Marx and Mozart … in Soho

‘SEEDY’ IS A WORD that often springs to mind when the London district of Soho is mentioned. Yet, I was unaware of this when I used to visit the area with my mother during the early 1960s. In those days, she was working in the sculpture studios of the St Martins School of Art, which were then located in nearby Charing Cross Road. My mother, a disciple of the cookery writer Elizabeth David, who helped introduce the Mediterranean cuisine into British kitchens, did much of her food shopping in Soho’s Old Compton Street and Brewer Street. It was with these shops, rather than with ‘adult entertainment’, that I associated the district called ‘Soho’.

Soho Square, which contains a statue of King Charles II (reigned 1660-1685) that stands in front of a half-timbered structure, was laid out in 1681 during the King’s reign. The area around it had acquired the name ‘Soho’ by 1632. Until the streets in Soho began being developed in the late 17th century, Soho was mostly open fields. Both the gentry and working people began living in the houses built in the area. From the very start of its development, the area attracted refugees from continental Europe:

“The first were Greeks escaping the Ottoman invasion of their homeland in the 1670s. Led by their priest Joseph Georgirenes, they began building a chapel from 1677 in Hog Lane. … It continues to be remembered in the name of Greek Street which ran behind the chapel.

The next group of refugees were Huguenots from France who arrived in the district … By 1711 the population of the parish of St.Anne’s, covering the Soho area, was slightly over eight thousand, of which between a quarter and a half were French. The strong cosmopolitan nature of the area continued well into the 19th century.” (https://www.thehistoryoflondon.co.uk/the-development-of-soho/2/.)

The area continues to be cosmopolitan, as has much of the rest of London now become.

From about 1780 until the 1980s, Soho was the heart of London’s ‘sex industry’. The district’s first brothel opened in 1778 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soho_walk-up). From then onwards, the profession of prostitution flourished in Soho. In recent years, the police have been closing some of the places that offered the services of prostitutes. Despite this decrease in the ‘industry’, there is still no shortage of shops selling ‘ adult goods’ related to sexual pursuits in Soho.

Frith Street and Dean Street, two roads that connect Soho Square with Old Compton Street, one of Soho’s main thoroughfares, have had several famous residents. Before you ask, I have no idea whether any of them ever visited any of their neighbours who offered sexual services professionally.

The health care reformer Dr Joseph Rogers (1821-1889) lived and worked at 33 Dean Street from 1851 to 1885. He was living in Soho during the outbreak of cholera in 1854, which led to the ground-breaking epidemiological discoveries of Dr John Snow, who established that cholera was spread through infected water. Rogers helped with the local parish’s response to the disease. When Dr Rogers moved into Dean Street, so also did the better-known, indeed world famous, father of Communism as we know it, Karl Marx (1818-1883), who resided in the street until 1856.

Karl Marx lived above what is now the Quo Vadis restaurant (founded in 1926 by the Italian Peppino Leoni). I am certain that my parents must have eaten there at least once because every year they received a Christmas card from the restaurant. Marx, who arrived in London in 1849, worked on the first volume of his “Das Kapital” whilst living in Soho. His accommodation there was far from comfortable. At first, he:

“… had only two rooms on the second floor of the house – a bedroom at the back used by the whole family and a front room which served as a kitchen and living room – but he later rented a third room for use as a study. The whole ensemble was described by Jenny Marx as ‘the evil frightful rooms which encompassed all our joy and all our pain’.” (www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques/karl-marx/)

I wonder if members of the Marx family crossed the road to buy goods at the shop with a rococo shopfront (constructed 1791: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols33-4/pp128-141#h3-0025). Currently, it bears the name ‘Rippon’, and is now a stationer and newsagent.

Carlile Street links Dean Street to Soho Square. The Toucan is a bar that celebrates the association of the drink known as ‘Guinness’ with the toucan. It was the writer Dorothy L Sayers (1893-1957), who when working with SH Benson, an advertising agency, dreamt up the use of the toucan to promote the drink. She composed the following lines in 1946:

“If he can say as you can

‘Guinness is good for you’

How grand to be a Toucan

Just think what Toucan do.” (https://historyhouse.co.uk/articles/guinness_toucan.html)

The half-timbered octagonal hut in the middle of Soho Square looks as if it has been there since the late 17th century. At least, that is what I believed until I began writing this today. Described by the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner as “… a silly half-timbered summer house …”, it dates from 1875-76 and was probably built by SJ Thacker.

