An apartment block that only the most well connected are invited to live in? Another mysterious case for the Wikiworm, taken from the weirder side of Wikipedia

The Albany, or simply Albany —(since the mid-20th century some have claimed that the definite article is not in use among the fashionable)— is an exclusive apartment complex in Piccadilly, London.

The Albany was built in 1770–74 by Sir William Chambers for Viscount Melbourne as Melbourne House. It is a three-storey mansion seven windows wide, with a pair of service wings flanking a front courtyard. In 1791, Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany abandoned Dover House, Whitehall (now a government office), and took up residence. In 1802 the Duke gave up the house and it was converted by Henry Holland into 69 bachelor apartments (known as “sets”). This was achieved not only by subdividing the main block and the two service wings, but also by adding two parallel sets of buildings running the length of the garden.

Since its conversion, the Albany has been the best known and most prestigious set of bachelor apartments in London. The residents have included such famous names as the poet Lord Byron and the future Prime Minister Gladstone, and numerous members of the aristocracy. Residents no longer have to be bachelors, although children under the age of 14 are not permitted to live there.

During World War 2, one of the buildings received significant damage from a German bomb, but was reconstructed after the war to appear as an exact replica.

The apartments or “sets” are individually owned, with the owners known as “Proprietors”; a set that came up for sale in 2007 had an advertised guide price of £2 million. Nonetheless, occupants have been known to complain that the accommodation is often rather cramped.

Around half the sets are owned by Peterhouse, Cambridge, a college of the University of Cambridge. These were acquired by William Stone (1857–1958) during World War 2. Stone, nicknamed the “Squire of Picadilly”, was a former scholar of Peterhouse, a bachelor and a life-long resident of the Albany. He bequeathed 37 sets to the college, along with other endowments. 

The Albany is governed by a Board of Trustees on behalf of the Proprietors. The annual rent of a set can be as much as £50,000 and prospective tenants are vetted by a committee before being allowed to take up residence. However, rents can be below commercial levels and sets are rumoured to be allocated on the basis of social connections.

There has been dispute as to whether the name of the building is “Albany” or “the Albany”. The rules adopted in 1804 laid down that “the Premises mentioned in the foregoing Articles shall be called Albany”. However, 19th century sources refer to it as “the Albany”, such as the play The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, which repeatedly refers to the character Jack Worthing’s residence at “the Albany”, and in Charles Dickens’s novel Our Mutual Friend. Raffles, the gentleman thief in the stories by E. W. Hornung is referred to as living at “the Albany”. Beginning in the early 20th century, “Albany” without the article again became the accepted usage, memorialised, for example, in the early 20th century novels of Dornford Yates, a careful observer of upper class manners. The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, perhaps an even more careful observer of upper class manners than Yates, refers to the home of Macaulay as “the Albany”. In the words of the English Heritage Survey of London, “the present resolute omission of the article seems to spring not so much from awareness of correct usage as from a sense, about the beginning of the 20th century, that ‘the Albany’ sounded ‘like a publichouse'”.

In a 1958 review of a book about the building, Peace in Piccadilly, The Times wrote, “Albany or the Albany? It has long been a snobbish test of intimate knowledge of the West End. If one was in use, a man could feel superior by using the other. When G. S. Street wrote The Ghosts of Piccadilly in 1907, he said that ‘the Albany’ was then ‘universal’, but that to the earliest tenants it was ‘Albany’.”

Some famous past residents include:

Earl of Snowdon, photographer

Sir Thomas Beecham, conductor.

Isaiah Berlin, philosopher.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton, writer and politician.

Lord Byron, poet.

George Canning, politician.

George Cattermole, artist.

Bruce Chatwin, writer.

Alan Clark, historian and politician.

Sir Kenneth Clark, art historian.

William Ewart Gladstone, Prime Minister

Edward Heath, later Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Georgette Heyer, writer.

Henry Holland, architect.

Aldous Huxley, writer.

Sir Simon Jenkins, newspaper editor and author.

Malcolm Muggeridge, journalist and broadcaster.

Sir Harold Nicolson, writer and politician.

J.B. Priestley, writer.

Terence Rattigan, playwright.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP

Roger Scruton, philosopher.

Terence Stamp, actor.


Remembering The Gasworks, a West London institution

In which Luke Honey of The Greasy Spoon revisits a West London institution redolent of the swinging sixties…

Hands up who remembers The Gasworks? Twenty odd years ago, I started my glamorous career in the so-called Art World – as a porter at a well-known auctioneers to be found in the grotty fag-end of The King’s Road, London; humping antique brown furniture from lorry to saleroom, and stacking shabby Victorian paintings against the brick walls of the warehouse. A favourite after-work refuge was The Gasworks restaurant (a last gasp of the myth that was Swinging London), in that no man’s land between Chelsea and Fulham- a former haunt of Princess Margaret, the Rolling Stones and, if the internet is to be believed, Noel Gallagher.

Where on earth do I begin? This was a London institution, where eccentricity became a creed. Outside, it looked a bit like a private house, with its green painted stucco, latticed windows of stained glass, garish window boxes, and niches filled with ponderous busts and Neo-Classical statues. The proprietors were- how can I put this politely?- different. Shells (Cheryl?) of Wagnerian proportion, fag in mouth and forthright opinion, ruled over her kitchen, offering a choice of rack of lamb (some lover-ly lamb, dearie?) or duck ‘all orange’. Jacks (her husband) was a thin, dapper man with a trimmed grey beard and silk stockings. Rumour had it that he had previously held some sort of vague career in the antiques business. He liked to join you for an after dinner cigar- this had more than a whiff of Reggie and Ronnie about it.

