From A London Phantom by R. Thurston Hopkins:
I spent many evenings with Dowson in the Bun House. Though the name of this rendezvous has a doughy sound, it never at any time offered buns to its customers. It is just a London tavern, but it was part of the literary and newspaper life of the eighteen-nineties. It was there that I saw Lionel Johnson, the poet, John Evelyn Barlas, poet and anarchist who tried to ‘shoot up’ the House of Commons, Edgar Wallace, just out of a private soldier’s uniform, Arthur Machen in a caped ‘Inverness’ coat which he told me had been his regular friend for twenty years. …
After I had met Dowson a few times at the Bun House we would sometimes rove forlornly about the foggy London streets, initiated bohemians, tasting each other’s enthusiasms. … As we wandered about London at night we often played a sort of game which we called Blind Chivvy. The idea was to find short cuts or round-about-routes from one busy part of London to another by way of slinking alleys and byways which then were not well known to the average London man.
D.S.: We at The London Column like to think of ourselves as being in the vanguard of the Ernest Dowson Revival, but we can’t deny that our Ern remains something of a niche interest. My friend CJ – one half of the award-winning (really) wine blog, Sediment – is unconvinced by my claims for the poet who wrote the quintessential ‘decadent’ poem of the 1890s, Cynara. That said, CJ liked the sound of ‘Blind Chivvy’ and agreed to join me for an afternoon in a bid to play it. Admittedly, we were doing it on a bright July day rather than a murky November evening, and a few things have changed since Dowson’s time, but the promise of some light lunchtime drinking rendered CJ putty in my hands. We met at The Port House on the Strand, an Iberian sherry bar located in the building that was once The Bun House. In the candle-lit gloom, CJ and I munched tapas, drank white wine and attempted to visualise the interior peopled with the bohemian talent of decadent London. We failed. The ambience in the Port House is that of a bodega in Madrid, and there was no way we were going to conjure up the shades of Dowson, Johnson, Machen or anyone else. But it was a start.
Emerging from the Port House, I led a dubious CJ into a narrow entrance next door. Exchange Court is one of those ancient pathways off the Strand that bears witness to a lost London landscape. Halfway up this remnant of 17th century town planning there is a courtyard behind a new (early 1990s) bar called The Porterhouse. Before the construction of this establishment, it was possible to come here – a spot no-one had any reason to visit – and discover a genuine fragment of the ‘Great Wen’: a desolate cul-de-sac that Dickens would have recognised. When I visited in 1984, you could still see the original box office window of the Adelphi theatre, complete with Victorian London prices, bricked up in an alcove. Then they built the pub and the alcove disappeared. Now they store barrels here and the court seems almost cheerful.
We followed Exchange Court to the end and emerged in Maiden Lane, CJ looking around him like a lost Japanese tourist. ‘Where are we now?’ Doing my best Peter Ackroyd, I replied that Maiden Lane was one of the oldest thoroughfares in the West End – and, in the same mode, indicated a plaque above the Adelphi’s stage door commemorating the murder of William Terriss. ‘Who? What?’ On cue, the shutter of a loading bay was yanked open and for a moment we had a glimpse of the business end of a working theatre. The sight of the vast maw of an empty auditorium brought back memories of other West End venues, not to mention Proustian associations of childhood visits backstage. Me: ‘What’s playing here now?’ CJ: ‘Kinky Boots’. We moved on.
We crossed the road to look in the window of Rules, ‘the oldest restaurant in London’ (est. 1788). To celebrate the august history of its dining rooms, Rules’s website features a poignantly misjudged piece of copywriting which is worth reproducing here:
As well as being frequented by great literary talents – including Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, John Galsworthy and H G Wells – Rules has also appeared in novels by Rosamond Lehmann, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, John Le Carré, Dick Francis, Penelope Lively and Claire Rayner.
Whilst studying the menu I asked CJ if a publisher had ever taken him to Rules and he looked at me beadily, suggesting that I might be confusing him with someone else; Ian McEwan, maybe. Or Marian Keyes, perhaps.
Rules faces Bull Inn Court, another alley where Dowson might have gone to find company (‘absinthe makes the tart grow fonder’ is his line); in July 2015 it is a spot where office workers go to juggle cigarettes and smart phones. But a couple of doors further along, the tone is abruptly elevated by the ecclesiastical majesty of Corpus Christi. Mirroring the promise of the Adelphi, its doors were invitingly open, affording views of ‘the grey twilight of gothic things’ (or the 1870s repro version) in WC2. Dowson converted to Catholicism in the last years of his short life, so it’s at least possible that he took communion in Corpus Christi. In any case, we yielded to the lure of its gilded interior and behaved like a pair of sightseers, taking photographs and lighting candles (25 pence a go).
