21st June, 1815: Mrs Boehm Throws A Party

Sergeant Ewart of the Royal Scots Greys capturing the Standard and Eagle of the French 45th of the Line at the Battle of Waterloo on 18th June 1815. Painting by Denis Dighton, 1815-17, Royal Collection.

The Morning Post, 13 June 1815:
Mr. and Mrs. Boehm will entertain the Prince Regent, the Duke of York and a large party of distinguished personages, with a grand dinner, on Wednesday, the 21st instant, at their house in St, James’s Square.

As John Adams’s version of Richard Nixon sings in that catchy number from Nixon in China, ‘News … News … News … News … [repeat x 8] Has a … Has a … Has a … Has a … Kind of mysteryyyyyyyyyyy’ … Of course, that opera was set in 1972; today we take for granted our access to instant information (or disinformation); indeed, I have met ‘digital natives’ who find the idea of living without the internet as being impossible to comprehend. Imagine those times when news was disseminated slowly, by ship, by horse, by foot, and over great distances.

On the night of 21st June 1815, the Prince Regent was attending Mr. and Mrs Boehm’s ‘grand dinner’ at their swanky townhouse at 16 St. James’s Square. The Boehms were not aristocrats but a pair of shrewd grafters; Edmund Boehm was a rich banker and his wife Dorothy was a social butterfly with a gift for public relations. By 1815 they were well established as society hosts; but, even though it was the middle of the London ‘season’, their grand dinner on Wednesday 21st might have been better timed. On the previous Sunday the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo; but as guests were arriving at the Boehms’ supper party three nights later, news of Wellington’s victory had yet to reach London. For days the city seethed with rumour, newspapers presenting conflicting reports based on conjecture and wishful thinking. The news of Wellington’s victory had been entrusted to Major Henry Percy, who was still en route from the battlefield. Percy had in his possession Wellington’s official dispatch, as well as captured French flags and a pair of Napoleon’s imperial eagle standards. (Although they were relics of Napoleon’s Roman grandiosity, the eagles were charged symbols of the Imperial French army and were seized in the battle at great cost.) Percy had made slow progress to the French coast and by Wednesday morning found his ship becalmed in the English Channel. Despairing of the situation, Percy disembarked twenty miles off the Kentish coast, and was rowed ashore in a small boat by four sailors, making landfall at Broadstairs at 3 p.m. on the 21st. Percy then chartered a coach and aimed towards London, seventy-five miles distant. His mission was to hand Wellington’s dispatch to the Secretary of State for War, to the Duke of York, and deliver to the Prince Regent the dispatch and the French flags and eagles: definitive proof of Napoleon’s defeat. It took him about eight hours to reach the capital and when his carriage finally made it across Westminster Bridge, just after 11 p.m., he had to locate the addressees. He finally tracked down the Secretary for War and the Prime Minister at a dinner in Grosvenor Square; and as the news spread, crowds followed Percy’s progress as he headed to St.James’s to alert the Prince.

Major Percy leaves Belgium for England bearing Wellington’s dispatch, with captured French flags and standard signifying victory; from a contemporary aquatint.

As Percy’s coach headed down St. James’s Street, the dancing was about to begin at the Boehms’s establishment; but the noise of the mob in Percy’s wake became audible to their guests in the first floor ballroom, the windows thrown open because it was a warm night. The coach turned into St. James’s Street and moments later pulled up outside 16 St.James’s Square. Percy ran into the building, bolted up the stairs to the ballroom and threw the French flags and eagles at the feet of the Prince, saying ‘Victory, sir!’. Percy was still covered in mud and blood from the battlefield, the smell of cordite clinging to him and the tokens of war: an emissary of carnage materialising in polite society. The Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, who had accompanied Percy in the coach from Grosvenor Square, read Wellington’s dispatch aloud, which made it clear that many of the most eligible men in London were now either dead or gravely injured. The Prince Regent wept as the names of those who had suffered and died were read out. The party broke up very soon after that, the roll call of casualties acting as something of a wet blanket on the proceedings. But London the following day was in full, bellowing roar.