The dining room was reminiscent of an Edward Gorey illustration or a Pinewood set from that early 70’s meisterwerk, “The Legend of Hell House”. Here was the perfect place to lie on a chaise longue, sip a gin and tonic and admire the Victorian bric-a brac: pornographic chess sets, oil paintings of dubious antiquity and provenance, heavy gilt frames, doubtful portraits in the manner of Greuze, and wall-mounted taxidermy; all set off by a long, polished mahogany dining table, high-back ‘Jacobethan’ chairs and a massive chandelier.

Choice was not a word in The Gasworks’ vocabulary: champignons en croute (a nice bit of tinned mushroom poised daintily on a slice of toasted Sunblest) or avocado pear; rack (‘racked’ being the operative word) of lamb or assassinated duck; some sort of gateaux horror topped with UHT cream from a spray-on aerosol. Indeed, The Gasworks seemed to be almost obsessed with the trend setting avocado: their seemingly endless supply was stacked up high in the corridor which led to the bogs, which, in turn were lined to the ceiling with amusing nineteenth century erotica.

I held my 30th birthday party there (I was less interested in food, then), and as that night finished in the wee wee hours (Jack locked the front door at midnight) and the alcohol flowed, my memory is decidedly hazy. Pearl, the long-suffering waiter, rather sweetly made me a little chocolate cake with the word ‘Love’ piped on the top in very shaky handwriting.

If they approved of you for some reason (as a wannabe auctioneer, I was in ‘the biz’, Guv), everything was just dandy. If they didn’t (and this could change on a daily basis, as when my brother in law had a bit of mutton bone pointed directly at him, and told that he was ‘evil’), you couldn’t even get past the oak studded door. An earnest European couple in immaculate Loden coats, enticed, no doubt, by the cosy Englishness of the bow windowed exterior and the enchanting prospect of avocado vinaigrette, had the door slammed in their faces and were told to ‘get lorst, and don’t even think of comin’ back!’.

But a few months ago I did go back. From the outside, everything looked the same: Jack’s black Rolls-Royce corniche (fitted with darkened glass and vanity numberplates) was still parked opposite, and the house looked immaculate. But most ominously, the menu had been taken down. We threw gravel at the upstairs windows, but the net curtains remained firmly closed, and we didn’t even get a twitch. Sadly, it looks like Jacks and Shells are no longer plying their trade. I do hope they haven’t gone to the great gasworks in the sky, and are enjoying their retirement. That fast changing corner of SW6 won’t be the same without them. Even without the duck.

The Attempted Killer Who Came to Tea


After moving to London, Misti Traya was determined to bring some American neighbourliness with her. She soon learned the error of her ways…

When I first moved to London, my English husband gave me a copy of Kate Fox’s Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. This might seem like an innocuous present to you but I knew my husband’s ulterior motive. Henry was like the 1950s parent who so dreaded a discussion about sex with his adolescent that he handed her a book explaining it instead. That’s what this gift was — my husband hoping to avoid any awkward conversation about our cultural differences. As an American who has now lived here for five years, I cannot think of anything more English than that.

Fox’s chapter about introductions bothered me. The brash American approach: “Hi, I’m Bill from Iowa,” particularly if accompanied by an outstretched hand and a beaming smile makes the English wince and cringe. I had never known friendliness to be cringeworthy. Suddenly, I felt sorry for Bill from Iowa. I pictured him arriving in my neighbourhood and being scorned for enthusiastically introducing himself to strangers at the pub.

While Iowa is not my home, I love it. I have plenty of family and fond memories there. When my grandfather died, people brought cakes, cards, flowers, pies, and roasts to my grandmother. Many of these people were not close friends, just neighbours being neighbourly.

Henry tried to explain. “We don’t do that. We don’t talk to neighbours. Maybe people in the country do, but not Londoners. In fact, I’d say people move to London just so they don’t have to talk to neighbours.”

I could not get to the heart of this misanthropy so eventually I quit seeking answers and accepted Henry’s words as fact. I also decided to keep neighbourliness in my heart. I resolved to knock on strangers’ doors and introduce myself while offering them slices of buttermilk chocolate cake. Because seriously, and especially as an outsider, how else do you meet people?

The house opposite ours boasts the prettiest front garden in the neighbourhood. Passers-by stop and instagram or pick flowers when they think no one is looking. Though I didn’t meet him until months later, the architect of this landscaping masterpiece was Sam. When we moved in last spring, Sam was busy in his garden. His handiwork was visible from most rooms in our flat. I wanted to introduce myself but my cake baking plans were put asunder by our two year-old running riot and me taking forever to put the finishing touches on our new nest.

When summer came, Sam was outside with a wheelbarrow of lilies and lupins and a pack of Mayfairs in his back pocket. By fall, he was digging up dahlias and repotting peonies. He switched to an electronic cigarette and went though a variety of flavours. I could smell them all when the wind blew. Eventually he settled on orange cream.

