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

Entitlement-on-Thames

George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, sporting facial hair that would pass muster in Hoxton and Dalston today.

At the bottom of Villiers Street, just next to Gordon’s Wine Bar, is a set of steps leading down to Watergate Walk, a pathway that cuts through to the Adelphi and doubles as a sort of pub garden for Gordon’s. If, lockdown notwithstanding, you fancy taking your glass of vintage Madeira outside you will find yourself staring at a marooned fragment of the lost riverside landscape that once characterized this area. This is York Watergate, a richly rusticated Renaissance structure, a stately gateway to nowhere. It was built in the 1620s as a private dock for York House, a mega-luxe townhouse that once stood on this spot: a relic of an era when the Strand was a district of palaces and a private water frontage a prerequisite for every Jacobean plutocrat (the 17th century equivalent of your own helicopter pad).

The Watergate was added to York House by George Villiers, the flamboyant, corrupt and generally ghastly 1st Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham had taken possession of the mansion after engineering the political demise of its previous owner, philosopher Francis Bacon, which seems to have been fairly characteristic behaviour on the Duke’s part. Buckingham pulled down Bacon’s beloved home (which had existed in various guises for several hundred years) and rebuilt York House in a manner more fitting to his own extrovert sensibility, furnishing it with luxuries and fine art. Despite his abrasive and thrusting unpleasantness, Buckingham was an inescapable personality in the courts of James 1st and Charles 1st, his considerable influence attributed to King James’s fondness for his profile. Whether or not the relationship between King and courtier was a full-blown affair is a matter of scholarly debate, but here’s James writing to Buckingham:

The Lord of Heaven send you a sweet and blithe wakening, all kind of comfort in your sanctified bed, and bless the fruits thereof that I may have sweet bedchamber boys to play me with, and this is my daily prayer, sweet heart.

Buckingham was a conspicuously terrible diplomat – the Spanish ambassador to London called for his execution following a mission to Madrid – a compulsive intriguer and an unsuccessful military leader, none of which hindered his political advancement. Buckingham continued his career under Charles 1st and York Watergate is festooned with carved anchors to advertise his status as an admiral, despite the fact that he oversaw one of the worst naval disasters of the era: a botched 1627 raid against the French at La Rochelle in which he lost 4,000 out of his 7,000 men. Drenched, as we would now say, in Teflon, Buckingham’s unstoppable progress was finally ended the following year, when a disgruntled soldier called Felton stabbed him to death in a Portsmouth pub. Buckingham’s unpopularity was such that his assassination was widely celebrated and Felton was acclaimed as a folk hero. During the Commonwealth York House belonged to Cromwell’s associate Thomas Fairfax, a period that saw the mansion stripped of its pictures, sold off because they offended Puritan sensibilities. After the Restoration York House was occupied by another Buckingham, the 2nd Duke and another George, who by means of smart dynastic gamesmanship happened to be married to Fairfax’s daughter (and sole heir).

George Villiers, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, by Peter Lely. (National Portrait Gallery.)

George Jnr. proved to be no less reckless than his father; in fact, he was a sort of cartoon image of the Restoration rake: vastly rich and vastly profiligate, lecherous and bisexual, a lethal duellist and a minor poet of skill. The 2nd Duke ingratiated himself with the restored king and pursued a life of pristinely aggressive hedonism. One episode concerned Buckingham’s mistress, the Countess of Shrewsbury, who he had installed at another, up-river, Thames-side mansion. None of this played well with the Countess’s husband the Earl of Shrewsbury, who naively objected to the appropriation of his wife. Buckingham challenged the Shrewsbury to a duel, placing Shrewsbury at a considerable disadvantage, since the Duke’s skill with the epee was very widely admired. The duel took place in Barnes, perhaps the only exciting thing that has ever happened in Barnes, and – predictably – resulted in the deaths of Shrewsbury and another of his party, skewered on the end of Buckingham’s sword. Pepys reports on all this, drily noting that the countess is: ‘a whore to the Duke of Buckingham’ and that the Duke himself ‘is a fellow of no more sobriety than to fight about a whore’. (The Duchess of Shrewsbury had form. In 1662 two of her previous lovers fought a duel over her, leaving one seriously wounded and his ‘second’ stone dead.)

But although Buckingham was one of the richest shits in England he was permanently short of cash, and in 1672 he flogged York House to a developer for £30,000, who promptly pulled it down and built streets upon the site. One typically egocentric condition that Buckingham insisted on in the Deed of Sale was the provision that his name and full title should be commemorated in the new development: hence George Street, Villiers Street, Duke Street, Buckingham Street and – wait for it – Of Alley. (In a nice turn of history, Pepys ended up living in one of the houses on the site, 12 Buckingham St.; but don’t go looking for Of Alley, it has been re-christened York Place.) After that, Buckingham, continued to lose money, fell out with Charles II, spent a spell as a prisoner in the Tower, and died, without heir and in reduced circumstances, in 1687. Anyway, as you sip your hypothetical glass of Madeira in that hypothetical future when you are allowed to visit Gordon’s pub garden, indeed any pub garden, you can stare at the sole survivor of York House and wonder which of London’s contemporary landmarks is due a similar fate.

York Watergate today. Photo: Valentine Hamms.

