Verlaine and Rimbaud Fall Out Over A Fish

Paul and Arthur, observed by a suspicious constable; sketch by their friend Felix Regamey.

In September 1872, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud arrived in London. The 28-year old Verlaine had just eloped with the 17-year old boy genius, deserting both his young family and polite (Parisian, literary) society in the process. The myth of their coupling is a sort of prototype for the Oscar Wilde/Bosie double act of twenty years later; except that the two Frenchmen were equally talented, as well as equally desperate. Rimbaud had sent some poems to Verlaine, an established poet, who was duly impressed and invited the promising newcomer to visit him in Paris; Verlaine was not expecting to meet a provincial, teenage thug. Young Arthur’s behaviour in the City of Light sounds like something from a scatological farce, whether he was assaulting a noted portrait photographer with a sword-stick or merely wanking into his landlord’s cup of milk. For his part, Verlaine fell in love. After an abortive trip to Belgium, where Verlaine dodged his wife and his mother-in-law who were pursuing him with entreaties, the poets ran away to London: exiles in a city ‘as black as a crow and as noisy as a duck’.

At this time, London had distinct advantages for Frenchmen who had become undesirables at home. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Paris commune the previous year, London – and Soho in particular – was a haven for those of a revolutionary turn of mind and there was a vigorous ‘communard’ presence amongst the expatriate French population. After Verlaine renewed his acquaintance with other refugees from Paris, the pair took a room recently vacated by a radical French journalist, sentenced to death in absentia, at 34 Howland Street, W1, in the neighbourhood that became known as Fitzrovia. (The street still exists but only as a 20th and 21st century entity.) At first, they had issues with London’s food, its suspicious policemen, its booze (warm beer, gin like ‘concentrated sewage water’) and even its barmaids. But it seems that they grew to like the city; they grew accustomed to strange beverages such as porter and pale ale, they found congenial pubs (including the Duke of York off the Gray’s Inn Road) and both found ‘Laun’deun’ to be a great source of material. Rimbaud wrote some of his visionary Illuminations in London, including the great prose-poem Metropolitan, its title irresistibly suggestive of that impossibly futuristic transport facility, the Metropolitan line. Rimbaud was especially fascinated by the city’s docks, by the exoticism of the sailors and their merchandise, their languages, and the two men traipsed all over town, including excursions to distant suburbs such as Kew and Woolwich. They loved the theatres (especially the almost mythical Alhambra in Leicester Square, touchstone for a later generation of bohemians) and popular entertainments, as well as the Reading Room of the British Museum. In some ways their pride in their ‘outsider’ status in the great city anticipates another doomed gay couple: Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, who lived, worked and died together in a small room in Islington in the 1960s.

‘Aspect de Cannon Street at 10 o’clock of morning’; the poets get their boots blacked. Drawing by Verlaine.

But it was not to last. They were both heavy drinkers and prone to febrile bursts of temper; in one poem Rimbaud characterized Verlaine as a ‘satanic doctor’ whilst the older man was, inevitably, tormented by scorched earth of his past life, the wreck of his reputation and the abandonment of his wife and infant son. Also, whether they knew it or not, anonymous reports on their activities as possible seditionaries made their way back to the Prefecture de police in Paris. One summer afternoon Verlaine returned to their new digs on College Street, Camden, and proudly showed the young prodigy the fish he’d bought for their lunch. Rimbaud was lolling on a sunlit window sill and languidly commented ‘You’ve no idea what a cunt you look with that fish’. (Or words to that effect; it probably sounded more resonant in French.) Things went downhill after that. Verlaine promptly packed his bags and took a ferry from Dover, ignoring his young lover waving frantically from the quayside. Letters and recriminations followed, Rimbaud traveled to Brussels, where Verlaine and his mother were staying , and a drunken argument between the great men of literature ended up with Rimbaud hit in the wrist by a shot from Verlaine’s pistol. Verlaine was sentenced to two years’ hard labour. Paul and Arthur called it a day after that. (At least they ended it before they ended up dead, Orton/Halliwell style.)

