Phew! Smokin’ hot.

Oh Londoners, Londoners – gather round, kids.  I’ve got a fan at my desk, you see.  No – not a worshipping chap hysterically holding out paper printouts of The London Bluebird blogs desperate for me to add a flourishing signature to them – but a fan to circulate air over our molten, stagnating third floor office.   Outside, smokers bluster about in dry heat, battling for shade under the awnings of EAT.    I haven’t smoked for nearly nine years, but still when I am writing an essay I feel the old, familiar nicotine tug.  I don’t get this at any other time – I gave up the Alan Carr Easy Way which reprogrammes your neurological pathways and self-hypnotises you into thinking that you aren’t a smoker, which is utterly mad.  In other words, it has a strange, divine lunacy that encourages you to think you are not yourself but someone else.  Someone puritan, whose nasal passages have never known a Marlboro Lights Menthol.  It worked, which was somewhat startling.  Other attempts to quit had lasted an average term of three and a half weeks, and would be ended with a flourish of a Chianti bottle in a local Italian restaurant run by Swiss Cottage Germans which I used to patronise, with an illicit smoke with a coffee.  The moment would be divine but, needless to say, you’d hate yourself by morning.   This happened repeatedly throughout my twenties.  Eventually, the self-hate generated by the weakness for Mr Cigarette overwhelmed any pleasure derived from the act of smoking and if you’ll pardon the pun, my smoking gradually got filtered out.  Also, I used to have my moustache removed by a formidable lady in the beauty department of Harrods.  After one trip, smarting and hair free, I realised I could fully see my upper lip and it had LINES around it.  All those years of sitting on concrete floors outside college drawing in smoke had aged me.  This was inexcusable.   Never mind the fear of the tumour.  It was more about vanity in the end.  I was furious that smoking had dared to take on my youthful good looks in this impertinent manner.

Smoking was one of my great talents.  I was extraordinarily brilliant at it – not least because I used to spend ages in front of the mirror in my first flat practising the French inhale.  This was a rather vile thing in retrospect, but it was about letting a small greyish balloon of smoke fold out from your mouth before slowing sucking it back in again, preferably before it made your eyes water.  You were sort of creating a Gallic, oddly-shaped, cancer-esque balloon.  I once had tea with Christopher Cazenove who had a decidedly creepy French inhale featuring an ominous glottal sound in the back of his throat each time he slowly inhaled.  This made him seem like an evil dictator.   I was a Silk Cut smoker for a long while, then someone gave me a Marlboro Light in my early twenties and it was like discovering crack.  I became hooked on them, before I discovered the deliriously fresh Marlboro Lights Menthol, which were like having a really cold cigarette in your mouth that tasted strongly of Trebor mints.  The filters were white, which added to the drama.  At seventeen I came home from a Florida holiday with a dark, wooden cigarette holder which I thought made me look quite the business. 

“Do you think you’re in a Noel Coward play, or something?” said my brother in the Lansdowne pub in Primrose Hill.

“Yes,” I said, and sparked up a white-filtered Cartier in a regal manner. 

Cigarettes were an excellent prop for the aspiring actress.  With me, the practicalities were in the way.  I had to devise a plan to develop a nonchalant actor’s smoking habit whilst in a house full of non-smokers as a teenager, and the plan was tiresome to say the least.  It involved a whole new outfit, comprising of gloves and a bathhat, to conceal the smell of smoke.  I would then have to climb out on a window, stand on a (probably unsafe) roof that extended below my bedroom window for a cigarette break during my A Level revision, but this was a system that was delivered a mighty blow one evening when a parent accidentally locked me out of my own bedroom, leaving me, banging on the window, resplendent in evening gloves and shaking a box of matches.  Oh, how we laughed.  No, of course I didn’t.  I was reprimanded and felt almost guilty.  Apparently parent went back to the marital bed, shared the news and the two of them laughed like drains, not that I knew.  On leaving home, of course, the world was my ashtray, but even then cigarettes were pricey.  As a student I realised you could get three roll-ups at least from one shop-bought filter pack.  They also used to have these cigarettes called 100s – which were longer.  A well known actor used to come round to our house and smoke them.  He used to rakily extinguish them after smoking only a third of these eerily long tabs, so I’d usually relight them later in the evening when no one else was looking.  Didn’t I say I was classy?

What set me to thinking about cigarettes last night was standing around outside waiting for the online shopping delivery.  I realised the feeling was familiar – standing loitering outside a building, staring into the summer sky, thinking of nothing in particular and doing nothing in particular.  I was revisiting the stance of the smoker, albeit sans cigarette.   I was experiencing the life of the city flaneur, the observer who sort of potters about, strolling, watching, standing.  It is a lazy predicament, that of the wondering flaneur.  In our working lives we are too busy to let our minds breathe for a moment.  Unless, of course, you are a smoker.  Ironically, smokers, who do the most to prevent themselves from being able to breathe sufficiently, are the ones whose minds breathe in city mornings. Society has decreed that smokers are the new junkies, and totally banished them to the outside spaces.  Only smokers have the time, it seems, for flaneur moments.  Now me and most of my contemporaries are no longer smokers, we sit at our desks all morning with no little nicotine peak to look forward to and no time out to stare at the sky and do – well, nothing, actually. 

