Stomping At The Savoy (Part One)

Where Bob stood … Savoy Chapel.

Wherever there is drunkenness about
No secret can be hidden, make no doubt.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (modern English version by Nevill Coghill).

When
Again
Alley Way
Bob Dylan, Subterranean Homesick Blues video, 1965.

The main frontage of the Savoy Hotel is on the Strand, a glitzy exercise in 1920s chrome, like a discarded study for the Chrysler Building. In contrast, the river-side aspect is far more muted and discreet, the business end clad in the ‘hygenic’ white glazed tiles the Victorians reserved for the filthier urban environments. The hotel takes its name from the ancient royal manor that once sprawled across the Thames foreshore. Until the 17th century, private access to the river was a prerequisite for any serious player, and the mansions here were as grand as the grandest of Venetian palazzos. Savoy Palace stood here from about 1200, occupied at one point by Eleanor of Castile, consort of Edward I. About a hundred years after that the house became the property of John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster and the richest man in England at that time. Shakespeare put him in Richard II and gave him some of the best lines (‘This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle’, etc.).

Savoy Hospital, circa 1550.

By 1370 John of Gaunt had re-built and generally pimped-up Savoy Palace, to the point where it was said to be the finest house in the country, a vast royal residence sprawling along the river: a great hall, a chapel, vegetable garden, fish pond, the works. Geoffrey Chaucer benefited from John of Gaunt’s patronage and worked herepage1image3674384as a clerk, writing some of The Canterbury Tales in his free time. The opulence of Savoy Palace reflected John of Gaunt’s position as effective head of state; but he’d also become a sort of Basil Rathbone-type villain, having introduced a poll tax that no-one liked – especially not the peasants who became generally more peasanty as a result of it. Given John of Gaunt’s unpopularity with just about everyone except Chaucer, it’s unsurprising that his gaff got wrecked in the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. Wat Tyler’s men started by building a huge bonfire in the courtyard, on top of which they piled all the Duke’s gold, silver, tapestries and such like. They didn’t want to actually steal them, they were as fastidious in that respect as the Bolsheviks who stormed the Tsar’s Winter Palace – and the mob rioted so piously that one of their number who tried to make off with a silver goblet was thrown on the fire himself. It should be said that even this display of moral fervour didn’t prevent a few of them from getting quietly, subversively smashed on the Duke’s wines. Finally, a box of gunpowder, which the rioters thought contained gold, was consigned to the flames; the explosion destroyed the great hall and also caved in the ceiling of palace’s wine cellar, trapping the thirty-two drunken rioters who had been enjoying the Duke’s fine vintages. They were abandoned to their fate, their cries for help ostentatiously ignored by their zealous compatriots. (Goes with the territory.)

Anyway, that did for Savoy Palace. What was left of it was finally converted into a hospital, during the reign of Henry VII, and even that didn’t work out too well. By the end of the 16th century, the Recorder of London was complaining to Elizabeth the 1st’s enforcer Lord Burghley that Savoy Hospital was the ‘chief nursery of evil men’ because criminals claimed sanctuary here from the law. They were taking advantage of ‘The Liberty of the Savoy’, a strange anomaly whereby criminals pursued in London could claim that, because the Savoy territory belonged to the Duke of Lancaster, agents of the Crown had no power over them whilst they stayed within its bounds, a bizarre arrangement that persisted into the 19th century. By that time the whole area was in ruins, and what was left was finally cleared to make way for the approach road to Waterloo Bridge in 1816. The only part of the old Savoy complex that remains is Savoy Chapel, a solemn Tudor fragment adrift amidst the bulk of anonymous offices. I don’t know whether Oscar and Bosie ever came here to inspect ‘the grey twilight of Gothic things’, it’s more likely that they were too busy hustling rent boys into Wilde’s suite at the Savoy Hotel,* but this alley has one bona fide claim on modern culture. It was here, alongside the ancient wall of Savoy Chapel, that the 26-year old Bob Dylan – staying at the Savoy Hotel during his famous ‘electric’ 1965 UK tour – telegraphed Subterranean Homesick Blues for D.A. Pennebaker’s camera. Allen Ginsberg and legendary record producer Tom Wilson can be seen loitering in back of shot, unaware that they are witnessing the birth of a pop culture meme.

(* The ‘Gothic’ quote is from the ‘Hyacinth letter’ from Wilde to Douglas. This letter, and details of the goings on in his rooms at the Savoy, came up in court during Wilde’s legal suit against Queensberry in 1895. At Wilde’s committal, the magistrate observed:‘I know nothing about the Savoy, but I must say that in my view chicken and salad for two at sixteen shillings is very high. I am afraid I will never supper there myself.’ In an early draft of The Importance of Being Earnest, a solicitor arrives to remove Algernon to Holloway Prison for non-payment of restaurant bills at the Savoy, whereupon Algie retorts: ‘I am not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs for dining in the West End. It is ridiculous.’ With irony that he must have appreciated but can hardly have enjoyed, Wilde was held on remand at Holloway whilst awaiting his first trial.)

