Cock Sure

The great thing about the Fourth Plinth is that for me, having run out of money when originally laying out a square, pragmatically the Plinth was left unadorned for over one-and-a-half centuries.

At the time of Trafalgar Square’s construction the founder of the modern police force, Sir Robert Peel described as “the finest site in Europe” (he presumably hadn’t been to Venice).

[T]he Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square has had its fair share of curios these past few years: a ship in a bottle; boy on a rocking horse; and as I saw one night, a man standing aloft practicing his golf swing.

The art work – a giant blue cock – that now surmounts the Plinth is a glorious anachronism of the Square’s other incumbents.

If asked to name its other statues most would say ‘Nelson’. Although he stands over 17 ft high we can only gaze up his not inconsiderable nostrils standing up on his lofty position. Cabbies might tell you of the world’s smallest police station in the square’s south-east corner, but who could name any of the other public figures adorning Trafalgar Square?

The three equestrian statues of 19th century notables standing on the other plinths on is of Sir Henry Havelock (he of Indian Mutiny fame) by William Behnes who so driven by debt and drink was literally found one night in the gutter with three pennies in his pocket. The second Sir Charles Napier had his statue paid for by the squaddies of the British Army, but the sculptor of King George IV’s statue Sir Francis Legatt Chantrey who had expected to receive £9,000 for his efforts, with the King promising to contribute one-third, died before receiving a penny.

So what does Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock mean? Well, it’s about as meaningless to 21st century Londoners as his equestrian companions he shares on this most famous plaza.

It might be a version of the French national symbol taunting Britain’s national hero, killed by the Frenchies at his moment of victory, or a statement about masculinity in all its absurdness.

But for me it’s just an incredibly stupid-looking farmyard animal painted in a beautiful blue and put there for no reason what so ever. Which among all London’s public statues, many of which we know nothing or care less about their identity, makes a refreshing change, and its intrinsic comedy makes me smile every time I pass.

Dicken’s dodgy Dodger

He is the archetypal crook for modern writers with his cheeky Cockney charm and oversized coat, think Arthur Daley or ‘Del Boy’ Trotter, but the original was first penned over 150 years ago by Charles Dickens.

For many years Jack Dawkins aka the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist has been one of literature’s most seminal and original characters or so it has been thought until now.

[R]esearching child convicts sent to Australia during the Victorian era historian Cameron Nunn came across an account of 13-year-old thief Samuel Holmes.

Dated 1836 two years before Dickens’ novel was published a report was written by magistrate William Augustus Miles who had interviewed among others habitual criminal Holmes for a Special Parliamentary Committee looking at juvenile crime in London while Holmes was incarcerated on the prison ship HMS Euryalus.

Young master Samuel Holmes’ life appears to mirror that of his fictional counterpart. Trained as a pickpocket in an East London hideout almost identical to bearded villain Fagin’s criminal den, he told the magistrate how he had already served four prison sentences. He would describe in detail his criminal life:

Two boys took me to a house in Stepney, kept by a Jew, and he agreed to board and lodge me for 2/6 a week provided I bought and sold to him all that I might steal. He has about 13 boys in the house on the same terms.

The landlord has also the adjoining house and the back kitchen is fitted with a trap door to help escape and in one corner of one of the back kitchens is a sliding floor underneath which property is hid.

It has always been accepted the Artful Dodger came from Dickens’ imagination, but at the time of the report he was working as a political correspondent for a newspaper and could easily have come across the report before writing his most famous story. In Oliver Twist the Jewish villain Fagin’s house is described as having a trap door to evade capture and the training his ragamuffins in the art of being pickpockets.

In Holmes’ account he described how he would oversee the teenage crooks under the watchful eye of his cruel gang master.

I was about a fortnight in training and afterwards went out to assist and screen the boys where they picked pockets.

According to Old Bailey court records young Samuel Holmes was arrested for stealing a bullock’s tongue, three doves and a pigeon. After spending time on a prison hulk he was sentenced to seven years transportation to Point Puer – the first juvenile jail in Tasmania, Australia. He was released aged 27 and then faded into obscurity.

An illuminated roof

It has probably not escaped your attention that recently the birth was announced of a Royal baby.

Now I’m all for technology as much as the next man but it seems to me some special events should be left to the traditional way we do thing here in Britain. The act of pinning the announcement to a rather flimsy easel by a Buckingham Palace aid was low key and very British.

[S]o when I saw the news broadcast from an illuminated banner on the roof of a London black taxi it seemed to me that was more akin to our colonial colleagues across the water driving yellow checker cabs in New York City.

