A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

Book Corner – May 2018 (1)

Victorious Century: The United Kingdom 1800 – 1906 – David Cannadine

Most historians, charting Britain’s (temporary) rise to the top of the world pile in the 19th Century, tend to start after the Battle of Waterloo and end at the outbreak of World War One. As is increasingly fashionable amongst historiographers, Cannadine takes a different slice of the temporal pie, preferring to start with the Act of Union with Ireland in 1800 and finishing with the Liberal electoral landslide of 1906. Mathematically unsettling as this may be, it puts Ireland in the centre stage and the mainland’s relations with the Emerald Isle were a troublesome sideshow throughout the 19th century (as it was in the 20th and still is today).

The Act of Union which created what was known as the United Kingdom for the rest of the century was a rather botched affair and was passed for primarily defensive purposes. Corresponding legislation to deal with the internal governance of Ireland was dropped and this proved the blight that made relations with the predominantly Catholic population problematic. Anti-Catholic sentiments and the eugenic feeling that the Irish were an inferior race (although not as inferior as those races whose countries we would take over with gay abandon during the course of the century) proved too hard to dislodge.

Cannadine’s account is a tour-de-force and a rattling good read. His mastery of the subject matter is breath-taking and many an interesting insight. (Unusually for a history book) there are no footnotes, heightening the sense that he knows all there is to know and there is no sense in thinking otherwise. For the non-historian this is satisfying but one can’t help thinking that there are many other interpretations which may have some validity. The only concession to doubt Cannadine allows is provided by a prodigious usage of parantheses. I don’t think I have read a book with so many brackets sprinkled about, as if someone is whispering into your ear (sotto voce, no doubt) that there may (or may not be) other things to consider.

Aside from the Irish question, the take-aways (for me) from the book is how the empire grew through the actions of individuals in situ rather than through central fiat – indeed, for most of the century the government’s view was to constrain, if not reduce, expenditure and commitments in relation to overseas territories – and the dependence, even then, on the ability to trade with our European neighbours for economic prosperity rather than with the lands brought under the British yoke – an insight we might do well to heed.

The political colossi such as Gladstone, Disraeli, Pitt the Younger, the under-appreciated Earl of Derby (at least today) and Palmerston bestride the stage – what we would give for one or two of them now – but my admiration for Robert Peel grew as I turned the pages. It was a century when the extent of suffrage widened but still swathes of the population, including all women, were deprived of the vote and when parliamentary reorganisation finally rooted out the democratic abuse that were rotten boroughs.

On a macro-level it was a century of enormous progress – industrial, economic, cultural – but at a micro-level the lives of ordinary folk were a continual struggle in insanitary and disease-ridden conditions of squalour. Cannadine’s choice of epigrams to describe the period covered by his thoroughly enjoyable book are apt – Dickens’ opening line of A Tale of Two Cities – “it was the best of times, the worst of times” and Karl Marx’s observation that men and women “make their own history, but they do not do so … under conditions of their own choosing.”  The 19th century in a nutshell, methinks.


The Streets Of London – Part Seventy Two

Millbank, SW1P

Millbank runs from the end of Abingdon Street by the Black Rod Garden along the north side of the Thames to the junction with Vauxhall Bridge Road. Today it is a road lined with impressive buildings overlooking the River Thames, including the Tate Britain gallery, the Chelsea College of Art and design and government offices. It is all rather pleasant and up-market but it wasn’t always so.

The street takes its name from a watermill which was situated near what is known as College Green and owned by Westminster Abbey – it is referred to in John Norden’s map of London, dating from 1593. However, it seems to have been the only redeeming feature in an area that was described as a place of plague pits and a “low, marshy locality” suitable only for having a pop at the snipe which frequented the “bogs and quagmires.

By the mid 17th century the area was known as Tothill Fields, or Tuttle Fields as Pepys called it, and following Cromwell’s crushing victory at the Battle of Worcester in September 1651, it was used as a holding area for 4,000 Royalist prisoners before their enforced migration to the West Indies to serve on the sugar plantations. The area was so insanitary that around 1,200 prisoners died before they could be shipped off. During the Great Plague of 1665-66 it served as a communal burial ground for the victims. Pepys noted in his Diaries, “I was much troubled this day to hear at Westminster how the officers do bury the dead in open Tuttle Fields, pretending want of room elsewhere.