As fate would have it, the 2nd Duke’s much re-built country seat, Cliveden (in Buckinghamshire, naturally), became the pivotal venue for The Profumo Affair, another salacious collision of power and socially transgressive sexual relations; but that’s fun for another time.

See also: The Poor Wee Drinkur.

A Quick Trip Round The Bermudas, By Way Of Porridge Island and Saffron Burrows

Goodwin’s Court seen from Bedfordbury.

From The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, Francis Grose, 1785:
‘PORRIDGE ISLAND. An alley leading from St. Martin’s church-yard to Round-court, chiefly inhabited by cooks, who cut off ready-dressed meat of all sorts, and also sell soup.’

From Cunningham’ s Handbook of London,1850:
‘PORRIDGE ISLAND. A paved alley or footway, near the church of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, destroyed in 1829, when the great rookery (of which Bedfordbury is still a sample) was removed from about the Strand and St. Martin’s-lane. [See Bermudas]. It was filled with cooks’ shops, and was cant name. The real name is, I believe, unknown.’
*
‘THE BERMUDAS: A nest or rookery of obscure alleys and avenues running between the bottom of St Martin’ s Lane, Bedford St. and Chandos St.’.

As Cunningham’s Handbook says, not all of the ‘great rookery’ disappeared, and even now fragments may be seen amidst the glitz of the modern city. A notable survivor is Goodwin’s Court, just off Bedfordbury. A hovel-alley turned West End ornament (notwithstanding a pervasive stench of piss), Goodwin’s Court features beautiful bowed shop-fronts, 18th century in style, although they are no longer shops and God knows what they are now. When I was a boy my parents took me to a show-business party in the house at the Bedfordbury end, the one with the staircase that straddles the alley. The host was the late Tony Sympson, an actor whose family were instrumental in preserving Goodwin’s Court against destruction (this was when practically all of WC2 was slated for demolition). I remember a jewel-box of a house composed of implausibly large rooms, their Regency elegance constituting an act of defiance. The house is still someone’s home; perhaps the most desirable place to live in all the West End. Next door is Giovanni’s, a discreet Italian restaurant popular with old-school actors and producers (the house red is especially good value, but watch yourself).

On the corner of Bedfordbury and Chandos Place is a generic boozer called The Marquis of Granby. This pub is nowhere near as nice as The Harp a couple of doors down but The Marquis is of interest because it was once The Hole in the Wall, an authentic 17th Century dive at a time when this area was a scary district. Supposedly, the Hole in the Wall was where the legendary highwayman Claude Duval was finally arrested and taken into custody. That was in 1670 and Duval had been at large for several years by then, his reputation as the prototype gallant highwayman disseminated widely in Restoration England. Duval was a Frenchman from Normandy and, possibly, an ex-mercenary; but his biography has become fused with myth. The legend has him asking permission to dance a minuet with a lady whose jewels he had just stolen from her husband’s coach; but that tale derives from a satire by Pope that mocked the idea of the dashing thief on horseback (and, not incidentally, alluded that the handsome young crook was a molly). Notions of genteel criminality were an even bigger joke then than they are now, yet somehow the send-up became the romantic tableau (as per Wm. Frith, see below). In any case, it seems unlikely that he was arrested at the Hole in the Wall, although he was definitely was hanged at Tyburn, aged 27. The legend holds that his body was then conveyed to St Paul’s churchyard, about a hundred yards from The Hole, in a torch-lit procession flanked by hordes of weeping women who may or may not have been mugged by him. That’s less likely. And there was never a monument to him in the church, as is often stated. In fact, so much of this story is bollocks that I feel like a bit of a tit mentioning it.

William Frith’s Victorian imagining of Claude Duval: ‘Grand Theft Minuet’.

Behind the Marquis of Granby is a slim, dagger-shaped passageway called Brydges Place. At the thicker end of its wedge are the back doors to The Marquis and The Harp, the latter being one of the nicest West End of all pubs, as well as a discreet entrance for Two Brydges Place, a civilized drinking club. The eastern end of the passage offers many possibilities for drinking, socialising and making odd connections in general, especially on a warm night when punters overflow from the pubs into the alley. The stars are more vivid when you can only see a narrow slit of sky, assuming you can see anything at all past the sodium yellow of the streetlights. Due to its secluded aspect, Brydges Place is a refuge for the homeless, the covered yard next to The Harp being a place where they can gather in considerable numbers. At the sharper end of its point it acquires a grimmer aspect and one usually has to be careful not to trip over at least one filthy sleeping bag, with or without its occupant. Here, the antique desperation of The Bermudas still persists: Brydges Place remains a rookery in miniature, an authentically oppressive period setting for contemporary deprivation. Fittingly for the survival of an ancient slum, Brydges Place narrows to shoulder-width at the point where it debouches into St Martin’s Lane. This limits its utility as a cut-through, especially when there are crowds emerging after a show. (Remember when there were shows in London?) One evening, as I trundled down it towards St.Martin’s Lane, I noticed a very beautiful woman waiting for me to clear so she and her friend could enter the alley: I recognised her as being the celebrated actress Saffron Burrows. I clocked her cheekbones and made eye contact, whereupon she said to her companion: ‘We’ll have to wait for this large man to exit before we can go down here’. A fraction of a second later, I stepped on a loose paving slab and my desert-booted foot dropped into filthy rainwater up to my ankle. Smooth, smooth, smooth.

Brydges Place, looking towards St.Martin’s Lane.