Tag Archives: London

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?



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

Why I Am Not A Motorist


It goes without saying that this never happens.

A question I get asked a lot is why I don’t drive. This seems like a bit of an odd thing to ask me, as even the most casual acquaintance knows the obvious answer to be “because I’m a drunken psychopath reprobate.” At this point, the person laughs and asks what the real reason is. Then I stab them up good for suggesting that I’m a liar. Well, I did warn them.

But anyway, because the truth hurts (literally), I’ve come up with some more “believable” reasons for why I, as someone who lives in London, do not drive.

1. Public transport is actually pretty good

I’ll admit that I have been known to complain about public transport now and again. But the fact is that if you live in London, you are very fortunate in terms of getting around. As you may already know, I live in Colliers Wood. I’m on the Northern Line. Within half an hour’s walk are Wimbledon, Haydons Road, South Wimbledon, Tooting Broadway, Tooting Bec and Tooting stations. I’m also within walking distance of the Tramlink and there are several buses passing through. There are night and 24-hour buses, and I’m just off the main road, so I am never ever stranded as long as I’m in London (although there are also 24-hour services to Oxford and St Albans, other familiar haunts of mine). Everywhere I need to go on a regular basis, I can get to without a car.

2. Money

I have an Oyster Travelcard which costs me just over £150 a month. Now, that’s quite a lot, but as I work in Central London it works out cheaper than paying a fare every time I use public transport. And as it’s a work expense, what that means is that everything time I use that other than for work, I’m effectively getting free travel.

If I had a car, I’d have to pay for petrol, maintenance, road tax, parking and the Congestion Charge. That’s before the start-up costs of learning to drive and buying the damn car in the first place. This leads me on to…

3. Even if I did get a car, I’d have to use public transport anyway.

This man would totally drink and drive.

As regular readers will be aware, I like to party. Quite often, when I go out, booze is involved. As a responsible adult (har har), I could not possibly drive after such libation, so I would have to either not take my car out or not drink. Few things are more tiresome than being the one sober individual at a wild party, so I’d have to use public transport anyway.

That’s before we’ve got on to the fact that in Central London, traffic and parking are bastards anyway. Coupled with the congestion charge, it would be a rare occasion when driving into London would actually be easier than taking the Tube. I know an awful lot of people who have cars but commute by public transport anyway. So if I’m going to shell out for the Oyster, might as well save my money on a car I won’t use.

4. Walking is awesome

I love to walk. I walk all over the place. Often with no plan or end goal, just walking around the city, seeing what I can see. I’ll take random and illogical routes. I’ll explore places that are probably best left unexplored. When I set out on my own, I rarely know exactly where I’m going to end up. This is an experience that you can’t replicate in a car. You just don’t have that flexibility, and if you’re going slowly enough to appreciate the backstreets you’ll probably get done for kerb crawling.

And walking is a great way to stay in shape, too. I find exercise boring as all hell, so if I can maintain my shape doing something I love, then so much the better. If I over-indulge one night, well, the next day I’ll take the long route home instead to compensate.

5. Everything is nearby

Even if I didn’t have excellent public transport, Colliers Wood is not badly located for shops. As I mentioned, I’m within walking distance of Wimbledon and Tooting Broadway, which are excellent places to shop. Everything I actually need, I can get from there. What’s more, there is a massive, massive Sainsbury’s and a similarly huge Marks and Spencer about five minutes from me.

“But Tom, you handsome bastard,” I hear you cry, “isn’t it a hassle when you’re doing your weekly shop, having to carry all those bags? I mean, even ten minutes on foot with heavy shopping can be a Herculean task.” Firstly, it’s a bit weird that you all used those exact same words, but secondly I should point out that I’m a bachelor with no need to plan ahead shopping-wise. I don’t really do a “weekly shop” per se. More a “today and possibly tomorrow if there’s anything left over, and oh damn I’ve forgotten something, well, let’s stop at the Tesco petrol station on the way back” shop.

6. Think about the environment!

Actually, I don’t, but the fact that I don’t drive a car does make me a bit more environmentally friendly now you come to mention it. Smug!