From something that was merely casually disgusting, smoking has become absolutely filthy.  We gaze, hypnotised at the curlicues of white smoke above Don Draper’s head, as HBO dares, rakishly and prettily, to make smoking sexy again.  It is more verboten than ever.  In Mad Men the pull of the cigarette has become more fraught with sexual tension than Roger Sterling’s sock-suspenders.  We can flirt with an innocent time, draw a veil over the well-documented malignant dangers of the cancer stick, throw a retro-ironic gesture towards the days when doctors advertised the benefits of a nice cigarette after a lung operation.  Sometimes there is a strange variety and look of longing fired at a party towards the only smoker.  We did this ourselves, and we did this to our society.  We made smoking so goddamn nasty people are practically having orgasms over it.   The sight of a languid Lauren Bacall doing something as extraordinary as setting fire to some rolled leaves and then putting it in her mouth still has men salivating after seventy years.  In 1942, it was filthy, due to the clunking overtones of oral sex, now it’s really sexy because it’s so goddamn naughty.  The image is still charged, not only with sexual tension but with a hint of dark, social depravity.

No one did it better than Lauren Bacall, obviously.  I certainly didn’t.  I was one of the few schoolchildren at my school who actually set fire to her own homework during a post-breakfast gasper.  But there’s something afoot in the cultural landscape.  Mad Men encapsulates this zeitgeist moment for nostalgia and retro-tastic hemlines, but it is not the catalyst.  Something intensely backward looking is going on in our current fashion and culture (one only has to look at the Diamond Jubilee themed artwork and street parties, which radiate 1950s characteristics in a way The Silver Jubilee in 1977 did not) which perhaps is about grasping on to something in the past for reassurance and comfort in times of economic difficulty.  Smoking is coming in on this tide, this pre-Pill, halterneck, cocktail hour, filled with tinkling glasses and soundtracked by bossa-nova on Verve, which has been swinging in ever since the credit crunch.  If we had allowed smokers to cower in pub corners we probably wouldn’t have thought about it much.  If we had taken the Victorians advice, and had a saloon bar and a public bar in one public house as they did, we could have one room for the smokers and one for the non-smokers.  We could have all been happy. But we had to fetishise them, didn’t we?  The draconian smoking laws have had the unintentional result of making the smoker a rare and exotic beast in television and film culture.  Actors have difficulty getting laws passed where characters can smoke cigarettes on stage.  This is stupid.  I’m not saying we should shove Rothmans King Size into the mouths of five year old children on the way out from school, but we have failed to be sensible and created a retrotastic, dangerous daft taboo. 

I’m not going to start again, don’t worry.  When I gave up my singing voice improved dramatically.  Suddenly it could do vocal gymnastics it couldn’t do before.  It was going well, before the neighbours complained.  So that’s a plus.  Oh, and I still have no wrinkles (tick) don’t have to spend what appears to be about a tenner these days for 20 cigarettes (tick) and have not hankered for a smoke since 2003.  See?  I’ve given up for eight years, ten months, two weeks and four days 45 minutes – and I haven’t thought about it once.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  I’m off for a fag now, but if you’re interested this blog is updated every Thursday.

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The London Library

Many blog entries have started here.  Or, been written here.  Or been interrupted by having to go here.   The London Library squats like a glorious book factory at the top left hand corner of St James’s Square, and is a place that, since discovery, I feel unable to do without.  Year after year, when the annual subscription payment request comes flopping through the front door at Bluebird Towers, I tell myself I really can’t afford it.  Every year I buy it.

There is a lovely article here from The Daily Paris Review, which mentions one of The London Library’s physical charms fairly early on.  That is the disjunction in the building – in that the outside and the inside don’t seem to match – which is mindful of West End theatres or cinemas; the sense that the dimensions on the outside of the building are not possibly adhered to in the magical wonderland within.  http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2012/02/28/the-london-library/.  The London Library is such a building – it’s as tall and thin as a city spinster on the outside, but on the inside it is lush and thrilling, a deep-tunnelling rabbit warren of stacks and rooms that are, in truth, not best faced when one has a hangover.  Whilst a sense of sublime silence and studiousness pervades the building, the London Library is not pinched or austere in any way.  It is graceful and expansive, bereft of the municipal shabbiness of the shared printer, old Microsoft computers and general plastic humdrum-ness of the provincial library.  Its founder, Thomas Carlyle, discovered that The British Library was a genuinely impossible place to work (in many respects, this has now changed) so he founded his own subscription-based library where members could enjoy literature without staying in the building as The British Library, despite its awesome contents, does not lend.   The London Library was subsequently founded, with Thackeray as its first auditor, in the 1840s.

 In the Science & Miscellaneous stacks, known to members as the “Back stacks”, the floor is composed of vertigo inducing wide metal slabs with a series of rectangular, open slats in them.  You can immediately see three floors down underneath your feet and two floors above over your head.  You cannot wear high heels as you’d get jammed in the floor, or a skirt, in case other bibliophilic Peeping Toms stare up at you through the floor from the Topography section.   The floors clang and prang occasionally and seem to wobble about a bit.  Still, they’ve been there since 1893 and survived a couple of wartime bombs so they must be safe. 

The floors in the backstacks with their metal slatted floors.   Look down and there’s a further three floors beneath you.  Not for the stiletto wearer, the faint-hearted or the vertigo sufferer.

