Category Archives: A window on My World

For the record

Have any of you given up your New Year’s Resolution to keep a diary?

This thought occurred to me as my digital diary informed me that I have written a daily entry, without a break, for 2,480 days. But before I come over overly supercilious, a far better London blogger Diamond Geezer has written every day uninterrupted for 43 years, without gaps. But as he informs us, even he can’t beat Colonel Ernest Loftus (of Harare, Zimbabwe) who began his daily diary at the age of 12 in 1896 and was still going strong when he died at the age of 103, some 91 years later.

Kenneth William’s bowel movements

Most diarists write for themselves of course, but a small number write mindful that others might read their thoughts. Some write just recording gossip, as in Kenneth William’s diaries, who would also record the time of his bowel movements for reasons best known only to him, while others record their thoughts, dreams and observations of what life was like to live at one particular point of time.

Historians depend on diaries to capture the essence of what it was to live at the point of recording that information, for example, Pliny the Younger’s account of Mount Vesuvius erupting in 79AD has been invaluable to both historians and volcanologists.

In September 1939 Nella Last a middle-aged housewife living in Barrow-in-Furness began keeping a diary for mass observation, a social research organisation which began in 1937 which encouraged the recording of what they called ‘The Voice of the People’. So engaging was Nella’s record of her life during the war years and post-war years it subsequently became a best seller and was later brought to the attention of later generations when it became a television drama starring Victoria Wood.

My mundane diary

While my own record is as mundane as ‘walked the dog, light rain, went to the shops’, Nella’s gave us an insight for what life was like for an ordinary housewife to live through the war years. In April 1940 after listening to reports on the radio of a sea battle the simple act of drinking a glass of water conjured up a terrifying vision:

. . . I got a drink of water and tilted the glass too much, the feeling of slight choking gripped me and sent my mind over green cold water where men might be drowning as I sat so safe and warm . . .

Good diarists make the ordinary, extraordinary and probably the greatest exponent of this daily account recorded life in London during the tumultuous times of mid-17th century London. We know he started the diary on 1st January 1660 with the entry ‘Blessed be God, at the end of the last year I was in very good health, without any sense of my old pain, but upon taking of cold’, and for nearly 10 years Samuel Pepys kept an account of his life from the great events at the time to the mundane.

During the plague he notes:

And it is a wonder what will be the fashion, as to periwigs, for nobody will dare to buy any hair for fear of the infection – that it had been cut off the heads of people dead of the plague.

Pepys confesses in having two mistresses giving a rather graphic account of his dalliances and the guilt he felt at his betraying Elizabeth his French Huguenot wife. His account of being an employer in 17th century London in which he had no fear from being accused of sexual harassment by employees for the young women servants naturally attracted the master of the household and having a go at the household maids seems to have been an established practice.

His most famous entries were of The Great Fire of London, which started in a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane in the early hours of 2nd September 1666, it burned down 80 per cent of London within the City walls and left 80,000 people homeless. But as fascinating as this account is of the drama that is unfolding before his eyes, it the small nuggets of personal information that helps us understand the Londoners who lived there at the time. Pepys’s records that night, by moonlight, he moved his money and valuables into the cellar and carried all his precious goods – his best wine and a good Parmesan cheese – into the garden and buried them.

Keep it up

So, if like Samuel Pepys your New Year’s Resolution was to keep a diary, keep recording, and if you should find among a deceased family members’ effects their cherished thoughts don’t throw them away, one-day historians might want to know about life in 21st century London.

The writing was on the wall

As a sign of London’s diminishing cab trade, Radio Taxis, for whom I have been writing these past six years, decided we part company. I predict there will be a lot of detrimental changes for cabbies in the next 5 years.

I wrote these rather prophetic words in March 2017.

Little did I realise then how popular for Londoners would be an alternative to Radio Taxis. The new kid on the block used their ‘offshore’ status to avoid paying most UK taxes, and had a close association with the then prime minister.

It dispensed with the cumbersome criteria of having experienced driving in England at some point; abandoned comprehensive criminal record checks; used drivers with a lack of understanding the geography of London’s labyrinthine roads; and who had limited ability in understanding the capital’s native tongue, flooding London’s streets with thousands of rented vehicles purporting to be ‘cabs’.

