Deep Play

William Hogarth: A Rake’s Progress, plate 4.

‘There is nothing, however trivial or ridiculous, which is not capable of producing a bet.’ 
Gambling at White’s club, noted by Connoisseur Magazine, May 1754.

We last met Hogarth’s rakish anti-hero in Covent Garden, insensible with drink in a room at the Rose Tavern; that was plate 3. In plate 4 Tom is in the process of being arrested for debt, the action taking place on the corner of Piccadilly and St James’s St., with St James’s Palace in the distance. As ever with Hogarth, the specificity of locale is key: St. James’s is the playground for the super-rich, although even children wager at cards here. The building being struck by lightning is White’s, 37-38 St. James’s St., oldest and grandest of St. James’s clubs. Although much rebuilt, White’s still operates on the same spot, its members list a roll-call of three centuries of the British establishment, but its heyday was the high Georgian period, when the mania for gambling on anything ran rampant throughout society. White’s and the other clubs of St. James’s., including Almack’s, Brooks’s, Boodle’s, etc., gave the monied class a congenial environment in which to flirt with existential ruin.

White’s gaming book was kept from around the 1740s, and some of the more insane wagers of the era may be found within its pages. For example, ‘Lord Montfort wages Sir John Bland one hundred guineas that Mr. Nash outlives Mr. Cibber.’ That particular wager was rendered void as both backers had killed themselves before any outcome was reached (gambling debts, naturally). It was at White’s where Lord Arlington bet £3,000 on one raindrop beating another to reach the bottom of a window pane. In 1750, the diarist Horace Walpole reports an incident where a man who collapsed in the street was carried up the steps and into the hall of White’s, whereupon members began wagering whether or not he was dead. Other stories have members of White’s staving off their aristocratic boredom by betting on which of their alumni would be the next to catch the pox from the girls at Mrs Comyns’ brothel a few doors down; or rolling a sentry box and its occupant downhill, laying bets on the occupant’s chances of survival. At Brooks’s, across the street, Lord Cholomondley bet Lord Derby 500 guineas that he would have sex with a woman in a hot air balloon ‘one thousand yards above the earth’. That was in 1785. No-one knows whether Lord Cholomondley pulled this off or not.

By the end of the 18th century, there were many amazing tales of fortunes being lost – and occasionally won – at games like Faro, Hazard, Picquet, Whist, etc.. Amongst gamblers of ‘the quality’, there was a divide between the shrewd, calculating operators who practised games of skill and those who were addicted to risk itself. The daughters of the aristocracy were not immune either and many were cleaned out by elegant but wily professionals such as John, 2nd Lord Hervey (a courtier of George II and an expert at Quadrille, he made a speciality of relieving the ladies of court of their fortunes). Hogarth dramatised the dilemma of the aristocratic lady embarrassed by her losses in his painting The Lady’s Last Stake, wherein the subject is given the option of repaying her debt to a soldier by taking him as a lover.

William Hogarth: A Rake’s Progress, plate 6.

White’s is also the scene of plate 6 of A Rake’s Progress, where Hogarth’s doomed anti-hero Tom gives in to despair as his debts mount in the club’s gaming room. An interesting detail in this image is the night watchman attempting to alert the oblivious gamblers that the building is on fire. (This is a nod to the fact that the original White’s club caught fire in 1733, around the time Hogarth was working on the series.) Brooks’s, at 60 St.James’s St., was founded in 1764 as a more political, even progressive, gentleman’s club; but it was also a theatre for even deeper ‘deep play’ than was practiced at White’s. In the words of the Member of Parliament and wit George Selwyn, Brooks’s was a ‘precipice to perdition’. It once boasted a window at ground level that afforded passers-by a look at the aristocrats losing their shirts at the tables. Amongst so many of the latter, brothers Charles and Stephen Fox deserve special mention, as they ramped up scarcely conceivable debts at games of chance, especially Faro, during the 1770s. By the end of 1773, the brothers’ indulgent, sorrowful and terminally ill father, Lord Holland, was trying to pay off Charles’s debts of £130,000 (something like £11M today); in spite of this, Charles went on gambling at Brooks’s, borrowing wantonly from friends, money-lenders, and, at one point, even the club’s waiters, to finance his compulsion. Like many who lost heavily, Fox’s debts were incurred during all-night sessions where judgement was muddied by booze and fatigue. This is a common factor in the histories of fortunes squandered. The ones who actually made money were the abstainers, the percentage men; men like General Scott, who is reported to have dined exclusively off boiled chicken, toast and water, and who won £200,000 during a bout of whist at Brooks’s. By 1781, Charles Fox’s house on St. James’s St. was in the hands of bailiffs; yet at the same time as all his possessions were being loaded onto carts, Charles returned to Brooks’s in a desperate attempt to turn his finances around. Amazingly, he seems to have had a run of the cards – for a while anyway. For those who were less fortunate, suicide was an honourable way out, although it seems that the accepted thing to do was to dispatch yourself into eternity in a distant and less toney district: Covent Garden perhaps, or Smithfield maybe. Hogarth’s Tom ends up in Bedlam. Charles Fox ended up as Foreign Secretary.

William Hogarth: A Rake’s Progress, plate 8.

See also: Greene and Philby in The King’s Arms.

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.