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.
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.”