Lost in translation

London cabbies have the reputation that they have an opinion on everything; they will not go south of the River; and know just about anything to do with London, which we do little to dispel, but are patiently untrue.

This third urban myth that we are in fact just a mobile information desk to catch ‘The Lost of London’ and point them in the right direction must consume hours of a cabbie’s time every day.

[C]ontemplating the meaning of life whilst waiting at traffic lights, the lost break into one’s hypnotic state, surprise and momentarily disorientated you. They ask with trepidation sometimes in a northern accent “Do you know the way to the Lyceum for the Lion King”?

You see it’s 7.21 in the evening, they are hopelessly lost and the show commences in nine minutes. Sure you can drive them, but it’s Covent Garden, gridlocked as usual, and you know with the one-way systems it’s far quicker to walk.

You are flummoxed, but you must never reveal this, you’re the world authority on everything London, right? But as you spend an entire lifetime driving, walking in the opposite direction to the road’s one-way system is – well just weird.

Don’t show your indecision, not a frown must pass your countenance, not even for a nano-second. “Certainly Sir, it isn’t far from here, just a few minutes’ walk away”.

That has bought a few more seconds thought. Do you now send them across the Piazza, but what does the back of the Opera House look like? Would they know when to turn right? And are they going to even know when to turn into that famous square?

Your momentarily pause in answering has brought on near hysteria from the girlfriend, who has spent hours getting ready little realising that Londoners dress down nowadays to go to the theatre. They have spent nearly an hour walking around the area’s labyrinthine streets and to cap it all can hardly understand the cabbie with his cockney accent.

By now, and I swear TfL do this deliberately – the lights have changed and that nice private hire driver in his Mercedes is suggesting, by the use of his horn, that conversing with pedestrians just isn’t to his liking.

The best pedestrian route that was forming in your brain has disappeared from your consciousness, and to make matters worse at the end of the road, now empty of traffic due to your inability to more forward, is a fare.

“Look walk just down to the end of the street, turn left and you can’t miss it”. Yes very professional, but at least they start to move in the right direction. And come to think of it you haven’t told them that the start of the show is not to be missed with a sun rising over Africa’s savannah.

Now where was that fare I saw?

A different view

It was in 1962 with the construction of the Post Office Tower that St. Paul’s Cathedral lost its claim to be London’s tallest building after dominating the City’s skyline for centuries. It then took nearly 20 years before the NatWest Tower laid claim to that crown, but it now seems a race to the top.

Socio economists are those people who, if you didn’t know – or care, study the social mood of society and they have argued that ladies hemlines reflect the price of shares (when they rise so do share and vice versa). The opposite could be paid of building developers, for in times of hardship they build ever higher.

[T]he Empire State building in New York was started in 1930 in competition with 40 Wall Street and the Chrysler Building to become the world’s tallest building. The Empire State building won and was opened on 1st May 1931 just in time to coincide with the great depression, in fact the building wouldn’t become profitable until 1950 by which time it was dubbed “The Empty State Building”.

Centre Point suffered a similar fate, when completed in 1966 it remained empty for years as its developer sought to find a sole tenant to take the entire 34 floors. For a recent development it is hard to get more central in the City of London financial district than the Walbrook. This gleaming glass box designed by Norman Foster’s firm sits less than 660 feet from the Bank of England and almost two years after its completion the office building remains empty.

Just why do developers choose to build during times of economic woes? The Georgian landowners would employ their estate workers at times of hardship to build obelisks and follies for their landscaped gardens in a philanthropic gesture to prevent their staff from starving to death.

Not so the developers of the City. By choosing to construct the largest/tallest/ugliest or maddest in a recession they hope to economise on labour and material costs.

Now after 350 years St. Paul’s is surrounded by building sites each intending to make its mark on London’s landscape. Bishopsgate – has there ever been a time since the Romans when this road wasn’t dug up? – has two, the Heron Tower completed last year and the 64-storey Pinnacle which coincidentally at the time of writing has had its construction halted with only 7-floors built due to lack of funding. If the Pinnacle, or Helter Skelter as it has been dubbed, is ever finished it will be the tallest tower in the City of London and the second tallest in the European Union. There is the Walkie Talkie in Fenchurch Street, Leadenhall Street’s Cheesegrater and the big daddy of them all the Shard at London Bridge, now the tallest building in the European Union.