Once our flat was fully furnished, we introduced ourselves to Sam. I brought him a slice of cake. Henry gave him a bottle of wine. Our toddler stroked his cat’s fur in the wrong direction. Sam seemed pleased though painfully shy. He barely made eye contact. For the next few months, we would wave hello to Sam whenever we passed him on the street. He would return our greetings but never our gaze. That he kept fixed on the flowers around him or the dirty blue Crocs on his feet.

On Christmas Eve my family went for a cheery romp through foul weather to the pub. When we were walking home Sam ran out of his flat waving an envelope. It was a card for our family with a red breasted robin on the front. We thanked him for it and asked about his holiday plans. He said he was going to be on his own as he didn’t want to leave his cat. He sounded so lonely. We couldn’t help but invite him for a drink at ours.

At 5 o’clock when we were expecting Sam, we could see him standing in his window stroking his cat. At 5:30 he was doing the same. Eventually the buzzer rang. We did our best to serve Sam not only stilton and tawny port but holiday cheer. He didn’t say much though he did mention problems with his downstairs neighbour, a 70 year-old man Sam accused of playing the radio too loud. We thought nothing of it and offered him more hazelnut biscuits with cheese.

Our daughter danced to a Top of the Pops special and twirled like a top in her tartan Christmas dress from Scottish granny. She lavished Sam with attention showing him her books and introducing him to her toys. Some of her teddies gave him kisses. Before Sam left, I gave him a sac of dark chocolate almond brittle that I tied with red satin ribbon. He pulled me into a bear hug and smiled. We wished him a merry Christmas and told him that if he ever needed a break from his neighbour’s noise then he should just come around for tea.

In the months that followed, Sam would show up unannounced and invite himself in. He would sulk in our kitchen and complain about his neighbour. I would offer him cups of tea but he didn’t like my darjeeling. Later he would tell me he didn’t like tea at all. So I brewed coffee, baked cookies, and made supportive noises while also entertaining my toddler. The only thing that would snap Sam out of a mood was my Sarah Raven catalogue.

Sarah Raven is the Martha Stewart of English gardening. If you want to buy Genoa zinnias or master floristry in a weekend, she is your woman. Sam would sit cross-legged with this catalogue in his lap, flipping pages, and dog-earing the ones he liked best. Tulip collections, perfect perennials, stunning alliums. He wanted them all. He also wanted to know if I put edible flowers in my salads because he was thinking about planting a bed.

After a while, Henry gave Sam his mobile number hoping this would curb the unannounced visits. It did not. Sam’s surprise visits continued until one night he had a mini meltdown at ours. I was bathing our daughter and Henry was checking work emails when Sam insisted we didn’t like him. We assured him we did. Then he apologized for being insecure. Again we told him it was alright. Neither of us wanted to upset him. Sam became frantic like a bird trapped in a house. Abruptly he left. Henry and I agreed we had to create some distance.

On April 15th Sam woke up the entire street by howling at the full moon around 4 a.m. Henry and I assumed he was drunk. Then Sam started shouting that only he knew the truth and would somebody please help him. This episode went on for twenty minutes until the cops arrived and took him away. Sam has not been home since. The following day, the police and several neighbours paid me a visit. Yes, I had tea and cake ready for them all. With full mouths they told me Sam tried to drop an axe on his neighbour in the dark from the top of the staircase but missed. Locals had already nicknamed him The Axe Man.

After being carted off by the police, Sam called or sent text messages to Henry near daily for almost 2 months. Henry never replied though Sam begged him to call him and expressed a hope that “everything is still cool.” At one point, his messages took the tone of a jilted lover. “You don’t have the heart to call me!” was the last text he sent before Henry changed his number.

Sam’s flowers have died. Grasses have grown tall and weeds have moved in. The garden beds look as if they were sown with malice. Passers-by still stop and instagram just not for the same reason as before.

My poor husband is somewhat scarred by the ordeal. I can’t blame him. He gave me a book outlining the rules of English social protocol and I ignored them. I played by my own rules and look what happened. I invited The Axe Man to tea. Still, for all that’s gone wrong, my husband and I have met four great people on the block. Our world is a little bigger. For that I am thankful. Sure I burnt my hand on the metaphorical stove but I’m going to keep cooking, not just eat cold cereal the rest of my days. Because no matter where I am in the world “Hi, I’m Bill from Iowa.”

*I changed our former neighbour’s name for the sake of this piece

Misti Traya is an actress and writer living in London. Her recipes and ramblings can be found at Chagrinnamon Toast.

A History of London in 100 Places: The Brick Lane Jamme Masjid


David Long’s new book A History of London in 100 Places tells the capital’s incredible history through 100 buildings, details and places, from Roman barges to Boris Bike stations. In the last of three exclusive extracts for The Dabbler, David visits the Great Mosque on Brick Lane…

The United States of America is so often described as a melting pot of many different races, a nation of immigrants, but much the same can be said for London and for hundreds of years it has been true. The evidence is everywhere, but perhaps no single building better describes the way in which successive waves of immigration have changed the face of London and its ethnic make-up than Brick Lane’s Great Mosque.

The building itself dates back to 1743, when as ‘La Neuve Eglise’ it was established by Huguenot refugees who settled in this part of east London after escaping persecution by the French Catholic authorities. The community eventually moved on, many of them to Wandsworth where the borough’s coat of arms still contains three rows of blue teardrops, or gouttes azure, representing the tears and suffering of the dispossessed French. In 1809 their church in east London, no longer needed, was taken over by the Wesleyans, then by a short-lived organization seeking to convert Jews to Christianity, and later by the Methodists.

