CurioCity – A Review

Popular in the nineteenth century as a means of cheaply distributing popular culture in print was the chapbook. Small in size, thus suitable for pocket or purse, frequently printed on a single folded sheet of paper.

Launched in September 2011 there is,  for London in the twenty-first century, a new superior hybrid of chapbook and map in the form of CurioCity.

Edited by Henry Eliot & Matt Lloyd, CurioCity comprises beautifully executed vignettes of an eclectic mixture of London ephemera, contemporary and historical, also printed on a single sheet, presented duodecimo in a convenient and clever origami package befitting of the sub title London Unfolded.

Delighted to be furnished with Issue B to peruse, it may be useful to note that the card casing was sufficiently sturdy to withstand the chaotic disorder of that unruly item of luggage which doubles as boz’s handbag.

Do not be fooled into thinking that the compact size of this tiny publication is indicative of insubstantial, flimsy content. To the contrary it is packed full of miscellaneous snippets of informative; factual; entertaining; whimsical and occasionally weird insights into little known gems of London minutiae.

Contributions to Issue B include an article on the delightful Seven Stars public house and a list of risqué Tube Station sobriquet from Matt Brown at http://londonist.com/  along with tales of St. James’s Park and London’s oldest street art by Peter Berthoud http://www.peterberthoud.co.uk/  Additionally, such diverse subjects as a Book Barge, secret entry to see trading at the London Metal Exchange and the Crossbones Graveyard in Southwark.

The latter is a pertinent subject as the site is being marketed for redevelopment. Should any reader wish to sign the petition that is part of the campaign to protect Crossbones you can do so here: http://www.crossbones.org.uk/ and for further reading on this and other At Risk heritage sites in London, boz can do no better than recommend the excellent articles to be found at  http://thelondonphile.com/

The inside of Curiocity is given over to a specific theme illustrated in mapping format, which for the current issue is London the Zoo: drawing the reader through a labyrinth of creature related curios to be found for the looking within the metropolis.

London the Zoo

London Unfolded

Also included therein, is a Mythical Beast Safari taking a tour of lesser spotted dragons and gargoyles lurking in the capital. At number thirteen in this entry boz was most entertained to discover old friends Gog and Magog, having just undertaken illustration of said giants in miniature for the Guildhall Art Gallery.

Gog and Magog in Miniature

A regular visitor at the Guildhall and coincidentally avid collector of chapbooks was Samuel Pepys. The greater part of Pepys’s chapbook collection he acquired in the 1680s and had bound into genres. The collection of bound volumes is now kept at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

Part map; part book; part curio; should you wish to obtain a copy of this highly entertaining publication it is readily available at these well reputed London stockists: http://www.curiocity.org.uk/stockists/ including one eminent purveyor of maps Established 1827, or can be ordered online at http://www.curiocity.org.uk/

Having enjoyed the second issue, boz will en route to Covent Garden, secure a copy of CurioCity London Unfolded A, as in the event a collection might end up in an illustrious archive, it had better be complete.

Purveyor of Maps

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London seen through the plays of Jack Rosenthal

There was much lapsing in Tot Hall last week with very little of an industrious nature being achieved. Visits to hostelries under the guise of research and the perusal of cinematography have taken priority.

Such same perusal of a particular favourite film provided the impetus for this post. The Chain (1984) written by Jack Rosenthal. An engaging tale which follows moving day for seven households beginning in Hackney to Tufnell Park via Willesden then Hammersmith into Hampstead on to Holland Park then Knightsbridge and full circle back to the street in Hackney.

Several of Manchester born Jack Rosenthal’s screenplays centre on London and its suburbs. Each are beautifully executed tales of everyday life narrated with pathos and humility. They are of their time but certainly none the worse for that.

