Category Archives: Pubs

Pubs

I’ve only ever really had one local, that is a pub I visited at least once a week for a couple of years. But what a local. Crocker’s Folly was one of London’s best pubs, a beautiful old gin palace, with a stunning saloon bar that featured 50 kinds of marble, Romanesque marble columns, Jacobean ceiling, cut glass, chandeliers and carved mahogany.

The pub even had a great back story. It was built by Frank Crocker in 1889, who got wind that a new station was to open at Marylebone and so placed his extravagant new hotel at what he believed was going to be the perfect location to attract the thousands of travellers. Sadly, the station was constructed half-a-mile  to the south and – it’s said – a ruined Crocker leapt to his pavementy death from one of the upstairs window. (In truth, he died in 1904 of natural causes.)

I used Crocker’s when I lived on the nearby canal at Lisson Grove, popping there for a pint after work, for a quick lunch or long dinner, to watch the football, for a sneaky drink between visits to the launderette, to take part in the pub quiz, to meet friends, to be alone. We had a great landlord and the pub was always full of canal folk and locals, a place you felt welcome, where there was always somebody to talk to or enough room for you to settle down on your own, with a packet of cigarettes, a newspaper and a couple of quid for the fruit machine.

Then, pretty abruptly, things changed. A new landlord was brought in by the owners and you couldn’t tell exactly what he was doing wrong, but it was clearly something. Dodgy kids from nearby estates become more prominent. The quality of ale declined. Less events were held. The food menu got worse. Suddenly, Crocker’s became a little rough – it was no longer the sort of place you’d expect to encounter the annual Christmas party held by national newspaper crossword compilers, as had once been the case in the late 1990s – and so we’d walk past it on our way to other, now better, pubs around Warwick Avenue. That’s the problem with pubs. If they aren’t good enough, there’s always a better one around the corner. Until that one closes as well.

I noticed on one of my last visits to Crocker’s that the door policy had changed to an almost unheard of ‘Over-25s only’. In 2002, shortly before I left the canal behind, it closed.

It’s still closed.

Lord know what Crocker’s looks like inside, even though it is a listed building and being carefully watched by CAMRA members. Last time I passed it was as boarded up as ever, but there is planning permission for flats to be installed in the many upstairs rooms. Work has begun, I’ve heard, but CAMRA do not think a pub is part of that plan. What this means for that astounding ground floor, I do not know.

Crocker’s Folly was a beautiful building, open to all Londoners, serving many needs and creating a community around it, and it’s demise is as great a tragedy as that imagined for its creator, more so because it always felt deliberate, as if the company that owned the pub were opting for managed decline, an excuse to close the pub and find a way to sidestep planning permission so they could sell it to developers. That never happened and so the pub was left to rot, like so many others in London.

If you can stand it, scroll through this amazing Flickr archive of London’s lost pubs. I knew some of these, once.

I’ve written about the threats to London pubs and what can be done to save them in this month’s Metropolitan magazine for Eurostar. 

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Banking on Sherlock

When Abbey National opened their grand Art Deco headquarters at Nos 219-229 Baker Street in 1932, they didn’t quite know what they were getting into. Because it sat in the spot where 221b should be, the new building almost immediately began receiving letters addressed to Sherlock Holmes. When Arthur Conan Doyle chose an address for Holmes, he deliberately picked 221b because the Baker Street numbering did not go that high. But after renumbering, and with the arrival of Abbey House, Holmes’s address suddenly came into solid existence.

While many banks might have ignored this accident of geography, Abbey embraced it. Over the years, they really threw themselves into the business of celebrating the fictive biography of the world’s greatest detective. They installed a plaque (now lost), they published books and, after a while, they employed a letter writer, somebody whose job was to respond to all the letters addressed to Sherlock, acting more or less as his personal secretary.

In 1989, the New York Times interviewed Nikki Caparn, who then had that responsibility, and she described how she had received letters asking Sherlock to solve Watergate, or locate some missing homework. ‘Many people don’t ask for anything in particular,’ she said. ‘They just want to know what Mr Holmes is doing now or where he is and they hope he is well. And many people know he’s not real and write tongue in cheek. But some people haven’t worked it out. Mr Holmes would be 136 years old now, so it’s unlikely that he’d still be living here.’