Accounts of Waterloo have plugged directly into the national psyche, whether it be the calm nobility with which Lord Uxbridge told Wellington that his leg had been blown off (a story that is so inadvertently comic that it has to be true), or Wellington’s – apocryphal – remark as he surveyed his troops before the battle: ‘I don’t know what effect these men will have upon the enemy, but, by God they frighten me.’ It cast such a spell over British identity that the start of the First World War took the War Office rather by surprise, as the top brass had been preoccupied with plans for ceremonial proceedings to mark the centenary of Wellington’s victory. Reading Brian Cathcart’s magnificent book The News From Waterloo (to which I am indebted) one is struck by the football fixture flavour to the proceedings: a comparison which is more acute now than it was just a few years ago, before British foreign policy was infected by ersatz soccer fan sentiment. Wellington’s other legendary (i.e., probably untrue) comment about Waterloo was that ‘it was won on the playing fields of Eton.’ That comment now rings very hollow indeed. Wellington’s victory (at vast human cost) and its aftermath is an amazing episode of history that, like so many other moments in British history since, feels like an anchor around our collective necks. It’s as if our place in world history is defined by winning the 1966 World Cup. But Wellington’s victory was assured by the late but decisive intervention of Blucher and his Prussian troops; we don’t hear so much about Blucher and his mob these days. What was it that Churchill said in the House of Commons in September 1940? ‘You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!’ ? Something like that. Here we go, here we go, here we go.

A Corner In Fitzrovia

William Roberts: ‘The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel: Spring, 1915’. Painted circa 1961-2. Ezra Pound front left, Wyndham Lewis in hat and scarf, centre, Rudolph Stulik with cake, right. (Tate.)

‘My friend, Marie Beerbohm, came often to Fitzroy Street. We all went in the evenings to the Eiffel Tower restaurant and ate and drank afterwards. One morning Marie came to see me. She said ‘An awful thing has happened; I was bringing with me half a bottle of champagne to cheer us up. I met Walter Sickert in the street. He saw it and said “Disgraceful that young girls like you should drink in the morning’ and he took it from me”’. (Nina Hamnett, one of Fitzrovia’s great monuments, reminiscing about the area as it was during the first world war.)

The Virgin’s Prayer (Anon):
Ezra Pound and Augustus John
Bless the bed that I lie on.

On the corner of Charlotte and Percy streets, just a few steps north of The Wheatsheaf, is a restaurant that used to be The Eiffel Tower. When I started hanging around Fitzrovia in the early 1980s it was called The White Tower, and even then it carried some residual cachet of its earlier years. From the first world war to the start of the second, The Eiffel Tower was a beacon of fine dining and civilisation during the dark years when British food was genuinely awful. But it was more than just a good restaurant; like the Café Royal in Regent Street, the Eiffel Tower functioned as a sort of sanctuary for artists, an informal club where the bohemian aristocracy could feast and play. This is where you would find the artistic personalities of the age dining on Canard Presse, Sole Dieppoise and other classics of old-world French cuisine. The benevolent proprietor was an Austrian restaurateur named Rudolph Stulik, a dead ringer for emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, whose lavish bill of fare constituted an impressive feat during wartime. And one can only wonder at the sullen resentment patrons in the Marquis of Granby opposite – a tougher and less artistically inclined pub than the others in the vicinity – might have felt towards the conspicuous consumption of the Eiffel Tower’s patrons. The fact that Stulik was performing a sort of conjuring trick keeping the place going at all was not outwardly apparent, although the seams sometimes showed, as when he had to ask patrons to pay in advance for their meals so he could buy the food with which to prepare them.

The Eiffel Tower was where one Bohemian generation advanced the cause of the next. Walter Sickert, William Orpen and Augustus John – veterans of the 1890s Decadent scene, all of whom rented studios on Fitzroy Street – partied with Nina Hamnett’s crowd, Pound, Wydham Lewis and the Vorticist mob, and later the Sitwells, Dylan Thomas and co., in an ambience of genial permissiveness. The restaurant offered a private dining room, as well as bedrooms for serious naughtiness. ( As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it was in one of those bedrooms that Dylan Thomas consummated his relationship with Caitlin Macnamara, Augustus John’s 17-year old girlfriend, just a few hours after meeting her, the bill for the room charged to John’s account. By this point, Augustus John was approaching his goatish dotage, hence the saying that he patted the head of every child he met on Charlotte St., in case it was one of his own.)

Augustus John, circa 1955, by the great Alfred Eisenstadt for Life Magazine.

However, the glory days of the Eiffel Tower seemed to peter out sometime in the 1920s, its artistic demise coinciding with the genuine aristocracy – as opposed to the bohemian variety – crashing the place and sending the artists into flight. The shipping heiress Nancy Cunard – although a well meaning sponsor of the arts and certain artists in particular – seems to have led the invasion, and as a consequence the bohemian centre of operations moved a few doors to the north, to a place where the nobs and moneyed gentry were unlikely to follow. A pub. (The Fitzroy Tavern, still in business but no longer the epicentre of bohemian raciness.)