The mill was demolished by Sir Robert Grosvenor around 1736 to make way for a grand house, which was itself demolished in 1809 to make way for the world’s first modern prison, reconnecting the area with incarceration. The design was unusual, with its walls forming an irregular octagon, enclosing seven acres of land. There was a stagnant moat running around the walls, the vestiges of which can be seen in the ditch running between Cureton Street and John Islip Street. Within the walls there were six buildings running off like spokes from the central hub which was the Governor’s house. The idea was that the design made it easier for the warders to keep an eye on what was going on but the labyrinthine corridors meant that they often got lost! And the marshy conditions caused considerable engineering difficulties which racked up the costs.

The prison opened for business on 26th June 1816, its first batch of prisoners being women, later joined by the first group of men in January 1817. Its primary purpose was to serve as a staging post for those prisoners who were to be transported to Australia – one origin of Pom is that it is an acronym of Prisoner of Millbank. Along the riverside you can still see some of the capstans to which the prison vessels were moored. Transportation officially ended in 1868 but by then Millbank had been superseded by the latest in prison design that was Pentonville, opened in 1842.

Dickens, in David Copperfield, described the exterior of the prison as “a melancholy waste … A sluggish ditch deposited its mud at the prison walls” while Henry James, in his novel, the Princess Casamassima, published in 1886, went one better by describing the interior as having “high black walls whose inner face was more dreadful than the other’, ‘grey, stony courts’, ‘steep unlighted staircases’ and ‘circular shafts of cells.” The inmates, he wrote, were “dreadful figures, scarcely female.

The prison closed in 1890, demolished two years later. Tate Britain was built on the site in 1897, across the road from the Royal Army Medical School where the first typhoid inoculation was developed, reinforcing the area’s link with disease, and some of the bricks from the prison were used between 1897 and 1902 to build social housing for over 4,000 residents on the Millbank estate. The angularity of the modern streets in the area are a testament to the old prison and the rather splendid Morpeth Arms is worth a visit, built originally for the prison warders and underneath which run a warren of tunnels used to ferry prisoners from the river to the prison and back. It is even said to be haunted.

A fascinating area.

The Streets Of London – Part Seventy

Puddle Dock, EC4

It was not just the Great Fire of 1666 or the German bombers in the early 1940s that wrought a significant change to the topology of London – it was also the town planners in the 1960s. One victim of their zeal to reclaim the foreshore of the Thames and to make Upper Thames Street a main road was Puddle Dock, now a pale shadow of its former self linking the reconfigured road with Queen Victoria Street. As its name suggests it was once the site of a dock, although what was stored and conveyed there was not the usual merchandise.

Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, published in 1864/5, has the Thames running through it as one of its major motifs and the memorable opening scenes feature Lizzie Hexam and her father, Jesse, rowing along the river on the look-out for dead bodies to fish out. But it wasn’t just bodies that found their way into the water. For a city with a population that was growing like topsy and with rudimentary sanitation at best, the Thames was a convenient receptacle for the detritus and excrement accumulated during the day. At Puddle Dock was sited a laystall which is where cattle were held before they went to market and where dung and other forms of detritus were stored before being disposed of by the fives barges which operated from the dock somewhere downstream into the Thames. It must have stunk to high heaven.

As often is the case, John Stow, in his invaluable Survey of London, published in 1598, gave some insight as to what went on there and the origin of the name. He wrote, “then there is a great Brewhouse, and Puddle wharf, a water gate into the Thames, where horses use to be watered and therefore filed with their trampeling, and made puddle, like as aso of one Puddle dwelling there: it is called Puddle Wharfe.”  The dock is shown on John Rocque’s 1746 map and marked as Dung Wharf. A newspaper article from 5th July 1722 gives a sense of the hustle and bustle of the area and the tragedies that could befall the unwary – the use of the pronoun another suggests that it was not unusual. “Another Misfortune happened Yesterday at Puddle-Dock, where a little Boy was killed by a Cart loaded with coals. The Child was stooping down to take up some thing from the Ground when the Cart Wheel ran over his head, and crushed it to Pieces. The Carman is absconded”, the report noted ruefully.