Here is one such response from around exactly that time, sent to Kieran (@hail_tothechimp on Twitter), who had written to Sherlock to ask him about his most difficult case. Ms Caparn clearly does not feel equipped to respond to such a difficult and controversial query, so plays a straight bat with her standard response.

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Abbey have since moved from Baker Street and are owned by Spanish giants Santander, and I don’t know what has happened to their vast archive of letters. However, Abbey also created something for Sherlock Holmes fans that is definitely still standing. In 1951, the bank put together a Sherlock Holmes exhibition for the Festival of Britain at Abbey House. The Spectator said the Festival ‘was unlikely to show anything nearer perfection in its way than the reconstruction by the Marylebone Public Libraries Committee of Sherlock Holmes’s room in Baker Street.’

The review continues that ‘everything is here for the student of Holmes—violin, hypodermic syringe, revolvers, handcuffs’ and provides not just ‘a shrine for the connoisseurs of Holmes but a deep pleasure for the student of the late Victorian period’. The Spectator concluded that ‘when the Festival has subsided, this charming reconstruction is preserved for the enjoyment of posterity.’

Which it was. In 1957, the brewer Whitbread purchased the entire exhibition and put it on display in a pub, the Northumberland Arms, which it renamed the Sherlock Holmes and opened as what was surely one of London’s first theme pubs. The pub is located in Charing Cross, a key location in many Holmes stories, and the exhibition is still standing exactly as it was installed, preserving to this day behind glass in an upstairs room a slice of 1950s Britain in the shape of a fictional Victorian living room.

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

On old pubs, and getting older

Last week I went for a stroll around Soho for the first time in a while and spent most of the time in a state of shock and confusion at the lack of familiar landmarks: restaurants and bars had changed name, shops had appeared from nowhere, and everything appeared to have been cleverly redesigned to make me feel old and out-of-it.

Just about the only thing that remained consistent were the pubs: Bradleys, the French House, the Sun and 13 Cantons – venues in which I had spent much of my 20s were still present and correct. Indeed, while we can bemoan the undoubted withering of London’s traditional pub life, it’s still remarkable how many old-timers still cling in. The British Library has just republished The Epicure’s Almanack, an 1815 guidebook to London eating and drinking. Fascinating in its own right – did you know there used to be three inns near Westminster Abbey called Heaven, Hell and Purgatory? – it also has brilliant footnotes by Janet Ing Freeman, who maps and chronicles the history of the 650 establishments reviewed by Ralph Rylance 200 years before. In doing so, she notes those places that still exists: all are pubs rather than restaurants and include the still excellent Seven Stars in Holborn, as well as London legends like Wapping’s Town of Ramsgate, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in the City, the Windmill in Clapham and the  Spaniards Inn in Hampstead.

Town of Ramsgate, Wapping

Another London institution, the BFI, have also been looking at pubs. Their brilliant new two-disc DVD, Roll Out The Barrel, rounds up a great bunch of short films and documentaries about British pubs. A highlight for Londoners is Under The Table You Must Go, a 1969 film by Arnold Miller, the gonzo exploitationist behind London In The Raw and West End Jungle. His film visits half-a-dozen London pubs, almost all of which appear to no longer exist. The most intriguing for me is surely The Great Escape, a theme bar for RAF man that is filled with paraphernalia from WWII escape attempts (it’s now Mabel’s Tavern), but I also appreciated the moment when Jon Pertwee inexplicably popped up in a pair of lederhosen to serenade a crowd of pub goers with a burst of the classic Chelsea anthem Zigger Zagger. A trailer for the DVD can be seen here.

Hogarth was right: Beer and London’s brewing renaissance

This piece originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Eurostar’s Metropolitan magazine. 

Beer Street by Hogarth

Is it a renaissance, or a revolution? In 2006, when Young’s left its brewery in Wandsworth to move to Bedford, it felt final orders had been called on brewing in London. The city that was once swimming in beer – literally, when a brewery exploded in Tottenham Court Road in 1814, causing the Great Beer Flood –had become a desert; only a handful of breweries remained. Six years later, everything has changed. London now has 21 breweries, in every corner of the capital, with more opening all the time.

