Fights and Festivities at Hockley Hole


From The Annual Register, January 15th 1763:
A man was found in Fleet Ditch standing upright and frozen to death. He had, it seems, unfortunately mistaken his way in the night and slipped into the mud; and being in liquor could not disentangle himself.’

(It seems that this unfortunate was a barber from Bromley, which only goes to show that people from the suburbs have always been coming to grief on nights out ‘up west’.)

A photo – circa 2010 – showing the Coach and Horses pub (now just ‘The Coach’) on Ray Street, reflected in a traffic mirror. In the 18th century the site was known as ‘Hockley Hole’.

The Coach is a recently renovated pub in a curious backwater just west of Farringdon Rd. The pub used to be known as the Coach and Horses and it sits in a strange depression where three roads meet: Ray St., Back Hill and Herbal Hill. You can usually hear running water coming from a grating in the middle of the road: it is the sound of The Fleet, the greatest of all London’s lost rivers, now subsumed within the Ministry of Works’ drains. The section where it runs beneath Ray St. is the only stretch where it maintains its original course from its headwaters in Hampstead all the way to the Thames, where it spits out below Blackfriars Bridge. The Victorian sewer sits 14 feet under Ray Street; when they were laying it they found traces of a Roman pavement and, underneath that, the petrified remains of a mill dam.

Supposedly, an earlier incarnation of the Coach and Horses afforded access to the Fleet from its cellars, providing Georgian fugitives with an escape route to the Thames, or certain death in a fetid sewer, whichever was more likely. This can’t be too easily dismissed as an urban legend, as the sinister house ‘of Jonathan Wild’ was a few yards south of here, and the cellar of that dive definitely connected to the filth of Fleet Ditch. But the Coach is interesting for other reasons, as it occupies the site of Hockley Hole (or Hockley-in-the-Hole), one of the most scabrous entertainment venues in London’s history.

‘Just here, where Back Hill and Ray Street meet, was Hockley Hole, a famous place of entertainment for bull and bear baiting, and other cruel sports that delighted the brutal taste of the eighteenth century. One of the proprietors, named Christopher Preston, fell into his own bear-pit, and was devoured, a form of sport that doubtless did not appeal to him.’ (The Fascination of London: Holborn and Bloomsbury by Sir Walter Besant,1903.)

Hockley Hole was famous for its bull terriers, which were bred and trained on the premises. In 1710 there was ‘… a match to be fought by two dogs, one from Newgate market, against one from Honey-lane market, at a bull … Likewise, a green bull to be baited, which was never baited before; and a bull to be turned loose with fireworks all over him. Also a mad ass to be baited. With a variety of bull-baiting and bear-baiting, and a dog to be drawn up with fireworks. To begin exactly at three of the clock.’ On match days, bulls and bears were paraded through the streets to promote the carnage; there’s even an account of a tiger being baited by six dogs, that was a premier attraction in 1715.

Hockley in the Hole was referenced by Ben Jonson and Henry Fielding, and also gets a mention in Gay’s Beggar’s Opera. It was swept away in 1756, after which bull-baiting moved to Spitalfields; but its memory lingered, an echo of a more primitive townscape. In Oliver Twist, Dickens has the Artful Dodger leading Oliver this way, en route to Fagin’s headquarters, which he placed a bit further south in Field Lane: ‘… down the little court by the side of the workhouse; across the classic ground which once bore the name of Hockley-in-the-Hole … the Dodger scudded at a rapid pace, directing Oliver to follow close at his heels’

In the late 1980s and early 90s this end of Clerkenwell was a media boiler room, outwardly nondescript but bristling with energy; churning yet hidden, like the Fleet. A district of studios and print shops and publishers and dilapidated warehouses hastily re-purposed as temporary art spaces. A sense of something exciting happening, even if you couldn’t quite work out what it was. Opposite The Coach and Horses is a massive Art Deco factory block that was then Holborn Studios, a vast, labyrinthine lair for photographers, designers and printers, with a drinking culture to match. And, in his art scene memoir Lucky Kunst (that’s a pun, in case you weren’t clear), gallerist Gregor Muir identifies an event at The Coach and Horses as a moment of coalescence for the scene associated with the YBAs. One night in 1992, after the opening of a show in a Farringdon warehouse curated by nascent impresario Jay Jopling, the art mob invaded this unfamiliar pub to celebrate. The mood turned sour when someone picked a fight with the Chapman brothers, Jake and Dinos, and a glass was broken over Dinos’s head. Muir asserts that, in the wake of this seemingly trivial pub fight, a new, collective spirit developed that dissolved pre-existing cliques and art world boundaries. ‘Something new was coming round the corner, something larger in scale’.

Jake and Dinos Chapman’s riff on Goya’s ‘Disasters of War‘: an original set of Goya’s lithographs with 21st century elaboration.

