Monday, April 27, 2009

Something about Soho by Windowless Consultant

A little way up from the Coach and Horses street on Charing Cross Road, two bookshops - Foyles on one corner, and Soho Bookshop on another - with which I was equally familiar, the one mostly from the inside, the other mostly only out. At Foyles, what gets me is not only the shop, but the cafe, whatever it is in the coffee keeps me coming back. I'm sure if I go there enough I'll catch up with what, many years back at St Mary's, I saw as my destiny - still, contemplative, never looking up at the world without a cautious finger keeping the page it distracts me from - an intellectual. I return from time to time, take a seat, and look out for the person I might have been had I not got into windows. I don't miss it, it's not melancholy - the windows have always kept me happy, busy, missioned up - just curiosity. Is that me, there, with the pencil, or somebody else?

The Soho Bookshop has always interested me in its window display for its effective mixture of subtlety with brazenness. Upstairs clear windows open onto a bookshop selling books dealing with an arty content – paintings, photography, film – at knock-down prices. Once inside the bookshop, though, stairs lead down to an area set aside for magazines and films for the over 18s. There you have the two sides of 'Soho' condensed. What somehow manages to preserve for the area a charm so much more pronounced, inimitable, heady, than other central London areas is the unaccountable mixtures it makes of business with pleasure, local cocktails unrepeatable elsewhere, where industry and idleness cross the street and pretend not to know each other. In Soho, on the other hand, the industries - music, film, sex, the hairdressers so over-represented there they must be servicing one, other, or both, and come themselves to take on louche connotations they're quite free of elsewhere - and the pleasures - music, film, sex, and haridressers - segue, as the local jargon would have it, so seamlessly into and out of each other the place takes on the exaggerated features of inbreeding.  

Liquid lunches spill onto the street there as nowhere else, sex is investment, music a way of life. In my consultancy role, I'd always felt the place belonged to me as it did the other media types, as a location to buy cloth, stock up on props, pick up fads, and of course use the cafs to plot, meet, note. And then, this was life, was the theory, which the window would dust off first, but replicate, life in a densely reproducible form, and the window of the Soho Bookshop, though a window, had as much a claim to be a part of it as any.

The fact the format is repeated throughout the area in several branches, making a small chain, suggests clear purpose: discretion, the upstairs serving largely as a front for the down. But then, why, in the windows, proclaim in neon, along with 'bargain books', 'licensed sex shop' with an arrow down? A curiosity, and one, I have always thought, if the shop window should always seek to flirt, to be coy – seek the optimal balance between revelation and secrecy, forthcomingness and withdrawal - that ought to be expected to bear fruitful lessons for the window designer sufficiently keen of eye. The fact that I have never been able to put my finger on what those fruit might be has always left me slightly frustrated, and in certain ways almost guilty at my unprofessionalism in not being able to identify it. The fact the shop does a roaring trade both upstairs, and, on those occasions when I have braved a reccy down, down, only exacerbates the irritation.

I say 'has always left me', but the tense was a dodge. Whether or not I am still a window consultant I leave unresolved - I am, as I ever was, but, while I'm not, I no longer am. It was seeing the window there today I understood something of the power of the other door. That same mixture of the blatant and the concealed, the shameful and the shamefaced, I had been naïve not to have understood on the Coach and Horses street,  and a door there I'd photographed for my first post, but, unable to account for its effect on me at the time, left out.

SHOP CUT WOMEN HOP a lamp, and between them, a door to a green hall, a naked bulb hanging, plastic flowers outside, signs on the wall within. Looking back at the photos of the barber's, something was undoubtedly suspicious. I realised that this other doorway was not, as I had thought, the entrance to the barber's at all, but a separate affair. The place at the same time advertised and concealed itself. Was this, I wondered, what had leant everything the unreal air on the street? The fact I'd missed it at the time making this more probable, I decided to return and check the next time I passed.

As I held my camera up, a silhouette appeared down the passage. Focusing, I waited for the form – male - to emerge, but instead, he withdrew rapidly into the shadows, and immediately I realised my mistake – a 'walk up', 'working flat' or 'knocking shop', whatever name you give it, is a place few are happy to be seen emerging from or entering. I stuffed the camera back in my bag and made off, irritated to notice an unaccountable blush to my cheeks, and disappointed to think that this should in some way have been at the origin of my discoveries. Soho.

From there, wandering up the street, I'd come to the bookshop, and found what had been staring me in the face there, then, stared me in the face again at the shop, too, stared everyone in the face, those who passed by and didn't see it, those who did see but without seeing, those - the one, I - who saw and saw. There was, I realised, something in the image that should explain the other moments, the moments I'm tracking, if only I could see it. There was something that had happened, that was yet to happen, that was visible, obvious, unseen. It was a private joke, a public crime which those who contemplated it ignored. The city, determined to get on regardless, stared at the image, frozen, hypnotised, as, seeing nothing, it rushed on about its business.

This one I would capture, hold, place here, perhaps identify the role of in events.

But while I was bent, focused, there in my viewfinder appeared a face, looking unseeingly at where the woman was, I knew.

I say knew. Many years ago, in fact, I had been married to him, before my present marriage, the husband in passing I occasionally refer to. Feels like another life. I didn't immediately straighten back up, but rather deliberately kept him there in the reflection, the world I held.

I hadn't thought of him for some while until just recently, when he began to return to my interest. I had started wondering what had become of him since we had drifted apart, divorced, lost touch. Indeed, a couple of weeks back I even thought I saw him, strangely,  in a kind of waking dream, in Holland of all places.

He had, in fact, been in my youthful imagination my only true love. I told myself in my imagination since, as things had started coming to divorce, I had learnt to mistrust those early feelings. Here he was, though, in this world in many ways of my imagination, coming at me from the porn/art shop window, and I found my eyes itched warm, sorry and glad. The idea of being able to will the clock back all those years was clearly ridiculous, love again the candid confusion on his face, as I liked to call it in jest, but I realised as I saw it again that's what it was, and a melancholy enthusiasm that had always appealed to me before at some point I'd begun to find it irritating. Something so delicate in a man, it used to give me a feeling approaching laughter it was so strong. Protective, although I knew he'd resent the idea he needed protecting – he didn't – it made me feel, of such breathless sensitivity.

Lost your dig? I joked, bending up. An archaeologist by trade, one of the things, I recalled, that had drawn us apart, was the depth of his obsession with his work – not the archaeology, which was appropriately charming for him to do, the protective care  over the supremely delicate, nurturing the broken, cherishing the irreparably damaged, recording the long forgotten had all seemed a part of who he was, affording himself, too, the rarefied air in which to flourish into all his trembling splendour,  but the politics, the jealousies and clawing for a corner of power within museum life diverting his attention into paranoia, his ardency into ambition, his sensitivity into bitterness.

But over his face I'd grown accustomed to thinking of as cold now fluttered a shadow at this jest in which I undoubtedly caught that melancholy and so once again guessed at the candid sensitivity I'd thought extinguished. I really have no idea why that should so have hurt him, but unaccountably in the same movement of regret I felt at having caused the smart, I was surprised by an inwardly laughing happiness that it was there.

A confession, then, it turns out, the purpose of today's entry, and not one the hubby would be that glad about my making, I'm sure, but then I blog in my growing downtime from the windows work, the windows work has always been the focus of our marriage, the time I find myself with now something else, somehow, apart from that, stranger and new. 








No comments:

Post a Comment