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Nuala Casey, author of SOHO, 4 A.M., recalls life in Soho and the experiences that led her to write her debut novel.
In my early twenties I spent two years living in a tiny, cramped studio flat in Frith Street, right in the heart of Soho, London’s party heartland. It was hot, it was noisy, there were cockroaches in the kitchen and the front door wouldn’t shut properly, but for me it was home, and I loved it.
It was here, in between writing songs and recording demo CDs, that I took the first tentative steps towards writing what would go on to become my debut novel Soho, 4am. The title Soho, 4am comes from a song I wrote at that time. It was a Saturday afternoon and I was sitting on a rickety chair in the tiny kitchenette when a melody came into my head. I grabbed my notebook and started writing it down, thinking I had just penned the next big hit of 2004. The song was about sleeplessness and its refrain, ‘Music’s really driving me insane’, summed up my state of mind at that time. I was trying to make it in the music industry, working with a producer to write a set of songs that would comprise an album. But the more I saw of the music industry, the snippets of conversation overheard in places like Madame JoJo’s and Ronnie Scott’s, the more disillusioned I became. Even in the enlightened early noughties, women were still seen as eye candy and men were behind the scenes, pulling the strings, dictating what the female singers wore – the skimpier the better always seemed to be the standard. And that just wasn’t me, it never could be. I can remember feeling, as I wrote the song, that it was out of my hands, that I had written something that would be sung by someone else, not me. Little did I know that nine years later Soho, 4am would be the title of my debut novel.
Writing kept me sane back then. It allowed me to express myself as myself, not as a construct of somebody else’s imagination. Sitting on the little window seat, I would look out as life in all its complexity played out below. It was the perfect place to plot a novel. For a start, the street looks and sounds like a film set with its neon lit hoardings, its crumbling Georgian buildings and the whirr of espresso machines competing with the clinking of glasses, the shouts and screams of party-goers and the dull roar of traffic as it crawls along nearby Shaftesbury Avenue. But it also played host to every type of character you could possibly imagine: party girls and businessmen, dreamers and musicians, artists and media suits, tramps and millionaires, they all walked by during the course of a day. There was pathos, there was sadness, there was violence, there was humour.
One night, around eight o’clock, I sat on my window seat and watched a couple at a restaurant table on the street opposite. They were having a heated argument that was getting more and more inflamed and finally the woman slammed her hands down onto the table and stormed off, followed a couple of moments later by her flustered partner. They had left their uneaten pizza on the table when they fled and the waiter had not noticed yet. Just then a homeless man, who often took shelter in the doorway of Ronnie Scott’s jazz club, appeared. He saw the pizza, saw that there was nobody sitting at the table and seemed to weigh up whether to take it or not. It would have been so easy, one swipe and he would have eaten well that night. But then with a little jerk of his head – pride, dignity, who knows – he left the pizza where it was and continued his walk up Frith Street.
That incident was so subtle, it was over in moments, but it gave me, as a writer, an insight into human nature. It showed me that life is fluid, people shock and surprise us, they refuse to be defined as clichés and caricatures.
Another time I was leaving the flat early in the morning on my way to work at the Chelsea Arts Club when I noticed a figure sitting on the step. I looked down and saw a rather grumpy man dressed as Father Christmas. It was February. I had had quite a heavy night and was feeling rather delicate and I nodded politely as I gingerly stepped over his bulky form. He nodded back at me with a look of complete understanding – he had obviously had a heavy night too – and I went on my way. Madness but, for me, just another day in Soho, where nothing ever really made sense.
Sundays were always slightly oppressive. Tourists would flock to the street and the noise through thin, ancient windows was sometimes unbearable. Soho is a relentless place, a physical place and to live there is exhausting, it drains every last bit of mental and physical strength from you. When things are good it embraces you like a long-lost friend, but in dark times it becomes the demonic shadow cousin, enticing you, tricking you, laughing at your despair. In the intense heat of summer I would feel like a hot, caged animal itching to get out. So Sundays became my walking day. Driven out of the flat, I would walk and walk without a destination in mind, through winding streets, and cool, narrow lanes, all the way down to the river. It was years later that I would discover the work of the Situationists and the idea of the flâneur – the solitary walker navigating the city. I had yet to read the great essays of Virginia Woolf and Richard Steele, the former setting off on an aimless walk into the city in search of a pencil, the latter drawn into the maze of the West End through a bout of insomnia. I didn’t know about Psychogeography or Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital or Will Self’s treks across the city; all that would come later. All I knew was that with a comfortable pair of shoes and an idle Sunday stretched out before me I could do what I liked. And I liked to walk.