On a trial approved by TfL 25 London cabs are driving around with digital roof top advertising. TaxiCast claims to be the world’s first regulated and approved illuminated taxi sign. It is a trial which over the next 3 months will deliver 2 million advertisements beamed down to Londoners from their lofty position.

Some advertisers have utilised this very intrusive form of advertising. Magnum ice-creams will miraculously appear when the sun is shining and temperatures rise above 16°C to remind us to eat their products.

All very clever but should the black cab be dragged into the 21st century? Surely much of what makes the ‘iconic’ black cab is that while it is a rather efficient mode of travel its look transports you back to an age of solid dependence and reliability.

First the traditional cab was allowed to be painted in any colour (Henry Ford must have turned in his grave when that was allowed). Next advertising was put on the sides swiftly followed by having the entire vehicle covered with placards. Soon this was not enough and the back window had some very clever membrane adhered to it which was opaque from the outside (allowing yet more bill boards), but the driver could use his rear view mirror.

How much further will this go, drivers wearing the uniforms of their sponsors? The cab is iconic because it is different it doesn’t look like a taxi found in other cities. Being traditionally black roots it firmly within the M25. If our trade, which dates back to the time of Oliver Cromwell, wants to remain distinctive and easily identifiable we should return to black.

Passport for Pimlico

Just south of bustling Victoria lies a little enclave comprising some of the quietest streets in London. It is an area full of intrigue and scandal, so isolated yet near to the seats of power if I were a spy I would seek out a pad here. Roughly a lop-sided square with Lupus Street running along its southern edge and Warwick Way to the north, with Belgrave Road and Sutherland Street enclosing this labyrinthian pattern of parallel streets.

[O]ne might be excused for thinking its layout was the easiest to learn while studying The Knowledge. But there is a problem none of the roads comprising the Pimlico Parallelogram can be driven along their entire length as most are one-way in multiple directions.

The kernel of this post was that recently I asked a customer to direct me to their house, complaining, as usual, that I had given up years ago trying to learn the geography of his neighbourhood. It was then he told me that the bizarre one-way system was to protect MPs.

Apparently it is impossible to transverse this little area, this was in part to prevent the IRA targeting its high profile residents. I pointed out that if an individual was prepared to kill to further their cause, compliance of the Highway Code would not be high on their agenda, but he insisted that that was the case.

The resident safety would probably not have occurred to the speculative builder Thomas Cubitt who in the 1820s started to build these houses with their perfect Regency symmetry which were described in an 1877 newspaper article as:

Genteel, sacred to professional men . . . not rich enough to luxuriate in Belgravia proper, but rich enough to live in private houses, its inhabitants were more lively than in Kensington . . . and yet a cut above Chelsea, which is only commercial.

The area’s isolation was the setting for the 1949 comedy Passport to Pimlico where in a cellar children find an ancient parchment document which authenticates Pimlico as legally part of Burgundy and therefore outside British Government jurisdiction.

Now the area has over 350 Grade II listed buildings and without grand houses, Victorian serial killers, ancient monuments or tourist attractions it still feels detached from London.

With its proximity to The Houses of Parliament over the years the area has attracted Members of Parliament – and their mistresses. Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, the young women at the heart of the Profumo scandal were sub-tenants of Dolphin Square, but no one seems to remember which flats they occupied; some say Keeler lived in 501 or 601. Other famous or infamous politicians have included Sir Winston Churchill, Jomo Kenyatta, Charles De Gaulle and Oswald Mosley.

With MI5 and MI6 a short walk away this seems to make Pimlico and perfect spot for those protecting – and spying on – the corridors of power . . .

The London Grill: Robert Lordan

We challenge our contributor to reply to ten devilishly probing questions about their London and we don’t take “Sorry Gov” for an answer. Everyone sitting in the hot seat will face the same questions that range from their favourite way to spend a day out in the capital to their most hated building on London’s skyline to find out just what Londoners really think about their city. The questions might be the same but the answers vary wildly.


[R]obert Lordan is author of the excellent website View from the Mirror. If spending nearly five years getting his bill wasn’t enough Rob then went on to successfully complete the Worshipful Company of Hackney Carriage Drivers course to become a tour guide and he conducts murder, Harry Potter and American themed tours.

What’s your secret London tip?
We all love a good cuppa, so head for “Twinings” on the Strand (which has been at the location since 1706) and make your way right to the back of the premises.

Once there, you’ll find a little, communal kitchen-type area. From here, you sample the wide array of tea on
offer . . . all for free! You might want to buy a packet of Darjeeling on the way out though.

What’s your secret London place?
The area beside Cherry Garden Pier in Bermondsey. It’s always peaceful, and has great views across the Thames towards Tower Bridge and the City. If you have time for a drink, The Angel on the corner of Cathay Street is superb.

