Words Jason Holmes
Portraits Edu Torres
“I’m an old punk… I socialise in Soho. It’s still got a buzzing community…”
The three cats come walking around the chairs and move up to me, the interloper. They look me full in the face before leaping onto the sofa to take an even closer shufti. Then, having seen enough, they lazily depart, mews proclaiming their hunger. My gaze shifts back to Paul Abraham who sits across from his wife Kim. We’re seated in their flat, perched high above Endell Street and within sight of St Giles, Covent Garden.
“I’m an old punk,” Paul tells me, “and I used to come to Soho to see punk bands. It was the lure of music, I suppose, that got me coming to Soho. One of the venues was the Marquee, another the Wag on Wardour Street. And near here, where we live now, was the Roxy Club on Neal Street. The West End in 1977 was an interesting time, quite a dark place. I would spend all day walking around Soho and the West End. And today, well, I still feel there’s a vibe in Soho that’s nowhere else. Originally, it was the music that attracted me. Plus the fact that It never felt like white suburbia.”
Nor will it ever, despite Soho’s growing residential aspect. And in Soho you can still spot the odd punk refugee who made it out of the maelstrom and lived to tell the tale. If you blink you’ll probably miss them – although you can see Kim and Paul walking through Soho most days, their combined sartorial flair setting them apart from the thronging pavement crowds. They’re the type of Londoners one rarely spots these days, but when you do, your eye is arrested. Kim and Paul come from a dying band of stylists who once inhabited the clubs, walk-ups and bars of a grittier, some would say more honest, era in Soho’s history. They wear their clothes as a defiant semaphore in a world slowly turning grey and uninspiring. It’s this, perhaps more eloquent, language of clothes that rises above the mundane argot spoken by the homogenised masses who have drifted by stealth into the Soho maze. And it’s a sartorial language that Kim and Paul speak very well.
Of the Soho she remembers, Kim says: “It never had a hang up about itself. It was always diverse, and it was diverse class-wise as well. There were expensive places you could go, but there were also places where you could get a cup of tea for ten pence. There was a real mix of things.” With Paul hailing originally from Bromley in Kent, and Kim from Hornchurch in Essex, it’s the classic tale of a man and woman being drawn inexorably to the bright lights of the big city.
Currently employed at the world famous Savile Row tailor, Huntsman – upon which the 2014 film Kingsman: The Secret Service was based – Paul is part punk, part stylist and part forward-thinker who tenaciously worked his way into the discreet world of high-class tailoring via an unusual route. “I got a job working for Christina Smith who owned a lot of property in Covent Garden. I was doing carpentry and decorating work for her while also singing in a band. But, of course, the band split and I began to work for her on a full-time basis, and it was then that I got further involved in the Covent Garden area via her and the community centre.”
Then he got married. Then divorced. “At the time when I met Kim, I was going through a divorce, so she suggested I go for a more steady job, and so I went for a handyman’s job at Huntsman on Savile Row. And I’ve been here ever since. A lot of Savile Row is very discreet,” says Paul. “For example, you don’t disclose who your customers are. It’s a gentlemanly agreement; it’s as simple as that.” Kim currently works as a primary school teacher at Netley School, just off Tottenham Court Road, which serves the Regent Park Estate. “The vast majority of people who live in the West End are ordinary people,” she says. “Covent Garden is full of social housing and people aren’t earning huge salaries on the whole around here. So when the Stockpot on Old Compton Street went, it was a bad thing.”
Paul agrees: “Old Compton Street is generic now. I know London has always been changing, but the question now is whether it is changing for the better.” It’s a genuine concern for a couple who once loved the vibrant undercurrent of Soho nightlife. But Paul returns to the sartorial side of things again as the cats drift back to see what all the noise is all about. “When I think back to Carnaby Street, even in the late ’70s when it was a bit run down and grotty, you could still get great clothes made there, and cheaply. But now it’s just chains. That is what’s sad about so-called progress. But I wouldn’t mind moving back to Soho,” he says after a moment of reflection. “I used to live on St Anne’s Court and I still drink there. I socialise in Soho. It’s still got a buzzing community.”
“Soho was edgy because of the characters who lived there, so if you remove them, if you social cleanse the area, then it’s going to change and become something completely different. And this,” says Kim, gesturing to the decor of their flat, “this is our little bubble.” Their home is a time warp of figurines, paintings and ephemera from decades they remember with fondness, and they can maintain this microcosm as they see fit while the outside world marches to a different drum. “The stuff in here makes us smile,” she says, “and we’ve always liked dressing up. We always will. And there are still a few eccentric characters about. But I’ve always said that when I’m older I’d like to go and live in Brighton which, frankly, is Soho-on-Sea.” Paul mutely concurs. Now it’s just the cats left to convince.