Winter is sneaking in and with it an overlay of London fog that makes damp ghosts of houses across the street and reduces cars to rumbling, blurred dots of light. The most haunted place in the UK is purportedly Borley Rectory in Essex, built in 1863 and pruned back to a ruin by arson in 1929. Upwards of seven ghosts have been reported there, including a phantom horse drawn carriage, a nun and a liberal sprinkling of poltergeists. As teenagers, my brother Robin and I lived for elaborate, if harmless pranks. As we became mobile with clapped out and mottled second-hand cars the jokes ranged further afield. Whereas before our group of friends limited themselves to pestering long suffering neighbours with midnight jaunts of swapping out washing hanging on garden lines and such, with transport we were more ambitious and liable to plant rowing boats on town hall roofs. So it was, one evening, at a loose end with too much energy that a dozen of us decided to haunt Borley Rectory. It says something – I don’t know what – that such an idea would occur to us more readily than liberating trainers from storefronts. Reconvening after hastily cobbled together costumes, we heaped into battered and seat-less vans and cars and formed a convoy for the forty-mile trek into the countryside. I can’t say the outfits were on a par with Night Of The Living Dead; there were a suspicious amount of sheets with holes for eyes, some of them with floral patterns. Having established that the rectory ruin would not necessarily be a tourist magnet at 11pm on a November Tuesday it was decided the best course of action would be to loom out of nearby bushes at sporadically passing traffic. Pleasing us no end was the special effect of a dense fog rolling in to enhance the spookiness. Predictably, the only reaction from locals heading home after a pint was either irritation or confusion at a gaggle of numpties flapping across the road shrouded in flannelette. Disconsolate and cold after an hour of crouching in the undergrowth, we repaired to our ramshackle convoy to head home but by then the fog had thickened to such a degree that visibility was at two feet. The last laugh was on us as we crawled home nose to tail at half a mile an hour.
I used to have no idea where Strasbourg was, having had scant reason to be there. Now it’s a notch on my travel belt, I still haven’t, forgive me, the foggiest idea and there is no excuse really, one could Google it and be reliably informed that it grandly presides over the European Parliament but you’d have to have an imperative rationale to go there and unless you are a European politician I can’t think of one offhand. I couldn’t even tell you with any certainty what it looks like because it was clouded with fog the morning our tour bus crawled in for a gig in 1984. Luckily we didn’t have far to go from the hotel to the sound check and the weather was so debilitating that we decided to stay at the venue until show time rather than risk another hazardous round of pin the tail on the donkey to locate the town. The tour had been progressing satisfactorily; enthusiastic crowds of 15,000 were packing out stadium venues at the same time that European charts were being conquered and the mood was buoyant. The entourage had expanded from one (me) with the band in a borrowed transit van to me, the band, session players, backing singers, a manager, a tour manager, a travel agent, promoters, agents, assistants, makeup, a photographer, video technicians, lighting crew, sound crew, roadies and drivers. Although upwards of sixty people can comprise a tour it becomes an extended family, a close knit group of Brits in foreign lands, bringing our own set of ‘in jokes’ and sensibilities to wherever we found ourselves. For us, the parental roles were filled by the band manager and his wife, Tony and Avi Gordon, consummate navigators of social minefields, well traveled, worldly and sage. The part of distant alcoholic relatives you were obliged to see at Christmas was awarded to the roadies and drivers, who invariably kept different hours to the rest of us and often stayed in less salubrious hotels nearer to the gigs unless they were driving the equipment onwards to the next location overnight, in which case they slept on the buses. In order to imbue their brief stays with a touch of home, they had a small potted plant and a welcome mat they would station outside the door to the bus wherever they landed. Most infamous among the drivers were Ted, otherwise known as ‘Lead Foot’ because of his propensity for propelling a vehicle of several tons down the narrowest of roads at reckless speed, and Clive, perhaps not one of the more sensitive of citizens ever to emerge from the West Country of England. For those of you unfamiliar with what a West Country accent sounds like, you may have heard it portrayed with authentic inflection by the American actor Sean Astin in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It was the trademark accent of Samwise the Gardener and as it happens, Clive the Drive. Having had the foresight and luck to arrive at the gig with the day to spare, avoiding the necessity of negotiating fog bedevilled mountain passes, the same cannot have been said of the potential audience. Instead of the expected thousands, only a scant hundred made it through. Once the shock was overcome, jokes abounded of the audience consisting of three people and a dog and a lively debate ensued on whether or not the dog had been charged for a ticket. For a while after the disastrous turnout, any slightly under attended gig became known as ‘a Strasbourg’. The next morning, even though the fog had lifted, our spirits hadn’t, and we trouped aboard the tour bus dejectedly, ready for the long haul to the next and final destination, Nice. Clive, rotund, denim clad and resplendent with the obligatory Seventies footballer shoulder length perm and moustache, was already installed behind the large wheel of the vehicle and eyed us all through his own fog of a hangover as