Plain 1, Purl 1…?

In the last year, the London Cocktail scene has been dragging us backwards, into a kind of inter-war hell.  Whether it be Clipstone Street’s The Lucky Pig, or the imaginatively titled “London Cocktail Club” at Goodge Street, 1930s style lighting and 1930s style drinks have been alcoholically recharging recessionistas batteries in strangely unglamourous quarters of the West End.  We may be in a quagmire of a stagnant economic lunatic cycle, but at least it’s not as bad as the 1930s…. is it?  If you want to feel like a supporting playing in Bridlington-on-Sea’s provincial theatre production of “The Great Gatsby With Ice Cubes” then a London cocktail bar that thinks it is in 1936 will be for you.  Maybe they’ll really shake and stir things up by forcing you to listen to Glenn Miller, or send in someone dressed up as a aristo in a blackshirt for some genuine 1930s total madness.

Enter Purl.  I thought it was a knitting stitch.  Then I read “Our Mutual Friend”.  Many patrons of the Jolly Porters are wankered nightly in this novel on Purl.  It’s gin, spices, ginger and beer.   The Victorians were hardcore.  As well as “purl”, you could sup on a “Dog’s Nose” (just gin and beer) or even flummox about with a “flip”, which was a kind of Egg nog meets Carling Black Label spectacle which made you feel like throwing up after you’d sung six choruses of “Cheer up Mrs Dickens, even though your husband’s balls-deep in an actress!” or similar Victorian musical chant.  But the new Purl has nothing of the louche, casual Victorian city drinker. 

Purl seems to be marvellously cold.  You have to pre-book, usually at least a day in advance and then – here’s the thing – after two hours they ask you to leave.  In a time where most restaurant owners are weeping on street corners begging patrons to sup in their premises, Purl asks you to leave.  Two hours in is a critical point.  This is the stage where people decide whether they are only going to get moderately tipsy, or whether they are going to get royally mullered.  It is the tipping point between a “drink” and a “night”.  The unwarranted surgical nature of the booking process renders the bar owners at worst greedy, at best controlling.  This, of course, defeats the object, when the whole point of drinking a considerable amount of alcohol is the loss of control.    Now, I have not been to Purl.  Nothing from Purl’s website entices or cajoles or encourages me to give them my patronage.  Restaurants of course may have spent many years throwing you out after two hours, Ronnie Scotts throws you out after the first set on a week night, and perhaps this is the natural evolution of London that the bars are following suit?    As the pursestrings of Britain tighten in lieu of the impending Christmas mayhem and the ongoing slog of the economic collapse I shan’t be processing an ornate, antiseptic credit card booking through the delicate gates of Purl’s website.  I shall be pouring myself a Gin and Tonic from the personal Bluebird Bar at home and settling down for another spiffing viewing of The Hour, a second series of which has triumphantly returned to BBC2 on Wednesdays.

That’s after, of course, I’ve done my lengths.  To fight the tikka masala pouch which has been slowly and insiduously developing since 2002, and to tighten up thighs now charmingly mottled by the lack of elasticity apparent in one’s mid-thirties, I have started to swim a mile a week.  This is a huge performance, when I swim this mile divided into three sessions a week, and which involves a bath hat, fake tan, hair shampoo, conditioner, new towels and my bikini waxer.  No stretch of water is too wide for me to cross it.  No splashes from the exuberance of other swimmers is too much to endure.  Sometimes my hat comes off in the pool, but mostly it slowly squeezes itself up and off the top of my skull so I end up looking as if a mole has sat  on my head.  Mostly I swim without disturbing my lipline which is, admittedly, a talent.  It is the old University pool of my old University which means everyone there is seventeen years younger than me but every woman is somehow equal when standing in the changing rooms, naked and perform origami-like foldings of a Primark towel to try to conceal their bottoms.   Nevertheless, despite the humiliations, off I front crawl, readers, to delve into the depths of the ULU pool.  I am destined to faintly smell of chlorine all the time, to have ragged and dry cuticles after the water has butchered them.  But I’m determined to keep going, hat that looks like a mole or no hat. 

