That’ll show the Cnut.

ImageBy God, it’s been a long time since last I posted here. The reasons are complicated – suffice it to say that I think we’ve heard the last of Baron von Hamstern. So, back to posting stuff about London!

There are various nursery rhymes on the subject of London and its characters. One of the most boring is surely ‘London Bridge is Falling Down.’ The lyrics you’re probably familiar with are,

London Bridge is falling down,

Falling down

Falling down

Falling down

London Bridge is falling down,

My Fair Lady

I mean, there are other verses, but that’s what everyone remembers. In all honesty, you’re not missing much if you don’t know the rest. But did you know that it’s based on a true story?

Oh yes. First, a little background. Now, as you’re no doubt aware, the unbelievably boring bridge that we now call London Bridge is far from the first by that name.ImageThe present bridge replaces one that was built in 1831 (which is now based in Lake Havasu, Arizona, as per this photo). The 1831 bridge replaced a medieval bridge which lasted for hundreds of years in varying states of disrepair. Indeed, the fact that it was falling to bits in the 17th century helped save Southwark from the Great Fire – collapsed buildings on the bridge formed a firebreak.

Image

Old London Bridge. If you look closely, you can see the heads on spikes, which were a popular tourist attraction. You had to make your own entertainment in those days.

So, case closed, right? The medieval bridge, or Old London Bridge as it’s popularly known, was basically all about the falling down. That rhyme could have come from almost any time in its history.

Could have, but didn’t. No, it seems the rhyme dates from even further back from that.

We need to go right back to the 11th century for the origin. At this time, London was under the rule of the Danish King Cnut, a man who was permanently one misprint from disaster. Cnut had conquered England and exiled King Aethelred the Unready, who didn’t see that one coming for obvious reasons.

While Aethelred was in Normandy, plotting his bloody vengeance, he formed an alliance with King Olaf Haraldsson of Norway. Olaf sailed his troops up the Thames to meet Cnut’s forces in London. The forces were arranged on either side of the river, with a substantial proportion of them based on the wooden bridge that was then known as London Bridge.

Fortunately, Olaf, unlike Aethelred, was ready for this, and had a cunning plan. He simply hitched his ships to the bridge supports and ordered his men to haul away. The bridge collapsed, killing the troops on the bridge and dividing Cnut’s forces. London was retaken, and the event was commemorated in an epic which begins,

London Bridge is fallen down.

Gold is won, and bright renown.

Shields resounding,

War-horns sounding,

Hild is shouting in the din!

Arrows singing,

Mail-coats ringing,

Odin makes our Olaf win!

This is commonly given as the origin of the nursery rhyme. Admittedly Cnut took London back a couple of years later, but nobody’s writing any nursery rhymes about him. Probably because of the aforementioned misprint issue.

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Filed under Buildings and architecture, Disasters, History, Landmarks, Literature, London, london bridge, Thames, Uncategorized

Out with the old

Continuing with the festive theme started last entry (and why not?), I think I’d like to talk a little about New Year. Here in London, the New Year tradition is very simple. Go out and get absolutely hammered. If you want to really push the boat out, join the revellers in Trafalgar Square or by the river so you can hear the chimes of Big Ben as they sound. The New Year is obviously a significant day in the calendar, what with it being at the start and all. But I have to say that our tradition is lacking a little compared to those of other countries and even those of other parts of Britain.

First of all, it should be pointed out that the tradition of holding New Year on 1st January is actually not that universal. You’ve no doubt heard of Chinese New Year and are aware that it falls between January 21st and February 21st, depending when the new moon of the first lunar month falls. Well, there’s also the Tamil New Year, the Nepalese New Year, the Balinese New Year, the Islamic New Year, the Eastern Orthodox New Year and so many others that I can’t really be bothered to list them all. Suffice it to say that not everyone goes by the Gregorian calendar. Even in Britain, the New Year was only regarded as starting on 1st January from 1751 onwards. Before that, 25th March was the preferred date.