In the 1980s I knew Fitzrovia very well; I had a friend who lived on Whitfield St., right opposite the Fitzroy Tavern, and I availed myself of the local processing labs. (Like many other photographers, I flirted with incipient alcoholism by killing ‘anxiety time’ in pubs whilst waiting to see my film.) By then Fitzrovia seemed a bit like Soho’s poor cousin: the literary and artistic scenes had vanished and both the Fitzroy and the Wheatsheaf were just Sam Smiths pubs. But the media companies and ad agencies that dominated the area lent it a distinct flavour of its own, and thus the artists of an earlier era had been replaced by actors and ‘creatives’. Saatchi and Channel 4 had their headquarters on Charlotte St.; Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones ran Tallkback productions out of an office on Percy St., and the various theatrical agencies and dubbing studios meant that many famous faces would drift past in the grey afternoons. I remember seeing the young Stephen Fry, tall, grim and pale, wandering along the bottom of Rathbone Place at seven in the morning, apparently returning home from some all-night bash. The place still had a village feel and the restaurants were one-offs rather than chains. On the corner opposite The White Tower was the Venus Kebab House, the kind of unpretentious, not exactly brilliant, restaurant that used to be so common around here (and which fed generations of bohemians, bums and beatniks). The Venus’s saving grace was its location, which gave it enough room to spread tables outside in summer. At lunchtime on a warm summer’s day, the Venus lent this corner a palpable echo of the Mediterranean: one of the few instances I can think of where a restaurant has really achieved that in London. In any case, its fishbowl windows, erratic staff and indiscreet clientele made it a theatre of human comedy at all times, memorable for fights between diners (‘My mother warned me never go back to you after the first time you hit me!’), fights between waiters (‘That’s two orders of kleftico, you bloody shit!) or just pure farce, like the memorable night when the ceiling caved in. It couldn’t last, of course, it was too much fun. And with its passing, a little bit of London died. Last time I looked, there was a Café Nero on the site.

I’ve written about Fitzrovia a few times (see the links below), simply because the district offers a rich density of anecdote, and was peopled by men and women who lived in pristine pursuit of a bohemian ideal. The tragedy of so many of them was that they succumbed to ‘Sohoitis’, i.e.: spending all your time in the pub instead of working. In our own age, now that great cities have been purged of their unseemly artistic communities, and even photographers’ labs are a thing of the past, the contemporary version of Sohoitis is noodling on Twitter or Facebook instead of being productive on Photoshop or Microsoft Word. (This tendency deserves a term of its own.) But the temptation to drift online is all too easy to understand. London’s artistic communities have been driven away and artists have to make do with virtual communities, where the jokes and arguments, feuds and allegiances happen over social media instead of a mahogany bar sticky with drink. It’s supremely ironic that Facebook’s London office is in a swanky block on the west side of Rathbone Place, across the road from The Wheatsheaf. Even my own experiences of Fitzrovia are antique now, as distant from the grey, stooped 50-something writing this as the Blitz was to my callow 20-year old self. In time, perhaps my ghost will join all the others haunting Fitzrovia: waiting for eternally undeveloped film, or for lovely women whose shades will never appear.

The Fitzroy Tavern in 1949.

Further reading:

Julian and Dylan at The Wheatsheaf
Laughing Torso Meets the Great Beast
Rathbone Street pubs
Hangover Hamilton

Infamy In Clerkenwell

The Horseshoe, Clerkenwell Close, in 1971. (Photo via British History Online.)

‘Excuse me, but are you Bill Oddie?’

It is a freezing night in February 2020. It is my 50-something birthday. I am sat outside The Crown pub on Clerkenwell Green with my friends Chris, Mark and Paul. The first pints of the evening have just been assembled on the table and an attractive young woman, obviously pleased to have spotted a celebrity out on the town, has just identified me as the noted birdwatcher and ex-Goodie. ‘Can I get your autograph?’ But I am not Bill Oddie, any more than I am Alfred Molina, Trevor Nunn, or Paul Greengrass, for whom I have, at one time or another, been mistaken. What’s worse, much worse, is that the shock has caused me to knock over Chris’s drink.

