Denmark Street - that enticing and endangered link between St Giles High Street and Charing Cross Road - is much more than simply London's faded Tin Pan Alley, the once legendary home of music publishers and recording studios. It's the most substantial surviving remnant of old St Giles, one of the more notorious of the rookeries of mid-Victorian London. The wonderful early eighteenth century St Giles-in-the-Fields is yards away, and the area around was a stronghold of artisan radicalism 150 years ago. Denmark Street still has a handful of marvellous late seventeenth century buildings - and is still choc-a-bloc with guitar shops and music businesses which give it a wonderfully louche air.
It was also the spot where one of South Asia's most influential literary movements, the leftist Indian Progressive Writers' Association, was founded. The venue was the basement of the Nanking restaurant - and the date, according to the scholar Carlo Coppola, was probably the evening of Saturday, 24 November, 1934.
I've long wondered where exactly the Nanking restaurant was - whether it was a precursor of the Giaconda, the dining rooms where music magnates lunched (and now an up-market burger bar). With the help of a 1940 street directory in Holborn Library, I've cracked it. The Nanking was at number 4 (the street hasn't been renumbered), on the south side, and towards the St Giles High Street end. It was next to a labour exchange (that's now a Fernandez and Wells coffee shop).
After the Nanking, no. 4 became the Regent Sounds Studios, where the Rolling Stones put together their first album back in 1964 and where Black Sabbath, Elton John, the Kinks and Jimi Hendrix also recorded. So - quite a shrine to the golden age of British rock. There's more about the street's musical heritage here.
The main business in no. 4 today is Regent Sounds, not studios but a guitar shop specialising in Fender and Gretsch. And the basement - the spot where the IPWA met - is a bar and live music venue, the Alley Cat.
In the early thirties, Denmark Street was buzzing with Chinese and Japanese restaurants and businesses. The China Rhyming blog uncovered a description from the Queenslander newspaper (not quite sure why they were showing such interest, but I am glad they did) in 1932. Here it is:
“….enter Denmark Street, which is now almost wholly given over to Chinese and Japanese restaurants and emporia. Undoubtedly the most amusing of these places is The Nanking, presided over by Mr. Fung Saw. Mr. Fung is some thing of a politician, and to his restaurant come many of the more youthful of the budding Parliamentarians. These, together with composers and song writers, their publishers and film artists, comprise the chief of Mr. Fung’s clientele. The hall of feasting is reached by long, steep steps, which lead to an exceptionally large, light, and lofty basement. There is another and a mere prosaic entrance through a hall door on the ground floor, but somehow no one ever seems to notice it, and so we descend the more picturesque steps. Inside, the decorations are reminiscent of a Chinese junk, and the walls are decorated in vermilion and in greens and yellows, which only a Chinese artist is able to use to Oriental perfection. On the opposite side of the road are two Japanese restaurants, and just round the corner we can enter the banqueting hall of Wah Yeng, who contents himself with catering, to the exclusion of everything else. Mr. Yeng explained that he had a largo back room, which he reserved for Chinese business men, but as Chinese merchants do not so often come to London the hall at the back is usually thrown open to all.”
By 1940, there were only a couple of Chinese and Japanese restaurants on Denmark Street - though the East Asian aspect was reinforced by a number of Japanese shops and businesses.
But the directory demonstrates that by the outbreak of the Second World War, Denmark Street was already established as the centre of the music publishing industry - there were eighteen music related businesses in this single, short street as well as a handful of movie enterprises.
In his reminiscences, Sajjad Zaheer gave an account of the Association's first meeting: 'A Chinese restaurant owner of London was very considerate towards us and used to offer the back room of his restaurant free of charge. This small, unventilated cellar could accommodate forty to fifty people with difficulty. Our regualr meeting was held there.' (Zaheer wrote a novella about Indian student life in and around Bloomsbury, A Night in London - here's an excellent account if it and the context in which it was written.)
According to the novelist and founder member Mulk Raj Anand, it was at a monthly meeting of the Association at the Nanking restaurant in the followng year, 1935.that its manifesto was adopted. It opens with these stirring words:
Radical changes are taking place in Indian society. Fixed ideas and old beliefs, social and political institutions are being challenged. Out of the present turmoil and conflict, a new society is arising. The spirit of reaction, however, though moribund and doomed to ultimate decay, is still operative and is making desperate efforts to prolong itself.
It is the duty of Indian writers to give expression to the changes taking place in Indian life and to assist the spirit of progress in the country.
And a closing thought: Denmark Street sports a blue plaque celebrating Tin Pan Alley. Shouldn't there be one for the Indian Progressive Writers' Association too, perhaps on the outside of the Alley Cat?
