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.

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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

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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.