The Chain begins its journey in Hackney, a somewhat different Hackney to the one that has up and come in the intervening twenty seven years since the film was made. The small terraced house that is used for the film set is shown to be 94 Quilter Street. In the screenplay a mother is preparing for the departure of her son, leaving her to await a lodger rather than face an empty house. 1881 finds the house far from empty; the Census for that year records four separate households: A Turner and his wife; Railway Porter with wife and five children; Laundress and daughter a boot fitter; Cellarman and his wife; so almost certainly one room per family in a small house comprising four rooms with a back kitchen and scullery with the only privy in the backyard.

Returning to The Chain we follow the son’s journey to Tufnell Park in a clapped out Morris Traveller. Here we are introduced to a young married couple about to embark on the property ladder with the familiar title that first came into common parlance in the 1980s the ‘first time buyer’. The young man about to move into the tired rented flat with the peeling paint on the window frames is of course suitably overawed by this ‘title’, along with the ninety per cent mortgage they have signed themselves up for. Littered around the scene thus confirming the changes in property fortunes we see the evidence of skips and scaffolding in place as slowly, gradually the once if not grand, then certainly respectable three storey terraces, built for the middling sort, are beginning to be restored to their former glory.

The next leg of the journey in the hired van with our new acquaintances ‘the first time buyers’ leads us to Willesden, where we find a post war low rise block of flats close to Walm Lane. Here we find a very young Phyllis Logan and David Troughton say goodbye to their flat in preparation to go to  a substantial property complete with granny flat in Hammersmith. The house is apparently in Burlington Road at number twenty eight although no such thoroughfare exists in Hammersmith.

A Little Bit of Hammersmith

Having dealt with squatters and cowboy removal companies we are taken to 55 Christchurch Hill Hampstead to persuade Billie Whitelaw in the guise of recently bereaved widow, to relinquish her home with an interior ‘just like Limasol’ and take up residence in a newly purchased house in Holland Park. At this point we all pour into the removal van including the widow and make our way to Holland Park.

Christchurch Hill was Christchurch Road until street renaming around 1938. The house used in the film at number fifty five is situated at the corner of Grove Place in the shadow of a block of twenty eight model dwellings built c.1914 on the site of the Wells’ Bath House.

Model Dwellings Grove Place Hampstead

On to a house in Holland Park ‘The Villa’ which by referring to this most interesting site www.reelstreets.com turns out to be filmed at 87 Addison Road. Depicted in the film as a house of the better sort belonging to an aspirational family as intended when this street was built.                                             The 1881 Census records one Alfred Clark, Varnish Manufacturer and General Merchant residing there with his wife and six children aged twenty-two to four years old. The household included four servants of which one was a groom indicative of ‘carriage folk’.

We leave this house to embark to Knightsbridge where an elderly diplomat in the shape of Leo McKern is returning to his childhood home to die, but this time as a lodger in an unfamiliar house and thus we finish up full circle back in Hackney (Quilter Street). The film will not of course be to the taste of everyone, especially with the odd little moral thread that runs through it portraying the Seven Deadly Sins however the meander through the ordinary houses of the metropolis and within that Jack Rosenthal’s skill in illustrating human nature along the way is perfectly charming.

A Little Bit of Hackney

A slightly earlier production from Jack Rosenthal also centred firmly on London and one of the Capital’s most familiar sights was The Knowledge (1979). Following the ups and downs of four ‘Knowledge Boys’ in their bid to attain the coveted Green Badge and become fully fledged Licensed Hackney Carriage drivers. Known for his attention to detail and creating credible characters, good research played a large part in his writing. In this desire to get his subject right he accompanied London taxi drivers on their journeys and in doing so was granted a honoury taxi driver’s license in the process.

A beautifully written first hand account of the real Knowledge can be found here: http://blackcablondon.wordpress.com alongside a cornucopia of accomplished narratives on life in London.

