Brave And Chilly Spring

April is the cruellest month … Gipsy Hill, 11 April 2021.

Sam Hancock, The Independent, 13 April 2021:

London’s Soho was busier than ever on Monday night — although some of those enjoying the reopening of pubs admitted there was “very little” social distancing being adhered to. Police patrolled central London as crowds flocked to Old Compton Street, signalling the end of certain lockdown restrictions and the reopening of pubs and bars’ outdoor areas across England. Several West End streets were even closed to traffic between 5pm and 11pm, to create outdoor seating areas as part of measures implemented by Westminster City Council to support hospitality businesses. Pictures and videos being shared online show people packed onto tables, while dozens more stood on the streets raising a glass to England officially entering into stage two of Boris Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown.

The spring-like peep out of lockdown has everyone on edge. And attempts to enjoy a freezing al fresco drink inevitably emphasise the painful distance between Before Covid and our current Covid Era. Personally, I have no plans to book a slot to do my Captain Scott impersonation (‘this is an awful place …’) in an arctic pub garden, and don’t fancy drinking amidst desperate Soho crowds pretending it’s VE Night. It’s indoor spaces that I miss. My mind wanders to cold spring evenings in former times; when the pub garden turned chilly in twilight, you would retreat to the cosy public bar, to the gleam of polished mahogany and the crystalline brightness behind the counter. You’d take your drink to a spot next to the wooden partition that separated you from the customers in the saloon, and fragments of their conversation drifted in and out of your hearing:

‘Nah, it was John Wayne they filmed in this pub. Him and that Richard Attenborough, played policemen they did. Filmed it here, I should know, I was in it wasn’t I?’

‘Do you know what my son said to me the other night? He phones up and he says: :”Dad, can I come round? I need to borrow fifty pence”‘.

‘I don’t know whether she knew or not, but let’s put it this way: she got very good at getting blood out of carpet.’

‘My dad knew him, he was staying at a hotel in Kensington Gardens, very dapper and polite he was, you’d never guess he had bodies dissolving in a tank in Crawley’.

Before lunch I’d been in the witness box and they were jumping all over me, felt like a right wanker. And I was looking at doing four years. Anyway, after lunch the jury was ready to come in and everything and then the prosecution said the CCTV didn’t work. That’s their case dead in the water. So I was acquitted. I’m thinking of compensation. Go after them I will, yeah. I’ve got letters about my loss of hearing.’

Here, I’m selling this phone. It’s fucking immaculate, no scratches on it or nothing, I mean I did manage to drop it in the slop bucket behind the bar, but you’d never tell.

‘From Muscat he was, yeah – one of those places where they don’t wear things on their feet.’

The Victorian pub interior is an inviting place, an urban parlour, a place where plumbers give racing tips to bankers, where visitors from exotic lands fall for boys from Penge or girls from Hainault, and where addled regulars share unlikely stories (‘it’s true, I swear, I was there’) with anyone who will listen. Britain’s peculiar drinking culture might have been a source of appalled wonder for foreign tourists but London’s lugubrious, booze-only boozers offered easy access to the interior life of the city. In an earlier time, I would bewail the rise of the gastro-pub as a factor eroding the democratic nature of the institution: tables take up room, families colonise the bar space and the social or solitary drinker is marginalised. ‘The decline of the pub’, I would say to anyone who would listen, ‘as a place to just drink is making the city colder and less knowable than before’. (And thus I became someone else’s loquacious pub bore.) Well, what did I know. Now, if I could, I would cheerfully walk into a gastropub and order the most pretentious thing on the carte du jour just so I could be in an interior where people have come to gather. Even a hipster bar is good for overheard remarks:

So what does a full-time anarchist do? Do you celebrate Christmas?’

