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:
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.
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.
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 , 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.