1930s-style hands are painted on to walls, authoritatively pointing you in the direction of new categories, amidst dusty, bookish hush.  At the moment, dangerously, some of these appear to be dying out amidst the library’s decoration and improvement plans.  Last time I visited a wall had been stripped back a layer, to reveal a sign from 1940, instructing members, in a clipped and concise manner, what to do in the event of a bomb attack.

The London Library is the most frustrating, jaw-grinding, eye-popping, irritating system of book shelving known to Western man.  It doesn’t have the Dewey Decimal system favoured by the majority of libraries.  It is based on subject, and has been since the middle of the nineteenth century.  The links are arbitrary to say the least as  “Science & Misc” is usually classified by “S. [subject name].”  In alphabetical order, then, you’ll get “S. CATTLE,”  “S. CAVALRY”,  “S.  “CAVES”, “S. CELIBACY”, “S., CENSUS”, “S. CEREMONIES”,  “S. CHAIRMANS HANDBOOKS”, “S. CHARACTER”, “S. CHARITIES”, “S. CHEESE”.  Does your local library have a Cheese section?  Then, somewhere in the alphabetical system it breaks off and continues two floors up, half a building back, up a flight of stairs and then turn left.  Even after emerging on the fourth floor in a sweaty mess, you still haven’t got what you were looking for.  That’s because some of the book references which end in “4&to” are in an entirely different section – probably a half a mile walk away down dusty, cream-painted warrens and grey-floored ante-rooms, where the books too big to fit in the original shelves are stored, still in their subject classifications, which means you have to start from the beginning of the alphabet again.  It also has an enviable Fiction section for European languages.  I have never seen bigger German, French, Spanish, Italian and Portugese sections in any academic library.  These include an enormous amount of first editions. 

I can’t tell you what a stink I kicked up in English Fiction.  Half of the Fiction is in Fiction.  Fiction is in a room in the Central Stacks which double backs on itself and is almost always edged by an angry looking man at a window who has taken the only writing table.  Fiction also links into “English Lit,”  BUT English Lit is either critical theory or books about books, rather than the books themselves.  There is also “English Lit, Hist of” which is an entirely different section, and one I have never really understood the separateness of. For the first three years of my membership I couldn’t find Fiction S-Z.  I thought there wasn’t any, although I did think this was unlikely.  After all, it wasn’t possible that The London Library would leave out the really big hitters, the really big fruity writers, like Tolstoy or Steinbeck or Wells.  But it was three rooms across and four flights of stairs down to the wonderful, impeccable librarians at the Issue Desk and I couldn’t be bothered to go there.  I’d just swear at the shelving, take out another Beryl Bainbridge and head for the bus. 

One day I did go down and ask them where the rest of the section was.  I always think they must think I’m thick.  There I go : week after week, month after month, approaching the Issue Desk’s bespectacled inhabitant in my most convincing “I’ve-got-an-MA-you-know” manner, utterly convinced that an entire section of the library is missing, and say something like:

“I can’t find the History of London.”

“It’s in Topography, basement floor, you know – just beyond Science and Miscellaneous.”  Spectacles shine in mid-morning St James’s light.

“Yes,” I frown, hoping to exude academic langour with a touch – just a touch – of the superciliousness of Joan in Mad Men when she’s trying to get things done in the office. “I’ve been there.  I’ve been to Venice, Egypt and Abyssinia.  And Japan.  But I’ve not been to London.”

“Would you like me to show you?”

That’s what they’re like at The London Library.  They’re marvellous.  You get more decorous, enchanting service there than you do at The Ritz.  If only The London Library did room service.  They pop out in a haze of post-graduate optimism and sensible shoes and they’re off, with irascible, unkempt me in their bookish wake.  Unfailingly polite, and charming, they speedily whisk you off up the red carpeted stairs, through the Reading Room that looks over St James’s Square and where a whole raft of sleeping elderly folk are lying, mouths agog, in armchairs, and up to Fiction.  Then they show you a small staircase.  You could swear that the fairies put this staircase in when you weren’t looking.  Either way, it wasn’t there before, was it?  A dark, beige, lino-clad stairway hiding behind a wall behind a bookcase, leading to a further mezzanine floor that you never knew existed.  Aha.  Here they all are.  Richardson, Woolf, even their old auditor, Thackeray.  And, so many others.  Others I’d never heard of.  Part of the London Library’s central ethos is that they do not discard, or shove into stack storage, any of their books.  Just because a book isn’t taken out for 50 years does not mean its literary value becomes somehow reduced, so why should reading fashion dictate what the library make available to you?  I have held first edition Victorian thrillers that were last taken out when John F Kennedy was alive, books where typo-s have been angrily corrected in the margin by an 1920s ink pen, books that were presented to the library from the publisher before the First World War, books made with fragile 1870s paper, text as small as you could possibly read, paper so thin that you can see through it when you hold it up to the light. You find things here that you never knew existed and which enrich your reading life.

For someone as lazy as me, the lending policy is a dream.  You don’t bring a book back, unless another member requests it.  I have had books out for a year.  All you have to do is renew them online once every two months.  When a member requests one of your books you receive a brilliantly polite email from the library requesting that, if it is not too much trouble, could you please drop it in when you are next in town?  London members can take 10 books out at any one time.  On request (but no extra charge) you can arrange to take out more.  “Country” members – that’s those who live 20 miles or more from the metropolis – can take out 15 books.  They run a Europe-wide postal service as well.   There are 15 miles of books (approximately a million volumes) on open shelves for immediate access, which makes it the world’s largest independent library.

