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.

A St. Giles Basement

Old St. Giles: 7 Denmark St. in 2015.

Further to last week’s investigation into the mysterious bond that links Hawksmoor’s St George’s Bloomsbury to contemporary British comedy, today’s outing is a further trip round the blasted landscape of St. Giles. Centre Point notwithstanding, Renzo Piano’s day-glo ‘Central St Giles’ development now dominates the locality: an arrangement of Lego-like orange, yellow and green blocks which can be seen with the naked eye from my flat in Crystal Palace six miles away. (Piano is also responsible for The Shard, which is even harder to ignore.) In its way, Central St. Giles is 21st century London’s equivalent of Hawksmoor’s St.George’s: an unintentional joke, a tinselly distraction in the midst of urban blight. As previously discussed, this was where Hogarth located Gin Lane, his celebrated image of London as Hell: that was in 1751, the height of the gin craze, when the district had something like 500 gin shops and 82 lodging houses. The slum became known as ‘The Holy Land’ in honour of its largely Irish population, and a ‘St Giles cellar’ was an 18th century colloquialism for the worst imaginable habitation. When the brewery on Bainbridge St. exploded in 1818, it flooded St Giles with 10,000 gallons of beer and downed eight unfortunates in their basements. Thomas Beames, writing in the middle of the 19th century, said that St Giles represented ‘the lowest conditions under which human life is possible’.

A bright horror … Renzo Piano’s Central St. Giles looming over Denmark St.

You get the idea. St Giles was a frightful stew of poverty and filth. By the Victorian period The Holy Land covered somewhere between six and ten acres, its precise boundaries being hard to gauge as the edges shaded in and out of more respectable streets. In Curiosities of London, John Timbs describes the rookery as: ‘one great mass, as if the houses had originally been one block of stone, eaten by slugs into numberless small chambers and connecting passages’. The Holy Land’s proximity to the West End made it a perfect refuge for thieves who were able to work well-heeled crowds before retreating to the rookery’s impenetrable depths. Its labyrinthine complexity, bolt-holes, and booby traps made pursuit of offenders as pointless as it was dangerous: a constable could find himself decoyed into an ambush in some dead end court, or simply tipped into a concealed cesspool.

Unsurprisingly, Dickens was all over this place. In A Gin Palace, first published in 1835, the young journalist indulges his revulsion for low life, whilst noting the glamour of the gin palaces themselves. Later, when he was fully established as great novelist and social reformer, Dickens returned to St Giles in the company of a group of armed police led by the legendary Inspector Field during a nocturnal tour of the city’s rookeries. On Duty With Inspector Field contains a description of the forbidding lodging house called Rats’ Castle, a crooks’ hangout in an ancient pile somewhere near Dyott St. (fittingly – but very debatably – built upon the ruins of a medieval leper hospital):

‘St Giles church strikes half past ten. We stoop low and creep down a precipitous flight of steps into a dark close cellar. There is a fire. There is a long deal table. There are benches. The cellar is full of company, chiefly very young men in various conditions of dirt and raggedness. Some are eating supper. There are no girls or women present. Welcome to Rats’ Castle, gentlemen, and to this company of noted thieves!’

This was not a raid: Field was merely putting on a show for Dickens, inundating the company with threateningly matey banter, showing them that it was his manor; and the novelist endorses the policeman’s gloating with lip-smacking fervour. They then proceed to a ‘tramps’ lodging house’, where families of desperately poor Irish are likened by the great social reformer to ‘maggots in a cheese’, before he mimics their speech for comic effect. By the time Dickens wrote this, in 1851, the Victorians were hacking away at the rookery, their road building schemes opening up the honeycombed warren to the light. New Oxford St., Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Rd. were all run through slum housing, residents left homeless amidst the rubble. But the demolition and social cleansing left St Giles permanently denuded; much of the rebuilding feels dead and even the Shaftesbury Theatre (1911) can’t offer much excitement.

But at least you can go for a drink beneath the theatre; at present, this rambling venue is occupied by a branch of The London Cocktail Club, a concern which has gobbled up a few of London’s wine bars over the past few years. It used to be an establishment called The Grapes, which remains vivid in my memory after a spectacular misadventure on my part, but I’ll leave that episode for another occasion. Right now I’m not in the mood for a cocktail, so I will retreat to the cosy downstairs saloon at The Toucan, a Guinness-themed pub on Carlisle St.. All right, it’s Soho not St. Giles, but there’s only a few yards in it; and, as basement bars go, it is unbeatable. I have, over the years, drunk a significant portion of my life away down there – on Guinness, naturally. They even offer Guinness cocktails, but that’s where I draw the line. (Black Velvet, Guinness and champagne, is a concoction that succeeds in wrecking two perfectly acceptable drinks, and looks, smells and tastes like something from a pathology lab.) Of course, my retreat to the Toucan is in my mind, a dredging of blurry memories as I look out of the window in distant SE19. The Toucan’s bars are ideal Petri dishes for Covid-19 to flourish; they will sell you a pint to drink outside, but the interior is closed for the foreseeable. Somewhere, a bell is tolling; and it tolls for me.