The next big change came towards the end of the nineteenth century – when east London’s Jewish community declined to convert to Christianity, 59 Brick Lane was reconsecrated as the Machzikei Hadas, or Great Synagogue. In this guise it was to serve another large and important influx of refugees, this time of escapees from Tsarist pogroms and then from Nazi Germany.

Once again the change of use was to be temporary, and as these latest arrivals moved into more prosperous areas of north London their place was taken by yet another new wave of immigrants. This time they came from the Indian subcontinent, chiefly people from Bangladesh who came in search of work and found it in what was still then a thriving local textiles industry.

By the mid-1970s the Bangladeshi community was numerous, well-established and flourishing. Needing a place to worship they acquired the old disused synagogue in 1976, and remodelled it to suit their own purposes. As a Grade II listed building it has retained its neat, symmetrical Georgian appearance, and regularly accommodating up to three thousand worshippers it continues to serve this part of London as it has done for more than 270 years.


A History of London in 100 Places is published by Oneworld and is available now.

A History of London in 100 Places: Plague Pit, East Smithfield

L0004057 The plague of Florence in 1348, as described in Boccaccio's

David Long’s new book A History of London in 100 Places tells the capital’s incredible history through 100 buildings, details and places, from Roman barges to Boris Bike stations. In the second of three exclusive extracts for The Dabbler, David peers into a medieval plague pit…

London’s mass graves and plague pits, while clearly numerous, seem sometimes to be outnumbered by the legends that surround them. For example, that a seventeenth-century lad fell into one of them and was forced to gnaw on the bones to sustain himself before they pulled him out. That the basements at Harvey Nichols are shallower than normal because this was thought preferable to digging out all the corpses. And that work on the Victoria Line in the 1960s had to stop temporarily when a tunnelling machine beneath Green Park began to grind up hundreds of human bones after unexpectedly hitting an old plague pit.

It is similarly said that there are more dead bodies in the non-conformist Bunhill Fields cemetery off Old Street than living in the whole of Southampton – although this could actually be correct, and the name really is a derivation of ‘Bone Hill’. It is also known that during the plague itself two chancellors and three Archbishops of Canterbury all died in very quick succession, and it is likely that the large black slab in the Westminster Abbey cloisters conceals remains of the abbot and more than two dozen of his monks who also succumbed.

In all probability we will never know the true number of deaths, but genuine plague pits are still being discovered on a fairly regular basis and they can provide a fascinating glimpse into these turbulent years of London history. In the 1980s, for example, excavations at East Smithfield, between the buildings of the old Royal Mint and the Tower of London, at first revealed a fairly orderly pattern of burials – that is, more like a conventional graveyard. But a further more detailed examination of the bones quickly established that the bodies were associated with a single catastrophe, the Black Death, and not with the normal mortality patterns for Middle Age London.

plague pit

With bodies stacked five deep, the find provided an important opportunity to study plague victims’ bodies in the greatest detail, and to date East Smithfield is the most fully analysed site of its kind anywhere in Europe.

In part, the greater than normal interest in the site came about because it was thought that ‘dental pulp’ from the skeletons could in some way come to the aid of modern medical science (possibly even in the treatment of HIV, as a mutant gene that offers some immunity to this is now believed to have its origins in the Black Death). Scientists from home and abroad were also keen to sequence the genome of the bubonic plague itself, hoping that it would prove possible to track changes in the evolution and virulence of the pathogen over time.

Unfortunately it has so far remained unclear what renders the disease quite so deadly – extraordinarily it still kills approximately two thousand people per year globally – but almost certainly it is this knowledge that a mass killer lurks unseen in the soil of modern London that explains the fascination we still have for plague pits, whether they be lost, found, real or imagined.


A History of London in 100 Places is published by Oneworld and is available now.

A History of London in 100 Places: The White Tower


David Long’s new book A History of London in 100 Places tells the capital’s incredible history through 100 buildings, details and places, from Roman barges to Boris Bike stations. In the first of three exclusive extracts for The Dabbler, David looks at William the Conqueror’s White Tower…

This is still by far the most tangible and durable symbol of the Conqueror’s hold on England and over the English. Very much the dominant feature of the Tower of London (and indeed in its day of London as a whole) the White Tower is not Britain’s largest Norman keep – that honour belongs to Colchester Castle – but it is by far the most magnificent.

To reinforce the impression given of the new Norman supremacy, the stone was imported from Caen in France and the tall walls regularly whitewashed – hence the name. Even without this refinement, however, its immense bulk, rising ninety feet into the air, means it would have towered over the hovels and workshops of William’s subjects to a far greater extent than even the largest Roman building.

Its construction was also very much a reaction to local hostility rather than an attempt to forestall it, a series of riots having followed William’s coronation in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066, a deeply symbolic event from which the Saxon population had been expressly banned. The Normans perceived a need for what a contemporary chronicler describes as ‘certain fortifications … against the fickleness of the vast and fierce population’ and a suitable spot was quickly found on which work for such a structure could begin.

