Four-Three-Two-One, Happy New…

Typically, London’s horological icon has four names, so nobody knows what to call it: St Stephen’s Tower, the Elizabeth Tower or Big Ben (correctly its The Elizabeth Tower incorporating The Great Bell), and for a city whose time, both past and present, features so heavily, you’d have thought we’d got it right.

After all, London is the home of time itself, with the Greenwich Observatory setting Greenwich Mean Time (even that is now incorrect see the previous post).

Big Ben is not even the largest clock in London, that place belongs to number 80 Strand (note typically that lacks the definite article). Shell-Mex House faced a height restriction problem when it was built in 1930, but the restriction only applied to inhabited parts of a building, so a clock tower was exempt. It has two faces, best seen from the Golden Jubilee Bridges (even they have a time and date element).

All of us carry very accurate timepieces we use every day, obviating the need for the clocks that decorate the city, whose function has now become obsolete, but remain quite impressive.

Caledonian Market Clock Tower. The park in which it stands once housed London’s largest cattle market and the tower was supposedly built to stand the force of a bull charge. It’s now open to the public.

Sold off as part of a modernisation programme the clock above St. Pancras’ concourse has a fascinating history. During removal, it was accidentally dropped from the crane and the fragments, no longer fit for its new owner, were destined to be scrapped. Enter a British Rail guard with a passion for Victorian architecture. He was granted permission to salvage everything, which he painstakingly reassembled onto the side of his Nottinghamshire barn. Thirty years later, the heritage movement that had witnessed the loss of the old clock and almost the destruction of the whole station now saw its rebirth as the 21st-century international terminus. High Speed 1, the new owners, wanted the original reinstated but it was too fragile. E Dent & Co who had built the clock, and the Big Ben clock, commissioned Smith of Derby to partner with them to build a replica. Were it not for the original, which the owner who was now well into his 90s allowed them to inspect and measure, such a project would not have been possible.

I’ve always liked the art deco clock on Cambridge Circus, with four women balancing a clock like a beach ball, and the grand Queen of Time double clock that stands above the entrance to Selfridges, but Fleet Street and Holborn have an array of clocks, some hidden. St Dunstan-in-the-West has a clock installed five years after the Great Fire which features London’s great guardians Gog and Magog hitting the central bell with hammers.

The church of St George the Martyr in Southwark has its celebrated three-sided clock, with the fourth face blacked out because the residents of Bermondsey were not prepared to contribute to the church, so the church denied them time. Eventually, they capitulated and put the clock face in, but blacked it out as a reminder that it wasn’t paid for.

The bird clock of the London Zoo which squawks and swings and automates toucans, much like the Guinness Clocks of old did.

Churchill’s astronomical clock at Bracken House, said to have been named after Churchill’s illegitimate son, has Churchill’s face at its centre, it measures time by the heavens and is set in pink to reflect the colour of the newspaper it housed until the 80s. Since May 2019 the Financial Times has returned to this building and its iconic clock.

Johnson’s London Dictionary: Tik-Tok

TIK-TOK (n.) Electronik contrivance designed by Orientals to maketh the vain publik

Dr. Johnson’s London Dictionary for publick consumption in the twenty-first century avail yourself on Twitter @JohnsonsLondon

Not feeling myself today

These past few weeks have found me with more time on my hands than usual due to feeling, as my mother would say: “Not myself Today”.

To fill my idle mind I found an unwatched DVD of Tim Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love. Over 20 years old, this film starring Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow (before she grew rich and balmy) still feels fresh and for any lover of Elizabeth London is essential watching.

There is a boatman (the predecessor of London cabbies) who ferries Shakespeare across the Thames while bragging, “I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once.” After another crossing, as Shakespeare steps ashore, the boatman tries to give him a script to read. The contemporary feel of the humour (like Shakespeare’s coffee mug, inscribed ‘Souvenir of Stratford-Upon-Avon’) makes for a very accessible journey into the Shakespearean theatre.

