Spitalfields Drinking: Meths, Absinthe, Flat White.

Spitalfields, January 1991. © David Secombe.

As early as the 1730s, overcrowding had become a characteristic of the East End, a process accelerated in the early 19th century by the building of the docks between 1800 and 1830, the demand for unskilled labour, and the arrival of Jews and other refugees from Eastern Europe. […] Hawksmoor’s architecture, imbued with Baroque rhythms, is massive yet solid, like Johnson’s prose. Characteristic of how little we really value [Hawksmoor’s churches] is the fact that, at time of writing, Christ Church, Spitalfields, is under threat of demolition, though thousands of pounds are uselessly thrown away in every conceivable direction.
From The London Nobody Knows, Geoffrey Fletcher, 1962. Penguin Books.

Spitalfields used to be cited by ‘psychogeographers’ as one of those London locales where the sad history of the city was engraved upon its streets and buildings: a place that was permanently wrong. The district’s association with poverty, with Jack the Ripper, the waves of the dispossessed that have settled over the centuries – this stuff was meat and drink to the likes of Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd. Back in 1900, the great American writer Jack London came here to discover the East End. He posed as an American seaman down on his luck, resorting to this subterfuge after Thomas Cook & Co. refused to give him a tour of the district. The resulting book, People of the Abyss, documented in depressing detail the squalor of Spitalfields, and included photos of down and outs sleeping against the walls of Christ Church. The pictures taken by Jack London have an eerie echo in Bill Brandt’s photos of east enders sheltering in the church’s crypt during the Blitz; his picture of a Sikh family among the tombs is a pointer to the future, as the local Jewish population declined and immigrants from the Indian sub-continent moved in. The 1960s saw moves to demolish the entire area – including Hawksmoor’s church – and the time-locked deprivation of the Georgian district was eloquently captured by photographers Don McCullin, Paul Trevor and (later) Marketa Luskacova. McCullin’s portraits of local meths drinkers are terrifying and poignant: when they aren’t screaming at some unseen object, they defy the abyss by retaining a certain dignity. And Marketa Luskacova’s magnificent portrait of a man singing operatic arias for pennies on Brick Lane is the visual equivalent of Gavin Bryars’ post-modernist tone poem Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet, wherein a field recording of a London tramp singing a hymn is accompanied by a limpid orchestral texture. (Although it is worth noting that Bryars made the point that the tramp on the tape, recorded circa 1970, was not a drinker; this also applies to the woman in David Secombe’s photo, and to Marketa’s singer.)

Street singer, Brick Lane, 1982. © Marketa Luskacova.

But Christ Church was not demolished and has in recent years been the beneficiary of grants to restore the fabric of the building after decades of neglect. Hawksmoor’s London churches have experienced a revival in general, and I’ve already written about how they have become talismans for those who seek a hidden or mystical history of the city; so we get Peter Ackroyd’s 1985 novel Hawksmoor, and Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell, which links the Jack the Ripper murders to the looming presence of Christ Church over Whitechapel. It’s all balls, really; but mention of From Hell gives me the opportunity to link this clip from the film derived from it, in which Johnny Depp pours himself a very inauthentic absinthe (this particular recipe inspired, methinks, by Aleister Crowley’s ‘Kubla Khan No. 2′ cocktail) …

The picture at the top dates from a moment just before the wealth and bombast of commercial London annexed the neglected East End. Spitalfields’ perceived desirability perked up considerably around this time; long-term residents like Gilbert and George, Dan Cruikshank (who had been one of the original squatters who had helped save the area from destruction in the 1970s) and the American artist Dennis Severs, whose house is now a museum, acted as beacons of gentility amidst the inner-city gloom. And, as the 1990s rolled on, the East End went from being the Dark Heart of Old London to Shiny Retail Zone with bewildering speed. I remember laughing at my first sighting of Japanese tourists apparently lost in Shoreditch circa 1997 – but that was, I think, the same year that a Holiday Inn opened on Old Street. A visit to Spitalfields Market today is a trip to Covent Garden East: Covid-19 notwithstanding, visitors are safe to purchase their branded goods and speciality coffees in a shopping environment free of disquiet. It gives the lie to the theories of Ackroyd and Sinclair: with enough commercial pressure, any area, no matter how dark its history, can be transformed into a playground for contented shoppers. The poor and neglected get moved on and even Jack the Ripper is transformed into a token of area branding. Nostalgia, eh?

The past is a foreign country … Spitalfields Market, 1991.Photo: David Secombe.

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.