Category Archives: Culture

Ally Pally

Dominating the north west London skyline, Alexandra Palace and its Park stands on ground that once was Tottenham Wood, a vestige of the Great Forest of Middlesex whose deforestation began in earnest in the early thirteenth century. One of the last refuges for boars, stags, and wild bulls in the area, by the time it was enclosed to allow King James I to indulge his passion for hunting, its 4,666 trees covered 388 acres, according to the Earl of Dudley’s survey in 1619.

Unable to withstand the pincer attack from the growing demand for fertile, agricultural land and timber for construction, when it was auctioned as a manorial estate in 1769, 367 acres had been cleared and cultivated and by 1843 just thirty-nine perches of the original Wood remained. The land, now known as Tottenham Wood Farm, was put up for sale in 1856 when its owner, Thomas Rhodes, Cecil Rhodes’ great uncle, died.

One person who had grand designs for the area was designer and architect, Owen Jones. As a Superintendent of Works at the Great Exhibition of 1851, he had responsibility for decorating Paxton’s cast iron and glass palace and for arranging the exhibits inside. He went on to design its décor and layout when it was moved to Sydenham.

There is an old proverb “you shall as easily remove Tottenham Wood”, meaning that something was unachievable, which seems remarkably apposite when considering the early attempts to redevelop the area. Fired by the success of the Crystal Palace south of the river, Owen’s dream was to construct a “Palace of the People” for the enjoyment of north Londoners. Tottenham Wood Farm seemed an ideal location, but despite submitting detailed plans in 1858, his initiative failed to attract support. The North London Park & Land Co’s attempt four years later to create a park and a housing development on the land also came to naught.

The Alexandra Park Company Ltd did, though, succeed in acquiring around 220 acres to build sports and recreational facilities for the area’s burgeoning population. A Tudor-style banqueting hall, later known as The Blandford Hall, was the first major structure to be built there, in 1864, and from 1868 the Park was the home of what for over a century was London’s only racecourse. It was deeply unpopular with jockeys because its layout required horses to run around a tight circle known as “The Frying Pan” and then along a sloping straight. Many riders and horses were injured.

Nevertheless, it was a hit with the public, meetings regularly attracting crowds of up to 30,000. Some visitors were less than savoury. The Scotsman on April 4, 1921, reported on a Peaky Blinders style clash on the course, the latest in a “feud between a Midland gang and another set of men”, with two hospitalised and one arrest. The last meeting was held on September 8, 1970, in front of 2,749 spectators, the course being unable to meet the stiffer safety requirements prevailing at the time. 

Work started on “The Palace of the People”, the centrepiece of the park and the manifestation of Jones’ vision, in 1864. Designed by Alfred Meeson, its construction recycled much of the material used to build the International Exhibition held in Kensington in 1862. Even so, financial difficulties blighted the project, and it took nine years to complete the Palace. Its long-anticipated opening, on May 24, 1873, Queen Victoria’s 54th birthday, was celebrated with concerts, recitals, and fireworks.

Lost Word Of The Day (42)

There are eighty-eight officially recognised constellations, groups of stars that look like a particular shape such as an object, animal, or person, if you have a vivid imagination, after which they have been named. Of course, the stars in a constellation have no connection with each other and may be close to or far away from other members of the theoretical group.

Some stars obdurately remain outside even the most fanciful of geometric imaginings or have come late to the constellation party, having only recently been discovered. An adjective coined in the late 19th century to describe a star outside a constellation was sparsile. The most commonly seen sparsile star is the sun.

Lost Word Of The Day (41)

An uncle once advised me to become an undertaker, not because I had a suitably dour demeanour, but because you could be certain never to be out of work. Being too squeamish, I never fancied being a pollinctor, a person who prepared a dead body for burning, embalming, by washing and anointing, a direct import from the Latin noun. It was used by William Birnie in his The Blame of Kirk-buriall tending to perswade Cemeteriall Civilitie published in 1606. Whether it was a peculiarly Scottish usage, Ah dinnae ken.

Instead, I contented myself with laying out financial statements and insurance policies.

The Case Of The Running Mouse

A review of The Case of the Running Mouse by Christopher Bush – 230514

I have been reading Christopher Bush’s Ludovic Travers in chronological order and the transformation in his amateur sleuth has been fascinating to observe. In this twenty-seventh outing, originally published in 1944 and reissued by Dean Street Press, Travers’ role and attitude have undergone another transformation. The story, though, is one of his less successful ones, running out of steam in the middle after a promising start and needing a bolt almost out of the blue to get it back on track. Nevertheless, Bush rarely fails to produce an intriguing plot and there are plenty of red herrings and misdirections to work before reaching the rather rushed and abrupt ending.

Travers, in the army and on 14-days leave, is at a loose end as his wife, Bernice, serving as a nurse cannot get leave. Nevertheless, it is through her that Travers is approached by Worrack who wants him to help track down a missing woman, Georgina Morbent. Hitherto, Travers had been brought in by Scotland Yard on a consultancy basis to help out with a tricky case but here, for the first time, he is assuming, albeit unintentionally, the role of an independent investigator working solo rather than in cahoots with the police.       

