Monthly Archives: July 2012

Une saison en Camden: Rimbaud and Verlaine in Victorian London

I am an ephemeral and a not too discontented citizen of a metropolis considered modern because all known taste has been avoided in the furnishings and the exterior of the houses as well as in the plan of the city. Here you would fail to detect the least trace of any monument to superstition.

Arthur Rimbaud on London in Illuminations

Getting a face full of wet fish is usually associated with Monty Python at Teddington Lock rather than French poets in North London, but such is the warping power of Camden Town. Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine were the Gallic rhymers in question. The pair enjoyed a tempestuous relationship in a variety of London addresses, which culminated in the aforementioned fish-slapping incident in Camden.

rimbverl

They had arrived in London in September 1872 after fleeing scandal in Paris. Rimbaud was 17, Verlaine ten years older, married with a child. Verlaine’s brother-in-law described Rimbaud as ‘a vile, vicious, disgusting little schoolboy’, but Verlaine found him an ‘exquisite creature’ probably for much the same reasons. At first they settled in Howland Street in Fitzrovia. They became part of Soho’s expat anarchist dissident set, reportedly attending meetings helmed by Karl Marx in Old Compton Street, drinking heavily, taking hash and opium (Rimbaud advocated ‘derangement of all the senses’) and keeping warm at the British Museum, where Rimbaud’s name  – but not Verlaine’s – was later added to the Reading Room roll of honour. Neither were particularly politically motivated, but the anti-establishment environment would undoubtedly have appealed to the outlaw couple.

Drawing by Verlaine of Rimbaud in Canon Street

They both loved London. Rimbaud felt that by comparison Paris looked like nothing more than a ‘pretty provincial town’ and loved the ‘interminable docks’, while Verlaine was captivated by the ‘incessant railways on splendid cast iron bridges’ and the ‘brutal, loud-mouthed people in the streets’. Together they travelled on the river, visited Hampstead Heath and rode the newly opened underground railway. They visited Hyde Park Corner, Madame Tussaud’s, the National Gallery and the Tower Subway (‘It stinks, it’s hot and it quivers like a suspension bridge, while all the while you hear the sound of the enormous volume of water,’ they reported back).

They wrote as well. Parts of Rimbaud’s Illuminations and Une Saison en Enfer were written in London, and his relationship with Verlaine is recorded in the latter’s lines: ‘On several nights, his demon seized me, we rolled around together, I wrestled with him!—At nights, often, drunk, he lies in wait in the streets or in the houses, to frighten me half to death… In the hovels where we used to get drunk, he would weep at the sight of those around us, miserable beasts…’ Verlaine was also influenced by the hectic modernity of the docks, and wrote a poem about Regent’s Canal.

Their sojourn in Fitzrovia was briefly commemorated with a plaque written in French and erected in 1922, although it only mentioned Verlaine – Rimbaud’s name was omitted on grounds of morality. Unfortunately, the street numbers had changed by this time, so the plaque on No 34 was almost certainly commemorating the wrong house. These defects were solved in 1938 by simple means – the house was demolished. It’s said the plaque was saved from destruction, but if so it has long since been lost.

There is a plaque for their next house however, left by ‘unknown hand’ according to Simon Callow. This is on their residence at 8 Great (now Royal) College Street, which they moved to in May 1873, living in two rooms on the top floor for three months. Here the pair’s self-destructive instincts really blossomed. They argued relentlessly, and often fought physically. This reached its nadir one July morning when Verlaine returned from Camden market carrying fresh fish and olive oil. It was a hot day and Verlaine had a hangover, but Rimbaud, watching from an upstairs window, was unsympathetic. He laughed and bellowed, ‘Ce que tu as l’air con!’ (‘What a cunt you look!’). Verlaine responded with a kipper in the face (hurt, he later wrote to a friend rather pathetically,  ‘I retaliated, because, I can assure you, I definitely did not look ridiculous’), packed his bags and fled to Brussels. Rimbaud eventually followed, only to receive two bullets in his wrist for his troubles.

Verlaine was sentenced to two years in prison, which he spent in part reading Une Saison en Enfer, and that was pretty much the end of that relationship. Rimbaud returned to London in 1874, living at Stamford Street, SE1 with the poet Germain Nouveau and later taking a room at No 12 Argyll Square in 1875. He then disappeared for four months – biographers still speculate about whether he was in Scotland, Scarborough or Reading. He barely wrote another word and died, one-legged, in 1891. Verlaine also returned to England, teaching in Boston and Bournemouth, before returning to Paris where he succumbed to alcoholism and died in 1896. Camden can do that.

