The Dying Lady of Soho

Soho1LOCATION: Soho, London

WORDS: Will Burns interviewing Robert Rubbish

Robert Rubbish is an artist and filmmaker based in London and hailing from Jersey. He was founding member of the Le Gun art collective and studied at the RCA between 2003 and 2005.  I meet him by the postbox on the corner of Dean St and Old Compton St.

To Robert this is the centre of the centre of the universe.

He is wearing a tweed jacket, white shirt, red tie and blue trousers. His sideburns extend into his moustache in what might have once been called whiskers, as opposed to a beard. His hair is tied back in a ponytail.

We have met to talk about his forthcoming exhibition concerning the history and culture of Soho, a place we have both, and quite separately, grown attached to during our lives in London.

Will: Let’s start with this idea you have talked a little about, the idea of Soho as a woman, where did that come from?

Robert RubbishRobert Rubbish: The start of that came from when we were at college, and this friend of ours (the Le Gun collective), Ben Brannigan, who was in the year above us, and there was some conversation, I don’t remember exactly where, a pub probably, but anyway Ben used this phrase, Soho can be an ugly woman on a Friday night, and we all laughed. But I thought deeper about that, about how Soho could be a woman and how ugly the place can appear on a Friday or Saturday night. And I always liked the idea of that. The phrase, the idea. It just stuck with me.

Will: I’ve always felt that there was a real difference between the feeling of the place mid-week and at the weekend.

RR: Yeah, and at different times of the day as well. Like, there are a few shifts, you know? In the morning, you know, the place doesn’t really come alive until eleven or something, and then midday, lunchtime there are people working round here who go out drinking, afternoon drinking, then the night time. And when the night time ends, if you’re here at three, four in the morning, it’s the drug addicts and just weird, random people. It’s a very weird vibe then. And they eventually all go and there’s nothing. Until it wakes up again. Bar Italia used to be open 24 hours a day, so you could go there, and in the 80s there were cafes that stayed open. But there are these shifts, like I say, where many different things are happening at different times of the day.

Will: In that regard, to use your metaphor of the woman, Soho can come to represent all those facets of a person…

Soho4RR: Yeah, and I suppose the metaphor also comes from that Shane MacGowan song London You’re a Lady, where his vision of the city is that she’s a lady. He talks about London as a real woman, you know? The city’s not cartographic or topographic, but an actual being. He sings, It was deep down in your womb, my love, I drank my quart of sin, While Chinamen played cards and draughts and knocked back Mickey Finns. And that’s obviously about Chinatown, Soho. So all these parts of the city become physical in a bodily sense. I also always liked the idea that ships were called ‘she’ and there’s a strange nautical aspect to Soho as well.

Will: I wanted to ask about that actually, that image of the sailor runs through a fair bit of Le Gun’s work, yours and Neal’s particularly, so what have you learned about that aspect of Soho, and where does that part of the history of Soho sit in your version of the place?

RR: Well one of the programmes I’ll be making (for Soho Radio), and one part of the show as well is called ‘Sailors in Soho’ and it’s that odd thing where I’ve not seen a sailor in Soho, I mean maybe at Gay Pride or something, but not in normal life. But it’s an image that somehow seems to stick with me.

Will: I suppose where once upon a time though you would recognize a sailor by his clothes, how would you now?

RR: Yeah, I mean in wartime, sailors or soldiers on leave would have money and come to Soho to binge. It’s just another image of binging really, and how Soho came to embody that. Like in Mac the Knife, the Kurt Weill lyrics mention Soho and spending money like a sailor. That sort of thing. A sailor off the boat wants booze, drugs, women, or men. They want a sort of hedonism I guess, and that whole idea becomes synonymous with Soho.

Will: It’s the figure of the itinerant really, isn’t it? The writer, artist, sailor. The unemployed. Soho retains a real aura for those kinds of people, I think.

RR: Yeah, I mean, it’s harder and harder to live like that here but… but you know it’s very important place for drug addicts at night because there’s a lot of people, a lot of money, but then also a real community of sort of hustlers, I guess. Outsiders, people getting away with living differently.

Will: Right. And do you feel like Soho came to represent that idea of ‘getting away with’ living how you wanted to in contrast to a very mundane kind of suburban upbringing in Jersey. Did Soho come to be a kind of supreme London experience for you, in a way that nowhere else in the city could?