Of course, this excellence of service doesn’t come free.  The London Library receives no public funding, and therefore is dependent upon charitable donations and private membership fees.  Standard membership is £395 per year.  It was significantly lower, but the library has suffered from HMRC’s decision to withdraw Gift Aid contributions, and had little choice but to draw revenue from its membership pool.  I applied for Carlyle Membership for which you need no academic justification for application.  I won it and receive 30% off my membership annually.   Members under the age of 25 also receive generous discounts.  Still though, I can hear the tight-lipped intake of breath, the inquisitive look that says, “Bluebird, you pay all that?”  Many people turn away at this first hurdle, but I put the question to them, that I put to you.  How much do you pay for your Sky subscription and television licence combined?  I’ll bet it’s more than £33 per month. 

For booklovers, readers, or those keen to grow to become either, a membership of The London Library is a delightful thing.  Membership is open to all .  If you think this lovely place might be for you, as a happy, comfortable haven in the beating heart of central London, please join. Anyone who loves books will love this irreplaceable place.  Here is a video from various well known members saying how blinking brilliant the London Lib is (see second video down this page) http://www.londonlibrary.co.uk/index.php?/videos.html

Further info for passionate bibliophiles:

http://www.londonlibrary.co.uk/index.php?/membership-benefits.html

See you in the back stacks.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday. 

Roundhead or Cavalier?

On Tuesday night BBC4 quizzed Britons, and challenged us to answer which one of the above we were.  Were we a penny-pinching, over-controlling, sanctimonious puritan Roundhead nation?  Or were we intent on supping deep red wine from crystal glasses whilst foppishly flinging our hair around in a free-living, libertarian, patrician Cavalier state?  It was a pretty slim premise for a programme, to be honest.  It was rather obvious to repeatedly flash up the faces of Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone, when the voiceover asked which of us was Roundhead and which Cavalier.  I mean, that’s like suggesting one was a moany, puritanical, chippy Roundhead and the other was a Cavalier sex pest of the aristo variety.  Madness!

A cavalier.   Now, as far as my sensibilities can tell, this is the late Stuart equivalent of Justin Bieber.  Early 17th century high class totty would have been falling over their crinolines to just get a touch of those fetching, velvet leggings.  Unsure whether this man is pregnant or whether he has a large squirrel stuffed under his waistcoat, to use in the event of being accosted by a violent Roundhead in the local hostelry, he was one of the King’s men.  Probably a Duke.  With a Dutch name.  And a Barbra Streisband, circa “I am A Woman in Love” wig. 

A roundhead.  Oh dear.  His face looks like he’s suffering biliousness or seasickness. Maybe he’s just spotted a group of ladies sitting beside a Christmas tree and illegally watching “Love Actually” and it makes him MAD with RAGE.  Obviously, he’s upset as some dastardly Cavalier has painted a vertical stripe in permanent black marker down the length of his parliamentarian visage.   Hang on,  that’s disgusting!  Oh – wait it’s his sword. For a moment there I thought he was about to impose his Puritanism in a most direct and unpleasant manner.

The answer of course, was a conflicting one.  Which was I?  Halfway through the programme I threw caution to the wind and decided, crazily, to have two custard creams.  Did that make me an indulgent Cavalier?  However, I did accompany it with a play-it-ever-so-safe low calorie hot chocolate from Options, a decidedly Roundhead choice.  Despite my terror and hostility towards state interference of any kind, surely I do not support absolute monarchy or wish to return to a country without social welfare.   So am I a Roundhead or not?  I like horses.  I enjoy the sight of the aristocracy on horseback in historical palaces and stately homes in England, mainly for laughs.  I approve sartorially of the 17th century bonkers clothes choices.  I like the freedom that choice of what you wear and who you are entails. I cannot be cavalier about this decision.  Or can I?  Apparently, during the brief and rather nasty interlude of the English Republic in the 1650s, it became illegal to go out on a Sunday and do anything.  So intent were the Lord Protector and his killjoy cohorts on creating an island full of people weeping and praying over holy books on the day of rest. that two women were arrested for going out for a walk.   Surely my fondness for tap-dancing would have ensured I was killed during the first year.  At the end of the programme I was pleased that both the Roundheads and Cavaliers have died out.  Or, as the programme asked, had they? 

Two years ago, whilst being academically serious, I wrote an essay for an MA about theatrical nudity and dancing in the 1890s.  During that research, I discovered the the “improving” elements of the first London County Council, somewhat influenced by strange combination of the National Vigilance Association and pure socialism, tried to stop more or less everyone from having a good time.  Theatre was immoral and dangerous.  Alcohol was even worse.  And sex?  Oh, dear, don’t get them onto that.  So brisk and intolerant was the apparently progressive moral arm of the LCC that it marched forward in the name of municipal control and banned tableaux vivants,  (ladies in all-over flesh body stockings striking poses of classical statues) and other robust enjoyments of the London populace, without realising that the urban, theatrical culture didn’t at all want it.  The LCC.  Honestly, the MCC could have done a better job of civic policing.  It was the first, but it wasn’t the last, time the bastion of municipal control known as the LCC interfered with, passed judgement on, and morally structured aspects of London that they should have kept their noses out of, but the episode above is one of the firmest and strongest examples of Roundhead moral indignation in late-19th century London.  This was, of course, nearly 250 years after the dissolution of the Parliamentarians’ Republic.  Ever since 1650, it seems the morally-improving elements of British municipal culture have been intent on finding bits of filth and flamboyant freedom, putting them in the bath for a jolly good wash and then sending them, naughtily, off to their rooms and not letting them come back down again until they have really thought about it.  The industrialised, bourgeois classes hate being policed in this manner.

