Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is one of those carefully time-locked London pubs where one is invited to experience a idealised ‘heritage’ drinking experience. The Cheese was rebuilt after the Great Fire and escaped the Victorians, the Blitz and post-war redevelopment and has survived into the 21st century as an authentically preserved/recreated old London boozer. The building is genuinely old, and its basement bars may once have formed part of the crypt of a Carmelite monastery. All right, the interior is a re-creation, as the pub was burned out in World War 2, an incident caused by a careless electrician rather than the Luftwaffe. At time of writing, the only beer on offer in the Cheese is Sam Smith’s, a rather dense, tawny ale brewed in Yorkshire; its main appeal is that it is remarkably cheap, but it is perhaps no coincidence that Samuel Smith Brewery Co. currently lay claim to several other historic London pubs: these include the legendary Fitzrovia hangouts The Wheatsheaf and The Fitzroy Tavern, and The Princess Louise in High Holborn.
Y.O. Cheese has a glut of writers associated with it, from Samuel Johnson (allegedly) and Charles Dickens, up to Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound. It remained a writers’ pub even in the 1980s, a hangout for those journos who still worked on Fleet Street even as the newspapers began to leave. But my focus today is the 1890s, when The Cheshire Cheese was home to The Rhymers’ Club, an austere flower of the Aesthetic movement which met in the pub from the 1890s up to 1904. The likes of Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, Arthur Symons, Richard Le Gallienne, Ernest Rhys and other tremulous young men would meet once a month in a top floor room and share new poems over drinks and clay pipes. (They usually met at the Cheese, but not always; other venues, including The Cafe Royal, were sometimes used for the Club’s purpose.) The group aimed at the creation of a literary salon in the contemporary Parisian style (with Stephane Mallarme and, in particular, Paul Verlaine as their lodestars), but the decidedly mixed ability of the poet-members means that The Rhymers’ Club is remembered for its ambition rather than any lasting corporate accomplishment. But there were some real talents, notably Dowson whose great ‘Cynara’ poem made its debut before the poets of The Club in 1890. The Cheshire Cheese was where Wilde came to hear John Gray, the model for Dorian Gray and quite possibly Wilde’s lover, read some lines of verse. And it was through Rhymers’ Club member Lionel Johnson that he first met Lord Alfred Douglas, a meeting that he may have regretted later. (In Richard Ellmann’s great biography of Wilde, Douglas is described as ‘even better looking than John Gray, and even less talented.‘)
The Wilde connection has probably, retrospectively, elevated the company somewhat; visiting poet Arthur Lynch characterised the Rhymers as ‘a small assemblage of poetically pious young men’, and went on to observe that on the occasion he visited the club he felt that the only real outcasts present were himself and the waiter. And the tendency of the original members who survived past 1900 and into old age to mythologise their own pasts is glimpsed in this excerpt from the memoirs of Richard Le Gallienne, here ‘fresh from Liverpool’, describing a visit to Lionel Johnson’s rooms in Grays Inn shortly after meeting him for the first time at the Cheese:
‘I hope you drink absinthe Le Gallienne – for I have nothing else to offer you.’
Absinthe! I had just heard of it. As a drink mysteriously sophisticated and even Satanic. […] I had never tasted it then, nor has it ever been a favourite drink of mine. But in the ‘90s it was spoken of with a self-conscious sense of one’ s being desperately wicked, suggesting diabolism and nameless iniquity. Did not Paul Verlaine drink it all the time in Paris! – and Oscar Wilde and his cronies, it was darkly hinted, drank it nightly at the Café Royal.
As it happened, Johnson was Lord Alfred Douglas’s cousin and was of the view that Oscar had corrupted ‘Bosie’ a sentiment Johnson committed to verse in a poem dedicated to Wilde, To The Destroyer Of A Soul. The poem opens with the line: ‘I hate you with a necessary hate.‘ Wilde made no comment on the poem; but Johnson, who was both an alcoholic and a midget, was waspishly characterised by the great dramatist thus: ‘Every morning at 11 o’clock you can see him come out of the Café Royal and hail the first passing perambulator.’
The Cheese was convenient for Rhymers’ Club stalwart Arthur Symons, who had digs in Fountain Court just off the Strand, rooms that Symons shared for a while with W.B. Yeats. Yeats left an account of an evening at Fountain Court when Dowson dropped in accompanied by a prostitute known in the poet’s circle as ‘Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured’. She was called that because she charged more if she was fully made-up and well turned out. In Yeats’s account, ‘Penny Plain’ wearying of some insufferable bore’s pontificating, took all her clothes off and sat by the fire, unnerving the pompous ass who was holding court but delighting Dowson and his energetically heterosexual pals. She delighted in telling the young lions of her sexual adventures, one of which involved an old man whose fetish was to see her strangle a pair of pigeons, which he would bring to her in a little basket. She interspersed her anecdotes by disappearing into a bedroom with a writer or two, only Yeats and Symons refraining from sampling the delights on offer. Penny Plain must have appreciated the company: by this time many of the prostitutes who worked the Strand were wary of coming into the Temple, as they considered the resident writers and law students to be dangerous lunatics. By a charming coincidence, Symons’s next-door neighbour in Fountain Court was Henry Havelock Ellis who was at that time busy writing his pioneering study Sexual Inversion. (According to a friend of Ernest Dowson’s, Penny Plain didn’t do too badly in life; she ended up married to a rich brewing magnate.)
The Romantic ’90s, as Le Gallienne’s memoir has it, seemed to come to an abrupt end with Oscar Wilde’s arrest in 1895, followed by the deaths of many of the protagonists of London’s ‘Decadent’ or ‘Symbolist’ movement. Johnson lived just long enough to write a memorial poem for Dowson on his death in 1900, but was himself dead just two years later, dying in the most unfortunate – albeit appropriate – circumstances. Broke and seriously alcoholic, he suffered a drink-related stroke in a Fleet Street pub. By the time Ezra Pound visited the Cheese for a valedictory event in 1910, the Rhymers’ Club seemed to represent an idea of poetic expression that was totally moribund, and Pound demonstrated his modernist credentials by eating two red tulips during a recital by Yeats. In his poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, Pound satirised the elder poets associated with the pub and the Decadent scene as a whole:
For two hours he talked of Gallifet; Of Dowson; of the Rhymers’ Club;
Told me how Johnson (Lionel) died
By falling from a high stool in a pub …
Dowson found harlots cheaper than hotels …
I have, in the company of a couple of other Dowson aficionados, visited the private room at the top of the Cheese where the Rhymers used to meet. No longer panelled and lit by candles, it’s just a room for hire in a pub, done out in standard 21st century catering décor. No chance of summoning the ghosts of the great dead now. You can, however, eat dinner in the ground floor grill room – where the Rhymers had their chops before adjourning to the top floor – which retains the atmosphere of 17th century inn, even if the interior is a reconstruction following the 20th century pub fire. And Samuel Smith’s should be congratulated for the sensitivity of their management of these historic pubs. The problem is that the loving restoration reinforces the sense of theme park, that creep of ‘Heritage’ (a tainted word if ever there was one) that imprisons London. The ghosts of the past are marooned amongst the tourists and the centre of town is closed off to the truly louche and experimental. The Fitzroy Tavern and the Wheatsheaf can never be what they were in the 1920s and 40s; and where would The Rhymers’ Club meet today? A loft in Peckham or Dalston, probably. Except they’ve probably already moved to Margate. Or Folkestone.