London Airs

Denmark St., with Centre Point looming behind, in 2015.

I have written about old St Giles before: as a dreadful ancient slum, Victorian London’s most fearful rookery, a festering warren inhabited by the poor, according to Charles Dickens, ‘like maggots in a cheese’. Did I mention that there was once a gallows roughly where Centre Point stands now? Seems fitting, especially as the phrase ‘one for the road’ derives from the custom of halting at St Giles to give a final drink to doomed convicts en route from Newgate to execution at Tyburn. (The Bowl and The Angel are both mentioned as pubs known for this charity.) In the 1660s St Giles became notorious as point of origin for the Great Plague, and the areas woes went on and on. Crumbling, fragile Denmark St., laid out in the 1680s, still survives, squeezed by the towering 1960s bombast of Centre Point and an assortment of wind- swept plazas that form an inner-city desert. You would be hard pressed to realize it now but this bit of town was once a mecca for British popular music. The Astoria Theatre, at the northern end of the Charing Cross Rd., was one of the most important clubs for breaking rock bands until it was sacrificed on the altar of Crossrail. A few yards to the north, on the southern reaches of the Tottenham Court Road, in an Irish dancehall (The Blarney, long since bulldozed), you would once have found the pioneer psychedelic club UFO, a short-lived temple to progressive music and expanded consciousness. For a few months in 1967 you could go there on a Friday night to lose your mind to the sounds of Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd or Soft Machine, who were the resident bands, and the hallucinatory light shows (pioneered by Mark Boyle, amongst others) that constituted a new form of art installation.

Billy Fury and manager Larry Parnes.

And you hardly need me to tell you that Denmark St. (‘London’s own Tin Pan Alley!’) used to be London’s music business quarter. In the fifties, this was the fiefdom of Larry Parnes, impresario and Svengali-figure, manager of Tommy Steele, Georgie Fame, and improbably-named singers like Billy Fury, Marty Wilde, Vince Eager, Dickie Pride, Johnny Gentle (these latter supposedly – urban myth alert – re-named by Parnes according to sexual type). Parnes was so risible that he was mocked by Muir and Norden in a famous Peter Sellers sketch, and the 1958 musical Expresso Bongo by Wolf Mankowitz (father of music photographer Gered) satirised Parnes’s domination of the contemporary pop scene. Expresso Bongo was promptly made into a film, wherein the satire was largely ditched in order to make it a star vehicle for Cliff Richard; this seems, somehow, entirely appropriate. Other local fixtures included songwriter Lionel Bart, the jingle genius Johnny Johnston (Softness is a Thing Called Comfort, Beanz Meanz Heinz, and five thousand other commercial ditties), and all the other personalities of the pre-Beatles universe. In the later sixties, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Donovan, Bowie, Hendrix all came here to record, in studios (e.g. Regent Sound, at no.4) carved out of 17th-century basements. The likes of David Bowie and Paul Simon came to schmooze publishers and hang out at the Giaconda coffee bar. Ten years later it was the turn of the phlegm-flecked protégés of Malcolm McLaren (the seventies version of Larry Parnes, plus value-added Situationist bullshit) The Sex Pistols, who rehearsed and lived here for a while. And, whilst he is unlikely to get a blue plaque, the mass-murderer Dennis Nilsen spent the early 1980s working in a jobcentre that used to be on the corner of Denmark St. and the Charing Cross Road (where, at one year’s Christmas staff party, Nilsen served his colleagues punch in a large pot he brought from his home, the same pan he used for boiling his victims’ heads).

Barbara Windsor and Lionel Bart during dress rehearsals for ‘Twang!!’

Wandering a bit further east from Denmark St., past Renzo Piano’s aggressively bright St. Giles Central development, you find Shaftesbury Avenue, St.Giles High St., and Bloomsbury St. converging in an unlovely funnel of tarmac. On the other side of the churning traffic lies the Shaftesbury Theatre, a crumbling Edwardian edifice stranded amidst the one-way system. The Shaftesbury is a survivor, narrowly escaping demolition in the 1970s, during the interminable run of the hippie operetta Hair, which ran from September 1968 until July 1973, when the theatre’s ceiling caved in. The owners, EMI, wanted to redevelop the site but the actor’s union Equity managed to get the building Grade 2 listed and it has since established itself as a successfully venue in a blighted location. The Shaftesbury also played a role in the downfall of local hero Lionel Bart. After rising to prominence as a writer of hits for Larry Parnes’s stable, Bart’s zenith was the celebrated musical Oliver! which opened at the New Theatre (now the Noel Coward theatre) on St Martin’s Lane in June 1960. A few years later, hubris struck as his under-prepared Robin Hood satire Twang!! – that’s two exclamation marks – had its chaotic London premiere at The Shaftesbury in December 1965. Reviews were terrible and the show closed after five weeks. Ignoring the wisdom that one should never invest your own money in your own show, Bart threw his fortune at the mess to try to keep it running and lost just about everything. At one point he sold his Oliver! copyrights to Max Bygraves for something like loose change. (As some of Oliver!‘s numbers were re-workings of old London street cries, this is another eventuality that has a pleasing inevitability about it.)

