A Photographer's Search for the Old Soho
Ollie Grove photographs the locals who frequent Soho's few remaining traditional pubs, hoping to capture the old charm of a neighbourhood that's radically changing.
Patrick, Soho's window cleaner, is the sort of character you want to see in a neighbourhood; a bit of old London – like a shoeshine or whistling Bobby. He carries a notepad documenting every window he has ever cleaned. "I've been coming up from Dagenham for 52 years to clean windows. My family got bombed out of Stepney during the blitz and I've been in Dagenham ever since. We'd shelter below the brewery in the tube. We had shelters on the road as well. Direct hit and that was it. And after the war we got rid of the Anderson shelter and filled the hole in, which was a shame really cause we could have made a nice pond out of that."
London’s Soho: a place synonymous with indulgence, mischief and style. Where money has been made, lost and spent. Bodies have been bought, sold and worshipped. Lives have been built and ruined. Soho is central London’s last village, where the spirit of the city is crammed into one square mile. Every type – from rockers, rudeboys and skinheads, to novelists, poets and painters – has frequented this Georgian grid, seeking the same thing: entertainment, conversation and oblivion.
We all know London is changing: every area evolves and so do the people who populate it. I always believed Soho would be safe, but the neighbourhood, so neatly defined by its borders – Shaftesbury Avenue, Charing Cross Road, Oxford and Regent Street – isn't immune to the upheavals of the Crossrail development or the demands for boutique hotels and luxury living. The trucks, scaffolding and roadworks that jam each corner will soon leave an unfamiliar place, replacing Georgian edifices with cheap brickwork and plastic shop fronts. With the physical change comes a human one, too: going are the original residents, local pubs, late licences and nunneries; in comes the law and sterile streets – a pedestrian, homogenised British high street.
This area has been documented through photography for years, but it will never look or feel as different as it is about to. I’ve been fascinated by the neighbourhood since my first job on Old Compton Street at the age of 16, sweeping the floor at a barbers. It was important to me that this period in Soho’s life cycle be recorded, so last winter I started photographing the people who make the place feel timeless, and haven’t stopped.
I’m interested in someone with a story. I spend time watching people, then approach them for a chat in the hope they won’t tell me to fuck off, which has happened. Other times, like with the lovely Soho Duchess, Dorothea Phillips, we arrange a day to shoot and spend hours drinking gin and tonics, and I get nostalgic for a time in which I wasn’t even born. It is a joy to spend a full day drinking and socialising and learning in order to get the portrait, as opposed to just a snap. I shoot each character in a place dear to them – where they are part of the fabric that makes the place what it is – and I hope my portraits help preserve some of the neighbourhood’s original DNA.