Tag Archives: Oscar Wilde

The Streets Of London – Part Ninety Eight

Angel Court, SW1

I have a bit of an affinity with Angel Courts as I lived in one when I was at University. This Court, though, is to be found in the St James’s district and links King Street with Pall Mall. Quite when it was constructed is not certain. It certainly appeared in Richard Horwood’s Plan of the Cities of London and Westminster Shewing every House, a Google Maps of its time, an ambitious project, which occupied him from 1792 and 1799, and one not repeated again until the 1930s. In Horwood’s map it is a dead-end rather than the thoroughfare linking two streets that it is today.

The long, tall, thin pub, with its richly decorated late Victorian frontage, guarding one side of the Court at the King Street end, the Golden Lion, was built in 1762. I haven’t been there for a while but I seem to recall that it was a bit pokey at ground level but there was more space upstairs. One of its more famous drinkers was Oscar Wilde and, being a boozer, it naturally has its own resident spirit, a barmaid who was murdered by the landlady in 1823.

There is a record from the archives of the Old Bailey of a fatal stabbing in the alley on December 7, 1692. Knife crime is not a new phenomenon in the metropolis. Having accused the defendant, J-K, of lewd conduct in the alley, the unfortunate and interfering Richard Towers was run through with a rapier. As St James’s was developed in the late 17th century for the aristocracy to reside in, it seems reasonable to assume that the Court was part of the original development of the area.         

Horwood’s map shows a house with a garden at the end of the Close. This may well have been a hotel called Nerot’s which had long since been abandoned and was in a poor state of repair. It was demolished in 1835 to make way for the St James’s Theatre. It was the brainchild of John Braham, an operatic star of the time, and the project was described in Old and New London in 1878 as “one of those unaccountable infatuations which stake the earnings of a lifetime upon a hazardous speculation”.

It seemed ill-fated from the beginning. Braham sunk £28,000 of his money into the project, quarrelled frequently with his architect, and struggled to get it licensed. As a piece of architecture, it was impressive, with a neo-classical exterior and an interior modelled on a Louis XIV style, three storeys high, with three bays at the front with shops on the ground floor. For Braham, though, it was a money pit and after three years, he retired, seriously out of pocket.

The theatre changed hands frequently, gaining a reputation as unlucky, and not prospering until the 1880s. Under the stewardship of the actor-manager, George Alexander, from 1891 to 1918, it grew a reputation for putting on cutting-edge plays including premieres of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest. Following Alexander’s death the theatre went through a succession of hands until, in 1950, Lawrence Olivier and his wife, Vivien Leigh, took over its management. In 1954 Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables ran for 726 performances in 1954, a record for the theatre.

But disaster struck in 1957 when a property developer acquired the freehold from under Olivier’s feet and obtained permission to demolish it and replace it with an office block. Despite protests at this rather underhand behaviour, the theatre closed in July and was demolished in December. Some decorated panels were preserved and were affixed to the frontage of the office block but when it too was demolished, in 1980, they were moved into the alley where they remain today.

Many a street in our metropolis has a tale or two to tell, it seems.

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Thirty Four

Is there anything in grape or grain, but never the twain?

It has always struck me that there is something of the puritan about a hangover. After all, you pay at leisure for some momentary pleasure. Oscar Wilde, perhaps, got it right; moderation in everything, including moderation.

Seasoned topers have their own tried and tested methods of avoiding hangovers. Mine is to stick to one type of drinks and on no account to mix beer and wine. My hangover cure is to have a hair of the dog, the original phrase was to have a hair of the dog that bit you, as soon as I can stomach it.

But am I being unnecessarily cautious in my choice of drinks? Is it just quantity and not type that leads to a hangover?

My attention was drawn to the February 1st 2019 edition of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, not part of my staple fare of reading material, I must confess, and an article with the unappetising subtitle of “A randomised controlled multi-arm matched triplet cross-over trial of beer and wine”. It outlined the research carried out by four principal researchers at the German university of Witten/Herdecke.

I will not bore you with the minutiae of the study, if you’re interested, follow this link https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/109/2/345/5307130?searchresult=1 , but they set out to find, in a controlled experiment, whether drinking beer and then wine or wine and then beer or just beer on its own or simply wine had any effect on the intensity of your hangover. It is gratifying to learn that the best brains are plying their grey cells to these problems of our diurnal existence.

They assembled a group of 90 volunteers, I can’t imagine they were hard to come by, who were aged between 19 and 40. Each was given the same meal, the condemned man and all that, and then they were split up into groups.

The first group drank two and half pints of lager, donated by Carlsberg, and then four large glasses of white wine. The second group drank the wine first, followed by the lager. The third group drank either only lager or just wine. Each participant was monitored regularly and when their breath alcohol concentration reached 0.11%, they stopped drinking and were packed off to bed with a glass of water of a size commensurate with their body weight.