William Maitland’s The History of London, published in 1756, provides a succinct summary of what went on there at the time; “on the banks of the River Thames are the Wharfs of Puddle-dock, used for a Laystall for the Soil of the Streets, and much frequented by Barges and Lighters for taking the same away, as also for landing of Corn and other Goods.” A sense of the stench and inconvenience to all is provided in a report of a case, the King v Gore, to be found in the Evening Mail of 25th November 1836. There we read that “the affidavits of several persons residing near Puddle-dock were read, in which they stated that their health was impaired in consequence of the stench arising from the filth which was allowed to accumulate at this dock.” The defendant argued that “he was obliged, by the covenant of his lease, to allow all persons to place any filth they chose there” and that there had been “a laystall ever since the great fire of London.” The case was unresolved.

In more recent times, the Mermaid Theatre could be found there until it closed in 2003. Now it is just a nondescript, if considerably more fragrant, street but one with a fascinating history.

What Is The Origin Of (165)?…


While we are on the subject of pejorative terms for our social superiors, we may as well look at toffee-nosed. It means snobbish, supercilious or stuck-up, never a good look. From an etymological standpoint, it has nothing to do with toffee. In fact, the derivation is from tuft via toff.

Our voyage of discovery starts among the dreaming spires of Oxford University. During the 18th and 19th centuries sons of the landed aristocracy were allowed to wear ornamental gold tassels on their mortar boards. Very fetching they must have looked too. These were known as tufts and, by extension, the wearers were known as tufts. By the 1870s wearing tufts went out of fashion, although there were some who tried to cling on to the tradition. The Westmoreland Gazette reported in March 1894 that “Lord Rosebery was one of the last undergraduates of Christ Church who wore the gold tassel, known by the name of tuft.”  And the tradition was sufficiently well-known amongst the hoi polloi for WS Gilbert to lampoon the fashion in Princess Ida, written in 1884; “you’ll find no tufts/ to mark nobility, except such tufts/ as indicate nobility of brain.

At some point during the early to middle 19th century the noun tuft, used to describe these scions of nobility, morphed into toff, almost certainly via toft. Quite how, no one knows. What seems clear, though, was that it was a term used by the lower orders to describe stylishly or fashionably dressed men. Henry Mayhew, in his London Labour and the London Poor, published in 1851, reported, “if it’s a lady and gentleman, then we cries “A toff and a doll”.” The adjectival form, toffy, soon followed and through etymological ignorance this was transformed into toffee, to trick the unwary in later years into thinking that it has something to do with the sugary brown sweet that plays havoc with your fillings.

The phrase toffee-nosed, though, emerged during the First World War as a description of officers who adopted a superior air. Perhaps the most graphic illustration of its usage is from TE Lawrence’s account of war-time life, The Mint, published in 1922 under the pseudonym of JH Ross. There he wrote, “China got into disgrace there. ‘I wasn’t going to f**k about for those toffy-nosed buggers, so I got back after f**king twelve, and they shoved me on the fizzer!” The ever useful Notes and Queries defined in an article entitled English Army Slang as Used in the Great War on 10th December 1921 toffee-nosed as stuck up, as did Fraser and Gibbons in their 1925 book, Soldier and Sailor Words.

Stuck-up had a longer legacy, appearing in Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, published in 1839. Mrs Squeers describes the eponymous hero to her husband thus; “he’s a nasty stuck-up monkey, that’s what I consider him.” The idea behind the image of stuck-up is that of haughtiness, being superior to others, perhaps even to avoid the whiff of the great unwashed. This is the sense of nosed in our phrase.

Before we leave this subject completely, for collectors of obsolete but rather splendid words, I leave you with tufthunter. This was a noun used to describe those who fawned before and sucked up to the aforementioned tufts. Thackeray was spot on when he wrote of one, a Mr Brandon, in Shabby Genteel Story, published in 1840; “Mr Brandon was a tufthunter of the genteel sort; his pride being quite as slavish, and his haughtiness as mean and cringing, in fact, as poor Mrs. Gann’s stupid wonder and respect for all the persons whose names are written with titles before them.