So anyway, how about the celebrations themselves? Well, we have the fireworks, of course, which are nice. And we have the New Year’s Day parade, which is also nice.

New Year festivities in Rural Scotland (NOTE TO SELF: Check this before pressing "publish.")

If you’re a bit further north, though, you might get something a bit more imaginative and a bit pagan. One tradition in Scotland and the North of England is that of burning out the Old Year. Grampian in particular has some rather interesting traditional customs. In Stonehaven, for instance, there’s a festival known as “Swinging the Fireballs,” where people, um, swing fireballs around and people let off shotguns to let the Old Year know it’s time to leave. However, there’s also the requisite eating and drinking, so it’s all good. In Burghead, there’s the more obscurely-named “Burning the Clavie,” in which a barrel of tar (the Clavie) is set alight, carried around the town and then fixed to a stone altar. The charred remains are considered to keep evil spirits at bay and thus are used as good luck charms. Allendale and Northumberland see similar festivities. Perhaps even the modern-day fireworks owe their origins to such customs as these.

Good fortune is a common theme of New Year celebrations – this may be traced back to the ancient belief that spirits lurked in the dark (and I’m not just talking about the whisky). If you don’t fancy a bit of a blaze, a lot of noise is considered an equally acceptable way to banish evil. A peal of bells from the church is one way of doing things. Another, if you’re a member of  the Berchtesgaden Christmas Shooters (Weinachtschützen des Berchtesgadener Landes) in Germany is to let off a volley of gunfire to symbolically shoot the Old Year. Similar symbolic shootings are held in Philadelphia and were once held in Angus.

After all that noise and merriment, assuming your hangover allows such things, feasting is traditional. The idea of a feast to mark the New Year dates back to the Romans (there’s that pre-Christian thing again). In Greece, a cake is served containing a coin, the finder of which will supposedly have good luck throughout the year, presumably unless  they break a tooth on it. That would be lame. Again in Germany, the eating of doughnuts is a New Year custom, along with lucky marzipan pigs. On the subject of pastry, Parisian bakers traditionally used to bake elaborate shaped pastries to mark the start of the year.

If you want to work all that off, as well as cut through your hangover, you may wish to return to London for one final New Year tradition. Brave or possibly insane souls in the Serpentine Swimming Club, Hyde Park like to go for an early morning dip in the lake. Talk about breaking the ice!!!! No, but seriously, they often do have to literally break the ice.

Anyway, Happy New Year, chums, and all the best for 2012. Show those Mayans who’s boss.

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Filed under Booze, Current events, Fashion and trends, Food, History, Only loosely about London

What the heck is Boxing Day, anyway?

Christmas has thus far been a 100% success, and now I’m settling down for the traditional Boxing Day power-down. Many will be out in the sales, fighting for bargains. Personally, I’m a bit old-fashioned, and treat the whole thing as basically “like Christmas Day, only more mellow.” If my choice is between fighting my way up Oxford Street and sitting around eating turkey and drinking port, you know which one I’m going for.

Boxing Day is a holiday that only really exists in Britain and Commonwealth countries, and seems to mystify those from other countries. It’s really quite simple. It’s a bank holday to help you recover from Christmas. It falls on the Feast of Stephen, when Good King Wenceslas looked out (there was nothing on TV except the Bond movie, and he’d already seen Live and Let Die like ten times).

I’ve heard alternative theories as to the origin of the name. One is that it was the day when boxing matches were held. While there are many sporting events traditionally held on 26th December, including boxing in Italy and several African countries, this explanation has been dismissed by experts as “like totally retarded.” Another is that it’s when the churches broke open their poor boxes for distribution to the needy, or put boxes out for collections. However, the explanation that seems most widely accepted is that it was when households would distribute Christmas gifts of trinkets, food or money – to servants. The name seems to have first appeared in the seventeenth century, when earthenware boxes were the favoured containers. Such servants would largely be household staff, but later on this expanded to include postmen, chimney sweeps and anyone else who had helped the household during the year. Through the twentieth century, households grew smaller, employing fewer servants. Technological innovation also made running a house less labour-intensive, so the tradition of Christmas boxes died out. Except… not entirely. It’s still common to give a little something to your dustman, paper boy, secretary etc., only we don’t call it “boxing” any more.

