Category Archives: Mumbo jumbo

New London writing, or What the fuck is psychogeography anyway?

I don’t think anybody, with the possible exception of Will Self, really knows what psychogeography means but that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of it about. For years, the London writing landscape has been dominated by three masters of the genre, the Ackroyd-Sinclair-Self trinity (in this interview, Self distinguishes between their different approaches) – it’s hard to find a book in the Museum Of London bookshop that doesn’t have an intro penned by one of them – but that is starting to change. In the past year or so, three books have been written by debutant writers that take a broadly psychogeographical approach – you can tell this by the use of words like ‘palimpsest’ and liminal’ –  to the city or patches thereof but are happy to present it in a more approachable, less LRB-approved style.

The man above is Nick Papadimitriou, and his Scarp is the most Sinclairian of the three, written by a man obsessed with a small parcel of land on the city’s northern border. ‘I’m trying to get below the surface into something that’s moving in my mind as much as in the landscape,’ he says, which doesn’t say a great deal and is therefore as neat a summary of his obscure methodology as you are likely to find. Scarp is a wonderful book, a brilliantly obsessive and beautifully observed celebration of the meditative quality of what Papadimitriou calls deep topography and the rest of us know as walking. It’s also classic psychogeography in that you read it in the knowledge that a significant proportion of the theorising is total codswallop, but at least it is entertaining codswallop, an intriguing combination of the occult and broad generalisations about place drawn from a tiny physical space.

Next up in This Other London by John Rogers, a lighter but similarly intentioned account of ten walks – ‘a plunge into the unknown’ – around fairly random parts of London that were previously just strange names on old maps to the author, a film-maker and good egg. Rogers has none of the astonishing familiarity with his territory as Papadimitriou and he makes a virtue of this, imbuing the book with the joy of new discovery. It is, as a friend noted, a salute to the rewards of simple rambling, of going somewhere unusual and just strolling, or flaneuring to use the specific vernacular of psychogeography. As an alternative guide to London walks – or an inspiration to do the same yourself – it is a marvel.

Finally, came Gareth Rees‘s Marshland, hallucinatory, speculative non-fiction about the marshes of Hackney and Walthamstow that combines Scarp‘s deep knowledge about a specific locality with the dry wit and accessibility of This Other Land. Again, Rees is fond of that psychogeographical turn of phrase – ‘There is no final draft of London’, being a particularly fine example – but laces it with humour as he explores this odd landscape of rave holes, filter beds, football pitches and reservoirs (and a fascinating landscape it is too), mixing in a bit of fiction and even offering an audio soundtrack. Rees has a tremendous, natural, written voice and the book fairly skips along. I loved it.

All three books are a lot of fun and that is the great, dirty, secret of psychogeographical writing – it is hilariously fun to do as you train your brain to make grandiose statements about people, place and history that you are fairly sure won’t stand up to any great inquisition but look fucking brilliant on paper. Bill Drummond’s neat summary of psychogeography is perfect – ‘An intellectual justification for what I have been doing most of my life’.

I do not consider myself to be a psychogeographical writer (and here I express some of my dislike of it), but that’s not to say I’ve never indulged in it myself of occasion (as here, when writing about Wappingness), particularly when asked to do so by property developers, who seem to love this style of writing as a way to signify their deeper engagement with the city they are hoping to exploit.

By my experience then, psychogeography is used as much to shift property as it is to expand and combine the frontiers of space and mind, which is perhaps inevitable in London, where any amount of folklore and fauna only really has any value if it can be seen to have a positive effect on land prices. I’m not entirely sure that this is what Guy Debord was hoping for when he first conceived his theory, but given that he’s long gone there’s not a great deal he can do about it.

Situationists at the Sailors' Society in London during the 4th Conference of the Situationist International. Those assembled included (from l. to r.): Attila Kotányi, Hans-Peter Zimmer, Heimrad Prem, Asger Jorn (covered), Jørgen Nash (front), Maurice Wyckaert, Guy Debord, Helmut Sturm, and Jacqueline de Jong. To ensure that the proceedings were kept away from any contact with artistic circles or London newspapers, the conference took place in Limehouse, "a district renowned for its criminals."

Guy Debord’s Situationists in Limehouse, in search of Wappingness and investment opportunities.

Secret London: more streets beneath London streets

A fascinating, I think anyway, footnote to my previous post about the secret streets beneath London comes courtesy of reader Steve Lloyd.  Although it may raise more questions that it answers.