Frith Street, parallel to Dean Street, leads south from the square to Old Compton Street. One of my favourite writers, the essayist William Hazlitt (1778-1830) died at number 6 Frith Street, now a hotel, which was built in about 1718. Hazlitt moved into two rooms on the second floor at the back of the house early in January1830 (see “The Quarrel of the Age: The Life and Times of William Hazlitt”, by AC Grayling). After a brief incarceration in connection with a debt, he returned to Frith Street, where, by now he was suffering from a stomach disorder that was progressing from bad to worse.  It was here in Soho that he wrote one of his last pieces “Emancipation of the Jews”, which argued that restrictions and civil disabilities should be lifted from the Jews. This piece was published after his death in mid-September 1830. Hazlitt was buried in the nearby churchyard of St Anne’s. In his essay, he wrote:

“The emancipation of the Jews is but a natural step in the progress of civilisation … We and modern Europe derived from them the whole germ of our civilisation, our ideas on the unity of the Deity, on marriage, on morals. . . The great founder of the Christian religion was himself born among that people, and if the Jewish Nation are still to be branded with his death, it might be asked on what principle of justice ought we to punish men for crimes committed by their co-religionist near two thousand years ago?” (www.victorianweb.org/religion/judaism/gossman10.html).

Further south along Frith Street, we reach the stage entrance of the London Casino theatre (opened in 1930, with its main entrance on Old Compton Street). There is a commemorative plaque above the stage door, which reads:

“In a house on this site, in 1764-5 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756-1791 lived, played, and composed.”

The young Wolfgang stayed here with his father Leopold and his sister Nannerl. They were lodgers of Thomas Williamson, who made corsets. They had moved to Soho from Ebury Street near Victoria.  It is possible that the composer Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), son of Johann Sebastian Bach, visited the Mozarts whilst they were living in Frith Street. Wolfgang composed several works in London including his First Symphony, which was premiered in London (https://blogs.bl.uk/music/2018/05/mozartinlondon.html). While this was written at bury Street, the Mozarts held concerts, for which the public were charged, at Williamson’s house in Frith Street.

They lived in a time when all entertainment was ‘live’ rather than recorded or transmitted from one location to another. I feel sure that the greatly inventive Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would have embraced the performance and publicity possibilities of television with great gusto. Back in Dean Street, a few yards from the Mozart’s Soho lodgings, we find the Bar Italia, currently closed. When it is open, it is usually full of mainly Italians watching matches between Italian football teams on a huge TV screen at the back of the café. This seems particularly apt because the Bar Italia is located on the ground floor of the building where John Logie Baird (1888-1946) gave the first public demonstration of his invention, television, in 1926.

As the Bar Italia is currently closed and you will probably be in need of a good coffee after absorbing so much history in such a small part of Soho, head into Old Compton Street and make a beeline for The Algerian Coffee Stores, where you can buy a brilliant inexpensive espresso, macchiato, cortado, cappuccino, or whatever you want.

Two shepherds

IT IS LESS THAN THREE and a half miles as the crow flies between Shepherds Bush Market in the west and Shepherds Market (in Mayfair) due east of it, but there is a world of difference between the two places.

Let us get one thing straight immediately, and that is the markets’ names and their relation to sheep. Shepherds Bush Market is named in connection with actual sheep. The place, Shepherds Bush, might either refer to a family name or to shepherding. A ‘shepherd’s bush’ is a bush from which a shepherd can shelter from the elements to watch his (or in the case of Little Bo Peep, her) flock. The place name might also refer to a place where shepherds rest their sheep on their way to Smithfield Market. However, today you are unlikely to spot a sheep anywhere in the area except in a butcher’s shop. In contrast Shepherds Market in Mayfair is named after an important London architect Mr Edward Shepherd (died 1747), who owned or developed some of the land on which fashionable Mayfair was built in the early 18th century.

According to one website (https://alondoninheritance.com/londonpubs/shepherd-market-a-village-in-piccadilly/), in its early days:

“The core of the market consisting of butchers’ shops and the upper floors containing a theatre.”

There is a large building in the heart of Shepherds Market that bears the market’s name. It looks to me as if this was  the building referred to in this quote.

Shepherds Market is a quaint village-like enclave surrounded by fashionable Mayfair, an extremely prosperous part of London. Although it bears the name ‘Market’, it is no longer a bustling market with stalls such as you would find in, say, Borough Market, Petticoat Lane, Ridley Road (Dalston), Portobello Road, and relevant to this essay, Shepherds Bush. The Mayfair enclave is a series of quiet streets with small boutiques, cafés, picturesque old pubs, hairdressers, a village-style newsagent-cum-postoffice, and upmarket eateries. This is not a place you should visit if you are planning to buy good value groceries or cheap clothing. It is now a part of London for meeting people and relaxing.