we clambered up the steps towards our seats. Spotting Roy and I he cheerfully announced he had been assigned the room next to ours in the hotel with a breathtaking lack of diplomacy. “’Eard you two at it last noight!” he crowed, to a resounding, infuriated silence from Roy and I and the sound of jaws dropping from the other occupants of the bus. However, Clive was yet to reveal his finest hour. In the city of Nice we were installed in the grandest hotel on the Promenade des Anglais, the 1912 Baroque confection of The Negresco. Everything from the elaborate plasterwork to the antiquely uniformed staff in their 18th century red plumed postilion hats exuded an air of expense and faded gentility. Our suite was housed in the iconic dome at the top of the building. The art on the walls was original and valuable and the bedspread was made of mink. From the stone balustrade balcony we had a fine view of the beach and also of the French hookers plying their trade along the seafront. A friend of ours had joined us for the last gig, having driven our car down to the South of France to meet us, so we would be able to motor off after the tour wrapped and grab some much needed R&R. Parked out front, our Jaguar became the hotly contested backdrop to display tart wares upon; sprawled over the hood of the car they would seduce a customer and disappear, only to be back some fifteen minutes later, presumably stickier than before, ready to be commandeered all over again. Affronted, we took to lobbing grapes from the complimentary basket from the height of the roof at the ladies of the night until they reluctantly moved towards less fruitful ground. To celebrate the end of a successful tour (discounting Strasbourg fog) it was decided that the band would host dinner for all, including roadies and drivers, at the esteemed Negresco Chantecler restaurant, recently restored to its Regency style splendor. Like the kids table at Thanksgiving, roadies and drivers sat separately from the band but had graciously been informed by their bosses they could feel free to relax and order whatever they wanted from the extensive menu. Social etiquette in those situations usually dictates that you don’t abuse the hospitality of your hosts but we were genially prepared for a rather large bar bill emanating from the crew table. Roadies are not known for their abstinence. We hadn’t factored in Clive, however. Seated eagerly, napkins readily tucked in to collars like bibs, they pored over the haut cuisine French menu with furrowed brows. Grumbles reached our ears at the dearth of burgers, fried egg & chips. Abandoning the insurmountable task in favor of drinks, it was Clive who broke the stalemate. He beckoned over the headwaiter, a Master Sommelier, resplendent in a tuxedo with his small, chased silver wine taster on a long chain around his neck, befitting his status. “Oy. Garson. Come ‘ere,” he bellowed. The Sommelier glided forward and peered down his lengthy nose with an air of thinly disguised distaste. “Er…yes…Monsieur?” Came the fabled line since cherished by us all. “Oi want a crate o’ beer,” he stated with quiet menace, stabbing the pristine white linen on the table with a grimy finger for emphasis, “And oi want it fuckin’ now.”
Fog, something London has been famous for excelling in, evinces melodramas from what used to be termed Penny Dreadfuls, the forerunners of comic books that an eager Victorian public lapped up. They were spiced with tales of murderers vanishing, top hatted and sinister, into the mysterious cloak of mists formed by a combination of weather and the pollution of a burgeoning industrial age. Fogs so dense that they gained the nickname of ‘pea-soupers’ due to their impenetrability. Nowhere is the image more prevalent than Spitalfields and Whitechapel, legendary stomping grounds of Jack the Ripper. I’d always assumed the name Spitalfields derived from spit, or spittle, which is an even less salubrious thought. Turns out it’s an abbreviation of Hospital Fields, from the establishing of St. Mary’s Hospital in 1197. Before that it was the site of a Roman cemetery. Roman nobles were still popping out of the ground as late as 1990 when the marketplace was being remodeled. The very fashionable market now prevailing as the anchor to the region had its roots from back then too, but I wanted to explore the spectre of Dorset Street at the heart of the area, which for centuries held the dubious distinction of the ‘Worst Street In London’ due to its appalling poverty, overcrowding, prostitution and crime. It was also the address of two of Jack the Ripper’s victims. Dorset Street itself has been entirely erased, paved over. The silk weavers houses with the rooftop skylights to enable them to work until the last dying light of the day, the terraces of the French Huguenots, the Jewish workhouses filled with Russians fleeing from Pogroms and rat infested slum tenements that held four Irish families per room are all but gone now. On the north side are warehouses and to the south is the back of a multi-level car park. It no longer has a street name at all. I walked along it to see if any whisper of it lingered, but if it did, it was only in being able to see some of the same views that long ago residents must have been familiar with. Facing the location of Dorset Street, as testament to timeless design, is the newly restored and elegant Christ Church, designed in 1714 by John Hawksmoor, protégé of Sir Christopher Wren. The area and underground station Whitechapel derives its name from the soaring, tiered exterior that spikes into blue sky, set back from Commercial Street. Rumours abound circling Wren and Hawksmoor’s allegiance to Masonic laws that has the church sitting squarely on a cross hatch of Satanic ley lines. It was the ley lines that perversely sprang to mind when I’d spent an afternoon wandering Spitalfields only to find my house had been burgled when I returned home. In the preceding month it had been on the stone pavement of Lamb Street, opposite the