The next day, they were quizzed as to how they felt, just what you want after a night on the tiles, and their responses were scored against the Acute Hangover Scale, developed by some scientists in the early 21st century to measure immediate hangover symptoms. I must look into this. Around 10% of the participants reported what the Australians colourfully term an upchucky moment.

A week later, the groups reassembled and drank the reverse of what they had consumed the previous time. Again, they were monitored and the intensity of their hangovers were recorded.

When it came to comparing the results, the scientists found no obvious correlation between the order that you consumed beer and wine or whether you restricted yourself to one or the other on the intensity of your hangover. In a statement of the bleedin’ obvious, for which scientific endeavour has been renowned over the centuries, they were forced to admit that it was quantity that impacted your hangover and that warning signs such as feeling tipsy and/or nauseous were reliable indicators that you might feel under par the following morning. You don’t say!

The veracity of the results has already been challenged. One scientist pointed out that the researchers had studiously avoided dark drinks, like red wine and beer. These alcoholic beverages contain congeners which, whilst adding flavour and character, have unpleasant side-effects which can increase the likelihood and intensity of your hangover.

But if the German study is to be believed, we can rid ourselves of the canards that you should never mix beer with wine or if you do, drink beer first.

I will enjoy testing out their results.

If you enjoyed this, check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone


The Streets Of London – Part Eighty Two

Half Moon Street, W1

Running from Curzon Street in the north to Piccadilly in the south, Half Moon Street is a thoroughfare associated with London’s literary life and has more than a little whiff of scandal about it.

Built from around 1730, the street took its name from the pub which stood on the corner with Piccadilly and one can easily imagine, given its location, that it was a lively and thriving place, the Gazetteer recording on September 6th 1758 the death on the previous Friday of “Mrs Winter, who many years kept the Half Moon Ale-house, in Piccadilly, in which it is Said she acquired near 8,000:, which she has left to her poorest relations.

The Public Advertiser for March 11th 1768 announced that “yesterday, James Boswell Esq, arrived from Scotland at his lodgings in Half Moon Street,” where he entertained, amongst others, his old mucker, Samuel Johnson. One of the capital’s great actors at the turn of the 19th century, Mr Pope, lived at No 5, which is where his first wife and actress, the former Miss Young, died at the age of 26. The celebrated physician, Samuel Merriman, was to be found at No 26 from 1813 to 1825, arriving rather too late to help the unfortunate Mrs Pope.

Percy Bysshe Shelley lived on the street, and according to a description of him by his friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, in his biography of the poet, published in 1858, he cut a dash sitting by a window “book in hand, with lively gestures and bright eyes; so that Mrs N said he wanted only a pan  of clear water and a fresh turf to look like some young lady’s lark hanging outside for air and song.

Much of the street was taken up by private houses and what were termed in the 19th century as bachelor’s chambers where young single male tenants, who had come to the metropolis to seek their fame and fortune, could obtain accommodation. Among the many illuminati who found accommodation in these establishments over the years were the dress designer, Raoul de Veulle, the novelist Hugh Walpole, Aubrey Beardsley, Osbert Sitwell and the poet, Wilfred Owen.

A rather larger than life resident in the 1840s was Lola Montez. Irish born, although she claimed to be Spanish, she was a dancer whose lack of technique was more than made up by enthusiasm. Her piece de resistance was the Tarantula, in which she searched for an imaginary spider in her clothing. Lola was arrested at the street in 1849 on a charge of bigamy and had a string of lovers, including Franz Liszt and Ludwig, King of Bavaria.

But the street is particularly associated with Oscar Wilde and in its day it was the acknowledged epicentre of London’s bohemian and theatrical quarter. Wilde places one of the principal characters of The Importance of being Ernest, Algernon Moncrieff, in bachelors’ chambers with “luxurious furnishings.” in the street. Wilde’s arrest and subsequent imprisonment saw the arty set move further east to Soho.

And who can forget that PG Wodehouse’s wonderful creations, Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves, lived in Half Moon Street? Another fictional figure, Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond, lived at 60a.

But back to reality. The street is home to Fleming Hotel, founded by the eponymous Robert Fleming, former valet to the First Marquis of Anglesey, in 1851. The hotel’s founding is commemorated in a rather splendid stained-glass window depicting the Great Exhibition of that year.

The street, now a run of expensive hotels and even more expensive properties, has a fascinating history.

Book Corner – May 2018 (3)

The Complete Short Stories of Saki – Hector Hugh Munro

Munro’s last words were said to be “put out that damned cigarette” before he was hit by a sniper’s bullet in France. The tragedy was that he needn’t have served – he volunteered at an age when he was too old to be called up – and so English literature lost one of its finest exponents of the short story. One wonders what heights he would have reached had he not been killed.

There are many collections of Munro’s stories – the one I read lovingly over a period of a year or so, dipping in and out when I needed something to smile about or gasp in amazement, was issued by Vintage Classics. His nom de plume, Saki, means one who serves wine in Urdu and like a waiter he tantalises, pours out his heady brew and leaves the reader gasping for more. His style is very economical, rarely is a word wasted or ill-chosen. His characters are vividly drawn and his stories are peppered with a mordant wit.