‘London was once the brewing capital of the world,’ says Paddy Johnson, director of the Windsor & Eton brewery but speaking for the London Brewers Alliance, formed in April 2010 to represent London breweries. ‘It was bigger than Burton-on-Trent or bloomin’ Munich. We want to return to that. At our first meeting there were 13 brewers, ranging from Windsor & Eton, who had just done our first brew, to Fuller’s the biggest, oldest brewery in the capital. At our last meeting we had 21, and another six are on the way. It’s a vibrant scene. There is a real buzz about London beer. The public have cottoned on big time.’

So, why the change? It’s partly about microbrewing – a movement that began in America among people feel they weren’t getting sufficient taste, value or variety from the conglomerates that rule the beer world, so begin brewing their own. Microbreweries reached the UK in the 1980s and flourished after 2002, when tax rules were relaxed. London took a while to catch on, people put off by the barren London beer scene and the high-cost of starting up.

Camden Town Brewery

Under a railway arch down a cobbled mews in north London, Rob Gargan, brewmaster at Camden Town Brewery, takes a break from overseeing the production of 16,500 litres of beer a week to explain. ‘London is one of the last areas of the country to open up,’ he says, amid gleaming hi-tech equipment. ‘People realised that the beer they were drinking was from up north but there’s no reason why we can’t do it here.’ First to the pump was Meantime in Greenwich in 2000, but the new wave really began when Sambrook’s opened in 2008 in south-west London. Through 2010 and 2011 it felt a new brewery was opening every month as the resurgent London scene became the talk of the beer world. It isn’t just about microbreweries, either, Chiswick’s huge and venerable Fuller’s is a keen member of the LBA. ‘It’s not about micro it’s about local,’ insists Johnson. ‘Local beer for London is our mantra.’

And it is more than the rediscovery of a lost art, it’s about introducing a new drinking experience into London. There’s a running joke in ‘Asterix In Britain’ about the Englishmen’s baffling fondness for warm, flat beer, and while these classic brown ales are still brewed in London, the new breweries often look across the Atlantic for inspiration. Peter Holt, landlord at the award-winning Southampton Arms, explains: ‘English beers would be a bitter or mild made with Kentish hops, for an older generation. But a lot of the beers we sell use New World hops. Hops are measured in alphas and while English hops might be three, American hops are 13, 14 or 15. It’s much more intense.’

The Southampton Arms, the Campaign For Real Ale’s London pub of the year, only stocks beer and cider from small, independent breweries. It’s one of a growing number of London pubs to steer clear of mass-produced lagers and foamy bitters. ‘People are much more aware of what they eat and drink,’ says Holt. ‘People are conscious that you can buy Aussie lager in the supermarket for very little, so why go to the pub to pay three times as much when they have decent beer that can’t be found elsewhere?’

Southampton Arms

It’s not just locals. ‘Tourists desperately want to drink local beer,’ says Johnson. ‘When they go to a pub, they ask what’s local. London now has a huge range of award-winning beers to offer them.’

Most popular among these are the American-influenced pale ales (IPAs): golden, citrusy, stronger in alcoholic content, gassy and cold. Asterix and Obelix would approve. ‘Pale ale is the big thing,’ says Mark Dredge, a beer writer turned communications officer at Camden Town Brewery. ‘Most breweries sell more of them than anything else. It comes between a lager and a cask ale, so if you’re an ale drinker you can appreciate the flavours, and if you’re a lager drinker you can enjoy the texture and the fact it is colder. It’s the sort of beer anybody feels they can drink.’

Sambrook’s

Camden Town does a popular IPA, while the ones bottled by Kernel, a brewery near Tate Modern, have beer-lovers in raptures. But there’s variety among London brewers. Sambrook’s – founded by Duncan Sambrook, an accountant who attended CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival in Earl’s Court, realised no London beers were available and decided to do something about it – specialises in traditional British beers. He talks me through the beer-making process. It’s a complex business. Who ever realised that if you got some barley, soaked it to the point of germination, and then rotated it on a flat floor with a large rake so the seeds didn’t know which way is up and can’t break into shoot, you could roast this malted barley, boil it, add hops, cool it, add yeast, add a fish’s bladder, call it beer, drink it and not kill yourself?