We backtracked west along Maiden Lane, down Chandos Place and thence into Brydges Place. We have featured Brydges Place on The London Column before, so I won’t dilate on this atmospheric passageway here – except to note that there were more homeless pitches since my last visit and the stink of piss was overwhelming. Brydges Place debouches into St Martin’s Lane next to E.N.O., where we emerged to see a Mariachi band posing on the steps of the Coliseum. Mexican dance music seemed like a bit of a departure for English National Opera, but the band looked fun and an obliging gaucho performed some impressive lasso moves for the cameras. Diverting as it was, this wasn’t the woozy, drink-soaked metropolis we were looking for, so we repaired to The Salisbury to re-group. The Salisbury was once a well-known gay pub, extensively referenced in the Dirk Bogarde film Victim, and where the serial killer Dennis Nilsen cruised in the 1970s and 80s – but any flickers of the city of dreadful night were banished by the holiday crowd ramming the bar. The Salisbury’s ghosts were as lost to us as those at The Bun House. We sat behind an etched glass window, drank London Pride and swapped stories of career disappointment. The phantom of Thurston Hopkins’s essay, who they fear is haunting them on their nocturnal rambles through London, is a man Dowson described as having ‘a face like a wizened bladder of lard’ – but in the noisy saloon of the Salisbury, CJ and I were merely haunting each other.
Opposite The Salisbury is an entrance to another 17th century survival, a passageway called Goodwins Court. Needless to say, Goodwins Court was a surprise to CJ, who remarked upon the beautiful bowed shop-fronts (18th century, I am told, although they are no longer shops, and it is hard to tell exactly what they front now). When I was a boy my parents took me to a show-business party in the house at the end, the one that abuts Bedfordbury. The host was the late Tony Sympson, an actor whose family were instrumental in preserving Goodwin’s Court against destruction. I remember a jewel-box of a house composed of implausibly large rooms, their Regency elegance constituting an act of defiance: as late as 1978, the threat of wholesale demolition still loomed over Covent Garden. The house is still someone’s home; perhaps the most desirable place to live in all the West End. Next door is Giovanni’s, a discreet Italian restaurant popular with old-school actors and producers. I have purple memories of this place too: a lunch with an actor friend which deteriorated into an afternoon lurid enough for me to give up drinking for months afterwards. After mistily reminiscing on all of the above, CJ pointed out, not unreasonably, that those anecdotes are specific to me, and that the state of my liver was of little interest to him.
Taking the hint, and with time against us – CJ’s dinner beginning to call, in far distant Mortlake – the rest of our dèrive went at something of a galop. By this stage, I had a destination in mind, a spot with more recent associations than the 1890s. We walked swiftly up Garrick Street, crossed Long Acre towards Seven Dials, cut up West Street (past The Ivy and those strangely conjoined twins of tourist theatre-land, The Mousetrap and Stomp), crossed Shaftesbury Avenue, continued north on Stacey Street – alongside the vast bulk of the Covent Garden Odeon and beyond the fragile greensward of Phoenix Garden – and finally arrived in crumbling, doomed Denmark Street.
In the 1950s Denmark Street (‘London’s own Tin Pan Alley!’) was London’s music business quarter, an Expresso Bongo world of post-Suez Britain. Then, the street was the domain of the impresario Larry Parnes, (much-mocked svengali of improbably-named singers like Vince Eager, Dickie Pride, Johnny Gentle, and some others who actually made it), songwriter Lionel Bart (‘King of Denmark Street’), the jingle writer Johnny Johnston (Softness is a thing called Comfort, Beanz Meanz Heinz, and 5000 others), and all the other personalities of the pre-Beatles universe. In the 1960s The Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Donovan, Bowie, Hendrix all came here to record, in studios carved out of 17th-century basements. Ten years later it was the turn of the phlegm-flecked protégés of Malcolm McLaren (the ’70s version of Larry Parnes) The Sex Pistols, who rehearsed and lived here for a while. And, whilst he is unlikely to get a blue plaque, Dennis Nilsen – abovementioned, hanging around the Salisbury – spent the early ’80s working in a jobcentre that used to be on the corner with the Charing Cross Road. This jobcentre’s speciality was the catering industry, and for one Christmas staff party Nilsen made his colleagues punch in a large cooking pot he brought from his home, the same pan he used for boiling his victims’ heads.
