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My dream retirement home? Soho. By The Oldie's Town Mouse Tom Hodgkinson

Blog | By Tom Hodgkinson | Oct 09, 2023


Ah, Soho! Scene of my youthful late nights and soon, I hope, the scene of my old-age daytime rambles as well.

On retirement – not that old hacks ever retire; we think we retired many years ago – I will live in a tiny flat in Soho. The cottage in the country with roses round the door holds no appeal for me.

I would like to be old and living in the heart of things, with a fedora, silver-topped cane, shiny brogues, no car and a long coat of wool and cashmere with a velvet collar.

Any money I have left will be sitting in a bank account for easy retrieval by my children when I die. The flat will be simple, sparse and in a Georgian house with wooden panelling. There will be a bedroom and a sitting room/study.

It will look like Dr Johnson’s house when he was visited by Oliver Goldsmith to help the melancholic Irish dramatist escape his creditors. There will be a small kitchen but most of my meals will be taken in the street, pubs, clubs, cafés and theatre bars.

I will read and write in the morning. After lunch, I’ll take a nap. Then I will wander the streets, a modern-day flâneur, observing life.

I will sit outside the French House on Dean Street. At 6pm, I will repair to the Coach & Horses, once the haunt of Jeffrey Bernard, and still a convivial pub.

I once interviewed the great man. I was in my twenties, fairly nervous. He was living in a council high-rise on Berwick Street in a small flat (of the sort I wouldn’t mind inhabiting when old, though it was built in the 1960s rather than my preferred 1760s), and that’s where we met.

He was exceedingly grumpy, which made for an awkward encounter but a good read. ‘I met a girl the other day who said she was going to Oxford to read English. I said, why can’t you read Pride and Prejudice in the f***ing kitchen?’

I’ll walk down Dean Street, past the old Colony Room, and remember the ghosts of that little outpost of freedom where Francis Bacon drank. I became a member in its dying days. The proprietor Michael Wojas had successfully reinvented it for the nineties. I drank absinthe there with Damien Hirst while artist Sarah Lucas served behind the counter. But Michael was not a healthy man and died quite young. The Colony Room closed.

I will stroll past the Groucho Club and wander down Meard Street for an appointment with my tailor, John Pearse.

I might have a sandwich at Bar Italia in Frith Street, which still stays open all night and was memorialised by the great Jarvis Cocker. There I will sense the ghost of the lovely William Hazlitt, who gave his name to a hotel in this street, and who died here in 1830 at the age of 52. I might go and see his grave in the churchyard at St Anne’s.

He said of his own life, ‘I loitered my life away, reading books, looking at pictures, going to plays, hearing, thinking, writing on what pleased me best.’ He died heartbroken, spurned by the woman he really loved.

Mr Squirrel or Mr Vole will take me to Ronnie Scott’s to hear some experimental sounds on the saxophone. I may stray to the Jermyn Street Theatre, a gem which seats only around 80 people.

Let’s not get too nostalgic. Each generation has loved Soho for its freedom and its wildness for centuries and so it goes on. Today, it’s still Mecca for liberty-seekers.

My hedonistic young friend Mr Fox, my companion on revels, believes Soho is reinventing itself: ‘We have Trisha’s, Gerry’s Club, the Phoenix, Le Beaujolais, an efflorescence of gay pubs and bars. Soho’s traditions of licence, permissiveness and exotic indulgence which have hung in the air since the mass influx of French émigrés from the 1680s, and the thrill of the chase, ever since huntsmen used to cry “So-ho!” across its fields, can still be felt.’

Then there’s Gerrard Street, home to a dozen excellent Chinese restaurants. Some nights, I will dine here, and on other nights in Lexington Street at the Hogarthian Andrew Edmunds, whose eponymous proprietor died last year. He was a Soho legend, keeping the vibe of the 18th century alive, in his old town house, with the Academy Club (founded by Andrew and the late great Auberon Waugh) and the Literary Review upstairs, and his gallery selling Hogarth prints next door.

If I’m feeling groovy, there’s always Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues at the St Moritz in Wardour Street. Serving up good old basic rock ’n’ roll and reggae, Gaz Mayall, son of John Mayall, has been running his club for 40 years now.

If you’re tired of Soho, you’re tired of life. It’s an endlessly stimulating stomping ground for oldies.