Category Archives: Booze

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.

3 Comments

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

Mother’s Ruin

As regular readers will know, I like a drink now and again and again and again. The way I see it, it’s not an addiction if you’re still enjoying yourself. But even I must draw the line somewhere. Today I think I saw where that line was. In Sainsbury’s this evening I came across the disturbing discovery that, in their Basics range, the supermarket does gin.

It’s not that I have anything particularly against gin, you understand. Actually, I quite like it. But I take the view that spirits, below a certain price, are best employed in experiments to determine whether your tractor really will “run on anything.”

Gin enjoys something of an uneasy reputation these days. Scotch suggests manly sophistication, vodka suggests a fashionable cocktail lifestyle, Jack Daniel’s suggests maybe you aren’t quite ready for spirits yet. Gin, it seems, will be forever stuck with the reputation of being a drink for the elderly and terminally alcoholic.

Although it does tend to be historically associated with London, the origins of the present-day spirit lie with the Dutch physician and chemist Franciscus Sylvius at some point in the first half of the seventeenth century (though similar beverages are recorded as far back as the 10th century). It’s made of distilled grain alcohol and traditionally flavoured with juniper berries, and enjoyed great popularity in Holland as a medicine.

In 1688, William of Orange ascended the throne of England and brought with him this exciting new Dutch spirit. There were a number of contributing factors to its success within these shores. Firstly, William increased the taxes on importing booze and deregulated distillation in Britain, making gin cheaper and more readily available than any other form of spirit. Secondly, food had fallen in price recently, meaning there was more money to spend on life’s little luxuries. Thirdly, grain was particularly abundant at that time, and so gin production was an attractive way to get rid of the surplus, especially as the grain used in gin did not have to be particularly high quality. Fourthly, booze was a way of life in those days – in those days before effective sanitation, alcohol was far safer than water. And finally, gin was cheap and could get you ratted more quickly than beer. There’s also another interesting theory that folk took to drink as a result of being unable to adjust to city life, but that’s a minority view that I only mention for the curiosity value.

Anyway, the result was the Gin Craze, as memorably satirised in William Hogarth’s grotesque and blackly humorous Gin Lane, reproduced right. If you’ve ever been though Kingston-upon-Thames on a Saturday night, imagine that, only all the time. Lord Harvey noted at the time that “Drunkenness among the common people was universal; the whole town of London swarmed with drunken people from  morning ’til night.” Sick leave rose to an unprecedented degree as a result of people simply being too pished to make it into work, with the corresponding economic effects. Crime, too, rose drastically – it was observed by magistrates that gin was “the principal cause of all the vice & debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people” (though the lack of a police force didn’t help).  And of course there were the direct and indirect physiological effects of such widespread boozing – liver disorders, blindness, syphilis and a rise in juvenile alcoholism as a result of spirit-infused breastmilk. Daniel Defoe feared the creation of “a fine spindle-shanked generation.” There was even a (possibly apocryphal) reported increase in cases of spontaneous combustion.

Not helping matters at all was the poor quality of gin on sale. With the simplicity of production, the aforementioned lack of any police force to speak of, almost anyone could set up a still and go into business. And there were plenty of dubious ways to increase your yields if you were unscrupulous. If the buyer was lucky, their gin would be watered down. If they were unlucky, it might be padded out with turpentine. If they were really unlucky, industrial acid.

In desperation, the government introduced no less than eight Gin Acts to counter this between 1729 and 1751. However, what probably did for gin was one of the contributing factors in its initial ascension – the price of grain, which had begun once again to rise due to poor harvests. Just in time for the Industrial Revolution, in fact.

Nevertheless, the damage was done. Gin had gained such unflattering nicknames as “Mother’s Ruin” and low drinking dives were popularly known as “gin shops,” whether they sold gin or not.

