Interview: Howard Raymond, Heir To The King Of Soho
It took three years, but Howard Raymond has finally got his kingdom. The son of Paul Raymond, the real estate magnate, club owner and pornographer dubbed the "King of Soho", the man credited with turning the seedy underbelly of London's West End into a multimillion-pound empire and embedding it in 1960s culture. Howard is now the custodian of a large part of that property empire, and of that legacy.
Paul died in 2008, and the long process of separating his many interests between his son and the children of his late daughter, Debbie, led to much speculation that Howard had been cut out of the will. Reports of numerous fallings-out between the men added to the rumours of acrimonious disputes within the family.
"There was no acrimony at all," Raymond told the Huffington Post UK in an interview in his Soho office. "These things take a long time. It's not a simple transaction… You've got to sign it off with the revenue and the courts and stuff like that. It is a long and drawn out process."
Raymond Estates was carved out of Paul's Soho Estates business, and manages properties in Soho itself, as well as a few in nearby Mayfair.
The challenge, according to Raymond, is to maintain the qualities that define Soho without letting its ageing facades crumble into ruin. "It still has to be naughty," he said. "If it's not naughty, it's not Soho. If you don't want to change the dynamics of the area then you can't just bin everything it's famous for. You've got to modernise it but keep it the way it is."
He is clear about what he does not want Soho, famously permissive, the spiritual home of the sex shop and the strip club, to become.
"It's extremely important that we don't morph into Carnaby Street or Covent Garden. Because otherwise it's just another London town. It has to have its own vibrancy. It's getting the balance right that's the problem, but there certainly are buildings that need to be modernised. There's no doubt that is true. It's how you do it without ruining it.
"Carnaby Street was the swinging sixties, just like the King's Road was the swinging sixties but I don't know what happens in Carnaby Street after 6 o'clock. The shops are shut."
Once home to edgy and cutting edge designers, both Carnaby Street and Kings Road have grown up, and grown staid. The former is a tourist shopping promenade, keeping the cobbles but adding high street labels. Kings Road has kept the wealth, but not the edge.
"We're not going to shoot the golden goose. I know Westminster Council is gagging to shoot the golden goose with their bloody car parking charges, and things like that. I don't think things like that help the West End. I think it's a crackpot f*cking deal."
Raymond plays the accidental millionaire and the rough diamond roles well, but there are flashes that betray acumen, and his knowledge of the market and the area. West London remains the focus for the company - sticking to what you know is profitable.
Soho itself is overpriced, he said, and there are only "four or five" buildings left that he wants in the area. But, being a Raymond, he does not buy from the market. "Any twit can walk into an estate agents or a surveyor or an auction and buy something,” he said.
"I tend to get things very discretely off market. If I say no, then it goes onto the market. It's the dreaded Raymond handshake. It may not be the best deal, but at least the deal gets done."
He would prefer to look to the red light districts or nightspots of other European capitals before moving into redeveloped, redefined areas of London that lack the history and edge of Soho.
"They keep reinventing these areas. Now we have this thing called Noho. Where the bloody hell did that come from? You're either in Soho or you're not. They move the boundaries and create this area called Noho. It doesn't exist anyway. That's just them jumping on our bandwagon. It's a crackpot idea."
He is equally dismissive of new developments out east. "The Olympics are here for a month, then they close the door and go home," he said. "These punters, when they go out of Stratford, where are they going to go? What's there to look at in Stratford? You can't see Nelson's Column, you can't see Eros, you can't go to Leicester Square. There's f*ck all out there. It is literally turn the lights off and go home. "
It is with the same polite disdain that he dismisses the buying strategy of the company managing the other part of his father's property empire, saying more with what he leaves hanging in the air.
"All I know is that they bought something in Norwich the other day," he said.
Raymond is sometimes evasive, stuttering and boyishly leaning forward to rest his chin on his arms on the table. When pushed on the relationship his family has had with the press, it is easy to see why. His father became a legend, and like all legends, the stories surrounding his life have been routinely embellished.
The number of times he has taken action against the newspapers is firmly in double figures. "I think it's 16 in total. Something like seven against local rags and 11 against nationals. They told lies. If they tell lies, I sue them," he said.
"There was a story years ago that he had long fingernails and he would sit at the end of his bed eating TV dinners," he laughed. The root of the rumour was an anecdote he told to a journalist about dining with his then elderly father, who ate tiny portions in his later years.
"But that story about us having dinner together escalated to this Howard Hughesian character who ate TV dinners at the end of his bed and grew long hair and had long fingernails.
"Of course, it was never corrected, and it just went on and on. It would be a full-time job correcting crap. But if anybody actually said a downright lie, we'd take legal action. But it became amusing in the end. And that he used to dye his hair yellow. Who the f**k dies his hair yellow?"
Of the most persistent stories was that of the two men's bust up, which reportedly led to them not speaking for years. Again, Raymond disputes this.
"We were extremely close. We had an argument about 25 years ago for about 10 minutes. What happens is that these things become self-perpetuating. We had a row - we had public rows in those days - and it sort of became a self-perpetuating story that was never corrected. At the end of the day, those that were close to us know exactly what was going on," he said.
The narratives have been hard to shift, however, which is part of the reason that Raymond has agreed to work as a technical advisor on a film of his father's life. It will not be a hagiography.
On his father's death there were 13 offers "from Hollywood to Timbuktu", he said. Michael Winterbottom's Revolution Films is now developing a script. It will not be filmed in Soho.
"We can't afford the car parking charges," he said. "You can put that. That'll wind the c***s up."
Tax breaks have made it more economical to film in South Africa, so a version of Soho will be built to house the shoot.
"The director was down there filming some Trevor Eve programme. They built Basingstoke down there. What? But I guess you can build Basingstoke anywhere because no one knows what Basingstoke looks like," Raymond said. "It's extremely sad that we can't just walk round the corner to the West End and do it in Soho, to be honest… it is extraordinary, but it's just the way the world is and the film industry is. You've got to go where the bucks are."
There is a book out - "a real horror story" - about his father, but Raymond is clearly relishing the opportunity to set the record straight.
"This is about the man. This is about what he was like as a father, as a businessperson. It's the real McCoy. You could do a hagiography, say the sun is always shining. But you get one chance to tell the story," he said.
"These people don't exist anymore. They're not made anymore. You can be a multimillionaire these days and just write a computer programme. There's no real work involved. Although they might disagree with me. There's Facebook and these things that are worth zillions, but they've never made a profit. Where's the mechanics of that?
"The old fashioned businessman who actually made money, accidentally or deliberately, they're not out there, or there aren't many of that ilk."