Category Archives: Comedy

Four literary London maps

These four maps of literary London were drawn by Martin Rowson for the rather wonderful 1999 London issue of Granta magazine.

Chaucer’s London

Georgian London

Victorian London

Modern London

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?

All aboard the Boris Bus!

Boris Johnson’s much touted new bus launched in London on Monday, and I managed to take a trip on it. It wasn’t easy: the bus left Victoria two hours late after breaking down twice and being slipstreamed by a Routemaster filled with anti-Boris protesters, but the public cared not a jot. Read my piece for Time Out here.

The bus is a classic example of how far bluster and bullshit can carry you, if the public are even half-interested in your vision. This is not a Routemaster, it carries fewer passengers than the bus it is replacing, has cost a fortune to develop, it doesn’t stop fare dodgers, the back platform closes in the evenings and the conductors aren’t allowed to take fares – but it’s still, in my view, a guaranteed vote winner because people like the look of it and aren’t going to look at the downsides too deeply. And maybe they are right, because when all is said and done, a fleet of these on London streets in a few years won’t look too shabby, and all the complaints – accurate as they may be – will look like so much narrow-minded nitpicking.

New Bus for London

The Monkees and Alf Garnett

I have a piece in the latest issue of Uncut magazine about the making of The Monkees 1967 hit “Alternate Title”, originally titled “Randy Scouse Git”.

The song was the band’s biggest hit in the UK reaching No 2 in the chart, which seems pretty appropriate given that it was written in London and is full of London references.  When Mickey Dolenz said it was called “Randy Scouse Git”, the English Monkee, Davy Jones, was a little perturbed. ‘They asked me what it meant,’ he told me, ‘and I tried to explain, but they just didn’t get it.’

Dolenz wrote the song during a visit to the UK. As he explains: ‘We were in London doing press and the Beatles threw us a big party . We were staying at the Grosvenor. Mike Nesmith and I had turned up on Top of the Pops to surprise everybody by saying hello – they’d smuggled us in in the boot of a car. That’s where I met my first wife Samantha who was a Top Of The Pops DJ, the record girl. We must have had a party and the next morning there were still a few people hanging around and Mama Cass was in town, and the Beatles were huge and I’d met this girl and I just start doodling with the guitar and singing about Samantha and my friend in the room and the waiter who came in with breakfast and the girls outside screaming day and night. It was like a diary, word association. There’s no deep hidden meanings in there.

It was an amazing experience in London. I am told I had a great time. And of course I met Samantha and we had a massive love affair.  Lots of stuff was going on. Brian Jones hid in one of our rooms when he was hiding from police and we got a letter from Princess Margaret asking if we could keep the fans quiet because she could hear them screaming over in the palace.

‘I must have been watching TV and Till Death Us Do Part was on and Alf Garnett called the kid, Tony Booth [later Tony Blair’s father-in-law], a “randy Scouse git”. I had no idea what it meant, no clue, but I thought it was funny. He said that line right in the middle of me writing the song and as was the way in those days I was just spontaneous –  ‘Wow man, what a cool title!’ – and wrote it down.’

So that is how you go from this…

…to this…

Terrible illustrations of the Royal Wedding outside London venues

Prince William as a zombie? Kate Middleton with a dislocated arm? Still, they’ve captured his receding headline and at least he has his father’s ears.

Check out Kate’s adams apple and Cruella De Vil grey streak.

I’m sure there are more out there. Enjoy the big day. I’ll be doing the gardening.

The Muppets in London

The Muppets have a long relationship with London. That’s partly because Jim Henson lived in Camden from 1977 and opened his workshop, the Jim Henson Creature Shop, in the area, filming many of the Henson films in London. A rather fantastic Muppets walk with all locations – including a Muppets bench on Hampstead Heath – can be found on the Camden website here.

Henson’s first workshop was at 1b Downshire Hill, NW3. It was initially used for the production of The Dark Crystal but remained in use from the late 1970s to 1990. It is said it had to be closed after neighbours complained about the strange smells coming from the factory, which reminds me of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

You can watch a (rather scratchy) tour of (I think) the second Creature Shop here.

I visited this second Creature  Shop in 2000 on the invitation of a model-maker who I met in a Camden pub. There was a definite magical/spooky Roald Dahl quality to the experience. This Creature Shop was located on Oval Road overlooking the canal, and was a huge mysterious building filled with puppets of all sizes. This is where the puppets for Animal Farm, 101 Dalmatians and The Muppet Christmas Carol were made.