Steve worked at shoe shop Lilley & Skinner in the early 1980s and thinks the abandoned Victorian shops beneath Selfridges as seen at around 31 minutes in Malcolm McLaren’s The Ghosts of Oxford Street, may have been located in their basement. I’ll let Steve take up the story.

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‘In the early 80s I was manager of Lilley & Skinner at 356-360 Oxford Street (the largest shoe store in the world according to the Guinness Book of Records). The staff entrance to the store was at the rear along Barrett Street. Here was a short driveway downhill into the building where I used to park.Also situated here was the maintenance department and adjacent was a concrete staircase which led down to several lower levels that were really no more than cellars. The lads in maintenance had told me about the ‘old street’ that was down there and took me down one day to have  to have a look.

Though of course very interesting there was not a lot to see, just a bit of old shop front under some arches and some cobbled street. The lads said that the council had put a preservation order on it and that we weren’t allowed to use the space in any way.

I found some stills from The Ghosts of Oxford Street a couple of years ago after I saw it discussed on this forum and I have to say that they are exactly how I remember the site at Lilley & Skinner.

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The first is one of the arches and the second is the piece of shop front and window frame. Entering the right of the store from Oxford Street you’d go downstairs to the Mens department on the lower ground floor and then there was another department (Tall and Small) at lower lower ground floor, which was on the left hand side of the building. Our secret street was a couple of levels down from that.’
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So there we go. Is this the true location of the secret street beneath Oxford Street? Does it really have a preservation order from the council? And if so, does it still exist? The site at 360 Oxford Street, incidentally, is now a branch of Forever 21.

Secret London: torture at the Temple

In some parts of London you can travel in space as well as time. Take the Temple. This characterful cluster of medieval buildings, gardens, courts and alleys wedged between Fleet Street and the Thames seems to have been uprooted from an Oxbridge college and dropped brick-for-brick in central London, just a heartbeat from the Embankment.

The Temple is a maze of cobbled paths and narrow arched doorways leading to small courtyards that have names like Pump Court and King’s Bench Walk. Most of the buildings are offices occupied by lawyers – this is London’s legal quarter, where barristers receive their training – but the area is also popular with tourists, who have found their way into this most secluded spot. They are here to see the Temple Church, one of London’s oldest churches and, with its distinctive circular nave, also one of the most atmospheric. It’s a building that exudes medieval mystery, and rightly so. Temple Church was founded by one of the world’s most intriguing secret societies, and continues to exude a curious, almost sinister vibe, a feeling that there is more to the Temple than meets the eye.

Even those who know the place well can sense the mood. ‘Buildings have memories,’ says Oliver the verger. ‘And this building has seen some turbulent times.’ Oliver is an intense young man who holds the keys to the secret parts of Temple Church. But that must wait. First, he offers a potted history, one that explains why the Temple is off the beaten track but very much on the tourist trail.

The great London writer HV Morton wrote in 1951 that ‘The Temple brings into the heart of a great city the peace of some ancient university town and the dignity of a past age’, and although the Temple area is redolent of Oxbridge its holy centrepiece is actually a stand-in for a more distant city. The Temple Church was built by the Knights Templars in the twelfth century. The Templars were a holy order formed in 1118 to protect European pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. Their base in Jerusalem was supposed to be the site of the Temple of Solomon, so the warrior-monks became known as the Knights Of The Temple of Solomon of Jerusalem, soon shortened to Knights Templars. The Knights Templars had churches and land all over Europe. In London they settled in Holborn but moved nearer the river in 1162, where they built the church. This great round edifice, the New Temple, was consecrated in 1185. Its circular nave paid direct homage to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the idea being that Londoners could visit Jerusalem without leaving the city. Such symbolism was easily grasped by medieval worshippers, who understood how one place could represent another and how the present could fold into the past.

The Knights Templars’ management of the routes in and out of the Middle East soon brought them great wealth, with which came great power, with which came great enemies. Rumours – started by rivals in other religious orders and the nobility – began to spread of their nefarious conduct, and of their sacrilegious and obscene initiation ceremonies, which took place on sacred ground, in London’s case in the crypt beneath the church. It was said that members spat on the cross, worshipped cats and practised ‘unnatural vice’ with each together. As hostility heightened, the end was inevitable and bloody. Phillip IV of France, who, coincidentally no doubt, was heavily in debt to the order, arrested leading French Templars in 1307 and through torture and imprisonment, gained lurid confessions about their immoral conduct. The order was dissolved in 1312.

