Category Archives: Literature

The Sweeney

Sweeney Todd has been very much on my mind lately. I recently saw a really excellent production of the Sondheim musical at Twickenham Theatre (ave atque vale). Then I heard that another production is to be staged at the venerable Harrington’s pie shop in Tooting, which also sounds like it’ll be worth seeing. And between these, I’ve been working on props and puppets for another Sondheim musical (come and see it, it’ll be awesome).

Sweeney Todd So who was Sweeney Todd? The tale has various forms, but the basic essence is that Todd is a murderous barber in Fleet Street (No. 186 to be precise) who kills his customers by means of a special chair (pictured left) and his trusty razor. The bodies are disposed of by his partner in crime, Mrs Lovett, in the form of extremely tasty meat pies.

The story first appeared in an 1846 penny dreadful called The String of Pearls: A Romance (“romance” meant something different then). Its enduring popularity led to its being retold in various versions over the decades, most of which played with the details a little – maybe Mrs Lovett was actually his lover, for instance. Oddly, the detail that he sliced his victims with a razor while preparing to shave them, which you’d think would be a pretty good starting point for such a horror story, was added in later versions. Christopher Bond’s 1970 play recast Todd as an anti-hero with a revenge motive, and this was carried over into Sondheim’s 1979 musical and the Tim Burton film version thereof.

Some folklorists would have you believe that Todd was a real figure, and certainly he shares with Sherlock Holmes the honour of being a London character so vivid that he almost seems to transcend fiction. But one thing we can be almost certain of is that he was not real. There are no surviving contemporary accounts of such a man, and the concept of a barber who kills his victims with a descending chair like some perverted version of a Thunderbirds launch sequence prior to serving them in delicious pie form would definitely be the sort of thing that would make the papers.

Stories of cannibalism were nothing new even then, and even the gruesome detail of the unwitting cannibal declaring the meat delicious was pretty long in the tooth – Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote in Historia Regum Britanniae of a king marooned on an island whose servant was so loyal that he gave the king a slice of his own leg, which the king declared to be the most toothsome thing he’d ever eaten, and he had the good taste not to say, “I’ve heard of self service, but this is ridiculous!”

A popular suggestion is that the inspiration came from the legend of Sawney Bean, the 15th century patriarch of a family of cannibals who preyed on unwary travellers in Galloway. The fact that “Sweeney” sounds very much like an Anglicised version of “Sawney” leads me to think they’re on to something here, although admittedly other than the cannibalism, the two stories have little in common.

However, I wonder if there might have been a source of inspiration closer to home. I’ve written before about the epidemic of food adulteration in the 18th and 19th centuries – suppose our unknown author took this to its logical conclusion? Looking for a name for the chap who’d do such a thing, he recalled an old Scottish tale. Perhaps he even adapted it from an already existing urban legend.

I’d love to explore this further, but my dinner’s ready.

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The Artful Dodger isn’t who you think he is

artful dodger

George Cruikshank illustration of Fagin (left) and Dodger (right)

If you were told to name a Charles Dickens novel at random, possibly by someone attempting to prove a theory, there’s a very good chance that you’d say Oliver Twist. It is, after all, one of his most popular, most adapted and most accessible novels. One of the main reasons for this is the vivid characters – Fagin, Sikes, Nancy (no one cares about the Maylies), and of course the Artful Dodger.

If you’re not familiar with the character, he’s the young pickpocket who meets the title character and introduces him to the thieves’ gang led by Fagin. He’s a bit of an ambiguous character, a friend to Oliver, but one who doesn’t hesitate to sell him out in order to save his own skin. At the end, spoiler alert for a novel a hundred and seventy years old, he finds himself captured and transported to Australia. The character was memorably portrayed by the late Jack Wild in the film Oliver!

The character’s real name is Jack Dawkins, but the Artful Dodger is his better-known nickname. It’s a memorable nickname alright, but where does it come from? It seems obvious. He’s a dodgy character. He dodges about. And he’s very skilled, or “artful.”

But there may be a further significance to the name. I was recently looking into Victorian clothing, and in Ruth Goodman’s very readable How To Be A Victorian, she mentions that at least one East London tailor advertised “artful dodge.” She doesn’t explain the meaning of this phrase, but I had a look in the Online Etymology Dictionary, and in 1842 the word “dodge” was recorded as being slang for “work.” Oliver Twist was published in 1838. Dickens also used the phrase “artful dodge” in his first novel, The Pickwick Papers. What all this would seem to suggest is that the phrase “artful dodge” would have been well known to Londoners as a slangy way of saying “good work.”

