The Return Of King Mob

What follows is a post which originally appeared here in April 2020. I am re-posting because it feels appropriate for the surplus of history we are currently living through. The past is never far away; we are lumbered with it the whole time, even the bits we’ve forgotten or would prefer to forget.

‘Phiz’ (Hablot Knight Browne) depicts the Gordon Riots.


Lord George Martini’
Ingredients:
One gin distillery.
Equipment:
One anti-Catholic mob.
Method:
Set fire to distillery; drink contents until building explodes.

The opening of chapter 52 of Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge (1841):

A mob is usually a creature of very mysterious existence, particularly in a large city. Where it comes from or whither it goes, few men can tell. 

If you are looking for some lockdown reading with contemporary overtones, Barnaby Rudge might fit the bill. The climax of Dickens’s early historical novel features one of his most vivid set pieces, as London is put to flame by a monstrous assembly. Dickens was recreating the incendiary climax of The Gordon Riots of June 1780. This orgiastic week of violence, fuelled by anti-Catholic paranoia, which threatened to overwhelm the army and unseat the government, came to be named after their unwitting instigator, the deluded Lord George Gordon, an MP and demagogue who was seeking to overturn a law aimed at relaxing restrictions on Catholics. (This was at a time when England was at war with America and there was widespread fear that older enemies such as France and Spain were poised to invade.)

Newgate feels the heat: the night of 6 June 1780 as reported in a contemporary pamphlet.

The riots were the most destructive in London’s history, as the ‘No Popery!’ agitators joined common purpose with London’s slum-dwelling poor, who emerged from the city’s favelas with curiosity and absolutely nothing to lose. On the night of Tuesday 6th June, they torched that symbol of state oppression, Newgate Gaol. A note written on the smouldering walls of Newgate stated that the inmates had been released on the orders of ‘King Mob’. Embittered convicts swelled the crowd as they sacked and burned swathes of Covent Garden and Bloomsbury (although, in the aftermath of the fire, there were also reports of bewildered lifers wandering amidst the ruins of Newgate, waiting for someone to take charge of them).

The next night, another hot one, the mob set fire to Fleet Jail, King’s Bench Prison, the Borough Clink, and several other clinks, freeing about 1600 prisoners, and then marched on Langdale’s gin distillery. Thomas Langdale was a Catholic who had a chapel on the premises of his distillery at the corner of Holborn Hill and Fetter Lane, along with 120,000 gallons of gin. Troops guarding Langdale’s had been called away to shore up defences at the Bank of England and on Blackfriars Bridge, leaving the distillery an open goal for the rioters. Langdale attempted to buy the mob off, but they weren’t buying and the building was soon alight. At the same time, a gentle wind began to blow, fanning the flames until all Holborn resembled ‘a volcano’.

And this is where British character asserts itself and revolution turns into an opportunity for a party. As the distillery went up, rioters brought raw gin and casks of rum out of the cellars by whatever method available – a pig trough was put to this purpose. Rather unfortunately, a fire engine briefly employed to douse the flames pumped gin instead of water, fuelling the fire even further. Another fire pump was captured by an old cobbler who used it to draw buckets of gin from Langdale’s cellars, selling it on to spectators at a penny a mug.

‘Phiz’ illustrates the Langdale episode for Dickens in ‘Barnaby Rudge’.

As the stills inside exploded, rivulets of raw gin poured into the streets. This 20th century description is too good not to quote:

By nine the buildings were enveloped in smoke and flame, while there flowed down the kennel of the street torrents of unrectified and flaming spirit gushing from casks drawn in endless succession from the vaults. … Ardent spirits, now running to pools and wholly unfit for human consumption, were swallowed by insasiate fiends who, with shrieking gibes and curses, reeled and perished in the flames, whilst others, alight from head to foot, were dragged from burning cellars. On a sudden, in an atmosphere hot to suffocation, flames leapt upwards from Langdale’s other houses on Holborn Hill. The vats had ignited, and columns of fire became visible for thirty miles around London. (John Paul DeCastro, The Gordon Riots, 1926.)

Gillray’ contemporary comment, dated 9th June.