To conclude

I don’t drive because I don’t need to. I appreciate this doesn’t apply to everyone, and that there are perfectly sound reasons for owning a car if you’re not in my circumstances. I also admit that there are circumstances where even I would find a car useful, but these arise so rarely as to not be worth worrying about.

Plus I’ve seen that film Cars, set in a post-apocalyptic world where vehicles have risen up and slaughtered their human masters in a bid to create an automobiles-only society. Let’s not let that come to pass.

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Filed under Environment, London, Shopping, Suburbia, Transport

Life, death and the confusing divide

So anyway, to wake me up in the morning I tend to take a slightly indirect route to work via Goodge Street. This gives me a bracing walk through Bloomsbury which takes me past such scenic locations as the British Museum, Russell Square and the Ministry of Truth. Lately, I’ve noticed these bods hanging around Bedford Square:

Notice they're all dudes. I'm just sayin'.

Protesting is very fashionable at the moment (thank you, Mr Cameron!), particularly in this part of London with its many educational institutions, so I’ve pretty much learnt to tune them out. These ones, though, intrigued me both with their persistence and their message.

 They represent an organisation called ’40 Days for Life.’ Their “thing,” their “bag” as the kids would say, is abortion. The appearance of abortion protesters, or pro-life protesters as they like to be called, is something new in this country. It’s quite popular in America, and there has been a certain amount of hand-wringing in the British press. In the US, the protesters are notorious for their use of shock tactics – giant photos of bloody foetuses, shouting abuse at abortion doctors and the like. There have even been cases from the lunatic fringe of doctors being murdered and clinics being bombed.

Now, I think this sort of behaviour is less likely to become widespread in Britain (although a couple of protesters were arrested in Brighton last October for holding up a giant poster of a foetus), purely because there’s less of a Puritan streak in the UK. To put it in perspective for my Yankee chums, your political “left” is our “centre” and your “right” is our “ha ha but seriously.”

Now, speaking personally, I am pro-choice. Here’s why – and I give you fair warning, this will be tackled with all the gravity you can expect from a semi-humorous blog by a foppish wastrel. The thing about pro-life is that, basically, their goal is to rid the world of abortion on the grounds that life begins at conception and God hates that shit. One of the larger banners these protesters have quotes God as saying that he knew us all in the womb. Presumably in the case of miscarriages and stillbirths, he knew those babies were going to grow up evil and their mothers should therefore rejoice.

But here’s the thing. I don’t believe in God. As I’ve said before, I’m an atheist, and therefore the words of God (or one particular version of him, at least) carry no more weight for me than the words of Albus Dumbledore – and there’s about as much solid proof of his existence. I think of myself as fairly tolerant, but I do object to the idea that we should all live our lives in order to placate the whims of what is to me, if you’ll forgive the confrontational wording, a fictional character. When I see protesters arguing that every life belongs to God, I say “prove it and we’ll talk.”

Okay, that’s faith, you can argue that it’s not their fault if the Bible tells them they’re in the right. But it’s not just a question of religious faith, though. In order to justify and promote their position, the pro-lifers have a tendency to exaggerate and even outright lie in order to discourage women from undergoing the procedure. If you can’t make a case without lying, then you have no case. 

Now, yes, I do appreciate that the decision to terminate a pregnancy is a serious one, and I agree with the pro-lifers that it should not be undertaken lightly. Nor do I feel that women should be pressurised into having an abortion if she does not want one. But under the current situation, the one pro-choice folks are generally happy with, a woman can choose to have an abortion or not to have one. If she shares the protesters’ beliefs then she can choose to keep the kid. Everyone wins. That’s why the pro-choice movement is called “pro-choice” and not, e.g., “pro-death.”

Anyway, this is one of those thorny issues that won’t be solved easily. I’ll tell you what both sides can agree on, though – Scientology!

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Filed under Bloomsbury, Churches, Current events, London, West End

… And did I mention it’s free?

One of the big complaints I hear about London is how expensive it is. I think this is highly debatable – I manage to live quite comfortably on very little money. And it’s quite surprising what you can do in this city for no money at all.