Dickens, along with any other two-nation, patrician Tory like him, was essentially a Cavalier.  But didn’t his concern for fairness and justice, particularly in the case of juveniles make him a person with Roundhead tendencies, I thought?  No, because Dickens was a great sentimentalist.  And the Roundheads would have sooner have bashed you on the head with their no-frills metal sticks than tolerate having their heartstrings pulled by the Daddy of all television drama adaptations.  As a satirist, does he exclude himself from membership of both camps?   Clearly, the 19th century had its own motley crue of Puritans, a great, insane streak of Roundhead parliamentarianism rearing its head up through the evangelical movement and into parsimonious pamphlets and legions of busybody Mrs Pardiggles, whose skewered objectives in saving people’s souls failed to address bodily starvation.  Clearly, both the Cavaliers and the Roundheads were absolute rubbish at the basic job of looking after people.  The modern age would be aghast, of course, at any political ethic that didn’t account for social welfare of one kind or another.  This is something which doesn’t translate into our modern age.  But so much of the other aspects of the characters of the Roundheads and Cavaliers do.  You can easily tell which people in our popular culture exhibit their personality traits :  Jessie J – Cavalier.  Masterchef’s John Torode – Roundhead.  John Humphries – Roundhead.  Katie Price – Cavalier.  Johnny Depp – Cavalier.  Paul McCartney – Roundhead.  Noel Edmonds – Evil Troll, ineligible for either category.  Flamboyant, jaunty indulger or revolutionary, moral Puritan seeking a different standard.  Which one are you?

Whilst not being a complete nutter, or indeed any supporter of absolute monarchy, I do think the Roundheads were utterly off their trolleys.  Their failure to comprehend the English character ensured their downfall ; rope upon rope fell down and the English Republic gloomily hung themselves on it.  The only thing the English love dearly is organized sports, drinking, Christmas, more sports and more drinking.  And occasionally watching cricket and “The Antiques Roadshow”. As far as I can see those silly Roundheads abolished all of the above, with the exception of “The Antiques Roadshow”.  No wonder the English welcomed back that rancid, syphillitic shag bag, Charles II, with open arms from his exile in France.    No wonder he went about twirling his lascivious mustachios, still fragant with the odour of French perfume of actresses, and the English just couldn’t get enough of it. Theatre, with it’s thigh-slapping cheekiness, it’s gumption and kick and wink towards religious (or any other) control resurged, abandoning its restraint and roaring forward in audacity to the Restoration.  Suck on that, Cromwell.  His mode of living wasn’t going to last.  After all, this is a nation that enjoys eating curry whilst shouting and then urinating in public.  The English, with delicious superiority, refer to the English Republic as the interregnum; literally, “between kings” and therefore wipe away the seriousness of the republic as nothing more than a moment connecting one king to another, a hiccough, a whiteout, an embarrassment – a Puritan interval in the theatre of monarchy.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Wiltons Music Hall

On Saturday evening, Mr Bluebird and I struck out East.  Beyond the psuedo-vintage tiles and cobbles of Hoxton and Shoreditch, beyond the imposing directness of the Great Tower of London and onwards still, into murky East London-ness, held up only by the crowd of schaudenfraude – seeking tourists who meet nightly at Tower Hill Tube for the bloody Jack the Ripper walk.  Seeking further fields east that Ripper Jack’s heartland, we crossed Cable Street, heavy and damp with history, and swerved into Ensign Street.  From there we turned left into the pedestrian-only Graces Alley, which took us to Wilton’s Music Hall, the oldest grand music hall still standing in the world.

Of course we didn’t.  We are North Londoners.  We took a cab.  We had not a clue how else to get there.

Wilton’s Music Hall stands somewhere between Shadwell and Wapping, and appears as an anachronism; a 1850s building in an alleyway with buildings on one side and Wapping Junior School on the other, a building that is hugged by 1980s neo-Georgian flat developments and passed by quizzical Londoners, some of whom – even the locals – unaware what is inside.  What is inside is a grand music hall founded by John Wilton in 1858, and managed by him until his death in 1880.  Since then it has served as sanctuary, soup kitchen, concert hall, rag sorting depot and community centre. It wasn’t until a long-running preservation campaign in the 1960s, headed by that trailblazer of Victorian architectural preservation, John Betjeman, that the building finally gained listed status in 1971.  One wonders how any near deaths it may have had.  It is now listed as one of 100 “most endangered sites” worldwide by the World Monuments Fund.  Putting an actual figure to the value of the building, both its cultural and financial value, would be impossible.