The word “dodger” itself is also worth looking into, because it doesn’t really exist any more. In the 19th century, it basically meant what the name implies – a person who dodges. From the 18th century onwards, a dodge could also mean a trick or a con. Oddly enough, we don’t really use the word “dodge” in this sense, nor do we use the word “dodger.” We might describe something as “dodgy,” meaning shifty or untrustworthy, a word which appeared around the 1850s, but that’s the only such derivation of the word still in use.

So in other words, “Artful Dodger”  can mean “skilled trickster,” not a million miles from what we’d normally assume such a name to mean. But for Dickens’ early Victorian audience, who saw artful dodge advertised out on the streets and heard it from those around them, the name would have had a double meaning that it’s long since lost.

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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

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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The name’s Fleming. Ian Fleming.

I’ve recently been acquainting myself with one of the most iconic characters of the twentieth century, a secret agent by the name of James Bond.

Everyone knows James Bond. The tuxedo, the gun, the enigmatic smile, the Aston Martin DB5, vodka martinis shaken and not stirred, licence to kill, 007 (008 outside Central London), “the name’s Bond,” lots of fancy ladies and so forth. The character has basically become the very definition of spy fiction. Any fictional spy who’s appeared on screen since the 1960s will inevitably be compared to him. Heck, most action films that have come along since then owe something to the tropes established by the Bond movies.

But the Bond we all know and love is, let’s be honest, the Bond of the films.

Being a cultured sort, you’re no doubt aware that the Bond franchise started out with a series of novels by Ian Fleming, pictured right. Fleming was a spy himself during the Second World War, and in fact claimed that Casino Royale was inspired by an experience he himself had with a couple of undercover German agents at the gaming table (sadly, not the wicked-awesome bit from the film where Bond flips his car over seven times).

Fleming created Bond initially as a fairly dull character – the name was chosen to reflect this, and was taken from an American ornithologist. The ornithologist in question did see the funny side. Fleming built the character and his world up from his own experiences and those of friends and colleagues – for instance, it’s from Fleming that Bond gets the bon viveur tendencies for which he’s known. The first book, Casino Royale, was published in 1953.

The books were, initially, only a modest success, and Fleming planned to end the series after the fifth, From Russia with Love. This is actually incredibly obvious from the ending of the book, but I won’t say any more for fear of spoilers. However, this very same book was a roaring success, and is considered by many fans to be the best of the series. It was followed by seven more before Fleming’s death.

So how does Literary Bond compare to Movie Bond (s)? Well, it’s all rather interesting. Fleming himself rather liked Connery’s portrayal, to the extent of giving Bond a Scottish father in later books. However, the closest portrayal to the early books is probably that of Daniel Craig or Timothy Dalton.

Literary Bond, as Fleming envisioned him (the picture on the right was commissioned by the author), is something of a damaged individual. He is a man with definite mixed feelings about his calling in life. Not the sort of man who’d kill a henchman in cold blood and then produce a one-liner. There are several occasions when he becomes positively morbid – he accepts as inevitable the fact that he’s probably only got about a decade before being killed in the line of service, for instance. By the time of Doctor No, one of the weaker books in my opinion, M has decided that Bond is losing it as a result of all the crazy shit he’s been involved in recently. He’s an imperfect man whose cruel façade is built upon a very fallible, human foundation. As such, I actually find him a much more satisfying character than Connery or Moore’s impermeable action hero.

Interestingly in character terms, the Bond girls in the books are far more rounded characters than they are in the films. One, Gala Brand in Moonraker, is arguably more responsible for foiling the villain’s plan than Bond. And, most surprisingly of all, he doesn’t always get the girl.

The films vary in terms of how closely they stick to the books. Aside from updating the setting and padding the story out, Casino Royale is a fairly faithful adaptation. Moonraker, meanwhile, adopts the title and name of the villain and little else (so if you saw that film, don’t be put off the novel)

As I said earlier, the suave sophistication of the films is there – Fleming takes an almost pornographic delight in describing Bond’s food, drink and surroundings. Bear in mind that when the first books were published, Britain was still in the grip of rationing and far-flung holidays were just a dream for most people – this luxury was as much a part of the escapist fantasy as the machinations of Le Chiffre or Julius No.

