Monthly Archives: May 2015

Batting order

GregoryOne of the great miscues must be wikipedia’s entry (see right).

The whole entry is 275 words of text. More than an arithmetical half is about Gregory as a sportsman, and particularly as a cricketer.

2291Meanwhile, I picked up Colm Tóibín’s monograph,  Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush.

It’s not a treatise on dental care: the title is from a letter Lady Augusta Gregory wrote to W.B.Yeats, after the Abbey Theatre performed Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, which provoked riots:

“It is the old battle, between those who use a toothbrush and those who don’t.”

Being Tóibín, what we get is a beautifully-expressed and concise study of Lady Gregory and her background, of life at Coole Park, of the relationship with Yeats, and how the Robert Gregory poems were conceived.

Tóibín’s account of Robert Gregory differs considerably from the W.B.Yeats “authorised version”.

Yeats’s appreciation of Robert Gregory was not reciprocated (page 83):

Between her husband’s death in1892 and Robert’s coming of age ten years later, Lady Gregory worked to clear the debts on the estate. From 1902, Robert was the owner of the house and the estate, although she had a right, according to Sir William’s will, to live in the house for her lifetime. There was an intermittent conflict between Robert’s interest in being master in his own house, seated at the top of his own table, and his mother’s interest in having Yeats at the head of the table, offering him the master bedroom and devoting her household to the cause of the poet’s comfort.

Things got worse:

In her biography of Lady Gregory, Mary Lou Kohfeldt wrote that “Robert Gregory was startled one evening when he called for a bottle of an especially fine vintage Torquey laid down by his father to find it was all gone, served bottle by bottle by his mother to Willie over the years.” 

 Then there is the poem, Reprisals, written in November 1920, suppressed at Lady Gregory’s wish (if only on poetic merit, rightly so), and published only in 1994 — that itself a 1923 revision: read it here.

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Filed under Ireland, WB Yeats

“Of Alley”

Here’s an odd one.

The Villiers boys were great … err … mates of the Stuarts. Read into that as you will.

VilliersGeorge Villiers was such a handsome youth that James VI and I made him the royal cup-bearer. Gift followed gift. Honour followed honour:

  • 1615 Georgie was a Gentleman of the Bedchamber. Ahem! And knighted.
  • 1616 Sir George was Master of the King’s Horse. And Baron Whaddon. And, soon after, Viscount Villiers. And a Knight of the Garter.
  • 1617 Baron Villiers advanced to an Earldom, with the King’s personal accolade:

You may be sure that I love the Earl of Buckingham more than anyone else, and more than you who are here assembled. I wish to speak in my own behalf and not to have it thought to be a defect, for Jesus Christ did the same, and therefore I cannot be blamed. Christ had John, and I have George.

  • 1619 He was George, Marquess of Buckingham.
  • The Marquess of Buckingham was made Admiral of the Fleet.
  • 1623 The Dukedom of Buckingham was revived, and conferred on our lad.

Pretty (a good word in this connection) well every subsequent revelation has suggested the relationship between James and Villiers was warm, juicy, even sticky.

In 1622 James presented Villiers with York House, the former palace of the Archbishops of York, in the Strand. Buckingham intended to rebuild in a grandiose manner, but only the Watergate (look for Watergate Walk on the map below) had been completed before John Felton knifed Buckingham in the Greyhound boozer (but generally called “the Spotted Dog”, and now deceased — but look for the plaque on Buckingham House) in High Street, Old Portsmouth. Felton, a former army officer, had been wounded in one of Buckingham’s foreign excursions. Briefly, before he was hanged, Felton became something of a minor celeb.

Come the Restoration

2ndDukeOfBuckinghamWe have Charles II, who also has a Villiers acolyte — George’s son, and another George (that’s him, above). Just as Dad had accumulated, so the son dissipated.

John Dryden nailed him as “Zimri“:

Some of their chiefs were princes of the land:
In the first rank of these did Zimri stand,
A man so various, that he seemed to be
Not one, but all mankind’s epitome:
Stiff in opinions, always in the wrong,
Was everything by starts, and nothing long,
But, in the course of one revolving moon,
Was chemist, fiddler, statesman, and buffoon,
Then all for women, painting, rhyming, drinking,
Besides ten thousand freaks that died in thinking…
In squandering wealth was his peculiar art;
Nothing went unrewarded but desert.
Beggared by fools, whom still he found too late,
He had his jest and …

You are awaiting the rhymed punch-line there … they had his estate. Dryden’s chuckle that George Villiers, the second Duke of Buckingham, had to sell York House to pay his creditors.

