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.

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.

Ray and Plum Get Spifflicated

Not south London … Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, circa 1944.

From The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler, 1953: I like bars just after they open for the evening. When the air inside is still cool and clean and everything is shiny and the barkeep is giving himself that last look in the mirror to see if his tie is straight and his hair is smooth. I like the neat bottles on the bar back and the lovely shining glasses and the anticipation. I like to watch the man mix the first one of the evening and put it down on a crisp mat and put the little folded napkin beside it. I like to taste it slowly. The first quiet drink of the evening in a quiet bar—that’s wonderful.

It’s hard to imagine Philip Marlowe sipping a dry martini (let alone a gimlet) in a London pub but the great Raymond Chandler spent his formative years in the purlieus of Norwood and Streatham. Chandler may have been born in Nebraska but by the age of 12 he was living with his mother in Upper Norwood, and was a fledgling day boy at Dulwich College, the venerable boys’ school that floats alongside the South Circular like a Pre-Raphaelite idyll. Chandler entered Dulwich in 1900, his first year at the school coinciding with P.G. Wodehouse’s last. It’s fitting that these two writers should have coincided at Dulwich as they are both examples of a rare breed, the true trans-Atlantic writer. (Robert McCrum on Wodehouse: “No English writer of the twentieth century, with the possible exception of Raymond Chandler, was so successful at relating the two cultures to each other”.) The school and the surrounding suburbs informed their work in differing ways. For Wodehouse the school and setting was a kind of Elysium that he transmuted into the Never-Never land of his fiction. Wodehouse began his writing career with school stories, and he remained devoted to Dulwich College for the rest of his life, following the fortunes of its sports teams with poignant fanaticism.

Wodehouse in cricket whites on the Dulwich playing fields.
Young Chandler, Dulwich schoolboy. ‘Down
these mean streets a boy must cycle …’

If you’re looking for the seeds of Chandler’s imagination, you need only take a turn around the neighbourhood. The district is full of shadowy villas, houses suggestive of secrets, insecure money and dubious respectability. Victorian Gothic architecture often feels like a projection of repression and even now some streets are suffused with a sort of whispered dread. No wonder Marlowe was unfazed by the Sternwood mansion in The Big Sleep; his creator had seen such houses before. Chandler was more reticent than Wodehouse on the subject of Dulwich College, but he was always proud of his classical education; moreover, his detective embodies some of the idealised values prized by the public school ethos.  Chandler called Marlowe a ‘shop-soiled Galahad’, and in some ways he is like a G.F. Watts hero in a powder-blue suit. The wisecracks camouflage a moral purpose. ‘Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean …’ Philip Marlowe has a code of honour that ultimately derives from schoolboy romanticism in the twilight of the Victorian world.

Both writers, superficially so different but in many ways so alike, celebrated drinking in their own styles. Like his creator, Chandler’s Marlowe is clearly an alcoholic: he only has to show a pint of bourbon to a reluctant witness to untie a reluctant tongue and thus advance the plot. Then he gets in his car and drives down Wilshire Boulevard, as lit up as the informants he has just oiled. Wodehouse also confers drink with magical properties, permitting his characters to glory in the release conferred by a couple of sharpeners. In Bertie Wooster’s world, the shy, teetotal Gussie Fink-Nottle only becomes truly free after consuming spiked orange juice, immediately prior to handing out end of term prizes at Market Snodsbury Grammar School (Right Ho, Jeeves). But Wodehouse was not an alcoholic; his chaps are always eager to get in a quick one, but it is innocent drinking, drinking without tears or serious consequences. In Jeeves Takes Charge, a hungover Bertie Wooster meets Jeeves for the first time, and immediately perceives his unique qualities:

‘If you would drink this, sir,’ he said, with a kind of bedside manner, rather like the royal doctor shooting the bracer into the sick prince. ‘It is a little preparation of my own invention. It is the Worcester sauce that gives it its colour. The raw egg makes it nutritious. The red pepper gives it its bite. Gentlemen have told me they have found it extremely invigorating after a late evening.’ I would have clutched at anything that looked like a lifeline that morning. I swallowed the stuff. For a moment I felt as if somebody had touched off a bomb inside the old bean and was strolling down my throat with a lighted torch, and then everything suddenly seemed to get all right. The sun shone in through the window; birds twittered in the tree-tops; and, generally speaking, hope dawned once more. ‘You’re engaged!’ I said, as soon as I could say anything.

Sadly, the otherworldly qualities so charming in Wodehouse’s fiction were no use in real life, as demonstrated by the debacle of P.G.’s war-time disgrace. Caught in France as the Nazis invaded, he was finagled into making radio broadcasts to America (not yet at war with Germany) from Berlin. Extenuating circumstances notwithstanding, he became a permanent exile after that. He spent the rest of his long life in the U.S., still writing of Bertie and Jeeves and Piccadilly and Lord Emsworth and country houses in summer. By contrast, it is tempting to imagine what Chandler would have written if he had not returned to the ‘States at the age of twenty-four. I like to imagine the mature Chandler looking for material in south London, using the city’s vernacular in the same way that, in our own universe, he raised American demotic speech to a form of comic poetry. But he might have turned out a bit like Patrick Hamilton; no bad thing in itself, but we would be deprived of Farewell My Lovely, The Little Sister, Double Indemnity (the film, of course), and all those other hymns to LA high and low life. So my fantasy ends there.

As it happens, Upper Norwood is currently drenched in anomalous Californian sunshine, the sort of weather that has you searching for a shady pub garden. But in these difficult times, gaining access to any pub is a ponderous affair. You leave your name and number before you order and wait at the other end of the bar for a barmaid in a biohazard suit to give you your pint. Or you dial a drink using an app on your phone and they dispense your alcohol via syringe or as a course of suppositories. Something of that sort, I don’t usually hang around long enough for to hear all the rules. In truth, the only pleasurable ‘drinking out’ experience I have enjoyed under lockdown involves two pints of bottled Guinness I consumed in that implausibly Provence-like park at the bottom of Gipsy Hill. I drank them as I sat under a tree reading Wodehouse’s Joy In The Morning.

Where The Drinker drank … Gipsy Hill.