Although the end for English Templars was not quite so brutal, the abrupt dissolution of the order – and the rumours that surrounded it – has provided fertile ground for conspiracy theorists. Some argue that the Templars were abolished because they knew more about the origins of the organised church than they should, others claimed that the Templars did not disappear, but were merely pushed underground and continue to operate to this day as a clandestine force that shape the world order. Novelist Dan Brown seized on versions of these myths for his blockbuster ‘The Da Vinci Code’, and, having done his research, settled on Temple Church as a suitably spooky location for some key aspects of the action.

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Brown was doubtless drawn by the dominant feature of the church, the ten statues of knights that lie on their backs on the floor in the centre of the circular nave. These stone effigies of dead Templars are frozen in time like Neolithic humans dredged from a peat bog. Despite having lain here since the twelfth century (one, commemorating Geoffrey De Mandeville, is dated 1144 making it older than the church itself; it is said to be here, because no other church would bury him), some have sharp, fine feature, while others have faces melted by German incendiary bombs. All look like they are covering something, perhaps an opening to a secret chamber. They certainly appear to serve some function greater than mere decoration. When you stand in the airless centre of this strange church, looking at this ancient stonework, you can feel the clammy arm of history encircling you. For centuries, Londoners and travellers will have stood at this spot, and bar some cosmetic changes – the church has been refurbished three times, by Christopher Wren, by the ever-busy Victorians and after the Second World War – will have gazed upon the same sight. Nothing has changed.

Oliver the verger interrupts my reverie with some subtle key jangling. We head over to a small door, which he unlocks to reveal a spiral stone staircase. We are seeking the penitential cell. This is where the Master of the Temple – the gloriously authoritarian title given to the church’s head priest – used to punish the unholy. The unfortunate Walter Bachelor was left to starve to death in the penitential cell after disobeying the Master, which is a particularly serious form of penance  as you can’t really repent after you are dead. The cell is halfway up the stairs and now has the appearance of a broom cupboard. It’s tall, but narrow, so a man can stand but not lie flat. Most disturbingly, it has windows overlooking the interior of the church, so those sentenced to starve could look down upon the statues of the crusaders, who would bear silent witness to the suffering taking place above. When we talk of a punishment being medieval, this is what we mean.

Oliver does not enjoy talking about the penitential cell, understandably uncomfortable with such ugly things occurring in the place he has to work every day. He also maintains a theological distance. He says this cruel punishment must have been a Templar thing, nothing to do with the organised church of the time. The Templars, it seems, are destined to play the role of scapegoats for centuries to come.

Oliver and the current Master, though, are happy to play the Templar connection to their advantage when it suits. Dan Brown’s novel brought unprecedented interest in their church, and the Temple suddenly became a hit on the tourist circuit. The Master wrote a book debunking the myths and generally tapped into the new-found interest. Now ‘The Da Vinci Code’ fever has worn off, but the Church has stayed in travel guides on its own merits, remaining a must-see for tourists from all over the world. Here they learn about the Temple Church’s history after the order was dissolved. After passing into the hands of the crown, the surrounding Templar land was given to barristers in 1608. They had begun to locate here from around the fifteenth century. After receiving the land rent-free, the barristers agreed to maintain the church and the Master in perpetuity. The most colourful example of them protecting the church occurred in 1678 during an outbreak of fire. The junior barristers quelled the flames with beer; it took six years for them to settle the brewer’s bill.

In preparation for the arrival of the day’s first tourists – and some are already milling outside waiting for their chance to snoop the ancient masonry – Oliver throws open the vast West Door. This huge arched door opens on to an easily overlooked alleyway, on the opposite side of the church to the large square that fronts the main entrance. It is a magnificent piece, thick regal wood surrounded by an arch of elaborate carved stonework. Nobody knows its age, although Oliver points out that some of the faded figures are wearing buttons, which were supposedly unheard of in Britain before the fourteenth century as they were associated with Muslims, the very foe the Templars were formed to fight.

Standing in this quiet spot round the back of the aged church staring at a door that by implication if not construction dates back to the twelfth century, it is easy to feel that you have slipped through time. One London writer, James Bone, said in 1919 that ‘At Temple, you are as close as an echo to the past’. Here, the echo resounds loudest and longest.