There’s a bit of history here too; the ruins of an old manor house, built by King Edward III, can be seen.

More sadly, a bench in the area was once home to my favourite London sculpture; Dr Salter’s Daydream; a poignant statue representing a famous, Bermondsey doctor remembering his long-deceased, young daughter. In November 2011, the statue was nicked (probably for scrap metal). Broke my heart when I found out.

What’s your biggest gripe about London?
I know it’s an obvious answer, but it has to be the colossal number of CCTV cameras – or, to be more accurate – the way in which they are employed.

Do a u-turn in the wrong place or pull up for 1 minute on a double yellow, on a quiet road at 9.30pm (both real-life examples which I and many others have suffered) and wallop! You’re branded a crook and forced to cough up your hard earned dough.

Meanwhile, a mile or so down the road, someone’s getting mugged, or a gang of kids are having a knife fight. Sure, they sometimes catch footage of such events, but inevitably, they will be blurred, lazy and of no use at all. CCTV generally excels at snapping number plates with draconian efficiency, leading the likes of us to live in fear of a PCN every time we pass an orange light.

Where was the CCTV when Dr Salter’s statue was being lifted, hey?

What’s your favourite building?
St. Paul’s Cathedral. Apart from being a beautiful piece of architecture, the fact that it emerged from the ashes of the Great Fire of London, and survived the devastating air-raid of 29th December 1940 (during which the famous photo of the building amongst the smoke was taken) means that it is the ultimate symbol of London’s defiant spirit.

If you look up on the cathedral’s south side, you’ll see an image of a phoenix, above the Latin word: “Resurgum.” That says it all really.

What’s your most hated building?
“50 Farringdon Road”, that long, grey, blocky building really is architecture at its worst. Bland and overly-imposing at the same time, it shuts out daylight and turns that section of Farringdon Road into what feels like a deep, dark trench. Must be soul-destroying for the poor sods who have to work there.

What’s the best view in London?
It’s from Waterloo Bridge; especially at dusk. From there, you can see the two historic centres of London; The City and Westminster and everything which binds them together, glittering like a length of tinsel. If I’ve had a tough day, I’ll often take a drive over it, just to remind me how gorgeous the city I work in really is.

What’s your personal London landmark?
“Quality House” on Willesden Lane. A dull building I suppose, but it used to be Brent registry office; the place I was taken as a baby and rubber-stamped into the world.

What’s your favourite London film, book or documentary?
Very difficult to pick a favourite. I love anything made by the old Euston Films Company; The Sweeney, Minder – and of course, Jack Rosenthal’s, The Knowledge, mainly because they were always filmed on location and are pure London.

If I had to choose though, I would probably go for a rare, film called Babylon. It was made all around New Cross and Brixton in 1980, long before gentrification. It also has glimpses of Soho when it was at its seediest, and contains a great reggae soundtrack.

What’s your favourite bar, pub or restaurant?
“Lemongrass”, which is on Royal College Street in Camden. It’s the UK’s only Cambodian restaurant; the food is terrific (a kind of fusion between Thai and French cuisine), reasonable prices and all cooked by just one chef, who you can see working at close quarters (the flames leaping off of his hob can be alarmingly high!)

As for pubs, I’m very fond of the ‘Ye Old Swiss Cottage’. The beer is fairly priced and, being in the middle of a major junction, few people are willing to cross the road to get there; something which means the place is always nice and quiet. And it has its own tube station!

How would you like to spend your ideal day off in London?
I’d start with a hearty breakfast at one of the early-morning Smithfield pubs (maybe even a pint or two with the market boys as they clock off!)

I’d then head off to the Museum of London, one of our capital’s best and check out their latest exhibition (Charles Dickens at the moment). I’d also spend a good while in their book shop, which is a treasure-trove of London trivia.

After that, I’d take a stroll through the city, enjoying the secret parks and the pure history of the place. If there was time, I’d squeeze in a visit to the top of The Monument.

For lunch, I’d hail a taxi over to Little Georgia on Goldsmiths Row in Hackney. This is another fantastic restaurant; the food is all home-cooked by a motherly chef. Their borsch is fantastic; made with cream, tasty sausages and enough spice to give it a kick; you can’t beat it during a winter snap.

After a few pints of London Pride at the Old Ship on Mare Street, I’d head back west and catch an evening show- ideally, Warhorse which is just breath-taking. After a late night coffee at Bar Italia, I’d then catch a taxi home, and enjoy a good putting the world to rights chat with my fellow cabbie.

This ‘Grill’ was first posted on the Radio Taxis blog.