So: Georgian cruelty to YBA punch- up, bull baiting to Mother and Child Divided, etc., where does that get us, you ask? If I subscribed to the Ackroyd/Sinclair school of psychogeography, I might conclude with a paragraph devoted to the mysterious, subterranean forces of ‘the terrain’, throw in a mention of Guy Debord and generally risk getting kicked in the head. (A woman of my acquaintance recently observed that seeing ‘psychogeography’ listed under hobbies on a guy’s dating profile was the ultimate turn-off. Thus the term joins ‘spiritual’, ‘salsa’, ‘yoga’ and ‘angling’ as a romantic deal-breaker.) Instead, I leave you with this lovely portrait by the late John Londei. The subject is Clerkenwell mascot ‘Little Jimmy’, posing next to Holborn Studios in 1983. Jimmy was like a wizened Artful Dodger, a relic of old London amidst ‘80s media chancers. His uniqueness and his attitude – a kind of formal defiance – make the Dickens comparison inevitable. But I make no apology because this is one occasion where ‘Dickensian’ may be used with absolute conviction.

Little Jimmy by John Londei.

A Man Doesn’t Walk Into A Pub

ʻAt first sight, when one had emerged from the underground, the whole of central London, bare of wheeled traffic, seemed impassably thick with people; yet this was just an illusion, for the crowd had no centre, no real purpose, and everyone was aimlessly on the move. What could one do, after all, but drink as one had drink before, kiss familiar or unfamiliar faces, join in the sporadic outbreaks of singing, stare at the brave souls shinning up the lamp-posts, and cavort for a while in the uncouth, impromptu dances which suddenly cleared a space for themselves in the throngs?ʼ
VE Night, 8 May 1945, described in The People’s War: Britain 1939-1945 by Angus Calder.

When I started this site, a mere two months ago, I was blithely unaware that we were about to be subjected to yet another overdose of history. How could I have predicted, in the halcyon, far off days of late February, that by the last week of March it would be impossible for me or anyone else to visit a bar of any description for ʻthe durationʼ. Astonishing really. But, like our plucky wartime forbears, we adapt to circumstances. For example, the Zoom platform has been a godsend, and some of us have used it to arrange virtual drinking sessions, a make-do-and-mend substitute for getting shitfaced in company. But beyond the state of our livers, comparisons between the historical event just commemorated and the pick ‘n’ mix bag of crises we are currently wading through scream to be made. It would be delinquent of me not to address some awkward facts, so I suggest you pour yourself a stiff one now.

Winston joins the royals on the balcony at Buck House, fails to get jiggy with it.

In The People’s War, Angus Calder’s commanding study of wartime Britain, the impressions of London on VE Day have a suitably disordered character. The afternoon was dominated by the euphoria that greeted Churchill, who addressed crowds from a balcony overlooking St.James’s Park (his bodyguard observing that the PM enjoyed himself ‘like a schoolboy at an outing’). As day turned to night, the city was brilliantly illuminated after five years of darkness. Amidst the crush, you might have glimpsed a young Guards officer, Humphrey Lyttleton, drunk on champagne, playing his trumpet whilst riding in a handcart at the head of an impromptu jazz band proceeding up and down the Mall. Somewhere in the crowd, the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret mingled with the throng (an incident that was the subject of a fairly recent film), bonfires were lit, flags were waved, and so on and so forth. But fugitive spectres were glimpsed in the shadows. On VE night Harold Nicolson attended a party given by a rich Conservative MP. ʻThere in his room, copied from the Amalienburg, under the lights of many candles, were gathered the Nurembergers and the Munichois celebrating our victory over their friend Herr von Ribbentrop.ʼ (A couple of days ago, some wag on Twitter echoed this sentiment, expressing surprise that the Daily Mail was celebrating the 75th anniversary given that their side lost.)

The collective memory of post-war Britain is an accretion of semi-mythical totems, with convenient elisions along the way. If victory over Hitler is rightly remembered, the crippling post-war war debt to America is conveniently forgotten, along with the Suez debacle and the near-bankruptcy of the 1960s and 70s. Misremembering the past is a national pastime; and our post-imperial comfort blanket of war-time victory regrettably feeds a sentimental myth of national exceptionalism, one that leads to the heart of our sick and Brexity present. On 20th March, as the scale of the Covid-19 crisis dawned on even the Prime Minister, Boris Johnsonʼs announced the closure of bars thus: ʻWeʼre taking way the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go the pubʼ, an absurd bit of flag-waving made at the very worst possible time. (Mr. Johnson is fond of posing with a pint in his hand, but it is hardly a secret that he prefers Bollinger to bitter.) If, in the words of another social media wit, Boris Johnson is essaying a Winston Churchill tribute act, this studied persona is showing the strain. The Prime Ministerʼs television address to the nation on Sunday was hardly stirring rhetoric, and its lack of eloquence has been very eloquently parodied. As certainly as his relentless careerism led to the chaos of Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare his inability to lead in a national emergency (one not of his own making, that is). Applause for the NHS is no substitute for the government cash it has been very conspicuously denied. And, as Nicola Sturgeon coolly repudiates Johnsonʼs softening of quarantine measures, the very viability of the Union that he purports to lead is even more in doubt. All this as a hard Brexit looms into view, with EU negotiators complaining of Britain’s apathy whilst British diplomats in the USA fervently lobby for a trade deal. So, despite the bombast and the rhetoric and the champagne (although Churchill preferred Pol Roger to Bollinger), it strikes me that future historians will not compare Boris Johnson to Winston Churchill – nor to Herbert Asquith, nor even to Neville Chamberlain. Personally, Iʼd say that the ʻwartime leaderʼ that ʻBojoʼ most resembles is Norwayʼs Vidkun Quisling. Cheers.