Dirk and Dennis at The Salisbury

Dirk Bogarde (as ‘Melville Farr’) in St. Martin’s Court, outside The Salisbury, in ‘Victim’.

Halfway up St. Martin’s Lane is The Salisbury: a crystal and mahogany Victorian confection, a gleaming temple to the conviviality of drinking. The Salisbury was one of Ian Nairn’s favourite pubs and gets lovingly referenced in Nairn’s London: ‘as much sparkle as a brandy and soda’. (Sadly, one imagines that The Salisbury might have glimpsed the great architectural critic’s alcoholic decline, a process managed with a sea of pub Guinness.) It was once a well-known gay pub, extensively referenced as such in the 1961 Dirk Bogarde film Victim – a dated but enjoyable thriller wherein Dirk, coiffed and clenched in Savile Row threads, tackles insolent, Vespa-riding, leather-clad blackmailer Derren Nesbitt. (Whatever happened to him? Did his fleshy lips wither and go out of fashion?)

Victim is a landmark in British cinema, as it was the first film to tackle male homosexuality in a sympathetic manner in a contemporary setting. Attitudes were changing: the previous year, saw the release of not one but two British films about the fall of Oscar Wilde (one starred Robert Morley, but Peter Finch’s Oscar is the clear winner). In Victim, Bogarde’s smooth, successful but uptight barrister stumbles across an extortion racket targeting gay men; in the process he has to face awkward truths about his own closeted sexuality, and the tragic consequences of his rejection of romantic rough trade Peter McEnery. On its own terms it remains very entertaining and was seen as highly daring at a time when homosexual acts between males was against the law, a law that wasn’t repealed until 1967. Bogarde took a big risk with his matinee idol image to make this film. A gay man adored by straight women, Victim suggested that he would be prepared to come out when the time was right; but for some reason he never did.

Dirk assisting some implausibly sympathetic policemen.

Some moments in the film retain real power, especially an excellent scene when Bogarde admits the truth about himself to his wife; but it betrays its age at the end, when it’s clear that Dirk and the lovely Sylvia Sims are going to stick it out together. By this point, Dirk has succeeded in exposing the blackmail ring, which operated out of a bookshop in nearby Cecil Court. (Incidentally, a Cecil Court bookshop is also used for furtive purposes in The Human Factor, wherein a spy uses a book-based system to communicate with his Soviet handler.) It’s hugely enjoyable on many levels: as social history, for its London locations, and – for this viewer – those moments where the film-makers’ good intentions collide with bathetic camp: I particularly like the bluff, burly detective who seems to want to ask Dirk out on a date. But it is sobering to reflect that it was protesting against the same law that sent Oscar Wilde to prison.

Not Oscar Wilde … Dennis Nilsen has his day in court.

The Salisbury also features in a dark episode in the life of gay London: as a cruising spot for the serial killer Dennis Nilsen. An authentic urban bogeyman, Nilsen’s grim story is well know and has been much picked over by writers (notably Brian Masters in Killing for Company) seeking to examine the nature of evil and the way London, like any big city, swallows the vulnerable. The police hadn’t been looking for a serial killer until Dennis’s neighbours in Muswell Hill called in Dyno-Rod to investigate a blocked drain – and found human remains. He’d been killing pick-ups in his attic flat but had had trouble getting rid of the bodies; so he tried boiling body parts on his stove and flushing the residue down the toilet. The official body count was twelve, all men, mostly runaways and vagrants that he encountered in the West End, four of whom remain unidentified. Nielsen is currency in a good many bar-room stories. Nilsen’s work colleagues at the job centre in Denmark Street – he was popular – mention helping him move house between Cricklewood and Muswell Hill (‘What have you got in here, Dennis? Bodies!’ ‘Yeah’). A man living adjacent to Nilsen’s Cricklewood house who was plagued by ghoulish treasure hunters. The woman who went to look at an ‘amazingly cheap’ flat in Muswell Hill and was about to make an offer when a work colleague asked if it was a top floor flat in Cranley Gardens? The flat finally sold to a foreign couple who moved out when they discovered its history … I have met people who have given me these accounts – although they didn’t actually happen to them, but someone they knew. Nilsen has become as much a part of London folklore as Sweeney Todd – except that we know that the latter never existed as anything other than a Penny Dreadful ballad. Nilsen was the real thing: Death as a friendly chap propping the bar, buying a stranger a drink and offering him a bed for the night.

Postscript: I feel obliged to note here that in 1963 a woman who worked in an antique shop at 23 Cecil Court was stabbed in a botched robbery. Her killer was caught after his Identikit profile was circulated, the first time the technique is credited with catching a criminal of any kind.

a further postscript: the estimable Miles Richardson has pointed out (see his comment below) that the pub was a favourite with Sir John Gielgud, who might well have availed himself of all its facilities. (In Victim one of the blackmailed is a noted theatrical star, played by Dennis Price.) Here is a nice photo, taken by the great portrait photographer Arnold Newman, of Gielgud in the Salisbury; he is talking, I think, to Kenneth Tynan. Also in the comments, Dale Rapley’s poignant anecdote about working with Dirk Bogarde in the twilight of Dirk’s career is worth a moment of anyone’s time.