One point against the books is that, in some regards, they are very much of their time. Particularly when it comes to things like imperialism and race. It’s always a bit embarrassing when Bond starts talking about race. Doctor No is particularly bad in this regard, and the whole thing frankly feels like a late installment in the Fu Manchu saga.

This aside, I can’t deny that they are very, very readable. I’ve ploughed through the individual novels at a rate of just under one a day because they are extremely compelling. Not great literature, you understand – I suspect that were it not for the films they’d have been forgotten by now – but something of a guilty pleasure nonetheless. And I think that when you have a character as iconic as Bond, you really ought to familiarise yourself with the source.

Moonraker was still a terrible film, though.

Further Reading

If you’re in the mood for further comparisons of films to their literary sources, my good chum Jess has recently started a blog doing just that for Disney. It’s right here. I’m looking forward to the surely-upcoming entry where she compares The Lion King to Kimba the White Lion (zing!).

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Ten thousand thundering typhoons!

I’m not a huge fan of the concept of heroes. I find them generally rather unsatisfactory – I don’t see what’s so great about a character who’s so very good when it’s quite plain that there’s no other way they could be. I don’t know if that makes any sense. What I suppose I’m trying to say is that all too often, the character lacks any sense of realism. The more flawed the better.

This is why Captain Haddock is a hero of mine. He’s a bad-tempered, clumsy, middle-aged drunk. He’s impulsive, and prey to his own emotional outbursts. He’s a magnet for life’s little annoyances, whether of his own making or pushed upon him by whatever deity governs the Tintin universe. Yet at the same time, he’s also a very loyal individual with a strong sense of morals who is constantly battling his own failings to do what is right. This, I think is the appeal of the character – he is ultimately good, but it’s not easy.

Hergé, creator of the Tintin series, seems to have been Haddock’s biggest fan. The Captain was introduced in the ninth book, The Crab with the Golden Claws. In this, he was a purely supporting player, a pathetic alcoholic who hinders Tintin as much as he helps him. By The Secret of the Unicorn, two volumes later, he’s practically an equal protagonist. It’s quite clear that Hergé saw something of himself in the character, indulging as he did in the author’s own interests in exploration, fashion and the odd tipple. He also gave the rather introverted Hergé a means to work through and laugh at his own frustrations in life.

This is a rather longwinded way of telling you that I went to see The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn last night at Feltham Cineworld, which is perhaps the most un-Tintin location in the world. As you’ve probably gathered, I’m something of a fan of the original books, so this was a film I simply had to see by law.

On the whole, I thought it was a pretty awesome film. It mashes up The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn and bits of Red Rackham’s Treasure, with elements of original story to give the whole thing an overarching antagonist.

For a Tintin geek, there was a lot to enjoy. As well as the three books the story is based on, I spotted references to The Black Island, King Ottokar’s Sceptre, Cigars of the Pharoah, Tintin in America, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, The Shooting Star and Land of Black Gold. That’s excluding the overt references in the title sequence. There’s a blink-and-you’ll miss it cameo by Cutts the butcher and an appearance by Le Petit Vingtième, the rarely-seen newspaper that Tintin actually writes for. No doubt a Tintinologist could find many more.

The animation is worthy of note. It utilises motion capture, a form of animation whereby a real life actor’s movements are rendered in CGI. Attempts at full motion-capture animation have an unfortunate tendency to fall into the Uncanny Valley (see The Polar Express), and based on the early trailers I feared this might fall victim to that. However, it’s not so – perhaps because the film doesn’t go for outright realism with its characters, but caricatures. After the initial jolt, you quickly become used to the animation and get absorbed into the world.

The attention to detail in rendering said world is breathtaking. The setting is fairly ambiguous in terms of time and place, but nevertheless a stunning amount of work has gone into every setting. This is very befitting of something based on the stories (if not the ligne claire art style) of Hergé, who researched his artwork intricately. Such is the quality of animation that despite the obviously exaggerated characters, I often found myself forgetting that what I was watching was actually a cartoon.

