WESTMINSTER PEOPLE: Nika Garrett, Soho tour guide
Frith Street once best known for its froth, coffee loving tour guide stories reveals
16 June, 2017 — By Alina Polianskaya
“I guess I got Sohoitis”, says Nika
Nika Garrett says she first moved to London “because she’d fallen in love” and now her heart rests firmly in Soho.
The tour guide runs a range of walking guides exploring the history of W1 and, originally from Poland, she now feels like she “belongs here”.
“Soho has become a very special place to me,” she says. “I don’t like being away from Soho for longer than a week.”
But she laments: “I’m saddened by those changes and fear that one day Soho will be full of chain cafés and expensive restaurants.” Nika first came to Soho in 2011 when she was asked to prepare and deliver a tour for teenage boys who were studying The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad.
She says: “My task was to tell them more about 19th-century Soho where the book is partially set . That was my very first tour in the area.
“The more I read about the Soho, the more time I spend here, the more I feel I belong here… I guess I got Sohoitis… like in that quote by Tambimuttu ‘if you get Sohoitis… you will stay there always day and night…’ Jeffrey Bernard, who died in 1997, once said: ‘Soho’s not what it used to be, but then it never was.’
“The area has been changing constantly over the centuries… The recent changes however are alarming. By the time I had discovered Soho, a lot of its important places had closed including Colony Room Club and Jimmy’s.
“Since I’ve started guiding in the area we have said goodbye to Madame Jojo’s , affordable places like The Stockpot and little café
San Valentino are gone. So is 12 Bar Club in Denmark Street and the Vintage Magazine shop. Those are just some of the places that have closed over recent years.”
She adds: “One of my favourite characters is Vi, who is 90 and has lived in Soho all her life. She always sits outside her favourite café and watches the life go by in Berwick Street.
“There is a corner of Dean Street and Old Compton Street where in 2006 Clayton Littlewood and his husband Jorge opened a boutique called Dirty White Boy. They lived in the basement with no bathroom and had to use the shower in the local gym.
“The shop was below a walk-up and the girls would sometimes accidentally flood them but they all got on well.
“Clayton started writing a blog describing a variety of people entering their doors: celebrities, trannies, prostitutes, gays.
“He would write about his encounters with local people including Pam the Fag Lady who could be spotted daily begging for money. Clayton’s online diary later became a successful book and a play and was followed by Goodbye to Soho that features, among others, a Soho character, artist, author and dandy Sebastian Horsley… The sign on the door in Meard Street where he lived still says ‘This is not a brothel. There are no prostitutes at this address’. The shop Dirty White Boy is no longer here and Clayton Littlewood has recently moved to the US; but I’ve been lucky to meet, interview and guide him. On my tours I keep stories and memories like those alive.”
Nika’s tours span the singer David Bowie, coffees of Soho, and a 24-hour long walk around the area.
She says: “One of the tours I enjoy leading in Soho is a coffee tour. It starts with a complimentary coffee in the iconic Bar Italia and may finish with an espresso martini in My Place Soho.
“The tour is full of stories from the days when Soho smelled of great coffee and there were so many coffee bars in Frith Street alone that it was nicknamed Froth Street. London’s first espresso coffee bar opened in Soho, flat white was first introduced to London in Soho, and espresso martini was created here after a certain super model demanded a drink that would ‘first pick her up and then f…. her up’!
“One of my favourite stories is the one about Le Macabre coffee bar, where decor included skeletons and where bakelite skulls were used as ashtrays. Just imagine sipping your cappuccino to the sound of a funeral march!”
The 24-hour tour is an annual event and had a 1950s theme this year.
Nika says: “It’s different every year. It makes me think of what Colin MacInnes says in his book Absolute Beginners: ‘You don’t go to Soho to see a film, because Soho is a film. Life is the best film ever, if you can see it… The show’s never, ever the same twice’.”
Her tips for being a good guide include being able to “project the voice” and having to “answer the same question as many times as need be”.