Adapt this basic method, and much can be made. Meantime does lager, pale ale, fruit and wheat beers, you can get a great thick bottled stout from former solicitor Gary Ward’s Redchurch Street Brewery in Shoreditch, while Redemption – which was opened by banker Andy Moffat in Tottenham in 2010 – and Brodie’s – run by a brother-and-sister team, James and Lizzie Brodie, in Leyton since 2008 – make beers that come somewhere between the pioneering Kernel and the traditional Sambrook’s. And that’s just for starters.

Camden Town’s big seller is lager. The brewery was founded by Jasper Cuppaidge, who realised that the beers he liked came from abroad so decided to make some himself. His beer is now in 120 pubs, mainly in London – for most London breweries, distribution is limited to the M25, although the LBA helps organise festivals of London beer all around the country, as well as having regular London beer showcases in different London pubs each week. The LBA also set up a marquee at London Zoo during their late-night summer openings, which was very popular among customers in their 20s and 30s. Many of the breweries themselves are run by similarly young, self-taught enthusiasts.

The LBA give these tyros the help they need. ‘A lot of our members are young so we assist them with distribution and technical problems,’ says Johnson. ‘We want to raise the bar for everybody brewing in London. We’re competitors, but we act co-operatively. If more people drink more London beer we all benefit.’

The Gun Club

I have a piece in the latest Uncut about the Gun Club, the band fronted by Jeffrey Lee Pierce. The Gun Club trailblazed the kind of killer punk-swamp-country-blues later taken on, more lucratively, by Nick Cave and the White Stripes.

Born in California, Pierce settled in London in 1985. He spent a lot of his time hanging out at the Batcave, the Goth nightclub in Soho’s Dean Street.

Pierce left London in 1995, when he was deported after wielding a samurai sword in a Kensington pub. Which makes this trailer for what appears to be an Italian documentary from 2008 all the more intriguing, as it features Pierce wielding a samurai sword in London in 1992. (I’m not sure if it is the same film as this 2006 documentary, Ghost on the Highway.)

Pierce was a talented enigma, who made some amazing music. They also wrote the best song title ever, in Sex Beat, which pretty much sums up what all rock ‘n’ roll is really about.

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Morrissey and London: ‘I like it here, can I stay?’

Like many adolescent boys who thought they were cleverer than they really were and were scared of girls, I was obsessed with The Smiths and Morrissey.

The Smiths are a Manchester band, but by the time I became a fan, Morrissey had – like so many Northerners – fled the provinces for London where he spent the next few years revelling in the size, confusion and culture of the Big Smoke. Instead of Whalley Range and the Moors Murders, he sang about Earl’s Court and the Krays and as he entered his ‘Glam Nazi’ era he became obsessed with distinctly London aspects of working-class life such as skinheads, West Ham and the Cockney Rejects.

This was Morrissey’s London period; you could argue it began with the Smiths songs London (1987) and Half A Person (1987), and lasted until he was hounded out of the capital for going a bit crap around a decade later. Sure, London still cropped up in later songs – 2004’s Come Back To Camden, for instance – but the love was gone. He would later sound like any other tedious expat whn complaining to the NME that ‘if you walk through Knightsbridge on any bland day of the week you won’t hear an English accent. You’ll hear every accent under the sun apart from the British accent.’ But it was fun while it lasted.

Interesting Drug (1989)

Although Morrissey’s previous solo singles were very London-influenced, this was the first – rather odd – video to be clearly filmed in London. But where? The red bus glimpsed at 1:21 may tell somebody with better eyesight than I. Is it a 34, placing this somewhere between Barnet and Walthamstow?
Update: Comments suggest this is Battersea, so not the 34 after all. Maybe the 37?

Our Frank (1991)

A pretty poor song, but the video marks the start of Morrissey’s skinhead obsession – it was not long after this that he took to performing before a skinhead backdrop and brandishing the Union Jack at Finsbury Park. There are lots of buses here, and also a gorgeous ghost sign at 1:47. But where is it shot? Charing Cross Road? The City? Victoria? Anybody?
Update: Comments place this definitively as King’s Cross.

