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Nothing Quite Like It

Of London areas, there is no end. The vibrancy of Walthamstow, the mournful decay of Pimlico and Mornington Crescent, the confusion of Stoke Newington, the intense and energetic air of Brixton, the watery gloom of Wapping, the bracing gentility of Muswell Hill, the excitement of Canary Wharf, the eccentricity of Camden Town, the fearfulness of Stepney, the lassitude of Limehouse, can all be mentioned in the vast oration of London. Every Londoner has his or her own favourite location, whether it be Victoria Park in Hackney or rolling Long Lane in Southwark, although it must also be admitted that most inhabitants of the city rarely know or visit anywhere beyond their own neighbourhood. Most citizens identify themselves in terms of their immediate locale.

There is a passage in G.K. Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill where he envisaged a city with its own assertive districts as, for example, “Clapham with a city guard. Wimbledon with a city wall. Surbiton tolling a bell to raise its citizens. West Hampstead going into battle with its own banner.” Of the eponymous region of the book, he writes, “There has never been anything in the world absolutely like Notting Hill. There will never be anything quite like it to the crack of doom.” In this, at least, he will be proved correct.

Where Notting Hill Gate now stands, a beacon was situated in the Roman period; part of a Roman sarcophagus was found in St. John’s Vicarage off Ladbroke Grove. The district’s name comes from a band of Saxons, “sons of Cnotta.” For 1,700 years it remained in open countryside, with a reputation for springs and healthy air; there were in the eighteenth century, however, colonies of brick-makers and Irish pig-keepers apparently marring the sylvan peace of the neighbourhood. Complaints were lodged but nothing ever done. One of the peculiar characteristics of Notting Hill is that it was attached to the city, but not of it, and so was characterised by a “mixed” atmosphere at once urban and suburban. Hence its ambivalent air.

In the 1850s, for example, the east end of Notting Hill High Street was inhabited by “private people, foreigners, adventurers, or respectable confidential employés of west-end commercial houses,” while almost fifty years later Percy Fitzgerald complained that the grand terraces and houses were “mixed up” with “flashy shops and all the vulgar incidents of traffic.” A racecourse was opened in 1837 where Kensington Park Gardens and Ladbroke Grove now meet; it was known as the Hippodrome, and was advertised as “a racing emporium more extensive and attractive than Ascot or Epsom.” It was not a success and, from the 1840s onward, houses and villas were being constructed over the entire area.

So by degrees it assumed its present shape, but not before a cycle of speculations and bankruptcies lent the neighbourhood another of its characteristic tones. In the 1820s James Ladbroke tried but failed to develop the area; in the boom of the 1840s great developments were undertaken before the speculators went bankrupt in the bust of the 1850s. In the 1860s Notting Hill was described in Building News as “a graveyard of buried hopes … naked carcasses, crumbling decorations, fractured walls, slimy cement. All who touch them lose heart and money by the venture.” Ever since that period, there has been a persistent pattern of decay and recovery. In the 1870s, for example, there was a resurgence of activity and habitation but by the next decade some of the imposing novelty of the site had diminished. As urban development began to hesitate and falter at Earl’s Court, always a wilderness, there was a resurgent tide in favour of Notting Hill which gathered strength in the 1890s. By the early decades of the twentieth century, however, the stucco mansions of Kensington Park Gardens and its environs once more began to fade and peel. The great houses were turned into flats by the 1930s, less than a century after they had been erected, and in the place of what was once termed “the upper middle class” came “Viennese professors and Indian students and bed-sitter business girls.” This description is by Osbert Lancaster, who lived in the area during the slow decline of its “Edwardian propriety.”

In the late 1940s and the 1950s, however, Notting Hill declined into “slumdom” with broken windows and racketeering landlords. During the 1950s immigrants from the West Indies congregated in the area, like the Irish before them, which in turn led to riots; in the 1960s and early 1970s, precisely because of this mixed and heterogeneous past, it became a haven for those who, like the hippies of the period, required a kind of louche informality in which to pursue their lives. The peeling streets, the grimy balconies, were combined with the street-market along the Portobello Road to produce an atmosphere of happy dereliction. In the 1980s there were festivals. Here, in miniature, we see the passage of many different London cultures.