Glasgow: a sentimental journey
My mother was brought up in Copland Place, Glasgow - and over the weekend, I want back there to commune with my family's past.
Mum moved south to Yorkshire when she was, I think, nine. She had keen, and fond. memories of Copland Place - though it was clearly a rather spartan and crowded tenement flat. I don't recall her ever going back, and I never went to Glasgow in her company (nor indeed to Belfast, where her father came from - they moved to Glasgow in about 1921).
Copland Place is just three minutes walk from Ibrox subway station. The Govan shipyards were nearby - my grandfather worked as a boilermaker there. It's a tough, dour area. The houses are impressively solid - but they are not in great condition.
The Rangers football ground is just a few minutes away. I remember my mother saying that as a child she and her friends would sneak into the ground when the gates opened a quarter-of-an-hour or so before the end and get a few minutes free viewing. Opposite Ibrox subway station there's a pub with no windows - much in the style of Belfast bars during the Troubles - which boasts that it's the quintessential Rangers supporters' pub. Hmmm.
Rangers weren't playing at home on Saturday - but Celtic were and I went along. (They beat St Johnstone 3-1). I recall visiting Glasgow with my father when he was there on business. He took me to watch Celtic - not his normal way of spending an evening - and we saw them beat Falkirk 5-2. I remember the score quite clearly. And that means I can retrieve the date of that game - Wednesday, 9th April 1969, when I would have been twelve.
The iconography of the stalls outside Celtic Park surprised me. The Irish tricolor of course; and I wasn't surprised that scarves were on sale celebrating the eightieth anniversary of the Easter Rising in Dublin. But the Basque flag? Lots of Cuban flags and images of Che Guevara? A scarf reading:'Refugees Welcome'? Is this some residue of Red Clydeside? My grandfather was a great admirer of the ILPer Jimmy Maxton and would go to hear him talk - though as far as I could make out, that was the only aspect of his life which had any apparent semblance of radicalism.
I also had a look round the wonderful People's Palace, a social history museum and small botanical garden on Glasgow Green. And outside, the Doulton Fountain - erected in the 1880s - had a remarkable representation of India. See what you think.
Just back from a few days in Edinburgh - and how nice to discover a city which still values second-hand books. I spent a few happy hours browsing in half-a-dozen different shops, and Peter Bell's establishment in particular was a real delight.
The best buy - an edition of Peel's speeches from 1835, which opens with his renowned Tamworth Manifesto from the close of the previous year. This is seen as a foundation stone of modern Conservatism - accepting the need for reform but in a measured manner, and to preserve established institutions rather than to transform them.
In this, Peel described the 1832 Reform Act as 'a final and irrevocable settlement of a great constitutional question'. It wasn't of course - but with these words Peel signalled that the Tories acquiesced in Parliamentary reform. And of course the next Reform Act, in 1867, was introduced by a Conservative administration - headed by Disraeli.
And here are two gems - W.E. Adams' renowned Tyrannicide: is it justifiable? - he'd initially wanted to call it 'Tyrannicide: a justification' - which sought to excuse Felice Orsini's attempt on the life of Napoleon III of France. The stalwart radical publisher Edward Truelove was prosecuted for bringing out the title in 1858; he escaped with a caution. Orsini suffered a far worse fate - he went to the guillotine.
Charles Bradlaugh's pamphlet is an evisceration of the House of Hanover from Britain's leading Republican (and atheist) of the Victorian era. One of his most successful publications was entitled The Four Georges. In the 1880s he had a monumental battle to be allowed to take his seat in Parliament as the duly elected MP for Northampton.
And then below, an extract from a squib published by William Blackwood in about 1880 entitled The Liberal Mis-Leaders. The radical - and unorthodox - Sir Charles Dilke ('Sir Citizen Dilke' he's renamed here) made an easy target ... though he had not as yet got embroiled in the divorce case with more-or-less ended his political career. You may see a passing resemblance to the people's Jezza - beard, cap and, can it be?, clogs.
Dilke's wheelbarrow bears the slogan: 'DOWN WITH EVERYTHING'. The casks in the barrow are labelled; Petroleum. And that looks like the Phrygian cap of liberty so associated with the French revolution at the end of a pike. Looks like our man is intent on blowing something up ...
As they say in St Giles ...
'Ouvert Jour & Nuit' ... as they say in St Giles. I spotted this tremendous ghost sign right at the heart of London only yesterday, when loitering with intent with an old friend in and around St Giles-in-the-Fields. It's on a gable wall overlooking the churchyard, obscured by a tree and probably only visible at all when the leaves have fallen.
The sign is for the 'Continental Garage' - and I guess the splash of French is just to show a touch of sophistication, though there was a Francophone community in nearby Soho right down to the Second World War. At some stage, the sign has been altered to read 'Prince's Garage'., but the earlier rendition remains more legible.