But if Monday night demonstrated anything, it’s that Londoners need to drink. The manifest ills of drinking are well rehearsed, but the social value of documents such as Life and Labour of the People in London are often compromised by their authors’ failure to empathise with hard-pressed city-dwellers, or to fully understand their need for release. London is an ongoing experiment in urban life: a 2,000 year-old Roman settlement that became the first industrialised city, the first world city, the first mega-city. Londoners have had to suffer the sharp end of history so it’s no wonder that they developed a craving for booze – as a stimulant, a palliative, a tradable commodity, or simply a safer beverage than Thames water. And, call me old-fashioned, but I think that public drinking is healthier than private drinking: if there are people around you, there’s always someone to tell you that you are overdoing it, or simply being a tit. (Altogether now: ‘What good is sitting alone in your room …’ etc.) But I’m looking forward to getting inside pubs, not lurking outside them. And who knows? Maybe it will be all over by Christmas.

The other milestone this week was, of course, the death of the Duke of Edinburgh. I did, as it happens, have a few encounters with him over the years but I didn’t fancy contributing to the tsunami of news coverage, or the grinding of axes by op-ed toters. Those stories will have to wait.

Working Class Family’ by Ralph Steadman, circa 1969. Via Ralph Steadman Printshop.

Flogging A Dead Thing

The Fortune of War, circa 1900. Note the Golden Boy.

Every trade has its pub. And The Fortune of War, Giltspur Street, Smithfield, was a speakeasy for the bodysnatching fraternity. At one time, it was said that the pub accommodated its clientele to the extent that the landlord allowed customers to leave corpses under the benches – with tags attached – whilst they went to try to strike a deal with the surgeons at St. Barts, just around the corner (the porters at Barts left empty hampers outside the hospital, a tacit invitation for them to be taken and filled with fresh ‘specimens’ by those in the ‘resurrection’ business’). And if Barts didn’t want what you were offering, there were plenty of other places you could try.

Saturday 5th November 1831. A ferry carrying two men arrived at the riverside entrance of Robert Smirke’s handsome new King’s College (so new that a mason was still working on site) to enquire whether the resident surgeons might be interested in a body – or, as they said in the trade, a ‘Thing’. The two men, one of whom was drunk, were trying to sell a ‘Big Small’, and wanted ten guineas for it. (A dead child was a ‘Small’; a ‘Big Small’ was a dead adolescent. Ten guineas would be worth something in excess of £1,000 today.) They had been trying to sell the Thing since the previous day and had traipsed all over London in search of a good price (as well as hospitals, there were private academies where anatomy was taught), fortified by frequent visits to the pubs en route. The surgeon said he might be interested – but would only offer nine guineas. The men went away and returned later with two accomplices and a hamper containing the body of a boy of about 14, which they tipped onto the floor. ‘It’ s a good ‘un’, said one of the men trying to make the sale. The dissecting room porter and the college anatomist were suspicious of the freshness of the corpse and called in the Covent Garden police.

At the start of the 19th century the science of anatomy advanced and the ‘bloody code’ of the 18th century receded, resulting in fewer executions and, thus, fewer bodies available for study. Surgeons had to make a queasy compact with those who were prepared to furnish subjects by illegal means, and prices were high. But although the trade aroused public revulsion, it was seen as a relatively trivial crime, as a human body was not considered to be anyone’s actual property. The commonest method of obtaining a body was simply to dig up a newly-dug grave, but other ruses included posing as a relative of the recently deceased to claim their remains, or stealing them from homes where they were awaiting burial. But some in the trade resorted to murder, and the notoriety of Edinburgh’s Burke and Hare in 1828 exposed the medical profession’s indifference to the sources of their research material. In London in 1831 the murder of ‘The Italian Boy’ threw the furtive relationship between body- snatcher and man of science into sharp relief, and shone a searchlight into London’s darkest corners.