Jimmy Page, Aleister Crowley and the curse of Eddie And The Hot Rods

 

For the full story of the curse of “Do Anything You Wanna Do”, see my interview with the band in this month’s issue of Uncut magazine. 

It’s easy to turn your nose up at any mention of Aleister Crowley, especially if you have little interest in the occult and esoteric world in which he thrived. But to do so means ignoring the man’s often brilliant writing – his Diary of A Drug Fiend is a superior pulp classic, for instance – and also missing out on some of the greatest anecdotes of the 20th century.

For the uninitiated, Crowley (1875–1947) was a British writer who used sex, drugs and magic –often simultaneously – to try to attain altered states of mind and who achieved such a level of notoriety for his activities that he was brandished the ‘wickedest man in the world’. If not wicked, he was certainly a character. As well as signing his letters ‘666’ and conducting numerous affairs with lovers of both sexes, he climbed mountains, wrote pornographic poetry, fraternised with novelists, artists and spies and attempted to write a new American national anthem.

To give a flavour of Crowley’s often bizarre intersections with normal society, in the early days of the Second World War he was tapped up by British intelligence officer Ian Fleming, who asked him to take part in an ‘occult disinformation plot’ against Adolf Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess, a fervent believer in astrology and the occult. Crowley was keen, but the plot was ultimately shelved; Fleming, however, later used Crowley as the model for villain Le Chiffre in his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, in 1953. Another fan of Crowley was Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard. It is claimed Hubbard took part in ‘sexual magick’ (magick was a term favoured by Crowley) with a couple called Jack and Betty Parsons in an attempting to create a magical child, thus fulfilling a prophecy from Crowley’s The Book Of The Law. Crowley was not impressed, writing in one of his typically entertaining letters: ‘Apparently Parsons or Hubbard or somebody is producing a Moonchild. I get fairly frantic when I contemplate the idiocy of these louts.’

Crowley was bisexual and a heavy drug user, eventually becoming addicted to heroin. He also enjoyed peyote, handing it out at parties. On one occasion in New York he gave some to the novelist Theodore Dreiser, who became uncomfortable and asked if there was a doctor in the area. ‘I don’t know about a doctor,’ said Crowley, ‘But there’s a first-class undertaker on the corner of 33rd and 6th.’

This freeness with sex and drugs saw Crowley embraced by the rock and roll generation, particularly after he appeared on the cover of Sgt Pepper. But the story behind another of Crowley’s cover appearances is not so well known. In 1977, Essex rockers Eddie And The Hot Rod wrote a song that was partly inspired by Crowley’s famous motto: ‘Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law’. The band rewrote this as “Do Anything You Wanna Do”, a spirited ode to self-empowerment, and attached the lyrics to a perky pop tune that quickly reached the Top Ten. It was engineered by a young Steve Lillwhite, who recorded it at Island’s studio in Notting Hill.

In recognition of his contribution to the song’s genesis, the band decided to put Crowley on the cover of the single. But they also felt his glowering visage was not really in the spirit of the band, so manager Ed Hollis (brother of Talk Talk’s Mark) attached a slightly comical pair of Mickey Mouse ears to Crowley’s head.

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Great cover, big mistake. According to rumour, this image soon came to the attention of Jimmy Page, a Crowley apostle who lived in the Crowley’s old house, had a vast collection of Crowley paraphernalia and was fascinated by the occult. Page had orchestrated the Crowley-influenced occult symbolism that adored Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, which incidentally was also record at Island Studios.

The band were told that Page placed a curse upon Eddie And The Hot Rods for their disrespectful treatment of the Great Beast. From that moment, the band were plagued by problems. They were dropped by their label, their manager became hooked on heroin and they never bothered the higher reaches of the chart again. From behind his Mickey Mouse ears and with the help of satanic rock royalty, Crowley had got his revenge. As bassist Paul Gray told me, ‘Weird shit happened after that. A lot of people said we shouldn’t have fucked about with Crowley.’

Secret London: Davenports Magic Shop

It’s a surprise that Davenports has managed to make it on to the Harry Potter tourist trail given the shop is so damned hard to find. You could walk around the dank subways that link Charing Cross and Trafalgar Square for years without stumbling across it, and then one day you’ll turn a corner and whamkazaam, there it is, right in front of you, looking like it’s appeared out of thin air. Well, what do you expect from a magic shop?