Then again, in one of the strange and instinctive processes of urban life, the conditions of the area seemed slowly to change. The harbinger of that change might be found in 1967 when large areas of Notting Hill were protected by a Conservation Act, so that the original streets of the 1840s and 1850s became privileged territories beyond the reach of speculators and developers. By the late 1970s this special status began to attract back the wealthy Londoners who had deserted the neighbourhood fifty years before. The area was itself gradually restored to its former state of lambent stucco; to walk down Kensington Park Gardens in 2000 is to experience that wide thoroughfare as it had emerged 150 years before.

The area in recent years has acquired a certain solidity and strength of purpose; it is no longer as fluid and as heterogeneous as once it was. Situated between the bewildering cosmopolitanism of Queensway, where the Tower of Babel might once more be constructed, and the mournful region of Shepherd’s Bush, it is an enclave of quiet urban solidity. Accepting its past, Notting Hill has incorporated it within its being, so that now the summer Notting Hill Carnival is a truly mixed urban celebration. Of course there are still areas of relative poverty and deprivation within its bounds—Trellick Tower of the Kensal Estate, for example, dominates the northern skyline and lends an atmosphere of old and poor communal living to the market of Golborne Road within its shadow. Here, too, are the first intimations of the maze of West Kilburn to the north of the Harrow Road. But Notting Hill itself has retrieved its charm and good humour, principally because it has come to terms with its destiny.

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Go to the north-east, and discover mournful Paddington which has always been blasted as a place of transit and of transience. In that it resembles the other gateways into the city. The area around the railway terminus at King’s Cross, for example, has acquired a wandering population which takes advantage of travellers and tourists who venture into the immediate streets. The area around Victoria Station is anonymous and unhappy. But Paddington has a desolation all of its own. It is a place of transit in more than one sense, since one of its main sites was once the gallows of Tyburn. Lord Craven also donated some land, now covered by Craven Gardens, which, if London should once more be touched by pestilence, will be made available as a burial pit. Presumably the current inhabitants of Craven Gardens are not aware of this noble intention. The hospital is beside the station, and the gloomy brown brick exterior of the original institution still exudes in its own way the recognition of transit and mortality. The message of Paddington, in the words of William Blake, which predate the railway and the hospital, “mournful ever-weeping,” seems to be that we are all travellers passing through.

If we travel further north-east, over Cato Street where the conspirators met in 1820, over the then New Road, which is now the Marylebone Road, and the Euston Road, past the broken columns of the old Euston Arch in front of the modern station, past bleak and windy King’s Cross, past Penton Hill where the Druids may once have met, past the tribal trackway which exists beneath the modern layout of the Angel, we will arrive at Islington.

The Romans fought their battles there against Boudicca; there is evidence of a Roman encampment at Barnsbury, and the area of King’s Cross was once known as Battle Bridge. A now forgotten track, Hagbush Lane, exists beneath the Liverpool Road. An ancient British settlement lies to the immediate south-east of Islington Green. The Saxon King Aethelbert granted Islington to the canons of St. Paul’s (hence the name Canonbury), and it appears in the Domesday Book that the ecclesiastical authorities owned approximately five hundred acres of territory. Fitz-Stephen depicts the area as “fields for pasture and open meadows, very pleasant, into which the river waters do flow, and mills are turned about with a delightful noise … beyond them an immense forest extends itself, beautified with woods and groves, and full of the lairs and coverts of wild beasts … and game, stags, bucks, bears and wild bulls.” The theme of the waters here is significant, since it dominated Islington’s subsequent history as a source of health and refreshment. The pursuit of sport and hunting in the area, outside the confines of the city, is again a persistent one so that for some thousand years it was a haven of relaxation and entertainment for those ordinarily trapped within the city. In the time of Henry II (reigned 1154–89) “citizens played ball, exercised on horseback and took delight in birds, such as sparrow hawks, goss hawks, and in dogs for following the sports of the fields of Iseldon.” In the sixteenth century Stow described Islington as a place of “fields commodius for the citizens therein to walke, shoote and otherwise to recreate and refresh their dulled spirits in the sweete and wholesome ayre.” Immediately south of the Angel, fields were set aside for target practice; on eighteenth-century maps almost two hundred “marks” can be discerned, with the most proficient archers being awarded titles such as the “Marquis of Islington,” the “Marquess of Clerkenwell” and the “Earl of Pancridge.”

