Aimlessly wandering the Bloomsbury grid with Gandhi and Lenin

I wanted to go OUT and shoot SOMETHING happening. I followed my instincts – the Central Line to Holborn then sucked north into the grid vortex of the Bloomsbury Squares. I’m sure there’s some sort of occult geometry underlying the lay-out of the garden squares of Bloomsbury (distinct from those arranged on the slopes of Pentonville and following the curve of the high ground across Barnsbury).

Tea Hut

The ‘Cab Man’s Tea Huts’ fascinate me – but you know what, I’ve never actually been in one, how is that possible? The one at Russell Square was presented by Sir Squire Bancroft in 1901. Bancroft was a significant figure in Victorian theatre, instigating a new form of realist theatre “drawing-room comedy” or “cup and saucer drama”. He produced a play by the bizarre figure of Edward Bulwer-Lytton who I wrote about in This Other London – the man who had has wife locked up in an asylum for disagreeing with him, coined a number of cliches still used today and most bizarre of all, wrote a novel that was later the source of Nazi cult that believed in a subterranean secret source of energy and insisted the Luftwaffe develop a Flying Saucer in the last months of the war.

Those tea huts are strange places and who knows what other odd powers have been unleashed by the Bloomsbury grid – just look at the art deco detail on the gate posts of SOAS in the video and the brutalist brilliance of the Institute of Education.

Nightwalking

In my head as I approach writing this blog just before midnight I have the Iggy Pop song, Nightclubbing bouncing around inside my skull – y’know, the track that shares a distinction with half of Scotland’s actors of being made famous by the film Trainspotting. What Iggy Pop and Trainspotting also shared in common was heroin addiction – maybe that’s why Iggy’s other tune on the soundtrack, Lust for Life, became the film’s anthem.

But I’m not writing about Iggy Pop or Trainspotting but a walk I took the other night from Queen Square Bloomsbury through the streets of old Holborn, for the sake of a wander, and also for my series of walking vlogs.

I don’t know a great deal about that area but somewhere in the gloom I saw the spirit of Thomas De Quincey shuffling ahead of me bound for the Penton Mound. De Quincey has become synonymous with London walking, the cult of the flaneur, and borrowed by psychogeographers to lend some notion of heritage to this strange habit of walking around unpromising corners of the city. In his most famous book, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, he writes of walking at night “in Oxford Street by dreamy lamp-light”. He noted that, “being a peripatetic, or a walker of the streets” – he often found himself in the company of prostitutes. And as you’ll have deduced from the title of his book was also fond of heroin, like Iggy Pop.

As I found myself approaching the foothills of the Angel and contemplated descending into Black Mary’s Hole I remembered that Samuel Taylor Coleridge used to walk through this way to visit his friend Charles Lamb in Islington. De Quincey moved himself into Coleridge’s social circle and it was Coleridge who by one stage removed introduced De Quincey to opium:

“The powers of that great agent I first learned dimly to guess at from a remark made to me by a lady in London; then, and for some time previously, she had been hospitably entertaining Coleridge …. Consequently, she was familiarly acquainted with his opium habits”.

In Lamb’s Conduit Street I admired what I took for an old gas lamp but I don’t really know how to spot them. Geoffrey Fletcher was fond of these relics of old streetscape and sketched them for his books and pamphlets. In Offbeat in London he encourages the reader to take the 171 bus from Chancery Lane to Mount Pleasant and admire the old gas lamps – more or less the route of the walk I had taken. He also notes the lamps in Queen Square – the point I had started my walk and the first shot in the video.

The Duke Pub John Mews

I followed old tracks from the beginnings of this blog when I nightly walked from the South Bank to the top of Pentonville Road. I wanted to enjoy once more for the sake of my video the junction of John’s and Roger Streets spelling out my name if you carry the ‘s’ across to the end. I stopped to admire the fine block of art deco flats next door at Mytre Court, built in 1938 by Denis Edmond Harrington.

Perambulating down a dark Grays Inn Road Arthur Machen came to mind, I think he lived here, he certainly mentions it in his book The London Adventure, “what strange things I experienced in chambers in Grays Inn”. It also became his base camp for ventures further afield,

“But in writing this book of mine I was to dip rather into the later years; into the 1895-99 period when I first found out the wonders that lie to the eastward of the Gray’s Inn Road, when Islington and Barnsbury and Canonbury were discovered, when Pentonville ceased to be a mere geographical expression.”

 

Bloomsbury to Kings Cross Sunday wander

A sultry Sunday early evening stroll round Bloomsbury was just what my hangover required. One of my literary role-models, Thomas Burke spent a lot of time walking these streets and I fancy, often feeling slightly jaded from a few the night before. In his 1939 book, Living in Bloomsbury he writes about how the reputation and nature of the area had changed, “as one district erases its shabby past, and improves and promotes itself, another forgets its decent past, and deteriotes and wanes…. Bloomsbury is a notable example of the whirlygig of favour.”