Some buildings have a power; a strange sense of history, something inarticulable that makes the hairs on the back of the neck stand to attention, and the mind instantly connect to the knowledge that other human beings have walked, breathed, shaken raindrops from coats, kissed and argued in this space before, and they’ve left something of themselves behind.  Well, Wiltons has buckets of the stuff.  The air is thick with knowledge of the past.  The Mahogany Bar within dates back to 1828, when it was originally known as the King of Denmark Public House.  It took the name the Mahogany Bar in about 1839, and was fully incorporated into the concert room (later Music Hall) in the rest of the building in 1850 or thereabouts.  It crouches on the ground floor,  off to the right from the small, flag-stoned entrance hall.  This bar is frequently closed off and redressed for television and feature film shooting, as its interior is alarmingly , evocatively Victorian.  Bare brick seems to be fighting for survival in small grey arches throughout the place, there are free-standing wooden bar tables, not enough chairs and a vast, tall 19th century bar with drinks sold at the kind of cheap prices I have never known in London before.  Going back to the flagstone entrance hall, where the air smells of 1860 and where, at this event, the girl at the ticket desk was dressed in 1920s wig and costume (more of that later), two small corridors run off either side of the central staircase that leads to The Gallery.  Down one of the small corridors is a tiny anteroom, dark and seemingly without purpose.  Down the other are the  makeshift loos, the foundation stone laid in 1858 spied just outside the Ladies, where it was originally lain by John Wilton’s wife.  It is peculiar to come into this building from the strident, modern crush of East London.  To travel past the Gherkin and the glass-fronted grey offices of Tower Bridge, from the Pret A Mangers of Eastcheap and find Wilton’s Music Hall is like falling into a slightly delicious, mucky Victorian alternative reality.  The rooms are elegantly sized, the proportions speak of an eloquence of another age, albeit a shabby sort of elegance.

The evening of our first trip to Wilton’s involved going to see a theatrical production of The Great Gatsby.  The website had suggested the production was “immersive”, thereby encouraging it’s patrons to dress accordingly.  This put another layer of historical weirdness on top of Wilton’s. Over its base of hardened Victorian grime was ladled a series of feather boas, chaps in white tie, ladies out on group outings with other ladies in flapper dresses, in gold T-bar shoes worn over black fishnets, of feather boas, of young Londoners in tweed jackets and innocent bow ties.  In the Mahogany Bar, two young men sat, each in white tie evening dress, spats, with hair slicked back and slowly sipping from Martini glasses, discussing something intently (no doubt, the new Evelyn Waugh or similar) in an image straight out of the 1920s. The narrative of The Great Gatsby, with its accent on the sham under the expensive leather, of the corruption that rich men build themselves on, on the inevitability of the futility of recapturing long ago dreams, suited the building.  Like Gatsby, Wilton’s may tumble and fall at any moment if anyone fired a shot in the right direction, but this evening nothing seemed further from that fact, bravely putting actors outside, two of them, dressed as Chicago gangsters, with great black overcoats slung over their shoulders, carrying ominous looking violin cases and firing menacing glances at the patrons giggling at them whilst gingerly eating their Boston beans, slaw and American hot dogs that the bar had laid on for the production.

Upstairs, things were stranger.  On one side at the top of the stairs was the entrance to the gallery, on the other side – if you turned right and essentially double-backed on yourself so that you were standing above the cramped entrance hall – was a further reception area, selling spats at £10 each, two Charleston dancers, hired for the event, and a “speakeasy” from which Hendricks Gin-based cocktails were dispensed to the crowds of theatregoers, in a dusty, small room which looked more like a Lascar’s smoking den from The Mystery of Edwin Drood than a theatrical bar.  It had, in fact, once been John Wilton’s bedroom, and one can only imagine his confusion had he been here to see blonde ladies in 1920s headbands and fur coats drinking champagne whilst texting avidly on iPhones.  After two gin-based thingummies – cocktails named after one of the characters in the play, and tasting a bit thin and weak for my liking – it was a delight to see the two heavies from outside, laying down their violin cases and starting to put on their own show – shouting avidly at each other in Chicago accents, peering over the tables, showing ladies rude postcards from the 1890s, and exhibiting their card tricks.  The patrons enjoyed this hugely.  The strangeness of this room was evidenced by its context; here we had a series of hatted, monocled, cocktail enthusiasts, sitting in the musty windows of this ancient room and beyond the windows there were 1980s apartment buildings, the ever-present office lights of the City of London, the modern, grey slant of it all – all of which, from here, looked like a theatrical set, rather than reality.

The play was absolutely appalling and the person who wrote it should be shot, but there you go.  These things happen.  Mostly I enjoyed the view; the shabby grandeur of the central music hall was an absolute delight , butter yellow walls were marked by smoky scarring of the first chandelier here, which astonishingly, had 300 gas jets.  This massive chandelier reflected onto walls that were at the time mainly mirrored.  You can only imagine the riot of light that it brought.  I don’t know if the fire that destroyed much of the building in 1877 was down to this massive ball of fire in the middle of the ceiling, though.  The proportions were quaintly elegant – I shouldn’t think the downstairs holds more than 150 people – but the intrinsic beauty of the design shines through the vast patches of damp on the upper right hand side of the auditorium and what must be remarkable lighting and electricity provisions.  The acoustics are shouty and hollow – this is not a room for acting.  This is a room for music, for gallantry, for robust rhymes shouted over flicking gaslights and raucous singing.  The play was so awful that after a while I stopped listening to it and listened to the building instead.  The best part was at the end of the interval (thankfully, a long interval, given the amount of business the bar was doing.  Theatrical intervals usually last for a quick glass of wine and half a cigarette and are never long enough).  At the end of the interval, when bobbed flappers and office boys in pinstripe braces were gathering for the second act, the actors led an impromptu Charleston lesson on the stage, which was instantly filled by 1920s wannabees joining in.  The very act of dressing up in another time was attuned to the spirit of the building, I thought, as youngsters high on chemical consolation of cocktails, flapped the evening away.