Take yesterday. I was supposed to be going to a Christmas party, an annual tradition among my chums, but thanks to the bastard snow this was called off (due to the impossibility of getting to our hosts’ house out in Oxfordshire). Fortunately, Izzi came to the rescue with an invite to a magic show by Penn and Teller hosted by Jonathan Ross. Well, that sounded like just the thing – how much would I owe her? Nothing. By Jove, that’s most generous, but – you mean the tickets cost nothing? By Jove.

Messrs. Penn Gillette and Teller

The catch was that this wasn’t a conventional show. It was actually the filming of a special at the London Studios in Southwark. We were to be a studio audience. There are companies, you see, whose function is basically to procure audiences for studio-based programmes. You go on a mailing list and you get your invite and off you go. Granted, it’s on a first-come first-served basis and so not everyone who wants a ticket can get one (Izzi tells me that QI has a three-year waiting list), but considering that it’s free, it’s a pretty sweet deal.

And so Izzi and I met up at Waterloo and took a stroll over to the London Studios. I’d been here once before – I was interviewed back in 2000 on London Today because I was in a play and it was all terribly exciting. No such VIP treatment this time, sadly, there was quite a bit of waiting around. Most of it inside, though, for which we were grateful.

Once we were actually in and settled in our seats, a warm-up act came on – a stand-up comedian named Stuart Goldsmith whose job was to get us all enthusiastic for the big show. At one point Yr. Humble Chronicler was singled out for having “fabulous hair” and a look that was described as “the Kings of Leon teaching geography.” If I ever do something that merits a poster, that quote’s going on there.

Above: Kings of Leon. Not pictured: geography.

Then the show itself began. Now, I don’t want to give too much away, as I suspect the producers would get upset. Also, it’s a little unfair to make judgments on a show that hasn’t even been edited.

Essentially, Penn and Teller were looking for a new opener for their Las Vegas show. Penn and Teller, if you aren’t familiar with them, are hugely popular magicians in America, also known as skeptics and debunkers. Their show is very comedy-based. Penn is the talky one, Teller is the quiet one (i.e. he literally doesn’t speak). Their act is highly entertaining, and I’d recommend it to all.

Magic is one of those things that’s not very fashionable these days, at least in Britain. I recall when I was a kid it was on TV all the time – Paul Daniels was probably the most well-known, but there were plenty of others. These days, the only regular on our screens would appear to be Derren Brown. However, Izzi is something of an enthusiast, and gave me a brief lowdown on the scene as it stands.

This show is a one-off special called Fool Us, in which Penn and Teller, longstanding veterans of the stage magic scene, search for someone who can show them a trick that they cannot explain. With that in mind, several magicians (who, Izzi informs me, are highly respected in the magic world) showed us their tricks.

I won’t go into any real detail, suffice it to say that the results will surprise you (they certainly seemed to surprise Penn and Teller). What I was impressed by was the sheer range of performance styles – one was quite traditional, another went for a dance-based routine, a third put on a slick-and-cocky persona and a couple played it all for laughs. Every one was different and distinctive. As I say, Jonathan Ross was the Master of Ceremonies for the night. I used to be fairly neutral about him, but now I’ve seen how much he upsets the Daily Mail, I think I quite like him. Penn and Teller did a few tricks themselves, and in the first one (the phone one, if they’ve edited them around) you should be able to see Yr. Humble Chronicler and Izzi in the audience. I’m the one who looks like the Kings of Leon teaching geography.

What this did highlight for me, though, was how few new tricks there really are. If you’re interested in magic, I’d recommend Jim Steinmeyer’s Hiding the Elephant, which is a history of the great tricks and how they’ve evolved over the years. But most of what looks like a new, contemporary trick is almost always a very venerable illusion spruced up for the modern audience. One of the tricks we saw actually dated back to ancient Egypt. That’s not to say they weren’t enjoyable – the way a routine is carried out is often what makes the difference, and it has to be said that not a single one of the acts we saw was less than entertaining.