Of course, at a mile a week, I’ll have swum 6 miles by Christmas.  That’s the amount of mileage a black cab will happily take you at any time of the day or night from Charing Cross.  Should I continue into February I will have swum 12 miles, which is the distance between Hampstead and St Albans.  Should I still be swimming by this time next year, I will have swum half way to Dorset.  I shall be the Forrest Gump of swimming.  In goggles.  I have no desire to swim half way to Dorset, and I think I may well get into trouble at some point along the M3, but it’s nice to have a talent, eh readers?  Also, I do not get chucked out after two hours, unlike “PURL”.  That’s because I cannot actually be in the pool for more than 45 minutes without having a cardiac arrest.  However, what with the tired muscles after my 16 lengths, I can emerge from the pool disorientated, breathless and prone to my legs collapsing under me at any moment, which is not at all different from an evening in a London cocktail bar.

 See you in the deep end.

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

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Andrew Edmunds

This last ten days has felt a violent ten days for London.  First of all, there was the heretic-burning issue of Guy Fawkes night, the fireworks of which I was lucky enough to see from an aeroplane.  The air is full of the scent of explosive powder and dead leaves.  Then, as if to add insult to being blown up, there was the padded and somewhat highly-strung tone of Remembrance Sunday.  On my default radio station, Absolute Radio 90s, they marked the two minutes of silence by producing what sounded like two minutes of traffic.  Therefore, those of us listening to the radio would know the radio station was actually working and our digital radios weren’t broken.  However, the decision to have two minutes of some noise in order to mark two minutes of silence appeared somewhat counter-productive.  After that, AbsoluteRadio 90s pulled us back into their pre-Blair era nostalgia orbit by playing U2’s “One”.  This was an odd choice; perhaps it would have been better to have a song called “Eleven”, or “Eleven A.M., Eleven, Eleven”.

On arrival back in England, Mr Bluebird and I had dinner at Andrew Edmunds, in Lexington Street.  There is a strangeness to my discovery of Andrew Edmunds.  The previous Tuesday, I had been walking down Lexington Street, enjoying its feature of four excellent restaurants  – Cafe Mildred, Aurora, the Catalan-inspired Fernandez & Wells and the startlingly charming  (as yet untried by me) delicate French cafe of Cafe Gourmand – when my eyes were drawn by something that was about 250 years old.  Andrew Edmunds is a print and art shop, and next door, the tiniest restaurant in Soho.  Its walls are as bruised and brown as if they have been steeped in English Breakfast tea.  But there the Englishness seems to end.  There is a dark, painted door jostling against two tiny dark painted window frames and within a cluttered smattering of dripping candles and tiny wee tables topped with small jugs of wild flowers, all of which screams Parisienne.   The whole front of the restaurant cannot be more than 10 feet, its tiny-ness adding to the slightly unreal, magical feel of the place, as if fairies had placed it there during the night which, given the fact it’s been there since 1988 and I hadn’t spotted it before, could be quite possible.  The menu, which seems to change daily, looked brisk and filling, in a good, solid, old-fashioned way from inside its glass frame to the right of the front door.  It seemed sure of itself.  A menu that is sure of itself makes the customer feel just as sure, and before I knew what I was doing, me – little old – read-50-reviews-on-Trip-Advisor-before-you-go-near-the-place me,  had walked in and booked a table for a week ahead. 

Lexington Street holds itself up as the new, innovative dining centre of Soho.  Whilst Greek and Frith and Dean Streets take the focus and a lot of the glamour, Lexington Street is really where it’s at.   After 7pm you cannot move in any of the four bars / eateries mentioned above.  Mildred’s, at No 45, has been serving inspiring vegetarian food since the late 80s and is still going very strong, but Fernandez & Wells has to be my personal favourite.  I love its pared-back, washed wall feel.  It’s a Barcelona-style wine and tapas bar with simple grandeur.  It’s a restaurant with the bricks peeled back, and if you’re lucky enough to get a stool at the counter (which, surprisingly, I was) a perfect location for a pre-supper glass of excellent Spanish red.  I only risked being slightly upstaged by the vast, seasonal bowl full of orange and green pumpkins on the countertop.