If 1840s St Giles was the ultimate in city squalor, its 21st century incarnation is the very model of a modern townscape: a sterile concrete tundra, safely contemporary, safely cheerless. Around 1900, London suffered the destruction of Wych St. and environs to create ‘new’ Aldwych and Kingsway, the loss of which it is hard to overstate. That particular act of civic philistinism didn’t just obliterate some of the prettiest streets in the capital, it cauterized life on the streets – which is exactly what it was intended to do, removing ‘unwholesome’ theatres and booksellers and erasing one of London’s cultural centres. The destruction of the area around Denmark Street is the contemporary equivalent. How do we characterise it? A few years ago, I saw chalked graffiti on the hoarding in front of the remains of the 12 Bar club that summed it up …

(Speaking of the Shaftesbury Theatre, there used to be a strange wine bar beneath it, The Grapes, which boasted an Escher-drawing of an interior and small, inadequate tables. It is now another branch of the London Cocktail Club. Some years ago I got into trouble there in a memorable episode which I describe here. A cautionary tale of sorts.)

From The Betsey To The Black Friar

A more-than-slightly idealised view of the mouth of the Fleet as it joined the Thames; painting after Scott, 1750 (detail).

Beneath the unlovely Farringdon Road runs the greatest of all the lost rivers of London, the Fleet. The Fleet rises from its headwaters in Hampstead, runs through Kentish Town, Camden Town, King’s Cross and beneath this churning highway before debouching into the Thames beneath Blackfriars Bridge. Just north of the junction with Clerkenwell Road is the Betsey Trotwood, formerly The Butcher’s Arms, a charming Victorian pub which I will take today as the northern marker for the Fleet Valley. (I have already written about the Fleet in relation to Hockley Hole, a depression a few yards west of the Betsey, which marks the final turn in the river’s course downstream; and have also referenced the open sewer that it became in connection with various nasty episodes in Georgian times. See the list of links below.) I suggest you order a stiff one at the Betsey before proceeding downhill.

Once, a very long time ago, the Fleet was navigable from the Thames to Kentish Town, and there were gardens along the Fleet Valley; but even in the medieval period they were building prisons in the vicinity, which lent a distinctly penitential character to an increasingly forbidding area. Furthermore, the meat industry centred on Smithfield market threw all its detritus into the Fleet so the river became a great open sewer, carrying human, animal and vegetable waste towards the Thames. The surrounding slums and general ghastliness became a grim London joke. Ben Jonson’s poem On the Famous Voyage describes the Fleet as more hellish than all the rivers of Hades, and mordantly observes the smells, filth and offal assailing two boatmen as they row through the shit-caked creek. Alexander Pope’s Dunciad contains the lines:

“To where Fleet Ditch, with disemboguing streams,
Rolls its large tribute of dead dogs to Thames.”

The Fleet Prison was actually in the river itself, being constructed on one of the two islands in the middle of its lower reaches. This jail was already in operation by the 12th century and by the 18th century the Fleet was a debtors’ prison – and like all penitential institutions of the day, it charged inmates for their imprisonment: food, water, and the ‘services’ of warders and turnkeys were all billed at exorbitant prices. Those who could afford to took lodgings outside prison walls, in surrounding streets known as the ‘Liberty of the Fleet’ (but they had to compensate the warder for loss of income). Thus the surrounding area became a sort of extension of the prison itself.

Fleet Ditch blows itself up, 1862.

Bit by bit, the Fleet was forced underground. In 1732 the section between Holborn Bridge and Fleet St. was covered and a market was constructed on top of it, just north of where Ludgate Circus is now. But it took the Victorians to properly tame it. The engineering of the river chimed with the clearing of slums, the creation of new roads and the vaulted arches of Holborn Viaduct, along with the development of the railways. But even the Victorians had a hard time burying the Fleet: it exploded once in the 1840s, the product of a build-up of noxious gas, and burst its culvert in 1862, when it broke through railway diggings and spewed sewage into homes. It also washed corpses from St Peter’s churchyard into the streets. This is from a letter written to Charles Darwin in 1860 by one John Rodwell, who had been intrigued by Darwin’s recently published Origin of Species:

‘ … about 1843 when I was Incumbent of S. Peter’s Saffron Hill, a large portion of the old Fleet Sewer, said never to have been before opened since the days of Queen Elizabeth, was exposed to view. I then saw several enormous rats which had been taken thence by the workmen, and upon examination they all proved to be blind and almost entirely devoid of hair, and so ferocious were they that the workmen assured me they were deterred from entering the old parts of the sewer as the rats would unquestionably fly at them. The rats which I saw were taken out at Holborn Bridge, and as there are three arches still remaining there of an old roman Bridge some sixteen or more feet below the present surface, it is possible that those rats may have been breeding there for ages, and if like the blind cave animals you mention in chapter 5 of the Origin of Species —their progenitors lost the power of sight a 1000 years since, and lost as they would, I suppose, at the same time any great ability for migration, this would be a curious illustration of a part of your theory.