The spire of St.Giles’s amidst 21st century destruction.

Shits and Giggles and Nicholas Hawksmoor

All toga’d-up with nowhere to go … St.George’s Bloomsbury.

‘A masterpiece of absurdity.’ Horace Walpole on the church of St.George, Bloomsbury.

Anyone familiar with Hogarth’s Gin Lane will have noticed the odd church steeple in the distance, floating above the atrocities occurring in the urban hell below. Hogarth’s landscape is that of the St.Giles rookery, the most feared criminal enclave in Georgian London and beyond (it was seen as especially threatening due to its proximity to the wealthy West End). Hogarth’s vantage point was St.Giles’s church: the distant steeple belongs to Nicholas Hawksmoor’s St. George’s Bloomsbury, about 200 hundred yards to the west. St. George’s was consecrated in 1730 and was, essentially, a place of worship for those who were too frightened to negotiate the great slum to attend services at St.Giles’s. But St. George’s was not much liked when it was new, the criticism mostly to do with its steeple, which was widely considered to be a demented study in royal arse-licking. Hawksmoor’s steeple recreated one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, with additional lions and unicorns, topped out with George 1st in a toga. (St.George’s original lions and unicorns were lost and the ones seen today are replicas by Tim Crawley, installed in 2002.) The steeple became an instant London joke and its inclusion in Gin Lane is a savage indictment of its overblown Hanoverian sentiment.

Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’, 1751. Straight ahead for St.George’s, mind how you go …

There are a number of reasons to pause here. The first is to consider the achievement of Hawksmoor himself. Nicholas Hawksmoor was an associate of Christopher Wren but his buildings have their own distinct, rather ominous quality, and explicitly evoke the pre-Christian world. For Londoners, Hawksmoor is treasured for his churches: he designed six on his own and contributed to several others, including St.Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, the west towers of which are entirely his work. Less comfortable than Wren’s or Gibbs’s or Archer’s, Hawksmoor’s churches are monumental and forbidding: this is especially true of the ones he built in east London. In the last thirty years a sort of cult has grown up around Hawksmoor, with the likes of Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd fictionalising the great architect as a ‘shaman’ (ancient Siberian for ‘chancer’), and even – in Ackroyd’s novel Hawksmoor – a Satanist whose churches cast an evil force upon the city. This sort of inference is a typical product of psychogeography; and whilst it might be tripe as history it was a very successful bit of myth-making that turned Hawksmoor into a pop culture figure. He even has a restaurant chain named after him, although one suspects it was his cultish post-Ackroyd afterlife rather than his buildings that prompted a caterer to indulge in such pompous branding.

Hawksmoor’s church is impossibly mad and authentically English in its absurdity, yet it somehow manages to be utterly beautiful. One can’t imagine a monument as simultaneously noble and ridiculous existing in any other city. For that reason alone, it is fitting that the church’s crypt is now home to the least-likely ecclesiastical annexe one can imagine. In the undercroft of St. George’s all anticipations of Romanesque gloom are dispelled by the church’s principal tenant, The Museum of Comedy, which comprises a theatre, a bar, galleries, and a library of comedy-related material. The juxtaposition of monumental church and comic shrine is, surely, the strangest cultural collision in all of London. Covid-19 notwithstanding, where else can you combine architectural history with stand-up comedy in an atmosphere of civilised drinking?  I have seen some very entertaining shows in the Museum’s tiny theatre, and have had the poignant experience of reviewing fragments of family history in various out-of-print books strewn around the bar. One of them contained a photograph of my parents and myself at the age of seven. There is something unnerving in finding an image of yourself in an out-of-print book – finding one in the crypt of a church is like walking over your own grave. (I have come to associate London’s great churches with memorial services for great comics and performers, namely Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes at St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields; Michael Bentine and Ian Richardson at St.Paul’s Covent Garden; and Thora Hird at Westminster Abbey.  Mike Bentine’s service at Inigo Jones’s Covent Garden church was very moving whereas Ian Richardson’s do at the same venue featured a bravura comic turn from Donald Sinden. Thora Hird was very frail when I saw her at a memorial at the Abbey and at one point I wondered whether she had actually died during the service, which would have upstaged the headlining act. As it turned out, she got her own show at the Abbey the following year.)

One for the road … Thora Hird.

Anyone with a feeling for the classical past will want to pair a visit to the church with a walk up the street to the British Museum*, where you can see statues and friezes from Hawksmoor’s inspiration, the original Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, thoughtfully ‘liberated’ from Turkey by a 19th century British expedition. A deplorable bit of imperial plundering, naturally; but the Mausoleum was a grandiose tomb erected by a functionary of the Persian Empire for his own glorification, so its foothold in London is not entirely inappropriate. (* Room 21, assuming you can get in.)