This subtle change of role marks a change in his relationship with George Wharton with whom he had worked on many of his earlier cases. Previously they had worked well together, each playing to their strengths, sometimes being a little fractious with each other, often chiding each other for their foibles. In the Running Mouse, though, Travers is playing a more dangerous game, running alongside and sometimes counter to Wharton’s investigation, sometimes withholding vital evidence that might have made “The General’s” life easier. It also feels as if the scales have fallen from Travers’ eyes as he realises, rightly or wrongly, that Wharton is quick to assume the credit for the deeds of others and deflect criticism for mistakes. Their relationship has not soured but it has been set at a different level.

The story explores the darker, seamier of wartime London life. It centres around a discreet gambling den in the centre of the capital, run by Worrack and Morbent, where some of the more raffish of the city’s toffs and the odd officer on leave pass through, the rules designed to ensure no one quite loses their shirt, even though there are large IOUs in circulation. Travers makes little progress in discovering the whereabouts of Morbent, but the case and, frankly, comes to life when Morbent’s decapitated head is found and Worrack collapses dramatically in his club just as a mouse runs through the room and dies having ingested poison. It is at this point that Wharton enters the story.

As well as the obligatory blackmail the issue of abortion and its consequences feature strongly in the case. The loosening of sexual mores since the First World War and exacerbated by the strains and stresses of the Second had meant that the issue of backstreet abortionists was looming large, a subject Bush had treated more en passant in The Case of the Magic Mirror. Bush treats Morbent’s predicament with sympathy reserving, through Wharton, his ire for the abortionists who charge a fortune and place the woman’s life in peril. The book has a similar darker feel to it as The Magic Mirror.

The war only appears in the background. There is the blackout which makes getting around at night difficult, Travers has downsized to reduce expenses, characters have been injured in various theatres of conflict, but for those with money and influence it is still possible to avoid the grim fare of rationing and dine and drink reasonably well.

Wharton preens himself for wrapping the case up under his own steam, Travers only playing a bit part, but has he really?  

Sadly, though, I was more interested in the changes in travers and his relationship with Wharton to care too much whodunit. With more than half the series of books to go, I am sure Travers’ development as a character will continue.

Scales Of Justice

A review of Scales of Justice by Ngaio Marsh – 230513

I have struggled at times to see why Ngaio Marsh has earned the reputation as a crime writer that she has but Scales of Justice, the eighteenth in her Roderick Alleyn series and originally published in 1955, is really rather good. It plunders some of the more hackneyed themes of the genre, a picturesque English village, beautiful on the outside but a seething pit of emotions on the inside, a close knit community of the upper classes, a guilty secret or two and something which will rip the cosy community apart.

To this Marsh brings her own stamp, a brutal murder inflicted by a combination of a piece of sporting equipment and the ferrule of a leisure item. She is nothing if not inventive in the way her victims die. This one is Colonel Cartarette who was fishing for trout by the local stream and he had the remains of the river’s largest trout and the source of much (un)healthy rivalry amongst the piscatorial types of the village of Swevenings by his side.

Days earlier, the head of another local family, Sir Harold Lacklander, had on his death bed entrusted Cartarette with overseeing the publication of his memoirs. The rest of the Lacklanders seem less than keen for the memoirs to see the light of day. Was there some revelation in Chapter Seven that would ruin reputations, put another interpretation upon a tragic wartime suicide, and shake the community apart? Were the memoirs the reason that Cartarette was killed?

The early part of the book is delightful, Marsh using Nurse Kettle’s slow peregrination around the village to introduce her principal characters, all eccentric in their own ways. I particularly liked Octavius Danberry-Phinn who lives alone with his cats who have extraordinary names including the delightful Edie Puss. His son, Ludovic, served under Sir Harold in the army and was driven to commit suicide when allegations of collaboration with the Germans emerged.

Another wonderful character is the alcoholic Commander Syce who recklessly practices with his bow and arrows when three sheets to the wind and feigns attacks of lumbago to receive regular visits from the nurse. He too has wartime links with the Lacklander and George Cartarette, to whom he inadvertently introduced Kitty who was to become George’s second wife.

Not only are the families neighbours but they are linked through their military service. To add to the web of connections, Alleyn also served under Lacklander and was there when the Danberry-Phinn scandal blew up. He was specifically called in by Lady Lacklander to solve her husband’s murder because he was one of them. Surprisingly, Scotland Yard agree to put him on the case.

Alleyn with the dutiful Fox in tow works his way through the case, taking a rather unexpected interest in the fish that was by Cartarette’s side and one of Phinn’s cats that seemed from the smell emanating from its mouth to have enjoyed a good meal. There is a touch of the Freeman Wills Crofts as Alleyn works out how the killer blow was administered and once that has been achieved and he understands the significance of fish scales, which allows Marsh to make a clever pun out of the book’s title, the identity of the culprit amongst the several people who were near the river at the time in question becomes clearer.

There is much humour in the book and there are enough red herrings, or should that be trout, to keep the armchair sleuth on their toes. Despite being written in the mid-1950s there is a surprisingly pre-war feel about the story, a sense of nostalgia and wistfulness for a world now lost. One of her better books.