When I started to mention Andrew Edmunds to people, throughout the week, the replies came back always as “Oh, yes… I know it.  I went there twenty years ago.”  Or, “Oh, yes.  Is it still there?”  I later found out it has been in Lexington Street for twenty five years, and that it is known for its vast and excellent value wine list.   The night we went was one of those nights where London pushes you indoors and away from the elements ; foggy, damp, intolerant.  Ducking into the warmth and eighteenth century prints of Andrew Edmunds had never seemed so appropriate, with the condensation muggily steaming up the windows and November getting the better of us whilst the kitchen served a solid round of traditional foods. 

Our table was in a cosy corner, appropriately enough next to tiny wooden banquette in which two Frenchman were installed, happily lingering over the end of a carafe of something divine and fruit from the Burgundy.  The menu was straightforward – I started with the chicken liver pate with brioche and then had lemon sole with halved, cheery new potatoes and a green salad.  The chicken liver starter was almost enough as a meal in itself.  Is it me, or are starters always the most satisying part of any meal?  Mr Bluebird went for a deeply autumnal warming soup which he pronounced as divine and then headed for a lamb shank, which sat on a bed of mashed potato and swede.  My lemon sole was fabulous, a gutsy, benevolent fish, the lemon sole – although mine appeared to be the biggest from the sea.  It was so big that I couldn’t manage my potatoes, and Mr Bluebird’s lamb shank, which he loved, was also so big that when he announced after 20 minutes of solidly eating it that he had had enough, I struggled to tell from looking at it whether he had eaten anything at all.  Bearing in mind the grand size of the dishes, the price of the food was exceptionally good value.   The half bottles of good French red (in my case) and white (in his) came and went and tasted fabulous.  I’m sorry that I have forgotten what label mine was.  Puddings were as warming and luxurious as you would expect from a traditional English menu.  I went for treacle tart with vanilla ice cream and Mr Bluebird opted for Damson and Sloe Gin ice cream.  His, he announced, tasted as if it came from a three hundred year old recipe, deep with autumn fruits and the sense of seasons much visited over the years.  It was devastatingly purple, but again – he couldn’t find room to finish it.  My treacle tart was a riot of gorgeous, sticky tart-iness, over an inch high and sitting next to a vanilla-flecked round of ice cream but it pains me to say I had to leave some of it on my plate.   The service was light, professional and relaxed.  This is a restaurant that knows exactly what it is doing and exactly how to do it in cosily elegant surroundings.

After the double espresso, which I felt was vital in order to get my heavy, over-fed body to walk to Tottenham Court Road tube station, it was a pleasure to linger in Andrew Edmunds.  There is no music, there is only the low grade hum of other diners on the other seven, small tables around us.  For three courses,each, two half bottles of wine, one cocktail and two double espressos, the total bill, including service, was only £100.  There is something of the warm, old comfort in Andrew Edmunds.  My advice would be go there : go there for a late lunch in order to recover from the hazards of West End Christmas shopping, go there for an intimate supper – but do not order three courses.  Unless you have a gargantuan appetite you will not be able to eat all of them, although the lack of pretension and friendliness in the restaurant tells me that they probably wouldn’t mind if you asked to take some of your pudding home with you.  Do also be aware that bookings are only taken eight days in advance too, a refreshingly biblical number of days but there you go.   This is an old Soho stalwart, one that has taken me too long to discover and one that I hope survives in the changing scenery of Soho for a long time to come.

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

The Ghost of Henry Fitzroy

My grandmother died on the morning of November 22nd 1990, her last victory being that her reign managed to outlive that of Mrs Thatcher by about two hours.   Before she managed the bitter success of outliving Mrs Thatcher, she did several things, including marrying my grandfather (somebody had to), birthing my father and spending thirty years of her life pleasantly residing in what my father termed “a notorious north London slum”.  The same week that she died, this slum was granted conservation status by Westminster City Council, in order to devise local policies to protect the unique character and architectural heritage of the area.