Will they improve London’s vista? That is not likely for quaint beauty is not their purpose. London is a world class city and as such cannot be preserved in aspic with only tourism to fill its coffers – Europe has plenty of other heritage cities.

London lost its charm when it had to be rebuilt after the Blitz. The question that should be asked is will these monoliths make a profit? Many skyscrapers have a poor track record, let us hope that more companies will relocate to London and not take the BBC’s lead and move up north. Hopefully if there are enough jobs in London to fill their floors with office workers some might have the need for a cab.

A close shave

Sweeny Todd

For many years I’ve thought of Sweeny Todd as an urban myth, alongside Robin Hood and King Arthur, but a book by the late Peter Haining Sweeny Todd: The Real Story of The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has gone some way to dispel that belief, although it must be said that many academics dispute his findings. He asserts that the 25th January 2012 marks the 210th anniversary of Todd’s hanging for crimes which if true would make him Britain’s most prolific serial killer.

His abused early life would match the profile for the makings of a psychopath. Todd was born on 26th October 1756 in Brick Lane to a mother who for a living wound silk in Spitalfields and a drunken father employed as a silk weaver and who would regularly beat his son and wife. Spoilt by the mother who as he later related “would make quite a pet of me”, kissing him and calling him a pretty boy. As he grew up hating his life at home Todd would visit the nearby Tower of London where instruments of torture were displayed to discourage miscreants.

[I]n the harsh winter of 1768 both his parents seem to have succumbed to gin, the cold or both and disappeared from the records and from Todd’s life.

Two years later at the age of 14 Todd entered Newgate Prison for an unrecorded crime and was to spend five years within its walls working with a man called Plummer the prison’s barber. As his assistant Todd would soap the condemned men’s chins for shaving before they walked to the gallows. A tough life in Newgate for on one occasion he was left for dead after a beating for pilfering from a murderer.

On his release in 1775 semi-literate Todd had acquired new skills which he intended to put to good use. He set himself up as a street corner barber and within five years had opened a barbers shop near Hyde Park corner.

Violence surrounded him, his shop was within walking distance of the gibbet at Tyburn which was to be the principal place of execution in London for the next three years until Tyburn’s gallows were decommissioned in 1783 when Newgate was used as London’s principal place of execution as Todd would later discover. He hated his parents and abused his wife he had in short all the makings of a modern-day serial killer.

In December 1784 an annual news chronicle reported a story: “A young gentleman, by chance coming into the barber’s shop to be shaved and dressed, and being in liquor, mentioned having seen a fine girl in Hamilton Street, from whom he had had certain favours the night before. The barber, concluding this to be his wife, and in the height of his frenzy, cut the young gentleman’s throat from ear to ear and absconded.” Todd would recount later after his arrest “My first ‘un was a young gent at Hyde Park Corner. Slit him from ear to ear, I did.”

He next appeared at 186 Fleet Street (now home to the Dundee Courier) in a dilapidated shop adjacent to St. Dunstan’s Church, just yards from Bell Yard, the two locations were connected by a series of tunnels beneath the church. Paying £125 for the lease he set himself up as a barber surgeon, with a red and white striped pole representing the bandages and blood of his profession, and above the shop a yellow painted sign reading “Sweeny Todd, Barber”. In the windows were jars displaying rotten teeth showcasing his prowess at extraction.

London’s first newspaper the Daily Courant then located in Crane Court just a few yards up Fleet Street from Todd’s barber shop reported the murder on 14th April 1785 of a young gentleman who had been seen in conversation with a man dressed as a barber stating “The two men came to an argument, and of a sudden the barber took from his clothing a razor and slit the throat of the young man, thereafter disappearing and was seen no more.”

Four other murders near his shop have been attributed to Todd, an apprentice who was carrying money for his master, a pawnbroker, a share dealer and a petty crook. Not wishing to be caught in the street committing his foul deeds he had now devised a way of dispatching his victims within the confines of his shop. Probably inspired by a waxworks exhibition in Fleet Street which featured revolving machinery which made the waxworks kick out to frighten visitors, his chair was positioned either side of a moveable square of floorboards. The only evidence of its use is of victim Thomas Shadwell, a watchman at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, in the form of an incomplete document written by the victim’s son.