The riots petered out shortly after that, and order was restored amidst an epic collective hangover. ‘King Mob’ came very close to overwhelming the army and it’s interesting to consider what might have happened if so many rioters hadn’t got smashed at Langdale’s. For all the ambition of political agitators (‘populists’, as we’d say now) who were exploiting latent xenophobia borne out of misery and deprivation, the broader mob had no clearly defined aims. As far as ‘King Mob’ was concerned, it was just a chance for a piss-up, with a bit of recreational arson thrown in. A very British coup.

Further reading: King Mob: The London Riots Of 1780 by Christopher Hibbert.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Soak

‘Shall we start again with the bubbles?’ Smiley (Alec Guinness) not really enjoying his clubland lunch with Roddy Martindale (Nigel Stock) in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

With the sad passing of the great John le Carré, I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect upon the role booze plays in the lives of his characters. This is a brief and personal survey, based on the books featuring George Smiley; to be more specific, on the books featuring Smiley that I have actually read; to be more specific, as I am away from home and my books at present, on the film and TV adaptations of same that I can remember. Alongside that Alan Partridge-like disclaimer, I should add that what follows contains spoilers: so read on at your peril.

The 1979 broadcast of BBC TV’s adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was my own introduction to le Carre’s world. I hardly need add that Smiley was played by the great Alec Guinness: a suitably autumnal performance, allegedly based on le Carré’s former boss Maurice Oldfield (the story goes that Guinness met Oldfield for lunch at the author’s suggestion and borrowed his mannerisms wholesale). As a 17-year old who was looking for a way of being an adult, it seemed to me that the life of a 60-ish, semi-retired intelligence operative with a full pension and a house in Chelsea was the one for me. I had no interest in working for the intelligence services in any capacity whatsoever, I just liked the idea of spending my days wandering about the West End in a crombie and a trilby, buying rare books and paintings from dealers in St. James’s, and drinking in private clubs with other old farts who felt they’d been passed over. I know that Smiley was supposed to be the anti-Bond but his life seemed impossibly glamorous to me: melancholy, yes, but quietly hedonistic all the same. And the exotic jargon of this world, all that stuff about lamplighters and scalp hunters and moles and so on, was a magical counterpoint to all the wintry afternoon drinking (it is always winter in Smiley’s world).

And there is a lot of drinking. Drink trays on office credenzas, cut glass tumblers, decanters, super-sized measures of pub gin, slowly poured vintages carefully consumed in discreet restaurants, and so on. (There is also a lot of smoking but that is outside my remit.) In Tinker Tailor one of the techniques Smiley employs to encourage his old Circus colleagues to open up is to bribe them with booze; this is not unlike the method Philip Marlowe uses to prise information out of reluctant witnesses in the great Chandler novels. For example, Jim Prideaux, the agent who was set up and exiled from ‘the firm’, was a Czech specialist keen on vodka. His decline, from the crisp operative being briefed by Control in the fusty office at ‘The Circus’ (Cambridge Circus, of course) to the broken schoolteacher living in a caravan parked by the playing fields, is emphasised by the way he drinks the bottle of vodka Smiley produces when he goes to see him. Likewise, heartbroken Circus operative Connie Sachs is forthcoming when Smiley turns up on her doorstep bearing a bottle of scotch. And Smiley finds Jerry Westerby in a Fleet Street wine bar, and he is is thrilled to reminisce to old George over a boozy lunch. The difference between Marlowe and Smiley is that the latter does not really indulge in these episodes, although he relaxes and drinks freely in the company of his trusted accomplice Peter Guillam. All this is neatly contrasted with the severe life of the Circus itself, the Holy of Holies from whence the likes of Smiley and Guillam have been exiled, yet which amounts to little more than a collection of drab offices connected by dingy linoleum corridors. (There is some excellent ‘office and corridor’ acting on show; it’s very hard to make office environments interesting on film, or to show people inhabiting such spaces in a convincing manner). At the summit of power, Control himself only drinks ‘filthy’ jasmine tea, although he offers Jim Prideaux scotch at the start of the series, during the fateful briefing that is to lead to Prideaux’s capture by the Soviets. Meanwhile, in pre-credit sequence to the same episode, suave Bill Haydon (Ian Richardson) displays elaborate fastidiousness with his cup of tea, a stylish bit of prop business that we recall in the finale, when he is revealed to be the spy ‘Gerald’. Discovered in flagrante with his Soviet handler, Haydon is given a split lip by an enraged Guillam; Haydon then asks for permission to finish his scotch and winces slightly as he sips it, rakish self-confidence evaporating as his exposure sinks in. Haydon was, of course, based on Kim Philby, narcissist, alcoholic and double agent. I am told by an impeccable source that Ian Richardson drew on his own Royal Shakespeare Company portrayal of Richard II as his model for Bill Haydon in disgrace. (I find it impossible to separate the character from Ian Richardson; fine as he is on his own terms, Colin Firth couldn’t match him in Tomas Alfredson’s 2012 feature film version of Tinker Tailor, although Gary Oldman was an impressive Smiley.)