What is still technically a royal palace more than nine hundred years later was at first a relatively simple structure of wooden walls and defensive ditches, and evidence of the latter has been found suggesting that the original complex covered only slightly more than a single acre. But by 1077 Gandalf, Bishop of Rochester ‘by command of King William the Great’ was already at work ‘supervising the work of the great tower of London’, and it is his work that the visitor can see today.

In fact it is likely that the tower was still far from finished a decade later, when William died following a riding accident in 1087. But looking back this is neither here nor there, for even without the completed building the sheer scale of the work in hand would have been enough to awe most Londoners – exactly as intended.

With the benefit of hindsight the White Tower is also the most tangible reminder of William’s sense of destiny. From the start his avowed intention had been for the Normans to remain in England, and that is how history was to play itself out. It was not until 1216 that this country finally had a king (Henry III) who had actually been born on native soil, not until Edward III (1327–77) that we had a king who spoke English, and of course even now much of the richness and variety of the English language still depends on that early injection of Norman French.

Today much of the interest for visitors to the White Tower depends on this intertwining of the two countries as much as it does on the building’s antiquity. It is, for example, very much ‘our’ Tower of London in a way that, say, Hadrian’s Wall is still viewed as something alien, an atmospheric but uncomfortable reminder of Britain’s subjugation by a foreign enemy. The tower is also interesting because of its expressly multi-purpose role as a royal home, a prison, a garrison and armoury, and even for a while a menagerie or zoo.

Almost from the start it was intended to meet these many different needs, in particular the ceremonial and residential ones as well as the purely military. But, even knowing this, it comes as a surprise to step from outside and into St John’s Chapel, from the military domain into the sacred, and into what remains the most original and most authentically Norman parts of the entire building.

The White Tower, after all, has stayed reasonably close to its builder’s original intentions, but the appearance of the exterior is actually quite different as a number of typically narrow Norman windows were made larger in the eighteenth century. No such changes were ever made to the chapel, however, which – simple, austere and harmonious – is as a consequence as near-perfect an example of early Norman church architecture as one could hope to find anywhere.

white tower2

With its rounded arches, simple, stocky stone columns, and sturdy, robust groin vaults, it is a very pure expression of the early Normans’ architectural ideal. This makes it seem a more natural and somehow more organic composition than later buildings incorporating the soaring and technically ingenious pointed arches that came to define the Gothic in later centuries; also one with a hewn-from-the-solid feel, which perhaps better than any other conveys the energy and force with which the Normans recast England in their own image.

It may once have been painted in bright colours, but now with little in the way of decoration or adornment, and a style that seems to celebrate the virtue of simplicity, it is to be counted among the most bewitching of London interiors from literally any era.


A History of London in 100 Places is published by Oneworld and is available now.

Dabbler Diary – The Shoreditch Iago

Waking before dawn I first reached for my phone to check on England’s latest reassuringly routine cricket thrashing by Australia, then groaned out of bed to descend and in the kitchen force tea and toast into unwelcoming guts. Twice since the last diary I have had long work days in London and they have already melded in my memory. A silent taxi ride to Temple Meads station in the dark. Nobody much around save a squad of glum Slavs at the bus stop on Church Road and oh dear me the cold, the cold, the bitter cold. I emerged from the cab into the cold and the blaring of gulls beneath the glowing uplit clocktower now showing something past six. A coffee for the journey from AMT and a cash withdrawal from the ATM against London’s relentless money-sucking. Temple Meads was built by Brunel as practice for Paddington, which waits at the other end of the line. Two great glorious transport cathedrals vastly exceeding in design their practical necessity, but there aren’t enough places to sit in either station and always there are too many of us climbing into these tin-can carriages and we resent each others’ legs and elbows and laptops and pastry-fattened bottoms.


To the West End for meetings, the second a late coffee at All Bar One on New Oxford Street with a twerp. His name was Phil; my heart sank as he approached in his finery. A twerp, a twonk, a twit in round red rimmed specs and a Shoreditch beard, short back and sides side-parted, drainpipe-legged suit. They all dress this wacky way and thus make themselves indistinguishable and interchangeable (‘Yes, we are all individuals!’). Phil’s accent was Lancastrian beneath the Mockney so I identified him as a contributor to the supposed Brain Drain that draws the nation’s ‘talent’ to the capital (or, as the Daily Mash perhaps more accurately put it: the ‘London twat drain’: PROVINCIAL cities have hailed the capital’s boom in knobhead jobs as the best thing that’s ever happened to them. With more than 80% of new jobs for complete tools being created in London, cities like Manchester and Newcastle are seeing record levels of twat migration). Phil was the new marketing manager at a large firm, so I expected his stupidity to be as profound as it was deep and wide, and so it proved. The larger the organisation, the dumber the management is a reliable rule. This is because the staff of big companies don’t actually do anything themselves but simply choose which agency to outsource to. Promotion is based on the Peter Principle but more importantly on the career usefulness of suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect: the confidence bred by a complete lack of awareness of one’s own incompetence. Phil had all that in spades.


Depressed from this meeting and with a few hours to kill I wandered hatless in plopping rain through Soho Square, at the entrance to which I was nudged into a giant puddle by a passing twonk. Distate blew into the poet’s heart like a damp gust, as Anthony Burgess put it in his novel about Shakespeare. Even China Town with its shops of baffling tat and unseemly rows of duck carcasses couldn’t cheer me, so I carried on southwards, thinking to catch the Tube from Charing Cross but first popping in to the National Gallery to restore my faith in humanity.