Photo by Dornac of Paul Verlaine in the Café François 1er in Paris on May 28, 1892

HG Wells, My White Bicycle and hygienic seats: a brief history of cycling in London

This piece is in the current issue of BMI Voyager. The photo of Herne Hill Velodrome is via Adrian Fitch

It’s unlikely that any of the world’s top cyclists will be thinking about London’s history with the bike when they set off from the Mall for the gruelling 250km Olympic road race on Saturday (July 28th), but if they do pause for thought, they’re starting from the right place. The route will take cyclists through Putney, Richmond and Hampton Court deep into the scenic Surrey countryside of Woking and round Box Hill, but it starts and finishes near Hyde Park, which is where cycling in the UK first really took off.

Cycling had premiered in Battersea Park in the 1880s, but it was in Hyde Park that the great Victorian cycling craze went overground in the 1890s. London was still a horse-happy city at the time, so when 2,000 cyclists – mainly women, dressed demurely with natty bonnets– formed a parade to cycle round the park in the spring of 1896, those on horseback didn’t know quite what to make of it. Bicycles were still a new thing. Penny-Farthings had been around for a while, but were about as common a sight in Victorian London as they are now, and it took the invention of the ‘safety bicycle’ – one with wheels the same size and pneumatic tyres – in the 1880s for that to change. Indeed, such was the enthusiasm with which women took up cycling, that Victorians were torn between trying to find ways to make money out of it, and trying to ensure it was morally appropriate. With typical Victorian ingenuity, they managed to do both – the Chaperon Cyclists’ Association supplied female escorts for solo women cyclists for 3s 6d an hour, while to avoid any dangerous friction you could purchase special ‘hygienic’ bike seats, which had a modest dip in the area where a lady’s genitalia would usually meet the saddle.

Hygienic seat or not, this was, almost without exception, a hobby enjoyed by the upper classes – the Lady Cyclists Association of 1895 was founded by the Countess of Malmesbury – and the Olympic road race aptly passes through some of the poshest areas of London, along the luxury-lined Knightsbridge and down through the smart streets of Chelsea to Putney Bridge. In 1896, the Countess wrote wittily in The Badminton Magazine about the dangers of cycling around these very Belgravia streets thanks toa new sport’ devised by Hansom Cab driver: ‘chasing the lady who rides her bicycle in the streets of the metropolis’ excited by the ‘petticoat which “half conceals, yet half reveals”… I cannot help feeling that cycling in the streets would be nicer, to use a mild expression, if he’d not try to kill me.’

It wasn’t until 1934 that a solution to this perennial problem arrived, when the UK’s first bike lane was opened not far from where the road race course makes its progress through West London. This specialist cycle lane stretched for two-and-a-half miles alongside the Western Avenue and was a belated response to the scarcely believable statistics that recorded 1,324 deaths of cyclists on British roads the previous year. Despite these awful figures, cycling groups opposed the innovation, arguing bikes should not be forced to give up their place on the road to the new-fangled motor car. It’s not an argument they were ever likely to win.

Roads will be close to traffic on July 28, however, and as the Olympic cyclists make their way towards the river, they will pass Kensington Olympia, the huge exhibition hall built in 1883 and used for all manner of spectacular entertainment –promoters would think nothing of flooding the arena to recreate Venice In London, for instance. Anything fashionable was fair game and cycling races were held here during the 1890s. A mixed-tandem race – one male rider and one female – attracted huge crowds in January 1896. Weird events like this were common at the time –the Crystal Palace in Norwood hosted a bicycle polo international in 1901 between Ireland and England (Ireland won 10-5).

After crossing Putney Bridge, the race continues through Putney, where one of London’s many Victorian velodromes was once located, drawing crowds of 10,000. Putney also featured in one of the first cycling novels, The Wheels of Chance, by HG Wells, a writer who always had an eye for a new invention. In it, the hero, Mr Hoopdriver, leaves his dull job in Putney to go on a cycling holiday on the South Coast following a route out of London very similar to the one that will be taken by the Olympic racers. The race later passes through Woking, where Wells lived and set part of War Of The Worlds – Woking has boasted a huge statue of a tripod since 1998.