Gin would enjoy a resurgance during the 19th century with the opening of the Victorian “gin palaces,” the finest surviving example of which is the Princess Louise in Holborn. I mention this purely because that’s my favourite boozer. Also contributing to its popularity at this time was the discovery of quinine’s anti-malarial properties. Quinine is quite a bitter substance, and so it was typically diluted to make what we now call tonic water. To make the tonic water more palatable, the colonials of the British empire would add gin, which I would imagine also alleviated the boredom of some of those Imperial outposts. And thus was the gin and tonic forged.

And I suppose this was the final nail in the coffin of gin’s reputation – that imperial association. Granted, it’s not regarded as the abomination it was in the 18th century, not least because the following century would see improvements in distillation and a corresponding increase in quality. But nevertheless, it is perhaps the least cool thing behind a bar south of the liqueur shelf.

Oh well. Here’s my recipe for a gin and tonic. G&T seems to be a matter of personal preference, so my word isn’t even close to the last on the subject. I favour Malawi for the gin – it’s a highly aromatic spirit with strong juniper notes, which is really what you look for in a gin. For the tonic, I go with Schweppes, the diet stuff for the sake of my waistline (the relative sweetness of the Malawi balances this out). And here’s where I get a little bit heretical – I don’t add ice. Rather, I chill the gin and the tonic beforehand. Then mix in a ratio of 2:3. Then drink. Then kill my children in a drunken stupor and spontaneously combust.

Leave a comment

Filed under 17th century, 18th century, 19th century, Booze, Crime, History, London, Medicine, Politics

Coke en Stock(well)

Don't explain the joke, you idiot.

I thought I’d elaborate a little on a small adventure that happened on the way back from the Carnival, as described in the last entry, for ’twas quite the strangest thing that happened that day. Well, not quite the strangest. Probably in the top ten. Or twenty. It was certainly strange.

You see, the problem with being very drunk and very tired and altogether in quite a state is that it can be quite difficult to stay awake. And the problem with getting from Bayswater to Colliers Wood is that it’s quite a complicated route by night bus. End result was that I kept ending up in completely the wrong place by virtue of falling asleep on the bus. Eventually, when I ended up in Vauxhall, I decided to give it up as a bad job and walk as far as I could.

Now, it took me quite a while to figure out that Vauxhall is close to Stockwell, and a night bus to Colliers Wood goes that way. It is a testament to how very mashed up I was that it took me this long – I’ve worked in Stockwell and Waterloo, and several times I’ve walked from one to the other by way of Vauxhall.

Nevertheless, after much trial and error, I arrived in Stockwell. All in all, I was feeling pretty invincible. Which is good, because as places go, Stockwell sucks.

[PARENTHESIS: I’ve noticed something odd about London. My decadent and sinful lifestyle takes me through many different parts of the city. Yet in places like Hackney, Elephant & Castle, Battersea, Brixton, Tooting, Feltham and Stockwell, I rarely have any trouble. Meanwhile, in supposedly affluent, middle-class places like Richmond, Kingston and Wimbledon, I’ve had far more trouble with lairy drunks trying to start fights – to the extent that I actually try to avoid Kingston and Wimbledon late on a Friday or Saturday.]

Stockwell is famous mostly for the notorious case of the Stockwell Strangler back in 1986 and in 2005, for the shooting by police of Jean Charles de Menezes during the 7/7 attacks. Apparently it’s on the up these days due to the fact that it is literally within walking distance of Central London. At the moment, though, it’s still pretty sketchy. This I mused upon as I waited for the good old N155.

At this point, a couple of gentlemen approached me. Well, I didn’t initially think they were approaching me – after all, it’s a bus stop, one of the things about public transport is that it’s for the public (though you wouldn’t think that judging by some of the people you mumble mumble mumble).

But then one of them spoke up. “I like your…” he began, and ran into difficulties. My scuffed jeans, chocolate-smeared T-shirt and worn out shoes didn’t exactly give him much to work with, and so he settled on “…glasses.”

“Thanks,” I said, uncertain how best to react. I mean, I like my glasses too. They stop me from being blind. They are, I must emphasise, nothing special. Fairly discreet with black wire frames. Basically, I use them to see with.