Jerry Westerby (Joss Ackland) orders another bucket of gin and opens up to Smiley. The Spunky Backpack goes unmentioned. (If you have to ask you will never know.)

Smiley, of course, has his own reasons to drink: he is married to a serially unfaithful wife, Ann, who has been knocking around with other men right from the start, and who ends up in bed with the traitor Haydon. Smiley was introduced in Call For The Dead, 1961, which was later filmed as The Deadly Affair, starring James Mason as Smiley (renamed Dobbs) and Swedish siren Harriet Andersson as a badly-lip-synced Ann. This is worth a look as it is directed by the esteemed Sidney Lumet, has a catchy score by Quincy Jones, great cinematography by Freddie Young, and makes mid-60s London look believably dowdy (check out the interior of James Mason’s house). But this film betrays Smiley a little: the film is just too exciting, James Mason is too heroic for the part, and, despite Lumet’s and Young’s best efforts (fogging the film to dull Technicolor, etc.), all those grimy bits of London look terrific, and make this viewer achingly nostalgic for a vanished city. It is not so far from the world of Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer. But it does attempt to investigate the misery of Smiley’s marriage, even if it does not really convince on that score either. There’s real misery on show in Martin Ritt’s 1965 film of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, where Richard Burton plays the title role: a bitter spook asked to play a bitter spook so he can get recruited by the KGB. To this end he drinks a lot, beats up a shopkeeper, gets locked up, gets involved with naive fellow traveller Claire Bloom, and is invited to defect to east Germany. No laughs there. But Smiley only gets a walk-on part in the film, it isn’t his show; but he is memorably played by Rupert Davies, who had played Inspector Maigret on TV, and who feels like perfect casting for le Carré’s signature hero.

Rupert Davies as Smiley and Richard Burton as Leamas in Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, 1965.

Ironically, something came back to me as I was writing this piece, a memory of an incident almost thirty years ago when I was working on a journalistic assignment in Eastern Europe. I was with the resident staff at a British embassy in an eastern capital; they were holding a garden party for a visiting dignitary and I found myself chatting to a very charming young woman who was married to one of the diplomats. The young woman was slightly but endearingly tipsy and I had spent all of five minutes in her company when her husband appeared. I had encountered this man earlier the same day, at an ambassadorial briefing during which he had displayed impressive command of his department whilst reporting to the chief (a meeting held in one of those bug-proof rooms I’d only heard about in, well, John le Carré novels). But when he saw me in the company of his wife a look of tragic dismay came over his face. Looking back, there is something le Carré-ish about that encounter, and something of a young George Smiley about that junior diplomat. As for myself, at the age of 58 I fear my own transformation into Smiley is nearly complete. I have the right wardrobe, the right tastes, even some of the right regrets, I just wish I had the same pension and a house in Chelsea.

Stomping At The Savoy (Part One)

Where Bob stood … Savoy Chapel.

Wherever there is drunkenness about
No secret can be hidden, make no doubt.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (modern English version by Nevill Coghill).

When
Again
Alley Way
Bob Dylan, Subterranean Homesick Blues video, 1965.

The main frontage of the Savoy Hotel is on the Strand, a glitzy exercise in 1920s chrome, like a discarded study for the Chrysler Building. In contrast, the river-side aspect is far more muted and discreet, the business end clad in the ‘hygenic’ white glazed tiles the Victorians reserved for the filthier urban environments. The hotel takes its name from the ancient royal manor that once sprawled across the Thames foreshore. Until the 17th century, private access to the river was a prerequisite for any serious player, and the mansions here were as grand as the grandest of Venetian palazzos. Savoy Palace stood here from about 1200, occupied at one point by Eleanor of Castile, consort of Edward I. About a hundred years after that the house became the property of John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster and the richest man in England at that time. Shakespeare put him in Richard II and gave him some of the best lines (‘This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle’, etc.).

