Grub Street

This is a perfect post for your humble scribe, for the term Grub Street describes the world of impoverished journalists and literary hacks. Originally Grub Street possibly meant a street infested with worms, or more likely named after a man called Grubbe. But since the 17th century is has been used in connection with needy authors and poor journalists. Dr Johnson said it was “much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries and temporary poems”, which seems to sum up CabbieBlog perfectly.

Even though this street was renamed Milton Street in 1830, the world of hack writers is still known as Grub Street. The inhabitants of this now metaphorical place churn out words without any regard for their literary merit. They were often called penny-a-liners. A Grub Street writer is also called a hack writer, which is another London allusion: Hackney in East London was the place where horses suitable for routine riding or driving were raised. The word hack, in related senses, is a short form of hackney, and now, of course, refers to taxis or Hackney Carriages.

As any writer would tell you, publishing is a long and slow journey, but according to London cabbies, it’s only five minutes from Grub Street to Fleet Street. There was much rebuilding in the area following war damage, and since the 1960s the pedestrian seeking to turn into Milton Street from Fore Street is faced with a solid block of buildings. The coffee shops and mean lodgings have long gone, and we will surely not meet Johnson and Savage on their late-night wanderings. No matter: as long as there are writers in the land, Grub Street lives on.

The late Nicholas Tomalin once wrote:

To succeed in journalism, you need three qualities: a rat-like cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary ability . . . There are still some aspects of the Grub Street trade that can be learnt with a little application.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 16th July 2010

London in Quotations: Ben Aaronovitch

My Dad says that being a Londoner has nothing to do with where you’re born. He says that there are people who get off a jumbo jet at Heathrow, go through immigration waving any kind of passport, hop on the tube and by the time the train’s pulled into Piccadilly Circus they’ve become a Londoner.

Ben Aaronovitch (b.1964), Moon Over Soho

London Trivia: Appendicitis delays coronation

On 9 August 1901 after developing appendicitis on 24 June, Edward VII had recovered sufficiently to be crowned at Westminster Abbey on this day. The surgical skill of Sir Frederick Treves ensured that the 50-year-old monarch was well enough to attend the ceremony. Prior to the anaesthetic, the King made Sir Frederick a Baronet. Sir Frederick was known for his friendship with Joseph Merrick, dubbed the ‘Elephant Man’.

On 9 August 1967 Kenneth Halliwell bludgeoned lover and playwright Joe Orton to death at 25 Noel Road, Islington

The Blind Beggar was the scene of another gruesome murder when street thief Bulldog Wallis stabbed a man through the eye with an umbrella

Bevis Marks synagogue is named from boundary marks of the Bishop of Bury St Edmonds’ house which was here in medieval times

The Old Vic 1937, Lawrence Olivier’s sword broke and hit a member of the audience, who was so startled he promptly had a heart attack

By tradition the Monarch stops at Temple Bar to ask permission of the Lord Mayor to enter The City and to surrender the Sword of State

Jeremy Sandford’s acclaimed 1966 BBC play Cathy Come Home directed by Ken Loach was partly filmed on Popham Street in upmarket Islington

Kettner’s in Romilly Street, Soho was founded in 1867 by German named August Kettner, rumoured to have been Napoleon’s chef

Blackheath is the site of the United Kingdom’s first rugby club, also gave birth to the world’s first hockey clubs, the first golf club south of the Scottish border

The requirement for cabs to have a turning circle of 25ft was instigated as far back as 1906, Nubar Gulbenkian asked why he bought one replied: ‘Because it turns on a sixpence; whatever that is.’

The weathervane on the Royal Exchange in the City is a grasshopper not a cock, the former being the crest of its founder Sir Thomas Gresham

Army barracks near Mill Hill East were named after Lt-Col William Inglis killed in 1811 battle who told his men to “die hard” – hence phrase

CabbieBlog-cab.gifTrivial Matter: London in 140 characters is taken from the daily Twitter feed @cabbieblog.
A guide to the symbols used here and source material can be found on the Trivial Matter page.

When a dot is a diamond


Author of Just My Type, Simon Garfield reckons that you could land at a London airport and know you’re there, just because you can see Gill Sans everywhere.

Once typefaces defined a city, from the Art Nouveau of the Paris Metro to London’s Underground with its unique Johnston Sans with a diamond for the dot about a lower case i.

Now the ubiquitous

seems to predominate every school missive and

is the go-to face on signage.

A short trip around you can find there are a few bastions of individuality, but please note when describing a typeface I refer to it as, well, a typeface, not a font. A font is the weight be it bold, italic or regular of the typeface, so none of this quasi-American computer terminology thanks very much.

As individual as the Square Mile

The City of London, known as being fiercely independent of Greater London uses

on all its street signs.

After you have passed the heraldic griffins that watch over the border to the City of London, the typeface is different from the modern, clean sans-serif style of the other street signs — it is Albertus, designed by Berthold Wolpe in the 1930s and named after the German philosopher Albertus Magnus of the 13th century. It is reminiscent of the old black-letter script from hundreds of years before, the typeface was designed to imitate the style of engraved lettering, often featuring the same slight serifs, dating back to Roman times.

The typeface of choice for the Corporation of London, which is prevalent throughout much of the City; on plaques, road signs and buildings, not to mention its coat of arms has a rather superior quality, the stark and proud Albertus is excellently legible in capitals whilst still retaining enough identity to be recognised as an English regality, which is, of course, how the City of London views itself.

A typeface every Londoner recognises

To most a train that travels underground is known as the subway or metro, but to Londoners, it is referred to either the Underground or the Tube, which to me is a better descriptive word. One should note, however, that none of the four includes any mention of rails or trains.

Commissioned in 1913 by the current commercial manager of The Underground Group (now part of London Transport), Frank Pick, the eponymous typeface was designed by Edward Johnston and his student Eric Gill. Twenty years later, strongly influenced by the work he did with his teacher and mentor, Gill released Gill Sans, which was the typeface of choice in the 1950s.

Johnston was rolled out during the London Transport rebrand of the 1930s and many of the original enamel signs remain, such as the one below.

Many other signs now are displayed in a redesigned version made by Eiichi Kono in 1979 and at the time very young typographer of Japanese descent, fresh out of university. New Johnston was made with the intent of retaining the original look with an additional two fonts, bringing the total up to the modern-day minimum of eight, enabling the typeface’s use in print. Kono found a good way to signal his East Asian input on a much loved London landmark: when he came to present his work for the first time he displayed his various New Johnston fonts with just one word: Underglound.

The typeface of my youth

When I was an apprentice compositor in Clerkenwell, the typeface most requested was Clarendon. Originally also from Clerkenwell, Clarendon was first released in 1845, was designed by Robert Besley who would become the Lord Mayor of London two decades later.

Aside from its usage both above and below ground in London, Clarendon travelled across the Atlantic Ocean and appeared on the wanted posters iconic of the American Wild West, not that I have ever set one.

A lesser-known but more ironic usage is by the German Empire for declarations during the Great War, when they were essentially telling us Londoners to sod off using our bloody typeface. Mitigated, luckily, by how Nazi-Germany would some years later send out a document banning the use of the font Fraktur. Apparently, no one in the government noticed that the letterhead of that document was in the very same font they were banning. Sony uses it for their logo as does banking corporation Wells Fargo.

Right name, wrong face

It would be remiss to leave out the typeface given the name of our capital city. Looking more like Bodoni, it is available for free, I’ll leave you to decide whether it is worth anything more than free.

Taxi talk without tipping

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