At least once a month for the last 3 years someone has always asked me “Is that the final nail in the coffin for Soho?”. First it was Madame Jojo’s (before it was saved), then the working girl’s flats in Walker’s Court, Berwick Street market, The Stockpot, The Colony. The list is endless. I have always given the same reply: Soho is not held in affection by so many of us because of bricks and mortar. It’s not the places, but the people in the places.
So now, if someone were to ask me if the passing of Bernie Katz is the last nail in the coffin for Soho, I would have to say that, if Soho really does have a beginning and an end, then yes, Bernie’s passing is the bell that chimes after last orders. In fact, the day Bernie was released from his duties as both matriarch and godfather at The Groucho Club, it spelt out a most definitive ending for many of us whom are privileged to have grown up in the Soho community whilst the Groucho was under Bernie’s tenure. Spiritually, Bernie was passed down a torch that was carried by Soho’s finest – Muriel Belcher, Ian Board, Michael Wojas, Norman Balon – all utterly unapologetic in their delivery of perfect imperfect humanity. A spirit that not only has no fear to offend, but in fact, thrives on the ability to inspire love by being offensive. The strength of character that is both rude, crude, entertaining and utterly lovable, all at the same time. That is Soho, and that was Bernie. He was also very humble. When I sat down at The Groucho in 2012 to interview Bernie for my book Soho Heroes, it was charming that he was actually surprised I wanted to talk to him about his life. I think he thought it was going to be an interview just about Soho. It ended up becoming a very candid interview and it warms my heart that I can now listen to his voice whenever I want to. And now so can you. It always makes me laugh when he admits to having a crush on my older brother Toby Tobias.
Tim Arnold’s interview with Bernie Katz, 2012
Bernie possessed none of the polite blandification mapped out by Keynote kings and PowerPoint princesses that has infiltrated today’s Soho. Bernie knew how to answer all of teacher’s questions in class whilst giving teacher the finger at the same time. And the rest of the class adored him for it, because he was cute while he did it. He was beloved to all who knew him, because he loved people. He understood that his courtiers wanted to feel welcome and be given permission to misbehave together, hidden from the outside world. A popular Soho concept that goes all the way back to King Charles II and his dirty stop-outs with Nell Gwynne. Bernie is and always will be indelibly connected to Soho history. In my humble opinion, the greatest contribution Bernie made in Soho was that he genuinely treasured artists, and I know many of my fellow musicians and performers will be finding his passing practically impossible to accept. For us, he simply was Soho. In my own case, he literally swept me and my guitar off the pavement in Dean Street and gave me one of my first shows as The Soho Hobo on the Groucho stage. He spoke to me of the lyrics I had written about our little enclave in the heart of London, and when he did, I knew I was listening to an expert. An expert on everything that Soho celebrates – individuality, fiery passion and the lust for life that each of us who have been drawn to the area carry in our hearts. He shared his stage with artists of all shapes and sizes regardless of how far up the ladder they were. He championed character and gave not a fig for hierarchy. And lets not beat about the bush – The Groucho was Bernie’s theatre, and I for one feel blessed and privileged to have performed there during his artistic directorship.
No one will ever replace Bernie. However, to honour his legacy is to re-inject Soho with the crazed and beautiful character that he projected and shared with us in the time that we had him in our lives. Soho needs it more than ever now. I wish more people promoted this fact. If they did, perhaps Bernie would have known just how important his presence in Soho was. Perhaps he did know. I hope he did. His naughtiness was part Carry On, part Kray, part Pantomime dame and always classic raconteur. He shone bright and now a great light has gone out. I already missed Bernie after he left The Groucho. Whilst Soho’s heart would appear to be temporarily lost, it hurts that with Bernie, it is a cast iron goodbye that I and many others will be coming to terms with for a long time. The fact that I will not see him again is unimaginable to me. My dear friend Steve Furst told me the sad news at midnight today. I immediately got in touch with Stephen Fry, knowing how close he and Bernie were. Stephen summed it up beautifully: “Five foot nothing and a heart bigger than Soho Square.”
So rock hard comrades, suffer no fools and make your art out of the chaos we call life with hearts as swollen as Bernie’s. It’s what he would want for Soho and all it’s people, however orphaned we may feel in these transitory times. Goodnight sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Tim Arnold, 1st September 2017
Subscribe here to receive updates on more TA blogs
Follow Tim Arnold on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@timarnold