It was in Islington that Sir Walter Raleigh first smoked tobacco; the site of his house later became an inn for the citizens seeking refreshment of another kind. Islington was famous for its hostelries, among them the Three Hats, Copenhagen House, White Conduit House and the Angel itself, which gave its salubrious name to an entire district. Here also were Sadler’s Wells, Islington Spa, the New Wells, the Pantheon in Spa Fields, the English Grotto in Rosoman Street, the London Spa, Merlin’s Cave, Hockley-in-the-Hole, Bagnigge Wells, St. Chad’s Well in Gray’s Inn Road and Penny’s Folly on the Pentonville Road; the entire area was covered by tea gardens, walks and entertainments. Charles Lamb, the great romantic antiquary of London, settled here in 1823 and according to William Hazlitt “took much interest in the antiquity of ‘Merrie Islington’ … the ancient hostelries were also visited, and he smoked his pipe and quaffed his nut brown ale at the Old Queen’s Head.” The air of liberation which Islington induced was still with Lamb two years later, when he remarked that “It was like passing from life into eternity … Now when all is holyday there are no holydays … Pleasuring was for fugitive play days; mine are fugitive only in the sense that life is fugitive. Freedom and life co-existent!” That is why there are so many ballads about Islington, “The Bailiff’s Daughter of Islington” and “Tom, Tom of Islington” among them; for many centuries it remained a haven of carelessness.

But Charles Lamb’s residence, Colebrook Cottage, became attached to other houses; then they became a terrace; then became part of a row of terraces as London crept northward. In the early 1800s houses “of a very small and slight character” were built in the environs of Colebrook Cottage, only to become slums. In the 1830s, the Northampton estate built cheap tenements on its vacant ground, while sixteen years later the Packington Estate constructed a network of wide streets in the area which still bears its name. Soon the entire region was covered with terraces, villas and the general ribbon development which characterised the tentacular stretch of London. An issue of Building News in 1863 named Islington as an area of “trumpery allotments which have been dealt out to builders, and the closely packed streets and terraces which have arisen.” And all those who lived in these new terraces moved daily to the centre of their being. Dickens noticed them in one of his early sketches. “The early clerk population of Somers and Camden Towns, Islington and Pentonville, are fast pouring into the city, or directing their steps towards Chancery Lane and the Inns of Court. Middle-aged men, whose salaries have by no means increased in the same proportion as their families, plod steadily along, apparently with no object in view but the counting-house; knowing by sight almost everybody they meet and overtake, for they have seen them every morning (Sundays excepted) during the last twenty years, but speaking to no one … Small office lads in large hats … milliners’ and staymakers’ apprentices.” All of them can be imagined walking into the city, acquiring a settled anonymity as they steadily approach it. Dickens was very interested in Islington; he placed several of his characters in that vicinity, denominating most of them as clerks. Potters and Smithers and Guppy are all clerks of Islington and Pentonville, for example, as if those areas adjacent to the centres of finance and power had themselves a subsidiary clerkly function.

The more affluent Londoners moved further out to Sydenham or Penge, even as the poor travelled north. So by stages Islington itself became poor. Rows of terraced houses, of two or three or four storeys, can be seen in early photographs; their grimy stucco is matched by the darkness of their brick, and they seem to stretch on interminably. In 1945 Orwell depicted the area as having become one of “vague, brown-coloured slums … He was walking up a cobbled street of little two-storey houses with battered doorways which gave straight on the pavement and which were somehow curiously suggestive of rat-holes. There were puddles of filthy water here and there among the cobbles. In and out of the dark doorways, and down narrow alley-ways that branched off on either side, people swarmed in astonishing numbers … Perhaps a quarter of the windows in the street were broken and boarded up.” This is taken from 1984, a novel of the future, but the details are based directly on Orwell’s observation of the streets beside Essex Road. It is as if the dereliction had entered his soul and he had come to believe that London, somehow, will always be sordid, and grimy, and squalid. Islington will always be Islington.

