The music and politics walk

Mike Press
6 min readFeb 17, 2024

Our next musical guided walk of Soho

We’ve been running our occasional walking tours of Soho for nearly two years now. It started as a way of sharing the stories of music in the area that we’ve been researching — but it’s developed into a way of getting together with friends (some old and some very new), having a chat and a walk with them, and ending up in the pub. So, a blend of conviviality, light exercise, a bit of culture and a drink. Not a bad way of spending a Sunday afternoon.

Different ‘business models’ have been explored using platforms like Eventbrite, but we’ve now settled on the idea of the walks as a charity fundraiser — our walkers are simply asked to pay what they think the walk is worth to a nominated charity. We don’t handle the money — they pay direct.

With every walk we do, new people come along, but we also find that some people keep returning to our walks time after time. This is great, because we like seeing them, but it’s also a challenge as we don’t like to bore them with the same stories. That’s why we started theming the walks. Greatest Hits put the emphasis on Beatles, Bowie, Amy and others. Deeper Cuts took us into the realm of execution ballads, Yiddisher Jazz, calypso clubs (plus Beatles, Bowie, Amy, etc). Then our friend John had the bright idea of suggesting a Christmas themed walk which plunged us into the history of wassailing, the feminist origins of hymns and the hidden story of Wham’s Last Christmas (plus other seasonal chart toppers). And we do all this through buildings — because every building tells a story. And in Soho many of those stories are about music. And if they’re not about music, they’re about politics. Often both.

The May Day walk

Since the 17th century Soho has offered marginalised people islands of liberty and liberation to exist and be heard. And often there were tunes in what was heard. As we are discovering, music is a golden thread that leads us deep into London’s history. These are stories where the past, present and future all collide. As Peter Ackroyd says in his brilliant biography of the city, London “is a continually altering and expanding city which nevertheless remains an echo chamber for stray memories and unfulfilled desires… Every journey through the streets of London can then become a journey into the past.”

Our next journey on May Day weekend is themed on music and politics — and Soho is an ideal place to explore this theme. The history of Soho is a story of migration, openness and tolerance. People from distant and less than distant places brought their faith, politics, food and music as anchors for their identity — to remind them who they are and where they’re from. These have often blurred into neighbouring cultures and — like fish and chips and Lovers’ Rock — at times become very symbols of Britishness itself. We also see how many musics from Soho are created through oppression and liberation.

Here are just three of the stories we will explore:

Amy Ashwood was just seventeen when she co-founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) with her future husband, Marcus Garvey, in 1914. One of the most significant radicals of her generation, she moved briefly from New York to London, setting up one of London’s first black clubs on Carnaby Street. It became a focus for future post-colonial leaders such as Jomo Kenyatta to enjoy food, music and conversation about the struggle for independence. The club closed during the war, then reopened as a jazz club, then a ska and reggae club. Bob Marley played there in 1975.

When it was first held in 1959 it was dubbed Claudia’s Caribbean Carnival. We know it as the Notting Hill Carnival, one of the world’s largest street festivals. Claudia Jones was an American who was granted political asylum in London in 1950. She founded Britain’s first black newspaper, and initiated the carnival which was to play such a vital role in black British culture.

William Blake — born in and living for most of his life in Soho — was a revolutionary artist living in an age of revolution — inspired by the new sense of liberty ushered in by the French Revolution, while rejecting the materialism of Britain’s own industrial revolution. He inspired John Lennon, Pete Doherty and the Pet Shop Boys. As Patti Smith says of Blake: “He never let go of his vision, he never let go of that radiance, he never let go of the language of enthusiasm.”

And we’ve not even mentioned the politics of Soho’s LGBT community, the politics of punk and the art schools, and the small matter of Karl Marx living around the corner from where David Bowie recorded Ziggy Stardust.

The musical walking map and playlist

We began our project by creating a map of Soho. We’re now working on the third iteration of the map. It shows 50 locations across Soho (with one or two just outside) with a short summary of the story behind each one. Our theme is music, so each location has at least one song or piece of music associated with it. We have put together a playlist of music that will bring musical life to the map. We have created the playlist in Apple Music, and copied it for Spotify. There’s a total of five hours music on the playlist that we share with our walk participants in advance. Some of the tunes are well known, others less so, but we have sourced demos and early takes where we can, so that the playlist itself provides a sense of discovery.

The stories

We’ve been writing up stories about each location and are putting them online — on Substack — to help prompt conversation with people who can share their own memories and experiences. We have an idea of turning it into a book at some point.

But we do ask this…

Like our walkers, we love music — and we love how London provided the conditions for some of our favourite music to be created. Our walk is a celebration of this.

Opportunities for people to experience the joy of creating music are considerably less when you’ve nowhere to live. Right now homelessness has reached crisis point. That’s why we’re asking people who come along to our May Day walk to directly donate what they think our walk is worth to Centrepoint — the charity that supports young homeless people. It was founded by a priest based at St Anne’s Church on Wardour Street in 1969, and currently supports around 16,000 people each year.

Want to join us?

We will be doing our Music and Politics guided musical walk of Soho on the afternoon of Sunday 5 May. If you’d like to join us, please message either of us directly. We will then send you details of when and where to meet closer to the time. Also contact us directly if you have any specific questions.

Wheelchair access on the walk is possible. Bear in mind that parts of the route have narrow pavements and could be crowded. We always check the whole route the day before to ensure that there are no access issues. If you have mobility or other needs please let us know in advance.

Who we are

Jackie Hopfinger was formerly a social worker and Mike Press was a designer/academic. Now both full time Third Agers they share a passion for music, while Jackie is an accomplished photographer and Mike writes stories. In the fifty years they’ve known each other, this is their first collaborative project. Jackie lives in London while Mike lives in Dundee.