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Sixty Three

Ali Ahmed’s Treasures of the Desert

The development of trade and the expansion of the British Empire meant that the world was a smaller place in Victorian times. As a consequence there was a certain mystique about things oriental and this gave the practitioner of the art of quackery a fertile source to tap into. One such was the curious tale of Ali Ahmed and his cough pills.

Ahmed was said to be of Persian origin but had to flee to Aleppo where he flourished “between the years of the Herah 420 to 488.” There he discovered many wonderful secrets which he passed on to his family on his death bed. They were discovered by “an excellent and philanthropic Englishman” who (natch) considered it his duty to make them available to the folks at home. And so, within the fourteenth instalment of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House containing chapters 43 to 46 was to be found an eight page advertising supplement extolling the virtues of Ahmed’s cough pills.

The advertising copy gave a bit of local colour by way of background, claiming that the pills were so famous in Aleppo that anyone running furiously was said to have “ran as though he were running for the celebrated cough pills.” The supplement was decorated with swirls and squiggles, perhaps to mimic Arabic calligraphy, and featured a couplet which roughly translated read, “Men of all ages, four score years or nigh/ run to the mart old Ali Ahmed’s Pills to buy.” Then there were testimonials, from a man in Damascus and another in Bangkok who vouched that a course of Ahmed’s pills was enough to cure the cough that had plagued Prince Choo Fan of Siam whereas all other medicaments had failed. There was even a specially carved bust of Ahmed on display at the depot in St Bride’s Avenue, off London’s Fleet Street, where the pills could be procured in boxes of varying sizes with prices ranging from thirteen and a half old pennies to 10 shillings and sixpence.

The advert went on to warn against the noxious compounds developed by the European medical profession. Instead of strychnine and morphine, Ahmed’s drugs were “simple and pure; the mountainside furnishes him with herbs and roots and the plains are bountiful in bulbs.” The drugs were described as “the kindest gifts of nature to suffering humanity.” What not to like?

In addition to the Pectoral Antiphthisis Pill which was designed to fight off colds, coughs and consumption, there were two other remedies available from the Ahmed range. The Sphairopeptic Pill was designed to deal with liver and digestive complaints whilst the Antiseptic Malagma was a type of plaster to be used on ulcers and wounds and to deal with gangrene.

So what was in them and did they work? The Pectoral Pills, according to Cooley’s Cyclopaedia, contained myrrh, squills (which can be toxic in large doses but acts as an expectorant), ipecacuanha (another expectorant), white soft soap, aniseed oil and treacle whilst the Sphairopeptic Pills contained aloes, colocynth pulp, rhubarb, myrrh, scammony (yet another expectorant), ipecacuanha, cardamom seeds, soft soap, oil of juniper and treacle. The presence of the Central American ipecacuanha seems to give the lie to the claim that these were Ahmed’s original recipes. The Malagma consisted of a calico strip smeared with a mix of lead plaster, a sort of thickened turpentine, salad oil and beeswax.

As to efficacy, the expectorants may have helped but Punch suggested at the time that it was only by following the lifestyle adopted by Ahmed that they may have induced them to work. So probably not, then.

The Streets Of London – Part Sixty Six

Catherine Wheel Alley, EC2

If you walk down Middlesex Street in a westerly direction you will come to a bifurcation in the road. The left spur goes by the rather quaint name of Catherine Wheel Alley and narrows into a very tight alley way until it emerges into the hustle-bustle of Bishopsgate. I used the passage to make my way to Dirty Dick’s which is to be found at 202, Bishopsgate, adjacent to the entrance to our alley.

The Dick whose name is celebrated by the pub is Nathaniel Bentley, who was a fashionable man about town until his stag night. Just before he sat down to celebrate his forthcoming nuptials, news reached him that his intended had tragically died. Elsewhere in this blog we have seen that a significant event can be the tipping point into the descent into eccentricity and this was the case with Nathaniel. He became a recluse, wearing patched up clothing and spending a mere pittance on daily necessities. He eschewed personal hygiene, telling anyone that was interested, “if I wash my hands today, they will be dirty again tomorrow.