Certainly it entered the postwar era in an impoverished state. It has been recorded that “three quarters of its households did not even have running water, an inside lavatory nor a bath.” One resident recalled that “We had sixteen people using one toilet.” Islington, once a village in the environs of London, had been transformed into a central core of slum conditions. A familiar pattern then reasserted itself. Swathes of Victorian and Georgian terraces were razed in order to accommodate council-house estates and tower blocks; the urge to destroy, however, was quickly succeeded by the need to conserve. Islington may stand as representative of London in this respect, where the fashion for wholesale redevelopment was displaced by a no less urgent desire for preservation and improvement. It is as if an amnesiac had suddenly recovered his memory. A process of gentrification then ensued whereby generally middle-class couples, attracted by the prospect of “improvement grants” from the civic authorities of Islington, settled in the neighbourhood and began to restore or rejuvenate their properties. They were the direct successors of those who had arrived in the 1830s and 1840s, and in fact the newly refurbished streets acquired their original characteristics. There were of course disadvantages. The poorer “locals” were now congregated upon the housing estates of Islington, or had dispersed. What has been lost in the process? Certainly that sense of belonging to a small patch of local territory, however squalid, disappeared. Or perhaps it is better to say that it had changed hands. The poor colonised the area for a hundred years: they had driven out the more affluent residents of Islington in the 1880s and 1890s, but now in turn they were being driven away.

But a larger pattern has also been introduced. Where there was once a rooted and identifiable community in Islington, there is now a greater sense of transience. Like the rest of London it has grown more mobile but also more impersonal. Another paradox has emerged in the process, however, emphasising the unique conditions of each urban area. In the course of its present changes, Islington has reacquired its principal or original identity. Where once it was known for its inns and tea gardens, it is now celebrated for its bars and restaurants. Along the central highway of Upper Street there are now proportionally more restaurants than in any other part of London, with the possible exception of Soho, and so the area has regained its reputation for hospitality and conviviality which it possessed long before it ever became part of London. The old presence lingers beneath every change of appearance.

The City Road, emanating from Islington, directly approaches the site of London’s old wall. Before its arrival there it crosses Old Street, where to the east Shoreditch and Spitalfields beckon. These once forlorn areas still bear the marks of their past. In the mid-seventeenth century Shoreditch “was a disreputable place, frequented by courtesans.” The female prostitutes still ply their trade at the upper end of Commercial Street, a dismal thoroughfare between the two areas, while Shoreditch High Street is notorious for its strip pubs catering for local residents as well as gentlemen from the City who symbolically pass beyond the old walls of London, through Bishopsgate, in order to indulge themselves. In the late nineteenth century violent street gangs issued out of the slums of “Old Nichol,” a congerie of streets around Old Nichol Street which might have been named after Old Nick himself. Violence flares still; a murder, or a suicide, awakens memories of the not so recent past.

The name itself derives from Soerditch, a ditch issuing into the Thames, but the idea of a sour ditch is suggestive. The later addition of Shore suggests something stranded or laid up. In turn the name Spitalfields, detached from its origin in “spital,” a house for the sick, suggests spittle—something spat out, violently ejected. Thus it became a haven for refugees. The wrong etymology is often accurate about the nature of an area.

So we may move on to the hunting grounds of Soho, “So-ho” or “So-hoe” being the call of the huntsmen who originally rode across its fields. Now, with its sex shops and strip clubs, the hunt is on for another kind of game. Of all the regions of London, this is the one that has most fully preserved its appearance. Gerrard Street may have been transformed into the centre of Chinatown, but the house in which John Dryden lived is still recognisable. In Soho every street is a memorial; here is where Marx lived, here Casanova, here Canaletto, and here De Quincey.

There are deeper continuities, too, since the area had a reputation for its cuisine long before it was ever populated. In 1598 Stow wrote of the conduit in Soho Fields that “The Lord Mayor, aldermen, and many worshipful persons rode to the conduit … according to custom, and then they went and hunted a hare before dinner and killed her; and thence went to dinner at the banqueting house at the head of the conduit, where a great number were handsomely entertained by the chamberlain.” So the air of dining and conviviality has always been part of the neighbourhood. On the same patch of ground where sixteenth-century dignitaries ate, the modern traveller can still dine at the Gay Hussar, Quo Vadis or L’Escargot.