“You having a good night?” asked the fellow.

“Yeah, you know, long night, good night, complicated, going home now, bed,” I said incomprehensibly. All of which was true.  At this stage it was half past four and the fun part of being drunk was well and truly over. I just wanted to get home.

“Oh hey, that’s great,” said the chap. “Do you like Charlie?”

I was confused. Charlie? Was that his friend? Was I being propositioned? Solicited, even?

“Sorry?”

“Do you like Charlie?”

“Er?”

“Charlie?” He opened his bag and pulled out a couple of bags of white powder. “Charlie?” he repeared.

Ah yes, Charlie. Cocaine. Blow. Peruvian Lady. Bolivian marching powder. Aunt Nora. Witch and Zip. Foo-foo dust. The White Stuff. Alas, cocaine is not among my many vices, and I explained as much.

“Not at all?” asked the man, with palpable disappointment.

“Afraid not. I’m more of a booze man myself.”

“Not even to try?”

“Sorry. It’s just very late at night, I don’t want a buzz, I just want to go to bed.”

“Oh,” said the man sadly, and he and his friend trudged off.

I spoke the next day to Hurricane Jack and Succubusface, who opined that the guy was either not a very good drug dealer or the cocaine he had was fake, as discretion should really be your watchword when you’re out selling illegal substances in public. Indeed, it’s my own personal experience that normally when someone approaches you with the intent of selling drugs, what you get is a muttered “Skunk?” as they pass you. At least, I think that guy was selling skunk, it was fair to say that I’d woken up in the wrong part of London and not showered that morning.

And so I think we all learned an important lesson.

4 Comments

Filed under Booze, Crime, Current events, London, Sports and Recreation, Suburbia

Carnivaliant Efforts

On Sunday, I enjoyed a day that was a testament to the wondrous power of impulsively saying “yes” to things. God, what an appalling intro. I’ll try again.

Basically, last weekend I was feeling a little run down. Having come back from the Edinburgh Festival, getting back into the swing of everyday life was hard. I tend to feel a bit low after the end of a show, no doubt a psychiatrist could tell us more, and Edinburgh was such a surreal and crazy experience that it was doubly hard to accept the prospect of free evenings. Therefore, I’d been partying as hard as possible. Pimpstick Jr. had a boozy gathering at the Princess Louise in Holborn at which I got roundly hammered (and discovered that it is literally quicker to walk from Holborn to Waterloo than to get the Tube, but that’s another story). Tiny Emma came around on Saturday for a night of wine and Dark City (Emma is into films that “mess with reality,” and Dark City is a shining example of the genre). And then I got a text from Izzi inviting me along to Notting Hill Carnival the following day. I’d never been to the Carnival before, and I had nothing else to do, and Izzi’s company is never less than scintillating, and so I said yes. Tiny Emma, who does not frequent the Internet, thought this was incredibly short-term planning.

Sadly, when the day dawned, I was not in perhaps the best shape for the event.  Bloated, hungover and poor, Sunday morning was not my friend. Izzi and I met up, and she – who lives in the Western Zone of the city – explained how it goes. She also took the photos for this entry, by the way.

The Carnival has been running since 1959, and since then has grown to be one of London’s greatest excuses to let its collective hair down. Initially started in response to racial tensions in the area, it is now a celebration of Caribbean culture in the city and, indeed, of the city’s multi-culturalism in general. I did not steal any of that from a press release. This year, it enjoyed over a million attendants, of whom Izzi and Yr. Humble Chronicler were two.

Initially, I have to admit I was cynical (read: grumpy and hungover) – on the way from Notting Hill Gate, I was struck by the number of boarded-up shops and houses, and the number of makeshift stalls charging exorbitant amounts for food and beer (beer especially). But we got further in, and helped by a rum-filled coconut and the appearance of sunshine, I started to mellow out.