Idling gently about London is the most exhausting activity known to mankind and one needs constant calorific and liquid topping up, which is the source of the city’s money-sucking and bottom-fattening. A good place to flop and collect one’s personality is Room 34, which contains plush green leather seats as well as Stubbs’ Whistlejacket, Constable’s Hay Wain and Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed. Without wishing to overegg it, such is my pride and gratitude when I think that my country has put this building here in its heart and allowed anyone to come and view all this supreme art for free, that often I feel watery pinpricks behind the eyes (this actually helps when viewing the Turner, it being a cataract’s view of a train on Brunel’s Great Western Railway).

Room 34 also contains An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, and pondering this famous painting I heard myself say to myself: “The real power of this painting is to reveal the callous wickedness of the male sex compared to the innate goodness of the female, and all the horrors and terrors of man’s bleak history could have been avoided if only men were more like women.” “Yes,” I heard myself answer myself, “and if my auntie had balls she’d be my uncle. What rubbish you come out with when you’re hungry.” And laughing at both myself and myself I headed towards the café, to spend some more money on cake.


Speaking of Dunning-Kruger effects, Twitter has a particularly foul one which convinces panel show comedians that they are public intellectuals, superior in their integrity and insight to the corrupt political class. The phenomenon finds its apotheosis in this BBC news story. A panel-jockey with the admittedly rather good stage name of Rufus Hound and nearly a million Twitter followers has decided to save the NHS from the evil Tories by standing for election to the European Parliament (which has no control over the NHS) for the National Health Action Party (a new single issue party which will at best split the Labour vote and thus electorally assist the evil Tories. You can see how well he’s thought this through, can’t you?).

Hound says it’s time to ‘get serious’, so he has launched his serious political campaign with a blog post entitled: “David and Jeremy want your kids to die (unless you’re rich)”. I for one excuse the unusual crassness of that… what? joke?… on the grounds that (1) he probably forgot that David’s own son Ivan did actually die (and in circumstances which have sometimes prompted Cameron to say positive things about the NHS); and (2) it’s early days in Hound’s tricky transition from professional offensive gobshite to smooth-talking politician. What puzzles me is a neurological conundrum. Why do so many people who are sufficiently sharp to earn a living by their wits lack the facility to recognise the very first intellectual signpost that greets sixth-form firebrands upon entering adulthood? That is, the realisation that those who disagree with you about some political matter aren’t necessarily motivated by evil, but might simply think the end you both want is best achieved by a different means. It’s probably too late now to use Harold Pinter’s, but when Steve Coogan, Russell Brand, and Rufus Hound die they should consider bequeathing their brains to science so we can work out which bit was missing.


To a basement in Shoreditch – different day, same pre-dawn train – to hear self-proclaimed experts talk of emails and marketing. I feared the worst; what I got was a man called Tim. Tim was squat, simian, toddler-faced beneath a ginger beard and talked at a rattling rate and with undisguised glee at his own cynical knowledge of the dark arts of persuasion. Whenever I encounter marketing ‘expertise’ I have to filter out what I refer to as the ‘hipster bias’ – that is, the obsession that marketing types have with what kids are doing on social media (as if teenagers had any money to buy anything). I mentioned this and Tim identified it straight away as the ‘Soho Effect’, and he cackled ecstatically as he reeled off examples. He spoke warmly of Cialdini’s weapons of influence, of con-artists creating a pretence of authority (hang an out of order sign over a paying-in machine, stand next to it in a uniform and tell people to leave their cash deposits with you, and they all will) and of scarcity (hurry, only three of these chocolate teapots left!).  He told us of the ‘extra sweet’ trick, whereby waiters can increase their tips by over 40% if they dish out a ‘bonus’ after-dinner mint ‘just for you’ with the bill.

Hopping about and rubbing his palms, Tim made no attempt to hide the approving gleam in his eye nor to halt the goblin grin that wanted to stretch across his face when he related these strategies for manipulation. God he was a villain, but he knew it and was comfortable with it, with no phoney self-justification required because, after all, it’s all just a game in the end. I liked him immensely, but then I also found Iago to be Shakespeare’s most likeable character.


Have you noticed that although men are generally still pretty smart in the professional environment, shoe-polishing seems to have become extinct? I’m as guilty as anyone, I hardly ever bother polishing my work shoes. On the train from Paddington, braindead and chilled, I gazed down the aisle at row after row of unpolished shoes. Pitch dark at 5.30 and there we all were, hurtling through Berkshire along Brunel’s lines in our overcrowded tin-can, with our electronic devices and our sniffles, our elbows and knees, and our secret cunning plans and our scuffed shoes. I emerged from Temple Meads into the bitter evening cold and blaring gulls, beneath the uplit clocktower again saying something past six, to hail a taxi. A silent ride home, past the stop where a squad of glum Slavs waited for the bus back to Church Road. Realising I’d forgotten about the morning’s cricket, I checked my phone. Yes, another reassuringly routine thrashing.

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Secret London: The Underground Streets of London

Time for the second installment on the curiosities of our capital city from Peter Watts – journalist,self-confessed London geek, and author of Know London. Streets beneath streets, layer upon layer, we descend into history…

Paul, the librarian at Time Out, first told me about the street beneath Charing Cross Road in around 2005. He promised to show it to me, but never did.

