This week, I hit the streets of London again to visit two places that I’ve had on my list for a while. It was a nice day, not especially warm given that we’re into the final days of October, but the wind was bracing and I decided that I would walk to my destinations. Arriving at London Bridge, I felt I might be in it for the long haul, as first I needed to get to Islington.
The walk was satisfyingly long, but I got to crunch through autumn leaves most of the way there, passing through areas of London I’m far less familiar with. That in itself is always exciting.
I eventually found my first stop – Present & Correct, a stationers without compare. If you follow my other blog, you’ll know that I’ve just read a book called Adventures In Stationery, a history of everything in your pencil case. (Believe me, it’s far nerdier – and far better – than it sounds.) At the back was a note that he liked this stationery shop. When I saw a few days later an article about the same place, I decided that it was time to turn up myself and have a look, being a sucker for a good notebook or pen.
Tucked away down Arlington Way, its name stencilled onto the glass in small gold letters and no banner signage over the door to indicate what it is, Present & Correct seems to shun the limelight. You know it’s a stationers though before you even look inside; in the window are giant pencils and an enormous blue and pink eraser.
Although small, the shop is packed with goodies. I have read that the two owners travel Europe (and perhaps further) in their quest for new products to sell, so there’s a fairly eclectic mix of stuff here, from unusual paper clips, curiously lined notebooks, reels of brightly coloured tape and gorgeous children’s books. If you’re really into stationery, then pop in and fill your boots (although maybe not literally) with some of the fanciest pencils, pads, scissors and bulldog clips in the world. I wish I could say that I bought something in here, but I found myself unable to justify the price of anything. But then again, I don’t think it’s the sort of place where you go if you need something. You go because you want it.
One thing I can always justify the price of, though, is wine. Thanks to that current bastion of pop culture and important knowledge, Buzzfeed, I had discovered The Fable, a book-themed bar near Holborn. I walked here from Present & Correct, feeling that the walk would make me feel less guilty about any alcohol I consumed at, what was, lunchtime.
It was a fair old walk (although did include me passing a hairdressers called Barber Streisand) but the bar is situated near the Holborn Viaduct, a short walk from Chancery Lane station. The bar/restaurant is on three levels, and has street seating too, meaning its capacity is enormous. I descended to the bottom level, past walls papered with book pages and a general feeling of happiness and warmth. Once below, it was quite busy, but I found a high table, adopted my position on the stool with a glass of wine and got out my book. This was the real reason for wanting to come here; it’s meant to be a great place to sit and read. And it was, save for the fact I accidentally got too drunk, which is never a great look by yourself.
The first glass of Pinot Grigio went down too quickly, but when I got up to the bar to ask for some food, the barman who had served me first merely said, “Another large one?” They had me pegged. But I ordered some chips and within five minutes – that’s no exaggeration – they had arrived. I can’t vouch for the rest of the menu, but the chips were great, and other people seemed to be tucking in heartily to their lunches, although the majority of people there were in business dress and just drinking. From what I gathered, the restaurant was on the floor above me.
I did then accidentally get a second large glass of wine, so while some memories of the place are a little wobbly, I do know that it’s a charming, warm and friendly bar. The staff were all excellent, sharp and efficient. I didn’t get the name of the guy who had been serving me, but to the chap in the pastel blue-and-pink checked shirt last Thursday, you were excellent. Although the book theme isn’t overtly pronounced, it crops up in a few places. Most notably (see right) in the booth that is made out of stacks of books presumably glued together. I would have loved to tuck myself away in there for the afternoon, but given that it’s a table for six-to-eight and was already occupied when I arrived, it wasn’t really possible. A really nice touch happened before I left, when my bill was handed to me, not on a tray, but tucked inside an old hardback. And hanging high up above us was the beautiful quotation, “Once in a while right in the middle of an ordinary life, love gives us a fairy tale”, which seemed charming and a lovely sentiment.
After leaving, I then spent a slightly tipsy but enjoyable afternoon traversing the city’s bookshops, but that’s a story for an entirely different post, so for now I’ll call an end to this. But hopefully this post shows that if you are a keen reader, writer or designer, there’s more to do in London than attend writing classes or browse bookshops. It’s a city with a rich literary history – if not the richest in the world – and so it has constructed itself to reflect this. And I for one couldn’t be happier about it.
Ah, Hammersmith. I attended university nearby so it’s something of an old stomping ground for me. Not an area I know particularly well these days, I found myself back there last weekend at the Lyric theatre. For my girlfriend’s birthday, I got us tickets to Tipping the Velvet, the stage adaptation of Sarah Waters’ first novel. I’ve never read the book, although have read other of Waters’ work, and I also never saw the TV version either, so I was fairly in the dark about what to expect. I knew what everyone knows about it – that it’s a saucy tale of forbidden love between women in the Victorian era – and had been under the impression that it was a serious work. At least, serious apart from the lines Sophie read out to me when she was last reading the book.