Rimbaud was back in London for a brief spell a year or so later, but shortly afterwards he left Europe for a shadowy existence smuggling guns and – just possibly – slaves in Africa. He had long since abandoned poetry. Verlaine left it another twenty years before he returned to the city, this time as the guest of Arthur Symons, who had just published The Decadent Movement in Literature, which included Verlaine in its roll call of essential practitioners, to give a lecture at Barnard’s Inn, Holborn. The trip was a success; Verlaine renewed his acquaintance with the likes of Oscar Wilde, met his young British admirers at The Crown, the Decadents’ hangout of choice on the Charing Cross Road, and made a nostalgic visit to the Alhambra, muttering to Symons that all of his misfortunes dated to a meeting with a woman he’d met coming out of there twenty years before. (All his misfortunes?)

Paul Verlaine, absinthe at hand, wondering where it all went wrong.

As for no. 34, Howland Street, it was flattened by the General Post Office in the 1930s. The entire street was subsumed by 20th century development and, in 1961, the tallest building in London for nearly 300 years (it was taller than St Paul’s), The Post Office Tower, was built on the corner of Howland Street and Cleveland Street: the very spot where Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud had lived. Intended as a communications hub in the event of a nuclear attack, advances in communication technology and the end of the Cold War have left the Tower as no more than a quaint relic, a symbol of futuristic thinking in a nation determined to look backwards. But perhaps it might best be seen as a fittingly phallic monument for the two gay pioneers whose elopement it inadvertently memorializes; it’s just a shame they’ve closed the bar at the top.

I am indebted to Charles Nichol’s biography of Rimbaud Somebody Else, and also to Antony Clayton’s excellent overview Decadent London.

Laughing Torso Meets The Great Beast

Here comes trouble … Nina Hamnett circa 1930

You know me, m’dear; I’m in the V&A with me left tit knocked off.’

Thus spoke Nina Hamnett, artist, model, hard drinker and ‘Queen of Bohemia’. In her busy youth she studied painting in London, posed nude for Walter Sickert, and then commuted between studios in Fitzrovia and Paris, sat for and slept with Modigliani (‘Modi said I had the best tits in Europe!’), Gaudier-Brzeska (who executed the titless torso) and God knows who else. In consort with August John, whose studio was at 76 Charlotte St., she helped established Fitzrovia as a bohemian enclave in the years before and after the Great War. Walter Sickert thought very highly of her work but presciently warned her not to let her party-going interfere with her painting. Gaudier-Brzeska’s nude sculpture of Nina is not actually in the V&A, not now anyway, but it did appear on the cover of her 1932 memoir Laughing Torso: names dropped therein included Erik Satie, Picasso, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Cocteau, and the composers of Les Six.

The Student: an early portrait painting by Nina Hamnett, now in The Ferens Gallery, Humberside.

One name she might have avoided mentioning was poet, mountaineer, secret agent, and occultist Aleister Crowley. When he was a young man, in the late Victorian and Edwardian era, Crowley was a sort of outlier to the Decadent movement, and his early verses – published by Oscar Wilde’s publisher Leonard Smithers – showed some talent in a sub-Swinburne style that was out of fashion by the time Crowley was trying it on. Later, his poetry because subservient to his efforts in the occult and his literary style went into freefall. One poem, a self-consciously filthy ode to his girlfriend and partner in Magick (always spelt with a K), contains this memorable couplet:

Splutter foul words
Through your supper of turds!

