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

21st June, 1815: Mrs Boehm Throws A Party

Sergeant Ewart of the Royal Scots Greys capturing the Standard and Eagle of the French 45th of the Line at the Battle of Waterloo on 18th June 1815. Painting by Denis Dighton, 1815-17, Royal Collection.

The Morning Post, 13 June 1815:
Mr. and Mrs. Boehm will entertain the Prince Regent, the Duke of York and a large party of distinguished personages, with a grand dinner, on Wednesday, the 21st instant, at their house in St, James’s Square.

As John Adams’s version of Richard Nixon sings in that catchy number from Nixon in China, ‘News … News … News … News … [repeat x 8] Has a … Has a … Has a … Has a … Kind of mysteryyyyyyyyyyy’ … Of course, that opera was set in 1972; today we take for granted our access to instant information (or disinformation); indeed, I have met ‘digital natives’ who find the idea of living without the internet as being impossible to comprehend. Imagine those times when news was disseminated slowly, by ship, by horse, by foot, and over great distances.

On the night of 21st June 1815, the Prince Regent was attending Mr. and Mrs Boehm’s ‘grand dinner’ at their swanky townhouse at 16 St. James’s Square. The Boehms were not aristocrats but a pair of shrewd grafters; Edmund Boehm was a rich banker and his wife Dorothy was a social butterfly with a gift for public relations. By 1815 they were well established as society hosts; but, even though it was the middle of the London ‘season’, their grand dinner on Wednesday 21st might have been better timed. On the previous Sunday the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo; but as guests were arriving at the Boehms’ supper party three nights later, news of Wellington’s victory had yet to reach London. For days the city seethed with rumour, newspapers presenting conflicting reports based on conjecture and wishful thinking. The news of Wellington’s victory had been entrusted to Major Henry Percy, who was still en route from the battlefield. Percy had in his possession Wellington’s official dispatch, as well as captured French flags and a pair of Napoleon’s imperial eagle standards. (Although they were relics of Napoleon’s Roman grandiosity, the eagles were charged symbols of the Imperial French army and were seized in the battle at great cost.) Percy had made slow progress to the French coast and by Wednesday morning found his ship becalmed in the English Channel. Despairing of the situation, Percy disembarked twenty miles off the Kentish coast, and was rowed ashore in a small boat by four sailors, making landfall at Broadstairs at 3 p.m. on the 21st. Percy then chartered a coach and aimed towards London, seventy-five miles distant. His mission was to hand Wellington’s dispatch to the Secretary of State for War, to the Duke of York, and deliver to the Prince Regent the dispatch and the French flags and eagles: definitive proof of Napoleon’s defeat. It took him about eight hours to reach the capital and when his carriage finally made it across Westminster Bridge, just after 11 p.m., he had to locate the addressees. He finally tracked down the Secretary for War and the Prime Minister at a dinner in Grosvenor Square; and as the news spread, crowds followed Percy’s progress as he headed to St.James’s to alert the Prince.

Major Percy leaves Belgium for England bearing Wellington’s dispatch, with captured French flags and standard signifying victory; from a contemporary aquatint.

As Percy’s coach headed down St. James’s Street, the dancing was about to begin at the Boehms’s establishment; but the noise of the mob in Percy’s wake became audible to their guests in the first floor ballroom, the windows thrown open because it was a warm night. The coach turned into St. James’s Street and moments later pulled up outside 16 St.James’s Square. Percy ran into the building, bolted up the stairs to the ballroom and threw the French flags and eagles at the feet of the Prince, saying ‘Victory, sir!’. Percy was still covered in mud and blood from the battlefield, the smell of cordite clinging to him and the tokens of war: an emissary of carnage materialising in polite society. The Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, who had accompanied Percy in the coach from Grosvenor Square, read Wellington’s dispatch aloud, which made it clear that many of the most eligible men in London were now either dead or gravely injured. The Prince Regent wept as the names of those who had suffered and died were read out. The party broke up very soon after that, the roll call of casualties acting as something of a wet blanket on the proceedings. But London the following day was in full, bellowing roar.

Accounts of Waterloo have plugged directly into the national psyche, whether it be the calm nobility with which Lord Uxbridge told Wellington that his leg had been blown off (a story that is so inadvertently comic that it has to be true), or Wellington’s – apocryphal – remark as he surveyed his troops before the battle: ‘I don’t know what effect these men will have upon the enemy, but, by God they frighten me.’ It cast such a spell over British identity that the start of the First World War took the War Office rather by surprise, as the top brass had been preoccupied with plans for ceremonial proceedings to mark the centenary of Wellington’s victory. Reading Brian Cathcart’s magnificent book The News From Waterloo (to which I am indebted) one is struck by the football fixture flavour to the proceedings: a comparison which is more acute now than it was just a few years ago, before British foreign policy was infected by ersatz soccer fan sentiment. Wellington’s other legendary (i.e., probably untrue) comment about Waterloo was that ‘it was won on the playing fields of Eton.’ That comment now rings very hollow indeed. Wellington’s victory (at vast human cost) and its aftermath is an amazing episode of history that, like so many other moments in British history since, feels like an anchor around our collective necks. It’s as if our place in world history is defined by winning the 1966 World Cup. But Wellington’s victory was assured by the late but decisive intervention of Blucher and his Prussian troops; we don’t hear so much about Blucher and his mob these days. What was it that Churchill said in the House of Commons in September 1940? ‘You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!’ ? Something like that. Here we go, here we go, here we go.