His house in Leadenhall Street became neglected and hosted many creepy crawlies, bats, vermin, and, of course, cobwebs. Bentley is said to have been the person from whom Charles Dickens drew his inspiration for Miss Haversham. When Bentley died in 1809, the contents of his house including all the dead and desiccated vermin were bought by a publican and transported to his pub on Bishopsgate, where they have been on display ever since. When I started drinking there, the artefacts were all over the pub but these days, no doubt for ‘elf and safety reasons, they are confined to a glass cabinet near the carsey.

Like many an alley in London, Catherine Wheel Alley took its name from a pub, the Catherine Wheel which stood there for nigh on three hundred years, after the area was demolished following the Great Fire of 1666. If had you popped in for a snifter in the early part of the 18th century, you may have bumped into the highwayman, Dick Turpin, and his motley crew as they used it as a watering hole, when they were at leisure or planning their next attack on some well-to-do person travelling through Epping Forest.

The pub was supposedly the last galleried pub in the area. Alas, it was destroyed by fire in 1895. A large part of the shell of the building survived and it remained there until it was eventually pulled down in 1911. Although we nowadays associate the Catherine wheel with a type of firework, in medieval times it was a fearsome form of torture. The victim was lashed to a wooden wheel and their limbs were beaten with clubs or iron cudgels. Death was not instantaneous – some lingering on for a number of days in excruciating agony. Its use was phased out in the 18th century but the first to be threatened with it was Saint Catherine of Alexandria, although the wheel broke when she touched it. She was beheaded instead!

At some point Puritans objected to the alley bearing the name of a 9th century saint and the alley was renamed the Cat and Wheel Alley. Although this may have placated their religious sensibilities, it was quickly realised that the new name made no sense and the alley reverted back to its original name.

Everything Is Possible For An Eccentric, Especially When He Is English – Part Twelve

James Lucas (1813 – 1874)

For some eccentrics a life-changing event proved to be the tipping point into strange and unusual behaviour. A case in point is James Lucas who earned the sobriquets, mad Jack and the Hermit of Hertfordshire.

James was the son of a rich Liverpudlian land-owner who had interests in sugar plantations out in the West Indies. They moved to Hertfordshire when James was about ten, taking up residence at Elmwood House at Great Wymondley, near Stevenage. James used to terrorise the locals by riding through the countryside at a reckless pace, tied to an old-fashioned saddle with a cord and with his long hair flowing in the breeze. Apart from that, though, he was clever, studied medicine and a good conversationalist.

The point at which his eccentricity developed occurred in 1849 when his mother, to whom he was devoted, popped her clogs. So distraught with grief was James that he sat beside the body for thirteen weeks, refusing to allow her to be buried until the local magistrates decided enough was enough.

James had now inherited Elmwood and dismissed all the servants. He shut all the rooms of the house, save for the kitchen. His only furniture was a table and a chair and for clothing he made do with a blanket. James’ sole source of heat was the kitchen fire which he never allowed to go out. Inevitably, the ash accumulated. All James did was scrape them out by hand so that they gradually filled the room. Dirty and unwashed, he lived amongst and slept on piles of ashes for his remaining twenty-five years, subsisting on milk and bread.

In order to deter unwelcome visitors and relatives, the windows and doors to the kitchen were barred with logs and iron struts. Towards the end of his life he took extra security precautions by employing a couple of watchmen. But the hermit’s fame spread far and wide and he had a steady stream of visitors with he would converse through the barred windows. James enjoyed the company of tramps whom he would interrogate. If there were no holes in their story, he rewarded Protestants with a penny and Catholics with two pence. Those whom he caught spinning a yarn were sent packing with a flea in their ear and, possibly, a shower of ashes.

Children were also welcome and on major Christian festivals, principally Christmas Day and Good Friday, he would shower the local ragamuffins with money, sweets and buns. Perhaps Lucas’ most famous visitor was Charles Dickens who paid his respects in 1861. The author immortalised the encounter in Tom Tiddler’s Ground, published in 1861, featuring a misanthropic, morbid hermit called Mr Mopes who sought seclusion to gain notoriety. This rather unsympathetic portrayal of his condition probably pissed Lucas off.

An attack of apoplexy finished him off in 1874 and when the house was opened up, it took 17 cartloads to remove all the dirt and ashes. After twenty-five years of studied neglect, the house had slowly rotted away and in 1890 it was finally demolished. Lucas was buried in the family grave in Hackney in east London.

