London Gothic. Photo & text: David Secombe. (4/5)

Town of Ramsgate pub, Wapping Old Stairs. Photo © David Secombe 2010.

From Unknown London, W.G. Bell, 1919:

Wapping High Street in the days of Nelson’s wars possessed upwards of one hundred and forty ale-houses. In a recent perambulation I was not able to count ten. Together with these reeking drink shops, inexpressible in their squalor and dirt, were other houses of resort which one may deftly pass by without too curious enquiry. In the gloomy slum area at the back, the inner recesses of the hive, mostly dwelt the people who lived, quite literally upon the sailor, and they formed the greater part of the population that was herded here. Every tavern kept open door to welcome the mariner with wages in his pocket.

You may land at the Old Stairs still … The ‘Town of Ramsgate’ stands at the head of the Stairs, where it has stood these past two centuries or more for the refreshment of sailors. Wapping was the busiest centre of the seafaring life of the port of London. Of the many landing-places, the deserted Old Stairs and the New Stairs, nearer the City, alone survive. And you may tramp Wapping from end to end without recognizing a sailor man.

David Secombe:

Nearly a hundred years later, Bell’s assessment of Wapping remains valid, although these days the eeriness of its riverside enclave has a particularly 21st Century quality. Wapping High Street’s narrow pavements teem with joggers: driven young (or young-ish) men and women who appear from nowhere, pounding behind you silently before speeding past towards … what? Apart from the joggers, you may see a few tourists who make the journey to visit the pubs and riverside sights, and it is undeniably true that at certain times (dusk in November, for example) the environs of Wapping Old Stairs retain an impressive  atmosphere: catnip for Dickens-fanciers armed with much-thumbed copies of Our Mutual Friend. However, in cold, hard daylight, the perfectly made-over warehouses and tastefully integrated new-build developments dispel memories of Dickens and recall instead the preoccupations of a more modern London writer: J.G. Ballard. Modern Wapping could be a starting point for one of his forensic studies of fear within insular communities, wherein the hot-house social conditions unleash perversity and violence behind the security gates of  the ‘executive development’. In the 1970s, he set such a dystopia downriver, in a tower block that might have been designed by Erno Goldfinger (High Rise); but the make-over of ‘heritage’ environments, the loading-bays transformed into penthouses, offers a more contemporary setting for a Ballardian nightmare.

Ultimately, perhaps, the unnerving quality riverside Wapping possesses today is that of a ghost seen walking in the noonday sun: the ghost of London.

… for The London Column.


Incredible Londoners. Photo & text: David Secombe.

Jerusalem Tavern and Jerusalem Passage, Britton Street, Clerkenwell. Photo © David Secombe 2010.

This week’s sad news has prompted some of us to remember pub crawls with John on his patch, and the names of the hostelries we’d encounter on the way: The Horseshoe in Clerkenwell Close, The Crown on Clerkenwell Green, The Coach and Horses in Ray Street, The Marie Lloyd in Hoxton, The Eagle on Farringdon Road, the Sekforde Arms on Sekforde Street – and, now and again, The Jerusalem Tavern on Britton Street. As this week we have been remembering a great Londoner and champion of art, it seems oddly fitting to add this nugget about an artistic promoter who operated in the same area 300 years ago, and who is now buried in Clerkenwell churchyard. D.S.

From Without the City Wall, Hector Bolitho and Derek Peel, 1951:

Britton Street was named after an incredible Londoner of the late 17th century who walked the streets by day “in his blue frock coat and with his small coal-measure in his hand”, and who by night gave concerts in his humble abode next to Jerusalem Tavern, in what is still Jerusalem Passage. In The London Magazine we read: “On the ground floor was a repository for small coal; over that was a concert room, which was very long and narrow. … Notwithstanding all, this mansion attracted to it as polite an audience as ever the opera did.. … At these concerts Dr. Pepusch and frequently Mr.Handel played the harpsichord.” When passing along the streets with his sack of small-coal on his back, Thomas Britton “was frequently accosted with such expressions as these: ‘There goes the famous small-coal man, who is a lover of learning, a performer in music and a companion for gentleman.’”


Drinker’s London. Photos Paul Barkshire, text David Secombe. (5/5)

Cross Keys, Endell Street, Holborn, 1980. Photo © Paul Barkshire.

According to Paul Barkshire’s caption, this much-loved pub is situated in Holborn; this might be technically true, but Endell Street is more commonly associated with Covent Garden, and the porters’ barrows outside the pub suggest the vegetable market which once dominated the whole area. The fruit and veg moved to Nine Elms in 1974, and in the year this picture was taken the retail fun park familiar to Londoners today opened on the site of the defunct market. Inigo Jones’ gracious 17th Century Piazza – threatened with wholesale redevelopment as recently as the early 1970s – was retained at the cost of its enshrinement as the heart of a remorselessly consumerist zone, much to the dismay of residents who had campaigned so hard for the area’s preservation.