Conservation areas suspend time whilst causing some frustration amongst the local population, and in conserving themselves, render significant change unimaginable.  Whilst our duty to protect Georgian and Victorian sites is vital, occasionally conservation zones can end up fattening their zones up like a tourist cows ready to be taken to market.  The street where my father grew up without a bathroom is now in a district so up and coming it has already upped and came, and where a one bedroom flat in the newly built Fitzroy Place costs £750,000 and up.  And up and up and up….  As if preserved in Edwardian aspic, the western side of Cleveland Street sits in Georgian splendour, looking down its eighteenth century nose at the southern end of its road, where someone unthoughtfully placed a low rise shopping parade during the arse end of the 1950s, and then, to add insult to architectural injury, in 1965 someone else built London’s most phallic structure in the Telecom Tower, which rises like an irate penis from Cleveland Street’s southern end.  

Many people were upset by the Telecom Tower, in fact the IRA were so offended by its architectural brutalism that they tried to blow up its misconceived revolving restaurant.  Local government reacted by designating London’s first conservation areas in 1967.  Since then 76% of the City of Westminster has become zoned off and conserved, in 54 separate conservation zones, all of which come under the terrifying auspices of the English Heritage Conservation Area Practice codes.  Every Georgian window requiring double glazing, every optimistic roof extension, every suggestion of a solar panel, every commercial business wishing to transfer from A1 to A2 use must pass through the exhaustive remit of not one, but two conservation areas here in Cleveland Street.  Even though the Cleveland Street Conservation Area takes in only a short stretch of buildings south of Greenwell Street and north of Carburton Street, this area is subject to Camden’s Bloomsbury Conservation Area as well, notwithstanding  the watchful eye of the Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association, a formidable organisation which has been putting the fear into local businesses, council employees and property developers since its inception in 1974.

What then, is this area that is being conserved?  Why has time chosen to be artificially stopped in this corner of Euston?  Who, or what, dear friends, is Fitzrovia?  It is not, like Soho or Mayfair, an actual geographical location but rather, like Hollywood, an idea, a sense of a place.  No one appears to have used the name Fitzrovia until the early twentieth century and, as we shall see, the area’s story goes back an awful lot further than that.  First, we are going to take a trip back about 300 years.  And we are going to stop right there, no – hang on – THERE.  Charles II’s sex life.

There wouldn’t be any history at all in England after the seventeenth century if it wasn’t for Charles II’s sex life.  Charles II hardly had any time to be a monarch, so preoccupied was he with having sex and spawning a startling amount of royal bastards.  All of his illegitimate children were subsequently ennobled.  His most famous paramour was Barbara “call me Babs, your Majesty!” Villiers, who was so good at having sex with the king that he wasted no time at all in giving her the title of Duchess of Cleveland.   Among the five children she had with him was Henry Fitzroy, who was first created Earl of Euston and then Duke of Grafton.  At this point she got tired of naming her children after public houses and started shagging John Churchill.    The name “FitzRoy” means of course, “Son of the King”, but this Henry Fitzroy is not the first Henry Fitzroy.  We have to go back even further to find him.  The first Henry Fitzroy was born in 1519, the only illegitimate child that Henry VIII recognised as his own, and before the First Henry Fitzroy’s death at the age of 17 in 1536, he was cajoled into marriage at the age of 14 to the daughter of the very Catholic Duke of Norfolk, in a rascally attempt to secure a Catholic marriage and possible succession.   I spent most of yesterday trying to work out what on earth happened to the Fitzroy line between the Tudor age and the late Stuart one.  I could find no trace of it.  Eventually, I gave up shouting at the computer when I couldn’t find anything.  Suffice to say, the land we now know as Fitzrovia was marshland studded by the occasional farm, an unhappy pig and ancient woods until well into the 1750s.  

London place names change identity, just to confuse us.  Cleveland Street was known as Green Lane, then Upper Newman Street and then, by the time a young Charles Dickens lived there in about 1817, Norfolk Street.  Perhaps this is sinister echo of the machiavellian Duke of Norfolk manipulating a young, consumptive Henry Fitzroy into marriage.  Either way it still doesn’t quite know what it is when it eventually gets to be called Cleveland Street at some point in the mid-nineteenth century.  It snaps down the middle of itself into a schizoid street plan.  The eastern side of the street is in the parish of St Pancras, the west in St Marylebone.  The council followed suit : the eastern side of the street is under the remit of The City of Westminster whilst the western side languishes in The London Borough of Camden.  The eastern side of the street is the beginning of the Southampton Estate ( that controlled by the Fitzroy family and various Charles II love children) and the western marks the beginning of the Great Portland Estate.  This is neither the West End or North London, neither east nor west, but an undistinguished thoroughfare somewhere in the middle, providing access to Oxford Street in the south and the New Road (later Euston Road) in the north.   By 1793 the Fitzroys are rolling with their homies, namely James and Robert Adam, and are on a superb building spree of neo-classical proportions in Fitzroy Square. 