We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful (1992) 

I hated this when it came out, but I was wrong because it is brilliant and the video is a treat as Morrissey wanders around a still not-quite-gentrified Wapping with the gang of bequiffed young boys who have put a smile back on his own thin and youthful face. Most Morrissey fans get a kick out of seeing the old boy looking happy, which is why his recent ‘love’ album, Ringleader Of The Tormentors, got such strangely good reviews. The abandoned pub in this video is now the Turk’s Head cafe and you can also catch a glimpse of Oliver’s Wharf, which was one of the first warehouses in the area to be redeveloped into housing.

You’re The One For Me Fatty (1992)

An awful song, but an unmistakable setting as a young skin takes ‘fatty’ on a date, while Moz whines about how ‘all over Battersea’ there’s ‘some hope, and some despair’, over a shot of the power station. Interestingly, a scene from one of Morrissey’s favourite Northern kitchen sink dramas, ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ was filmed by director Karel Reisz around here, in Culvert Road, Battersea. Of Reisz, we’ll hear more later.

Boxers (1995)

From the start of Morrissey’s decline – and height of his obsession-with-male-physicality – this ho-hum single was filmed at the legendary York Hall, Bethnal Green, as can be seen in the rather elegant closing shots.

Sunny (1996)

Such a terrible song I didn’t know anything about it until now, as I had long lost interest in Morrissey at this point, but it’s filmed in Victoria Park in East London. And the cover featured this iconic Morrissey shot, outside old Kray haunt the Grave Maurice (now, I think a fried chicken shop).

There were many other London influences in Morrissey’s songs at the time, with the Kray-referencing Last Of The Famous International Playboys, the song Spring-Heeled Jim (a reference to the Victorian London monster Spring-Heeled Jack), the song titles Piccadilly Palare and Dagenham Dave, and the album titles Your Arsenal and Vauxhall & I, as Morrissey explored the seamy side of London life. He was also rumoured to be making his first acting appearance at around this time as the South London gangster Charlie Richardson, although sadly that never came to pass.

I’ll leave you with one last example. This clip is of Kennington kids discussing the infamous case of Derek Bentley, who was sentenced to death for his part in the shooting of a policeman in Croydon, and it comes from Karel Reisz’s classic London documentary ‘We Are The Lambeth Boys’. It was sampled by Morrissey for the track Spring-Heeled Jim, which featured on the Vauxhall & I album. How much more London can you get?

Beer for a year

The other day, somebody delivered this box to my door.

I opened it.

And this is what was inside.

Beer! Thirteen bottles of the stuff.

I get four of these boxes each year, my Christmas present from Ms Great Wen. They are supplied by a company called MyBreweryTap.com, a new company that specialises in finding obscure real ales from microbreweries in every corner of the country and delivering them to anybody who fancies trying new and different beers. I am a member of the 52 Week Beer Club, which means I get a different bottle for every week of the year. Included in this quarter’s box is an alcoholic ginger beer, and something called Undertaker from Wincle, which must be good for so many reasons.

I am not a heavy drinker and I’m not a CAMRA nerd, but I like a fine ale. So this is perfect.

Ed Turner, the founder, started the company after sampling a brilliant beer in the Lake District and then realising that nobody else in the country could get hold of it, because the means of supply were beyond the tiny brewery’s budget. They now deliver beer from dozens of small breweries, including Clapham’s Sambrook’s. Last year, Ed took me on a tour of Sambrook’s, followed by a tasting session about which I remembered little other than the website of the company, which I then passed on to my missus accompanied by some large and appropriate hints.

So there you go. If you like beer, this is for you. Tonight, I plan to try the Unpronouncable IPA from Crown Brewery, a ‘punchy 7 per cent’ the tasting notes inform me.

Cheers!

Hare Marsh and Rabbit Marsh: fact and fiction in Bethnal Green, part two

In ‘King Dido’, his 1969 novel about Dido Peach, a docker turned criminal, Alexander Baron set the action in a shabby Bethnal Green alleyway called Rabbit Marsh. This was directly inspired by Baron’s memories of Hare Marsh, a tiny cul-de-sac that still exists near Brick Lane. Here, Baron gives us a careful description of the squalid street.