Davenports isn’t any old magic shop (if there even is such a thing), it’s the oldest family magic shop in the world, owned and run by a Davenport for four generations and eyeing up a fifth. It began in the East End in 1898 and its heyday was probably the 1950s and 1960s, when it was based first on New Oxford Street and then Great Russell Street opposite the British Museum. The shop, staffed by magicians only too happy to demonstrate their art, became such a draw for tourists they decided to take themselves off the beaten track and into the tunnels around Trafalgar Square. In the move, Davenports took with them much of the stock, some of the fixtures and all of the atmosphere – walk inside and you step back in time, to late Victorian London, when Davenports was founded and magic was experiencing its first golden age, moving from games of find-the-lady on shadowy street corners into the glamorous Music Hall theatres that dominated popular entertainment.

The vast front window is the first sign that you’ve stumbled upon a refugee from the past. It is crowded with wands, juggling balls, posters advertising old magic shows, ventriloquist dummies, ropes, boxes, cards, red Indian headdresses and a giant dog bone. Enticing no? Opening the door triggers a satisfyingly meaty ‘dong’ from a hidden bell and reveals a small red-hued, slightly creepy interior. Most of the stock, old and weird, is kept in wall-mounted cabinets behind glass doors. The wooden shelves behind the counter are covered with fading handwritten signs – ‘Whoopee Cushion, £1’ –in front of which a young clerk demonstrates sleight-of-hand tricks, pausing only to sell invisible thread and a pack of cards. He pauses between tricks, and I jump in to ask if there is anybody I can talk to about the shop’s history. He disappears, not in a puff of smoke, but round the back, and re-emerges with a neat old lady, wearing a clerk’s apron. This is Betty Davenport, granddaughter of founder Lewis Davenport. ‘I started working here in 1948,’ she tells me, ‘when I was 14 and green as grass.’ Betty has run the business since 1960 and still comes in every afternoon to keep an eye on things. She intends to keep it in the family. One son, Bill, already helps run the business while another, Reg, is a performer, and there are three grandchildren being groomed to take over. Betty has high hopes for the youngest, now seven and doing tricks since he was five. ‘Young boys are inclined to be interested in magic anyway,’ she says, ‘it’s just that when they get older, other things can get in the way.’

Unarguable, and with that thought, conversation peters out. I go back to watching the clerk perform, his brow furrowed in concentration, desperate to get things right and show that in his case those mysterious ‘other things’ were firmly pushed to one side. Davenports has a curiously sober air for a room that’s full of rubber chickens and itching powder. This is a place for serious wizardry, where illusion is business. It’s more like a library than a joke shop. Another customer walks in and starts talking about the art, and I can sense my presence as a non-magician has been noticed. Is it just me, or is there a fear in the room I might hear something I shouldn’t, a trick, as it were, of the trade? So I bid farewell to Betty, close the door and retrace my steps back through the underground passages of Charing Cross, wondering all the while whether Davenports will even be there when I return.

Death and collecting

The Wellcome Collection is currently showing a typically absorbing exhibition titled Death, but it’s not really about that at all. It features work from a private collection, that of Richard Harris, and largely consists of skulls and skeletons, many of which are actually rather lifelike.

In fact, despite its arresting title, this is in many senses a rather squeamish, clean exhibition. There’s no dying, no decomposition, no pain, little mourning or God. There are no worms eating dead bodies, no cancer destroying live ones. It’s not even particularly morbid. It’s more about one man’s obsession with the human skeleton, stripped of flesh and cleansed of blood, sinew and memory, as portrayed by a number of very beautiful works of art over the centuries. If you want a more gruesome, more real, idea of death, try the Museum of London’s Doctors, Dissection and Medicine Men.

Collection owner Richard Harris stands in front of a work my Mexican artist Marcos Raya called Family Portrait : Wedding  at the 'Death: A Self-portrait' exhibition at the Wellcome Collection on November 14, 2012 in London, England. The exhibition showcases 300 works from a unique collection by Richard Harris, a former antique print dealer from Chicago, devoted to the iconography of death. The display highlights art works, historical artifacts, anatomical illustrations and ephemera from around the world and opens on November 15, 2012 until February 24, 2013.

