross, Oxford Street-bound. The area is still host to many fanciful restaurants and cafes which render this part of London bohemian and left-of field. It is also a place where the old and new mix easily and organically. The gay community has used Old Compton Street as its hanging-out place for years with the Admiral Duncan pub as its headquarters. Carnaby Street brought us 60s “Swinging London”. Many film companies are based here.
I turn left at Tottenham Court Road tube station to find a semi-overcast sky with an oval-shaped late-afternoon sun fast disappearing behind the buildings on Oxford Street. Its trace leaves a scarlet-berry-coloured pavement trod on by thousands of commuters in search of what London’s nightlife has to offer. I am reminded of Keats’ “barred clouds” blooming “the soft dying day”. I hurry along Oxford Street with its big department stores palisading both Soho on one side of the road and Fitzrovia on the other. I will probably come back here for my Christmas shopping in a month or so but now it is the end of October and the yuletide season is not on my mind yet.
What is on my mind, though, is to get to the other point of this loop: Regent Street. It is always a pleasure of mine to go down on this road, Piccadilly Circus-bound, and see the contrast between the Mayfair upmarket shops on one side (Hackett, Crabtree and Evelyn and Karl Lagerfeld) and the neon signs on the other (that would be in-Soho). I descend the stairs of the tube station, the last rays of a faint terracotta-coloured sun vanishing as I pull my Oyster card out of my pocket.