John Bishop, the ringleader of the gang collared at King’s College (and who claimed to have sold over five hundred Things), later confessed that the ‘Italian Boy’ was actually a drover from Lincolnshire that he had picked up on market day in Smithfield and enticed back to his family home in Nova Scotia Gardens, Bethnal Green: a swampy, semi-rural slum. There, Bishop and his son-in-law accomplice Thomas Williams stupefied the boy with rum and laudanum, then drowned him in a well at the back of the house. Bishop admitted to using this method on another child and a woman. (In his confession Bishop exonerated his grave-robbing colleague James May of knowledge of the murders. The party who carried the body to King’s was a Covent Garden porter and sometime corpse-hauler who was not charged in connection with the killings.) It is at least possible that the real number of Bishop and Williams’s victims was far greater but no-one was in a position to prove it. Many women and children went missing in the capital but institutions kept very few records of their transactions with bodysnatchers, and human remains were totally consumed by dissection. As no-one reported a Lincolnshire drover missing, the corpse was formally identified as Carlo Ferrari: the lost ‘Italian boy’, trafficked from northern Italy by a ‘master’ who sent him out to exhibit animals for pennies on London’s streets.

Sarah Wise’s magnificent book on the case depicts London in that nameless age in the reign of William IV, the same city that terrified the young Dickens and formed the setting for his greatest novels.* An unlit, unpaved, undrained, festering town that has more in common with Hogarth’s London than the city of the high Victorian era. A stinking metropolis of rookeries and public executions, of cattle driven to slaughter through busy streets, overflowing cesspools, vagrant children and numberless poor. In this context the body-snatchers sound like almost any other street trader, hawking their wares around the teaching hospitals and schools of anatomy before the produce went off. What is really striking is the social aspect of the trade in the dead; as Ms Wise comments, convivial drinking was central to the enterprise, and a pub like The Fortune of War was a safe space for those in the trade to share tips and compare notes on the going rate for a Thing. On Friday, the day before the trip to King’s and during one of the gang’s many trips to the pub, James May stood at the Fortune’s bar rinsing blood and flesh from a set of teeth he produced from his handkerchief. The teeth belonged to the dead boy, and he nonchalantly discussed their potential value with the barman: May was confident that he could get two pounds for them. (He managed to sell them to a dentist before his arrest; the dentist later displayed them in his window as ‘the teeth of the murdered Italian Boy’.) The Fortune of War was only a few yards up the hill from Newgate Gaol, and it was outside the Debtor’s Door of that prison that Bishop and Williams were hanged before a large crowd on 5 December, 1831, just four weeks after their arrest. Their bodies were promptly handed over for dissection. James May was sentenced to transportation to Australia, but died on board a prison ship before the voyage began. The Fortune of War was demolished in 1910.

* Sarah Wise suggests that Dickens might actually have been present at the Old Bailey for the climax of the trial of the Bishop gang: an anonymous published account of the reading of the verdict bears a striking resemblance to Fagin’s court appearance in Oliver Twist.

Newgate’s Debtor’s Door, photographed shortly before the prison was demolished in 1904.

Wine Bar Nostalgia

Not Le Beaujolais … somewhere in London, probably 1960s and definitely chilly, Evening Standard archives.

Just off the Charing Cross Rd., on Litchfield St., is Le Beaujolais: a friendly, uber-French wine bar that has been here since 1972 – an aeon in catering terms. The 1970s and 80s were, of course, the great age of the wine bar, those civilized venues that allowed business types to get shitfaced in a drinking environment that flattered their sense of status more than any mere pub could manage. At the much missed Le Tartin (more on that below) I remember two suits so drunk on Muscadet and workplace hilarity that one of them laughed himself off his bar stool with a full- throated executive guffaw. After being solicitously helped to his feet by the ever-deadpan barman Bernard, he resumed his seat and continued his anecdote with nerveless determination: ‘Anyway …’

In that everyday world that now feels so remote, Le Beaujolais was the best place to have a leisurely lunch that extended into tea-time and beyond, hanging on to your table as the bar gradually filled and grew raucous around you. By that time you would probably have to hang on to your table in order to stand; so, if you ever get a chance to try this, the important thing is to have a substantial meal, not some evanescent platter of cold meats that merely gives the illusion of solid food. This is vital. And, as the pace is set by the drinker with the fastest pouring arm, choice of company is key if you are to avoid disaster. But, seeing as most of my friends are happy to help me steal an afternoon, I have experienced many afternoons that slid effortlessly into purple evening: ‘Like putting your liver on a pole at the bottom of the garden and throwing darts at it’. (A phrase coined by an old family friend.)

