‘Bomber Harris looks like he’s pushing out a discreet fart’.
Thus observed CJ, of Sediment and Up North notoriety, as we stood in front of St. Clement Danes contemplating the statue of Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris that stares balefully at Australia House. I could see CJ’s point; certainly, Air Chief Marshal Dowding is looking pointedly in the opposite direction, disavowing all association with his war-time colleague. On the other hand, Harris could just as well be evaluating Australia House’s chances of withstanding a thousand bomber raid.
CJ and I were drawn to this spot not by the relative dispositions of memorialized RAF grandees but to see if we could find traces of the ancient streets obliterated by early 20th century redevelopment. Australia House stands roughly on the site of Wych Street. Old Wych was described as ‘the prettiest street in London’ but the city’s civic class regarded it and its neighbours as inconvenient and unwholesome. An area full of theatres, bookshops, churches, inns of court and something like 600 historic houses, it was simultaneously a romantic backdrop to London’s intellectual life and an impediment to the aspirations of Boris’s Edwardian forbears. The planners won out, of course: cherished streets were cleared and replaced by monumental blocks of numbing pomposity. The names of the streets lost in this fatuous exercise in Haussmanism toll like a litany: Holywell St., Little Wild St., Stanhope St., Little Queen St., Clare St., Hollis St., Newcastle St., Houghton St. etc., … whilst the name given to the boulevard that eviscerated the old district could not be more deadly: Kingsway. Somehow, St. Mary le Strand escaped the surrounding destruction and now wears the air of a dowager trapped in uncouth company, sandwiched between the 1920s bombast of Bush House and the high Brutalism of King’s College’s 1970’s Strand Building.
Just behind King’s Strand Building is Strand Lane, an alley running down to the Embankment which is now a pedestrianised access facility for the college. CJ and I accessed it via Surrey Steps, and found ourselves in the company of an American tourist searching for the ‘Roman bath’ which may be seen through a window in the courtyard of the galleried house in the above photo. Despite the assertions of Dickens and others, the bath isn’t Roman at all, and is thought to be a 16th or 17th century cistern that serviced one of the grand houses that stood here. We were more taken by the anomalous regency villa-ette that clings to the vast bulk of King’s like a remora on a whale. More office space for King’s – except for the attic, where well-tended plants indicate a domestic arrangement. An enviable address? I thought so and said as much to CJ, who merely looked at me pityingly (he lives in Mortlake).
We walked back to the Strand, past the disused Strand tube station (now owned by King’s and rented out for film shoots), and noted the wholesale demolition of 1960s blocks taking place between Surrey St. and Arundel St. In late Victorian times, this area was the heart of literary London. Holywell St. – where Bush House is now – was lined with bookshops and stalls, many of which specialised in naughty titles, and publishers’ offices. The Savoy, journal of the Decadent movement, was edited out of the Arundel St. premises of Leonard Smithers, publisher of Wilde, Beardsley, Beerbohm, Symons, Dowson, even Aleister Crowley. Arthur Symons edited The Savoy during the 1890s and lived nearby. In 1912 he wrote an elegy for the London that had been destroyed:
The old, habitable London exists no longer. Charles Lamb could not live in this mechanical city, out of which everything old and human has been driven by wheels and hammers and the fluids of noise and speed. When will his affectionate phrase, “the sweet security of streets,” ever be used again of London? No one will take a walk down Fleet Street any more, no one will shed tears of joy in the “motley Strand,” no one will be leisurable any more, or turn over old books at a stall, or talk with friends at the street corner. Noise and evil smells have filled the streets like tunnels in daylight; it is a pain to walk in the midst of all these hurrying and clattering machines; the multitude of humanity, that “bath” into which Baudelaire loved to plunge, is scarcely discernible, it is secondary to the machines; it is only in a machine that you can escape the machines.