He now needed a means of disposing of his victims and a young widow called Mrs Lovett who had a penchant for strong, violent men and owned baker’s shop nearby fitted the bill. As with serial killers he repeated his method; after murdering he would take clothing and valuables and then would strip the body and carry the body parts in a box through the tunnels beneath St. Dunstan’s Church where Mrs Lovett would use the remains as filling for her meat pies.

In a city, which by the standards of today we would find nauseating, the stench of rotting bodies in the area prompted the Daily Courant to report: “The dreadful charnel house sort of smell would make itself most painfully and disagreeably apparent.”

Enter Richard Blunt of the newly formed Bow Street Runners being suspicious of Todd told his men to watch the shop and on several occasions he visited the barber’s himself and was shaved, but always had a companion.

It was when they entered the tunnels they found the evidence they needed of his crimes. His Blunt’s party entered a disused family vault to find the recent remains of human bodies and following a trail of footprints found themselves at the back of Lovett’s underground cookhouse. Later returning to Todd’s barber shop when he was out evidence of found including the valuables stolen from his victims before being turned into pies.

Lovett killed herself with poison before coming to trial, but in the Christmas of 1801 London witnessed “one of the trials of the age”. Todd was charged at the Old Bailey with a single murder that of Francis Thornhill, who had on his person before disappearing a string of pearls worth £16,000 intended for a young woman in London. He entered Todd’s shop to be shaved never to be seen again, Todd later pawned them for £1,000.

The Attorney General told the court that clothing from 160 people had been found in the shop, and a leg bone found in the church vaults belong to Thornhill. A surgeon, Sylvester Steers, who had treated Thornhill for a leg fracture, recognised the bone as his patient’s.

The jury took just 5 minutes to reach their guilty verdict. Sweeny Todd was not hanged at Tyburn but was taken from his cell in Newgate on the morning of 25th January 1802 and hanged in front of a crowd of thousands. He was 46 years old. After hanging for an hour his body was carried to the Royal College of Surgeons and ironically was butchered for the benefit of medical science.

The case of Britain’s most prolific killer inspired The Strong of Pearls, a serial published in a weekly magazine in 1846, it was dramatised by George Dibdin Pitt in 1842, in what is regarded as the first true life drama, and it has been the basis for numerous books, plays and films, and inspired Stephen Sondheim for write a musical. The term Sweeny has in turn become cockney rhyming slang for the Metropolitan police’s Flying Squad which then became a long running television drama The Sweeny 1975-82.

If today you wish for a close shave here are Esquire’s top London barbers.

Walled in Waldorf

When you are the richest man in America and require an office – and somewhere to house your mistress – you need something just a little palatial, and that is exactly what William Waldorf Astor did in 1892 when he commissioned John Louthborough Pearson to design 2 Temple Place.

Astor had inherited a fortune some $100 million (over 2.5 billion today) on the death of his father in 1890 and after a family row declared America “was no longer a place where a gentleman could live”, a remark for which his countrymen never forgave him.

[A]fter buying the Cliveden Estate (later of Christine Keeler fame) and fearing for the safety of his family he blocked access to the land, prompting the sobriquet “Waldorf by name walled off by nature”. He would later buy Hever Castle in Kent and again ever mindful of security would banish visitors at night from the castle and raise its drawbridge. On another occasion he asserted to Lady Warwick that were he to pull a lever beside his chair every door in 2 Temple Place would close and she could not possible get out without his permission, as rather alarming prospect as she later recorded in her memoirs.

twotemple_new03Astor’s mild paranoia with security was to our benefit. For his office – he did after all own a house in the more fashionable Carlton House Terrace one mile away – is built in the Gothic style of the late Victorian period. It looks like a fortified house from the outside, with a golden weathervane on its roof, a copy of Christopher Columbus’ ship the Santa Maria.

But it’s when you enter the house that you are in for a treat. “Hello there, yes the entrance is free and our exhibition of William Morris has a 72-page catalogue, if you would care to borrow it. The cafe and toilets are on your left around the corner”. Amazing when did you ever get a greeting like that in an art gallery, or see at the foot of the stairs the largest floral display of amaryllis outside the Royal Horticultural Society?

