London: The best of times

BC's been dwelling on the mountain of nostalgic coverage that accompanied the closure of Madame JoJo's in Soho. Celebrities and journalists have been lining up, to declare this not just the death of Soho, but of London itself: “Once [Soho] turns into a cascade of glass, then London is gone," says Rupert Everett.

Madame JoJo's was a great institution and the clean-up of Soho has cost it some of its soul, but Soho's transition from seedy to sought-after has been decades in the making. When BC worked there 10 years ago, it was already dominated by clubs, bars and restaurants for ad agencies and media companies. The internet was busy killing off the porn shops and Westminster Council was doing the rest. We'll be going back to Soho tonight, for a friend's farewell party and nothing much will have changed in that decade, except perhaps fewer doorways will open onto yellowing corridors, lit red. Are the brothels the kind of thing Guardian journalist Eva Wiseman mourns when she uses Soho's fate to ask whether the "London we love" is dying?

The brothels, like the treasures that Wiseman lists - the cinemas, the cafes, the cheap bagels, Central St Martins - haven't disappeared of course, they've just been displaced. Cut off one of London's heads, two more will take its place elsewhere in the capital.

The London of the and 80s and 90s, when most of these commentators grew up and enjoyed themselves, was simply much smaller and less dynamic. The fact that so much nostalgia can coalesce around so few places (JoJo's, the Wag, the Groucho) shows how narrow London's horizons used to be. Bohemian London didn't just get forced out of the West End, it outgrew it. Once, decadence was confined to a handful of streets. Today, it spills out to Brixton, Peckham, Dalston and a dozen other neighbourhoods. When our ex went to Central St Martins, it was a crummy collection of buildings scattered across London. Now, the college lives in an incredible new home, on a site which was once a polluted no-man's land.

London nostalgia has become toxic and tedious. And it's not only BC that's bored of it. Giles Coren, writing in Time Out, captures it perfectly:

"Well, they are ladies and gents of a certain age, who for most of their lives lived in a London of closed boozers, awful food, stinky communal pissoirs, graffitied public buildings, incipient sexism and racism, and danger on every corner. 

"And they are just so jealous about the great things their children’s generation are doing to this city that they want to nip progress in the bud by objecting to damn near everything. They want to turn the clocks back to a time that they somehow perceive as having been more ‘real’, because it was their own miserable reality growing up, and they want it to be ours."

Of course, urban decay has its own charm and change means inevitable loss. It is impossible not to regret the Venue's decision to switch from showcasing indie upstarts to hosting tribute bands (though, ironically, the nostalgics are to blame for that, too). But if you're not having illicit or extravagant fun in London any more, don't blame the city.

London didn't get old. You did.


Breakspears Eagle said...

The Venue seems like such a missed opportunity in New Cross.

Targeting eighteen year olds from Sidcup and Eltham is surely not the most profitable audience for such a place. Even the students at Goldsmiths hardly use it, and many of the rooms are empty on the nights it does open.

Has your position on the board of Goldsmiths led to any engagement with them? Why can't they offer something different during the week for instance?

It could easily be something a bit more like Hootenanny in Brixton or The Bussey Building in peckhamwith a bit of imagination.

Even just making it into a proper club that people other than the aforementioned clientele would want to visit would be a big improvement.

Old timer said...

Sounds like a bit of cheap journo nonesense to me. 'Things ain't what they used to be' is a regular theme, a staple article to fill that carte blanche in a publication and hit a deadline. Ho hum.

I yearn for that golden era when journalists wrote insightful, original articles on London life instead of peddling articles expressing their own frustrations and insecurities and selective memories.

Every time has its good and bad points and our experience of them is personal. Nostalgia and sentimentality are very self indulgent, fleeting emotions, hardly worthy of putting into words.

However, as this vital city of London evolves, it is worthwhile avoiding some of the mistakes with the lessons of what worked in the past and what failed. To appreciate that you have to be detached and objective. Simply because certain things resonate with memories of a happier, freer youth does not make them good.

I look forward to articles in the future when the current crop of Millennial journalists are wisen hacks waxing sentimental about Internet dating, internships, facebook updates, smartphone snobbery and sexting.

Fortunately a lot of us will be pushing up daisies by then.

Lewisham till I die said...