RR: Yeah, for sure. I think it was in Jersey where I read Judith Summer’s history of Soho in the library and Dog Days in Soho which is about a sailor actually, a true account, about a guy who hung around that whole Francis Bacon set. So I read those two books before coming here to the Royal College and I was like, Ok, here we go… I mean, you knew about Soho but all of sudden the history opened up a bit. And there was also The Jam’s A-Bomb in Wardour St, The Kinks’ Lola. Pinball Wizard

I was into mod as well when I was a kid, and Soho was a bit mythical in that mod revival. I started to hear about places and wondered if they still existed, The Colony Room, The French House. I think I might have even been to The Coach years before. So I was reading about things that happened here in the fifties, and asking if these places still exist. And then when I came here to study we found places like Centrale on Moor St, which was just unchanged, straight out of the fifties, a little Italian restaurant, cheap, where you could take your own booze. And the New Piccadilly cafe as well, place that were obviously still functioning, but hadn’t really changed, you know? And then the pubs, like The Coach which was still run by Norman Balon, who’d run it since the sixties, the rudest landlord in England. And The French, which is run by Lesley, who’d taken it over from Gaston. The Colony still existed; Gerry’s, Trisha’s, which was newer, but still had that vibe.

Will: So when did you move to London?

RR: 2003

Will: And have you ever lived here, in Soho?

RR: No, I lived in Hammersmith, so still West London.

Will: You weren’t straight into that East London artistic Diaspora?

RR: Haha. No,  I was living in Hammersmith, going to college in Kensington, and we’d started going to The Spanish bar, because it was open late, we were kind of skirting around the edges of Soho, really, before we knew anyone.

Will: Well, you tend to, don’t you? You dip your toe in, and you slowly find your feet in the place.

RR: Yeah, you get a little bit braver, if that’s the right word.

Will: Yeah, or happenstance, you meet someone who invites you to something, or takes you for a pint in the right place or whatever…

RR: Yeah, exactly.

Will: And who do you mean when you refer to ‘we’ in all of this?

RR: The core of what would become Le Gun, Billy Bragg, Alex Wright, Neal Fox, who also had a fascination with the place because his Grandad used to drink around here and Bloomsbury. So we both had this interest. And Billy had gone to St Martin’s, so he was based in Long Acre. And he knew the West End. He knew where you could get cheap food and a late drink. Places that have all gone actually. I think we started drinking in The Glasshouse actually. Maybe have a few in there and go to The French. But I didn’t like The French to begin with. Didn’t like the vibe. I preferred The Coach, we had better times in The Coach. There seemed to be more hedonists. It was quite different to how it is now.

Soho3,gifWill: We’re skipping around here a bit, sorry, but when you mentioned Jersey earlier, and the hedonists you came across in Soho, I thought of that recent interview with David Hockney where he talks about the search for a bohemian way of living as opposed to a suburban one. Have you been influenced by Hockney at all?

RR: Yeah, I think he’s fascinating. You know, he’s the guy in his generation who moves forward all the time, in his work, in his thought, everything. He manages to be anti-whatever is going on at that moment in terms of a zeitgeist or whatever you call it, but without being reactionary. He embraces technology, changing times. In that BBC documentary he talks about the idea of bohemia.

Will: Yeah, I thought about that when preparing this and reading about your ideas of Soho…

RR: It’s like you could take Soho and Jersey and yes, they do seem opposites, but then there were small elements on Jersey, like The Hautlians Club, which was an old school club, grammar school club, which had the feeling of a Soho club. Not as wild, but you know, painted green which was weird for a start, and then it had that vibey thing where you had to go down a little corridor to get to it, and at the end was this green door and an oasis in that cultural desert. But there were similarities in that you could be here in a pub, and be talking to a transvestite who had maybe been a high end lawyer all his life and there he was talking to you and your girlfriend, or the guy who runs the spanking shop, but the thing was it was normal here, these people are just residents in their village.

Will: But if you were to examine that kind of breadth of life in a suburban setting, you’d have to suspend so much of your disbelief. You’d have a setting like Midsomer Murders or whatever where there’s all this life, death, sex and murder in a small set of villages and part of you wants to say, ‘another bloody murder in that village?’ But in a city, and an area in a city like Soho it really does encompass all that expanse of human experience.

RR: Yeah, quite. Or Bergerac, of course! I mean, it is, or was, really, a type of bohemia. A place where the normal rules of the city didn’t quite apply. There are rules here, but they’re a bit more open, or fluid. Like sexuality has always been ok. All sexual preferences have always been accepted here. Even before Old Compton St became what it is now. In the 50s. If you read about Soho in the 50s, Robert McBride and Robert Cohoon who were two artists and lovers but they were accepted in a way here that they might not have been elsewhere. Everyone was accepted as part of a community. Outsiders again I guess. Soho has always had acceptance of black sheep. But then people are normal people as well. And there’s all the people who live here. I mean I’m just a blow-in. But the whole place is a real, vibrant community.