In 1674 the site was laid out as streets. Some wiseacre had the new lay-out named after their former owner:

  • George Court;
  • Villiers Street;
  • Duke Street;
  • Of Alley;
  • Buckingham Street.


Sadly, a decent snurffle (and it has to be) has been spoiled by subsequent evolutions:

  • Duke Street is now part of John Adam Street; and
  • Of Alley is now renamed York Place.

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Filed under History, Literature, London

Attack on the guilt pile, and Execution Dock

Electioneering over, back to normal political abuse, what else to do?

It’s here between the desk and the settee, growing and threatening.

Time and leisure to set about the Great Unread.

Straight off the top comes the latest Christopher Fowler.

The Bryant and May series is not only a thrill, and a delight (Fowler is a stylist of distinction), but gloriously informative. Poked into the narrative are numerous anecdotes of old London.

Then there is the tub-thumper:

Fowler quote


London. The protracted summer lately over, and the bankers sitting in Threadneedle Street, returned from their villas in Provence and Tuscany. Relentless October weather. As much water in the streets as if the tide had newly swelled from the Thames, and it would not be wonderful to find a whale beached beneath Holborn Viaduct, the traffic parting around it like an ocean current. Umbrellas up in the soft grey drizzle, and insurrection in the air.

Riots everywhere. Riots outside the Bank of England and around St Paul’s Cathedral. Protestors swelling on Cheapside and Poultry and Lombard Street. Marchers roaring on Cornhill and Eastcheap and Fenchurch Street. Barricades on Cannon Street and across London Bridge. Police armoured and battened down in black and yellow like phalanxes of tensed wasps. Chants and megaphones and the drone of choppers overhead.

Hurled fire, catapulted bricks, shattering glass and the blast of water hoses. It was as if, after a drowsy, sluggish summer, the streets had undergone spontaneous combustion.

Recognise it? On his delicious blog page, Fowler takes his homage a stage further with the allusive metaphoric image borrowed from the Dickensian simile:



It’s Fowler’s persistent, even obsessive, knowledge of the city that gets me every time.

I’ve never quite forgiven him for rubbishing (yes, Noddy Boffin: you are part of the story) the myth about Boudica’s burial under the platforms (Platform 9¾?) of King’s Cross Station. That was a good tale to spin the daughters (despite their engrained cynicism, even then), and then the grandchildren (who currently remain a bit more susceptible, or politely so to one so aged as myself). Now the Young Idea is far more taken by the Harry Potter staircase in the Midland Grand St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel.

For Boudica alone, Fowler needs a pay-back. So here’s one:

I could have brought Augustine to Wapping, Bryant thought, at the drop of the Thames and just a spit from Tower Bridge, where Captain Kidd was hanged twice before being chained and left for three tides.

Nothing remained of this piratical past except an ancient set of oxidized green steps leading to the muddy foreshore. The flooded ginnels and mildewed alleyways of Bryant’s childhood, once so dauntingly forbidden and mysterious, had been paved over, filled in and floodlit as London homogenized its riverside in the rush to build bankers’ apartments.

The streets were unrecognizable now, colonnaded with blank suburban properties of orange brick. Between them stood a few emasculated warehouses for those seduced by the notion of a loft lifestyle. The wealthy were never there and the rest stayed in. The dead new streets of the Thames shoreline horrified Bryant.

Fowler is bang-to-rights about the soul-less bourgeoisified Wapping: another strike against David Owen, who began the process. I’m less convinced that he has properly identified Execution Dock.

execution-dockExecution Dock

Those same grandchildren, taken on the hydrofoil to Greenwich, needed explanations of what they were seeing. For convenience, I pointed to the E of Sun Wharf as a marker for Execution Dock.

