Monday, 18 January 2010

Soho: A Novel by Keith Waterhouse

The late Keith Waterhouse’s eulogy to his beloved Soho is a glorious farce rather than a serious piece of work, but it’s entertaining nonetheless and since it’s set in that notorious district, soaked in booze.

Leeds student Alex Singer pursues his girlfriend Selby all the way to London, convinced that she’s found a job in Soho. Quickly broke, he finds himself befriended in a bar by the celebrated television personality Brendon Barton, a man once thrown out of the Groucho Club for urinating into a plant pot.

“The night is too young for wining and dining, so where to now?” asked Brendan, as if he regarded himself as Alex’s host. “But don’t suggest the French, because I’m barred.”

Alex’s evening disintegrates into a whirl of pubs and Soho characters as he stumbles from one bar to another and Waterhouse throws in every one of the area’s clichés to chronicle a district that at the time of the book’s writing was changing fast. Down in the New Kismet, he runs into two theatre scenery shifters who are taking a dead newspaper vendor on one last pub crawl. Washed up actress Jenny Wise spots the stiff on the carpet:

A swig of brandy had had the paradoxical effect of sobering Jenny up somewhat. If she had registered the prone form of Old Jakie lying on the floor, it was only now that she acknowledged the fact. “If you ever see me like that, Mabel,” said Jenny, wagging a finger, “Just pour my brandy down the sink and call me a mini-cab.”

When he finds himself at a book launch it’s all Alex can do to get himself another drink. After all, the management take a dim view of drunks:

They wouldn’t even let the author through the doors... Apparently he began on the sauce at seven this morning at the Waiters Club. By the time he got to Frith Street this evening he was crawling along on his hands and knees. The law turns up and asks him what he thinks he’s doing. “Oh, it’sh all right, oshiffer,” he says, “I’m just looking for my car keys.”

Alex’s drunken odyssey finally staggers to a halt the next day, but not before three more people have died and the New Kismet has opened its bar for free drinks. Drunk, broke and a long way from Yorkshire, Alex runs into the two flymen again, this time sans corpse. Someone asks them why they’re not down at the New Kismet enjoying the free drinks:

“Nah.” The first flyman waxed philosophical. “We came out. It’s a funny thing about booze, mate. If you don’t have to pay for it, it never tastes as good as if you do.”

Sadly, it’s a philosophy not shared by many other of Soho’s denizens.

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