We crossed the Strand in front of the Law Courts, past a pair of loitering petitioners, and sidled down Bell Yard towards Carey St. The Royal Courts of Justice was built in the 1870s, a product of the same mentality that later perpetrated Aldwych and Kingsway. A vast area of housing was cleared for George Edmund Street’s neo-Gothic scheme; in The Times, 12 September 1866, their correspondent profiled the district that was about to vanish:
The extensive and complicated networks of lanes, courts and alleys covering the area bounded east and west by Bell Yard and Clement’s Inn, north by Carey Street, and south by the Strand and Fleet Street, lately containing a population more numerous than many Parliamentary boroughs, is being fast deserted. Massive padlocks guard every door . . . The ground taken by the authorities entrusted with the arrangements for the new ‘Palace of Justice’ includes nearly thirty lanes and passages, the names of some of which will be familiar to all who have made acquaintance with the topography of London. Here still stand some old houses, the very peculiar, perhaps unique, character of whose construction is worthy of a visit. The main frontages to come down are, northwardly, nearly the whole of the south side of Carey Street, and, southwardly, the eastern and western extremities respectively, the north side of the Strand and Fleet Street, crossing Temple Bar.
In the gathering twilight, CJ and I went for a quick jaunt around Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Outside the Royal College of Surgeons (Sir Charles Barry, 1833) we noted ostentatiously-parked production vans humming with the purposeful non-activity that is the exclusive preserve of film crews. We took in ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ on Portsmouth St., a bizarre fragment of Tudor London which has acquired a spurious Dickensian connection and the aspect of a giant wendy house. But, as we are in Bleak House territory, everything has a spurious Dickensian connection. Dickens may have mined old London for his fiction but he also associated it with decay and, being a man of his time, was all for getting rid of it. The clearances and ugly ceremonialism of late Victorian and Edwardian London were driven by the logic of civil engineering yoked to the doctrine of economic growth. If traffic does not move fast London cannot grow; grand buildings are needed to reflect the city’s commercial/imperial status. … which, in the era of the Dome, the 2012 Olympics, Crossrail and Boris Johnson, shows that nothing has changed. The Times concluded its report on the 1866 clearances in bleakly familiar terms:
By the displacement of so many hundreds of poor families, the unhealthy courts about Drury Lane, Bedfordbury, the Seven Dials and other localities, already reeking and noisome with excess of numbers, have become more overcrowded than ever. The rents of the most miserable rooms have materially risen, and another entanglement is added to the difficult problem, ‘How and where are the poor to find suitable dwellings?’
On the north-western corner of Lincoln’s Inn Fields is a pair of Georgian houses that have for many years lain empty, their facades sooted in a manner that has almost disappeared in London. Now the builders are in, and I doubt whether the old soot will remain on the brickwork for much longer. CJ quoted Iain Nairn waxing eloquently on the patina of soot on London’s buildings, but I can’t remember what he said now. In any case, I nodded sagely. We both nodded sagely. Then we stopped nodding sagely and decided to go for a drink. We had intended to spend some time exploring fragments of the pre-Edwardian landscape on the western side of Kingsway, but that will have to wait for another time. It was dark and we were old.
We headed back to Carey St. and The Seven Stars, installing ourselves at a tiny table in the pub’s ‘Wig Box’ extension. We drank beer which is a bit infra dig for CJ as he generally only drinks wine, albeit of a fairly desperate sort (if you have read Sediment you will know what I am talking about). I mentioned that I have a photo of The Wig Box that I took in 1986 when it was still an actual shop selling legal headgear. CJ looked a little fatigued, ignored my last factoid and commented that is a bit odd for a 50-year old man to be quite so indignant at the Edwardians who refashioned London. He’s probably right, although I would counter that modern Londoners are experiencing a coarsening of the environment which mirrors the arrogance of early-mid 20th Century planning. Arthur Symons’s anguish illustrates the gulf between those who find joy in the city and those who wish to control it. Everything is up for grabs and nothing can be taken for granted. Enjoy your pint while you can. Cheers.
… for The London Column.