What Is The Origin Of (114)?…


Queer the pitch

This phrase is used to indicate that someone has done something that has had the effect of spoiling the business in hand. Variants exist where the definite article is replaced by the possessive such as one’s or their or my.

For many of a certain generation their first encounter with the word queer, either adjectivally or as a noun, was as a pejorative term for someone who was or was considered to be homosexual. But queer has had a long and colourful history as the English language evolved. At the start of the 16th century it was used as an adjective to describe someone or thing which was strange, peculiar or eccentric, probably deriving its etymology from the Low German quer which meant perverse or off centre. Interestingly, the use of the term to describe a homosexual is directly from this meaning.

In the 18th century and later queer as an adjective also took the meaning of feeling out of sorts or unwell. Charles Dickens used the word in this context in the Pickwick Papers, “legs shaky – head queer – round and round – earthquake sort of feeling –  very”. By then it had also taken on its third grammatical form, a verb, initially meaning to puzzle, ridicule or cheat, but from around 1812 taking the sense of to spoil or ruin or to jeapordise – precisely the meaning it has in our idiom.

Pitch as a noun has a variety of meanings ranging from the quality of a sound governed by the rate of vibrations producing it to a piece of land on which a sport or a game is played to an area where a street vendor or performer stations themselves to attract a crowd or custom. It is this latter sense that is deployed in our phrase. The phrase first appeared in print in The Swell’s Night Guide of 1846, “Nanty coming it on a pall, or wid cracking to queer a pitch”. In the days before telephone boxes and the internet if someone wanted to enjoy the services of a sex worker, there were a number of organs they could turn to help them in their search. Swell’s Night Guide was one and the pitch referred to in its usage is the area in which the worker operated.

Interestingly, as the 19th century progressed our phrase was taken up by theatrical types who used it as a synonym for upstaging. In a theatrical memoir dating to 1866 we have this rather dramatic description of an incident in a theatre and the admission that our phrase was part of the theatrical argot, “The smoke and fumes of “blue fire” which had been used to illuminate the fight came up through the chinks of the stage, fit to choke a dozen Macbeths, and – pardon the little bit of professional slang – poor Jamie’s “pitch” was “queered” with a vengeance”.

Whilst we are on the subject of queer, we may as well deal with on queer street which is used to describe someone who is in some difficulty, usually financial. Although it has been associated with Carey Street which is where the bankruptcy courts were held, the courts only moved there in the 1840s. Queer Street was defined in a revised edition of Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue as “wrong, improper, contrary to one’s wish. It is queer street, a cant phrase to signify that it is wrong, or contrary to our wish”. In other words, it takes on the meaning for queer that was current at the time.

Book Corner – January 2017 (1)


Purity – Jonathan Franzen

What to make of Franzen? I repeatedly hear that he is one of, if not the, greatest living American novelist but I have never been that bowled over by his work. I enjoyed The Corrections and bought a first edition of Freedom, his satire of middle America in the Bush era, on the back of it. I then got a note from the publisher saying that the author was recalling the book as there were a number of errors which he wanted correcting and that they would replace it with an error-free edition post-haste. I declined this invitation, trusting that my edition would accumulate some value as time went by. Has it? Who knows?  But I am open to offers. It gave me the sense, though, that Franzen was a bit of an arse and slapdash to boot.

So it was with some trepidation that I picked up his latest tome, Purity. It seemed over long to me (563 pages) and a bit contrived. In essence, it is a story told in seven interlinking sections, each of which develops the narrative from a different perspective, moving back and forth in time and place. You quickly work out that all the characters have a shared story and, frankly, it is easy to see where the, at first, disparate characters with seemingly radically different backgrounds fit together. The strongest section is the only section written in the first person,  Tom Aberant’s memoir of his relationship with his ex-wife, Anabel in the curiously titled le1o9n8a0rd, the password required to access the document.