That needed explanation. Piracy and mutiny were tried by the Admiralty Court. Those found guilty (which means virtually all) were consigned to the Marshalsea, before being carted across London Bridge to Wapping. There the offenders would be hanged from a short rope (which meant slow strangulation), and the bodies left until three tides had washed over them. For extra effect, in cases which had attracted particular media attention, the corpse would be tarred and hung in irons at the entry to the Port of London.

Go to the Prospect of Whitby pub (if you must: it’s largely tourists, and there are better joints locally), and you will be assured that the replica gallows and noose is the site:


That’s not my Dear Old Dad’s version.

He was a Thames Division copper only a year or two before the picture below. The River Thames police is (it claims) the oldest official police force in the world. Therefore Wapping Police Station is also the oldest in the world. It’s also another possible site for Execution Dock.


A third site is under the Wapping Overground Station.

Great minds meet alike

There is a confluence of Dr Samuel Johnson, James Boswell and Christopher Fowler about Wapping.

On Saturday, April 12 [1783], I visited him, in company with Mr. Windham, of Norfolk, whom, though a Whig, he highly valued. One of the best things he ever said was to this gentleman; who, before he set out for Ireland as Secretary to Lord Northington, when Lord Lieutenant, expressed to the Sage some modest and virtuous doubts, whether he could bring himself to practise those arts which it is supposed a person in that situation has occasion to employ. ‘Don’t be afraid, Sir, (said Johnson, with a pleasant smile,) you will soon make a very pretty rascal.

He talked to-day a good deal of the wonderful extent and variety of London, and observed, that men of curious enquiry might see in it such modes of life as very few could even imagine. He in particular recommended to us to explore Wapping, which we resolved to do.

It took nine years before Boswell and William Windham fulfilled Johnson’s recommendation; and both were disappointed. Wyndham lamented he had missed a prize fight for the trip:

I let myself foolishly be drawn by Boswell to explore, as he called it, Wapping, instead of going when everything was prepared, to see the battle between Ward and Stanyard, which turned out to be a good one.

Boswell seems to have the same impression as Fowler (and even myself):

Whether from the uniformity which has in a great degree spread through every part of the metropolis, or our want of sufficient exertion, we were disappointed.

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Filed under Charles Dickens, Christopher Fowler, fiction, London, Metropolitan Police, pubs, reading

The cess-pit bubbles over

Yesterday Murdoch’s überTory scandal sheet, The Sun, was offering inducements: Sun190 That should be considered in parallel with Electoral law: Electoral Commission Doubtless a well-paid corporate lawyer will have established why a “case study” doesn’t soon became a barrister’s brief.

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Filed under Murdoch, politics, sleaze., smut peddlers, Tories.

Great misunderstandings of our time

Courtesy of The New Yorker, I find myself asked:

Is this the dirtiest song of the Sixties?

The legend of the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” has been told almost as many times as the song itself has been covered. (There’s no accurate count for either, but both must number in the thousands.) First released in May of 1963, and then re-released that October, the Kingsmen’s version climbed to No. 2 on the Billboard singles chart. The song’s popularity among a new generation of rock-and-roll teen-agers brought it to the attention of some concerned citizens. One of them, the father of a teen-age girl, wrote to Robert Kennedy, who was then the Attorney General, to complain about the song’s possible obscenity, prompting an F.B.I. investigation. “This land of ours is headed for an extreme state of moral degradation,” the incensed parent wrote to Kennedy. (Remember this the next time someone tries reminiscing to you about the good old days before pop music was full of sex and vulgarities.)

Allow me to disgust you:

It must be a contender: The Stone’s C*cksucker Blues is 1970, and so can’t qualify.

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Filed under History, Music, New Yorker

“David Cameron looking like a class-A wanker”

That grating noise, everywhere but Tory News Central (who have other griefs), comes from the grinding of teeth by every reptile who didn’t peek down the back hall of Ede & Ravenscroft, the Oxford branch of the supplier of gowns to the lawyering and academic classes.

For — lo and behold! — there  @NickTMutch and @VERSAoxford found this:


Yes, that pneumatic chest, all pumped up, belongs to none other than David William Donald Cameron, then an ornament of Brasenose College, Oxford. Now disgracing himself nationally and internationally. Soon, I hope, to have much more time to spend contemplating a misspent past.