 

The Creature Shop closed in 2005 and the building has since been demolished, but you can see London’s influence on the Muppets in a number of films. Here are five of my favourites.

1 ‘Maybe It’s Because I’m A Londoner’
This is from the time when Chris Langham was writing the Muppets. It’s an early, possibly rather clumsy, stab at celebrating London’s multiculturalism, and thus the sort of thing that would make Rod Liddle cry.

2 Burlington Bertie From Bow
A great version of one of the great London Music Hall songs, a repeated inspiration for Muppets songs.

3 The London Fog
Kermit reports from ‘London, England’ and interviews a cockney frog and a Beefeater.

4 The Muppets Christmas Carol
The superior Dickens adaptation is all London, obviously, but this first meeting with Michael Caine’s Scrooge sets the scene nicely. Plus: singing pigeons.

5 Wotcher (Knocked ‘Em In The Old Kent Road)
Another Music Hall classic, with Fozzie Bear dressed as a Pearly King (or possibly as an Old Compton Street stroller).

Celebrating the noble tradition of defacing London statues

It seems to happen every time a march or protest takes place in London. A much-loved statue or monument is defaced, horrifying the sort of people who are horrified by this sort of thing while the rest of us wonder why nobody’s got round to throwing a bucket of paint at that godawful Animals At War monstrosity on Park Lane.

On Saturday, after the TUC and some kids dressed in black marched through the London to complain about stuff, it was the turn for the Landseer lions at Trafalgar Square to take a pasting.

lion

While the statue of Charles I received a more artful reimagining.

statue

Interestingly, this Charles I statue had already been manhandled by the mob – albeit inadvertently – way back in 1867 when a reporter climbed the statue to get a better view of a passing protest and used the sword to steady himself. The sword promptly fell off and disappeared into the crowd, never to be seen again.

Most people think that this habit of deliberately defacing certain statues is a recent thing, dating back to the inarguably splendid Winston Churchill turf mohican on May Day 2000.

But the London mob has a rich tradition of dressing up (or down, depending on your viewpoint) London statues. My favourite example is the treatment dished out to the statue of a mounted George I, which was cast in 1716 and placed in Leicester Fields in 1784. This received serious punishment over the years as children clambered all over it, so both horse and rider lost bits, and at one point the poor king was without head, legs and arms. But worse was to come.

In October 1866, after the state of the statue had been discussed in the Times, guerilla jokers attacked the statue at night, painting black spots all over the horse, replacing the lance with a broomstick and putting a dunce’s hat from the nearby Alhambra Theatre on George’s bonce. Crowds flocked to see the spectacle. It was cleaned up, but eventually sold for £16 and pulled down in 1872.

As British History online website comments: ‘It would be almost impossible to tell all the pranks that were played upon this ill-starred monument, and how Punch and his comic contemporaries made fun of it, whilst the more serious organs waxed indignant as they dilated on the unmerited insults to which it was subjected.’

Nothing changes, once again.

Five unknown London pleasures

1 London’s first artificial ice rink
The Glaciarium opened in 1842 at the Baker Street Bazaar near Portman Square. The backdrop was ski chalets and snow-capped mountains, the ‘ice’ was churned-up hogs’ lard and sulphur. On hot days it smelt of cheese. It closed in 1844.

2 The clown and the geese
In 1884, a clown called Barry was watched by a huge crowd as he sailed down the Thames from Vauxhall to Westminster in a washtub pulled by four geese.

3 One-legged cricket
In 1796, Montpelier Gardens in Walworth hosted a cricket match between eleven one-armed Greenwich pensioners and eleven one-legged Greenwich pensioners. Interest was so great that a fence was broken and spectators fell through a stable roof. The match was drawn, but the one-legged team won a replay, earning themselves 1,000 guineas.

4 London’s first public museum
This was opened in a coffee house near Chelsea Old Church in 1695 by James Salter, a former servant of Hans Sloane, the man whose collection later formed the British Museum. Sloane reputedly handed Salter – renamed Don Saltero – some of the less important of his 80,000 objects, including a giant’s tooth,  a necklace made of Job’s tears and a bonnet that belonged to Pontius Pilate’s wife’s chambermaid’s sister (it actually came from Bedford).

5 The Peace of 1814
On Monday August 1, 1814, London celebrated the abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte with a series of festivities. It began with a balloon ascent at Green Park; the balloon was captured by the winds and sent towards the Estuary until the ballooneer cut a hole and landed on Mucking Marshes near Tilbury. Next came a miniature Battle of the Nile on the Serpentine, followed by a firework display in Green Park, for which John Nash had designed a new pagoda. Sadly this caught fire, killing two people. The crowd applauded, assuming it was all part of the fun.