It is tempting to speculate why Harris is so fascinated with his particular idea of death – why so clinical? Why so safe? – but it’s also ultimately rather pointless. In his excellent essay on collecting, Unpacking My Library, Walter Benjamin noted that ‘‘Collectors, like artists, operate out of unconscious motives, and so we cannot be known to ourselves.’ A collection can be about anything, and may reflect a personal interest or a psychological flaw, but the reasons behind their creation are rarely as interesting as you may hope.

What is intriguing about Harris’s love for skulls is that collections are often built as a defence against death itself, a way for the collector to claim mortality for himself in the form of something that will exist after he no longer does so (even if most collections end up being broken by families who lack the passion or obsession to keep them intact). Collections are also about memory, a way for the collector to freeze a moment in time. Every item represents a second, an hour, a week, a month – however long it took to locate and acquire – in the collector’s life that he can look at and recollect for years to come.

A collection is also about surrounding yourself with cool things that you like, although whether this ever makes the serious collector happy is a moot point. In his study of the collecting impulse, To Have And To Hold, Phillip Blom astutely notes that ‘For every collector, the most important object is the next one’, an acknowledgement that the collector will never be satisfied by what they have, as their next acquisition could be the big one, the one that completes the collection, or sends it off in an exciting new direction. This will never happen, of course, locking the collector in a spiral of anticipation and disappointment.

All of this is true whatever is being collected, whether it’s sick bags from aeroplanes, James Bond first editions or things that might be haunted. And just about anything can be collected, if you have the right kind of imagination. My friend Carl Williams, who deals in the counterculture, talks about his idea of collecting around ‘the sullen gaze’, that look of cruel insolence and careless superiority perfected by William Burroughs but which can be traced to many others, putting arresting flesh on Harris’s ambivalent skull.

Sir John Tenniel’s Alice In Wonderland chessboard

Earlier this year I was approached by bookseller Jake Fior, who told me he’d recently discovered a chessboard, never previously known about, that he believed had been handpainted by Victorian Alice In Wonderland illustrator Sir John Tenniel.

Tenniel’s illustrations are absolutely central to how we perceive the character of Alice in the two worlds she visits, inside the rabbit hole and through the looking glass, meaning this was clearly a pretty significant discovery, especially as Through The Looking Glass is plotted to resemble a game of chess.

My piece on the find eventually appeared in yesterday’s The TimesSadly, this is  hidden behind a paywall, but thankfully The Telegraph reprinted pretty much the whole thing word-for-word later the same day. Fans of Alice should keep their eyes peeled on Cecil Court, where an Alice-themed boutique – complete with live white rabbit in the front window – will soon appear.

I think that calls for a song…

 

Peter Hitchens on drugs and the moral, opium-eating, Victorians

Peter Hitchens is a very clever man. I’m sure he’s also sincere – I can’t believe British newspapers would employ somebody to say stupid and provocative things just to get attention, after all – but judging by the interviews he’s conducted for his new book about drugs, The War We Never Fought, he’s a little bit daft.

Hitchens theory is that there has never been a war on drugs. ‘Drug-taking was, in effect, decriminalised by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971,’ is how Decca Aitkenhead paraphrases. Instead, he harks back to the golden age of the Victorians, when there was ‘increasing self-imposed moral conduct’ (Hitchens’ words.)

Where to begin with this nonsense? Well, let’s just stick to the last bit, those morally virtuous Victorians. In a sense, he’s right: the Victorians didn’t take illegal drugs. That’s because they were too busy snaffling down the legal ones – things like opium, cocaine and cannabis – which were available to just about anybody who needed them until 1868, and then over the counter from chemists until 1926. This was the golden age of drug-taking in Britain, with opium being consumed on a scale we could scarcely now believe.

Victorian London was awash with opium, not in semi-mythologised Chinese opium-smoking dens in Limehouse (of which there were very few), but in pubs, chemists, general stores and markets, where it was sold in bottles, powders, pills, lozenges, on plasters, in sweets and much else besides. The centre of trade was in Mincing Lane, London, where 90 per cent of transactions occurred. It was most commonly taken as laudanum, a tincture of opium and red wine, with saffron and cinnamon.

This was not thrill seeking. In the days before aspirin, opium was one of the few reliable painkillers available to Victorians, especially especially fever and diarrhoea, but also malaria, smallpox, syphilis and TB. And it was effective as well. As anybody who has taken codeine or morphine will confirm, opiates have a tendency to block you right up – something that was particularly helpful when the next cholera or dysentery epidemic was just around the corner.