The original Lyric Hammersmith (not to be confused with the West End’s own Lyric Theatre) was built in 1895, a bit further down the road from where it stands now. It did its duty for decades, but in 1966, was dismantled and moved, reopening in 1979. It supposedly favours original works, “groundbreaking productions”, and something with a bit of a quirk. It’s a gorgeous theatre, modern from the outside and in the bar, but once you get into the auditorium itself, you’re sent right back to the heyday of theatre, a wonderfully intricately ornate building.
But, on with the show.
Tipping the Velvet is the story of young Nancy Astley, the daughter of an oyster seller from Whitstable. She is obsessed with theatre, and in particular, the daring Kitty Butler, the best masher to tread the boards, a masher being a male impersonator. Immediately it’s clear that Nancy likes Kitty for more than just her stagework, and when Kitty offers Nancy a chance to work as her dresser, she leaps at the opportunity. Soon, the couple move to London so that Kitty can get a bigger audience, and when the show tanks, Nancy steps up to the plate as Nan King, and the pair form a double act.
This show is a now a success, but everything crumbles when Nancy finds Kitty in bed with their (male) manager and announces that they are to be married. Nancy is turfed out into the streets and from there begins her journey through the seedy underbelly of London, working as a male prostitute, being held captive by an upper class nymphomaniac, and then meeting a down-to-earth social worker with whom she may find more than just a fling.
Coming out of the show, I turned to Sophie and said, “Is the book … funny?”
“No,” she said. “It’s a romp, and it’s fun, but I wouldn’t say funny.”
Because that’s the odd thing about this play. It’s absolutely hilarious.
Adapted for the stage by Laura Wade, and directed by Lydnsey Turner (who is also currently directing Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet at the Barbican; a play that feels a world away from this one), it’s been in production for four years and finally premiered now. Although the plot and staging feels wonderfully Victorian, the stylistic flourishes are totally modern.
It’s narrated by a music hall chairman, a chap with mile a minute dialogue and a gavel that he bangs to move the scenes along, sometimes to hugely comic effect when he’s bored of something. I get that at the time of music hall, this would have been a man, but it feels a fly in the ointment of a play where the cast is mostly women and is about female empowerment, to have a man tell the tale. Although, this leads to a nice bit towards the end where Nancy turns to the chairman for the first time, says she can hear all he’s been saying about her, wrestles his gavel from him and takes control of her own destiny.
The funniest scene occurs when Nancy becomes a rent boy (don’t question how she can become a male prostitute when she’s a woman, just go with it) and this is represented in an almost PG manner by a seaside photo-board with holes for men at both face and crotch level. While excited and expectant faces appear where you’d expect them to, the lower holes expel whistles, flutes, bells and horns, allowing Nancy to blow and tickle out the National Anthem, resulting in six blasts of confetti over the front rows of the audience.
The most incredible thing about the play though is the music. Obviously as much of it is set in the music hall, this was going to be a part of it, but the songs they sing are not the ones you might expect. Oh sure, they’ve been remastered to sound like they belong, but a quick listen to the lyrics reveals that these are not classic music hall songs. They include Etta James’ “I Just Want to Make Love to You”, Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” and wonderfully during a socialist rally at the play’s end, Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'”. Brilliantly chosen, superbly performed.
A quick note on the cast, too. They are all wonderful, with a great sense of comic timing. Laura Rogers is outstanding as Kitty, and special mention must go to Sally Messham who played Nancy. This is her professional stage debut and I see a bright future for her if she maintains this level of excellence. Adelle Leonce, who plays both Nancy’s sister Alice and her lover Florence is also outstanding, but suspension of disbelief is at maximum because the characters have very different relationships with Nancy, but the parts are each big enough that you notice that her sister is now her lover. It’s a small cast, and generally they all double up with ease, but in this case, it felt like a reach too far.
If you have the time or inclination to get yourself to Hammersmith before the run ends this week, you should really make the effort. If not, with a stellar cast, story and general production like this, I don’t imagine this is the last we’ve seen of this.
No one knows what the word “London” means. That might seem surprising, but given that the city is about two thousand years old, some of the paperwork is bound to have gone missing in that time.