There was a parish located here by 1623, and in 1636 certain people were described as living at “the brick kilns near Soho,” but the area first began to flourish in the 1670s when Gerrard Street, Old Compton Street, Greek Street and Frith Street emerged as part of a development north of Leicester Fields. A proclamation from the Court, dated as early as April 1671, forbade the erection of “small cottages and other tenements” in “the windmill Fields, Dog Fields and the fields adjoining So-Hoe” but, as usual, the social and commercial imperatives of the city over-ruled royal proclamations.

How Soho itself acquired its “raffish” flavour is obscure. The area just to its east, beside St. Martin’s Lane, was already inhabited by artists or artisans who catered to the rich or the fashionable. Art studios and art schools also began to cluster there, alongside the inevitable taverns and coffee houses. But they did not directly affect Soho itself. A sudden influx of French residents was of more consequence. In the area of Newport Market and Old Compton Street it was remarked by Maitland that “many parts of the parish abound with French, so that it is an easy matter for a stranger to fancy himself in France.” By 1688 over eight hundred of the empty and newly built houses had been filled with Huguenots, who characteristically transformed the ground floors into “genuine French shops,” cheap cafés and restaurants “like those near ‘the barrier’ in Paris.” So by degrees this emerging region of London came to be compared with the French city. It maintained that ambience for more than 150 years, and as late as 1844 Soho was still being described as “a sort of petty France.” It was recorded that “Most of the shops are thoroughly French, and they evidently have been established solely for the supply of the foreign colony. Here are French schools for the education of the young, and wine-shops and restaurants where an Englishman who entered would be looked on with surprise.” Perhaps the most notable institution, in the early days of twenty-first-century Soho, is the York Minster or French Pub known colloquially as “the French”; it is said to have been the meeting-place of the French Resistance during the Second World War. Again a small area of London, no more than a few streets and a market, has retained its traditional culture for more than three hundred years.

But the presence of the French immigrants in a place where the arrival of an Englishman would be a “surprise,” in turn created an odd air of strangeness or unfamiliarity which encouraged natives of other countries to feel more secure in its environs. In certain respects it was not English. “Of all quarters in the queer adventurous amalgam called London,” Galsworthy wrote in The Forsyte Saga, “Soho is perhaps least suited to the Forsyte spirit… Untidy, full of Greeks, Ishmaelites, cats, Italians, tomatoes, restaurants, organs, coloured stuffs, queer names, people looking out of upper windows, it dwells remote from the British Body Politic.” From the start it was a mixed area, both in terms of demography and of trade. “This district,” according to one Handbook, “is also a principal rendezvous for foreigners in London, many of whom here ply their avocations as artists and mechanics.” There were emporia of furniture acquired from various eras and various cultures, curiosity shops filled with multifarious relics of the Romans or the Habsburgs, musical-instrument makers and print-sellers, china manufacturers, booksellers and taverns where artists and literary gentlemen gathered. Modern institutions, such as the French Pub and the Colony Room Club, still attract poets and painters.

The phenomenon of transference from age to age is in certain respects inexplicable. It may be that the previous reputation of an area attracts its new residents, so that there is a kind of advertised continuity; but this does not apply to other districts which simply flare and fade away. Or is it that an atmosphere of freedom and unfamiliarity, first created by the Huguenots liberated from the cruelty of their compatriots, has continued to linger? Certainly immigrants arrived in their wake, from Russia and from Hungary, Italy and Greece. In the churchyard of St. Anne’s, Soho, there was a tablet with the following inscription: “Near this place is interred Theodore, King of Corsica, who died in this parish, December 11, 1756, immediately after leaving the King’s Bench Prison by the benefit of the Act of Insolvency; in consequence of which he registered his kingdom of Corsica for the benefit of his creditors.” He had accepted his crown in March 1736, but could not raise enough money to pay for his army; so he travelled to London where, finding himself in debt, he was soon arrested and consigned to prison. On his release on 10 December 1756, he took a sedan chair to the house of a tailor and acquaintance in Little Chapel Street Soho. But he died the next day, and his funeral expenses were paid by an oil-man in Old Compton Street. So a foreign king is buried in the middle of Soho, thus emphasising its reputation as a foreign land in the heart of London. This penniless exile might almost be considered the true monarch of the area.