There are, according to the Cleveland Street Conservation Area Audit, Grade II buildings, as well as “unlisted buildings of merit”, amidst the former work rooms and commercial businesses that, after a brief, unconsummated flirt with Georgian gentrification,  sent Cleveland Street on its slow downward social spiral.  The rococo finery of Fitzroy Square around the corner looms out in lurid splendour in comparison, continuing to attract the stylish and rich and talented and when it couldn’t attract them it attracted Virginia Woolf.  Cleveland Street wasn’t so lucky.  The Conservation Area Audit from www3.westminster.gov.uk insists on mis-spelling Woolf’s name and sort of cobbles her together with “residents of social and artistic importance”, but the only other one they can think of is George Bernard Shaw.    Cleveland Street, says our audit, became “less affluent and more commercially focused” throughout the nineteenth century, thereby setting it firmly on its course to become the slum mentioned above.

“This district has significance as a physical record of social and cultural history, which in turn has contributed to a great sense of community pride” the audit continues, before being attracted by more interesting aspects of Cleveland Street, such as it’s “one-way traffic flow” , and flinging about words like “thriving” and “lively” which could basically describe anything.    The section of bona fide, 20-carat, Georgian Grade II listed buildings in the centre of Cleveland Street are the plump raisins in the centre of the town planning cake.  People get very excited about Georgian houses that were once houses for those dressed in finery, descended into flatlets, stumbled into poverty, eventually became mired in neglect and now appear to have come full circle for people dressed in finery once more.  “In contrast” to these Georgian houses, it says, is a mid-19th century listed public house, The George & Dragon, a pub which, during the war, frequently vomited out patrons at closing time, singing “Roll out the barrel, we’ve got the Jews on the run.”  Of course, you won’t read about that in many urban history audits, and I only know it because inconsiderate V1 rockets insisted on disturbing my father at night around closing time, whilst he was trying to sleep in his flat up the street.  But it’s one thing to be woken up by Germans throwing bombs at you, but quite another to woken up by a group of anti-semites…. Oh. 

In its desire to preserve and enhance, the audit sings of “yellow stock brick” and “Flemish bond” in the Georgian, fairly raffish, shoddy looking specimens on the street’s western side. There are “patterns of fenestrations”, “butterfly roofs” and “unadorned parapets”.  Then we get some pictures of doors and a “decorative knocker”, before a very stern paragraph in which we are told, as if we were naughty children, that “original architectural features are vital to the architectural quality of buildings” – Really? Doh – and strictly admonished that we remember Policy DES 9 C, which states that the council “will not allow schemes which involve the loss of original features”.  Policy DES 9C!  Of course I remember you!  My fave read.  I’ve heard that Policy DES C9 is being turned into a musical!     Well, perhaps not, although last year did see the brief theatrical appearance of “Cleveland Street : The Musical” which was a song-and-dance version of the male brothel / telegrams / Whoops there goes Prince Albert scandal of 1888.  I stress that my father was not involved in that.

The audit continues, commenting that the Telecom Tower can be seen from “many directions”, which is bloody obvious, because I’d be visible from many directions if I was 619 metres tall.  They comment that “railings and boundary walls contribute significantly to the character of conservation areas” and then spend three paragraphs bitching about the railings not been nearly good enough, mainly because poor people lived in the houses they surrounded for about a hundred years.  And I cannot tell you the level of near orgasmic delight they achieve when singing the praises of the “cylindrical open heritage style litter bin”.   What they do not write about or mention is that neighbourhood streets such as this one only retain they much talked of liveliness and vivacity if they have a stable micro-economy, i.e. if a number of these buildings within conservation zones are specifically ear marked for commercial or small enterprise use, thereby blowing a much needed clean sweep of fresh air through this former neglected corner of Euston.   As anyone who has ever walked through a newly-rich conservation area in central London will tell you, this does not tend to happen.  Businesses don’t move in to negotiate the council red tape and listed building statuses.  Residents do.