I have to say, the film falls down a little where it departs from the original books. Trying not to give too much away, the flashback to Francis Haddock’s confrontation with Red Rackham in The Secret of the Unicorn differs significantly from the original album, abandoning Hergé’s meticulously-researched and historically-accurate sea battle in favour of a conflict in which, how can I put this, a ship swings over another ship by the rigging. Red Rackham’s treasure is no longer brought over to the captured Unicorn from the damaged pirate ship, but is a secret cargo aboard the man o’ war (how much cargo space does a warship have, anyway?) – that’s fine, but if we’re saying the treasure isn’t Rackham’s to begin with, the film’s major antagonist doesn’t exactly have the motivation to go after it. Given that the antagonist was basically invented for the film, this is a slightly bizarre point. Complicating matters further is that by the end of the film, they’ve decided that the treasure actually was Rackham’s, from “plunder[ing] half of South America.” I’m guessing this line was to set up a sequel centred around The Seven Crystal Balls/Prisoners of the Sun, but it complicates further a plot that doesn’t make much sense.

That being said, there’s a lot to enjoy about this film. It’s a fun old-school action adventure reminiscent that stands out from the kids’ movie crowd. It’s more cartoony than the original comics, certainly, but if you can let that go it’s a fresh take on Hergé’s world. And if audience reaction is anything to go by, your kids will love it.

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Less passion, less protein

As a former big fat guy, I’m always mildly curious about interesting dietary concepts. Most of them are utter balderdash, of course (although if you want to lose weight, the one that worked for me was something I like to call “eating less”). Nevertheless, for curiosity and humour value you can’t beat the opinions of an uneducated self-appointed nutritional expert.

Picture unrelated.

And that brings me on to Mr Stanley Green.

There are plenty of crazy people shouting things down Oxford Street (including one who informed me, very emphatically, that God hates petrol), but North London boy Stanley Green was more notorious than all of them. He was a chap who had some interesting beliefs developed during his time in the Navy relating to “passion” (i.e. lust and aggression) – namely, he felt that there was too much of it in the world. He came to the conclusion that this was caused by an excess of protein in the modern diet.

Therefore, he took to the streets with a sandwich board that would make him an icon. Actually, there were several sandwich boards over the years, but all contained a variant of the basic slogan:

LESS LUST,

BY LESS

PROTEIN

MEAT FISH

BIRD: EGG

CHEESE: PEAS

(INC. LENTILS)

BEANS: NUTS.

AND SITTING.

PROTEIN WISDOM

I’d question how sitting is supposed to increase one’s levels of protein, although I suppose it could increase lust depending on where you’re sitting and on whom.

Green also sold a home-printed pamphlet entitled EIGHT PASSION PROTEINS WITH CARE – I’ve noticed that while you can’t fault your average crank for enthusiasm, written English does appear to be one of their weaker areas. If you’d like to read Mr Green’s full dissertation, it’s reproduced here. Green also tried his hand at longer works on the subject of passion, both fiction and non-fiction, neither of which have been published. Well, you know what they say – sex sells, so by extension anything that argues against it is probably not going to set the publishing world on fire.

Green began his crusade on the streets of Harrow in 1968 before taking on the tougher audiences of Oxford Street and Leicester Square. Although by all accounts he wasn’t as obnoxious as some of the street preachers out there, he doesn’t seem to have been universally well received. Frankly, a man with a sandwich board sounds a lot more agreeable than a woman screaming at me about how I “fornicate and take heroin” (chance’d be a fine thing). Nevertheless, a number of people took issue with his campaign, not least of whom were women who objected to being told that they “couldn’t deceive [their] groom that [they] are a virgin on [their] wedding night,” which suggests a lack of anatomical knowledge on Mr Green’s part. In later years, Green took to wearing overalls to protect himself from the spittle of those who disagreed with him. He was also arrested twice for obstruction, which struck him as immensely unjust.

With his fussy little moustache, his cap and of course his placard, Green became something of a London icon over the 25 years of his preaching. Although his campaign wasn’t exactly what you might call an overwhelming success, he was pretty well-known about the town. Fashion designer Wayne Hemingway even featured Green, complete with sandwich board, in one of his catwalk shows. The Primark knock-off has yet to appear.

In his personal life, unlike most Oxford Street preachers, Green appears to have been agnostic, which does rather raise the question of what he had against lust. As you might imagine, he kept his diet simple and boring. He remained single and lived alone, dying in 1993.

In recognition of Green’s pop culture status, his writings and placard have been preserved for the nation in the Museum of London, and have been put on display. Alas, with the demise of the sandwich board as of a 2008 law introduced by Westminster Council, we shall not see his like again. That’s what the Internet is for.

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