We should be grateful that the area was not flattened, or London would now be saddled with something like ‘Forum des Halles’ in Paris, a deadening, subterranean 1970s shopping arcade where once flourished Les Halles, ‘the belly of Paris’, the city’s market since the middle ages. Les Halles was unceremoniously eviscerated in 1971, the same year Alfred Hitchcock filmed his lurid – and anachronistic – serial killer thriller Frenzy in Covent Garden. Looking at the film now, so much is wrong and fantastically dated, but the location shooting in the market was for real: despite its flaws, it manages to capture an environment that now seems as distant as the coaching inns of Dickens’ youth. Barry Foster may strangle Barbara Leigh-Hunt with an old school tie, (Foster’s unwanted catchphrase “Lovely! Lovely!” – was chanted at him ever after by drunks of all stripes) but the ambience of the market is as vivid as the muscat grapes he gives to Jon Finch.

The Cross Keys was slightly off my own map when I was a regular drinker in WC2 – the Opera Tavern on Catherine Street and the Coach and Horses on Wellington Street were more convenient. But those pubs have been made over into anonymous, tourist-service outlets that might be anywhere. Luckily, the Cross Keys is largely unchanged since Paul Barkshire photographed it thirty+ years ago (although the foliage is more exuberant these days) and remains a very charming spot to lose an afternoon. I am intrigued by the gent looking out of the window: is he waiting for a delivery? A visitor? Inspiration? And those barrows look a bit like props. Maybe he’s waiting for the shade of Hitchcock to shout ‘Action!’ D.S. 


Drinker’s London. Photos Paul Barkshire, text David Secombe. (4/5)

Old Wine Shades, Martin Lane. Photo © Paul Barkshire, 1981.

Old Wine Shades is part of the El Vino group, the venerable drinking chain that branches across the City of London. The one on Fleet Street was a legendary haunt of the local hacks in the days when ‘the Street of Shame’ was thronged with them, and El Vino’s continues to trade on its reputation as a City institution. However, an anonymous reviewer (‘A Customer’) on www.allinlondon.co.uk recently (August 2010) described Old Wine Shades thus:

A dreadful place. I work close by and El Vino’s is noted for rude staff and overpriced food and (especially) drink. On one of my few unavoidable visits (guest of others), my dining partner found a lady’s bracelet at the bottom of his coffee cup. A significantly chunky piece of jewellery. Not even an apology offered, much less anything off the bill. Basically, they trade on their historical connections and for that it’s worth a visit, but only on the way to somewhere better.

I have no idea if this is a fair assessment overall, but it poses several questions: what kind of bracelet was it? Did it have precious stones? What was it doing at the bottom of a coffee cup? Had its owner thrown it there as a protest? (surely you’d notice if your bracelet slipped from your wrist and into your cappuccino). Perhaps it was a prop left over from the filming of a romantic comedy, and the scene is easy to picture:  a lunch date goes wrong in an historic London location, Kristin Scott-Thomas chucks her bracelet – a gift from Hugh Grant – in his coffee, leaving him embarrassed as she stalks off. We’d then have a quick bit of comic business with the waiter, a star cameo from Ricky Gervais. Hugh would probably pay another visit to Old Wine Shades at the end of the film, this time blissfully entwined with Kate Winslet or Kate Beckinsale, etc., who then finds the bracelet at the bottom of her coffee cup. I am sure I’ve seen this film. D.S. 


Drinker’s London. Photos Paul Barkshire, text David Secombe. (3/5)

Brydges Place, WC2, 1982. Photo © Paul Barkshire.

Brydges Place – “the narrowest alley in London” – runs between St. Martin’s Lane and Bedfordbury. Paul Barkshire’s photograph shows the view towards St.Martin’s Lane, where the alley narrows with an authentically Victorian oppressiveness before it opens out into the bright lights next to the Coliseum. Ahead, the pub signs denote the back doors of The Marquis and The Harp, the latter being one of the  nicest remaining West End pubs; immediately behind where Paul placed his camera is 2 Brydges Place, a civilized drinking club which, like the Harp, is much favoured by actors and theatre people.

This Dickensian little alley – a relic of a time when London was interlaced with innumerable such passages, usually forbidding rather than charming – offers many possibilities for drinking, socialising and making odd connections in general. On a warm night, or just when the pubs are so rammed that they spill into the alley, one can strike up intriguing conversations with strangers. And the stars are more vivid when you can only see a narrow slit of sky (past the sodium yellow of the streetlights, of course).