I agree the west end has improved a lot from when i was a teen back in the 90s. However, the lack of live music venues has decreased dramatically in the last few years which I think is very depressing, madame jo jos being the latest one. The crossrail development meant the demolition of the astoria (central London's largest music venue), the LA2 and the dive bar venues each 3 venues had big name and newby bands playing pretty much every night of the week and had popular club nights. The wag club frequented by mick jagger et al closing to be replaced by a souless o'neill pub was a total disgrace in 2001. The 100 club was threatened with closure but saved by corporate sponsorship. I hope the borderline doesnt become the next victim.
Also just heard today that the wonderful curzon soho may be demolished to make way for the f-ing crossrail 2 development wtf!!

Headhunter said...

I agree, it's a shame that smelly old London pub venues which often hosted up and coming bands in the basement or upstairs are slowly being replaced by chain pubs and restaurants and cocktail bars. There were still quite a few around when I moved to London in the late 90s.

The whole of Central London has evolved, admittedly sometimes for the better, other times not so. the "clean up" Nick refers to has generally seen things become more generic however it's true that there has been an increase in interesting and independent venues further out which is nice.

I suppose you can't halt progress and Soho's porn shops and gay bars were as much a product of their time as the glassy cafes and Paul bakeries which make up Soho now and it's hard to preserve certain things in aspic, London is a fluid, evolving entity, but it doesn't stop me mourning some of the more interesting losses just as it's a shame to see more and more pubs in SE London being turned into flats or Tescos....

PeoplesAssemblySEL said...

Wrong analysis. It's not about nostalgia of London past but about not being able to enjoy London now. It's not about age it's about lack of money.

Happy 2015 Brockley.

Brockley Nick said...

I agree that some things have been lost and not replaced.

However, does the loss of live venues mean less opportunity to see live music in London?

Others will have a better insight into that question, but it seems to me that temporary venues (parks, festivals, etc) have sprung up instead. Maybe that's out of necessity, maybe it reflects changing fashions.

Mezzer said...

You can add the Twelve Bar club to that list too. Talk about "A bomb in Wardour street"! Much of Soho is virtually a huge crater.

Brockley Nick said...

Well now affordability, is a different issue and one which I will come on to soon. But clearly someone has the money to enjoy all these things, otherwise they wouldn't be happening. And of course, you can do more for free in London than in almost any other place in the world.

PeoplesAssemblySEL said...

We can add to this 10 days, south East London hosted the first FuturePunk Festival, in the Montague Arms. It's a nascent scene, but a scene nonetheless. It would be happening in East London but rent rises, meant the organiser moved to New Cross. So net loss to London.

FuturePunk - Is electronic music that's tends to heavy on the bass - see Bone Cult as one small example.

PeoplesAssemblySEL said...

Yes you can go to the park, and maybe cycle to museums, but the cafes there, plus things like delis, boutique cinemas, farmers markets, new pubs, cereal cafes aren't cheap and with wage freezes, the proliferation of zero hour contract and precarious work, it's making some people feel & misty eyed about how things were.

Newby said...

Imagine what it would have been like if we had a government who had actually implemented any cuts or austerity! You seem to suggest that things were better when we are all poorer?

Headhunter said...

Were we all poorer? the wealthiest certainly were, they've never had it so good as now however there's a chunk of society across the UK which would be much better off if wealth were more evenly distributed...

Headhunter said...

Why's a move to New Cross a net loss to London?

Anon said...

Does the church commission still own large chunks of soho?

PeoplesAssemblySEL said...

erratum, corrected in edit.

JosephJohnODonnell said...

I don't think that's quite fair I was still in school in the 1990s way before coming to long and the pace of change has been astounding. No one's saying that they're shouldn't be change. Instead it should be sympathetic to London and benefit its inhabitants. We shouldn't end up as the Dubai of northern Europe all glass and no soul.

Brockley Nick said...

"the pace of change has been astounding" - agreed - the question is whether it has been mostly additive or mostly deletive. The nostalgics argue the latter. I have made the case for the former.

"Instead it should be sympathetic to London and benefit its inhabitants."

I suppose that's a fine sentiment up to a point. But that's quite vague. For example, should we stop a shiny new building being built because it is unsympathetic to its crappy surroundings? Must all developments benefit all inhabitants - or is it enough for there to be a range of developments to suit a range of needs? I would argue the latter and suggest that that is what currently happens, for the most part.