Although Boxing Day is a largely British and Commonwealth phenomenon, it’s also a Christian festival. St Stephen’s Day also falls on the 26th, and various countries have their own ways of marking the occasion. In Ireland, there’s the Feast of the Wren, when groups of revellers would go from door to door, singing and dancing and carrying a dead wren on a stick. Feathers from this wren were supposed to be a charm against shipwreck. Latterly, a live or fake wren has been used instead, because seriously, guys. In Catalonia, there is a feast where local cuisine as well as the remains of the Christmas feast are served, which sounds more like my kind of party. Returning to Britain, the tradition in Wales was to flog your female servants with branches of holly for no reason. Ironically, there are no celebrations in Serbia, the country for which St Stephen is the patron saint.

I’m not sure exactly when it became this horrendous shopping day, but quite frankly I cannot be arsed with that sort of thing. I did my struggling through the shops in the week before Christmas and have no desire to repeat the experience.

Therefore, my plan is to continue with the gluttony and materialism until I pass out, before going for the traditional Quiet Pint with Friends. Merry Christmas, chums.

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Filed under 20th Century, Current events, History, Only loosely about London, Shopping

Easy Steam

I don’t think I mentioned this before, but I’ve started a new blog in response to the level of interest shown in my entries on the subject of steampunk. Here it is.

http://realsteampunk.wordpress.com/

It’s called Real Steampunk and, as the name sort-of implies, it’s dedicated to real life examples of strange machines worthy of steampunk. I’m hoping to update on a weekly basis, although entries will be much shorter than you may be used to here on London Particulars. There’s only so much you can say about machinery before people’s eyes start glazing over, in my experience.

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What’s for dinner, Tom?

I have a special little end-of-the-week ritual that I’d like to tell you about. You know how it is on a Friday – you’re running out of food in the house, you’re tired, you can’t really be arsed to cook. In my case, as I don’t even do a weekly shop to speak of, and am a terrible cook, these issues are particularly troublesome.

Fortunately, if you’re in the Waterloo area, help is at hand. I like to make a detour on my way home to the South Bank, where every weekend,  just in front of the Royal Festival Hall (or behind, if you’re approaching from the West End) is the Real Food Market. This varies from week to week, but it’s basically a place where independent food producers can sell their wares. Many of them will do you a nice takeaway, and there’s a seating area where you can munch on your purchases. I’ve been introduced here to Malaysian, Ghanaian and Polish food. Some of my favourite food people, including Outsider Tart and Jaz & Jul’s, are often there and so tend to be favoured ports of call. Sometimes it’ll be themed (e.g. “Free From,” chocolate) but you are always guaranteed to find something utterly delicious.

Unlike Becky B and the Hungry Sparrow, whose blogs may be found to the right, I’m not much of a foodie, but I know a good thing when I find it. What’s more, it’s a great place whether I’m on my way home or heading into town for a Friday night shindig – why line my stomach with toast when I could line it with bigos or chilli? And it beats the pants off a greasy kebab for a Friday night takeaway.

This week, I found myself enjoying a bit of a nostalgia trip. One of the retailers there this week was What the Dickens? Their thing is not, as you might have thought, unidentifiable and frightening food that causes one to utter their company name (those £5 buffets around Chinatown are far better for that sort of thing). Rather, they specialise in old-fashioned dishes that have been unjustly neglected. On their stand, these delightfully vintage-clothed gentlemen were serving bacon and scallop rolls (had one yesterday, a delicious variation on the bacon sandwich) and kedgeree.