Then, last month, I saw it. I was mooching around Cambridge Circus, noting the loss of London’s best-named book shop, Lovejoys, a landmark from the time I used to be a dedicated fanzine-browser across the road at Sportpages, also since departed. I had always assumed Lovejoys was a wittily named Soho porn shop, but it actually stocked cheap classics and DVDs. The shop taking over the site will be a sex shop it seems, albeit of the modern, seedless, air-brushed, air-conditioned variety rather than Soho’s traditional damp basement. With the erasure of any trace of character at the arse-end of Berwick Street, the old Soho sex shop is nearly gone. Indeed, much of this post is about things that have removed, including Paul the librarian, who left Time Out shortly before I did.

As I crossed Charing Cross Road from Soho and stood on an island in the middle of the road waiting for a No 24 bus to pass, I happened to look into the grille beneath my feet. I have instinctive curiosity when it comes to London holes but this is the first time I’ve really seen anything of interest, as, to my surprise, I could make out what appeared to be a subterranean street sign set into the wall a few feet below the ground.


I leaned in closer and there they were – not one, but two street signs for Little Compton Street, one blue enamel and the other painted on to brick. Here was London’s buried street.


Although Little Compton Street has its own Wikipedia page, it is not entirely clear how the signs got here. The street itself was obliterated by the construction of Charing Cross Road – here you can see Little Compton Street on an old map of 1868, intersecting with Crown Street (which is marked by green as Soho’s border, though surely red would be more appropriate) just before Cambridge Circus. Little Compton Street ceased to exist in around 1896 and is now part of the Cambridge Circus utility tunnels, which some urban explorers write about here. (Apparently, Rimbaud and Verlaine used to drink in a pub on Little Compton Street during their dramatic London stay.)


Were the underground signs accidentally left behind when Charing Cross Road was run roughshod over the top of Crown Street or was it a careful act of preservation by an unnaturally thoughtful council? Or were they removed from a wall by unknown hand and deliberately placed down here, where Little Compton Street has existed ever since, entombed beneath London feet and offering a tantalising glimpse of those fantasy Londons from countless dreams and dramas. There’s an echo of China Mieville, Neil Gaiman and the Borribles, but also of Malcolm McLaren’s mysterious and misremembered subterranean Victorian road (neatly discussed here) that is said to exist intact beneath Selfridges on Oxford Street.

One wonders whether the brutal Crossrail redevelopment of this bedraggled part of the West End will allow any such traces to remain. I hope so. And I hope they also have this last-gasp, accidental feel, of something that London can’t quite let go, like dying fingernails clawing a wall, leaving behind a ghost, a whisper, of one of London’s many pasts.

For more of Peter’s terrific writing, head over to his blog, The Great Wen

Ruth Belville: The Greenwich Time Lady


Pictured above is an old london character – The Greenwich Time Lady, star of another strange story discovered on my tour around the weirder articles to be found on wikipedia…

Ruth Belville (5 March 1854 – 7 December 1943), also known as the Greenwich Time Lady, was a businesswoman from London. She, her mother Maria Elizabeth, and her father John Henry, sold people the time. This was done by setting a watch to Greenwich Mean Time, as shown by the Greenwich clock, and then selling people the time by letting them look at their watch.

Ruth Belville’s father, John Henry Belville, created a service for 200 clients in 1836. Each morning, John Henry went to Greenwich Observatory, where he worked, and set his watch to Greenwich Mean Time. He would then set off in his buggy and would set the clocks correctly for clients subscribed to the service.

John Henry continued this service up until his death in 1856. His widow, Maria, was granted the privilege of carrying on the work as a means of livelihood and continued the business until her retirement in 1892, when she was in her eighties. Ruth Belville then took over the business. She continued the business up until 1940, by which time World War Two had started. Belville was in her eighties when she retired and at the age of 86 she was still able to journey about twelve miles from her home and attend at the Observatory by 9 a.m. She died at the age of 90.

The watch used by the business was a John Arnold pocket chronometer No. 485/786, nicknamed “Arnold”. It was originally made for the Duke of Sussex and had a gold case. When it was given to John Henry, he changed the case to silver because he was worried thieves might steal a gold watch. When Ruth died, the watch was left to the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers.

Belville’s business came under attack from St-John Wynne a director of the Standard Time Company, which sold a telegraphic time signal service and was therefore Belville’s main competitor. Wynne made a speech at the city United Wards Club attacking Belville, claiming, “that her [Belville's] methods were amusingly out of date,” he also implied that she might have been using her femininity to gain business.”

The speech was published in The Times newspaper, but the article did not mention the Standard Time Company and the fact that he was Belville’s competitor. Following the publication of the comments, Belville was besieged by reporters interested in her business and also the possible scandal, which was implied by Wynne’s comments. However, Belville managed to cope, and the resulting publicity resulted in an increase in sales.






Mr Slang’s Diary

Brit’s Dabbler Diary is taking an August break. So here, by popular demand, is a repeat of the one of the most memorable posts ever to appear on The Dabbler: the anti-diary, in which Mr Slang takes stroll through Great Wen and calls for Armageddon…

Some Lord’s day. I know not which and care less for I have no time for man-made jacks-in-boxes and believe but in a single rule: that after A comes B and thence to C and thus is the tale until the great culminator Z brings an end to all.

