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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.

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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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The Spook Who Didn’t Sit by the Door

As regular readers may be aware, I like a good haunting tale. But as a sceptic, a good hoax will do just as well. And that’s what brings me on to the haunting of 132 Teesdale Street in Bethnal Green. The events are now largely forgotten, but in 1937 they were a constant source of tabloid excitement as they unfolded. Presumably everyone was bored waiting for World War II to start.

Two families inhabited this house – the Davis family and the Harrisons. They reported late in the year that they had been witness to a number of strange events. First, an intermittent tapping sound, described as being reminiscent of Morse code.  Then other strange noises – moans and crashes. Then objects around the house began to be disturbed, sometimes in front of witnesses. Grace, one of the Davis daughters, reported seeing a picture on the wall begin to twist on its own, and when she tried to readjust it, it was snatched from her hand and smashed on the ground.

The explanation, to the Davis family, was obvious. The previous year, Mrs Davis had died following a long illness. A somewhat jealous woman, she had developed the belief that her husband was having an affair with Mrs Harrison and it seemed that she was determined after death to make her displeasure known.

The families approached the papers, and during his stay in the house, the Evening Standard’s reporter himself heard the woman’s voice (unmistakably that of Mrs Davis, according to the family) and the overturning of furniture. Other papers covered the story, too, and eventually the matter reached the ears of the International Institute for Psychical Investigation. The Institute duly despatched Dr Nandor Fodor, Mr Laurence Evans and the Marquis des Barres to investigate (because that’s what they do). Incidentally, isn’t “the Marquis des Barres” the best name for a paranormal investigator you’ve ever heard?

Anyway, the investigators, including the Marquis of course, had a look around to see if they could figure out what was what. One or two curious points were noted about the facts as relayed by the individual family members, mostly the fact that they couldn’t agree on the details. The investigators noted in their report that there wasnothing that any of them witnessed, haunting-wise, that couldn’t be explained by more conventional causes. In particular, they noted that “Mrs Davis'” voice sounded uncannily like the Harrisons’ baby. Alternative suggestions were offered for some of the incidents, such as the picture being snatched from Grace’s by means of invisible thread (a common means of faking poltergeist activity, apparently). More damning still was a glass bowl, apparently moved by a ghostly agency which, despite its non-corporeal nature, left fingerprints.

Meanwhile, the Harrisons and Davises found themselves the subject of a great deal of media attention. In addition to the seemingly endless column inches devoted to the haunting in the papers, the radio got in on the act and it was even suggested that a television transmission be made live from the house. Cowds of up to 2,000 people gathered outside to get a glimpse of the supernatural, hindering the investigation in no small measure. Mrs Harrison comnplained loudly about the lack of privacy, yet strangely Dr Fodor’s offer of alternative accommodation was not taken up.

This latter part, as you might imagine, raised suspicions. As did the ghost’s failure to manifest when the rooms were sealed up to prevent human entry. Nevertheless, there were plenty of people who did take the matter seriously, and Fodor and co. found themselves inundated with suggestions. The most common was to hold an exorcism. Others pointed out that poltergiests tend to be attached to people rather than places, so maybe the families should be accommodated elsewhere to determine whether this was the nature of the spirit. A medium was brought in by the families, but as she was already friendly with them, Fodor’s team didn’t exactly take her proclamations seriously.

Also not taking things seriously, it seems, was Mr Harrison. He was rather evasive in his answers, and obviously not a very experienced liar. Apparently lacking the courage to go unreservedly with the paranormal explanation, but unable to simply come out and say “we lied,” Harrison’s attempts to find a middle ground make for interesting reading. I think my favourite moment of backtracking was when he tried to account for one incident by suggesting that their baby might have been throwing onions around in the middle ofthe night.

Fodor’s conclusion was that the haunting was a humbug. The only real mystery was the question of why the families had faked it. An early idea was that the Davises were the fakers and hoped to scare the Harrisons away (the same modus operandi would later be used by a whole generation of Scooby-Doo villains). The best guess, on later reflection, was that it was just a publicity stunt. However, despite his scepticism, he was quite convinced that there was some small basis in reality for the ghostly tricks. The opinion of the Marquis is not recorded. 

The whole thing died down, as many of these fads are wont to do, around February 1938. Not, however, before it backfired on its authors. Both families became utterly fed up with the attention, and made plans to move out. In 1956 the house was demolished to make way for a tower block and now there’s no sign that No. 132 was even there, let alone an spectral tomfoolery. Let this be a lesson to us all.

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Shameless self-promotion

Hullo all, this is just a bijou note-ette to say that Yr. Humble Chronicler is in the news, sort of. At least, the lifestyle pages of the Evening Standard. Check it out.

I shall try not to let fame go to my head.

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Is it self-defence if they’re really annoying?