By the time we got to the parade route, I was definitely in the mood to party most hearty. Now I see what Polly Thomas meant in her essay, ‘Growing Up With Carnival’ (published in Miranda Davies and Sarah Anderson’s Inside Notting Hill):

“I’ve never been able to understand those joyless souls who don’t love Carnival, who refuse to get impossibly excited about the prospect of sharing their streets with some two million revellers intent on sticking two fingers up to the norm for a couple of days and letting it all hang out in public.”

Indeed so.

We strode along the route for some way towards Ladbroke Grove, enjoying the wind-baiting costumes and awesome Caribbean music, although that ‘Trini and Tobago’ song got a bit tedious the eighteenth time. An awful lot of people, us included, wound up smeared in chocolate (yes, it was definitely chocolate). Even the odd shower of rain could not dampen the mood, although I have to say the presence of baton-carrying police was slightly sinister. Izzi and I opined that the event would be improved if they started breakdancing.

Lunch consisted of curry goat, plantain and rice and beans, because why the hell not? Izzi was most pleased to bump into Mr Levi Roots, a saucy fellow indeed, hey nonny. Food was followed by booze and, of course, more dancing. In fact, so merry were we that we decided to continue partying in Bayswater after the parade had ended. At this point my memory grows hazy and fragmented, but for some reason my pupils have gone white and Bibles combust at my touch.

My last memory of the night was an amateurish attempt to sell me cocaine in Stockwell.

All in all, as Portobello Road degenerates into a row of chain stores, it’s good to be reminded that Notting Hill still retains some individuality. I think I’ll have to go again next year.

4 Comments

Filed under 20th Century, Booze, Current events, London, Music, Notable Londoners, Notting Hill, tourism

To Be A Pirate King

After the signing on Saturday, Izzi and I rushed off to complete my pirate costume. Pirate costume? Perhaps I should explain.

You see, on Wednesday, my good chum Tiny Emma, who is well versed in the ways of debauchery, invited me along to an event held by an organisation known as Corset and Diamonds. This, I was told, was a burlesque-and-electro-swing evening themed around Pirates of the Caribbean, which is a film that I understand enjoyed a certain amount of success a few years ago.

Unfortunately, I’m currently rehearsing for a play that is on next week (you should come and see it, it’s going to be awesome) and so the amount of time available to produce a suitable outfit was somewhat limited. So, a certain amount of improvisation was needed. I decided a little research was in order.

Of course, it almost goes without saying that most of what we think of as “piratical” is more-or-less BS, invented by fiction writers, based on misunderstandings and half-truths, reinforced by years of retelling. For -instance, you know the old pirate voice, the “ha-harrr, Jim lad, splice the mainsail, keelhaul the mizzen-mast, belike and by thunder!” accent? That dates all the way back to 1950, derived from Robert Newton’s performance as Long John Silver in Disney’s version of Treasure Island. Now, there was some truth in his performance – he was a Cornishman by birth and based the accent on the sailors he used to see. But the near-universal Mummerset growl of Hollywood movies was nowhere near as prevalent as you might think. Particularly given that so many pirates were, you know, not English.

And you know the Jolly Roger, the black flag with the skull-and-crossbones? Again, nowhere near as common as the movies would have you believe. More common was the plain black flag, or the plain red flag. They both indicated that this ship was not part of any navy and therefore not obliged to follow any niceties of international law, and if you’d like to surrender now then I’m sure you’ll save us all a lot of bother. Most common of all, however, was to simply fly the colours of whatever country you were pretending to be from until the other ship was too near to run. This would arouse less suspicion than having, you know, a flag that basically says “HELLO WE ARE PIRATES” from a distance. Of course, for the pirate with a sense of style, an off-the-peg skull-and-crossbones wouldn’t do, and many prominent buccaneers went with a custom design. I rather like Blackbeard’s one, pictured below. By the way, the red flag was also commonly known as the “jolie rouge,” from which we get the term “Jolly Roger.” So there you have it.