One example from a few years ago: man-about-town Miles R. joined me in Le Beaujolais for a light lunch scheduled between appointments. Somehow, these appointments were duly forgotten (I reassure myself that they can’t have been too important, although I cannot in truth remember whether they were or not) as we melted our credit cards in pursuit of some sort of higher fellowship in booze. Sometime around six we were joined by our friend and colleague Tom H. – who was visibly alarmed by our condition – at which point I remembered that I had promised to escort an expectant stranger to a singles party. As I was too drunk to meet the girl myself, Tom kindly met her at the appointed street corner and brought her to me at Le Beaujolais, whereupon she wondered what sort of evening she had signed up for. My memory gets a bit hazy after that, although she was smart enough to slip any attachment to me as soon as we reached the event, leaving me marooned and pissed in a room full of groomed and glossy strangers. I left quietly, struggling my way home to bed and dreams of gorgeous women with fat men. Oh, the humanity.

A view of Rose St. and Garrick St. taken in the early 1980s by Paul Barkshire; the chefs are taking a break from the kitchen of L’Estaminet.

Opposite the Garrick, on the corner of Rose St., there used to be a restaurant called L’Estaminet, which had a terrific wine bar in its basement: Le Tartin. Behind the counter you would find Bernard (bespectacled, austere), Gerard (an endearing shambles) and a revolving quota of gamine waitresses whose function was to smile at the regulars’ jokes and give them dreams of a better life. It was a time-warped oasis in the grinding metropolis, offering a far more intimate experience than any other London bar or club I can think of. I was a regular there for about seven years, until that sad evening when my regular visit revealed the dead hand of new management. Bewildered, I retreated to the nearby Le Beaujolais where I learnt the sorry tale of the departure of Bernard, Gerard et al. The staff of Le Beaujolais were sympathetic to my distress, because they understood what I had become: an exile.

Fortunately, Bernard (I never knew his surname) later ran a spartan but first-rate wine bar in Fitzovia: Manouche. I was a regular here for quite some time, although this particular bar has very mixed memories for me. It is associated in my mind with a particularly fraught relationship which was largely conducted in this bar, given that my beloved’s estranged husband was still living in the family home, and ultimately the affair began and ended here. After a promising beginning, my star began to wane and after a while I could chart my flagging appeal in between trips to the gents. I remember that they had an elaborate cartoon on the wall above the urinal, a coloured pencil drawing portraying in extravagant detail a gathering of early 1980s public figures in some imagined super-bar. That image is burned on to my retina, and is associated with boundless promise and total failure.

Manouche is long gone. Last time I looked, the site was occupied by a branch of the London Cocktail Club. This concern seems to be gobbling up wine bars; they have already annexed The Grapes, that strange, rambling bar beneath the Shaftesbury Theatre (point of departure for a memorable Christmas-time episode that you can read about here). I visited the Grapes in its London Cocktail Club guise a couple of years ago: the bar layout was unchanged but the place purveyed a youthful, slightly gothic vibe. Changing demographics, I suppose. These new bars aren’t suitable venues for dissatisfied middle-aged men to pursue doomed affairs with unavailable women. Then again, in the time of Covid, where are people supposed to go to conduct their inappropriate liaisons? You can’t even meet over a cup of tea, as Trevor and Celia were obliged to do in that awful station café. Can you get all misty-eyed and tragic and Brief Encounter-ish on a Zoom call? Discuss.

Trevor Howard falls in love with Celia Johnson’s hat: ‘Brief Encounter’, directed by David Lean, 1945.