Not everyone was so gullible. From these seemingly diverse cities spot the odd one out: Barcelona, Spain; Buffalo, New York State; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Vancouver, Canada; Frankfurt, Germany; Anchorage, Alaska; Austin, Texas; Oslo, Norway; Reykjavik, Iceland; London, England. Yes, you guessed it – London. The city voted many times as having the best cabbies, and with the most stringent taxi licensing regulations in the world allowed Uber to operate with predictable consequences.

Now they have gone but so has much of London’s Black Cab trade, so does anyone want to syndicate these missives?

Once a torrent of ink

It was Caxton’s apprentice, the appropriately named Wynkyn der Worde, who first set up shop in the area of Fleet Street. William Caxton (the first Englishman to print books in London) had worked in Westminister working for rich patrons. Wynkyn after a little legal wrangling inherited the business upon Caxton’s death and in 1500 decided to build up a business producing relatively inexpensive books for a mass market, declaring:

“I am going to make a torrent of ink run through ze streets of London. I will drown out all ignorance . . . I will be ze father of Fleet Street!”

And so he did.

By the time of his death in 1534/5, Wynkyn had published more than 400 books in over 800 editions, though some are extant only in single copies and many others are extremely rare.

Fleet Street was to become synonymous with print and publishing, but broadsheets, as we know them, were still a long way off. Politics and religion were a no-no for the presses, so ‘execution prints’ (gory details of hangings, drawings and quarterings) and quasi-scientific pamphlets thrived.

After 1695, journalists were free to criticise government policy or satirise the Church without ending up pilloried, gaoled, or having various body parts chopped off.

The Daily Courant was first published on 11th March 1702 by Edward Mallet from his premises “against the Ditch at Fleet Bridge”. This is now Ludgate Circus beneath which lie the buried waters of the Fleet, once clogged up with dead dogs, raw sewage and suicide victims. This is the primordial ooze out of which the Gutter Press arose, an irony probably not lost on Levenson witnesses seeking newspaper restrictions.

Fleet Street was an ideal location for the London press. Ever since Tudor times, the street was renowned for its profusion of ale-houses and taverns and by 1700 there were 26 coffeehouses. Little changed for over 250 years and a contemporary account by Bill Hagerty a former Fleet Street editor can be found here.

Because Fleet Street was one of London’s main arteries transporting people and mail between Westminster and the City, these became lightning rods for political, financial, and overseas news. Journalists capitalised upon this and would mingle and eavesdrop in local establishments, returning to their offices with fresh gossip.

In 1862 Bradshaw’s Illustrated Hand-Book of London described a visit to The Times as:

“A visit to the office during the time the huge machine is at work, casting off its impressions at the rate of 170 copies a minute, will present a sight not easily to be forgotten. From five till nine in the morning this stupendous establishment, employing nearly 300 people daily on its premises is to be seen in active operation.”

By 1900 most of the national newspapers were located in or near Fleet Street, alas today Fleet Street is a pale imitation of its former self. The printing offices have been replaced by blue plaques, including one for the Courant.

It’s a testament to the impact of what was started by Wynkyn der Worde over 500 years ago and evolved into an uncensored press that ‘Fleet Street’ endures in the British lexicon as a metaphor for the newspaper industry – even though one of the few publishers still left on Fleet Street is the London office of D.C. Thomson & Co., creator of the Beano.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 27th November 2012

Bridging the Gap

The inability of Transport for London at taking on a project cannot be better demonstrated than the work to replace the 160 yards long Ardleigh Green Bridge on the A127 in Romford. Work began on the 24th September 2014, after interminable delays and changes of builders, the bridge was finished on 30th March 2019, four-and-a-half years of construction chaos, in comparison is a project nearby that TfL didn’t manage. The QEII Bridge, when completed at Thurrock, was the longest cable-stayed single-span suspension bridge in Europe. A four-lane road deck carried by two pairs of steel and concrete masts 276ft tall, founded on 175ft high concrete piers sunk into the Thames. At an overall length of nearly 2 miles, it took only 3 years to build. We should never let the hapless TfL near another bridge project again.

A Festival of Litter

I’ve just been on holiday in Dorset: banks of wildflowers by the side of the road; manicured roundabouts; and clean streets. Upon my return, I realised that I missed a Festival of Litter when the local populace gets the opportunity to decorate their streets with brightly coloured wrappers, breaking up the monotony of grey pavements by liberally peppering them with chewing gun, and ensuring the survival of local wildlife by distributing chips and half-eaten burgers. Next year I’ll ensure that I don’t miss this important event.