Will: So you get that rubbing up of people and ideas?

RR: Yeah, and people who take refuge in places that accept them. Like I was interviewing my mate Rodent, who was a roadie for The Sex Pistols, for the Jock Scot film, and he was saying that all that crowd had to drink in lesbian and gay clubs like Louisa’s, not always because they were interested in that culture, but because they were going to get beaten up in normal pubs or whatever because of how they dressed.

Will: But then the cultures feed into each other.

RR: Yes. Malcolm McLaren understood all that. He wanted to become a kind of tin-pan-alley svengali, and he knew he had to get to Soho, the dirty Soho with sex shops, but also that had been the place where you’d find existentialism, people in berets, sex, poetry, you know? The music, Denmark St, Chinatown, Wardour St and the film industry, fashion, boutiques in Carnarby St. Record shops, cafes, youth culture. Everything happened here. Right through to Black Market and dance music, Cuts, the hairdressers. All of it. Maybe it’s that sense, and it’s losing it a little bit, but it’s still there, a feeling of it being Continental somehow. You know, it feels European.

Soho2Will: Well again, that’s an idea that’s antithetical to suburbia in a way. The American modernists who moved here were aspiring to ideas of Europe as much as they were to England specifically. I’m thinking of Eliot, really. There’s a great Paris Review interview with Lawrence Durrell, to make a very loose Jersey connection, where he talks about the idea of Europe having an appeal to him as it was so un-suburban.

RR: Yes, and there were always lots of nationalities around here as well. There were Italian food shops, the cafes. I found this book recently called Little Inns of Soho, a tiny little book. And it’s just a guy going around reviewing restaurants. And these little books, they’re like time machines, you know? You open them and it’s like, wow, that’s the way it was. In a lot of these places during rationing you had to bring your own egg, you know? But here in 1948 you could get Chinese food, Indian food, Spanish, French food. It might be the only place in London you could get those things.

I think what I’m interested in though is layers, odd connections. Like in this book he talks about the Barcelona Restaurant in Beak St, where the British Surrealist group always met. It was where George Melly first encountered the surrealists, and it was run by a Spanish republican. I like these funny places. They are a bit surreal themselves, because you’re in London, but not. It’s a kind of vision that someone’s got of Spain. Their memories of the place, their ideas of it. And like the Colony Room, that always felt surreal in the true sense. A kind of zone of different realities, unlike anywhere else.

Will: Right, I like that thought about the layers of a place. One of the things I wanted to talk about was this idea of how a sense of place builds up over time. Auden described it as topophilia in relation to Betjeman’s concern with place – an interest or obsession with place, and obviously there are powerful examples in the natural landscape, stone circles, cairns, barrows, ritual burial sites. Do you feel something similar here? An urban equivalent?

RR: Absolutely. For example the postbox, I always thought of Soho as the centre of the universe, and the postbox is the centre of the centre. I only have to stand there and it seems that I’ll encounter something. There’s a certain magic to it. Just be there and something will happen. In the old days, I’d stand there with a beer and someone will come along, and say, I’ll take you somewhere, come drinking with us. That kind of thing. You can look back to a time when this part of the city was fields, and then as it builds up in layers. And you know, it almost feels walled in some ways. A city within a city.

Will: That’s interesting, because if you think about what’s around it, it’s a strange set of neighbours really. Oxford St, Regent St, Leicester Square – emblematic of a very different experience of London.

RR: Yeah, and it’s a bit disjointed now, because if you read about it, Chinatown used to be very like Soho, full of slightly dodgy places, strip clubs, night clubs, opium dens. More vibrant. But now it’s been dislodged a bit from Soho, and it’s under threat as well from rent rises and gentrification. Which is a real shame, I think.

Will: So talking about that idea, the threat to Soho from the problems London faces everywhere as rents soar and people are shunted further and further out and nothing but chains can afford to rent property, what are your feelings on that?

RR: Well I mean I’ve watched the passing of old Soho in real time. Anyone who’s hung around here in the last ten years or so. There were real remnants of the 50s here, small ones, but still remnants. Still remnants of the sex industry, but the internet killed that. Like Irvine Welsh predicted, everyone’s now a wanker. But all the small little places, the local, that was all here. The Colony Room, which had been here since ’48. All that made a strong hub. The Colony, The Groucho, The French, Blacks, Gerry’s. The Dean St shuffle, you know? I remember one summer when The French was open late. So you’d get kicked out of The Colony, into The French, out of there into The Groucho, and from there into Gerry’s. The strip, bar after bar. But they were interesting places as well, not just pubs full of tourists.

