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.

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.

The Poor Wee Drinkur

A kid walks into a bar … .

Further to last week’s glimpse of Charles Dickens as an admirer of interventionist policing, today’s entry concerns itself with Dickens the ‘little gentleman’: the child labourer and prototype for many of the lost children in his own fiction. Here he is venturing into a pub for a little refreshment between shifts at the sweatshop:

‘I was such a child, and so little, that frequently when I went into the bar of a strange public-house for a glass of ale or porter, to moisten what I had had for dinner, they were afraid to give it me. I remember one hot evening I went into the bar of a public- house, and said to the landlord: ‘What is your best – your very best – ale a glass?’ For it was a special occasion. I don’t know what. It may have been my birthday. ‘Twopence-halfpenny,’ says the landlord, ‘is the price of the Genuine Stunning ale.’ “Then,”‘says I, producing the money, ‘just draw me a glass of the Genuine Stunning, if you please, with a good head to it.”

This is a fragment of autobiography embedded in David Copperfield, Dickens’s favourite of his novels and the one which adhered most closely to the contours of his own life. It draws on the author’s experiences as a twelve-year old newly employed at Warren’s, a factory that manufactured boot blacking, operating in a ‘crazy, tumble-down old house’ at 30, Hungerford Stair, a building that stood roughly where Charing Cross station is today. Dickens was sent to work there in 1824, decades before Bazalgette embanked the Thames, and the tottering factory abutted the filthy river itself. Young Dickens was terrified of the building: of its reek of filth and decay, of the rats ‘swarming in the cellars’ and ‘squeaking and scuffling’ up and down the stairs, and, above all, of the dashed hopes represented by his employment therein. Only a few days after Charles started work at Warren’s his father was imprisoned in the Marshalsea for non-payment of debts: the family’s grip on bourgeois respectability was tenuous enough as it was, but debtors’ prison raised the spectre of total societal failure.

Warren’s blacking factory, with the spire of St.Martin in the Fields beyond.

So, in the teeth of his more refined sensibilities, young Charles was forced to labour alongside ‘common men and boys’, and was deeply ashamed of his association with them. ‘No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship.’ His one friend in the factory was an older boy called Bob Fagin, who trained the middle-class refugee how to prepare the bottles for sale and whose kindness Dickens later repaid by appropriating his name for his first great villain (a projection of Dickens’s fear of relegation to the lower orders). But the experience gave Dickens the raw material for his work. Dickens kept re-purposing the riverside warehouse in his fiction: 30, Hungerford Stair, its once-fine rooms sinking into filth, was a potent symbol of class collapse, put to good use throughout Oliver Twist (Fagin’s lair, Bill Sikes’s hideout, etc.) and beyond. ‘The bright pure child in the mouldering house’ (John Carey’s phrase) turns up in Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Dombey and Son, and the dark, flickering, early-19th century Thames-side atmosphere saturates his fiction, all the way to Our Mutual Friend. But in David Copperfield the childhood trauma might have been too close to home: Dickens’s self-pity and self-regard is showcased to the detriment of the book. It is a rare achievement for an author to make a reader want to strangle a put-upon child hero, but young David is an unbearable little creep who grows up to be an unbearable prig. Here is the rest of the passage quoted above, from chapter 11, wherein the 37-year old novelist fondly recollects his childhood precociousness (in a pub in Parliament Street):

‘The landlord looked at me in return over the bar, from head to foot, with a strange smile on his face; and instead of drawing the beer, looked round the screen and said something to his wife. She came out from behind it, with her work in her hand, and joined him in surveying me. Here we stand, all three, before me now. The landlord in his shirt-sleeves, leaning against the bar window-frame; his wife looking over the little half-door; and I, in some confusion, looking up at them from outside the partition. They asked me a good many questions; as, what my name was, how old I was, where I lived, how I was employed, and how I came there. To all of which, that I might commit nobody, I invented, I am afraid, appropriate answers. They served me with the ale, though I suspect it was not the Genuine Stunning; and the landlord’s wife, opening the little half-door of the bar, and bending down, gave me my money back, and gave me a kiss that was half admiring and half compassionate, but all womanly and good, I am sure.’

(I cannot read that passage without hearing the voice of Martin Prince, Bart’s classmate in The Simpsons.)

Dickens was able to leave Warren’s Blacking factory after his father had settled his debts and been released from the Marshalsea. By then Warren’s had abandoned Hungerford Stair in favour of smarter premises on Chandos St., on the north side of the Strand, and Charles had become so adept at preparing the bottles of blacking he was put in the window to perform the task for the benefit of passers-by, a winsome human advertisement for the firm. A blue plaque now commemorates Dickens’s stint there, floating on a wall above a branch of TGI Friday. For those seeking a flavour of the late Georgian riverside, Gordon’s at the bottom of Villiers St. – right opposite the site of Hungerford Stairs – remains an atmospheric place to drink, a subterranean cellar where drops of Thames water fall gently from the vaulted ceiling into your glass of port or Madeira or whatever. It is nice to hear that it has re-opened, but Covid regulations will make getting a table an even harder propostion than before; but if you manage to get a seat you can try ordering a Genuine Stunning and see what they give you.