There are still music shops to be found on Denmark Street, but the redevelopment of St Giles has been the cause of much anguish amongst London’s music lovers, as first the Astoria and then the 12 Bar Club have been laid waste in favour of Crossrail and a looming corporate/retail zone. Around 1900, the year Dowson died, the great loss London suffered was the destruction of Wych St. and environs to create ‘new’ Aldwych and Kingsway (the subject of one of our previous walks). That particular act of civic philistinism didn’t just obliterate some of the prettiest streets in the capital, it cauterized life on the streets – which is exactly what it was intended to do, removing ‘unwholesome’ theatres and booksellers and erasing one of London’s cultural centres. The destruction of the area around Denmark Street is the 21st Century equivalent. How do we characterise it? London dans le style Boris, perhaps, London après Cameron, London sans coeur, etc. Chalked graffiti on the hoarding in front of the remains of the 12 Bar was eloquence itself …
By now CJ and I were starting to feel generally chivvied out. The day-glo office blocks opposite St.Giles in the Fields measured the gulf between the city of our imaginings and the one we are actually stuck with. Calling it a day, Charles headed for Waterloo and his train to Mortlake, and I boarded a quasi-Routemaster 38 to Hackney. Sitting on the top deck, in an interior as retro as the Orla Kiely catalogue, I considered the dilemma: if Soho is dead, if the West End is dead, if Chelsea is dead, if Shoreditch is dead (no cheering please), what is left? A Bright New World safe for out-of-town consumers to play in – but not somewhere you would want to live, even if you could afford to. Hence London becomes the new Dubai, and Margate the new Peckham. Good for Margate, perhaps, but London as a place of invention and creativity becomes no more than a historical footnote. Don’t look for culture here, mate, only ad agencies can afford the rent. Live music? Try the relocated 12 Bar Club – it’s on the Holloway Road (if you can find it). No call for it round here, pal. The revolution will not be televised – but you can download it as a podcast.
(I have just noticed that this post is the 250th on The London Column. I was going to apologise for the fogeyish tone, but then thought ‘why should I?’)
Tennyson Street, Battersea. Photo © David Secombe 1982.
From Hill of Dreams, Arthur Machen, 1907:
It was not till the winter was well advanced that he began at all to explore the region in which he lived. Soon after his arrival in the grey street he had taken one or two vague walks, hardly noticing where he went or what he saw; but for all the summer he had shut himself in his room, beholding nothing but the form and colour of words. [. . .]
Now, however, when the new year was beginning its dull days, he began to diverge occasionally to right and left, sometimes eating his luncheon in odd corners, in the bulging parlours of eighteenth-century taverns, that still fronted the surging sea of modern streets, or perhaps in brand new “publics” on the broken borders of the brickfields, smelling of the clay from which they had swollen. He found waste by-places behind railway embankments where he could smoke his pipe sheltered from the wind; sometimes there was a wooden fence by an old pear-orchard where he sat and gazed at the wet desolation of the market-gardens, munching a few currant biscuits by way of dinner. As he went farther afield a sense of immensity slowly grew upon him; it was as if, from the little island of his room, that one friendly place, he pushed out into the grey unknown, into a city that for him was uninhabited as the desert.
At 11.30 a.m. (UK) today, Thursday 4 July, Radio 4 is broadcasting a documentary about Arthur Machen and his ‘disturbing’ visions of a world beyond our own.
Camden Road. © David Secombe 1987.
From London The Biography by Peter Ackroyd, 2000:
Whole areas can in their turn seem woeful or haunted. Arthur Machen had a strange fascination with the streets north of Gray’s Inn Road – Frederick Street, Percy Street, Lloyd Baker Square – and those in which Camden Town melts into Holloway. They are not grand or imposing; nor are they squalid or desolate. Instead they seem to contain the grey soul of London, that slightly smoky and dingy quality which has hovered over the city for many hundreds of years. He observed ‘those worn and hallowed doorsteps’, even more worn and hallowed now, and ‘I see them signed with tears and desires, agony and lamentations’. London has always been the abode of strange and solitary people who close their doors upon their own secrets in the middle of the populous city; it has always been the home of ‘lodgings’, where the shabby and the transient can find a small room with a stained table and a narrow bed.
In the midst of our jingoistic Olympic summer, I thought it might refreshing to explore the aspect of London so eloquently evoked by Peter Ackroyd in the passage above. A city of silent yet inhabited houses, anonymous windswept streets, overgrown front lawns, strange objects on the back seats of abandoned cars, forbidding municipal playgrounds, etc. (This is essentially the same territory explored by Geoffrey Fletcher in The London Nobody Knows, and as the last series on The London Column was a revisiting of Fletcher’s book, this one may be seen as a continuation of the same theme.) ‘London Gothic’ is becoming increasingly rare; most of the streets that Arthur Machen thought of as woeful are now exemplars of prosperous gentrification. London is a cleaner, neater place: even King’s Cross is a landscaped zone now. The photo above was taken a quarter of a century ago, and Holloway has come up in the world since then. The specific, shabby London charm that Machen and Ackroyd describe may still be found, but one has to look harder. As a small boy visiting the city from the suburbs, I was amazed by the soft enveloping greyness which made the occasional bursts of colour all the more striking. That quiet visual texture is vanishing, when even municipal housing wears screaming day-glo colours, as 1960s & 70s blocks are clad in blue, yellow, or turquoise panels. London wears its dread in brighter shades these days.
… for The London Column.