But what about clothes? Your basic pirate costume seems to come in two forms. You’ve either got the foppish Captain Hook-style outfit, very elaborate, lots of brass buttons, or you’ve got the raggedy seadog look.

The reality, in fact, lay somewhere between the two extremes. Pirates did indeed like to dress up, they were basically the pimps of the sea in sartorial terms. But commonly, the elaborate clothes they were able to get were stolen. So you might get a seadog acting the foppish macaroni in the coat several sizes too large, tottering along in shoes a size too small.

However, your average sailor was also pretty handy with a needle and thread – they had to be, with sail repairs to be made. So they could rustle up their own clothes if needs be. And if a recent haul included silk, lace or other fancy cloth, those clothes could be extremely… do people still say “bling?” Am I using that word correctly?

So the conclusions I drew:

1. There is a lot of freedom, the only limits on an authentic costume being period accuracy.

2. The party is tomorrow and I don’t have much money, throw something together.

So, what I went with:

Shirt: They all laughed at me when I bought a frilly white shirt at the Stables in Camden, but WHO’S LAUGHING NOW? It came from that basement stall run by that rather theatrical-looking woman.

Trousers: I don’t own any breeches, sadly. There is a shop in Camden that has a lot of theatrical costume, including several pairs of breeches, but these were around the £35-40 mark, which was a bit much for me. However, in the Paws charity shop in Tooting I found a pair of black trousers. I hacked the legs off below the knee to create a raggedy look that might, if you didn’t look too closely, pass for breeches.

Waistcoat: I have a rather elaborate and shiny red waistcoat with brass and mother-of-pearl buttons. The style is a bit too modern for the Golden Age of Piracy, but with it worn open this wasn’t too noticeable. Just the sort of thing a dandy sailing lad might steal from a fat unarmed merchantman.

Footwear: If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from years of amateur dramatics, it’s that if you wear a pair of breeches and a pair of long socks, nobody can tell you’re not wearing stockings. Shoe-wise, I just wore my trusty black Oxford brogues. Ideally I’d have liked a buckle, but I didn’t have any.

Headgear: At Izzi’s suggestion, I picked up a black bandanna from a stall in Oxford Street. I also managed to get a brown tricorn at So High Soho on Berwick Street which looked a lot more elaborate than its price tag would suggest. The shop was closing for the day, but they let me dash in, which was cool of them. Incidentally, do you have any idea how hard it is to get a decent pirate hat that is both affordable and doesn’t look crap? Very hard.

Accessorising:  Primark really came through here. I found a cheapo pendant for £1.50 in the Tooting branch along with a battered-looking brown belt which was free because the guy on the till forgot to ring it through har har. I also added a couple of pocket watches and two more pendants to give the whole ensemble that more-plunder-than-sense look. The finishing touch was a sword from Escapade in Camden.

I met up with Anna K and we made our way to the party. I think the outfit was pretty successful, it was reacted to favourably at the event. It also seemed to make the hobo outside Colliers Wood Tube Station quite angry, but I don’t speak derelict so I couldn’t tell you why. On the way back I had a number of drunks shouting “Captain Jack Sparrow!” which would be quite witty, only I actually was deliberately dressed as a pirate, so not really.

1 Comment

Filed under 18th century, Bloomsbury, Booze, Camden, Clubbing, Current events, Fashion and trends, Film and TV, History, Literature, London, Markets, Shopping, Soho, The City, Weird shops, West End

The Beasts with Two Backs

Saturday was a busy, busy day. It started when I woke up in bed with two women and an empty champagne bottle. However, because this is the real world, the reason I was in bed with two women was because we’d passed out watching Moulin Rouge. The champagne is more complicated, and remind me to tell you about it some time.

Rashly, I had agreed to meet the Da and the Sis in London for lunch, and so I had to stagger back from Fulwell to Colliers Wood to get myself into some sort of respectable state. On the way, I decided that mobile phones should be banned on buses, purely because when you have a pounding headache and rising nausea, there is little that is more annoying than a guy sitting directly behind you, babbling non-stop for the entire journey. Well, actually, screaming kids are more annoying. There was one of those, too.