From Putney, the cyclists whizz through lovely Richmond – mind the deer! – before hitting the river at Twickenham, where they pass Eel Pie Island, nexus of London’s mid-1960s rock ‘n’ roll revolution. Numerous legendary bands played shows at the charismatic old dancehall on this tiny island in the Thames, including the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart. Among them was Tomorrow, one of England’s first psychedelic bands (featuring Steve Howe, later of prog-monsters Yes), whose 1967 single “My White Bicycle” was a big counterculture hit in 1966. This splendid slice of trippy frippery was written in homage to the pro-cycling scheme launch by Dutch anarchist collective Provo, who left 50 unlocked white bicycles all over their home city of Amsterdam in 1965, inviting the public to enjoy ‘free communal transport’ and rid themselves from the tyranny of the automobile. The Dutch police swiftly impounded the offending bikes, but the idea finally caught on in recent years in the form of the Paris bike-sharing scheme, Vélib. This idea was appropriated by London in 2010 and came to be christened Boris Bikes after London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, who inherited the scheme from his predecessor Ken Livingstone.

Boris Bikes can be hired by anybody with a chip and pin card at around 500 docking stations in central London. The bikes come without helmet or lock and are pretty hefty, but they are a fairly common sight in London. Although there is an ‘access fee’ (£5 for a week), the first 30-minutes of any ride are free, so smart users hop between docking stations and effectively ride around London for next to nothing. It’s all part of a belated attempt to make London a more-bike friendly city – four giant bike lanes, the blue-painted Cycle Superhighways, have alsobeen created in key commuter routes, with four more planned for 2013. If you want to borrow a Boris Bike to follow the 2012 road race route be careful, as there are few docking stations outside central London and costs soon mount if you go over the initial 30 minutes – while the fines for a late return are high.

From Twickenham, the race heads through Bushy Park and passes the Tudor palace of Hampton Court, before disappearing into the Surrey countryside. After a tour of the Surrey hills, the cyclists will then make the return journey, via Kingston, to the Mall. Sadly, then, there is no time to head to south-east London, where there are a couple of other prime London cycling landmarks. The first is the Herne Hill Velodrome, tucked behind suburban houses down a quiet street near Dulwich. This is the last stadia from the 1948 London Olympics still in use today. Built in 1891, the velodrome had all but closed during the Second World War but was brought out of retirement when London was awarded the 1948 games. It’s had a few scares since then – the gorgeous Victorian grandstand has been a no-go area for years – but was recently awarded £400,000 of Olympic legacy money and plans are afoot to construct a new grandstand, cafe and gym. The venue has played its part in nurturing the latest breed of British champion – Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins raced here.

Herne Hill Velodrome

While Herne Hill lives on, the velodrome at Catford was demolished in the 1990s. Like the stadia at Putney and Herne Hill, this was built in the 1890s, when it attracted a very special guest. Absinthe-soaked dwarf artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is usually associated with the Montmartre area of Paris, but in 1896 he turned up in the particularly drab suburb of Catford. Lautrec was a cycling fan, and had been asked by a company called Simpson to design a poster for their bike, which used a new type of chain. Lautrec was taken to the newly built Catford Velodrome to watch the bike in action during special races, set up by Simpson to advertise their product, and he produced a couple of images during his visit. The poster was one of the last he designed before his death in 1901, just as the Victorian bike craze was coming to an end.

Nazi Olympics at the Wiener Library

This article first appeared in a recent issue of Time Out London.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics are often presented as a disaster for Nazism thanks to Jesse Owens, who won four golds and shattered Hitler’s fantasies about Aryan superiority. But the truth is a little more complex. Germany actually won the games: they had the most medals and also won more golds, more silvers and more bronzes than anybody else. They were praised for the way the tournament was held, there were no boycotts, innovations like the Olympic village and the torch relay were adopted by the Olympic organisation and the event even turned a profit. So was it really an unqualified sporting, diplomatic, economic and propaganda success for Hitler?

Toby Simpson is curator of The Nazi Games: Politics, The Media And The Body, an exhibition at the Wiener Library, London’s Holocaust library (the oldest in the world). He says, ‘The games were actually received very positively and Hitler’s standing improved as a result. On the whole it was positive for the Nazis and they were pleased with the results.’

This was much as Hitler had hoped when the Nazis inherited the games in 1933. ‘The German organisers were worried he would scrap the games because he wasn’t internationalist in the slightest,’ says Simpson. ‘But he realised that this was a huge propaganda opportunity and began putting pressure on the organisers to shape the games around Nazi interests.’