Here’s a question. Is it the case that ugly people naturally become chavs, or is it that being a chav gradually twists you into looking like a sort of shaven ape-dog hybrid?CHAVvo If it’s the latter, I’m thinking maybe chavviness could be an as-yet-unidentified medical condition which might some day be cured. If it’s the former, then perhaps chavviness could be bred out of the gene pool. Don’t get me wrong, I’m absolutely anti-eugenics, except when it comes to chavs. If it’s none of these things, if I’m entirely wrong and the monstrous ugliness is just a coincidence, then can we at least put chavs to work driving pumps at the bottom of mineshafts or something? Just anywhere where I don’t have to look at, hear or smell them.

Actually, I’m being unfair in singling out chavs. Frankly there are a lot of subsets of humanity that I think we could do without. How about fourteen-year-olds with rich parents who think they actually contribute something to the world with their stupid haircuts and Facebook albums full of pictures of themselves? Or, say, pissed-up football supporters? Or anyone who self-identifies as a “lad”?

You see, I’m not exactly a people person. That’s not to say I’m unfriendly – when I’m at a party I’ll always make an effort with new people (I believe you can always find some common ground for discussion). If I’m in a bar and a stranger strikes up a conversation, I’ll happily exchange pleasantries, maybe crack a joke or two. This is basic etiquette. But at other times, I would quite like to be left alone. And this is where the problem arises.

See, I have the misfortune of looking both distinctive and approachable. This can have certain advantages, in that I can get served in a busy bar very quickly and if I don’t know anyone in a place, someone will usually come up and say hello. It also has certain disadvantages. Anyone who wants money, be they chugger, beggar or Scientologist, will instantly single me out in the crowd and make a beeline. Having decided that I’m likely to give them money, they then tend to get annoyed when I don’t. I’m half-expecting them to mug me and then in court claim that I was “asking for it”. Any pissed-up wanker will decide on sight that I am their new best friend. Any pimp or dealer will make the extra effort to push his wares on to me.

So you can see that it gets a little wearing after a while. I would like to walk through London once, just once, without being hassled. If I could just turn off the approachability for an hour or so, it would improve my life immensely. I’ve tried dressing differently, getting my hair cut differently, wearing an expression of barely-contained fury, nothing seems to work. The only things I can think of to make myself look less appealing that I haven’t tried yet  are gnawing on a human femur and punching Stephen Fry in the face. The latter is out of the question, as assaulting Stephen Fry is classed as treason.

Besides, why would you want to?

Besides, why would you want to?

Another problem is that I look studious. I’ve often had people come up to me (because I’m so fucking approachable) and observe that I look like a professor. What this means is that any pissed-up jackass in the vicinity will think, “Ho, here’s fun! An academic! Let’s make sport with him! What larks!” on the basis that, as I am a professor, I am the sort of mild-mannered person who will not realise that someone is attempting a caper at my expense. This is incorrect. In fact, I am more likely to tell them to go [perform an action that is physically impossible and probably unhygienic to boot]. I’d love to say that I’m the sort of person who can dispatch them with an off-the-cuff witty remark, but I’m not. Especially not at the end of a long day, when my brain just wants to shut down. Still, quite often just explaining that you know what they’re trying to do is enough to stop it. Failing that, murder.

Speaking of brains shutting down, it’s probably obvious from this rambling prose that my own is dropping hints, so I’ll say goodbye. Just think of me next time you hear the words “cold-blooded, unpremeditated killing spree”.

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Where the Dickens?

Of all the writers associated with Bloomsbury, there’s one who stands out above all others (and I know what you’re thinking, but Yr. Humble Chronicler is not talking about himself. But thanks for the thought). I’m talking, of course, about the man Charles Dickens.

Dickens is one of those authors who’s become indelibly associated with London. When you think “Charles Dickens,” the scene that immediately comes to mind is the grimy cityscape of nineteenth-century London with ragged street urchins and fat men in greatcoats with unlikely names. Of course, London was far from the only setting of his books. Still, when you read his work, you get the feeling that this is someone who knows his city. Take, for instance, this passage from A Tale of Two Cities describing Soho Square:

A quieter corner than the corner in which the Doctor lived, was not to be found in London. There was no way through it, and the front windows of the Doctor’s lodgings commanded a pleasant little vista of a street that had a congenial air of retirement on it. There were few buildings then, north of the Oxford-road, and forest trees flourished, and wild flowers grew, and the hawthorn blossomed, in the now vanished fields. As a consequence, country airs circulated in Soho with vigorous freedom, instead of languishing into the parish like stray paupers without a settlement.”

It’s a description that implies a familiarity with the area – we’re asked to directly compare this version of Soho of the eighteenth century with the familiar nineteenth century streets. I’d be curious to know what Dickens would have thought of modern Soho as compared to the nineteenth century one. Maybe he’d use the word “wankers” as so many have been compelled to do.