Oh man, kedgeree. This is a slightly unfashionable dish that has never quite disappeared, but which I absolutely love. It’s a lightly-spiced rice dish containing smoked haddock, onion and hard-boiled egg, often served for breakfast but equally splendid at any time of the day. It’s one of my ma’s specialities and also one of the few dishes I can cook myself and happily serve to others. It can be eaten hot or cold, is very filling and is an excellent hangover cure, not being too heavy. There are various recipes – it’s very hard to mess up, so experimentation is fine.

Its origins are uncertain, as is the case with so many foods. But the most common explanation is that it came along during the days of the British empire in India and started out as an Anglicised form of khichri. The chaps on the stall said it originated with the Scottish regiments – certainly the addition of smoked fish is quite a Caledonian thing, and the name of the dish does have a Scotch ring to it. Some versions of the origin even go so far as to say that the dish originated in Scotland and was merely popularised in India. I suspect, given the flexible nature of the recipe, every explanation has some truth to it.

So anyway, sampling What the Dickens?’ version was a must for me. Particularly as we’d had doughnuts and chocolate in the office and I badly needed something savoury to prevent a sugar coma. The stall was shortly due to close up as I arrived. The fellow serving gave it to me for half price, as they were soon closing and the rice had started to go a bit crispy in the pan (which didn’t bother me, I’m not a remotely fussy eater). They also complimented me on my raincoat, which was praise indeed given the nature of their own vintage outfits.

In conclusion, kedgeree is great.

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Filed under 19th century, Food, History, London, Markets, Waterloo and Southwark

Whatever, blog boy.

I feel I need to apologise for how lame I’ve been with this blog lately. I have a schedule, and until recently I’ve prided myself on sticking to it. But frankly that’s been a bit difficult over the past few weeks. No! Wait! Don’t go! I can explain everything! It’s not you, it’s me! Darling, that little tart meant nothing to me, I – Wait, sorry, flashback. What was I talking about?

Yes. I seem recently to have become One of Those Bloggers. You know, the ones who post a lot at first, then gradually allow the schedule to slip, and then slip again, then they change the schedule, then that slips, and eventually the blog goes into stasis. I am determined not to let that happen here, but, well. Allow me to explain fully.

First of all, there was the show that I talked about three or four entries ago. Then there was a trip up to the scenic Lowlands of Scotland, to a town called Whithorn. One of the place’s claims to fame is that it was a location used in The Wicker Man. For all the place’s many attractions, it lacked many of the amenities one associates with civilisation – most notably a decent pub, but also Internet caffs and any other means by which I could contact people. However, Wigtown was great if you like second-hand books (I do) and the Bladnoch distillery was both charming and full of Scotch. Then there was the start of the Christmas period, which has seen me out for many of the standard get-togethers. And in the meantime, I’ve been suffering with an intermittent broadband connection at my flat. This is why so many of the entries lately have been short on pictures and links – frankly I’m happy if I can even get the bloody entry online.

So yes, this is me apologising for being a completely lame writer. Sorry about that. I can change.

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Queensbury rules

The Victorian era produced some real bastards, I think you’ll agree. However, many of them were simply ill-served by history – while we’d now consider them dreadful examples of humanity, they were perfectly acceptable by the standards of the society they lived in. The ninth Marquess of Queensbury (1844-1900) was not one of those people. No, by the standards of any era, the Marquess was an utter shit.

These days, he has two major claims to fame. Firstly, he invented the ‘Queensbury Rules’ of professional boxing. And secondly, it was Oscar Wilde’s libel suit against him that resulted in the writer’s trial and imprisonment, an important event the history of LGBT culture in Britain. It’s a strange pairing of claims to fame, but then, Queensbury was a strange man.

Queensbury, or John Sholto Douglas, to use his name, was defiantly nonconformist in his outlook. For one thing, he was a proud atheist before such beliefs were widely accepted. Unfortunately, he was the sort of atheist that tends to shame other atheists by being a bit too outspoken. He refused to sit in the House of Lords on the grounds that the oath of allegiance was Christian in nature. Well, that’s not entirely unreasonable. I mean, the oath is meaningless if you don’t believe in the thing you’re swearing on. He also got chucked out of a performance of Tennyson’s The Promise of May at the Globe Theatre because one of the characters was an atheist and also a villain, and Queensbury felt this demanded that he kick up a ruckus.