This splendid sign was new to me - but is of course known to ghost sign aficionados. There's more about it, and a photo taken eight years ago when the sign was a touch clearer, on this specialist blog. And there are some images on Flickr, this one from 2009.
The church and this garage front the rather sad stub that is all that's left of St Giles High Street, on its truncated run from High Holborn to Denmark Street. This was once a rookery, as was Seven Dials nearby ... in popular song and literature, the roughs of St Giles was often set against the toffs of fashionable St James. This song sheet from the 1860s is from the British Library's online collection and in a similar vein Douglas Jerrold wrote the 1851 potboiler St Giles and St James, now available online.
But when it comes to churches, give me St Giles - and its immediate environs, Flitcroft Street and the community gardens behind - any day. Such an overlooked treasure and so close to Tottenham Court Road tube.
The church was designed by Henry Flitcroft in the 1730s, and merits the two full pages it gets in Pevsner. It's truly magnificent, with a three-sided gallery, crowded with wonderful memorials, not the least of which is a blue plaque to George Odger, the mid-Victorian radical labour leader, moved from St Giles High Street when Odger's old home was cleared forty years ago.
This area was a stronghold of O'Brienite artisan radicalism - followers of the Chartist Bronterre O'Brien - in the second half of the nineteenth century. The O'Brienites met at the Eclectic Hall just yards away on Denmark Street, better known as Tin Pan Alley, where a handful of late seventeenth century houses still survive (though whether the music industry will cling on here is much less certain).
Denmark Street has another claim on the interests of historians of radicalism. The hugely influential Indian Progressive Writers' Association was founded by Sajjad Zaheer, Mulk Raj Anand and others in the basement of the Nanking restaurant on Denmark Street. I haven't worked out where exactly it was - but I'm working on it. .
Heron (or should it be Herod)
I am endlessly fascinated by the herons at Regent's Park. There were about twenty today, congregating as always round the south-east corner of the boating lake. And they looked hungry. Or at least they were joining in the quest for bread and titbits provided by passers-by.
They are elegant birds, habituated to the admiring gaze of the Regent's Park public. So you can get close-up and personal - and you can admire on these photographs the brahmin-style tuft of hair that the heron sports.
On the other hand ...
When I went to the National Archive at Kew a couple of months ago, there was a solitary heron in the pond outside. One of the staff was chatting to friends about the heron. "Yes, we were all very fond of him - until we saw what he did with the moorhen chicks. Ever since then he's had a nickname - Herod ... killer of the first-born!"
Squeezed between Hampstead and Hendon, Golders Green is still regarded as north London's middle class Jewish enclave. It has in large measure outgrown that reputation. The high street is as much Turkish as kosher, and Bloom's - the Jewish restaurant which used to be a byword for stroppy service - has long since closed. Alan Dein - who showed me round his manor a few weeks back and is writing Curious Golders Green - tells me his uncle was the last Jewish waiter at Bloom's. In its latter years, almost all the staff were Greek Cypriots.
But let's start at the beginning - or at least where I started walking, heading from Jack Straw's Castle, no longer a pub but top end flats, down the hill towards Golders Green tube and bus station. This curious periphery to Hampstead Heath has, in places, a distinctly rustic feel. Indeed the cluster of houses on and around Sandys Road, opposite the 'Old Bull and Bush' (rebuilt, alas, in the 1920s), has a village-like feel to it.
In Golders Green proper, the grander of the two landmarks, the Hippodrome, was originally a music hall, then home of the BBC Concert Orchestra. It's now a Christian centre with a largely African congregation. A little less imposing, but architecturally more pleasing, is the clocktower at the centre of a small roundabout, built after the First World War as a war memorial. The blue face of the clock (alas, not displaying the correct time) brings a particular charm and a burst of colour to what would otherwise be an excessively solid and sturdy structure.
Directly opposite the Hippodrome is one of the very few businesses close at hand which is identifiably Jewish - a kosher patisserie which feels as if its time is past, and certainly wasn't deluged by customers on this admittedly damp Sunday morning, but which does a tasty apple strudel. (They are baked not here, I was told, but on the premises of the main store at Finchley).
As you walk through Golders Green. the shops and businesses become more kosher as you approach the railway bridge - and from there to the North Circular, the area is emphatically Jewish, with a synagogue, Jewish schools and a fair amount of Hebrew/Yiddish signage.
It's on the final stretch of the walk, approaching the North Circular, that I came across a wonderful ghost sign for an old launderette, boasting a double wash in twenty-eight minutes. Alan Dein had pointed it out on an earlier walk.
And need I say - it's on the gable wall of what is now a kosher supermarket.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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