Redevelopment of Soho and the displacement of its colourful characters are at the heart of Fiona Mozley’s new book
20 May, 2021 — By Peter Gruner
Soho at night. Photo: Gary Knight/flickr
SEX workers dressed in theatrical face masks with signs that read, “No to banking/yes to bonking,” lead a colourful demonstration against plans to redevelop Soho.
The campaign to save the world famous red light district, with its popular restaurants and theatres, from gentrification is captured perfectly in Fiona Mozley’s entertaining new book, Hot Stew.
This is a story with real issues and many fascinating and eccentric Soho characters. The two that stand out as perhaps the most endearing are prostitute Precious, a former beauty therapist from Highgate, and her maid, former sex worker Tabitha.
The women are not only good friends but also work together in a brothel near Brewer Street. Grandmother Precious, 42, who has two grown up sons, wears a carnival mask for the demonstration – to avoid identification – which she purchased in Venice.
Describing the mask, Mozley writes: “In the golden light of a Venetian spring, the glimmer appeared authentic. In the copper light of a London autumn, it looks tacky.”
Tabitha, in her 60s, is wearing black jeans, a black fleece, comfortable leather pumps and a Darth Vader helmet.
She, incidentally, is particularly interested in the capital’s Elizabethan history.
Precious is appalled that Tabitha smokes cigarettes and fears that the habit will kill her best friend.
“Would you miss me?” Tabitha asks.
“Funerals are expensive,” says Precious.
“Just chuck my corpse in the river,” Tabitha replies.
“It’d scare the tourists,” Precious says.
Hundreds gather for the protest, including many from Chinatown. Drums are beating and a horn blares out, making Tabitha jump.
Precious argues that while Soho has its faults it also has compassion, diversity and different people rubbing along together.
“People come here to drink and take drugs and have a quick shag,” Precious says. “They come to laugh, hear music, dance and eat sticky, sweet cakes and dumplings, or snails cooked in garlic butter, and drink chocolaty coffee and red Bordeaux.”
She is encouraged to grab a loud hailer and speak to the crowd: “What will Soho be like without people like us?” she declares.
Earlier in the story the women receive a letter from upmarket developer Agatha Howard, who appears to want them out. Many girls are already facing evictions or tenancy termination.
Although the book is fiction, the story of unwanted gentrification is today a real concern in the area.
Speaking to Review, Mozley described how she moved from Hackney to the north of England when she was six. “But my east London accent still comes out at certain moments – when I’m tired or when I’m chatting with a cockney.”
After university she worked in London and lived for four months in Soho. She worked as a PA for an Italian journalist and later at a travel agency – a branch of Flight Centre. “London was too expensive for me to put down roots so I moved back up north.”
Does she agree that Soho is being ruined by over development?
“Yes. It’s become a cliché to complain that ‘Soho isn’t what it was’. That said, it’s changed a lot in the decade or so I’ve known it. I don’t have a problem with neighbourhoods being renovated or certain changes being made, but it becomes a problem when the people who’ve made those places what they are get priced out.”
In Fiona’s book , the character Agatha is in her mid 20s and surveys the scene dressed elegantly but in the style of an older woman.
She is wearing a linen trouser suit and white blouse with jewels round her wrist and hanging from each earlobe.
Agatha attended a school where all the pupils had titles and connections and country houses. “They lorded over her,” Fiona writes. But in a few years time she would be able to “buy and sell them all ten times over”.
Precious admits many hate the idea of her selling her body for sex. But to her it’s just a job. And preferable to her former workplace, a beauty parlour in Highgate, where she mistakenly dropped a tiny bit of wax on a posh customer’s leg and despite admitting her mistake the client slapped her face. Then the owner of the parlour docked her a week’s pay.
“In her current line of work, when a punter gets aggy, Tabitha phones downstairs and the bouncers come and take the man away and kick the shit out of him,” Fiona writes.
The question of the brothel has attracted a lot of attention. Several feminist groups have taken up the cause in support of sex workers being able to remain in their home and continue their trade. Others view them as victims of pimps, and men, “their bodies unwittingly commodified”.
There are lots more characters. Like regular brothel client Robert Kerr, 64, who sorts out a pub fracas involving a tourist. His friend is Lorenzo Mendis, a struggling professional actor. Then there’s a magician they nickname Paul Daniels and his partner, Debbie.
Not forgetting the man they call the Archbishop who talks like a public school master and preaches to forlorn vagrants.
It’s all got potential for a great film.
Fiona’s first book Elmet, was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker prize. She was born in Hackney.
• Hot Stew. By Fiona Mozley, John Murray, £16.99.