Mark Baxter

Mark Baxter


Words Jason Holmes

Portraits Kirk Truman


“Anyone can fit in up here in Soho. We’re all chameleons…”

He harks back to an age when a man’s word was his bond, when deals were sealed with a handshake and when the world turned, so it seemed, at a far slower pace. He’s the author of Elizabeth, Peter and Me, Tubby Hayes: A Man In A Hurry and the co-author of The A-Z of Mod and The Mumper, but he’s better known to the denizens of Soho as the über-connected, go-to public relations man who walks this small corner of central London with a rare, old world sensibility that sees him bring people together, be they bar owners, writers, rock stars or tailors – and all for the greater creative good.

Upstairs at the French House, Mark Baxter looks out into the mid-morning street, removes his spectacles, stirs his cappuccino and takes stock. “I live south of the river, and when I was a little kid my mum and my old man would bring us over here to do typical sightseeing stuff like Trafalgar Square and the lights of Christmas. Back then, I realised how close we were to Soho. It’s something like 25 minutes on the bus from Camberwell in south-east London, which to me is sometimes an angry place. Nothing’s ever been easy down there. It’s hard to make a living. There are some tough people. And me, I won’t take no for an answer. My old man used to say ‘If you can’t go through the door, go through the window’. In other words, don’t give up.”

But as a kid in the early ’70s, he was still taking it all in. “As I got a little bit older, and I’m talking 12 or 13, I used to get the number 53 bus from school on the Old Kent Road straight into the West End. That’s what I used to do, regularly. I remember Soho back then – I remember all the peep shows – but it was pretty seedy to be honest. But all my mates stayed locally, played locally and worked locally. I saw a different world up here, but it was quite hard for me to get people to come with me to see it.”

Baxter, like a lot of London kids, would play the Red Rover game: you’d jump on a random bus on a day fare and see where it took you. It broadened his horizons. “Coming here opened my eyes. When I had my first real job on Fleet Street in 1982, in the print trade, I started coming to Soho with a bit of money in my pocket and started enjoying the clubs and the clothes and record shops. Me being a curious person, I started checking out a lot of art galleries and museums. You had to seek this stuff out because there was no Internet back then, obviously. By travelling around London, I’d see posters for things like a Terence Donovan or Terry O’Neill exhibition. I’d check them all out and it was a big step for someone like me, from the place I came from. By exposing myself to a new world, the world of Soho, and walking around and seeing stuff, I began to meet like minds on my circuit.”

Baxter’s voice is a deep south-east London reverberation that fills the room. The words come in rapid waves, their sentiments unashamedly upbeat about what can still be achieved in this historic square quarter mile. “Anyone can fit in up here in Soho. We’re all chameleons. A lot of people I know up here, we meet for a coffee for an hour or so, and they’re either seeing their tailor or they’re here for a casting or a voice over. No one’s dwelling in the box for too long. Everyone’s flitting between things. I mean, this area is still full of great talent, but maybe back in the 1950s someone might have been in the pub all day, long drinking. These days Soho is a different place. You can’t live your life that way now, not if you want to make a pound note.”

He cites Mark Powell, Michael Caine and Paul Weller as inspiring working class figures who worked hard to prevent their creativity from being stifled. “Despite where you start, it’s where you finish that’s important,” he says. “I identify with guys like this. Most of my mates have moved to Kent or Essex, but I’ve always loved the multicultural atmosphere of London. I’ve always been a people person. I think that’s probably what it comes down to: what people bring to the mix, what they’re wearing, listening to or reading. To me it’s always endlessly fascinating. I always wanted to learn, but transforming ideas into making them happen is the hard bit. And trying to get someone to pay you is another matter. My grandad was a rag and bone man, and that is basically selling. So I’m convinced that it’s in my genes. It doesn’t matter what it is, I can find an angle to sell you something. I’ve always had that, and to me it seems fairly obvious sometimes. People like my grandad were the early recyclers. Everything was about profit. This comes from a really mixed background, that working class work ethic. It’s pure graft. There’s no other way out of this: you’ve just got to graft your way out.”

When asked about Soho’s future, he’s frank: “Soho’s on a tipping point. Family-run businesses are being offered silly sums of money for their businesses, and if you’re of a certain age and think that you might want to retire… I can see Soho changing very quickly as new money comes in and buys people out. So we should make the most of Soho now and get the best out of it while it’s still here with the last vestiges of the past. Places like the French House should be celebrated.”

The French tricolour outside the window is whipped into life by the wind, and Baxter eyes it. “You can still find a little piece of old London here in Soho, that’s evolved naturally, organically; but money always wins in the end. The pound note will dictate what survives and what prospers. Soho is trying to attract new people. Old locals are few and far between these days. The balance has been changed – and massively. If rents go through the roof, these agencies and businesses around here are going to go elsewhere. We’re hoping against hope this place is not going to change, but inevitably, it will. It always has.”

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