Falstaff’s Curse

[A] curious tale relating to the land known today as Seven Dials and St. Giles exists; it claims that this district will be forever cursed. With modern Oxford Street at its northern boundary, Charing Cross Road to the west, with Endell Street and Long Acre at its east and south respectively, this small area still retains the layout of many of its original medieval streets, which until the mid-19th century was a dense warren of tiny courtyards and alleyways, where large numbers of criminals and prostitutes lived.

A medieval leper hospital existed there amid open fields and the parish church to the north of the neighbourhood – St. Giles – is dedicated to the patron saint of lepers.

Developers erected houses for artisans and skilled tradesman in the 16th century, with Samuel Pepys commentating on the desirability of the area, but within a few years it had degenerated into an overcrowded and dangerous place.

For years St. Giles church officials paid for a last drink at the Resurrection Gate public house for the condemned on their journey down Oxford Road from Newgate Prison to the gallows and Tyburn. The old Oxford Road now renamed St. Giles High Street follows this route but the Resurrection Gate has been rebuilt by the Victorians and renamed The Angel Inn.

If the condemned man had been a resident of the area extra guards would try to stop any rescue mission as he popped into The Resurrection Gate for a swift half. More often than not the condemned would disappear into the Rookeries, as Seven Dials was known and would never be found.

London’s plague of 1665 began here before wiping out a quarter of London’s population and 100 years later William Hogarth depicted the area in his famous engraving “Gin Lane”, which depicts the effects of alcohol and poverty. Charles Dickens called the area Tom All Alone’s in Bleak House, and it wasn’t until the 1880s when much the Rookeries were demolished to make way for Shaftesbury Avenue and New Oxford Street that the area became accessible to the visitor.

But the strangest fact about this area is that businesses fail to thrive with a turnover rate far higher than elsewhere.

Those in the theatre business regard the Shaftsbury Theatre nearby as jinxed with a higher number of flops than other West End venues. Centre Point, that large office block at the area’s north-western corner, which is now listed, was a London scandal for a decade because it was regarded as so ugly no one wanted to lease office space in it.

Central St. Giles

St.  Giles Church completed in 1712, is a rare example that has escaped Victorian “improvements” and the bombing in the Second World War, now has facing it this area’s newest addition – Central Saint Giles – a garishly clad office retail complex, itself standing forlorn almost empty as testament to Falstaff Curse.

220px-OldcastleburningWhy is this small corner of London so unlucky? In 1417 Sir John Oldcastle – reputed to be the model for Shakespeare’s Falstaff – was burned here at the stake on the order of King Henry V. Legend has it that as the flames rose around him Sir John is said to have cursed the land and surrounding area on which he was to die as well as the executioner, the king (who died six years later), and all his descendants.

All in the best possible taste

It was said of the Americans during the war that they: Were over sexed; over paid; and over here. Now in London there is a new invasion at this time of year, this time it’s the boys from Qatar. For the weeks preceding Ramadan large numbers of rich Middle Eastern people come here to escape the heat of their summer, some bringing with them their high-performance cars each worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.

[F]erraris, Bentleys, Porches, BMWs and Bugatti Veyrons many sprayed in garish colours or with their body panels chromed in the manner of the Mods of the 60s. Known as billionaire bling-mobiles, last year vehicles matt black or full chrome was preferred, while in this year’s compliment pink seems to be the colour of choice.

Congregating around Harrods in the evening hundreds turn up just to walk and talk, but the rich few, thought to include members of the Qatari extended royal family bring along their cars much to the delight of car enthusiasts who turn up regularly to watch and video these supercars.

All that would be find if it was just Knightsbridge’s version of the Motor Show, unfortunately it’s more like Top Gear. Probably with the little encouragement from their fans they race their super cars around the area through the night, much to the annoyance of the locals trying to sleep. Traffic regulations are often ignored by going up one ways streets counter to the oncoming traffic, speeding or just racing around the small smart squares of Knightsbridge.

In contrast the young men also like to travel around London by rickshaw, but unlike London’s other summer tourists they insist that the rickshaw has their music of choice blaring out at 200 decibels.

