06 February 2015

Farewell Soho, Welcome 'Lone and Level Sands'

I am not especially fond of the Metropolitan Media Class lamenting the passing of some icon that they probably stabbed in the back only a few years earlier, but I found eulogy in The Guardian to Soho rather touching. I had the good fortune to encounter the dying embers of Swinging London's Soho by virtue of working nearby in the middle 1980s. People I knew were still lurking around the Colony Room or the Coach and Horses, and Kettner's still served a cheap hamburger with its cocktail piano. I was only on the very fringes of this scene, but it meant a lot to a boy whose journey from the white edges of Detroit's had brought him to the heart of the capital of his own cultural world.

However, I knew some time ago the game was up for my London. There was a sort of last sputtering of the fire during Tony Blair's first term, which clouded my judgement somewhat. Memory suggests that I came to the realisation that clinging to central London's Bohemian past was a hopeless effort in about 2005 or 2006, if not a year or two earlier. From that point on, I began thinking about how to make a dignified exit. But enough about me, let me briefly comment on two points raised by the article.

From the 1960s onwards, the legend of Swinging London, which still partly defines the way the city is seen, was traceable to the coming-together of working-class talent and loose-living bohemia – precisely the elements that are now in danger of being chased out of the centre of central London altogether. From the mods, through the punks and on to the New Romantics and creators of what was eventually called Cool Britannia, these people pioneered the subcultures that ensured so many of us were gripped by the London-obsessed mentality Julie Burchill memorably called capitalism.

This is not some romanticised image of the past. What made London a cultural magnet, and Britain from 1945 until 2005 possibly the best place to be in the world was the remaking of the realm into a more socially, economically and culturally mobile country that was denounced by a class of people who believed it to be anything but that. As things changed and got better, people could only grumble about how the class system was constricting British potential. Anyting but! @Thatchersrise is marking the ascent to a political office of a woman whose father kept a shop in a small English town. And she succeeded the son of a humble Broadstairs carpenter, at a time when the son of a factory chemist was prime minister. Meritocracy indeed.

Since November, a group called Save Soho.. want(s) its warren of streets declared a Special Policy Area, an instrument already used to protect the tailoring trade in Savile Row and the art business in St James’s. The group’s co-founder, a musician called Tim Arnold, tells me that he is in conversations with the Greater London Authority; he has raised the latter proposal, only to be told Soho is “too diverse”. His bafflement is obvious. “So they’re telling me that what should be protected amounts to the reason it can’t be protected,” he says.

Yes, Mr Hudson, it is a sad fact that our lives are now dominated by the concept of The Model. This is taught in business schools to MBAs, and their attitudes have seeped into the entirety of society. The Model pares things down to the essentials, The Core of the Project, and discards organic accretions that distract from an entity's Mission Statement. KISS — Keep It Simple, Stupid — prevails. Conglomerates are a thing of the past. Old-timey Soho has no place in this world. There is no room for sentiment in The Model approach. It underlies consumer segmentation, YouTube subcultural channels and everything that is going to separate my world from that of my children's. It is, of course, ruthlessly scientific, characteristic of globalisation and rooted in industrial society.

The thing is, the Metropolitan Media Class find the Law of Unintended Consequences has undone all their good works. It was their relentless assault on the traditional institutional structures and attitudes that allowed this to happen. Their dislike of the Church, of smug suburbia, of out-of-touch judges and the House of Lords, removed the entire institutional framework that stood in the way of the The Model approach. If one removes all the social measures of value — an ephemerally absolute as opposed to a constant relative standard — all one is left with are the monetary ones. The Metropolitan Media Class always wanted Britain to be more like somewhere else, whether it was America's convenience and enterprise or Continental caf├ęs and city-centre living. So, of course, everyplace becomes like everyplace else, and nothing beside remains.

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