Last Sunday, I found myself alone in Soho. Only this time I was a visitor. The little studio flat had new occupants who had closed the blinds to the street and I was now thirty-four years old, married with a child. Soho continues to haunt my dreams, it inspires my writing and my work. I wanted to see if I could still navigate its streets the way I could in my twenties, what secrets would I unearth, what feelings would I pull to the surface? So, with another idle Sunday in front of me I set off.
My inner compass always seems to lead me south so I turned my back on Oxford Street with its hordes of angry-faced shoppers and turned left in search of side streets, the little lanes and wynds that run through the West End like cobbled arteries. Jostling through the crowds, I left Frith Street with its red, white and green bunting, its coffee drinkers and tourists and headed onto the white noise of Shaftesbury Avenue, a giant thoroughfare where Australian theme bars, empty office buildings and over-priced souvenir shops bear down onto the pearly facades of the Lyric and the Apollo in some great theatre-land stand-off: one side luvvie-dom, the other side cheap booze and plastic soldiers.
Following the smells of dim sum, egg fried rice and over-cooked meat I made my way down the little half-street that leads to Gerrard Street, the red and gold gateway to Chinatown. But I wanted to stretch my legs so I avoided the tourist-logged restaurant strip and took a left turn towards Charing Cross Road, past wok shops and tattoo stalls and herbalists with strange dusty smells offering cures for everything from irritable bowel syndrome to infertility.
Charing Cross Road is just as busy as Shaftesbury Avenue but something about the layout of the street, the fact that it has second-hand book shops rather than souvenir tat, makes it feel spacious and airy, like stepping from a train into a cool expanse of countryside. I crossed the road and had to pull myself away from entering any of the bookshops, for if I did I would be distracted, when I lived in Soho I would sometimes while away a whole afternoon rooting through the shelves. No, I had to keep going.
So I headed for Trafalgar Square, cutting across the mass of Leicester Square, where a crowd of people were piling out of the tube exits like a great swell of plankton released from the jaws of some sea monster, and continued down Charing Cross Road, past internet cafes and chain bars until the road united in a kind of respectful bow and the great summit of Nelson’s column appeared along the horizon. I skirted along the side of the National Gallery and made my way towards the square, the square of my past and present, the place that holds memories and secrets, happiness and sorrow in equal measure.
I sat on the steps and watched a little girl paddling in the fountain, kicking up the sprays of water with shrieks of delight and I remembered doing the same when I was sixteen, sweltering in the heatwave that smothered the city in 1995. I remembered a charismatic Irish boy with eyes as blue as the June sky, sitting on these steps a few years later sharing the headphones of my iPod, and making me laugh with his crazy stories. ‘I’ll bet you a tenner you’ll write a novel one day,’ he told me. He didn’t live long enough to see his prediction come true.
There was a new statue on the fourth plinth, a golden boy on a rocking horse and I thought of my own boy last summer, chasing the pigeons and climbing onto the lions, but as I blinked into the sun the memory dissolved and was replaced with a great clock, counting down the days to the glorious Olympic Games that rejuvenated the spirits of the city in the summer of 2012. I heard the cheers of the crowd as Mo Farrah floated across the finishing line and Bradley Wiggins swaggered his way to gold and I remembered similar shouts of excitement in this square on July 6th, 2005 as London won the Olympic bid and happiness poured into the streets and bars of the West End like molten gold. Happiness that was about to be extinguished in a cloud of smoke and carnage and twisted metal, as sirens blocked out the screams, death and destruction ripped apart the jubilation and the cheering stopped.