(It seems likely that the Roman bridge mentioned was, in fact, a 17th century one designed by Christopher Wren. After the Great Fire Wren tried to rehabilitate the Fleet by trying to refashion it in the style of a Venetian canal. Worth a go, I suppose.)

The 1983 Calvi inquest jury inspecting the spot beneath Blackfriars Bridge where the banker’s body was found.

The lower reaches of the Fleet are always yielding up weird artifacts, like the dismembered 11th century skeletons that were found near the Thames outlet twenty-something years ago (alongside three seats from a medieval latrine), as well as more contemporary unpleasantness. In the morning of 18 June 1982 the body of Roberto Calvi, a prominent Italian banker, was discovered hanging beneath Blackfriars Bridge. There were bricks in his clothes, along with about $15,000 of cash in several currencies. Calvi was dubbed ‘God’s banker’ because of his ties to the Vatican, and the church’s investments in Banco Ambrosiano, the bank of which he had been chairman. But he’d been sacked following allegations of malpractice, and his secretary had already killed himself by jumping out of a window. Calvi belonged to a Masonic lodge known as the ‘frati neri’ or ‘black friars’, which has led some to assume that it was no coincidence that his body was discovered under Blackfriars Bridge. His body was found a week after he he’d left Italy on a false passport. After two inquests in British courts, the cause of his death was left open. A court in New York later agreed with his family’s assertions that he had been murdered. An informer later claimed that Calvi’s death was a professional hit in retaliation for the demise of Banco Ambrosiano, as the Mafia had taken a shower on the bank’s collapse. (Perhaps also worth mentioning that a small-time drug dealer that later occupied the same London flat as Calvi – up river, in Chelsea – was later found dead in not-dissimilar circumstances.) As late as 2007, trials of suspects were held in Rome but no convictions were secured. So to mark the grisly fate of Calvi, and indeed anyone else who perished in or around Fleet Ditch, I suggest going for a quick one at The Black Friar, a miraculous Arts and Crafts pub tottering anomalously at the bottom of Farringdon Rd., its glittering décor and façade a reminder that it wasn’t only Christopher Wren who tried to bring civilization to Fleet Valley.

London’s own little Flatiron Building … The Black Friar, built in the 1870s.

Whilst you are enjoying your drink, it’s perhaps worth considering the impact that 21st century climate is having on the brooding Fleet. Recent flooding in London has shown the extent to which the city’s infrastructure is being stretched by the monsoon-type downpours we are having to adjust to. The Fleet is biding its time, waiting for its chance. I’ll leave you with the last lines of A Description of a City Shower by Jonathan Swift:

Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.

See also:
Jonathan Wild’s House,Chick Lane
Fights and Festivities at Hockley Hole
The First Gin Palace
Some Fleet Street Killers
One More Before Doomsday

How Was It For You?

It is human nature to minimise the peril that seems passed. The town, so recently roused out of despair, indulged an exaggerated confidence. From The Great Plague In London In 1665 by W.G. Bell, 1924.

It feels strange to be constantly living through history, one preposterous event following another in quick succession. A bit like being Chris Morris’s reporter in On The Hour, ‘… standing next to the hole out of which the events are emerging.’ Yesterday was something called ‘Freedom Day’ which, in true British fashion, turned out to be something of a fiasco: a queasy admixture of nervous hedonism, ongoing grievance and hubris. We were, thankfully, spared Boris Johnson’s planned ‘Victory Day’ speech as he was forced into reluctant self-isolation after Sajid Javid’s Covid diagnosis. A friend of mine did manage to celebrate yesterday, by having an eight-hour lunch at Soho House. This demonstrates admirable spirit and might have been something I would have done if I wasn’t broke. I did do a bit of indoor drinking but that wasn’t a celebration, merely business as usual. Only the ferocious heat seemed different. Anyway, what are we supposed to be drinking to? Celebrating ‘freedom’ from a contagious virus that is not fully understood is so idiotic that one winces and wonder what it says about the state of the nation. I don’t think anyone ever waved a flag to declare that the Spanish Flu was now over and we could all have a party. Perhaps the end of the Black Death was marked with the odd roast swan or two, easier to poach in the de-populated countryside than before. In any case the Brexit mess is the very definition of unfinished business, so Johnson’s ‘Churchillian’ speech would have gone down as yet another national embarrassment. (To paraphrase the late Artist Formerly Known As Prince, ‘Tonight we’re going to party like it’s 1938 …’)