One restaurant, which closed in 1998, was a landmark in Shepherds Market. This was ‘Tiddy Dol’s’, which was named after a famous Georgian street-seller of gingerbread snacks (see: http://scrumpdillyicious.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/mayfair-memories-tiddy-dols-welsh.html?m=0). I remember entering this rather gloomy eatery with my Italian brother-in-law, who wanted to try ‘real’ English food. We ordered him Welsh Rarebit, for which the restaurant was justifiably renowned. He looked at the dish in front of him, prodded its cheesy topping, and then made an involuntary expression that conveyed ‘disgust’ to me.

In the past (and maybe still today), Shepherds Market was a place where prostitution was not uncommon. Tiddy Dols was in the ‘epicentre’ of the prostitution ‘business’. So much so that:

“…in the late Seventies, commissionaires in the grand hotels of Park Lane would tell families of tourists not to go to Tiddy Dolls, such was the gauntlet of girls they would have to run.” (see: “The Independent” newspaper, 14th March 1996)

Shepherds Bush Market (‘Bush’ for short) is many things that Shepherds Market is not. The Bush market runs along a lane next to the railway arches above which trains run between Shepherds Bush Market and Goldhawk Road stations. Although it is an enjoyable place to visit. the Bush market is not at all ‘chic’ or ‘luxurious’; it is the opposite. However, it is a real street market with a few full-size shops that are housed in the arches under the railway tracks. The clientele of the market looks far less prosperous than the people you can see in Shepherd Market, and they come from a wealth of diverse ethnic backgrounds. On a recent visit, many of the vendors were Sikh men.

The Bush market offers a wide variety of fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, spices, pulses, plenty of other food products from all over the world, and many non-food items. If you are looking for, clothes, hats, shawls, shoes, suitcases, cooking utensils, ‘phone accessories, artificial flowers, tailoring, household goods, and you name it, you should head for the Bush market. Normally, this street market is crowded and busy. However, when we went there in early December 2020, there were few other shoppers to be seen. One stall holder explained that the decline in footfall was due the covid19 pandemic. This did not surprise us as much as what he said next. And that was the market had suffered because of lack of tourists due to the pandemic’s effects on tourism. According to him, the Bush market depends heavily on foreign visitors. That astonished me because I had always assumed that it was a market that catered mainly to locals.

Like Shepherds Market, the Market in Shepherds Bush contains a variety of eating places and nearby Shepherds Bush Green is surrounded by reasonably priced eateries.

Although I have not done it yet, a walk from Shepherds Market to Shepherds Bush Market would be most fascinating. It would be a stroll through the history of London’s westward spread that occurred between the early 18th century and the beginning of the 20th.

Both of the markets I have described are well-worth exploring. If I had to choose one over the other, that would be most difficult for me. I love the bustle and variety of markets such as that at shepherds Bush. However, that is not the only place you can enjoy such an atmosphere in London. Shepherds Market in Mayfair has a uniqueness that I have not found in other parts of London. It is a serene yet vibrant oasis in one of the busier parts of the city. So, let me drink a cortado or macchiato at Shepherds Market, and let me buy my halal lamb at Shepherds Bush Market. I will enjoy both experiences equally.

Two professions

We made several visits to Central Europe in our car during the mid-1990s.

CZECH

Twice during those years, we drove to the Czech Republic, entering it from the eastern edge of what had formerly been prosperous West Germany. The Western part of the Czech Republic, which had been the largely German-populated Sudetenland before 1945 is thickly forested with tall dark pine trees. We were dismayed to discover that for the first ten or so kilometres beyond the border, the roads through the Czech forests were lined with ‘gentleman’s’ clubs and prostitutes.

When we were in the middle of one forest, the rain began pouring down. At the corner of a road junction in the middle of the wood, we saw a young lady dressed in a shiny red jacket with matching short hot pants. Our three-year old child saw the woman, took pity on her, and said:

“Shouldn’t we offer her a lift.”

The innocence of our child was touching.

Hungary is south of the Czech Republic. In the late 1990s, we drove into it from Austria. For the first few kilometres of Hungarian territory, we saw no prostitutes, but numerous dental surgeries with signs both in Hungarian and German. Often the dental surgery was in a little compound that included a restaurant and a food shop. The presence of so many dentists offering their services so close to the border with Austria suggested that dentistry in Hungary was good value compared with that in Austria. And, while a member of an Austrian family is having his or her teeth repaired, the rest of the family could enjoy a good Hungarian meal and buy some tasty souvenirs to take back home.

Dental tourism is still popular in Hungary. English newspapers frequently contain adverts encouraging people to obtain supposedly cheaper dental treatment in Budapest.

The proximity of Bohemian prostitutes to the Czech border and Magyar dentists equally close the Hungarian border made me consider a possible uncomfortable comparison. I wondered whether people ever see some similarity between the two professions. I hoped not!