It has to be said that the magic of television is a little exhausting – we were stuck there for about four hours with retakes, pauses and waiting around, and my hands ached from clapping by the end. But it was totally worth it.

Then today I got another call from Izzi saying they were filming a show with Bill Bailey today and – but that’s another story.

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Filed under Film and TV, Geography, London, Waterloo and Southwark

The White Stuff

You know, with all the excitement, I never did get around to putting up my snow photos. Which is a shame, because working in Bloomsbury you get some rather pretty scenes on the way into work. Here’s a snowy photo entry type thing! Hurrah!

We begin the journey, as I did, in Colliers Wood. Not that Colliers Wood is a particularly scenically spectacular place, but I thought it would be nice to get a shot of the virgin snow in the small hours. Virgin anything is a rarity in South London, particularly after a late night.

Here is Colliers Wood the next morning. See what I mean about it not being scenically spectacular? Oh well, that’s suburbia I suppose. Affordable suburbia, at least.

Here we go, Bloomsbury at last. Here are some of the many parks and gardens in the area.

This on the left is Store Street, just off Tottenham Court Road. Is that a really big wreath or a really small building?

Also, what is it with blue lights these days? I bet in years to come, blue lights will be remembered as one of those retro obsessions we had.

The snow had started to melt by the time I got to the Brunswick Centre. Still, there was enough on the Christmas trees for my sinister purpose.

The rather art deco lions outside the British Museum seemed unperturbed by the weather. I call the one to the left of the doors Fortescue and the one to the right Ponsomby.

Fortescue is the impulsive one, Ponsomby is the sobering influence.

Statue of Peter Pan outside Great Ormond Street Hospital. Interesting fact, trivia fans: the ashes of former Prime Minister Jim Callaghan are scattered in the flower bed there.

Now, here are three icons of the city – a phone box, a pillar box and an Underground sign. I liked this blog better before it sold out to the tourists.

And finally, a disgruntled pigeon.


Filed under Bloomsbury, London, London Underground, Photos, Suburbia, tourism

The Ten Commandments of a West End Bar


That was kind of neat the first time, but after a while it got old.


I appreciate that you need bouncers at a busy bar. Nobody wants their evening ruined by drunken louts kicking off. I also think it’s reasonable to search bags. But when you have ones that basically seem to work on the default assumption that the person coming in is a murderer, it does not make your bar look good.


It is good that your staff are pretty, but if they don’t know how to pour a pint or how to make a cocktail that is on the damn cocktail menu, it’s all for nothing. In Italy, a professional cocktail waiter is regarded in much the same way as a professional chef. In Britain, we seem to be satisfied to let anyone do it. Lame.

I recall one occasion when I had to spend about five minutes explaining to a barman whose first language was not English (it wasn’t his second or third either) what a “Guinness and black” was.


Now we both know why you have the music on ridiculously loud. Because the harder it is for people to talk to each other, the more they drink. But come on, they were going to get wasted anyway. Loud and bland music just annoys people. Unless you have a dance floor, of course, in which case I’m in the wrong for trying to have a conversation while everyone else just wants loud and bland music.


I’ve ranted about toilet attendants before, so I’ll keep it simple. I know how to turn a tap on. I know how to squirt soap on to my hands. I know how to dry my hands. I do not need any assistance with any of these things. They are not difficult or tiring. Therefore, I will not pay for someone to do them for me, particularly as I have not requested assistance.


I appreciate that some beers are more exotic, and so it’s fair enough that you should charge more for them than you would for your regular Carlsburg or Fosters. When a bottle of regular, ordinary lager in your place costs more than a pint of the same in the pub down the road, something is wrong.


Attentive staff are great, so long as they’re not too attentive. Last night we had bar staff coming round every few minutes trying to take our empty glasses, even when they weren’t actually empty. Seriously, I was drinking that champagne.


You know what I mean – those huge TV screens showing endlessly-looped footage of people having a good time with a message reminding people that they can hire the bar. By all means advertise, but at least be discreet about it.


This one, I think, is pretty self-explanatory. Food is there to be enjoyed, if people can’t enjoy it then there’s no point.