But I mean, the fact that he was an extremist doesn’t make him a bad person, right? I mean, every cause has its extremists, doesn’t it? Maybe he was just responding appropriately to the times and he’s a misunderstood pioneer? Well, maybe, but how about we look at one of his other obsessions, namely homosexuality?

Homophobia was not uncommon in the Victorian era. It was, after all, still illegal. Queensbury, however, took things a little further. He believed that homosexuality was literally contagious. You might have guessed that he wasn’t exactly flying the rainbow flag from his part in the Wilde trial, but there were certain other dimensions to his gay-bashing that are perhaps worthy of note.

To start with, we need to look at his relationship with his sons. Let’s just say that it was strained at best. One of his favourite taunts to use against them was to claim that he wasn’t their real father (maybe he wasn’t – his second marriage was annulled on grounds of non-consummation) and therefore they could expect to inherit nothing. It’s a historical irony, therefore, that his eldest son Francis was granted a seat in the House of Lords – the same one that Queensbury had refused to take an oath for. Rather than shrug his shoulders, Queensbury had a fall-out with Francis.

Francis had been backed by Lord Rosebery, whom Queensbury decided was “a snob queer.” Therefore, of course, his motivation was obviously to corrupt the lad with gayness. Queensbury decided that the remedy to this was to start stalking Rosebery, which he did all the way to Germany, where he threatened to give the Lord a damn good thrashing if he didn’t stay away from Francis. The Prince of Wales himself had to intervene, and Rosebery subsequently referred to Queensbury, not unreasonably, as “a pugilist of unsound mind.”

And this is where the Wilde business comes in. Like most conspiracy theorists, Queensbury wasn’t going to be put off by a lack of evidence or, indeed, logic. And when he found out that his youngest son, Alfred (or “Bosie” as he was nicknamed) was bonking one of the leading playwrights of the day, it was clear what had happened – Rosebery had set his homosexual sights on another member of the Douglas family.

Queensbury didn’t publicly pursue Rosebery this time, perhaps because batshit insane though he was, he knew when he was beaten. However, he infamously left a visiting card at the Albermarle club describing Wilde as a “posing somdomite.” You’d think an obsessive homophobe would learn to spell “Sodomite,” but I digress.

This being a fairly serious matter, Wilde sued for libel. Unfortunately, the problem with suing someone for libel is that there has to actually be an element of falsehood. What this meant was that by suing Queensbury, he was basically saying, “Prove I’m gay.” Which he was. Queensbury had plenty of testimony from London’s rent boy community to back this up – homosexuality seems to have been something that was fairly openly discussed provided you weren’t actually caught doing it. Anyway, having got lots of evidence that Wilde actually was as gay as a tangerine, he turned it into the police and Wilde was sent down.

Queensbury was undoubtedly the villain in this, and of course I’m not going to condone the laws against homosexuality. But why would Wilde have embarked on such a course against his self-appointed enemy? He wasn’t stupid – maybe arrogant, but even that shouldn’t have blinded him to the fact that it would put him in a perilous position. One popular interpretation has it that Bosie actually put him up to it. Maybe so – romantic feelings can make one do stupid things. And God knows Bosie had the motive to seek revenge against his old Dad.

The verdict against Wilde wasn’t universally popular, and though there were plenty of moral guardians who praised Queensbury for removing this menace to society, there were plenty of literary followers who cursed his name. Theatregoers, literati, Christians, Members of Parliament, his own family – it seemed that there was no one he didn’t annoy one way or another. The Marquess stipulated in his will that he wanted to be buried upright, and his request was granted at his death at the age of 55. Well, apparently. Rumour has it that the gravediggers, no fans of Queensbury, buried him head-first. And really who can blame them?

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