Will: I always find that those places have this sense of an understanding that anyone in there is kind of fair game to talk to, to interact with. It’s another kind of suspension of the normal behavior in the city, if that makes sense?

RR: Of course, it’s encouraged. Things are a little looser. You sort of pick people up here. You used to be in a pub in the afternoon or whatever and someone would say, Oh where you going now? The French, and they’d come along. And there was always someone still there at the end of the night, and you had no knowledge of who they were or where they came from. Days later they’d be with you. It’s very bad for you, this behaviour! But all these places were very much about talking and mixing with people.

Will: And therefore attractive to writers and artists or whatever.

RR: Yeah, and people who maybe didn’t live in London anymore, moved out, maybe, but if they came into town, they’d head for Soho you know? So you’d head somewhere and there would be some musician out, holding court, or an old actor who’d come into London for the day…  But it’s not just about the people who were there. I believe that there’s something about the feeling of a place. When The Colony Room closed, a lot of people were looking for where we were going to drink next. And there was a placed on Romilly St where Dick, who had been the head barman in The Colony, had a bar. And everyone tried as hard as they could to have a good time there, but it just wasn’t working. Whether that was the architecture, the shape of the room, who knows? It must be something more than just the size of the room, right? There’s a place around the corner and it’s been so many different bars or clubs since I’ve known the area and it just never sticks.

Will: So do you think making this work, you’ve felt like there was some mourning for a passing of a period of your life, mirrored in the passing of a period in a place?

RR: Yeah, for sure. It’s one of the reasons I want to do it, and to make the film I want to make about Soho, as cliché as it sounds, a love letter to the place. I might have missed the boat, because things are just changing so fast. Berwick St has been carved up, Wanker’s Court will go soon, Madame Jojo’s. I mean, who needs a helicopter pad on the top of Raymond’s Revuebar? Who does that benefit? But it’s not about nostalgia either, it’s the opposite, really because the architects developing that building are saying, oh well, we’ve re-installed the neon sign from Raymond’s Revuebar. That’s heritage. But it’s just an empty gesture. It’s like knocking down The French House and putting up a crap French restaurant but keeping the sign. It’s pointless.

Soho5Will: Yeah, there’s a conservative, reactionary way of fetishizing the idea of a sense of place, but there’s also a radical, living equivalent idea that accepts change, because everything changes, but doesn’t want things to be reduced to a kind of sham version of themselves. I mean The French House was called The York Minster and that changed, for reasons that are central to the myth of the place, so it’s not change itself that is bad, it’s this artificial, reductive, homogenizing change that we’re seeing now that’s problematic.

RR: And that’s an example of what people called the place, it became. I mean property developers just want to sell a version of place. They don’t care about it, except to market it. Like there’s a Mexican bar that’s got sex shop neon signs outside. What’s that saying? Nothing. It’s just an easy emblem of a very thin idea of the places history. That’s what we’ll be left with. I’m trying to document what it really is. To look at the real past of the place, in full.

The first nightclubs, Iron Foot Jack, King of the Bohemians, who’s interesting because he was so uncool. A chancer who nobody really liked. Mourning the past of a place is funny. The myth of places, like the Francis Bacon set, it is that, myth. But it’s still an important place. The West End. If you turn this into Covent Garden, or whatever, what are we left with? What happens when the independent shops or the little pubs can’t afford to be here? But even collective purchasing or something here can’t be done because of the price of London property. It’s as if the wheels are in motion. A plan for London that’s been rolled out, allow people to live in a place, make it vibrant, and then move the developers in. And people are surprised, but it’s happened everywhere.

It’s interesting what Grayson Perry was saying about rich people not creating culture. He understands that he’s part of the whole issue as well, but he says interesting things about what opportunities were available. Now people from art school come out with all that debt, nowhere to live, and what work will they get? That punk rock DIY idea is over, because money prohibits these things. You have to accept that things will die, things will change. But what we have now is out of control. A housing crisis, the Tory party, that clown for a mayor. And I want this show, this work, to highlight the real relevance of this area, or any area.

It’s more than just real estate.

From more on Robert Rubbish, check out his website. 


Will Burns is a poet, raised in Buckinghamshire but living in London. He is poet-in-residence at Caught by the River and was a Faber New Poet in 2014.
















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