Well, this year the swallows have flown home early after complaints from the well-heeled residents of Knightsbridge, a police crack-down last week discouraged many boy-racers and saw them leave London for more a accommodating European city – but you can bet next year they will be back; this time with even more expensive outrageous cars.

Boney’s Body Parts

[A]ll cabbies know the location of Napoleon Bonaparte’s nose but few would have realised that at Christie’s in 1972 an appendage belonging to the Emperor of a more personal nature appeared at auction.

Bonaparte died in May 1821 and with claims as to the manner of his demise no fewer than 17 witnessed the autopsy which was carried out the day after he died by his own doctor, Francesco Antommarchi in the company of seven English doctors and two of Napoleon’s aides, a priest named Vignali and a manservant. The Emperor instructed that his heart be removed first and sent to his wife Marie-Louise but that vanished before it could be delivered. The stomach was examined next and it was generally agreed that cancer was the cause of death, although recent claims include the suggestion that he was poisoned. Nothing else is recorded as having been removed during that surgical examination.

Decades later it was commonly rumoured that Napoleon’s penis had been cut off and had been stored away carefully during the autopsy. No recorded confirmation exists of this and if true one can only suppose that when all 17 had their backs to the corpse Boney’s manhood was quickly snipped off with nobody noticing afterwards he had something important missing.

However, in a 1913 lecture, Sir Arthur Keith, conservator of the Hunterian Collection at the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons (certain Napoleonic organs were supposedly in the museum’s possession), ventured what seems to be the indisputable opinion that, given the number of witnesses, the brevity of the autopsy (less than two hours), and the fact that the guy was, come on, Napoleon, the loss of the penis would not easily have escaped notice.

Napoleon’s friend Vignali who administered the last rites was left a large sum of money in Napoleon’s will as well as numerous unspecified “personal effects”, and later Napoleon’s manservant claimed In a memoir published in 1852 in the Revue des mondes that Vignali had indeed been the culprit who removed the body part, although the claim was never corroborated.

In 1916 Vignali’s descendants sold his collection of Napoleonic artefacts to a British rare book firm, which in 1924 sold the lot for about $2,000 to a Philadelphia bibliophile, A. S. W. Rosenbach. The inventory at the time refers to “the mummified tendon taken from Napoleon’s body during the post-mortem”.

During the 1930s A. S. Rosenbach was displaying the “tendon” in a blue velvet case and describing it as Napoleon’s penis. It later would be the centrepiece of a display at the Museum of French Art in New York, how that could have been described as art is anybody’s guess – but Damien Hurst get away with it. A newspaper at the time contradicted Napoleon’s assertion that he was well endowed describing the exhibit as “something like a maltreated strip of buckskin shoelace or shrivelled eel . . . one inch long and resembling a grape”.

At Christie’s the London auction house in 1972 the putative penis was put up for sale complete with the velvet-lined case, but having failed to reach its reserve price was withdrawn – probably not for the first time when it was in full working order – leading a scandal mongering British tabloid to trumpet, “NOT TONIGHT, JOSEPHINE!”. Eight years later it popped up again in a Paris auction house and was brought rather appropriately, by John K. Lattimer, a retired professor of urology for $3,000. At the time of writing the penis is still, as it were, in the family of the late Professor Lattimer’s hands.

Pedalbus proliferation

[T]hey started out as a “bit of fun” around the West End over 10 years ago and have proliferated into a fleet of over 800 unregulated passenger carrying vehicles, which clog up the streets and have been proven to be unsafe at speeds over 9 mph. Only last weekend one was reported to have been involved in an accident which resulted in one policeman needing hospital treatment. I’m referring, of course, to Rickshaws. As recently as last week John McDonnell MP successfully objected to the TfL London Local Authority Bill at its Second Reading on the grounds that it would lead to the continued proliferation of these unlicensed, unsafe rickshaws clogging up central London’s streets.

Now a new novel way of travelling around the capital has hit the streets – The Pedalbus.

Made from aluminium it resembles a flat bed freight car, with four wheels and eight seats on the deck each with its own set of pedals for its customers to supply the power to travel at a sedately six miles per hour.