This sense of historical theatrical detail has its own pulse and its own majesty.  Considering the violent, scarred and bloody history of the East End, it is nothing short of a miracle that this music hall has still survived.  It is a truly magical place.  However, Wilton’s is a building in great jeopardy, announcing last year that it needed £3million of funding to restore it, damp proof it, secure its foundations, treat its subsidence and generally give it a Music Hall makeover.  Funds of £700,000 were secured from the charity SITA earlier this year, and announced with great aplomb, but Wilton’s needs a further £2.2million to secure the building and undergo critical works to ensure its survival.  For reasons that can only be connected to the bovine brains of our political leaders, Wilton’s receives no public funding.

For those of you keen to support Wilton’s, you could become a “Friend” and pay a nominal annual fee to go towards the restoration fund, but in my mind, the best thing to do is just go there, have a drink, join one of the many tours around the building and shove whatever shekels you can afford to part with into the buckets around the venue.  The first phase of works begin at the end of June, so from that point the music hall will be closed for six months.  But the Mahogany Bar will be open for business.  Pop in for a drink, slip back in time and bask in the peculiar and sublime hues of a Victorian public bar in London, here, in 2012.   Please support this venue.

More information:

http://wiltons.org.uk/

http://spitalfieldslife.com/2010/09/24/frances-mayhew-wiltons-music-hall/

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday. 

Hit The Road, Jack

Yesterday morning, still half-comatose and grappling through early half-light in search of caffeine, I turned the corner from Orchard Street to Oxford Street and BAM.  There they were.  Hundreds of them, flying and fluttering about in the grey breeze.  I don’t mean people, I mean Union Flags.  Oxford Street was a joyous riot of British rejoicing, indeed it’s plentiful patriotism was so splendid that it stretched as far as Tottenham Court Road station, and some days even the Northern Line doesn’t manage to do that.

It was a sort of Mayoral elections / Olympiads / Oh look she’s been on the throne for 60 years, bless ‘er! combined Union Jack-a-thon, in which our nation will be trying to digest a massive diet of Jubilee, London 2012 and the Boris / Ken SuperFight, which is enough to give any Londoner dyspepsia.  There is no doubt that there is a lot to celebrate.  Elizabeth II is the only monarch apart from Queen Victoria to actually have a Diamond Jubilee.  That’s because most Kings and Queens are usually dead before then.   The Thames River Pageant, with its boats representing different musical eras of our New Elizabethan age seems too hysterical to miss (hope Duran Duran’s boat sinks).   It will be one of the largest flotillas ever assembled on the water but to me it just looks like a bleeding disaster, but Her Majesty didn’t consult me this time round.  Personally, I think we should fire her out of a cannon whilst Cliff Richard serenades the masses to “Devil Woman”.  The Diamond Jubilee Pageant website tells us the armed forces will be afloat on the River Thames – the fire service, ambulance service and a whole range of coppers – which begs the question : WHO is actually looking after the country?  Why get the Head of State, the London Fire Brigade, Metropolitan Rozzers and an necessary batch of paramedics in the middle of one of the most security conscious summers we have ever lived through and send them messing about on boats?

Because, it seems, of Great Britain.  Great Bunting Flag Waving Lovely Britain.   The flotilla will feature 30,000 flag-waving patriots (forced to wave flags lest they be sent to Tower of London and have their heads cut off) .  That’s nearly half a Wembley Stadium.  Then a massive royal gun will go off and the procession, including a floating belfry whose chiming bells will be answered by riverbank churches, will pass through an avenue of sails belonging to oyster smacks and naval vessels.  (You think I’m making this up, don’t you?  I’m not.)   And wave, wave, wave, go the little red, white and blue flags of the happy people.  And we will all feel happy and have a tear in our eye, even the most cynical of us.  Royalty is clever that way. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I think the current Queen, compared with the crazies and miserabilists we’ve been landed with in the past, is a blinder.  She’s about as good a Queenie Queen as you can get.  I think we should be celebrating the Diamond Jubilee.  But surely we can find a less retarded way of saying “thank you, corgi loving tiny lady” than shoving her on a boat next to 30,000 commoners and a floating bell.  She’s old – surely she should be celebrating by having a rest.  What she wants is a tray full of Gin & Dubonnet and a chance to put her feet up and watch the Eastenders omnibus.     

As for the Union Jack factories and tourist shops there will be no let up.  How many Union Jacks will be sold this summer?  The trouble with the Union Flag is that, unlike other national flags, it’s a bit common.  Lots of French flags flying would look like a Francophile food festival or Bastille Day.  You know, a bit classy.  Lots of Italian flags flying would look like a celebration of sliced ham, fascism and opera.  But loads of British Union Flags flying looks like a BNP-riddled sink estate full of inhabitants who only ever wear manmade fibres.  The Union Flag has no classy connotations whatsoever.     The West End of London appears to be hysterically addressing the balance in the 85 days that remain before the Olympics and the 30 days before the Diamond Jubilee Celebrations, by attempting to make the Union Flag classy again.  It doesn’t look classy.  It looks like we’ve just gone to war.  