In Bar Mitzvah Boy (1976  ) the character of Victor Green  is also a London Taxi driver although this film centres around a Jewish family in a London suburb preparing . . . or not . . . .  for a family celebration. From memory boz believes the film location for Bar Mitzvah Boy may have been Neasden but can find no information available to confirm that. There is a recent adaptation for radio by Jack’s playwright daughter Amy Rosenthal which quite coincidently was broadcast this weekend.

Another tale of teenage angst set in 1948 P’tang Yang Kipperbang screened for the opening night of Channel 4 in 1982. Filmed at Wimbleden Chase Middle School and Cardinal Vaughn School, Kensington, the central character Alan Duckworth resides in a house in York Road, South Wimbledon.

Telling the story of the first television broadcast is the Fools on the Hill (1986) set almost entirely at Alexandra Palace with the opening scenes at Broadcasting House, Langham Place. The drama was made to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Television Service in 1986 and can be viewed here:                                                    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=

Persephone and Ariel with Eric Gill - Getty Image taken from BBC website

Broadcasting House was the first purpose built premises in 1932 for radio broadcasting by the BBC. The statue of Prospero and Ariel from Shakespeare’s The Tempest was commissioned with Ariel being the spirit of the air considered a suitable expression of the essence of broadcasting. The original design for Eric Gill’s statue had to be modified in proportion. Following a question raised in the House of Commons as to the offence on public morals Gill was instructed by the first BBC Director General, John Reith to adjust the dimensions of Ariel’s genitalia to more decent proportions.

Broadcasting House

The venture into television was not to be at Langham Place but in north London at Alexandra Palace. Incepted by the Great Northern Palace Company and originally intended as a glass structure by the name of ‘People’s Palace’, however, lack of finance put a stop to the original proposal.  Alexandra Palace was completed 1875 by Charles and Thomas Lucas who at this time were also building the Royal Albert Hall. and took the name of the park within which it stood named after the newly married Princess of Wales when it opened in 1863.  The British Broadcasting Corporation leased the eastern part of the building from 1936 and aside of the interruption of the Second World War this became the main centre for BBC television production until 1956 at a time when Jack Rosenthal was working in the promotions department of the new Granada Television Company.

Alexandra Palace with Transmitter Mast

Born 1931 in Manchester Jack Rosenthal wrote so much more than the few examples outlined here, many of which included parts played by his wife, actress Maureen Lipman and who also appears in The Knowledge. At his death in 2004 his obituary in The Guardian referred to him as “television’s Charles Dickens” presumably in acknowledgement of his ability to draw out and display the inherent caricature in human behaviour.

To return briefly to the subject of ordinary London houses; for those who paused to wonder at the commencement of this post why boz resides in Tot Hall, then this is Tot:

Expression of displeasure with his building site

All Hallows’ Eve

In searching for a publication or writings of some description pertaining to the metropolis on the evening before All Saints Day, although no doubt there are many in existence, only one was readily apparent for the time being. Written by Charles Williams  All Hallows’ Eve (1945)  was apt for the subject of today’s post at least in terms of title and setting if nothing else.

Charles Williams was born Islington 1886 living in Holloway until 1894 when his parents moved to St. Albans from where they ran a shop selling art materials. Later returning to London to study at University College. In 1908 he began work as a proof reader for Oxford University Press at the London offices in Paternoster Row moving to Warwick Square 1924 where the name Amen Corner given to the warehouse on the site of the old Newgate Prison still remains. Rising to editor Williams worked in London until 1939 when the outbreak of the Second World War saw the publishing house relocate the London arm of the business to Oxford. The move to Oxford was instrumental in Williams becoming a member of the Inklings literary society formed by C. S. Lewis which included J. R. R. Tolkien in the group.