The results are displayed in a small, compelling exhibition. There are dramatic stills by Leni Riefenstahl, who also filmed the monumental Olympia using new techniques such as slow-motion and tracking shots. Much of the imagery presented the German team as perfect Aryan specimens, evoking Spartan concepts of athleticism, while a neo-Roman bombast was visible in everything from the architecture to the opening ceremony. Hitler wanted to exclude Jews from the team, but under pressure allowed one, Helene Mayer, to take part. ‘Mayer won gold in fencing for Germany in 1928,’ says Simpson. ‘Under Hitler, she had to go to the US to continue her career, but came back to Berlin to compete in the German team.’ A photograph shows Mayer on the podium giving a Nazi salute. All successful athletes were presented with an oak sapling – until 2007, one won by Harold Whitlock, a long-distance walker, grew in the grounds of a school in Hendon.

US team – including Owens with their oak saplings

Mayer’s presence was a sop to a small but persistent anti-Nazi campaign. ‘This was the first Olympics with a boycott movement,’ says Simpson. ‘America was criticised for participating because it was believed they could influence the International Olympics Committee to withdraw the games from Berlin.’

The exhibition features an American pamphlet called Preserve the Olympic Ideal, which made the case against American participation. There’s also an extraordinary camouflaged pamphlet produced by resistance movements in Germany. It looks like an Olympic souvenir but ‘inside talks about soldiers bleeding to death on the fields of Spain. Germany was not yet involved in the Spanish Civil War, but this was being distributed to inform people about what was going on.’

The exhibition has a range of bona fide souvenirs produced to cash in on the games, often incorporating Nazi imagery, and there’s also material produced by travel agents like Thomas Cook, hoping to persuade reluctant tourists to make the journey. ‘Ticket sales were slow at first,’ says Simpson. ‘The Nazis had come to power on a wave of mass unemployment and people worried the country was unstable. Companies offered huge reductions in an unprecedented advertising campaign.’

BERLIN OLYMPICS 1936 (GERMAN ORIGINAL PHOTO BOOK)

The public had fewer concerns politically. ‘The Nuremberg Laws had turned Jews into second-class citizens, but public consciousness was slow to catch up with reality,’ says Simpson. During the games, the Nazis removed anti-Semitic signs in a ‘conscious attempt to cover up the truth.’ At the same time they put 800 Sinti and Roma into camps. The Wiener Library has a game on permanent display in which stereotypically Jewish-looking characters are chased around a board – it was made in 1936. ‘Even as the Olympics were taking place, this game was being produced and people were being put in concentration camps because of their race,’ says Simpson.

 

 

The exhibition ends on a positive note. ‘We highlight the story of Dr Guttman, a German-Jewish refugee who came to Britain in 1939 and set up a spinal unit at Stoke Mandeville hospital for veterans. There he introduced a sporting contest that eventually became the Paralympics.’ Some of Guttman’s documents are on display, including call-up papers from the First World War. ‘He volunteered in 1914 to serve in a medical capacity. Like many Jewish Germans he was incredibly patriotic but still exiled.’ It was an exile from which the Olympic movement would eventually profit.

The Nazi Games: Politics, The Media And The Body at the Wiener Library until October 3. Free. 

Londoner Challenge: the beautiful South

We won.

Many thanks to my illustrious team mates, our competitors, the Museum of London and Matt from Londonist for putting on such a fun night.

A sample of the questions are posted below. 

  • What pub name can be found on Newman Street, Berwick Street, Kingly Street, Rupert Street and Bennett Street?
  • What’s the only street name within the City of London that ends in the word ‘Road’?
  • Which current production completes this sequence: The Woman in White, Monty Python’s Spamalot, Priscilla Queen of the Desert and…
  • According to A Day in the Life, by the Beatles, how many holes would it take to fill the Albert Hall, assuming it’s the same as the number of holes in Blackburn, Lancashire?
  • In which London museum might you find a jar full of moles, half a pregnant cat and the penis bone of a walrus, all on prominent display?
  • What gets divided up between the monarch, the Vintners’ company and the Dyers’ company on the Thames each year?
  • Who was the last English monarch to enter the House of Commons?
  • At the 1948 London Olympics, the British amateur football team was managed by the great Matt Busby. What unlikely item did he hand out to his players at half time, in accordance with the sponsors’ wishes?
  • Who are the “Official Supplier of Cereal Bars To The Olympic and Paralympic Games”?
  • What can be found in Earl’s Court and King’s Cross St Pancras Tube stations, but is missing from Barons Court Tube?

