Leicester Square and Soho

Leicester Square and Soho

Once, on a fine May morning about nine o’clock, I heard a cornet playing in Leicester Square, at the north eastern corner, anti it played that it dreamt it dwelt in marble halls m though its heart was going to bunt. That I thought was the noise of Leicester Square for me, though it was looking, as it can do early in the morning, swept and slightly prim, with the tulips just so and the clean new foliage of the plane trees sprigging the upper air. In the golden rooming haze, even iu attendant buildings hinted at charm which not the characteristic of Leicester Square, for if. true heart is of brass amongst its lumping flanks of near marble all festooned with neon. Mostly, Leicester Square is large. With Piccadilly Circus it is one of the main London axes on which the crowds sway making up their mind what to do next, and for them are the mass entertainment palaces, the muss eating and drinking places, and correspondingly the voluminous underground lavatories. Just off Leicester Square is the enormous Lyons Corner House with its layers of restaurants (excellent breakfasts incidentally), milling with people like a major railway terminus, and along the north and east sides of the square, chicken twirl on grills, pubs dive into the ground, and the draughty air is slowed by the smell of frying and barbecuing, and revived again by the hot house bouquet, of thick pile carpet and definitely par/urn, given off from the cinema entrances. Leicester Square is for food and films.

The ‘Leicester” of the Square comes from Sir Philip Sidney’s family; his collateral descendants, the Earls of Leicester, had their London house on the north side of what was then Leicester Fields. The “Fields had been enclosed and laid out as a Dutch garden in 1720; in 1748 Fred Prince of Wales, by way of indicating contempt for his father, erected a gilt equestrian statue of his grandfather(George I) in the middle. Popularly known as the Golden Man and Hone, this was the centre of public admiration during the period of the Square’s high fashion, but as the area decayed so too the statue decayed; in 1851, somewhat battered already by vandals, ic was banished for some eleven years; then, resurrected (though minus a kg), it survived unsteadily, by degree losing its rider until its final indignity when in a night of revelry it was whitewashed and covered with Urge dapple spots like a rocking horse. By then the area, besides being a hunting ground for hooligans, had already for years been a centre of popular entertainment.

The garden of the Square is still much as it was after being salvaged from dereliction and presented in 1874 to the people of London by the picturesquely fraudulent tycoon Baron Grant (ne Albert Gottheimer), described by Sir Osbert Sitwell as almost the first Englishman to realise the possible personal benefits to be derived from the practice of public bencvolcnce coupled with a high patriotism; his career burst two years later in the Emma Mine Scandal. To him are due also the splendour of the plane trees, now approaching their centenary, and in which, for two haunted years in the 1950’$, there used to sing a thrushit has since left. To Baron Grant also wc owe four coarsely indifferent busts set at the comers of the garden, which arc almost all that is left to evoke the memory of the fashionable hey day of Leicester Square, and a copy of Schecmakcrs’ statue of 1741 (in Westminster Abbey) of Shakespeare, here enhanced by a water basin and stone dolphins, but looking, it seems to me, faintly apprehensive in his pensiveness, with the Dental Hospital behind him and the old Empire in front.

Between the south side of the Square and the back of the National Gallery is the southernmost extremity of Soho narrow streets, small shops, a couple of publishers, a butcher, a famous gun shop (Churchill’s), drinking clubs and the odd tart. Still, Orange Street is worth a glance at the Haymarket end the municipal garage, you may note, is of a long odd shape, for it still reflects its original function which was that of Charles II’s tennis court; farther east b the re built Orange Street Chapelformerly a centre of worship for the Huguenots who so thickly populated the area; a nicely modest Victorian brick boiler house has gone; and at the far end, past the academically gowned bronze statue of the actor Irving, on an island in Charing Cross Road is a truly magnificent triple branched lamp post, perhaps the finest of its kind left in London.

Hence you may look up the bleak vista of Charing Cross Road, the eastern perimeter of our area in this chapter, and if you wish, easily devote a whole morning to it Hewn through a swarming complex of slums in the 1880’s, it is architecturally depressive, and in all weathers feels slightly fly blown, but its shops are famous for books, musical (especially jazz) instruments, snuff, and left of centre clothes for young men. For the book browier the opportunities are wide, including the facilities of Zwemmcr’s, with a remarkable stock of art books, and the great Leviathan, Foyle’s.

However, I must leave those who wish to graze the pastures of the Charing Cross Road to their own devices, for the sake of the interior, the jungle itself, of the area it fringesSoho. To confront the challenge of the name squarelyno one really seems to be able to prove its derivation, but certainly the most emotionally satisfying is that it comes from the rallying crySo hotused by the adherents of one of its more notorious early inhabitants, that Duke of Monmouth, bastard of Charles II, who rebelled against his unde James II in 1685 only to die ignominiously on the scaffold. Soho, anyway a slightly raffish yet gay cry a definitely raffish place, both gay and sinister. It lies between Leicester Square on the south and Oxford Street on the north Regent Street on the west and Charing Cross Road on the east, though it spills over to the north beyond its original confines (sec p. 236). Though it could be nowhere but in England, the foreign flavour in its garish blend is quite definitely foreignand lias been almost since the area was built up. The first great influx was of French Protestants after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, and since then the foreigners, speaking their own languages, have always been there.


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