All these came from Pleasures of London, a book available at the Museum of London bookshop for £30. It is my new favourite London book. It should have been published in 1992, but was delayed repeatedly and by the time it was published by the London Topographical Society in 2009 the authors, Felix Barker and Peter Jackson, had both died.

What the pair had created was an endlessly browsable book on all the fads and fancies that have occupied Londoners leisure since the Dark Ages, from Frost Fairs to black-faced minstrels, lidos to the Great Exhibition. There are brilliant throwaways  – such as those mentioned above – as well as short but thorough looks at things like music halls, pleasure gardens (which I still don’t get the point of), museums and the origins of sports like cricket, football and boxing.

Buy it.

Pussyfoot Johnson and the London mob

My review of Ink And The Bottle, an exhibition about cartoons and alcohol, appears in the Independent.

One of the cartoons at the gallery is based on the story of William ‘Pussyfoot’ Johnson, an American who was active in the temperance movement and came to London on Nov 13, 1919 to give a talk.

Johnson was leader of the Anti-Saloon League and after success in America, he headed to the Old World to spread the anti-drinking word. He argued, ‘There is more bootlegging and more moonshining in Europe than in the whole United States.’

He may have been right. This temperance movement map from 1886 attempted to show the scale of the problem by depicting all of London’s pubs in its ‘Modern Plague of London’ map.

Modern Plague, London

Pussyfoot earned his nickname for his habit of amending laws by stealth, and this did not go down well with the London mob. As one anti-temperance advocate told the New York Times, ‘You know how the majority of Englishmen look upon prohibition and Mr Johnson’s activities? The thought of not being able to have the well-known pint of bitter fills them with horror. The war was terrible enough but it was something that happened before. There have always been wars. Taking away the drinks is attacking the divine rights of the Britisher. I can tell you they don’t like it!’

They certainly didn’t, and decided to do something about it. While Johnson was speaking at Essex Hall, he was captured by medical students from nearby King’s College who dragged him out the buildin, poured a bottle of beer over his head and marched him around the West End chanting ribald songs. It was noted that the police ‘seemed lacking in sympathy with the missionary’.

Johnson was hauled hatless on a stretcher around Regent’s Street, Leicester Square and Oxford Street while the students chanted ‘What won the war? Rum!’ and ‘We’ve got Pussyfoot meow, send him back to America’.

Such larks, what fun and games! 

And so what if Johnson lost his right eye in the incident? The lesson was learnt. Not many people have tried to take the Britisher’s beer away from him since.

A punch up the bracket: BS Johnson and Anthony Aloysious St John Hancock

In a comment on my previous post about BS Johnson,  BB writes: ‘To issue a threat ending in “up the bracket” is so much of its time it made me laugh out loud. I had a couple of jobs that involved working with men in their late 50s and early 60s, real Londoners,  and they had a particular argot and mode of expression, which was always making me laugh. Enquiring as to whether you wanted a punch up the bracket was a regular occurrence.’

I also love this phrase, and associate it with another of my heroes, Anthony Aloysious St John Hancock, the greatest British comedian of all time. (There’s a great piece about Hancock here, noting the similarities between Hancock and Seinfeld as well as Hancock’s use of ‘punch up the bracket’.)

Hancock and BS Johnson have much in common. Both were aspirational working-class/lower middle-class men defined by the 1950s who spoke in the language of outer-urban post-war London. Both were men of keen wit and sharp intellect who enjoyed – or couldn’t help – skewering their own occasional lapse into pomposity. Both were depressives with a gift for pointed, painful comedy. Both killed themselves. They even looked similar: thick, heavyset men with wounded eyes. And, most importantly, both referenced Chelsea in key texts (Hancock in ‘The Football Pools’ and Johnson in ‘Albert Angelo’).

 

I once interviewed Tim Lott – or was it Toby Litt? – who suggested that Hancock was London’s answer to the Angry Young Men of 1950s northern working-class fiction, and there’s something this, though I’m not sure Sillitoe or Wain ever came up with anything as dark as Galton and Simpson’s ‘The Poison Pen Letters’, in which Hancock is so consumed by self-loathing he starts sending himself hate mail in his sleep.

But this is something you can imagine BS Johnson writing, another angry, sad, brilliant man who went raging into the tragedy of premature death.