It is also a good spot to make a fool of yourself. Your correspondent went to English National Opera at the Coliseum earlier this year, and after a couple of sharpeners at the Harp, used Brydges Place as a cut-through – forgetting how crowded it gets on a Saturday when there is a matinee at ENO. As I trundled towards St.Martin’s Lane, I noticed a very beautiful woman waiting for me to clear so she and her friend could enter the alley: I recognised her as being the celebrated actress Saffron Burrows. No sooner had I clocked her and her cheekbones than I heard her say to her companion:  “We’ll have to wait for this large man to get out before we can go down here”. A fraction of a second later, I stepped on a loose paving slab and my desert-booted foot dropped into filthy rainwater up to my ankle. Smooth, smooth, smooth. D.S.


Drinker’s London. Photos Paul Barkshire, text David Secombe. (2/5)

Princess Louise, Holborn,1986. Photo © Paul Barkshire.

The Princess Louise is one of those carefully time-locked London pubs where one is invited to experience a idealised ‘heritage’ drinking experience: the Louise escaped post-war redevelopment and refurbishment and has survived into the 21st century as an authentically preserved/recreated Victorian boozer. At time of writing, the only beer on offer in the Louise is Sam Smiths, a rather dense, tawny ale brewed in Yorkshire; its main appeal is that it is remarkably cheap, but it is perhaps no coincidence that Sam Smiths currently lay claim to several other historic London pubs: these include the legendary Fitzrovia hangouts The Wheatsheaf and The Fitzroy Tavern, both much-frequented by the likes of Augustus John, Dylan Thomas, George Orwell, etc. – and also The Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street, known to writers from Samuel Johnson (allegedly) and Charles Dickens up to Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound. (The Cheese was where Wilde came to hear John Gray, the model for Dorian Gray, read his poems, and where Pound demonstrated his impeccable Modernist credentials by eating two red tulips during a recital by Yeats.)

Since Paul Barkshire’s photo was taken in the 80s, the Princess Louise has had another make-over, reinstating ‘authentic’ Victorian mahogany & etched glass partitions, the original purpose of which was to divide up the patrons according to class and occupation. The end result is undoubtedly charming, and Sam Smiths 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) which 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, that austere flower of the Aesthetic movement which met at the Cheshire Cheese from the 1890s up to 1914, attracting Wilde, Yeats, Dowson, Pound, etc., meet today? A loft in Peckham or Dalston, probably.  D.S.

… for The London Column.


Homer Sykes: Britain in the 1980s. Text by Various. (3/5)

‘Oops!’ (Rowing Boat Song), Hen Night, South London pub, circa 1980. © Homer Sykes/Photoshelter.

From Do You Remember? Forums

What was that dance called?

Posted by Bruce, 05/04/2005:

I remember a dance where you all sat in a line on the floor with your legs astride the person in front and then swayed from side to side and stuff. What was that dance called and what song was it meant to go with?

Posted by Precious Jewels, 08/04/2005:

It was for ‘Oops Upside Your Head’ by the Gap Band…Sweet reminiscing of discos growing up! Did it have a name for the actual dance?!

Posted by lionlevy, 19/04/2005:

Assorted aunties used to refer to it as “that boat song…” Very popular with aged relatives for some reason, despite their assorted dodgy arthritis & rheumatism doing its best to hinder them.

Posted by scallycapsforever, 09/08/2005:

Yeah the row boat song. A classic at family dos the length and breadth of the country it was also hilariously lampooned on ‘Men Behaving Badly’ to ‘Sailing’ by Rod Stewart.

Posted by Zen Master, 30/04/2005:

Not sure of the name of the dance but the song was a group called Forest, I will find the title later, was played at a birthday evening or event. Great fun all innocent……fun.

Posted by Clive Henry Jones, 27/06/2005:

Yeah, Forrest did “Rock the Boat” but it was a cover of The Hues Corporation’s original. This track was not a dedicated dance track, though, as “Oops upside your head” was (Rowing boat dance). As a DJ, I stll play “Oops” at mixed aged parties because:
a. It’s a good track which fills the dancefloor.
b. You get to look up women’s skirts as they get down (and up) – all innocent, though and I dare you to try to not look and see who’s wearing suspenders & who’s not.
c. You usually gety some saddo walking up and down the line of “rowers” whipping them with his tie.

Posted by SG1973, 26/05/2007:

Saw an interview on tv with the Gap Band and they said when they first came to England to do TOTP they couldn’t understand why everyone sat on the floor swaying from side to side. They’d never seen it done before. Must be an English eccentricity thing.