Stained GlassOn the interior of the house no expense was spared by Astor, no flight of fancy too grand, this is Victorian over-embellishment taken to the highest level. Panels featuring Shakespearian themes, Arthurian knights and what must be a pair of the finest Victorian stained glass windows in London.

Now after a succession of corporate owners the Bulldog Trust, a charity who aims to inspire others into philanthropy has purchased Astor House the ex-office of one of England’s greatest charitable donors. Astor himself took up British citizenship and was give a peerage for his charitable benefactions.

The Bulldog Trust intends to open its doors every year to house exhibitions. At the moment transferred from Walthamstow is the William Morris collection which finishes at the end of the month. Beautifully presented and rated 2nd best by Time Out. Who said of Astor House:

“Lavish, quite bonkers . . . and rather endearing . . . “

Lost for words

[D]octor Samuel Johnson must have found this when, after working for nine years from a little house in Gough Square, in 1755 he published the world’s first major English dictionary.

Researchers on the BBC’s Planet Word interviewed 2,000 people and discovered that the English language is continually evolving. Many new words have been invented some of which some are just abbreviations the result of “text speak”, while equally many are falling from favour. So as a last Hurrah the text below includes the top 20 which have fallen from favour, and some in the most at risk category.

It was spiffing to receive felicitations from Melissa at Smitten by Britain which lauded praise on me concerning some bally guest post written by yours truly concerning the tomfoolery we Londoners engage in just to hail a cab.

Some of that posts readers might have thought that I was writing balderdash for no raconteur am I like that cad Stephen Fry, but verily it is arcane to many Americans the polite way that we, in London, hail a cab compared with the rumbuncious way they do so in New York.

Not wishing to appear a laggard in the world of social media I’ve found that tweeting @CabbieBlog a swell way to engage with a wider audience regaling them of the dopsy-daisy world of the cabbie. But while I didn’t trouser any dosh writing about the shenanigans of driving a cab for Smitten by Britain, so I want to quash that diabolical idea that I received some remuneration while engaging with the myriad of Colonial Cousins we have across the water.

Now our language is betwixt writing long and complicated words and the abbreviated text speak now used on Twitter when sending salutations to each other across Cyberspace. For experts have found that texting has smitten many words from our lexicon.

Cripes text speak has now become the norm for many even in their verbal language, such as lol (laughing out loud), jel (jealous) and soz (sorry), the malaise when communicating with one’s betrothed via a mobile phone using just 140 characters makes many Old English words , well . . . knackered.

The survey found that almost three-quarters believe longer words have become outdated since social networking became de rigueur, and the English grammar of P. G. Wodehouse is obsolete. Although not all Twitterers have abandoned their belief in good English, only last week I was taken to task for my bad grammar whilst using the allotted 140 characters, and all that in the same week that the bookseller Waterstone’s dropped its apostrophe. So here are the top 20 forgotten words:

1. Bally: A British word from 1885 which is a euphemism for bloody

2. Laggard: An 18th Century word to describe someone who lags behind or responds slowly

3. Felicitations: From the noun of action felicitate, you would use this word to express congratulations

4. Rambunctious: Boisterous or unruly, the word is believed to have originated in 1830

5. Verily: From Middle English simply means true or in truth

6. Salutations: A welcome greeting

7. Betwixt: Originated before 950, and means neither the one nor the other

8. Lauded: From the Latin laudare, to praise

9. Arcane: Known or understood by very few

10. Raconteur: A person skilled in telling stories, originated in the 19th Century, from the French verb, raconter, to tell

11. Cad: An ill-bred man, originates from 19 Century, derived from the word Caddie

12. Betrothed: The person to whom one is engaged

13. Cripes: Twentieth Century slang for an expression of surprise, euphemistic for ‘Christ!’

14. Malaise: A vague or unfocused feeling of mental uneasiness

15. Quash: To put down or suppress completely; quell

16. Swell: Originates before 900 from the Middle English verb swellen, meanings include the verb to inflate and an adjective which describes if something is excellent

17. Balderdash: From the 1590s it was originally a jumbled mix of liquors (milk and beer, beer and wine, etc.), before being transferred in 1670s to ‘senseless jumble of words’

18. Smite: To strike, deal a blow

19. Spiffing: From the word spiff, meaning well-dressed, means superb

20. Tomfoolery: Foolish behaviour