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A fitting tribute to Soho Gyms

Writer and critic Nicholas de Jongh mourns the passing of a phenomenally successful institution

08 November, 2018 — By Nicholas de Jongh

Nicholas de Jongh outside Soho Gyms Holborn

THIS week I have been training for almost the final time at Soho Gyms Holborn, most historic of gyms and once most fashionable, standing on its last, though still fairly well-muscled legs.

Soho Holborn is sadly due to pass away on November 16 at the tender age of 24, leaving behind a host of mourning gym users, young and old: the super-fit and the slightly fat, the hyper-muscled and the hardly trim at all, magnificent weightlifters who flaunt their biceps and tiny waists and those who have nothing to flaunt but their dreams of getting a better physique.

Almost every one of us, though, surely carries a fine stack of memories to take away before that phenomenally successful institution, PureGym, arrives to demolish and rebuild the place in its own image, which will mean new machines, long opening hours and much cheaper monthly prices. Even so, saying goodbye is very hard.

Most members have already drifted before the closing date. The protein and coffee counter has nothing left to offer. Employees have vanished and a skeleton staff remain.

How different it was at the start, when Soho Athletic, as it was originally called, first threw open its doors. There was no missing its come-hitherish appeal. It began with an opening night party thrown by founder, Jeremy Norman, the entrepreneur who had founded two pleasure zones, the Embassy Club and Heaven.

One of Soho’s original members, who has remained ever since, recalls that first glamorous evening. “It was amazingly special,” he says. “It was full of the fitness conscious.

“It was welcoming, not threatening. It reminded me of gyms in New York. And it was gay-friendly, of course.”

Gay-friendly strikes me as an oddly discreet understatement. Soho Athletic was from the start pretty gay, though some straight men and women were always part of the crowd too. In those early days it was the height of gym fashion, seriously decorated with muscle boys and muscle obsessives, a gay fashion crowd and plenty of camp followers. The personal trainers, on the other hand, arrived straight and mostly remained so.

At the start Soho Athletic was also pervaded by a sense of fear and anxiety. The HIV epidemic was in full, fatal swing. One early member recalls how you would see some young men growing thinner by the month but still hanging on their exercise routines until they would just vanish, sadly never seen again.

Mr Norman himself founded the Aids charity Crusaid, in what was a great philanthropic effort, when HIV phobia raged like an illness of its own. But once combination therapy began to save lives the mood lightened. And for its first 15 years the club flourished.

Slowly, though, it began to lose its fashion status. It was no longer so cool or so hot as it used to be. The gay in-crowd began to move on.

Gay social change was in the air as Grinder arrived and made going out to bars and clubs less appealing. There was a change in the dynamics at Soho as well. The membership was older, and age in the gym world does not often have much more than a whimper of sex appeal. For some of us loyal Soho devotees Holborn has never lost its attractions, even in its dying days.

The enterprise’s success had encouraged Norman and his managing director Michael Crockett to develop a succession of new Soho Gyms about London. One of these, the newly built Soho Gym in Waterloo, surely syphoned off some Holborn members. But the powers-that-be wouldn’t reduce the cost of the annual membership of the original Soho Holborn.

Several face-lifts there, in the shape of glamorous new machinery, exercise classes and grand showers with prim glass doors came, but were reckoned by more cynical members as signs that the gyms were being prettied up for sale. And so it proved.

Suddenly last summer Mr Norman announced by email: “The time is right to bow out… Thanks and good luck.” And off he went, having negotiated a deal with the PureGym.

And yet for those of us who have cherished and loved the individuality of Soho Holborn, the parting is like losing a friend.

Mr Norman was always a shadowy behind-the-scenes figure and nothing showed him in a more dark, dismal light than the rushed, ill-organised dissolution and run-down of Soho Holborn – with members variously angered, dismayed and contemptuous of this rude finale. City sources rumoured that this pretty rich man was left richer to the tune of several million pounds. If only Mr Norman had spent a few thousand pounds on a grand champagne party for all his members we might have left feeling a little less betrayed.

But hey, what can you expect of a businessman? Generosity? I think not.

Goodbye, Soho. I loved you.


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