Recent parallels being of limited use (after all, you can’t catch the Blitz) I consulted W.G. Bell’s account of the Great Plague of London in search of historical resonance for the present moment. (I’ve written about The Plague before, at the start of the Great Covid.) Bell marks the official end of the Plague with the King’s return to London. The Plague had started in the spring and Charles II and his court abandoned London in July. Administration of the city was left to George Monck, first Duke of Albemarle, a tough but efficient soldier who had played a vital role in Charles’s restoration. The contagion raged through the hot summer months but the infection was checked by a cold winter and Charles made his royal return to Whitehall Palace on 1st February. But whilst the Plague might have receded from the commercial and fashionable areas of town it still lurked in less salubrious corners. The first four months of 1666 saw 781 Plague deaths reported in the Bills of Mortality and the true number was certainly higher than that. There was alarm in Whitehall Palace in April when the king’s ‘closet keeper’, Tom Chiffinch, died suddenly of the ‘pestilence’, less than twenty-four hours after he was reported to be cheerfully playing backgammon (but at least he got to be buried in Westminster Abbey). There were fears of the Plague returning at full strength but it petered out in the capital – although towns like Deal, Colchester, Norwich and Cambridge suffered terrible outbreaks in 1666. (And then there is the heroic story of the village of Eyam in Derbyshire.) The official total of Plague victims was 68,596. Bell extrapolates that if allowance is made for error, lack of reporting and concealment, the true number is in the vicinity of 110,000; he goes on to calculate that, beyond the wealthy who had fled the city, about one in three of London’s population died from the disease.

So where does this get us, exactly? Dominic Cummings is all over the news today, as he is giving his first broadcast interview to Laura Kuenssberg at the BBC. It appears that one of his claims is that Boris Johnson resisted a second national coronavirus lockdown because he believed those dying were ‘essentially all over 80‘. Johnson is also reported as denying that the NHS was overwhelmed. Cummings is backing up his claims with WhatsApp messages purporting to be from Johnson, who he accuses of ‘putting his own political interests ahead of people’s lives‘. Cummings is, of course, the slipperiest of slippery operators, who spent a significant portion of last summer smirking his way past accusations that he had himself had breached lockdown for trivial reasons (at a time when families were prevented from seeing each other by Covid restrictions, when family members were unable to say goodbye to mortally sick relatives , etc. etc.) And he was all over Brexit, let’s not forget that. But he was at the centre of government and, if he is dishing the goods on his former boss now, it seems congruent with the culture at the top. Can someone have social immunity from a disease? In his history of the Plague, W.G. Bell pointedly notes that: ‘No single gap was made by the Plague in the ranks of statesmen; no member of Lords or Commons is returned dead by Plague. […] I have not found that a magistrate succumbed to the Plague. The Court and the professional classes, the big financiers […] who assisted King Charles in his often desperate need for money, the wealthier London merchants and tradesmen – all returned to London to take up the broken thread of their affairs. Yet there were one hundred thousand dead. To these others the Plague had been an inconvenience, a monetary loss, no more. […] It had been ‘the poore’s Plague.”

It would be tempting to compare Johnson to Charles II – the foppishness, the entitlement, the sleaze, the girls, etc. – but at least Charles knew his limitations and was smart enough to delegate Plague command to the very capable Albemarle. And, of course, Charles was a monarch rather than a politician, someone who was lumbered with his dynastic legacy and whose obligations were pre-destined. (I’m not going to get into an argument about the Restoration now, we can do that another time.) He wasn’t a career politician or an opportunistic chancer whose default setting is to treat national leadership as a branch of the entertainment business. Cummings also claims that Johnson had to be stopped from meeting with the Queen early in the pandemic, when official advice was to avoid unnecessary contact, especially with the elderly, amidst signs that Covid-19 was already spreading in Downing Street. This is where we enter a level of reality that is beyond satire – although one could see this scenario work in the format of a situation comedy. This is political history as an episode of Hancock’s Half Hour, with Dominic Cummings as Sid James, Sajid Javid as Bill Kerr, and Johnson, of course, as ‘the lad himself’. In this episode the Queen plays herself, although we only hear her talking to her corgis. Waiting outside, in a Buckingham Palace ante-room, Hancock tousles his hair to achieve a look of endearing boyishness as Sid tries to persuade him that passing on a deadly virus to HMQ might be a bad look with the electorate. Then his phone rings: it’s Bill. ‘Tub? I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news …’

(Priti Patel as Hattie Jacques? Discuss.)

Dominic Cummings’s interview with Laura Keunssberg is on BBC2 at 7pm tonight.

See also:

Dry Quarantini

A Man Doesn’t Walk Into A Bar