“Heritage style” was a phrase that was barely in existence until about 15 years ago. In the 1990s the world “holistic” was everywhere and no one was quite sure what that meant, either.  This decade it’s the turn of “heritage”.   I was astonished to find I was recently eating a heritage beetroot.  Much satire was made in the BBC comedy series 2012 about the discrepancy between “heritage”, “legacy” and “sustainability” efforts, but no one was capable of articulating the difference between the three.   The word “heritage” means things of value or cultural worth that are passed down and inherited through the ages.  But there must be the knowledge that what you are choosing to preserve within that heritage has a real, true worth.  What if the street you are preserving in a jar was a bit shit?  Or, a bit deprived.  Or, in one of Euston’s former most socially neglected wards? Why can’t we knock some of these sad buildings down and start again?  Because they are, put simply, old.   Older items are getting dressed up and coated in new paint so we can forget their histories, so we can gaze at the one surviving coal hole cover in this street which, for some reason, somebody at City of Westminster Council has chosen to “record and retain” , despite the fact that the coalman who delivered for forty years was delighted to see the back of it, and the housewife who had to spend half of her marriage shoveling its contents about probably only smiled for the first time when her husband told her they were having central heating installed.

At what point does an “historic characteristic” become just another reminder of the poverty-stricken history of Euston and Fitzrovia that the area is trying to shake off?  There is no merit in choosing to seek historical authenticity in urban poverty.  These are not subjects for cultural validity.  They are subjects for shame.  The twelve door buzzers by an early Victorian door, the scuffed and maltreated front steps, the washing suspended from lines inside sitting rooms; these are things of incalculable embarrassment to anyone who lived in the richest city on earth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.   How tall and mean must the houses be to remind us of their previous overcrowding?   The former Cleveland Street Workhouse is not listed under the “negative features” section, although to all intents and purposes it should be, as perhaps nothing is more embarrassing to the modern British mind than the reminder that our poor were sent to die in houses of penal correction.  Instead the report mentions the things that do not matter such as unsightly cables, cluttered flues and unwanted wires.

Perhaps the most telling phrase in the whole report is that “services should be concealed where possible”.  In Britain, where it is legal to be a prostitute but illegal to go outside your front door to advertise the fact, the preoccupation is largely on what face we choose to show the outside world, rather than what goes on inside the city’s front doors.  No one really minds that the early Victorian doors have never fitted in their frames because generation after generation of slum landlords have never cared to mend them.  No one really minds that the architect lives in a flat that once housed four families.  There is, however, a permanent undertaste of squalor in this part of town, which no end of oak flooring and marble slabbed bathrooms can remove. 

Only in the last 45 years have we introduced the idea of “conserving” patches of the city, and thereby preventing the innate urban flow of development and progress to run its course.  I am not suggesting for a moment that we allow developers to ride roughshod over our loved buildings, far from it.  But a more integrated approach is needed unless London is to turn into an architectural series of rich villages, where people may buy flats in former Victorian slums at extortionate prices, safe in the knowledge that social housing will never be able to be built beside them.   Fitzrovia is an area that still has its pockets of social deprivation, because, irritatingly, the poor don’t go anywhere.  Unless, of course they are lucky enough to get out.  Whilst conservation areas perform a vital task in ensuring the cultural and architectural survival of so much of our city, we must also question how normal it is for 76% of one’s major city to be, in essence, within the architectural and building use control of the state.  As an urban space, London’s engine is its own power of energy and regeneration, its own flow of money, creation and enterprise, which – like never before – is needed to bring the next generation of Londoners out and up through the economic collapse.  What isn’t needed is to artificially extend the life of jerry-built housing and cramped workrooms, and pump them full of money like an old woman’s face filled with collagen in the misguided belief she is making something anew.  Just because a building is old, it does not automatically become rendered worthy of “heritage” or preservation.   In the late 1970s, a full decade before the establishment of the Cleveland Street Conservastion Zone, the crumbling block of flats in Cleveland Street where my father grew up was knocked down.   He wasn’t sentimental about it.  He simply said it was too ignoble to survive.

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