We’ll be near Soho said a business colleague. Where can we meet for coffee? Reader, there is only one place for coffee in the streets of Soho: Bar Bruno.
Meeting over, I wandered my former stamping ground and behind the facade of Private Equity backed shops, saw little evidence of times gone by, when the streets and buildings were colonised by all manner of businesses and goings-on, with neighbourly folk who saw each other’s backs, stopped for a chat in the street. This quasi family of almost-strangers made life lovely.
In the early noughties, my design and architecture PR business lived on the first floor of 52 Wardour Street a corner that overlooked Anne Summers and the Duke of Wellington from one aspect and from the other Gerry’s Off License and the Soho Newsagent. Below was Camisa & Son, one of London’s finest Italian Delis. On a Friday evening Westminster Council saw fit to install temporary loos around the streets, to cope with the influx of merry makers over the weekend. One was planted directly below my office window. If hosting an end-of-week gathering, guests so inclined could observe the steady flow of performers; much amusement was had, not least when an artiste realized he had an audience.
My office, being so beautifully located was a hive of activity, people dropping in unannounced, usually towards the end of the working day. Thanks to a fortuitous vodka client the door was always open, propped so by cases of bottles intended for delivery to journalists. A sizeable number reached their destinations. Some did not.
In those heady PR days my assistant Stella and I would visit various openings, events and exhibitions, which all too often took place on the same day. Starting from our Soho home we would retain our champagne filled flutes, taking them to the next venue and the next, adept at spilling not a drop as we clambered in and out of the black cabs that flew us across London.
Soho days started well as I navigated my moped through the opening credits of my very own film: Chelsea, Sloane Square, Knightsbridge, Hyde Park Corner, Mayfair, Piccadilly Circus and Shaftesbury Avenue. On Wardour Street, I turned left into Peter Street to park. I paused to buy today’s fruit from Gary and Les on the end stall, Berwick Street; my daily chat with Gary was invariably rounded off by Les: you look lovely darlin' … stockings or tights?
Claudio was the Gaggia Maestro at Bar Bruno; having spotted me turn the corner he made sure my Special Americano was ready by the time I walked in. Ermino and Pasquale fulfilled food orders and Franco emerged now and again from backstage to make sure things were running as they should.
The Bruno Boys were wonderful; they even welcomed My Girls, hosting them for the occasional morning when I had childcare challenges. Conversely they hated my boyfriend: He’s bad, they would say. Not good to you. Fair points well made.
One week my overly frequent visits to the newsagent gave rise to more, candid observation: Boyfriend misbehaving again? he enquired. How do you know? I asked. That’s your third packet of fags, he said, and it's only Tuesday. He provided a bar of chocolate and kind advice about the pitfalls of misplaced love; both made me feel better.
Gerry’s was also part of our fabric; having been invited to pitch for the UK launch of Luksusowa Vodka, Stella proposed a film about the brand and its competitors. We hired the friendly Mad Dog, who arrived with portable camera and a sound engineer. Gerry's experts compared the brand with two other Polish vodkas, describing the customers who would buy each, and why – a PR dream. Second stop was Blacks private members club, run at that time by the indefatigable Alan Linn. He sampled all three vodkas providing articulate analyses on taste, nose, brand and bottle. Nice work; we got the job and the office door propped open too.
Alan’s tenure at Blacks was a memorable part of Soho days. Blacks was a place to meet interesting people, eat well, drink good wine and generally have a splendid time. There were rules: phones were not allowed - but with the space running over four floors one would imagine it to be not too difficult to break that one (isn’t that what rules are for?). Concealed behind a sofa or curtain or perhaps under a table at least three floors away from Alan, my discretion mattered not for within seconds the Powerful Scottish Tones of Linn would swell through the building: Giovanna Forte! STOP using your phone! Whilst an impressive range of bad behaviour was tolerated or ignored, a mobile phone drew Alan's ire like nothing else. Alan now welcomes better behaved New Yorkers to his very own glittering private members club, Norwood.
The French House was the other default destination; it was a favourite too, of the journalists and design mafia with whom I collaborated and many meetings were set here. Kind, Irish Micheal (with legendary moustache) looked after diners upstairs, quite often helping them back down again later. The house Steak and Chips was the best in town and many a lunch ended with dinner too, simply because we hadn't left yet.
After 5pm, Soho Society retreated from the incoming tide of revellers that flooded the place each night. Many lived within these colourful streets; others as good as lived there, for they rarely left any one of the famed licensed sanctuaries that have been written about through the ages. The Colony Room was one such; finding oneself atop this particular flight of stairs was a sure sign that the best of the night was still to come.
My recent visit to Bar Bruno reminded me of these happy times not least because on arrival a familiar face greeted me at the door. Claudio? I asked. His face creased into a glorious smile. You! How lovely to see you! How long has it been? And so it was that I was again welcomed with open arms and damn good coffee. That single response embodied the Soho I knew and loved, a warm community and a sense of belonging.
The post-meeting wander around my former haunt was a telling one; the much-loved unique independent shops and bars are gone, replaced with homogenous private-equity backed brands that have diluted the rakish, exciting air of the streets, now imbued with the bland whiff of banal. Victims of the pandemic, many are closed for good. But here and there lies a café, outside of which sits the Soho flaneur and flaneuse of old, with grey lights in their hair, clues of compelling lives etched into lined faces. But not many. The honesty of this alluring bohemian enclave has been sabotaged, and it made me sad.
The demise of the dull could be a silver lining; perhaps the pandemic has opened opportunity for the creative, entrepreneurial and brave people to return, those that gave Soho its spirit, its many layers of intrigue and entertainment, those who hosted its myriad, wilful, insubordinate havens of hospitality. This will of course be up to the landlords and I hope they look kindly on the brave souls who might imbue Soho once again with the wayward authenticity of old. Let’s hope so.
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A secretary at 19 and self employed at 26, Giovanna has evolved from PA to PR and now a British healthcare entrepreneur. She is also a bon vivant and mother of two clever and accomplished daughters. Youngest-of-All is a talented Patisserie Chef, founder of MonForte Viennoiserie, Melbourne's finest destination for pastries both savoury and sweet. FirstBorn is a self-employed Aromatherapy Practitioner, a published author and documentary journalist who lives closer to home in East London.