I had hoped a shower, a snooze and some lunch would take care of the hangover. Even a hair of the dog at the Princess Louise in Holborn didn’t help. This was particularly lame, as I was supposed to be meeting some of my theatrical chums at the Natural History Museum.

Our destination was the Sexual Nature exhibition, and after half an hour in line in the sun (with a hangover, I don’t think I mentioned that before) we were in. The exhibition, if you haven’t seen it, is basically devoted to the subject of reproduction in the animal kingdom. Reproduction is a hugely important part of life – if you go with Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene theory, it’s basically the meaning of life. But what makes this such an interesting exhibition is the incredible variety of it out there.

The exhibition covers a very wide area, from mating displays to pheromonesto  The Deed Itself to birth and those early days of life. Each section in turn covers a huge and incredible variety. Take the seahorse, where the males are the ones who give birth. Or ducks, in which the females have evolutionary strategies to deal with gang rape. Or the angler fish, for whom the males are so much smaller than the females that scientists initially thought they were parasites (any radical feminists in the readership?).

Isabella Rossellini is a strange woman.

Although such a broad topic is by necessity going to be unable to cover any individual topic in great depth, it certainly brought home the incredible variation among the many, many species with which we share the planet. We were particularly taken by the section on scent, including a rather pungent exhibit enabling you to experience the smell of jaguar piss. And there were a number of very strange short films by Isabella Rossellini from the Green Porno series. Good fun.

Following a swift cheap-and-cheerful Chinese meal, we headed over to Holborn, to the Princess Louise. As I think I’ve said before, this is one of my all-time favourite pubs, due to its pure Victorian decor downstairs, its luxurious lounge upstairs and, not that I want to sound like a cheapskate or anything, the fact that you can get a round of drinks for a tenner without descending to the accursed levels of Wetherspoons. Here, we met Shoinan for more alcohol and inappropriate conversation. At this point, my hangover finally subsided and I could return to damaging my liver in earnest.

After this, Shoinan and I decided to move on into sinful Soho to see where a couple of reprobates like us could get some more booze. We came upon the Nellie Dean, a pub we’d visited once before. This is another old-skool place, unkempt, disreputable-looking, not too crowded and not remotely trendy. Therefore, ideal for us. It’s also open until midnight, which helps. We continued to put the world to rights over a jug of Pimms (executive decision by Shoinan) before heading home.

I feel we all learnt a lot that day. Unfortunately I can’t remember any of it. Hey ho.

1 Comment

Filed under Booze, Film and TV, Flora and Fauna, Kensington, London, Museums, Plants and animals, Randomness, Soho, tourism, West End

I Predict a Riot

One of the things I like about Britain is that, when it comes to religion, we don’t really give a damn. Aside from a handful of fanatics, most people seem to be okay with you believing whatever as long as you’re not being a dick about it. Well, except in Northern Ireland, where “being a dick about it” seems to be the norm, but that’s another story (it’s the only place where I can say I’ve ever been persecuted for my atheism AND LET’S JUST LEAVE IT AT THAT SHALL WE).

Of course, it wasn’t always thus. For centuries, the people of England were in conflict over the question of Catholicism versus Protestantism. Long story short, Henry VIII founds the Church of England. The first coffee morning is held a week later, Sir Thomas More refuses a slice of Henry’s famous pineapple upside-down cake and is executed for it.

Edward VI ascends the throne, is Protestant, dies young. Mary I ascends the throne, is Catholic, persecutes Protestants. Elizabeth I ascends throne, is Protestant, persecutes Catholics. No heir, James I comes down from Scotland. The hope among Catholics is that as the son of Mary, Queen of Scots is that he’ll follow in Mama’s footsteps and restore Catholicism. He doesn’t, and the Gunpowder Plot happens. The English Civil War ushers in Oliver Cromwell and the fun-free version of Protestantism practised by the Puritans. Charles II is restored to the throne along with fun. In 1666 London is burnt down in the Great Fire. In 1681, the Monument to the fire receives the additional text: “But Popish frenzy, which hath wrought such horrors, is not yet quenched.” And just less than a century later, one of the stupidest events in the history of the city takes place.