Charles William’s tale of All Hallows Eve was not to the taste of boz. Supposedly a story of divine love triumphing over evil; this reader found it to be sickening and trite. In the intentions of Dickens’ Pickwick Papers Fat Boy “I wants to make your flesh creep” it succeeds but in that it  makes the reader uncomfortable in the manner of voyeur not because it is a frightening narrative. However it is not for boz to impose unasked for opinions on the readers of this post therefore for those not familiar with Charles William’s All Hallows Eve (1945) it may be read here:  http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks04/0400061.txt

All Hallows Eve takes in some parts of the City beginning on Westminster Bridge continuing the narrative encompassing St. Paul’s, Holborn, Tooting and Highgate Hill. Central to the story is a hall described as being ‘Behind Holborn, close to Great James Street, in a short street undamaged by the raids’. The reality of this imagined street could be any of a half dozen in that neighbourhood, however for the purposes of this post it is well suited to the convenience of boz to suppose that it may well have been Dombey Street. The reason for this is nothing to do with the street’s 1936 renaming after a novel by Charles Dickens. This thoroughfare was formerly known as East Street and as we have been disappointed with fictional tales we may conjure some factual horrors for All Souls Eve in the form of the building practises of Nicholas Barbon who obtained the reversion of a fifty one year lease for the development of East Street in 1684. Of the original houses put up by Barbon only numbers nine to fifteen have survived as a result of restoration much as took place in Red Lion Square for any who recall last weeks post.

The major source of biographical information on Nicholas Barbon is from The Autobiography of the Hon. Roger North‘s who wrote of him:

“. . . . with his much dealing in building, and consequently transacting with multitudes, he was exquisite mob master, and knew the arts of leading, winding, or driving mankind in herds as well as any that I ever observed. “

And a description from purchasers of two of Barbon’s houses:

“were very incomplete, imperfect and unfinished, and such works as were done were so ill and artificially done that the same were found to be new done and amended and repaired, several of the piers being cracked, the floors shrunk, and the house in some places in danger of falling . . . the vaults thereof are not tight but are so built whereby the rain comes in to them whereby the defendants cannot lay any goods in them.”

This related from PRO Chancery Cases within an excellent account of both Nicholas Barbon and speculative building in the eighteenth century The Birth of Modern London (1999) Elizabeth McKellar.

Being not currently in possession of any pictures of Dombey Street we will make do with a photograph of a street which at the time of capturing boz did not take care to note so beyond recalling that it is very near the locality of Red Lion Square it will remain uncatalogued until a return to that district is made. Should it be identified by any observers in the meantime that would be most useful in facilitating the correction of such negligible reporting.

Street WC1

Attempting to remain on the subject of grimness whilst not straying into the occult and also inspired by the site of the Oxford University Press warehouse; we will finish (as finish we must or this post will lose a little of its pertinence beyond midnight) with an account of Newgate Prison:

“It was a spacious, bare, whitewashed apartment, lighted of course, by windows looking into the interior of the prison, but far more light and airy than one could reasonably expect to find in such a situation. There was a large fire with a deal table before it, round which ten or a dozen women were seated on wooden forms at dinner. Along both sides of the room ran a shelf; and below it, at regular intervals, a row of large hooks were fixed in the wall, on each of them was hung the sleeping mat of a prisoner; her rug and blanket being folded up, and placed on the shelf above. At night these mats are placed on the floor, each beneath the hook on which it hangs during the day; and the ward is thus made to answer the purposes both of a day-room and sleeping apartment.”

This 1836 account by Charles Dickens taken from Chapter twenty two of Sketches by Boz alludes to a scene which could be considered if not cheerful then one could certainly forgive the reader for believing the establishment described to be warm and well ordered in fact rather more welcoming than most workhouses at that time if this observation is accurate. For now the benefit of the doubt must be granted so we will return to Newgate at a later date when there has been time enough for a little research away from the rose tinted glow of Dickens spectacles.
For quite some time now the spectre of the Shard has afforded some fascination in these quarters. So on an evening of apparitions will bid farewell with a night time view; taken from the gutter whilst looking at the stars; the wisps are likely to be from the smokers in the alleyway but can be viewed as something more whimsical should it so please.

Shard from the gutter