'Don't you blog?'
There are all sorts of landmarks for bloggers. The first time anyone comments on your blog - the first time one of your posts goes viral - the first time you start making a mark with other bloggers. This morning - let's be precise, at 7.25am on the southbound platform at Tufnell Park tube station - I passed another landmark.
There I was quietly waiting for the 'via Charing Cross' train, and browsing through the Daily Telegraph (really!), when a stranger came up to me. 'I recognise you. Don't you have a blog?', he declared - adding, much to my relief, that he enjoyed reading my musings.
Once I had recovered from the shock - a stranger talking to me at a tube station - I felt a quiet glow of satisfaction ... and the strange, overwhelming desire to share the moment with you.
One of the more touching aspects of Bush House is seeing the tourists who get their photos taken at the entrance. It means something to them - and that means something to those who work there.
So on my way in yesterday - my last day based at Bush House - I did the tourist trick, and got a passer by (well, Linda on a ciggie break) to take my snapshot. The woman in the picture? Some tourist I guess.
It was also the last day for 'Bush and Fields', the deli and cafe in the arcade - everyone wanted to go there one last time. They even ran out of bread! There was a warm feeling, lots of smiles - which is what Bush and Fields has been so expert at down the decades. And I did something I've never done before - popped in to the arcade's pen shop which I have walked past thousands of times. They are moving to somewhere along Fleet Street, which since most of their customers are solicitors and the like clustered around the law courts, sounds like a good move.
The BBC boss Mark Thompson popped in during the day - to record a piece which will go out in the last World Service news bulletin from Bush House next month. We took him in to one of our least modern studios, S35 - a reminder to us all why we want to move to a shiny, glossy broadcast centre. And here he is trying to be patient as the producer says: "Can we just run through that again ..."
Look up as you walk round central London, and you find all sorts of wonders.
Anyone know where T.J. Boulting & Sons was/is?
The typography is very arts & crafts - and I guess the ranges and stoves may have been similarly refined.
So - where is this?
Kashmir comes to Tufnell Park
The life affirming poetry corner at Tufnell Park tube station has turned to Kashmir. Here's today's offering on the white board, much better than the customary, non rhyming, non scanning: 'There is a good service on the Northern line'.
This rather intense poem, 'Kashmiri Song', is by Laurence Hope, the pseudonym of Adela Florence Nicolson. She was married to a British army officer in India - and after his death, committed suicide in 1904 aged 39.
This is perhaps her best known poem which also was - with slightly modified lyrics - a popular Edwardian drawing room song ... indeed I remember my father sometimes singing 'beside the Shalimar' (the name of Mughal gardens by Dal Lake in Srinagar).
Homage to Holywell Street
Within a week, I am being 'migrated' from Bush House - my workplace for most of the past thirty years - to the splendid new extension to Broadcasting House at Portland Place. My hinterland switches from Covent Garden to the equally enticing Fitzrovia and Marylebone. But among all the haunts I will miss when I move, one that has given me much innocent pleasure is the vestigial presence of Holywell Street.
My office on the third floor of Bush House, on the north side of the Strand, lies exactly where Holywell Street once stood. I'll explain why that's important. But first - where was Holywell Street?
Take a glance at this enlarged section of Edward Weller's 1868 Map of London. Holywell Street lies just to the north of the Strand, between the churches of St Mary-le-Strand and St Clement Danes.
It was an Elizabethan Street demolished about 1900 to make this part of the Strand altogether grander. I reckon my office is somewhere very close - if three floors up - to the H of 'Holywell'.
And what was Holywell Street? A narrow, jumbled thoroughfare which - for much of its nineteenth century incarnation - was utterly disreputable. I owe my knowledge of this 'street of shame' (a precursor to Private Eye's similarly named street just yards away) to two wonderfully researched books - Lynda Nead's Victorian Babylon (Yale UP, 2000), from which I have taken the following painting with the spire of St Mary-le-Stand looming over the street scene, and Iain McCalman's effervescent Radical Underworld (Cambridge UP, 1988).
The place became the haunt, in the early years of the nineteenth century, of radical and ultra-radical pamphleteers and print makers. The radical tradition persisted, but over time some of these enterprises turned to smut and pornography. If you wanted stuff that would shock - politically, erotically - Holywell Street was the place to go. 'For Victorian London,' Lynda Nead writes, 'Holywell Street and obscenity were synonymous'.
'The obscenities of Holywell Street' (Nead says) 'grew out of a radical past. In the first decades of the nineteenth century the street was occupied by radical pressmen: freethinkers, who published tracts on politics, religion and sexuality and who, in the decades following the Revolution in France, were spied on by police informers and prosecuted for sedition, blasphemy and obscenity. This was the home of the literature of radicailsm and of a type of bawdy publishing dedicated to exposing the hypocrisy and immorality of the ruling classes. Holywell Street bore the traces of this political radicalism through the nineteenth century, as its activities shifted from freethinking to pornography.'
It's the radical and freethinking aspect of Holywell Street which engages me. I love political pamphlets of all hues, the more ephemeral the better. Among my haphazard collection are dispiritingly few from Holywell Street. But there is this very nice pamphlet from about 1872, by the then notorious republican George Odger who lived nearby in St Giles, from a Holywell Street address.
Of course, the media work I have been engaged in over the past three decades has little in common with old Holywell Street. But there is a thread of sorts. I am pleased to be in the same space that these rebellious, uncouth pamphleteers once occupied. And in my remaining days in Bush House, I will pay homage to the spirit of Holywell Street.
Twenty Years After
Twenty years ago this month, I set foot in India for the first time. A life changing trip.
I landed at Calcutta on Royal Jordanian airways - my luggage landed at Dharan in Saudi Arabia. It was mid June, sweltering. I took a taxi in from Dum Dum airport, and gagged with disbelief as we passed the stink of Tangra.
The Kenilworth hotel denied any knowledge of my room booking, but had a vacancy in the 'old' wing. A room as big as a ballroom, with lots of fauna - but the lights were so dim you couldn't see the cockroaches. Very thoughtful!
A great trip - met Jyoti Basu, then chief minister, and Mamata Banerjee, who's now in charge.
My task was to make a radio programme about Communism in West Bengal, which much to my amazement and delight attracted the most prestigious award I've ever won. (If you're curious, you can hear the programme on this page - it's the third in the series).
I fell in love with Cal - and I've never fallen out of love with the city.
The photo above is of a street scene in Calcutta, near the CPI(M) headquarters in Alimuddin Street - the flag is of the street hawkers' union. I managed to see a bit of Wet Bengal beyond Cal. The photo below was taken as I was interviewing villagers in Nadia region - I can't remember whether they were CPI(M) supporters, or people complaining about thuggery by party comrades.
I stopped at Delhi on the way back. A year later, I pitched up as BBC correspondent there. And the rest ...
Some Inner Fury
I came across this rather battered paperback priced at 99p in my local Oxfam bookshop - and the cover blurb pointed up echoes with my own life (imprecise but unmistakeable) which made the purchase unavoidable.
To my surprise, it's not pulp fiction. Kamala Markandaya was a noted author, and this is her most autobiographical novel. In the book, the freedom struggle gets in the way of a rather stilted, upper class romance between Richard and Mira. In real life, Kamala Markandaya married a British man shortly after independence, and made her home in London.
Another of her novels, The Nowhere Man - about an elderly brahmin marooned in a south London suburb - has just been republished by Penguin India. Anybody know it?
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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