However, opium was also used on children, particularly when teething, in specially formulated sweet concoctions like Godfrey’s Cordial and Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, and thus surely led to the deaths of many by overdose. It also, believes the drug’s historian Martin Booth in Opium: A History, ‘provided an escape from the misery and vicissitudes of working-class life.’ This was especially the case in the Fens, where ‘many never take their beer without dropping a piece of opium into it.’

Because of these two factors, opium was belatedly seen as a physical and spiritual danger, and Victorian abstinence advocates put it right up there with alcohol and tobacco as serious threats to British life. What’s interesting, though, is the way – anecdotally at least – users were able to effectively and relatively painlessly self-medicate, living normal decent lives despite their addiction, without resorting to crime. This is true for the working classes, it’s true of the famous opium-eating writers like Coleridge, Shelly, Keats, Collins and De Quincey, and it’s also true of the many great statesmen – the sort of people who shaped the British Empire so beloved by Peter Hitchens – who took the drug. You see, because opium was the only halfway reliable painkiller around, everybody took it – including people like William Wilberforce, the great Christian abolitionist, and William Gladstone, who popped some in his coffee before speaking in Parliament to improve his rhetorical powers – even if not all of them became addicted.

In later years, opium – and especially its stronger derivatives morphine and heroin – began to be used by those simply seeking a pathway to an altered consciousness, a shortcut perhaps to the sort of transcendent mystical experience some people get from religion. In doing so, they were merely following pattern taken by mankind in all civilisations since the dawn of time, however much Hitchens may wish that weren’t the case.

As restrictions were introduced – for opium, not alcohol and tobacco – drug-use declined massively and by 1960 there were less than 100 registered heroin addicts in the UK. They received their drugs from doctors, cheap and undiluted, and were largely able to enjoy a normal existence (at least in comparison with their criminalised counterparts in America). However, as drug use increased in the 1960s, restrictions were imposed, culminating with Hitchens hated Misuse of Drugs Acts in 1971, after which drug supply passed almost completely into the hands of the criminal and use immediately rocketed. A far cry indeed from those morally virtuous days of the 1850s, when Britain’s great and good could simply pick up a bottle of premium laudanum from their nearest general store and retreat into blissful opium dreams.

Cockney Visions: Writing Britain at the British Library

The British Library’s new exhibition Writing Britain, which runs until 25 September 2012, has big ambitions. It aims to study place and landscape in British literature, looking at how writers and poets have been informed by the land around them, and how their writing has transformed the way we view these spaces.

Phew!

The exhibition is divided into different thematic sections, and includes one on Cockney Visions about London writing, and another on the suburbs, which also has considerable London content.

It’s a remarkably bold concept, but the BL does not shy from a challenge – its exhibition on Liberty a few years ago was one of the most intellectually intense I have ever seen, while the one on Language was similarly involved.

This time, it doesn’t quite pull it off. The problem is the same that blighted last year’s science fiction exhibition – too many books. Entering a BL exhibition is like visiting a first rate antiquarian bookshop, but one were you can’t touch the books and none of them are for sale. It’s great to see these rare and beautiful books, but it’s also incredibly frustrating that you can’t pick them up, feel the pages, smell the history.

Paradoxically perhaps, books are also an insufficient way of examining landscape in the way the exhibition intends. If we can’t actually sit there and read Wuthering Heights, immersing ourself in this extraordinary place the writer has created, we need other ways to make the journey. The most evocative part of the exhibition is the one on the Lake District and Highlands, purely because there are some wonderful paintings on display, which help crystallise our vision of what Wordsworth, Keats and Scott were describing. Conversely, the London section takes in the usual suspects on that well-trod wander from Blake and De Quincey to Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Will Self and Iain Sinclair  (and includes a wonderful copy of the London Psychogeographic Society newsletter from the early 90s), but fails to really plunge us into the city of our imagination.

Where the exhibition – and the BL itself – really does excel is when it can produce original manuscripts, diaries and photographs. These messy, scrappy, lovingly flawed items show the writing process in a way a beautifully bound finished book never can. And some of the best of these are to be found in the sections of the exhibition related to London. There’s a sketch by John Betjeman of Dalston Station; an unpublished poem by Evelyn Waugh about the Crystal Palace (complete with Waugh’s drawing of the building); a couple of pages from JG Ballard’s collection, including the heavily amended opening pages to Kingdom Come and Crash; and a lovely drawing by GK Chesterton to accompany his notes for The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

Dalston Station by John Betjeman.