The book opens in a rather under-cooked way introducing us to Purity Tyler aka Pip and her rather neurotic mother. The tale – I won’t spoil it for you – is of Purity trying to discover her roots and identity. Thematically whilst Purity is trying to find out who she is the other characters are trying to find their own form of purity. A case in point is the Assange/Snowden-like internet activist and charismatic guru, Andreas Wolf, who is trying to expose the world’s corruption but has just exchanged his Stasi-dominated spy state of the GDR for snooping on the internet. The realisation that the internet is governed by fear and an instrument of totalitarianism is well made. The pursuit of the state of purity is over-riding but delusional. To make sure you don’t miss the point Franzen repeats the title phrase and its variants over and over again, the sort of sledgehammering you could do without.

By starting and finishing the book with Purity aka Pip, you cannot help but notice the great debt that Franzen owes to Dickens in this book and, particularly, Great Expectations.  Both deal with the search for true parentage and unexpected riches, the plots of both lurch hither and thither with melodramatic lurches and rely on astonishing coincidences to keep the story going. It is not too fanciful to think of the fruit cake, Anabel, as a modern-day take on Miss Havisham and, of course, Pip as Pip.

There are some gloriously funny moments in the book – particularly the scenes of the frantic lovemaking between Tom and Anabel – and there are some really insightful comments and observations. But there is also a dark brooding and, to my mind, unpleasant side to the book – the men are predators and that women are prey. There is a very strong anti-feminism thing going on throughout the story.

Having read it and thought about it, I don’t think Purity has changed my view of Franzen. He is worth reading but American literature must be in a pretty sorry state if he is the best.

The Streets Of London – Part Fifty


Inner Temple Lane, EC4Y

I spent part of my illustrious working career in offices adjacent to the Temple, the home of London’s barrister community. One of the pleasures of working in that area was wandering through the warren of lanes that make up that neck of the woods, observing legal minds strolling around grappling with some obtuse point of law or, more likely, designing strategies for extracting more fees from their clients.

Inner Temple Lane was one of my favourites, principally because of the solid stone gateway at the north end which leads on to Fleet Street and the magnificent black and white timbered building that fronts on to Fleet Street. It is the City’s sole surviving timber-framed Jacobean townhouse. That it has survived is a miracle.

The stone gateway was originally part of the estate of the Knights Templar, passing to the Order of St John of Jerusalem – the Knights Hospitallers. The latter are responsible for the area’s legal connections, having leased to lawyers considerable pockets of land south of Fleet Street south of Fleet Street so they could ply their trade. The Jacobean townhouse was built around 1610 and contains a beautiful chamber known as Prince Henry’s Room, named after James the First’s son, the plaster work, extant, containing representations of flowers, three feathers and the initials P H. Henry can’t have enjoyed the room for long as he died at the age of eighteen but it may well have served as a council chamber for the Duchy of Cornwall.

The building survived the Great Fire and part of it was used as a pub, initially the Hand Inn and then the Prince’s Arms. From 1795 the premises, now known as the Fountain, were leased by Mrs Salmon and housed her enormously popular collection of waxworks. Amongst the delights on offer was a clockwork model of Mother Shipton which kicked visitors as they departed, thanks to hidden treadles under the floorboards. Other highlights included were what were termed as anatomical waxes alongside tableaux, one of which was “Shepherds and Shepherdesses making violent love”. A young Charles Dickens was a regular visitor and in David Copperfield he has his eponymous hero going “to see some perspiring waxworks in Fleet Street”. After Mrs Salmon’s death the collection was sold and relocated at Water Lane.

A photograph of the gateway dating to around the 1870s shows that the premises were occupied by Carter’s Ladies and Gentlemen Hair Cutting Saloons, offering hair cutting and shampooing services as well as steam-powered hair brushing.  The front window proclaimed that a haircut would cost you six pennies. It also offered wigs for sale and the items on sale look to be of a judicial nature rather than syrups you might buy if the steam-powered hair brush had chewed up your barnet.

Large hoardings proclaimed the building to be “formerly the Palace of Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey” but advertising standards being somewhat laxer in those days there is no evidence that it was. What was apparent was that the building was in a dilapidated state with its frontage boarded up and the Jacobean timbers hidden under numerous coats of paint. It was only rescued and restored to its former glory about a century ago. Prince Henry’s Room has been open to the general public since 1975, usually afternoons but check if you are thinking of going, and hosts an exhibition of Samuel Pepys and the London he lived in.

We should be grateful that this wonderful landmark has survived the vicissitudes of fire, war, time and taste.