Norman Mailer and Christine Keeler’s bra

Jay Landesman was an American writer and eccentric entrepreneur who arrived in London in the mid-1960s and immediately flung himself headfirst into the emerging counterculture scene, largely because the first person he met when he arrived here was Peter Cook. Landesman later became best known as the male half of a famously open marriage, much to the shame of his son Cosmo, who gained revenge by marrying Julie Burchill. (‘She hated hippies, ex-hippies, food freaks, open marriages and old people,’ wrote Jay, ‘The only thing she liked about us, was that we were Jewish.’)

In his entertaining 1992 memoir Jaywalking, Landesman’s non-ideological dalliances on the fringes of the London scene make great reading, with walk-on roles for the likes of John Lennon (‘He was uptight about Wendy Cook’s insistence he sample her salade Nicoise, a dish he was highly suspicious of and couldn’t pronounce’), Tom Driberg (‘He took us to a pub whose entire clientele consisted of lesbians, transvestites, young Danish sailors, ageing pederasts and an assortment of amputees’) and Germaine Greer (‘I watched her challenge Jimi Hendrix to an arm-wrestling match, and win’). Although it’s never entirely clear what he did – bar run the disastrous UFO rip-off the Electric Garden for a couple of minutes – Landesman was clearly good company with a penchant for meeting interesting people, and at some point was asked by The Sunday Times to write about the art of giving a party. His ideal guest list is worth repeating in full:

Minimum of three potential celebrities; at least one real celebrity (any field); a foolish couple; a serious couple (straight feed for comics); an engineer or non-speaking Czech (to point out); six swinging teenagers (girls); a bitchy girl who can generate masochism in men; a gym instructress who drinks too much; an older woman who sits and smiles (who is she?); a rune beauty (who was she?); Christine Keeler; no fat people unless Peter Ustinov; nobody jet or Court Circular; no dogs; no Peter Hall, Jonathan Miller, David Frost (or equivalents); no crew cuts; a swinging accountant; a buff (a jazz-hair or gambling buff); two attractive lesbians (to get wrong); one international drug trafficker (to point out); a beautiful flawed couple; a gay MP; Tariq Ali (not Christopher Logue); an Irish showbusiness GP; a titled person (to show you’re not snobbish); no artists’ agents, editors or publishers; no children or headshrinkers (except RD Laing); an eccentric lawyer or priest (no respecters of confessionals); an articulate tradesman (electrician, cabinet maker, house painter, bank manager); a forgotten culture hero; a reliable loudmouth who’ll come early and leave early; the ex-wife of a world celebrity; a pop singer no one recognises; a girl with buck teeth, a corrective shoe, or both; an established figure who decides that night to drop out…

Landesman was fond of Christine Keeler. He met her soon after arriving in London at the Kismet, a Soho drinking club, and the pair became friends. He also knew Norman Mailer from the mid-1950s, Mailer having interviewed Landesman while researching his pioneering essay on hipsterdom, The White Negro. In London, Landesman had an opportunity to bring the two together.

The cause was Mailer’s decision to challenge for the Democrat candidacy as Mayor of New York under the slogan ‘Vote The Rascals In’. The sizeable US expat community in London – there were frequent baseball games in Hyde Park featuring the likes of Tony Curtis, Marlon Brando, John Cassavetes and Charles Bronson with Phil Silvers as umpire – decided to hold a fundraising event.

The Friends of Norman Mailer Committee was founded by charismatic rogue Harvey Matusow, and he put on a celebrity auction, featuring myriad bizarre offerings from Yoko Ono like ‘Dirt From Central Park’, ‘Air over Greenwich Village’, ‘Vial of Genuine New York Tears’ and ‘Jar of Captured Cloud Formations over the Bronx’ as well as bottles of Robert Lowell’s sweat and a slice of raw liver from Philip Roth’s fridge. The star exhibit, however, was supplied by Landesman: Christine Keeler’s bra.

Bidding began at £100. There were no takers. The auctioneer tried again, at £50. Nobody moved. Next he tried £10 for this ‘psychosexually historical’ item, but the opening bid was a measly 10 shillings. Landesman tried to get the bidding going and raised his own hand, but nobody followed suit and he ended up winning the item back for a mere 10s 6d. Later, he discovered it wasn’t even Keeler’s. ‘Christine doesn’t wear a bra,’ a mutual friend confessed, ‘But the deception was justified in a good cause.’ The mayoral election was just as successful – Mailer came fourth, in a field of five.