Burke outlines Bloomsbury’s arc from a smart neighbourhood for professionals and bankers in the 1820’s – 1860’s to the dwelling place for ‘hard-up clerks’ by the 1880’s, then starting to become re-gentrified during the interwar years of the 20th Century when he lived there. He lists the 19th Century books on London life that he accumulated during this time, books for people who are “seeking illumination on the realities of the period”. The intriguing collection includes, The Wilds of London and The Seven Curses of London by James Greenwood; Ritchie’s Night Side of London, Occult London, Mark Lemon’s Up and Down the London Streets, and James Grant’s The Great Metropolis.

From Sicilian Avenue I make my way for a mooch in Book Warehouse on Southampton Row and then on to the Brunswick Centre after stopping to admire the font of the Underground sign above the entrance to Russell Square tube station.

I photograph the doorway of an apartment block in Marchmont Street that I imagine is where those ‘hard-up clerks’ mentioned by Burke might have lived. The prostitute from Patrick Hamilton’s The Midnight Bell also lived round here somewhere. There’s always life in Marchmont Street, in the cafes, the launderette with the cranes looming above, the pub, Judd Street Books (which I just missed).

Moving round to Judd Street munching on a Topic bar you have to stop and admire Clare Court, a fine 1920’s brown brick block of flats, a fitting tribute to the 18th Century brick fields upon which it stands.

The neighbouring Lucas-Cromer estate was developed for housing with the first six houses rising from the cow pastures in 1801. By 1815, Lucas the tin-plate worker, had built another 99. Cromer Street today is dominated by a mixture of social housing blocks – the backs of the estate that lines Harrison Street and older flats with locally-listed shop fronts below. It has a European feel in the sunset, reminds me of the outskirts of cities in Emilia Romagna – Modena, Parma, Bologna.

The view north from Swinton Street is a panorama of changing London – the backs of early 20th Century social housing and the gleaming new glass towers of the Kings Cross development. I’m closing in on sacred ground – the Pen Ton mound, springs gurgling beneath the pavement, rising on the high ground around the top of Pentonville Road. The only reasonable thing to do now is to follow the water to a table near the banks of The New River outside the Marquess Tavern in Canonbury, a grand Victorian pile where George Orwell used to drink.

 

 

 

The People’s Supermarket


Lamb’s Conduit Street

On the way to Coram’s Field yesterday we decided to stop by the cheapo chain supermarket in Lamb’s Conduit Street to pick up some carrots to feed the animals. Instead of the usual consumerist nightmare we found this brilliant community owned and run co-operative in its place. We chatted to the lovely smiley lady behind the counter about the store – staffed and run by members who volunteer a small number of hours per year.
I remember reading about a similar scheme in Brooklyn, NY – great to see it taking off here.

More info here
And some photos here

london

Recovery walk

I needed a walk to help recover from a violent stomach bug – the kind that has you laid out for 3 days and still has me on a diet of cous-cous and boiled veg. Walking therapy works for me like no other remedy.
The plan was to revisit my old haunts from when I daily schlepped between the Angel and the South Bank, the warren of runs and ways I etched into my consciousness through repeated walking stretching from Bloomsbury across Clerkenwell, Finsbury, Islington and The City.

I start at Lincoln’s Inn Fields then move onto Fleet Street. I perch in St. Dunstan’s-in-the-West and listen to the choir practice. Up Fetter Lane then breach the border of High Holborn entering the mental realm of lower-Islington. Leather Lane is full of lunchtime bustle. Drop down Herbal Hill behind the Guardian offices then along to Back Hill where St. Martin’s students spread out along the curb munching and sunning themselves. I look through into Black Mary’s Hole, the majesty of Mount Pleasant Sorting Office looms above. I skirt the bomb-site (the last in London?) and then I’m tugged westwards along Calthorpe Street. I sit and reflect in St. Andrew’s Gardens. Push on along Grays Inn Road with a nod to the Calthorpe Project. Stop for a bagel and a coffee (always feels wrong to eat a ham bagel). Harrison Street heading west opens up another front of nostalgia, then along Sidmouth Street and into Tavistock Place. The magnetic force of Judd Street Books is too powerful to resist and I lose myself in there for some time.

I cut behind Camden Town Hall where I once argued with the registrars. Descend into Britannia Street the screech of tubes pulling into Kings Cross below, photo the flats I’m sure are in Mike Leigh’s High Hopes. Lorenzo Street (missed Penton Rise) across Pentonville Road and down along Calshot Street. I’ve neglected to account for post viral fatigue, I’m dizzy, my legs go, I have to regain myself on the steps of the new Peabody Building for the final push. Suck on a Murray Mint. On up the mound. Duck into the old estate – no sign of Sam sitting out in front of his flat. Over to Chapel Market, the Salmon & Compasses having yet another refurb. The record shop I loved has gone – I’d planned to buy the Saint Etienne CD that has been playing in my head all day. Cash Converters has replaced the video shop and Woolies has become Waitrose in a bold statement of intent that the Angel is moving up in the world. Wind up in Borders browsing the stacks of 3 for 2s. End – No.56 bus home. I feel infinitely better.