church, on a freezing December evening, that I had been informed of the death of my father. Beside the church on Commercial Street remains the Ten Bells Pub, first established in 1752, to this day serving the London Porter Ale and gins that Mr. Ripper might have partaken of, seeing as he murdered someone just behind it in 1888. It appears to be sporting its original paintwork too. Two popular occupations in the 1880’s were costermonger and prostitute, born out of the proximity to the market. If you wanted a flea-bitten floorboard to bed down on of a bitter winter’s night your working day had to generate a few pennies for gin and a three more to bribe the door keepers to let you inside their disease ridden houses of squalor. Sanitation ran to one bucket between thirty people. You begin to understand Lionel Bart’s optimistic summation in the musical Oliver, written in 1960, where he depicts the degradation of Dickensian London with the song, ‘It’s A Fine Life’: “Small pleasures, small pleasures, who would deny us these? Gin toddies, large measures, no skimping if you please… …If you don’t mind having to deal with Fagin, it’s a fine life. Though diseased rats threaten to bring the plague in, it’s a fine life.” Gin, more commonly known as ‘Mother’s Ruin’, was the least expensive road to oblivion available then, a vital component of the cycle of poverty, theft, prostitution, rape and murder that blighted the crumbling facades. Jack the Ripper culled his easy prey from the ranks of prostitutes that were commonplace to the rabbit warren of soot stained streets that were the first port of call for waves of immigrants looking for cheap accommodation and the company of their compatriots. The influx of the late 20th century has been Indian and Bangladeshi, imprinting their own stamp of culture on the area just as thousands have before them but remnants of Old London is everywhere you look. Speculation upon Jack the Ripper’s identity has ranged from Victorian royalty to a German sailor. Such is the morbid grip of the unsolved crimes that they have spawned an industry, termed ‘Ripperology’. There’s even a monthly magazine. Grisly artefacts from the most notorious felonies in the history of policing, including The Whitechapel Murders, can still be viewed in The Black Museum, run by today’s Metropolitan Police. Indeed, just around the corner from the site of Dorset Street you can view the decorative tiled frontage of Peel House, former tavern, named for Sir Robert Peel who created the world’s first police force, a constabulary that in its fledgling infancy was charged with hunting down the Ripper with practically no experience in crime solving at their disposal. The subsequent gathering of evidence was the birth of criminal detection. It’s a wonder that any evidence survived at all, but they had the forethought to photograph the victims and save letters written by a man who claimed to be the killer. Photography, also in its early stages, was only employed because it was thought that information on the last scene or person the victim beheld might be stored in the pupils of their eyes. What wasn’t photographed, but hastily scrubbed off the wall adjacent to the second victim by diligent ‘Bobbies’, was a phrase purportedly chalked by the assailant. Subsequent forensic examiners have lamented the lack of foresight ever since.
In 2008 I offered to pitch in to oversee George’s clothing venture, B-Rude, comprising of a small shop in Shoreditch, right by Spitalfields. Looming ominously out of the fog upon my initial inspection was the three storey blackened brick Georgian building originating from the early 1700’s, around the same time as St. Leonard’s Church (upon whose grounds it borders) although there has been a church on the site since Saxon times over a thousand years hence. Because the grounds surrounding the church predate both buildings, the cemetery contains many Elizabethan luminaries, including James Burbage, the first nationally known actor and founder of the earliest pre-Shakespeare playhouse in England and later, James Parkinson (b.1755) after whom the disease Parkinson’s was named. St. Leonard’s also has a starring role in the ancient nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’, as the lines goes, ‘When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch’. The frontage of the B-Rude shop bore the title ‘The Clerk House’, conjuring up staid images of bewigged gentlemen poring over hand-written ledgers of accounts for the parish. In the very back of the shop was a tiny, dank stock room where I spent many hours attempting to make sense of the jumble of old stock and materials, mulling the possibility of the pared back brick and mortar walls retaining echoes of generations that lived or died in the rooms. I never felt at ease there. Only later did I learn that the house’s original purpose was to serve as mortuary for the church and it was in that very space that the body of Mary Kelly, comely brunette and fluent Welsh speaker, fifth victim of the Ripper, was laid out for two days before her burial in Leytonstone, East London. Nicely dovetailing into the myths of the East End, my lunchtime smoke one afternoon was enlivened by four policemen sifting the contents of the storm drain outside the store for a murder weapon, thought to have been discarded the night before. With a specially adapted truck designed for drainage and filtering they appeared to be better equipped than their Victorian counterparts but still came away empty handed. In keeping with tradition, the aforementioned parking lot where Dorset Street used to stand is currently the titleholder of ‘most crime-ridden car park in Britain’, confirmed by my hairdresser David, who relayed that he was mugged there last year. Try as I might, I couldn’t get him to appreciate the honour of being part of living history by being robbed and bashed on the same spot that robbing and bashing has been rampant for nigh on a thousand years.
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