When the city was founded by the Romans in 43 AD (there was evidence of tribes in the location before this time), it appears to have been given the name Londinium. The prefixes of Londin- and Lundin- were used occasionally around the Roman Empire, but their meaning remains a little confused still. However, some people suggest that it actually is based on a Saxon name, christened for a King Lud who once ruled the city. But was Lud even real? That’s hard to say, because he crops up earliest in books of Welsh myths and legends, and there seems to be some confusion as to the validity of his existence.
There are many suggestions, however, that the name is actually Celtic, not Roman. The pre-Celtic Old European language has a word (p)lowondia, which means “a river too wide to ford”. This could describe the Thames, as even now it’s much narrower than it was, and for a long time it was hard to get across. There’s another ancient language known as Ligurian, spoken by people in what are now southern France and northern Italy, and their word lond means “mud” or “marsh”. Again, this is possible – being on the banks of a large river, prehistoric London would almost certainly have been marsh country.
The Welsh phrase Llyn din means “lake fort”, so is that the origin? The Brythonic language has lhwn, which means “grove”; does London come from Lhwn Town? Then there’s the suggestion it’s a reference to the temple of the Roman goddess of the moon, Diana. A temple to her supposedly once stood where St Paul’s now stands, so is the origin Lunadun, “city of the moon”?
In pre-Roman times, defended earthworks built to protect the locals were called duns, thus suggesting another option for the latter half of the name, at least. And just to confuse matters even more, the Vietnamese words lœun and dœun both mean “low, inferior, muddy”, again tying in to other similar theories.
Even some of Britain’s Israelites have wandered into the debate, claiming that the first Londoners were descendents of the Tribe of Dan; lan-dan literally meaning “abode of Dan”. At this point, it’s pretty safe to say that we will never have a complete consensus on what the word means.
So if we can’t get to the bottom of what London means, I wonder if there are any simple explanations for some of the more, shall we say, esoteric place names in the city itself.
The Thames, for a start, is notable for being pronounced completely unlike it looks like it should be, although this is nothing unusual in the English language. The word, however, comes from the Celtic word for it, and means something like “dark”. In Latin its name was spelt Tamesis, and in the Magna Carta, it’s spelt Tamisiam. The th- at the beginning of the name was pretentiously added during the Renaissance because it sounded more Greek. The name was in use by the time the Romans turned up anyway, as a Roman local was called Tamesubugus, named after the river.
OK, so what about tube names? While many – Baker Street, Hyde Park Corner, Holloway Road, Monument – describe exactly where they come out at, some of the names seem a little stranger.
Mudchute is one I’ve always found funny – indeed my friend Claire, mentioned in previous posts, lived here for a while – as it seems to be an unfortunate name for quite a nice area of Docklands. Unromantically, Mudchute was originally a dumping ground for any unwanted products (usually mud) taken from the Millwall Docks to prevent it from silting up. Using a pneumatic chute, the mud was transferred from one side of the road to the other. The Millwall Docks closed in the 1970s, and since then the area has developed and part of it has been turned into a city farm.
Elephant & Castle is probably the oddest name on the tube network, but the mystery behind it isn’t actually that exciting. One imagines, perhaps, some sort of battle when elephants stormed a south London castle, but this never happened. The most common theory bashed about by those without a clue of the truth is that it’s a corruption of “La Infanta de Castilla”, a reference to a number of Spanish princesses. Unfortunately, the name predates the use of the word infanta, and the truth is that it’s simply the name of a nearby coaching inn.
Before it had been a pub, it had been a blacksmiths who used ivory and had his crest emblazoned with an elephant. Shakespeare even mentions the Elephant Lodgings in Twelfth Night. Similarly, Angel tube station gets its name from a local pub too, and there’s still an Angel there, although it’s now owned by Wetherspoon.
Seven Sisters is named for seven elms that surround a walnut tree. The originals have been moved and replanted numerous times, and now the seven trees are hornbeams. On the theme of trees, Burnt Oak takes its name from the time it referred merely to a field that contained, yes, a burnt oak tree. Sometimes these things are taken far too literally.
Cockfosters, that name that makes everyone going northbound on the Piccadilly line chuckle inwardly even a little, actually refers to the home of the chief forester, the “cock” being the head of something in old English. Finally you have two odder names on the DLR, Cyprus and East India. No, these are not signs that the tube network is now stretching over Europe to India, but both refer to the times of colonisation and empire. Cyprus is the name of a local estate, but it does indeed come from our historical links to the country, and East India is at the docks where the ships arrived from the Indian subcontinent.
Much of London is absurdly strange, and so the names are of course going to be a little odd. It seems fitting that a city with such a conflicting and conflicted history has a name that escapes explanation, but it’s refreshing to know that even the slightly odder, giggle-worthy names of the city have completely regular explanations, giving further insight into the many faces the city has worn and continues to wear.