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Filed under David Cameron, Tories.

V for victory for a fine journalist

The first rough draft of history

That journalist’s credo has more than a bit of history in itself: for the truly dedicated, it is detailed by wikiquote. My favourite is by George Helgesen Fitch (another decent lefty), and from 1914, in the Lincoln [Nebraska] Daily Star:

A reporter is a young man who blocks out the first draft of history each day on a rheumatic typewriter.

He could be describing the old Irish Times newsroom, up the stairs, just off D’Olier Street, and convenient for the Palace Bar in Fleet Street.

Which brings me to 8th May 1945:

IT 8 May1945

Dramatis personae

Every good story needs an antagonist, against whom the protagonist contends. I’m going to make R.M. “Bertie” Smyllie, for twenty years the editor of the Irish Times, my protagonist hero here. So for the hissable villain of the piece I need a conflation of Joseph Walshe (de Valera’s reliable go-fer at External Affairs), Thomas Coyne (a big-wig in the Department of Justice, licensed to implement wartime censorship) and Michael Knightly (chief press censor).

Walshe was a man on a mission — not just to serve assiduously his political master — to elevate Ireland as the Christian state that would take a very real part in bringing about a cessation of hostilities. The idea was to mobilise the other small European states, and the Vatican in particular. Good stuff, Joe! (provided we overlook that meant cuddling up to Pius XII Pacelli, Salazar’s Portugal and even Franco’s Spain).

Of course, Ireland had a head-start in censorship: The Irish Press was the Fianna Fáil party organ (proprietor: de Valera and family); Radio Éireann was a state monopoly; 1,700 books had been banned in the previous decade; films and newsreels were cut (or totally banned), seemingly at whim; in short order, 200 censors (all hand-culled) were working in Exchequer Street to scrutinise personal mail. Walshe could use all this, and wanted more, to promote his neutralism:

Public opinion must be built up on a neutral basis, a neutral-mindedness must be created. A list of the states which are neutral should be frequently and prominently displayed in the Press. The advantages of being neutral should be stressed. The losses and sufferings of all kinds, including famine and poverty, which come upon countries at was should be expressed.

Walshe’s remit was wide, but he demanded more. His particular bête noire was The Irish Times, which featured strongly in his report to de Valera:

The greatest danger, in my opinion, to our neutrality, and conceivably to our continued existence as a State, is the subtle propaganda of an ascendance clique which will undoubtedly use this occasion to promote their dearest wish which is to bring the British back. When a certain paper says, for instance, that the irishmen who joined the British Army in 1914 were the real Irish patriots and the cream of our people, it is essentially a principle completely opposed to the continued existence of an Irish State. Such views should be ruthlessly suppressed.

[Both Walshe quotes are taken from Brian Girvin, The Emergency, pages 85-6]

Our protagonist

“Bertie” Smyllie had evolved the Irish Times from being the mouthpiece of imperial Dublin Castle into a true, small-l liberal paper of record (to the angst of many Colonel O’Blimps), and one with an international perspective unique in Irish journalism. That had to stop, and Michael Knightly was the man for the task.

Smyllie and Knightly waged a day-by-day, hand-to-hand from September 1939 to the following January. Only then, under threat of infinite suspension, did Smyllie concede. After that all matter had to be pre-submitted to Knightly’s office. Apart from the crackles and pops of BBC transmissions, Ireland had become a one-voice media operation. Already, when the Farmers Federation went on a dairy-products strike, it was kept out of the papers for three days (Dubliners knew the cause: that came down the supply chain very effectively) — and the Offences against the State Act was invoked.

Beware the fury of a patient man, wrote John Dryden. Smyllie’s revenge came at D’Olier Street, late Monday evening, 7th May, 1945. Peter Murtagh tells it like this:

… a framed original of Smyllie’s famous VE Day front page from May 8th, 1945. At the time, the newspaper was subject to government censorship, the blue pencil scoring out any hint of partisanship. But with the censor gone home for the night, Smyllie tore up the approved front page and remade one that included seven small photographs – showing King George, President Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, General Eisenhower, and Field Marshals Alexander and Montgomery – arranged in a giant V (for victory) shape across the page.

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Filed under History, Ireland, Irish Times, World War 2