A Quick Sharpener Before Doomsday

It should, by now, be apparent to everyone that we are living in a dystopian sci-fi scenario, but who wrote it? John Wyndham? Too cosy, perhaps. Or there’s J.G. Ballard … he wrote extensively about various kinds of societal collapse, either in ‘hard’ sci-fi novels like The Drowned World, or in his later sly and speculative manner, e.g. High Rise. But Ballard didn’t do comedy and the black absurdity of Donald Trump requires a satirical touch. Kurt Vonnegut’s brand of savage, slapstick sci-fi fits the bill, but I have been unable to locate my copies of Cat’s Cradle or Galapagos to refresh ecstatic youthful impressions. (It has also been suggested to me that Channel 4’s 1982 comedy show Whoops Apocalypse is relevant, chiefly with respect to its portrayal of the President of the United States as a total cretin.)

But one work of science fiction that has been haunting me over the past few weeks is the 1961 film The Day the Earth Caught Fire, directed by Val Guest from a script written by himself and Wolf Mankowitz (the same team behind the Soho musical Expresso Bongo). The idea behind this inventive British movie is that nuclear testing has thrown the orbit of the earth out of whack and sent our planet spinning toward the sun. London becomes hotter than Cairo and the city’s residents wilt and go mad in the heat. It is a great time capsule of London locations, and the heroes of the film – as unlikely as this sounds now – are journalists working on the Daily Express, then still operating out of its beautiful Art Deco building on Fleet Street, right opposite St. Bride’s church. The nominal stars are Edward Judd (the producers wanted Richard Burton but couldn’t afford him), Leo McKern, and the delightful Janet Munro. The newspaper scenes have a sense of authenticity amidst the dodgy science, and the verisimilitude extended to the casting of the editor of the Daily Express, a character played by a former editor of the paper. (Arthur Christiansen, editor from 1933 to 1957. A nice conceit, but Christiansen couldn’t really act.)

Fleet Street’s finest … Leo McKern, Edward Judd and Janet Munro feeling the heat outside The Express Building.

There’s a lot wrong with the film: the banter-ish, ‘Front Page’ type dialogue is cringeworthy, Edward Judd is a charm-free zone, and the special effects are often risible – but for all that it remains unsettling and eerily prescient. The clever use of genuine news footage, indicating drought and out of control weather, now looks like an anticipation of recent wildfires in Australia and California. The evocation of oppressive, unnatural heat is very effective: everything dries up or burns up and water becomes the most precious of all commodities. Black market water is spreading typhoid, alcohol is in short supply and even a warm Coke will cost you. As society buckles under the strain, decadent young people express their nihilism by wantonly chucking buckets of priceless water about, drenching themselves to the implausible sound of trad jazz. (‘Beatnik music by Monty Norman’ is the byline in the credits. The crazed, trumpet-touting kids were perhaps inspired by riots at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival in 1960. Was Acker Bilk a baleful influence on British youth? Discuss. )

And, as you’d expect in a film that trades in Fleet Street clichés (‘They say you used to be a writer’), there are many episodes where the hacks go the pub. The pub in question is ‘Harry’s Bar’, a private members’ club just next to St. Bride’s (a fictional one, as far as I am aware). By the end, the trip to Harry’s Bar has acquired a devotional aspect: the film concludes with our heroes assembled in the club – one that by now looks more like a bar in the Australian Outback – and wait to hear whether an operation to save the planet has worked. (The great powers set off ‘corrective’ nukes in an attempt to blast the Earth back to its correct orbit.) Harry’s Bar has run dry, but the manageress gives the small band of regulars a drink on the house from a special, reserved bottle of scotch. This scene reminds me of the titular bar scene at the end of Ice Cold In Alex, where an ordinary glass of lager is a miraculous answer to a fervent but unspoken prayer. And this link between booze and prayer feels pertinent to where we are now. Many of us are offering prayers of one sort or another, even non-believers like me who are simply praying for the pubs to re-open. Of course drink is not always the answer; but whilst we might not be able to drink Covid19 away, we can at least toast its demise. As Leo McKern says as he raises his glass in Harry’s Bar: ‘To the luck of the human race’.

In Harry’s Bar, listening to the countdown over the radio …

For the cineastes out there, The Day the Earth Caught Fire is also notable for Michael Caine’s film debut in a bit part as a policeman (‘Stay clear of Chelsea, they say it’s pretty rough down there’); and also a groundbreaking moment of nudity in British cinema, when Janet Munro’s nipple is briefly glimpsed in her bathroom mirror. Society would never be the same again … At time of writing, you can see the entire film (handsomely restored by the BFI) on YouTube.