I have to admit that every time I see one of the four currently in use it brings a smile to my face. For the genius of its inventor Luke Roberson was to arrange the seats in two rows facing each other over a bar; and while pedalling away furiously, passengers – if that is what they are – are enjoying a glass or two of chilled Chablis. With a driver in the front, minus the glass of wine, who is in charge of the steering and brakes. It makes for a very humorous diversion when plying a cab around London’s streets.

Hiring a Pedalbus has become a trend among corporate clients as a way of team building, and that is the problem. Rather miraculously, as with the rickshaws, the Pedalbus is totally legal to travel around London’s main roads, and while they remain a novel bit of fun, if Luke Roberson continues to be successful, or in the worst case scenario, rogue operators who are uninsured enter the marketplace; these vehicles over time will present the same menace as rickshaws do today.

The Pedalbus is the type of inventive, entrepreneurial and frankly slightly unhinged invention that the English excel in; if the numbers on the road are kept down by Pedalbus they should not present a problem for London. Luke Roberson should take out as many available patients on his invention that he can to prevent less scrupulous operators stealing his great idea and for good measure remove the grey areas that it operates; is it a bike, a commercial vehicle (therefore unable to enter the Royal Parks) or a vehicle that has to be taxed? If those issues can be resolved and enter the Statute Book under TfL London Local Authority Bill, to be considered when Parliament finishes its summer recess, Pedalbus could be a welcome addition to London for years to come.

Let the train take the strain

[A]ll over central London holes are appearing, some small, some like at Tottenham Court Road, huge, all for the purpose of improving your travel experience in six years time with Cross Rail. The scheme might, at this point, seem a crazy idea, but its predecessors were simply barking mad.

The first ever railway in London was the London & Greenwich Line and ran for almost its entire 3.75 mile length along an elevated viaduct, thereby, its planners reasoned, avoiding congestion at ground level. Unfortunately it would take 878 brick arches to construct which were both expensive and time-consuming, for what was a journey that could be walked in less than an hour.

Later in 1840 the Blackwall Tunnel to Minories line used stationary engines at either end and hauled the carriages along using stout cables attached to the carriage-ends.

In 1861 a London engineer Sir John Fowler designed a smokeless engine for London’s new underground network. Fuelled by red-hot bricks placed under the boiler, it unsurprisingly made only one brief experimental run, and was for given the moniker “Fowler’s Ghost”.

Before electrification smoke filled tunnels continued to be the norm, how anybody survived a journey, one can only imagine. Early Metropolitan Line trains were initially fitted with a tank in which the smoke was routed into a tender allowing it to be discharged each time a train broke cover. Evidence of one of these “blow holes” can still be seen at Leinster Gardens, numbers 23 and 24 look like real houses but are only 5ft-deep façades, the space behind them left for smoke discharge. They look so convincing that in the 1930s a successful hoax scammed hundreds of guests out of 10 guineas for a ticket to a charity ball advertised at that address.

220px-Pneumatic_Dispatch_-_Figure_7At Crystal Palace in 1864 the new atmospheric railway was launched. It was smoke free as its tightly fitting carriages were pushed into a circular tunnel in the manner of a piston forcing them along using only air pressure. History doesn’t record how many ear drums were perforated. In 1867 a similar system was demonstrated at the American Institute Fair in New York [pictured], Alfred Ely Beach demonstrated a 32.6 m long, 1.8 m diameter pipe that was capable of moving 12 passengers plus a conductor.

In 1943 Professor Sir Patrick Abercrombie, forgetting that there was a war on, proposed that tunnels were excavated all over the place in order to reduce congestion on the surface. Apart from the fact that hardly any traffic was seen in London during the war, he proposed that a tunnel be bored under Buckingham Palace; the plans probably to this day lie on a shelf gathering dust.

Not content with the Victorian vandalism of removing the colonnades along the length of Nash’s Regent Street. The Greater London Council in 1967 (probably at the behest of Ken Livingstone) commissioned a feasibility study for twin overhead passenger monorails to run down the middle of Regent Street. Once they were built one supposes that another feasibility study would be needed to decide where the Christmas decorations should be situated.