"We shouldn't end up as the Dubai of northern Europe all glass and no soul."

That's not a risk at all. As has been pointed out, there is great poverty in London, as well as great wealth. But the poor are a market too - and London caters for them well. "For there is in London all that life can afford."

We need skyscrapers and street markets. We need coffee shops and caffs. We need Nobu and kebab shops. That is what we have. That is what we will always have.

PeoplesAssemblySEL said...

Lol, you trolling us?! The scrapping of EMA, imposition of benefit sanctions, council job losses, Lewisham Big Budget Challenge, did we imagine these things?

The rampant and excused social injustice that is going on in London right now, is something worth getting misty-eyed about. Yes there's always been inequality in London, the rich and the poor, the have and the have nots, but the level of callousness with which people in power talk and deal with poorer people's fates has not been as stark as it is now. For example, Robin Wales a Labour Mayor of Newham, who was content to say 'it's the market' and not fight regarding FocusE15 mums' situation. Young temporarily housed mothers who wanted to stay in the area they'd grown up in, but where told if they wanted a more permanent place to live it would be 100s of miles away outside of London.

Whilst its great that there are farmers markets springing up everywhere, it's not great that there is such demand from people that can't afford to buy food from the shops that has led to the rise of food banks springing up everywhere too. Often as a direct consequence of benefit sanctions.
And if you find yourself relying on the social safety net that is benefits, welfare, the thing that stops you free falling into destitution, you find sanctions can let fall farther than before.

Newby said...

You are not one for facts are you relying on some ill informed ideological nonsense (a bit like the b/s that Oxfam pump out). On any level I find it difficult to undertsand how you can say that quality of life for the majority of people living in London hasnt increased over the last 20/30 years.

PeoplesAssemblySEL said...

Deal with what we've said and lay down your facts.

Newby said...

The small matter of rising public spending since 2010? Our democratic choice is spend more money on things for the elderly like free health care, interest payments on accrued debt, unfunded pensions rather than on younger people. Thats democracy for you. Per capita GDP has risen over the last 20 or 30 years so again were we better off when teh average Londoner was poorer?

Olina said...

It is increasingly not what we have though. Someone else mentioned the mayor of Newham, the mayor also said that those young mothers can no longer afford Newham'. The mayor is correct, they can not afford to live in London because Newham, and most of zone 3 is being filled with higher waged people who can no longer afford to live in zone 2 (I'm one of those people), because in turn, the rich who used to be able afford zone 1 are being pushed out by international UHNWI.

I work in the contemporary art, my friends are mostly artists and people who work for museums, galleries etc. In the last four months I can count 17 people who have moved abroad because the cost of rent, transport (from the zone 4 wherever they can now only afford to live) outstrips their earnings (and these are people who certainly earn more than living wage). Meaning they have sort out jobs abroad because living in London was not cost effective. The situation being described is not some cry baby 'but I WANT to live in Peckham' etc, its simple economics. When the cost of living outstrips pay, people move, and the city loses talent. It's bad for the economy.

This is off the topic of 'what is better a kebab shop or Nobu' I know, but tangentially connected. (For the record I like both, the former when pissed, the latter once in my life, when pissed).

max doom! said...

dead on. my route (generally outward) over the last 10 years has been new cross, islington, brockley, lewisham, croydonia. the last two have been mortgages and the decision was taken exactly along the lines of 'When the cost of living outstrips pay, people move'. although i am still whining about not being able to afford anything in lewisham.

JosephJohnODonnell said...

We are no where near the ideal of preserving the best of the old and ensuring that everything new which is built is of the best standard and benefits people living here. Take Lewisham for example huge amount of new homes but no investment in facilities. Glassmill is already full to bursting. All that profit and not one affordable home. Time after time loved and successfully venues are closed for housing. The balance is not right.

Brockley Nick said...

This is the theme I will explore in my next article on this topic, so I won't reply at length here. Two questions though:

1. Do you think the strength of London's contemporary art sector is partly due to the presence of so many international UHNWIs in the city, both as residents and as flying visitors to things like Frieze Art?