Again, we know how this works. Attractive woman comes around trying to convince guys, on impulse, to buy a round of shots. The idea is that the guy will think that by purchasing shots, he stands a chance of having sex with this woman.

Having said that, the only people who fall for this probably deserve it anyway, so I’ll let you have that one.

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Filed under Booze, Clubbing, Current events, Food, London, Soho, West End

London Lit: Night and the City

Forgive me, chums, if I’m lacking in energy. It has been a busy weekend with quite a lot of alcohol consumption. How much alcohol consumption? Enough for me to sing ‘Barbie Girl’ in karaoke form, that’s how much alcohol consumption. Unfortunately, this happened in St Albans and is therefore outside the scope of this blog.

Saturday brought a party in Slough and then an evening trip to Soho with a friend. I know a bar there that always has a free table, even on a Saturday night. It makes me feel special to know this.

Soho brings me to the subject of today’s blog entry. I’ve been reading quite a bit of the London noir subgenre that flourished between the wars, and one book I came across that I would thoroughly recommend to all is Night and the City by Gerald Kersh.

You may be familiar with the title. It’s been filmed twice. Yet the original book is so obscure these days that (at the time of writing) Wikipedia doesn’t even have an entry for it. It’s been, in my opinion, unjustifiably forgotten.

The central character is Harry Fabian, a man who has dreams of the big time but is in reality a small-time pimp with no self-control and a fund of get-rich-quick schemes. He is a man who stops at nothing to get what he wants, but when he does he throws it all away in an instant. Lying, blackmail, trafficking and worse are all in his repertoire as he works towards his current goal of being a great wrestling promoter.

Meanwhile, Helen gets a job, just as a temporary thing to pay the rent, at Phil Nosseross’ nightclub. She finds she has an unexpected knack for bringing in tips, and soon her temporary job becomes a little more to her.

Neither Helen nor Harry are alone in their corruption. Indeed, there are few characters in the book who aren’t flawed in some way. Not just in terms of morality. We see characters brought down low by greed, pride, naivety, lust, overconfidence – all human life is here. About the only character who doesn’t become either an exploiter or a victim is Bert, the somewhat mysterious barrow-boy seen at intervals throughout the novel and who takes a particular interest in Harry’s moral wellbeing.

Aside from the failing and yet strangely compelling characters, we’re presented with a vivid depiction of the West End in all its sordid between-the-wars glory. For instance, check this out:

Ping! went the clock, on the first stroke of eight. Up and down the streets the shops began to close. West Central started to flare and squirm in a blazing vein-work of neon-tubes. Bursting like inexhaustible fireworks, the million coloured bulbs of the electric signs blazed in a perpetual recurrence over the face of the West End. Underground trains from the suburbs squirting out of their tunnels like red toothpaste out of tubes disgorged theatre crowds. Loaded buses rumbled towards the dog-tracks. Cinema vestibules became black with people. Vaudeville theatres, like gigantic vaccuum-cleaners, suddenly sucked in waiting queues. Behind upper windows, lights clicked on and blinds snapped down. Gas, wire, wax, oil – everything burned that would give out light. The darkness of the April night got thicker. It seeped down between the street lamps, poured into basements and lay deep and stagnant under the porches and the arches of the back streets. The last of the shop doors slammed. The places where one could eat, drink and amuse oneself remained open, and burned with a lurid and smoky brightness. Night closed down upon the city.

We’re reminded that there are two West Ends in coexistence – the joyous leisure district and the sleazy haunt of razor gangs and mobsters. Indeed, the two are mutually co-existent. The fun night out is provided through exploitation. We’re all participants and we’re all victims.

Such is the strength of the book, in fact, that I can say “we.” While there is a definite sense of the late 1930s in the novel (it couldn’t be otherwise), the portrayal of humanity is uncomfortably relevant to today. Take a stroll around modern Soho by night and you’ll see for yourself. In the present day, as in the 1930s, money is all that matters.

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Filed under 20th Century, Booze, Clubbing, Crime, Film and TV, Geography, History, Literature, London, Psychogeography, Soho, West End