‘In 1911, although the crowding was less abominable and the old Hogarthian bedlam had vanished, the street was still a slum, the roadway narrow and cobbled, the houses black and decayed, many of the ground floors turned into miserable shops and workshops… the railway lines ran behind high brick walls on an embankment behind Rabbit Marsh.’

It hasn’t changed much, has it?

Although a new block of luxury flats sits on the right-hand side, the left wall is an old workshop, the street is still cobbled and it ends abruptly and noisily at the railway. Dido Peach lived above his mother’s rag shop, so it is perhaps apposite that the building to the left is now a second-hand clothes shop.

Here it is again in 1973, in a brilliant, bleak image by Jonathan Barker on Flickr. Scroll down and Barker also has a great picture of it later that year with Cheshire Street’s atmospheric market in full swing.

Baron writes.

‘Imagine a narrow ravine whose floor consists of worn cobbles running between pavements of uneven flags. Such was Rabbit Marsh. That was all the street was; two narrowly facing rows of such buildings, leaning forward with age, cleft by an alley here or there or pierced at the base by a porch leading into a yard.’

Alexander chose his location carefully – the contrast between the rural idealism of the name and the reality of the space is crucial; the words ‘rabbit’ and ‘marsh’ also have insinuations, of over-breeding and of getting stuck  – but he also cheated a bit. Although we know that Rabbit/Hare Marsh is a short dead-end street in the book it is still large enough to contain several dozen shops and houses (Dido lives at No.34) as well as a pub (the Railway), and we are told it hosts a street market on Sundays. The real Hare Marsh simply isn’t large enough for all of that.

Nowhere in the book does Baron mention Hare Street (as Cheshire Street was then named), the now trendy road that links Hare Marsh to Brick Lane, and my assumption is that the author conflated Hare Marsh and Hare Street to give Rabbit Marsh a little extra space for him to play with than really existed. So Rabbit Marsh is stretched, the residents allowed more room in which to breath.

He did not have to imagine much. Opposite Hare Marsh is a pub that looks a lot like the one described in the book.

This is the Carpenter’s Arms. In another nod to reality, there is real villainy here. Dido Peach ends up becoming a kind of local enforcer, taking protection money from local shopkeepers, and the Carpenter’s was once owned by the Krays. All three Krays – Ron, Reg and Charlie – had their funerals at the nearby St Matthew’s church.

Baron’s descriptions of Hare Marsh are captivating, but they are necessarily evocative. Dido Peach’s universe is tiny, and we have to believe in it. This was true to life. In this era, the average Londoner was born, lived, worked and died within a three-mile circle and Peach’s world is similarly shrivelled. The furthest north he gets is Dalston; south is the impenetrable barrier of the river. His one trip west takes him as far as Liverpool Street station, where he heads for the Tube platform and sits watching the trains coming and going, but never considers getting on board.

In ‘The People Of The Abyss’, Jack London’s 1902 account of the East London poor, he writes of one young soak: ‘From the moment of his birth, all the forces of his environment had tended to harden him, and he viewed his wretched, inevitable future with a callousness and unconcern I could not shake.’

This is also the tragedy of Dido Peach’s life, the limitations of possibility and how poverty destroys self-belief and any means the protagonist has of escape, but it is what makes the book so acute and so realistic. Seek it out, then take the pilgrimage to this tiny and otherwise forgotten dead-end alleyway in E2, where fact and fiction collide in gritty, grotty greatness.

Part one is here.

The pub with no booze

Heard the one about the public house that forgot to renew its alcohol license? That’s what happened over in Greenwich, in a pub that I have promised not to name after speaking to a harassed landlady who informed me, ‘It might be funny to you, but I’ve just spent the whole morning down the council sorting out the paperwork.’

However, having respected her wishes to keep schtum for nearly 24 hours, I can stay silent no longer.

The pub has managed to secure an emergency license that allows them to serve booze from Friday to Monday, but during the week they have incorporated a bring your own bottle policy, as drinkers discovered when they turned up to the weekly quiz on Monday night and were then sent home to raid their own cupboards for leftover alcohol.

The owners of the nearby Theatre of Wine can expect to make a roaring trade for the next month.