‘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.
Lincoln’s Inn Fields, west side. Photo © David Secombe 2010.
The Haunted House
If ghost stories arise from the Gothic tradition, which was as much architectural as literary, it is also the case that persistent ghosts need a persistent location in which to manifest. So no wonder houses are haunted.
Haunted houses tend to be old and big. Such properties appeal to the romantic idea of faded grandeur, and also a baser snobbery. Every account of Borley Rectory, ‘the most haunted house in England’, describes it as hideous, but when I look at the pictures I wonder how much it would cost today if it were still standing, and whether the seller would take a low offer in view of its poltergeist infestation. Reading ghost stories we are torn: yes, a malevolent spirit stalks the east wing, but at least there’s am east wing for it to stalk. Ghost stories, both real and fictional, sometimes come with floor plans of the haunted area – literally, property particulars – and very mouth-watering they usually are.
Haunted houses also come with libraries, and with servants. The protagonist in a ghost story is quite alone in his huge house … except for his fifteen servants. The reader might not know about the servants until one of them hesitantly knocks and enters the master’s study on the final page and finds him slumped in his chair ‘With a look on his face, the like of which I’ve never seen …’
The author denigrates the house, but also slyly boosts it to engage our snobbery. In Walter de la Mare’s story, Out of the Deep (1923) the protagonist, Jimmie, inherits his uncle’s ‘horrible old London mansion’. But how horrible and old can a London mansion be? In Moonlight Sonata (1931) by Alexander Woolcott, one of the two principals inhabits ‘the collapsing family manor house to which he had indignantly fallen heir.’ The owner is down to his last gardener, who tends the ‘once sumptuous’ grounds, but the place doesn’t sound too bad to me. The Mystery of the Semi-Detached by Edith Nesbitt (1893) seems, from its title, to be bucking the trend, but the house is ‘commodious’, with several sitting rooms.
I myself grew up in a semi-detached of a more modest sort. We were its first occupants, and I was proud of inhabiting a new house. Those of my contemporaries who lived in old houses seemed to me to be taking a considerable risk. They were living in houses in which people had died, and people they didn’t know at that – people that nobody currently alive knew. It must be like living in a tomb. There would have to be certain echoes. In grappling with the subject, in his collection of sightings, Apparitions and Haunted Houses, Sir Ernest Bennett plaintively wonders, ‘Can it conceivably be the case that in some inscrutable fashion the woodwork and masonry of a house may exert some physical or mental influences which cause certain individuals to see the phantasmal figure of a former resident?’
… from Ghoul Britannia, published by Short Books. © Andrew Martin 2009.
Elsewhere in his fine book (an overview of the British ghost story tradition), Andrew examines Charles Dickens’s fascination with ghosts and how they impacted on his fiction. The above photograph shows the Inigo Jones mansion – on the right – believed to have been the model for the chambers of Tulkinghorn, the sinister lawyer in Bleak House. Although Bleak House is not ostensibly a novel about ghosts, it deals with the dead hand of the past weighing upon the present; and Dickens’s treatment of Lincoln’s Inn is appropriately atmospheric, menacing and grotesque. Here is the opening of chapter 32:
‘It is night in Lincoln’s Inn — perplexed and troublous valley of the shadow of the law, where suitors generally find but little day — and fat candles are snuffed out in offices, and clerks have rattled down the crazy wooden stairs, and dispersed. The bell that rings at nine o’clock, has ceased its doleful clangour about nothing; the gates are shut; and the night-porter, a solemn warder with a mighty power of sleep, keeps guard in his lodge. [. . . ] It is a close night, though the damp cold is searching too; and there is a laggard mist a little way up in the air. It is a fine steaming night to turn the slaughter-houses, the unwholesome trades, the sewerage, bad water, and burial grounds to account, and give the Registrar of Deaths some extra business’.