Savoy Hospital, circa 1550.

By 1370 John of Gaunt had re-built and generally pimped-up Savoy Palace, to the point where it was said to be the finest house in the country, a vast royal residence sprawling along the river: a great hall, a chapel, vegetable garden, fish pond, the works. Geoffrey Chaucer benefited from John of Gaunt’s patronage and worked herepage1image3674384as a clerk, writing some of The Canterbury Tales in his free time. The opulence of Savoy Palace reflected John of Gaunt’s position as effective head of state; but he’d also become a sort of Basil Rathbone-type villain, having introduced a poll tax that no-one liked – especially not the peasants who became generally more peasanty as a result of it. Given John of Gaunt’s unpopularity with just about everyone except Chaucer, it’s unsurprising that his gaff got wrecked in the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. Wat Tyler’s men started by building a huge bonfire in the courtyard, on top of which they piled all the Duke’s gold, silver, tapestries and such like. They didn’t want to actually steal them, they were as fastidious in that respect as the Bolsheviks who stormed the Tsar’s Winter Palace – and the mob rioted so piously that one of their number who tried to make off with a silver goblet was thrown on the fire himself. It should be said that even this display of moral fervour didn’t prevent a few of them from getting quietly, subversively smashed on the Duke’s wines. Finally, a box of gunpowder, which the rioters thought contained gold, was consigned to the flames; the explosion destroyed the great hall and also caved in the ceiling of palace’s wine cellar, trapping the thirty-two drunken rioters who had been enjoying the Duke’s fine vintages. They were abandoned to their fate, their cries for help ostentatiously ignored by their zealous compatriots. (Goes with the territory.)

Anyway, that did for Savoy Palace. What was left of it was finally converted into a hospital, during the reign of Henry VII, and even that didn’t work out too well. By the end of the 16th century, the Recorder of London was complaining to Elizabeth the 1st’s enforcer Lord Burghley that Savoy Hospital was the ‘chief nursery of evil men’ because criminals claimed sanctuary here from the law. They were taking advantage of ‘The Liberty of the Savoy’, a strange anomaly whereby criminals pursued in London could claim that, because the Savoy territory belonged to the Duke of Lancaster, agents of the Crown had no power over them whilst they stayed within its bounds, a bizarre arrangement that persisted into the 19th century. By that time the whole area was in ruins, and what was left was finally cleared to make way for the approach road to Waterloo Bridge in 1816. The only part of the old Savoy complex that remains is Savoy Chapel, a solemn Tudor fragment adrift amidst the bulk of anonymous offices. I don’t know whether Oscar and Bosie ever came here to inspect ‘the grey twilight of Gothic things’, it’s more likely that they were too busy hustling rent boys into Wilde’s suite at the Savoy Hotel,* but this alley has one bona fide claim on modern culture. It was here, alongside the ancient wall of Savoy Chapel, that the 26-year old Bob Dylan – staying at the Savoy Hotel during his famous ‘electric’ 1965 UK tour – telegraphed Subterranean Homesick Blues for D.A. Pennebaker’s camera. Allen Ginsberg and legendary record producer Tom Wilson can be seen loitering in back of shot, unaware that they are witnessing the birth of a pop culture meme.

(* The ‘Gothic’ quote is from the ‘Hyacinth letter’ from Wilde to Douglas. This letter, and details of the goings on in his rooms at the Savoy, came up in court during Wilde’s legal suit against Queensberry in 1895. At Wilde’s committal, the magistrate observed:‘I know nothing about the Savoy, but I must say that in my view chicken and salad for two at sixteen shillings is very high. I am afraid I will never supper there myself.’ In an early draft of The Importance of Being Earnest, a solicitor arrives to remove Algernon to Holloway Prison for non-payment of restaurant bills at the Savoy, whereupon Algie retorts: ‘I am not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs for dining in the West End. It is ridiculous.’ With irony that he must have appreciated but can hardly have enjoyed, Wilde was held on remand at Holloway whilst awaiting his first trial.)