'Soho is not a place to bring up a child, my mother told me'

Sweet Soho home: Joy and Georgina
Sweet Soho home: Joy and Georgina

But having fallen out of love with her shiny middle-class life in Shepherd’s Bush, Joy Lo Dico had other ideas. Here she looks back on her first 12 months living a stone’s throw from London’s seediest backstreets

On a June evening last summer I was sitting at the kitchen table, surveying all that I had built up: a sweet house in Shepherd’s Bush, a steady job, a VW parked outside, and evenings out at the promising new gastropub. But that night, thinking over all the promises this life had never delivered, I decided it was time for a change. I would ditch the idealised West London life and go to find the perfect bachelorette pad. And where else does one go when running away from responsibility but Soho?

I fell for the first flat I saw — a top- floor, two-bed garret on a Georgian pedestrian street. I begged friends to help me with the steep deposit, put my house on the market, and ran open-armed into a new life.

This course of action is explain-able to friends and family if you really are single and childless, but I am not. My ex-husband was released back into the wild many years ago. But there was my daughter Georgina, then a ten-year-old girl wrapped up in Roald Dahl and ballet; my sidekick and my responsibility. And London’s seediest quarter is not, as my mother told me, a place to bring up a child.

I refused to believe her and, before we moved, I took Georgina to the Soho Village Fête in the gardens of St Anne’s Church, to test her tolerance. There was no jam, tombola or bric-a-brac stand. Instead it was Soho at its most eccentric: waiters having a race around the block; an Alpine horn-blowing competition run by a Swiss restaurateur; and a cabaret by the local drag queens. Georgina, who has often nagged me to allow her to wear heels and eyeshadow, looked at them rather too admiringly.

But this was fun, she conceded, much more fun than the Bush. The only single mother and single child in our circle, we were oddities, lonely together. My cookery books, her ballet lessons and booming house prices couldn’t shield us from the feeling we were failing at the game. Other mothers had time sloshing around for socialising, while I was racing from school in Chiswick to work in Kensington, back to school, and back to an empty house. Big families would invite us over with what I often perceived as a tinge of sympathy.

So we let it go. We cast ourselves back into the sea of people who hadn’t bound themselves to a suburban future, or who had, for a night, untethered themselves from it, to feel the vibrations of the city.

Soho has long been London’s playground, an escape from the retail boulevards of Oxford and Regent Street, and the formal entertainments of Shaftesbury Avenue. This was the grid the demolishers couldn’t reach in the 1970s, nor the puritans. It has hosted Casanova, Canaletto and Shelley, the Windmill dancers and the Raymond Revuebar, messy all-nighters at The Groucho and sweaty first snogs at Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues. The gay scene began its strut into the mainstream on Old Compton Street. Other parts of Soho still run on baser passions. The back alleys of Brewer Street, with its live sex shows, are the Sodom and Gomorrah of W1 and it’s not difficult to spot a drug deal going down, especially when you’ve seen it all before in Shepherd’s Bush. Georgina, now 11 and not dumb, has decoded what a peep show is and asked why an adult shop won’t let in children.

I remember my own curiosity at her age. For all my mother’s disapproval of Soho, she had forgotten our own history. She and my father owned cafés around Carnaby Street in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and years later, she still hopped on the bus on Saturday mornings to go to the fishmonger at Berwick Street Market, her young twin daughters in tow. I remember the shows’ neon lights still glowing and shady men in shady doorways.

There is another, friendlier side to Soho, one you can’t see as an outsider. For the one man looking too intently at young women just a few years older than my daughter, there are ten benignly watching over us from the flats above, and from inside the shops. Soho is an intense village where friends are made quickly. It is impossible to shut the blinds on the outside world, as the middle classes did in Shepherd’s Bush to block out the less savoury parts of life. The girl crying on her phone over an errant boyfriend is an echo of our own anguishes. The drunken glee of the man shouting about Andy Murray’s victory amplifies our happiness. I can look from my flat at the unmade beds of those opposite, and they at mine. Our neighbours wave at Georgina and she grins back. We are here not to hide but to shed our façades, to live closely, noisily in the intimacy of the city.

A rare child in Soho, suddenly Georgina was no longer just mine: she became everybody’s. Last autumn, I was sitting outside Fernandez & Wells on Beak Street with a friend, Georgina on my knee. Mandana, the aloof exotic beauty who has run the Academy, a members’ club just above the Andrew Edmunds restaurant, for 15 years, walked up with her border terrier, Jezebel. She took Georgina’s hand and announced she was taking my puppy off to have a run with hers in St James’s Park. Now the impish Bosun, who runs the Ginger & White coffee shop, stamps my daughter’s loyalty card not for coffee but for chocolate brownies; eighty-something Vi, who holds court in the trendy bookshop The Society Club, watches her while I get my hair cut; and Georgina and the bar girl from the Academy get their nails painted together.

My favourite streets are by our garret, around Lexington and Beak Street, a corner where the vices are more Georgian: good coffee, that second bottle of a really good vintage, steak frites and a two-fingered salute to gout. And at its heart is the Academy: a motley collection of writers, art dealers, academics, military top brass and ne’er-do-wells — the heirs to Hazlitt, who dine from Edmunds’ kitchen and drink from his cellar, in a front room decorated with Hogarth prints. I had been going for several years on my nights out and found something that I could not in West London: a camaraderie of itinerant but intelligent souls.

Now, after 12 months, friends of old have started to reappear: mine who were just passing by; Georgina’s from school who wanted to come shopping in Carnaby Street. Some mothers may have tutted at the school gates, but others, escaping their domestic lives for a day in town, asked if we could hang out.

I don’t know how this story is going to end. Children grow up in different ways: wayward from the best of families; straight from the disorderly ones. Because I had her young, Georgina has been the oldest of her cousins and half-sisters, looking after them, mimicking my parenting. Now she is in a playground of overgrown children, and the special one again, the youngest.

We, as a family, are not exceptional. Many who live here have unconventional lives, and we fit in. If anything, we are more normal than most. But the thing I am certain of is that a half-empty life in West London, chasing others’ ideals, would have been far more corrupting than Soho will ever be.

Photographs by Rebecca Miller. Hair and make-up by Terri Capon at onerepresents.com using Dr Hauschka and L'Oreal Paris Elnett. With thanks to Andrew Edmunds