What struck me was how inventive Munro’s similes were and how delicious were his turns of phrase. To take just half a dozen at random: “The black sheep of a rather greyish family”, “People talk vaguely about the innocence of a little child, but they take mighty good care not to let it out of their sight for twenty minutes.” “The sacrifices of friendship were beautiful in her eyes as long as she was not asked to make them.” “The young have aspirations that never come to pass, the old have reminiscences of what never happened.” “The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go, she went.” “I’m living so far beyond my means that we may almost be said to be living apart.”  Wonderful.

In many ways Munro is the staging point between Oscar Wilde who must have been an influence and P G Wodehouse, whom he influenced. Many of his characters could have come out of the pages of Wodehouse – two of the recurring characters in his short stories, Reginald and Clovis Sangrail, do nothing more than move from country house to country house, getting into scrapes or causing mischief. There is a childish delight in Munro’s stories at the prospect of cocking a snook and puncturing the pretensions of the middle and upper classes. His stories are humorous but there is more there than you would find in Wodehouse. There is satire, something dark lurking beneath the surface, a touch of the bizarre and the gothic. Many of the stories have an unexpected twist.

My particular favourites are Tobermory, which is about a cat that is taught to talk with disastrous consequences for all, The Unrest Cure where a house’s calm is punctured by the threat of a pogrom, Filboid Studge, The Mouse that tried to help, which is a wonderful satirical attack on the world of advertising and Laura, a strange tale of reincarnation where the protagonists returns as a destructive otter. But there is something for everyone. Most of the stories are very short, some barely lasting a page or two and mostly three or four, but each one left me in awe of the skill and craftsmanship of the author.

For those of a sensitive, politically correct disposition, there are phrases and attitudes that may cause offence but then Munro was a creature of his time just as we are creatures of our own. Just enjoy his stories for what they are, the finest examples of the story in its short form. Shame about the fag.

Gin o’Clock – Part Twenty One










I have been chronicling my exploration of the ginaissance over the last couple of years and during that time have learned a lot about the history of my favourite spirit and the botanicals that give it its varied taste, ranging from the ultra-sweet to the spicy and all points in between. As there are over 200 gins available, there is no risk of me running out of new experiences for a while, particularly if I want to protect my liver. Everything in moderation, including moderation, as Oscar Wilde once said.

When I was younger, in the 1970s, and the beer and wine available in pubs and supermarkets were almost universally dreadful, there was a spell when every man and his dog was brewing their own. Shops like Boot’s would have row upon row of all the impedimenta you would require to brew a hooch of your choice in the privacy of your home – demi-johns, siphons, thermometers and the all-important home-brew ingredients, usually in round tins, if I recall. Wherever you went, airing cupboards were full of liquid fermenting away and occasionally friends and colleagues would sheepishly confess to an unexpected explosion which deposited the contents of the demi-john on the floor and surrounding walls. That was fine but the words that always filled me with dread were, “I have just bottled my fresh batch of nettle and bramble wine. Why don’t you come over and sample some?

In the age of JAMs we need to look after every penny and for a while, I have been mulling over the idea of making my own gin. This is what retirement does for you. The kick up the demi-john that made me translate idle fancy to practical reality was a thoughtful present given to me at Christmas, a gin making kit. It came with a glass jar with artificial stopper, a sieve, a funnel, some labels and chalk and 100 grams of juniper berries. The instructions were somewhat rudimentary but one of the joys of the internet is that you can easily find more extensive and coherent recipes at the press of a few keys.

Of course, the starting point is the creation of the base spirit which adds a greater degree of complexity to the whole process and elongates the timescales. As a beginner, I decided that the sensible course was to miss out this step and concentrate on masceration, by buying a commercial vodka – triple distilled French grain vodka, available at all reputable branches of Asda. It being early January when I conducted this experiment, there were no flowers in the garden or the hedgerows for me to pluck and the weather was unconducive to foraging in the garden for roots, I took the easy way out by buying a pack of botanical gin blend from the admirably efficient Drinkstuff website. The pack consisted of coriander, angelica, orange peel, cassia and cubeb peppers.

The process was remarkably simple. I weighed out 25 grams of juniper berries and 17.5 grams of the botanical blend and poured them into the 500 ml glass jar. A note of caution – juniper berries are tricky customers and if you are not too careful or attempt the exercise with the early morning DTs, you can find you spend some time chasing the varmints around the kitchen floor. I then added some vodka up to the start of the neck of the jar. Some of the botanicals sank to the bottom while the majority floated near the top and I could discern bubbles appearing in the spirit. Only time will tell whether this is anything to worry about.

I then put the jar in a dark, cool place, our utility room, where it will do its magic for 24 hours. Then the fun part will start, sampling and adjusting to taste. If I survive the experience, I will report on how I got on next time. Cheers.