I made haste to repair the damage I had done to Chris’s pristine, un-tasted, pint. For all his affability, Chris is nearly seven feet tall; and just as Serengeti park rangers advise visitors never to get between a hippo and a waterhole, it is unwise to separate Chris from his cider. I returned with a fresh Aspall’s and heard Mark, a trade union operative with a rich Barnsley accent that masks the fact that he was born in Croydon, offering some observations on Clerkenwell’s long association with radicalism: exactly the sort of spot that would interest Karl Marx and Vladimir Ilich Lenin, both of whom lived and worked locally. Lenin published his proto-Bolshevik periodical Iskra out of an office No. 37a Clerkenwell Green between 1902 and 1903. It’s also been suggested, although no-one can prove it, that Lenin took Stalin for drinks at The Crown when the latter visited London a few years later. Stalin certainly went drinking elsewhere in London during that visit, sometimes in the company of his new friend Leon Trotsky, who he had assassinated thirty years later. (37a is now The Marx Memorial Library.)

Clerkenwell Green has the aspect of the classic London village, church and houses nestling around a village green. It seems this is accidental, and that it actually came into being as little more than a bare patch between the Fleet and the two religious houses here: St John’s priory and St Mary’s nunnery, where St. James’s church is now. As the religious institutions declined, new buildings were constructed looking onto the Green rather than away from it, so you get the classic village configuration. There were riots here in the 1760s in support of radical MP John Wilkes, and by the 1780s the Gordon Riots demonstrated in spectacular fashion that slum conditions could fuel social disorder. Living conditions were certainly grim, even for those involved in small trades like watchmaking, which was a local speciality. Somewhere near here was Frying Pan Alley – a lane just twenty feet long by two feet wide. The name may have had something to do with it being the width of a frying pan, or it may be related to one of the bleak occupations resorted to by the desperate: frying-up rancid, cast-off fish at home and hawking them round local pubs as a bar snack. There was a similar trade in out-of-date cabbages, which were cleaned up to be re-sold; but neither pursuit was going to endear you to your neighbours. The rookeries became great material for the mid-Victorian press, as they were able to parlay sensational stories under the banner of outraged decency. When they began to be cleared away, the demise of the more notorious slums was marked by a certain nostalgia for grunge and squalor.

Reform League protesters outside the Middlesex Session House, Clerkenwell Green, 1867.

By the 1860s Clerkenwell Green was a well-established forum for dissent and radicalism. Thousands of people turned out at mass demos in the fields that lay just north of the churchyard. In 1887 William Morris addressed a crowd of 5,000 here, protesting for social justice on a range of issues, including rights for Ireland, reflecting the make-up of the local community. That demo (dubbed ‘Bloody Sunday‘) ended in violence, police moving in on the marchers as they reached Trafalgar Square. Earlier, in 1867, an Irish nationalist named Captain Richard O’Sullivan Burke was being held in the Clerkenwell House of Detention on Clerkenwell Close. Fenians attempted to spring Burke; the first try didn’t work because they used damp gunpowder, so the second time they parked a wheelbarrow of explosive against the prison wall. The blast was heard forty miles away. An entire street of houses was levelled, killing six and injuring forty others. There was a mass jailbreak, naturally, but Burke had already been moved so he was not amongst the escapees. One of the bombers, Michael Barrett, was convicted and became the last man to be publicly executed in Britain, hanged outside the door of Newgate Gaol.

I think I was boring my birthday evening companions with this factoid, as by that point we had relocated to The Horseshoe in Clerkenwell Close, near the site of the old prison. Although the Peabody flats that back on to the pub show the reforming zeal of the late Victorians, Clerkenwell Close now boasts some of the most expensive (and controversial) properties in any EC district. (One wonders what George Gissing, whose resolutely bleak, Zola-esque novel The Nether World is set in 1880s Clerkenwell, would have made of this.) As for The Horseshoe, it remains a pub of fond memory for me, as my much-missed friend John O’Driscoll ran a photo darkroom next door in the 1990s. The pub hasn’t changed since then; well, it hadn’t changed in February 2020 – I’m not sure what Covid has done to it since.

My memory of the evening is a little vague past a certain point … I remember a vivid discussion of why Harvey Keitel was dismissed from Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut; and even more vivid speculation as to whether it was the same reason he was fired from Apocalypse Now (I’m not going to peddle scurrilous rumours here, you’ll have to Google them yourself.) Was that the night that Andrew and Alan came along? When we went on to that club near Tower Bridge, and I had to walk all the way from The Minories to Whitehall through pelting hail to get the night bus home? Who knows … but one thing is certain: Bill Oddie turns 80 in July this year.