The Union Flag is sort of officially called the Union Jack but, as this is England, no one’s quite sure whether it is or not because no one wrote it down so no one knows what’s going on.  “Jack” is a maritime word, which is appropriate for an island nation that built a mooasssive Empire / ruled Britannia’s waves etc etc through its Navy.   In 1674 it was officially named “His Majesty’s Jack” but that just sounds rude.  I do not find it a very interesting flag, and I think someone just wasn’t trying hard enough.  It has no decorative qualities.   A true British flag should basically be a jar of marmite and a packet of Digestives with the Coronation Street logo running across the top of it and when you shake it from your flagpole it should emit the wheezy giggle of Barbara Windsor.  No one has put any effort in.  Instead it’s some kind of boring combination of the crosses of St Andrew / Patrick / George etc (YAWN YAWN)  and – incredibly – it has a wrong way up and a right way up.  Being British and inscrutable, it’s impossible to tell which is which.   Once, the BBC reported that someone had hung it the wrong way up during the signing of a trade agreement with China and everyone went absolutely mental.  Can you tell which way up it’s supposed to go?

I’m married to an Anti-Unionist, so he won’t tell you which way up it’s supposed to go but he will tell you where to put it and it won’t be nice.  Some people hang it outside their windows when a member of the Royal Family gets married, having  forgotten that the Royal Family are Germans.  And here is the irony : the Union Flag is in fact the official flag of the monarchy, not the flag of the nation.  It shares this queenly characteristic with the National Anthem, which is – of course – not a song about the nation but a song about the monarch.  It’s all a load of badly thought out codswallop.   Use of the flag at sea is only allowed by official vessels and prohibited for everyone else, sailor.  Unfortunately, civilian use on land / at football matches / by ugly people in the name of racism / by Def Leppard / by Spice Girls is not prohibited as a crime against fashion, but in the name of all that is England, it should be. 

In America, flag desecration is not allowed.  So, if, when the celebrations are over and Independence Day is through, you are in fact still dependent upon the laws of flag consecration.  Burning the US flag on US soil will not be pleasing to the local constabulary.  No such law exists in the UK, so you can burn it and use it as kindling for your Diamond Jubilee Barbecue, or cut it up to create an attractive helmet or cloak for a fancy dress ball.  Also, in the US, should you be unfortunate enough to cop it during military action, their is an intricate folding system for the US flag which will be in evidence at your funeral.  Not that you’ll see it of course.  This folding ritual is origami-like in its complexity, stupidity and downright silliness.  There are no official guidelines for the maintenance or folding of your Union Jack however.  The general advice is pragmatic and British : the flag should “simply be folded ready for the next use”. 

I have spent an imaginative morning on a webpage run by Lincolnshire County Council called A Guide to Britain’s Flag Protocol.  It’s a page turner.  Oxford Street may be full of buses with flags flapping across their upper decks like bunting from the great lines of string from one side of the street to the other, but the Lincolnshire contingent have got it well sorted.  We should basically just let them run the Olympics.   You know where you are with a county whose air is rife with the scent of raw pig.  The introduction to this guide features what looks like a pilot on a bicycle with the Union ensign flying from the back, and an entirely unrelated paragraph about how brill and fab heraldry and flag stuff is.   Although not illegal, the guide reminds us it is “improper” to use the Union Jack as a tablecloth or seat cover, and they “discourage” using it to mask a statue, even if it’s one of a really ugly person.  They suggest that should you fly a flag at night it would be best to illuminate it. (NO?  Really?)  And we should really try not to soil it.  That’s easy to say, Lincolnshire County Council, but when a British citizen runs out of loo paper during a long Jubilee bank holiday, is it really reprehensible to reach for the bunting?  There is much on the website about yardarms and “gaffs”.  There is “cross-flagging” and “double flagging” to worry about, not to mention the precedence issue, which will see in evidence at Stratford shortly when Operation Hop Skip Jump Swim & Run 2012 gets under way with us as the host state – basically our Union Jack has to be bigger and sparklier and more gay than the other flags, or something.    When it comes to funerals, Lincolnshire reminds us that the Union Jack as coffin pall ought to be removed prior to cremation.  When a flag is to be raised at half mast, it needs to be first raised to the top of the mast before you can “halve” it, which of course makes sense – how can you tell something has been halved if you don’t get the full impact of the “whole” first? I once had a conversation with Boris Johnson about being at “half mast” but I’m afraid to tell you the circumstances were utterly different, and I was so affected by the event that it only takes the sight of a pair of handcuffs and a whiff of cherry brandy to take me right back to that unfortunate evening.

I’m not flagging up the summer of festivities in any Scrooge-like way.  I remain positively indignant with enthusiasm over the Olympics and what’s not to like over a four day public holiday jubilee weekend?  Whilst not exactly in thrall to the monarch, I don’t mind her being there, plus these days she’s smaller than ever because she’ started shrinking.  By June 3rd she’ll be 2 foot 6.  Last time I looked, there was enough room in Buckingham Palace for a 2 foot 6 inches person.  Actually, there’s quite a lot of rooms.  126 to be precise.   But the nation is going to have to work harder at making the whole shop and shooting match look a little more classy.  

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.