Its reputation for heterogeneity and freedom was also associated with liberties of another sort, and by the end of the eighteenth century it was notorious for courtesans. A celebrated member of that order, Mrs. Cornelys, arranged weekly assemblies in Carlisle House on the south side of Soho Square. There was a notice outside in which she “begs the chairmen and hackney-coach drivers not to quarrel, or to run their poles through each other’s windows,” which suggests that the spirit of disorder affected anyone who came within the parish. In Carlisle House were held masquerades and promenades which featured scantily dressed ladies “in violation,” according to one observer, “of the laws, and to the destruction of all sober principles.” Mrs. Cornelys was one of those redoubtable London characters holding court to thieves and nobility alike, who dominated all company with a quick wit and a loud if vulgar manner. She was enterprising, irrepressible, charming and scathing in equal measure; she created a great stir in the 1760s and 1770s until after the failure of one of her fashionable schemes she “retired into private life.” She started selling asses’ milk in Knightsbridge, and in 1797 died in the Fleet Prison.

She was the very type of the London club hostess, a figure so much larger than life that no one—not even the most drunken or aristocratic customer— would dare to cross her. Kate Hamilton and Sally Sutherland both managed dubious “night-houses” of the 1860s, and Kate was described as “presiding as a sort of Paphian queen” over her scantily clad dancers. There is a wonderful description of her “weighing some twenty stone, with a countenance that had weathered countless convivial nights. Mrs. Hamilton presented a stupendous appearance in the low cut evening dresses which she always wore. From midnight to dawn she sipped champagne [and] with her foghorn voice, knew how to keep her clients of both sexes in order.” Her establishment was in Leicester Square, which by the mid-nineteenth century had become associated with the delinquencies of neighbouring Soho, and her twentieth-century successor was Muriel Belcher who ran the Colony Room Club, a drinking room in Dean Street. She also kept her clients in order with a voice as piercing, if not as loud, as a foghorn, and specialised in a form of obscene badinage which only the vulgar mistook for wit.

From its beginning, in fact, Soho has been associated with demonstrative and sometimes difficult women. In 1641 “a lewd woman,” Anna Clerke, was bound over for “threteninge to burne the houses at Soho” for reasons unknown. A once famous inn known as the Mischief, in Charles Street, had as its sign a drunken courtesan straddling a man’s back while holding a glass of gin with the legend “She’s as Drunk as a Sow” inscribed beside her. The female, and male, prostitutes of the area were well known by the middle of the nineteenth century; once more the relative “foreignness” of the neighbourhood ensured that it would be the context for more relaxed sexual behaviour than in Lombard Street, for example, or in Pimlico. The proximity of the rookeries, in St. Giles and elsewhere, also meant that there was no shortage of fresh bodies for the clients. Only the recommendations of the Wolfenden Report, in 1957, managed to keep “the girls” off the streets; but they migrated instead to small rooms and attic spaces in the same area.

There were the “Argyll Rooms,” Laurent’s Dancing Academy, the Portland Rooms, and a score of other venues. The night-houses and flash-houses changed into nightclubs, the penny gaffs and cheap theatres into striptease joints, the gaming clubs into bars, but despite the external alterations governed by time and fashion the essential atmosphere and purpose of Soho have remained the same. It was estimated that in 1982 there were some 185 premises used as part of the sex industry; more recent legislation has attempted to mitigate the business but, at the beginning of a new century, Soho remains the centre of a flourishing trade in prostitution. The spirit of the area has also asserted itself in another guise, with Old Compton Street becoming in the 1980s and 1990s a centre of “gay” pubs and clubs. The narrow thoroughfares of Soho are always crowded now, with people in search of sex, spectacle or excitement; it has retained its “queer adventurous” spirit and seems a world away from the clubs of Pall Mall or the shops of Oxford Street which lie respectively to its south and north.

This is only to be expected, however. Each area of London has its own unmistakable character, nurtured through time and history; together they resemble a thousand vortices within the general movement of the city. It is impossible to look at them all steadily, or envisage them as a whole, because the impression can only be one of opposition and contrast. Yet out of these oppositions and contrasts London itself emerges, as if it sprang into being out of collision and paradox. In that sense its origins are as mysterious as the beginning of the universe itself.

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