Kingdom Come manuscript

Notes for The Napoleon of Notting Hill by GK Chesterton

I loved also a letter by Conan Doyle sent to his mother from South Norwood, in which he carefully sketched the floorplan of a suburban house he was thinking of buying, and a copy of Pygmalion, which Shaw had phonetically annotated to show how he felt the cockney phrases should be pronounced.

a personal favourite was a draft of Albert Angelo by BS Johnson, showing how Johnson wished a section of one page to be cut out so it would reveal a sentence from later in the book, a brilliant way to create a  flash-forward or pre-cognition.

Best of all, though, was this photograph, which shows JM Barrie, GK Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw dressed as cowboys in 1914. For the full story, read this excellent blog post. It has very little to do with Writing Britain, but it’s bloody marvellous all the same.

Hawksmoor at the Royal Academy: bunkum and brilliance

As the adverts all over the tube let us know, there’s currently a big David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy. Less well advertised, but far more compelling from a London point of view, is the same gallery’s fine show on the fascinating architecture of Nicholas Hawskmoor.

This takes place in the Architecture Space – a nice name for a small corridor near the restaurant – and features a short introduction to the architect, alongside photographs and paintings (photographed, not originals) of key works that feature or reference Hawksmoor’s work.

Leon Kossoff's Christchurch, Spitalfields

Hawksmoor, who specialised in hefty Baroque churches, is not an architect to everybody’s taste. In 1734, James Ralph argued that Christchurch was ‘beyond question, one of the most absurd piles in Europe’.  His reputation was resuscitated by Kerry Downes in 1959, who insisted of his churches that ‘they will repel us or fascinate us, but we cannot escape from their strange, haunting power’. This has been a mantra repeated by writers in the following years.

I actually find it quite easy to escape their powers, strange, haunting or otherwise, but this supposed mysterious attraction of Hawksmoor churches is now almost impossible to ignore or deny. It has been repeated so many times, it’s become fact, as Hawksmoor became the anointed architect for a certain type of London writer, the Peter Cook to Sir Christopher Wren’s Dudley Moore. I admire Hawksmoor’s churches, but don’t see them as particularly profound or unsettling.

Charles Hardaker's Hawksmoor Baroque, St Mary Woolnoth, London

Among the first to take up this theme was Iain Sinclair who wrote about Hawksmoor in King Lud (1975). A quote from the book is reproduced on the wall, and it offers a perfect illustration of what I dislike about the psychogeographic way of seeing London: ‘From what is known of Hawksmoor it is possible to imagine he did work a code into the buildings, knowingly or unknowingly, templates of meaning, bands of continuous ritual.’

‘From what is known’; ‘possible to imagine’; ‘knowing or unknowing’. Make it up as you go along, in other words. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but I do resent the way it is elevated above all other forms of London writing.

Sinclair has made a career out it, and he does it so well you could almost believe he takes it seriously. A fascinating map drawn by him features in the exhibition, showing his hand-drawn connections between London buildings, and there’s also a great film in which he talks eloquently about his relationship with Hawksmoor, which began when he was a gardener employed by Tower Hamlets to mow the churchyard grass at St Anne, Limehouse. Sinclair is a wonderful speaker, and spins a fine yarn here.

Sinclair's map for King Lud

After Sinclair came Ackroyd and Alan Moore, both of whom woves tales of occultish imagination around this indefinable mystery of Hawksmoor churches. Nonsense clearly, but at least it gave us the majestic From Hell, which features prominently in the exhibition.

From Hell featuring Christchurch, Spitalfields

All this bunkum gets space in the exhibition, but I found much else to entertain besides. There are wonderful photographs and prints of Hawksmoor buildings in many different styles and from varied eras, and also a passionate film by Ptolmy Dean, explaining – quite successfully – the attractions of the easily overlooked St Mary Woolnoth near the Bank of England.

The most interesting element, however, were the photos that drew attention to the parallels between Hawksmoor’s work and more recent buildings. We see a comparison of St Mary Woolnoth and Poultry in the City, and another between St Anne, Limehouse and the National Theatre. It might not be as sexy as psychogeography, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of straightforward architectural history every now and then.

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Celia Paul's St George, Bloomsbury