Drinking with Francis Bacon—Soho's disreputable 1980s

Drink is the organising principle of this entertaining memoir

October 17, 2018
Not what it used to be: The French House in Soho
Not what it used to be: The French House in Soho

In the 1980s many things changed in Britain during the tenure of Mrs Thatcher, but in London and the South-East in particular, there was the rise of bourgeois triumphalism. It was the era of the Sloane Ranger and the rise of the Yuppie, a world of ecstatic materialism and hectic aspiration.

In this entertaining but melancholy memoir Christopher Howse recreates a milieu based in a few streets in London’s Soho which lived in contempt of this spirit of the age. Drink, not conspicuous consumption, was the organising principle. The key figure of this louche bohemia was Jeffrey Bernard, a career alcoholic and occasional journalist, who wrote a column in The Spectator called “Low Life,” later turned into a successful play by Keith Waterhouse, Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. Bernard had discovered post-war Soho in his early teens and never left.

For centuries Soho has been a seaside rock pool washed over by successive waves of artists, writers, actors, chancers, spivs and gamblers drawn to its raffish glamour and casual acceptance of sexual variety. Many, like Bernard, were downwardly mobile from upbringings of middle-class respectability—Tom Baker, John Hurt, Dan Farson among them. But the 1980s was not one of Soho’s heroic periods and the painter Francis Bacon has to do most of the heavy lifting here in making a case for its importance as an artistic catalyst.

Howse, then as now an erudite ornament of the Daily Telegraph, fell in with Bernard and his entourage shortly after coming down from Oxford. He chronicles the older generation of boozers in the Coach and Horses, the French House and the Colony Room Club, while largely ignoring Soho’s latest arrivals: the media types in the Groucho Club, the young gay sub-culture in clubs and bars, and the YBAs, like Damien Hirst. Howse’s tone is valedictory, but Soho isn’t dead, only one part of it. The dogs bark, the caravan moves on. Jeffrey Bernard died four days after the Princess of Wales in 1997.

Soho in the Eighties by Christopher Howse (Bloomsbury, £20)