To the London Library there to borrow again the works of the excellent Robert Surtees, biographer sans pareil of Jorrocks, Soapey Sponge and Mr Facey Romford. I would gladly enrich Mr Surtees’ coffers were his works to be found in such poor bookshops left to the Town, but they are not, having ceded place, yet not pride thereof, to works in which dull trollops fornicate when they are not grasping at worldly goods, and cease from such indulgence only when they have snared a rich fool who will be good, while he lasts, for both. He will fail, so must all men, and can and surely will – the nuptial bands in place or not – be fast replaced with better and thus provide a sequel.

The Library and Mr Surtees both attained I turn for home. First, since kindly Boreas has momentarily restrained the rain, I walk, thinking in time to take an omnibus. Nary a word of English in the streets. Or if there is then it is that variety named American, and often that of children who think themselves, I find, to be Scots, shouting as they continually do the name ‘Macdonald’. Or the clodhopper, up goggle-eyed from some mud-clagged rurality, and bringing in his wake his own barbarities, ’scaped but still unwanted from Mr Wright’s Dictionary of the English Dialects. Through Piccadilly, where clots of foreigneering coves cluster like great syphilitic buboes bulging poisonous beneath a prurulent armpit. No hand-wrought piccadills are cried there now, and forging my way through crowds, each one crazed for memorialising their passing on some shiny jigamaree, I would have those ancient frills turned anew to hempen collars and placed, snug-tight, around these thronging aliens’ necks. Let them all dance a last measure at Beilby’s ball. Let these dawdling lilies of the field be sharp plucked.

Still walking. Theatres on every side but nothing new, only grave-robbed resurrections of long rotted ballads and their makers. One, a blackamoor, sports but a single glove, hiding perhaps some pestilence gained hard on a bestial act and has no shame, for ‘Killer’ he proclaims himself; a trio, some old abbess and her nuns, have all turned papist, crying one after the other ‘Mamma Mia’, while yet another, vilest perhaps of all, groping to himself at the name of Her Majesty but in truth nought but a corrupt denizen of Mother Clap’s Molly House, stands high above the throng, all in gold and bellowing yet his vapid rhymes.

Thence lies St Giles. Sweet St Giles, or once it was, a place where a scholar, tussling with the ardent tongues of Polly, Kate or Maggie, could ease his pains with pleasures – and so doing ease his guilt by claiming ‘hands-on research.’ All gone. First rased by eager greedy hands, then raised up high, like a tower of child’s play bricks in shrieking colours, shiny and plastic so as to wipe them easily of infant p–s. Oh Architectural Abominans, how terrible are thy works. The ageing church remains, but emptied of celebrants, its junk-steeped garden brimmed o’er with vagabonds who fight for gratis soup. Elsewhere the soup is high-priced, so too is all else. A dozen ordinaries, well-named since each one like a hundred others, now make a place where once evil and excitement – as is oft the way – ran hand in hand a bland simulacrum of some small provincial urbs, rendering the once different all too much the same, fearing lest the chaw-bacon, encountering that which he does not already know, runs in terror home.

No, all this is too painful. I must go now and seek my domicile but once looked for, where is the ‘bus, so often puffed as coming at one’s merest thought? The pavements throng, the roads are empty. Filled only with yellow-girt police holding back the gawping mass. Buses are postponed. I seek out the Great Wen’s Hades, roads that run aetherically ‘neath the pavements. What new hell is this? Has silence been rendered sin. Must we have no peace. Can only noise hold trenchant sway like some shouting bully at a flash-house door? The eyes have it: new signs, doubtless more pap to soothe the aimless tourist, smear the walls like feculent, empurpled pox envenoming once pallid flesh. But so much more the ears. Cries follow adjurations, instructions are re-invoked as threats, excuses transmogrify into self-congratulation. The train runs and the racket is unabated. A voice, plucked it seems from the ranks of those abigails who, lacking Cyprian charms, turn keeper in Bedlam and revel to tell some poor dotard, unable in age to hold his stool and overwhelmed in s–t, ‘Oh dear Mr S—g, have we had a little accident?’ Would that I had power. Would that these girls –that or else castrati taking belated vengeance on the knife – were secured each alone in a black hole. There their own voices would resound without discontinuance, on and on, on and on. Till, maddened by the sound, the girl would pluck out her very eyes and by thrusting them jellied and dripping gore into a new home hoping thus to stop her ears against her own moron bleat. Yet, just as in the ambulant Hades, no stopping would work. Then might they beg for the grave, to gain a silence they would permit no other. I seek no revenge, I am but a scholar and disinterested, but is it not right that our punishments be condign.

Home. Quiet. Only the sound of speeding vehicles; more police, black-uniformed now and armed, speeding East girt in flashing blue and heralded by braying trumps. There no doubt to beat the hapless denizens. Beat on, policemen, beat on. And in so doing enrage your victims so that they rise up. Up and ever up, And in their anger pull from the very heavens Mahound’s hellfire, roiling and eviscerating, burning with that righteous flame that only true belief can kindle then turning all to ashes: beach volley ball, one hundred metres, synchronised swimming and every one of Olympia’s familial divertissments. Burn hot, burn long, burn cruel. And let there be no favour: all may take part, for is it not said: such is what really counts.

image ©Gabriel Green
You can buy Green’s Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon’s more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.