2. Is there any evidence to suggest that the people leaving are not being replaced? Is there a shortage of artists in London? Because the alternative interpretation is that those 17 people are hot properties for the international jobs market precisely because of London's strength in this area. Note, they haven't moved to other parts of the country, where the cost of living is much lower than other top international cities. They've moved internationally, because that is who London's competitors are.

Brockley Nick said...

"huge amount of new homes but no investment in facilities. Glassmill is already full to bursting."

Somewhat contradictory statement. And another way of saying "full to bursting" is "successful and well-used."

"All that profit and not one affordable home."

788 new homes, 146 of which are for affordable rent. These were the first of the homes completed.

"Time after time loved and successfully venues are closed for housing."

Which ones are you thinking of?

PeoplesAssemblySEL said...

Public spending may rise, the qualifiers are whether it has risen in line with inflation. This the classic economic smoke and mirrors does regarding NHS spending. "It's ring fenced" It's needs to be expanded to keep in line with demand, ageing population.

And regarding "Per capita GDP" having risen since the 80s, that's great. Recognise that we are talking about inequality. The "haves and the have yachts", being able to keep with the Joneses', or the from the James lyric - if I hadn't seen such riches I could like with being (relatively) poor.

When all the buzz in your society is about organic food, farmers markets, free range etc and you find yourself having to use a food bank and whats deemed low end suppliers. For some that creates an anxiety, a feeling of inadequate. You'll note the statistics on depression levels. Lewisham is the top part of tables on mental health spending

Lewisham till i die said...

To me it is the fact that developers and the government destroyed great venues which I held dear for many years, venues I went to week in week out and saw so many incredible bands / club nights. The venues were profitable especially the astoria and it really irked me that they could just destroy 3 great venues for this f-ing crossrail!

Loss of these venues doesn't mean less music in London but why shouldn't the West End have venues for gigs why should it be abundantly shoreditch and camden where they exist?

Focusing back on SE London the Fox and Firkin on Lewisham High street is under threat of closure from developers. It has had live music for 30 odd years and been nominated for best live music venue in London on many occasions. Sign the petition and help save it, Nick perhaps you could do an item on this?

JosephJohnODonnell said...

I meant the new homes which are yet to be built at L gateway currently have no affordable housing provision at all when I looked.

Glassmill doesn't have the capacity to cope with all the flats are being built. Its is nigh on impossible to book a class etc atm.

I was thinking of many venues in Eva's article and others in Hackney which I used a lot.

I wasn't saying you had said we we're near the ideal just emphasising that this is why people are concerned at the moment. T

Max Calò said...

I completely second the assessment that Glass Mill is bursting and it's getting really crowded at all times beyond what you'd think as "successful and well-used". A well used facility should still offer some quiet off peak time every now and then.

polytoo said...

Leaving all that aside, interesting to hear about your former polygamy...

Breakspears Eagle said...

The Venue is a real missed opportunity in New Cross.

I really can't believe that opening only on a Friday and Saturday with a clientele that consists mainly of 18 year olds from Eltham and Sidcup is the most profitable use of this huge space.

Many of the rooms are empty even on the days that it does open and even the students from Goldsmiths rarely visit.

With a little bit of imagination it could easily become something more like Hootenanny in Brixton or the Bussey Building in Peckham, which are utilised and busy seven days a week.

Even just a decent club that appeals to more than just the Eltham crowd would be a big improvement.

Couldn't the owners at least be encouraged to try something different on weekdays?

Nick - has your position at Goldsmiths led to any sort of engagement with them?

Olina said...

Apologies. Late reply. Got to keep it brief. However:
1. Yes, of course. Some sectors of the art economy need UHNWI. They're the people who spend the 500k plus on the brand name artists (but they're not the only people, plenty of consultants, media people, old money busing art around the 10k makr). London is hub for that. All good there. No quibbles with HNWIs themselves. If you had the money, and there were no restrictions or minimal taxation implications, why would you not buy a house in Mayfair?.

2. I can't point you to any empirical studies no (or rather I might if I had time...!). I would say yes, we are losing talent. The art industry does not pay well. If you can work as a artist, critic or curator in Amsterdam or Berlin, then you're going to have a better quality of life, because after rent you'll have alot more spare cash.

When I know how much colleagues earn in other similar 'global cities', NY or LA even, and how much they pay in rent, its clear that London needs to do something to keep it a competitive city for talent.

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