You see, even in the supposedly enlightened late 18th century, an awful lot of people genuinely believed there was still some sort of evil Papist conspiracy to take the country over, throw out the Archbishop of Canterbury, abolish bring-and-buy sales, &c, &c.

It all started in 1766, when the Vatican officially recognised the Hanoverian dynasty as rightful rulers of Britain. This eliminated any threat the Catholic church might have posed, and therefore in 1778 Sir George Savile introduced the Catholic Relief Act. This effectively recognised Catholics as citizens with the right to own land, join the Army and vote (albeit in accordance with the very strict restrictions on voting in place back then). Not too much to ask, you might think.

Well, it was for Lord George Gordon. Gordon, pictured right, was what is known in political terms as “kind of a prick.” While he favoured American independence and improved conditions in the Navy, he was also the sort of man who picked fights against every other MP in the House, regardless of political alignment, and  would seemingly change his opinions at the drop of a hat.

Gordon saw the Relief Act as certain evidence of a Popish plot, and so, in accordance with his talents, began shit-stirring. Among his many bizarre claims was the suggestion that Smithfield market was to be turned into the headquarters of a new Spanish Inquisition where people would be publicly burnt alive. Why Smithfield? Gord only knows.

Weirdly enough, he was able to find an audience who did not think he was insane, presumably from the readership of Ye Dailie Mayle. On 2nd June 1780, some 50,000 supporters marched on Parliament with a petition, wearing blue rosettes and painting ‘No Popery’ wherever they could, in case we hadn’t got the message that they were, in fact, Protestant.

The riot quickly turned ugly (well, uglier) as its members began smashing up Catholic chapels, houses and businesses. In Westminster, MPs and their carriages were attacked by rioters. Gordon himself was placed under arrest for high treason, and somewhat sobered by this, and the promise of an armed response from Parliament, the mob dispersed a little.

It wasn’t to last, however. Over the next couple of days, rumours spread, and in accordance with mob mentality it was decided that the best solution was to smash some more stuff up. Mobs descended on Moorfields, home of a large Irish population, and then began a programme of attacking just about every building of importance in the city – the Temple, the Inns of Court, the Royal Arsenal, various embassies, the prisons, the palaces, and the Bank of England twice. Why it was felt that the Bank required two attacks I don’t know, it’s not like there was anything of interest in there. Newgate Prison was burnt down, and in an astonishing show of intelligence and compassion the rioters didn’t think to let the inmates out first. Of course, Savile’s house was targeted.

Perhaps the strangest attack of all was on Langdale’s Distillery in Holborn. As the distillery burned, liquor flooded the streets. The crowd, not being the sort of people to look a gift horse in the mouth, decided to drink their fill of free booze. Free booze… that was on fire. Accounts speak of men, women and children knocking it back unto death. Seriously, even I wouldn’t do that.

With no police force to speak of, there was little to check the robbers, and the city was effectively in a state of anarchy. On 9th June, the King ordered the Army in. Order was eventually restored, with 285 rioters shot and 139 arrested. 25 of the ringleaders were executed.

The Gordon Riots, as they came to be known, were one of the most shameful events in the history of London. Hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of damage were caused by the rioters, mostly to property owned by Catholics, and the incident was a blow to the acceptance of democracy in Europe. The Riots did have one positive effect, though – they highlighted the need for a proper police force in London.

As for Gordon himself? Well, he was acquitted and, after more adventures, eventually converted to Judaism. Funny how things turn out, isn’t it?

5 Comments

Filed under 18th century, Booze, Churches, Crime, Disasters, History, London, Notable Londoners, Politics, The City, Westminster