Beastly, moi? The mature Crowley …

Around 1900, when he was 25, Crowley rented a mansion flat in a block on Chancery Lane and used it as a venue for occult practices, using his own personal white and black magic temples to summon forth entities from beyond the veil. (What the building’s other tenants made of this is not recorded.) Crowley’s reputation as a mage led to him appearing as a villain in various fictional guises: as Mocata in Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out, and, most notably, as the sinister Karswell in M.R. James’s celebrated ghost story Casting The Runes (1911). In this unnerving tale of an academic stalked by the author of a book on witchcraft, he is portrayed as a lurking presence in the Reading Room of the British Library, poised to slip a runic curse to the reviewer who had given him a bad notice. Magick aside, this portrait of a man who never forgot a slight seems to have been true to life. Crowley knew Nina from the bohemian milieu of pre-WW1 London, and they were familiar enough for him to have once served her his signature cocktail (see below). But in her autobiography, Nina included stories about rituals conducted by Crowley at The Abbey of Thelema, his ratty ‘temple’ at Cefalu, Sicily. Nina’s source was her friend Betty May, the widow of a Crowley acolyte who had died in mysterious circumstances at Cefalu. (Betty was also famous as the Fitzroy Tavern’s ‘Tiger Woman’, whose speciality was lapping brandy from a saucer like a cat.) Betty’s tales of the unsavoury rituals conducted by Crowley, involving bestiality, animal sacrifice and a sprinkling of other perversions, were referenced in Nina’s book. Crowley was incensed and sued for libel – which turned out to be a miscalculation on his part. Betty testified on Nina’s behalf against Crowley, but her testimony was largely irrelevant as Crowley made such a fool of himself in the witness box that the jury decided that he was impossible to libel. Crowley was dubbed the ‘wickedest man in the world’ by the popular press, which seems very silly at this distance. Later in his life, nearing the end of his wandering years, Crowley would occasionally appear on the London scene, an essay in looming darkness offset by natty sartorial touches and even an occasional kilt. He certainly had presence: he was said to have terrified Dylan Thomas in the French House, and once claimed to have put a spell on Julian Maclaren Ross that caused Ross’s overcoat to catch fire. (If it was his famously threadbare camel-hair number, Crowley might have been doing him a favour.)

Nina won her suit against Crowley but her ultimate tragedy was to succumb to a very local disease: Soho-itis (definition: to abandon one’s artistic calling in favour of the pub). By 1950 she was sixty, impoverished, and a full-time cadging drunk, although she was still just about capable of picking up sailors to take back to her vermin-infested bedsit on Howland Street. Her landlady had tried to evict her on the grounds that she pissed in the sink but Nina contested the eviction and the judge ruled in her favour, convinced that no woman could possibly perform such a feat. Shortly afterwards, she managed to set fire to the flat and ended up an exile in distant Paddington, where she died, falling from her flat onto railings below, in 1956. A possible suicide; some even thought that Crowley had put some kind of Karswell-type curse on her, even though he had already been dead for nine years (old, broke, and addicted to heroin, he expired in a boarding house in Hastings). But just two weeks before her death the BBC had broadcast a radio play about Fitzrovia in the 1930s in which she appeared as a fictionalized character. The effect this drama had on Nina’s morale can only be imagined; the play was called It’s Long Past The Time.

As mentioned above (and adduced in last week’s entry), Aleister Crowley has left us a unique contribution to the cocktail repertoire: here is the recipe for his Kubla Khan Number 2:

One part gin;
One part vermouth;

One part laudanum.

Disclaimer: I hold no religious or superstitious views; but I know what happened to the academics in Casting The Runes, so I hope that that this post does not read like a bad review for Mr. Crowley. Altogether now: Clickity-click, 666!

Spitalfields Drinking: Meths, Absinthe, Flat White.

Spitalfields, January 1991. © David Secombe.

As early as the 1730s, overcrowding had become a characteristic of the East End, a process accelerated in the early 19th century by the building of the docks between 1800 and 1830, the demand for unskilled labour, and the arrival of Jews and other refugees from Eastern Europe. […] Hawksmoor’s architecture, imbued with Baroque rhythms, is massive yet solid, like Johnson’s prose. Characteristic of how little we really value [Hawksmoor’s churches] is the fact that, at time of writing, Christ Church, Spitalfields, is under threat of demolition, though thousands of pounds are uselessly thrown away in every conceivable direction.
From The London Nobody Knows, Geoffrey Fletcher, 1962. Penguin Books.