Of course, Dickens would have been very familiar with the streets of London. As I’ve noted, he resided in Bloomsbury for part of his life, and his first residence there (on Doughty Street, where The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist were written) is now a museum.IMG_0551

In Oliver Twist, when Dickens talks about “the traders who purchase [silk handkerchiefs] from pick pockets” in Holborn, it’s not unreasonable to assume that he was speaking directly from personal experience. Holborn is a short stroll from Bloomsbury, though Dickens had also lived in Holborn prior to Doughty Street.

He later moved to Tavistock House, also in Bloomsbury, which included a small theatre in which he could indulge his love of amateur dramatics (a hobby he would put to good use when he gave his celebrated readings of his work). It was here that he wrote Bleak House, and though the house is no longer visible, its site is marked with a blue plaque, which I’ve been kind enough to depict below. Thank goodness for me.IMG_0552

Dickens no doubt made a number of research trips to nearby Chancery Lane and Lincoln’s Inn for this scathing attack on the British legal system. Chancery Lane itself is described as “the heart of the fog” (literally and metaphorically) and of Lincoln’s Inn Dickens notes that “it is let off in sets of chambers now, and in these shrunken fragments of greatness lawyers lie like maggots in nuts.”

If I were to quote every descriptive passage that talks about London in Dickens’ books, I’d be here all night and you’d be really bored. So I’ll just mention here one of his non-literary ventures in Bloomsbury, namely Great Ormond Street Hospital. Dickens was one of the most influential voices in the campaign to build a hospital specifically for impoverished children, and he remained a supporter right up until his death. Indeed, Yr. Humble Chronicler has heard it said that J. M. Barrie’s better-publicised relationship with the hospital was largely influenced by the earlier author’s association.

Actually, if we could just return to Mr D’s literary works for a moment, I have a question. Very near to Great Ormond Street, just off Lamb’s Conduit Street, is this road:

dombeylargeGiven Dickens’ proximity to this location, is it ridiculous to suggest that this place was the inspiration for the title of Dombey and Son?

Okay, nearly finished, I promise. One last thing, though. “What the Dickens,” or variants thereof, is a phrase that people immediately assume must owe its existence to Charles. Hence in the Doctor Who episode ‘The Unquiet Dead’, Simon Callow as Charles Dickens is heard to exclaim, “What the Shakespeare?” Not so! “Dickens” is actually a venerable euphemism for the Devil, so it’s entirely likely that Dickens himself would have been familiar with the expression.

AND NOW YOU KNOW.

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SOE there.

soe1 

I found this on Sunday when I was walking along the Albert Embankment in Lambeth. I’d been offered a lift as far as Lambeth North, having crashed in Twickenham, and figured I’d stroll into the city. London on a Sunday morning is an entirely different city to London on a weekday or even on a Saturday. Places like Soho and Trafalgar Square are rarely so quiet.

The bust, as you can tell from the inscription, commemorates the Special Operations Executive, who were well-known Second World War badasses. Actually, Yr. Humble Chronicler’s own great-grandmama applied to join them, according to some letters recently unearthed. Unfortunately it doesn’t state what position she went for. It was probably something administrative, but all I’m saying is there’s no evidence it didn’t involve hanging off the undercarriage of German bombers with a stick of dynamite held between her teeth.

The SOE were a kind of early black ops organisation. Prime Minister Winston Churchill created them with the order to “set Europe ablaze”. History does not record whether anyone said, “What, literally?” The SOE’s brief was to commit acts of sabotage, assist resistance movements and generally be unsporting – indeed, one of its nicknames was “the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”.

There was a certain amount of friction between the SOE, the regular armed forces and the other secret services, in part because the SOE’s job was to go around causing trouble, while other secret services relied on discretion. In fact, had they been on the losing side, the SOE would undoubtedly be regarded as a terrorist organisation. Apparently, though, official policy was “no bangs without Foreign Office permission.” A rule John Profumo would have done well to remember.

Not John Profumo.

I could have put a photo of John Profumo here, but, well, I had a choice between a middle-aged bald man and Christine Keeler.

Agents could be male or female, gay or straight. They could even be convicted criminals. Even British nationality wasn’t a requirement – a lot of the agents were recruited from countries that had been taken over by Hitler’s armies, seeing the SOE as a means of striking back at the enemy.