I stood up from the steps and walked across the square, the little girl’s laughter ringing in my ears as I headed for the Embankment. Rivers have always symbolised hope for me; I can never settle in a place that doesn’t have a river running through it. It seems to tell of other ages, other continents, its presence reassuring you that there is a great wide world out there, that the present we are living through is not it, there are other realities, other views, other outcomes. When I was twenty I stood on a bridge in Durham, a confused unhappy student, and I wondered if I cast my worries and doubts into the river where would they end up. If I cast my soul into the depths, if I vowed never to be happy again, never to love, never to be at peace, where would my soul go? Years later as I walked along the Embankment in my adopted city I looked into the dirty brown Thames and thought I caught a glimpse of all the worries I had carried inside me, I thought I saw them spinning like a whirlpool into the dark underworld, the sewers and tributaries that run beneath the great city and I felt a weight lifted from my shoulders. The river bestows and it takes away.
The air grew cooler as I stepped onto the Embankment, the wind rushed into my face and I felt like I was waking up from a long, restless sleep. London has lived through the darkest of times – the Great Fire, the Plague, the Blitz, 7/7 – yet somehow it always rises victorious, like the athletes lifting up their gold medals to the sky. It is a battered city, showing signs of wear and tear and fatigue, like all of us, but somehow it fights back, it comes back stronger. The summer of 2012 silenced the grumbles, we forgot the fact that we are supposed to hate this city, that it is too big, too dirty, too crime-ridden, too expensive, too dangerous, and as the curtain went down on the 2012 Olympic Games though we saw the best of British we also saw London in all its monstrous glory. The London that makes thousands upon thousands flock here each year to chance their luck, to change their lives, to hide, to conquer, to revel in that glory. Like I did, like countless others will do.
As I headed up the Mall towards Green Park, it struck me how essentially the city remains the same year in year out. London is a strange land that exists and endures beyond real time, a portal taking you from ordinary life to hyper-reality. As I looked up at the vast monuments and statues I thought it could be 1984 and I was a five year old girl clutching her father’s hand as he pointed out the names of the great men commemorated along the way or it could be 2004 and I was twenty-five and exhausted, exhausted from walking the length of the city, exhausted from having to flee my home. But it was 2013 and I was a thirty-four year old woman in search of something, something that I felt must be hidden within these serpentine streets.
I knew what it was as I crossed Green Park, past the green and white stripy deckchairs and ice cream kiosks, I felt it creeping up my spine as I stepped onto the vast sweep of Piccadilly and made my way past Hatchards bookshop and the clockwork mice pirouetting in the window of Fortnum and Mason. It grew stronger as I crossed Piccadilly Circus and darted down a side street, leaving the flashing neon, the gushing fountains and the thick swell of traffic behind me. As I made my way back to Soho, I felt my breathing slow down, felt a kind of calm enter my bones. The walk had done me good, I thought as I turned the corner into Old Compton Street and made my way to The French House for a glass of wine and a catch up with a friend. And as I opened the door and felt a rush of warm air in my face I was a fish back in water. I always said I could walk these streets blindfold and not get lost and though distance had separated us it felt good to be back in Soho on that idle Sunday.
SOHO, 4AM by Nuala Casey
6 July 2005. Great Britain has just been announced as the next host of the Olympics. The euphoric crowds pour forth from Trafalgar Square into the waiting bars and restaurants of Soho.
Dreams, drugs, debauchery… Soho is London’s red light district, where any desire can be satisfied in the blink of an eye. But behind it all there is a permanent community of residents whose own sins are concealed by the partying and excess. Zoe, an aspiring model looking for her big break, will discover the sinister world behind the bright lights; artist Seb is hoping he can forget the past by drinking himself into oblivion, while his friend Ade is about to take extreme measures to save his livelihood and relationship. Meanwhile, Stella, Ade’s girlfriend, wonders if this is the night to escape.
Through the dark streets, these four ordinary people walk a dangerous, twisted path through London’s greatest adult playground. Come the morning of 7 July, as jubilation turns to horror, will they have fallen into Soho’s poisoned embrace while the nation’s eyes are turned elsewhere?Read an extract from Soho, 4am and enter to win free copies here.