Spitalfields used to be cited by ‘psychogeographers’ as one of those London locales where the sad history of the city was engraved upon its streets and buildings: a place that was permanently wrong. The district’s association with poverty, with Jack the Ripper, the waves of the dispossessed that have settled over the centuries – this stuff was meat and drink to the likes of Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd. Back in 1900, the great American writer Jack London came here to discover the East End. He posed as an American seaman down on his luck, resorting to this subterfuge after Thomas Cook & Co. refused to give him a tour of the district. The resulting book, People of the Abyss, documented in depressing detail the squalor of Spitalfields, and included photos of down and outs sleeping against the walls of Christ Church. The pictures taken by Jack London have an eerie echo in Bill Brandt’s photos of east enders sheltering in the church’s crypt during the Blitz; his picture of a Sikh family among the tombs is a pointer to the future, as the local Jewish population declined and immigrants from the Indian sub-continent moved in. The 1960s saw moves to demolish the entire area – including Hawksmoor’s church – and the time-locked deprivation of the Georgian district was eloquently captured by photographers Don McCullin, Paul Trevor and (later) Marketa Luskacova. McCullin’s portraits of local meths drinkers are terrifying and poignant: when they aren’t screaming at some unseen object, they defy the abyss by retaining a certain dignity. And Marketa Luskacova’s magnificent portrait of a man singing operatic arias for pennies on Brick Lane is the visual equivalent of Gavin Bryars’ post-modernist tone poem Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet, wherein a field recording of a London tramp singing a hymn is accompanied by a limpid orchestral texture. (Although it is worth noting that Bryars made the point that the tramp on the tape, recorded circa 1970, was not a drinker; this also applies to the woman in David Secombe’s photo, and to Marketa’s singer.)

Street singer, Brick Lane, 1982. © Marketa Luskacova.

But Christ Church was not demolished and has in recent years been the beneficiary of grants to restore the fabric of the building after decades of neglect. Hawksmoor’s London churches have experienced a revival in general, and I’ve already written about how they have become talismans for those who seek a hidden or mystical history of the city; so we get Peter Ackroyd’s 1985 novel Hawksmoor, and Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell, which links the Jack the Ripper murders to the looming presence of Christ Church over Whitechapel. It’s all balls, really; but mention of From Hell gives me the opportunity to link this clip from the film derived from it, in which Johnny Depp pours himself a very inauthentic absinthe (this particular recipe inspired, methinks, by Aleister Crowley’s ‘Kubla Khan No. 2′ cocktail) …

The picture at the top dates from a moment just before the wealth and bombast of commercial London annexed the neglected East End. Spitalfields’ perceived desirability perked up considerably around this time; long-term residents like Gilbert and George, Dan Cruikshank (who had been one of the original squatters who had helped save the area from destruction in the 1970s) and the American artist Dennis Severs, whose house is now a museum, acted as beacons of gentility amidst the inner-city gloom. And, as the 1990s rolled on, the East End went from being the Dark Heart of Old London to Shiny Retail Zone with bewildering speed. I remember laughing at my first sighting of Japanese tourists apparently lost in Shoreditch circa 1997 – but that was, I think, the same year that a Holiday Inn opened on Old Street. A visit to Spitalfields Market today is a trip to Covent Garden East: Covid-19 notwithstanding, visitors are safe to purchase their branded goods and speciality coffees in a shopping environment free of disquiet. It gives the lie to the theories of Ackroyd and Sinclair: with enough commercial pressure, any area, no matter how dark its history, can be transformed into a playground for contented shoppers. The poor and neglected get moved on and even Jack the Ripper is transformed into a token of area branding. Nostalgia, eh?

The past is a foreign country … Spitalfields Market, 1991.Photo: David Secombe.