Decadents at The Crown, 43 Charing Cross Road

A London pub, circa 1893.

‘Do not think it was an ordinary saloon bar. One entered and the narrow space opened out and disclosed a bar-parlour. … My friends were of the intelligentzia; [sic] they talked learnedly about the ballet and Walter Sickert and the latest art movement in France …There were settees round the wall and we sat on them and drank hot gin and water. Certain celebrities you were quite sure of finding … These last you could expect to turn up within a few minutes of the closing of the Empire and the Alhambra. Ernest Dowson would, as likely as not, be the first to arrive. … The visit to the Crown was not a dissipation, it was the end of the day’s work, a chance of meeting and talking with congenial friends, of exchanging ideas. It was far better, if less comfortable, than the Café Royal that succeeded it, for its limited space made it necessary that much of the conversation should be general.’ Grant Richards, Memories of a Mis-spent Youth, Heinemann, 1932.

One of the many casualties of our current locked-down life is the shuttering of art galleries; one major exhibition that has been rendered unavailable is Tate Britain’s survey of Aubrey Beardsley’s career. As a total sucker for the 1890s in general and the London ‘decadents’ in particular, I had been greatly looking forward to this; sadly, I will have to settle for the Tate’s video of the show (in the link above). But this does at least give me a cue to offer a snapshot of ‘aesthetic’ pub-going, circa 1890.

Decadent‘ London is defined for us by Beardsley and Oscar Wilde: creators of ornate, precious and sinister works of art, whose respective genius was laid waste by disease, the hypocrisy of society and ill-advised liaisons at the Savoy Hotel. But the languid image of the local decadent scene is misleading, as its members were, on the whole, very determined pleasure seekers, fully characteristic men-about-town of the era. Also, there was a split in the movement between the gay or sexually ambiguous ‘green carnation’ axis – Wilde, Alfred Douglas, Robbie Ross, etc. – and the louche, energetically heterosexual tendencies of a number of heavy drinking poets and artists, notably Ernest Dowson, Charles Conder and Arthur Symons.

Ernest Dowson by Charles Conder, presumably well into an evening’s drinking. Dowson is credited with the quip ‘Absinthe makes the tart grow fonder.’

In the early 1890s, the centre of operations for the Decadent/Bohemian movement was The Crown in the Charing Cross Rd. This pub was convenient for West End theatres and within easy walking distance of the Decadents’ digs; and as it stayed open until 12.30 a.m. on weekdays, its saloon became their salon. Although not a regular at the Crown, Wilde would sometimes hold court there after performances of Lady Windermere’s Fan, which played The St. James’s Theatre in 1892. (Wilde’s more serious party-going went on elsewhere.) After The Crown closed for the night, Dowson might invite interested parties back to his digs in Fitzroy Street. These night drinkers called themselves ‘The Bingers’, and the company might include actresses or dancers they’d picked up at the Crown. If Wilde and Douglas were fond of stable boys, Dowson was fond of waitresses, prostitutes and distressed girls in general. There is a touching story concerning Dowson and his circle coming to the aid of a girl in their midst, the lover of an actor who had picked her up on a theatrical tour of Scotland. She quickly became a cherished ornament to the Crown set but ran into trouble when she got pregnant. She attempted to abort the pregnancy with a quack medicine and nearly killed herself in the process. As her boyfriend, one Lennox Pawle, was still appearing on stage, it was mostly left to Dowson and another actor friend to look after Marie and get her on a train home. When they heard that the girl had arrived safely, Dowson, Pawle and company went to celebrate at the Crown. Their celebrations are bound to have been partly motivated by the sheer relief at the thought that they would not be party to a girl’s death from a botched abortion; the collateral damage of the ‘naughty nineties’ is glimpsed in the margins of such memoirs. But it also sounds like Dowson was a bit in love with Marie, which would be fully characteristic of him.

Lennox Pawle circa 1900.

In a letter, Dowson described the rest of that weekend:

‘Yesterday Pawle went off to join his company at Derby. Goodie and I met in the evening. He had a charming man with him, a twenty-ton opium eater, who had run away with his cousin and is now about to marry her. We met at seven and consumed four absinthes apiece in the Cock till nine. We then went and ate some kidneys – after which two absinthes apiece at the Crown. After which, one absinthe apiece a Goodie’s club. Total seven absinthes. These had seriously affected us – but made little impression on the opium eater. … This morning Goodheart and I were twitching visibly. I feel rather indisposed: and in fact we decided that our grief is now sufficiently drowned, and we must spend a few days on nothing stronger than lemonade and strychnine.’

(The Cock was another Decadent hangout, located on Shaftesbury Avenue. Like The Crown, that has also gone, but it will get its own entry here in due course.)

Lennox Paule as the ‘pixilated’ Mr. Dick in ‘David Copperfield‘, MGM, 1935.