Interview with Alfred Hitchcock, New York Times, 19 March 1939*:
Apparently no Hitchcock interview is ever complete without Mr. Hitchcock’s latest idea for a picture he would like to make – some time. Today he has in mind a picture built around the English Derby – Derby Day. “Can there be anything more exciting or dramatic than a million people all gathered together in one afternoon – all sorts of people, from top to bottom – just to witness the running of a race? I always liken it to the Judgment Day. Well, I should like to sift, say, a dozen characters from that crowd and, within the limits of an hour and a half on that fatal afternoon, tell their stories, climaxed by the finish of the race.” It sounds like a great idea – maybe too great, because, unfortunately, Mr. Hitchcock never seems to get around to doing those pictures he dreams about.
DS: Tomorrow sees the running of The Derby at Epsom, the original Derby anything, founded in 1780, and still the richest horse race in Britain. Once run mid-week, since 1995 it has been a Saturday fixture, the rescheduling an indication of its decline as an event. No-one seems entirely sure why it has lost its popularity. Hitchcock’s comment reflects the notion of the Derby current in the Victorian and Edwardian eras: London on the Downs, the city decamping en masse for a day at the races. This was the Derby Day of Dickens, William Frith, or the doomed suffragette Emily Davison. As a schoolboy in Epsom during the 1970s, I recall the frightening volume of humanity that appeared on the first Wednesday in June … but that excitement and sense of occasion has simply withered. These images are of Derby Day in 1991, taken whilst working alongside Eddie Mirzoeff’s documentary team (see below) and show only the elaborately hatted zone of the grandstand. The modern version of Frith’s Victorian painting is a glorious documentary by Charlie Squires of the 1970 Derby: I have hunted YouTube to locate this but to no avail. I would dearly love to see that film again: instead, here is footage of the 1970 race, won in legendary fashion by Lester Piggott on Nijinsky:
The 1991 Derby was won by ‘Generous’, ridden by Alan Munro. From Elizabeth R, prod. E, Mirzoeff, BBC, 1992 – video no. 3 in sequence:
* Thanks to The Hitchcock Zone.
Piccadilly Line. © Tim Marshall 1991.
Andrew Martin writes:
All human life is on the Piccadilly; the line is too cluttered with stations, having originated from three railways serving the congested area of central London, and having then been extended. It’s unfortunate, therefore, that it should be the line that since 1977 has served Heathrow. When the British Airports Authority first proposed its Heathrow Express service from Paddington in 1988, london Transport responded with its own plan to run Tube trains express to the airport, partly using District Line tracks, which would have provided the fastest access by Underground. This ambitious and expensive proposal did not stop the Heathrow Express, which I refuse to use because of the television screen that blares at you the whole way. I stick with the Tube, and, being a north Londoner, any Heathrow flight I take is always preceded by – and often exceeded by – an hour and a half on the Piccadilly.
The text is from Underground, Overground: a passenger’s history of the Tube, published by Profile Books (also available here). The photos are from Tim Marshall’s series When a Tube train stops.
Piccadilly line. © Tim Marshall 1992.
Andrew Martin writes:
For Valentine’s Day, an editor once instructed me, ‘I want you to write about love on the Underground’, but I couldn’t dig up much. I read in Underground News that on 30 April 1986 at bank station a woman hit her eighty-year old husband with a handbag, which sent him tumbling down an escalator. Just before Christmas in 1989, an Underground labourer who had consumed ten pints of bitter had an unorthodox interaction with a cat on a Tube train. Then he fell into a stupor, and his first remark on being awakened by an appalled fellow passenger was, ‘What cat?’ He was later fined £500. For many years the dating agency Dateline placed posters throughout the Underground that showed a man and a woman crossing on adjoining escalators. ‘A hidden glance, a forgotten smile’ ran the copy. ‘Have you ever looked and wondered what might have been?’ That drove me mad, because if you’d forgotten the smile then you wouldn’t wonder what might have happened as a result of it. Even so, when the fashion designer Bella Freud (who launched one of her collections on a Tube train) said, ‘There’s a strange tension on the Tube, a moodiness, a sexiness’. I think she was right.
The text is from Underground, Overground: a passenger’s history of the Tube, published by Profile Books (also available here.) The photos are from Tim Marshall’s series When a Tube train stops.