As you might imagine, the SOE has been pretty inspiring over the years, and not just to terrorists. The film Carve Her Name With Pride was based on the exploits of SOE agent Violet Szabo. Where Eagles Dare, Bridge on the River Kwai and The Guns of Navarone were all either heavily inspired by or based on SOE operations. Even the greatest fictional spy of them all owes something to them – Ian Fleming based his characters on a number of agents. Vesper Lynd of Casino Royale was apparently directly inspired by agent Christina Granville (real name Krystyna Skarbek). Appropriately enough, one of the names being put forward for the role of Skarbek in an upcoming biopic is Eva Green.

skarbek

Krystyna Skarbek

Undoubtedly stirring stuff. However you feel

Eva Green. She can infiltrate my occupied area of Europe any day. I can't do innuendo.

Eva Green. She can infiltrate my occupied area of Europe any day. I can't do innuendo.

about the activities of the Special Operations Executive, their bravery and their contribution to the Allied victory are hard to deny. So I feel a bit churlish pointing out an error on the memorial, but I’m too pedantic to let it go. “In the pages of history their names will be carved with pride”? Are you talking about carving their name into paper? Am I missing something?

So anyway. If you want to know more about the SOE, I recommend the Imperial War Museum’s Secret War exhibit. Also the Blitz Experience, not that it has anything to do with the SOE, but it’s kinda fun.

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London Lies 3 – Invasion Docklands

It has become quite clear to me that something sinister is happening in East London, or “the Mystic East” as it is better known. There are a number of preparations afoot for some event in 2012, which my man Fortescue informs me is the year of the Olympic Games. I clouted him lightly, and explained that this was quite impossible, as the government has little money to spare for the likes of improving the NHS – how could they possibly afford to spend billions of pounds on an event that will last only a few weeks, and a sporting event at that? Fortescue further informed me that it would have long term benefits in terms of regenerating the area for the local community. I clouted him once more and countered that “regeneration programmes” such as the one of which he spoke primarily result in land values being driven up and the area becoming unaffordable for said local community. That silly Fortescue. I would dismiss him, but he has a family.

So I “Googled” 2012, and discovered this:

http://www.2012doomsday.com/

Apparently, according to the Mayan calendar, a major apocalyptic event is to take place in 2012. I felt that this warranted further investigation, and so set out for the Docklands.

My first setback came when I discovered that the Docklands Light Railway was not running from Bank, due to “planned engineering works”. Evidently someone (or something) had heard I was coming. I transferred to the Jubilee Line, alighting at Canary Wharf. My suspicions were correct – the area had been utterly devastated.

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I inquired from a passer-by what had happened to cause such a wasteland. She explained that it was “always like that”. Either she had been indoctrinated by whatever power was behind this or – perhaps worse – she was spreading deliberate misinformation to hide the truth. I pitched her into the water for safety’s sake.

Then, emerging from the water, I beheld a sight that almost caused my bowels to evacuate:

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I knew not what these strange quadrupeds were, but one thing was for sure – I would not stand a chance of outrunning them. If they took an interest in me, I should have no choice but to submit to their strange and eldritch will. Fortunately, they passed me by – seemingly without even noticing me, as if I were an ant crossing their path.

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Although I am not a religious man, at that point I offered up a prayer to whatever divine providence might have spared my life.

I witnessed others of the quadrupeds at work further down, together with a smaller variant, which I shall dub the “sentry caste”.

crane-march

These were not the only effects of this strange invasion. I noted that some variety of bioluminescent alien flora had taken root beneath a flyover:

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This disturbed me perhaps more than the quadrupeds (or “Walking Machines”, as I have dubbed them), for it suggested that these xenian creatures had literally “taken root” within our city. Who could tell what insidious changes these biological horrors were effecting upon our environment? Indeed, not far away I witnessed some hideous mutational effects:

mutant-lights1I hope, dear reader, that you will not judge me too harshly if I confess that my instinct at that moment was to run, to flee this corrupted quarter and not to ever return.

Yet I determined to explore further. For, as I have stated, I believe that I am the first to have witnessed this infernal happening, and as such, it falls to me to alert the general populace. I also decided that also fell to me to reconnoitre, to learn as much as I could about our extraterrestrial foes in the hope that I might perhaps find some weak spot by which they may be defeated.

The great discovery came some minutes later. On the far side of the river, in a district that does not seem to have a name, I spied this:

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Students of so-called “flying saucer” lore will no doubt have worked out the true nature of this object. It is clearly nothing less than an alien spacecraft. The similarities between the construction of the Walking Machines and those yellow structures visible atop the dome confirms this.

Immediately I telephoned Fortescue and demanded that he send a telegram to Whitehall right away. I gave him such information as I had. He told me that, in fact, the mothership had been there for some time, and was a popular music venue known as “the O2”. I patiently pointed out to him that this name was clearly some sort of cover-up, as O2 is the name of a telecommunication company, and for a concert hall to be named after them would be akin to slathering advertisements across Piccadilly Circus. He elaborated, saying that it had once gone under the sinister title of “the Millennium Dome”.

If I do not survive the coming apocalypse, let this page be my memorial. As I returned home, I saw this warning:

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