Philip Henslowe the owner and producer of the Rose Theatre has advanced money for Will’s latest working title: ‘Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter’, but our playwright has writer’s block and is just practising his signature. This amongst a host of contemporary references: Shakespeare had many spellings to his name; street cries pay reference to the Bard’s writings “A curse on both your houses; A Rose by any other name”, among others.

The film opens with Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson) demanding monies owed from Henslowe by: “holding his feet to the fire”.

In Shakespearean theatre, it was conventional not to notice the gender disguises (in fact I’ve watched an excellent all-women Taming of the Shrew at the Globe), and Shakespeare in Love asks us to grant the same leeway, as Viola first plays a woman auditioning to play a man and later plays a man playing a woman. As the young man auditioning to play Romeo, Viola wears a moustache and trousers and yet somehow inspires stirrings in Will’s breeches; later, at a dance, he sees her as a woman and falls instantly in love.

With Will’s love interest ignited his writer’s block disappears and he finds himself writing one of the world’s greatest plays. Like Romeo and Ethel, both “Star cross lovers” their love is doomed as Viola is to be married in two weeks to the odious Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), who will trade his title for her father’s cash.

The title of the play is suggested by vain Ned Alleyn (Ben Affleck) who was London Elizabethan theatre’s greatest actor at the time and to his surprise finds his character dies in Act 3.

Like the play we know today, the film is a romance that leaps across barriers of wealth, titles and class. The story is ingeniously Shakespearean in its dimensions, including high and low comedy, coincidences, masquerades and jokes about itself.

At the same time we get a good sense of how the audience was deployed in the theatres, where they stood or sat and what their view was like, and also information about costuming, props and stagecraft, this was, after all, a city in which 1 in 10 went to the theatre every week.

It all goes to show that London, the West End and cabbies have hardly changed these past 400 years.

London in Quotations: John Buchan

London is like the tropical bush – if you don’t exercise constant care the jungle, in the shape of the slums, will break in.

John Buchan (1875-1940), The Three Hostages

London Trivia: Olympia opens

On 26 December 1886, Olympia opened, it was the country’s longest covered show centre. A suite was tacked onto the north side was named the Prince’s Apartments, and was reputedly for Prince Edward’s dalliances.

One hundred years ago on 26 December 1910 the London Palladium was opened – headlining was an actor playing scenes from Shakespeare

Parliament’s jail was last used in 1880 imprisoning atheist Charles Bradlaugh for refusing taking oath of allegiance to the Queen on a Bible

The City of London is the historical core of the English capital. It roughly matches the boundaries the Roman city of Londinium

8 people drowned and 15 buildings were destroyed in the Great London Beer Flood of 1814, a brewery vat burst just behind what is now New Oxford Street and 30,000 gallons of beer flooded the area

As early as 1841 The House of Commons gained its first Asian member when David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre became an MP

The rusty bollards on Bellenden Road were sculpted by Antony Gormley whose studio is nearby, 4 shapes oval, snowman, peg and err . . . penis

Soho was once home to a shop called ‘Anything Left Handed’ selling – you’ve guessed it – household products specifically designed for left-handed people, it is now closed

The 1908 London Olympics 400m final American John Carpenter blocked Wyndham Halswelle, disqualified the other American finalists then refused to re-race, Halswelle jogged alone round the track taking gold

Established in 1890, the City and South London Railway was the first deep-level underground railway in the world, also the first major railway to use electric traction, it became the Northern Line

Clerkenwell was famous for its gin distilleries – Stone’s, Tanqueray’s & Gordon’s – setting up here, they were probably attracted to the region as thirsty cattle drovers passed by en route to Smithfield

Prince Albert did not introduce the first Christmas tree into London, the first was Queen Charlotte, consort of George III, wanting to recreate the German Christmases of her childhood

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.