Category Archives: Puppydog tails

David v Goliath

[T]he English will always cheer an underdog – no matter if they are English, Scottish or even French – in the interests of fair play, another ideal the English hold in equally high esteem. The English have always loved the underdog: ‘Eddie the Eagle’ Britain’s first (and only) Olympic Ski jumper was ranked 55th in the world at Calgary’s winter Olympics in 1988 and Eddie had all of England cheering for him.

We are a small nation who have taken on giants giving us a David versus Goliath mentality. As a fellow “David” let me relate to you a story while trying hard to conceal a smirk.

wickhamsold The old Wickhams department store on Mile End Road, completed 1927, is a masterpiece of thwarted desire. Although called the “Harrods of the East”, its architectural model was Selfridges, its facade; a confident parade of giant iconic columns in imitation of the Oxford Street version. It even goes one better by having a tower in the centre: Gordon Selfridge planned one for his store but never achieved it.

All would have been perfect had it not been for the Spiegelhalters, a family of jewellers who owned a two-storey building near the middle of the site. They were descendants of the first Mr Spiegelhalter who had set up shop in Whitechapel in 1828 after coming to Britain from Germany.

wickhamsnow The business had moved to 81 Mile End Road in 1880. The Spiegelhalters refused every inducement to sell up, causing an exceptional case of colonnadus interruptus, their little structure causing the march of columns to stop and start again. It also meant the tower was built slightly off-centre. The original idea for Selfridges — a completed colonnade plus a tower — was fated to be achieved in neither Oxford Street nor Mile End Road.

Spiegelhalter What we have instead is more interesting, a graphic demonstration how competing ambitions and sheer obstinacy shape a city. As it turned out the Spiegelhalters lasted longer. Wickhams closed in the Sixties.
Is there a lesson to be learnt here?

Max Miller says goodbye

[I]t is hard to believe now but once, and I’m afraid you will have to take my word for this, once Leicester Square was a rather splendid public space. But in 1936 town planners decided to steal a march on Hitler and start destroying London first.

The old Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square was a prime site for ‘redevelopment’. Max Miller who at the time was probably the most famous entertainer in England, heard it was being demolished and went along for a last look at the theatre he’d performed at on many occasions.

When he arrived at lunchtime on hearing that the famous stage was about to be taken down he climbed on the boards and gave the workmen a hilarious one hour performance. Ten minutes after he’d finished, the stage was gone for ever.

Near the end of his life he confessed that his proudest professional moment was; as he put it “closing the old Alhambra”.

With the prospect of strikes by public service workers imminent I will leave you with a picture of Leicester Square the last time there was industrial action by dustmen.

Leicester Square

Goodbye Hippodrome

London Hippodrome After over 100 years of providing theatrical entertainment, which has seen some top acts of the day, one of the capital’s most historic theatres closes its doors tomorrow.

The London Hippodrome, to the east of Leicester Square and built in 1900 by Frank Matcham as a hippodrome for circus and variety performances, it gave its first circus show on 15 January 1900.

With a spectacle unheard of in London at the time, you would enter the theatre via a replica of a ship’s saloon with a performance space featuring both a proscenium stage and an arena that sank into a 230ft, 100,000 gallon water tank for aquatic spectacles.

[T]he auditorium could also be flooded, and used for the entry of boats. Shows included equestrian acts, elephants and polar bears, and acrobats who would dive from a minstrel gallery above a sliding roof, in the centre of the proscenium arch. The auditorium featured cantilevered galleries, removing the columns that often obstructed views in London theatres; the whole was covered by a painted glass retractable roof that could be illuminated at night.

In 1909, it was reconstructed by Matcham as a music-hall and variety theatre with 1,340 seats in stalls, mezzanine, gallery, and upper gallery levels. It was here that Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake received its English première by the Russian Ballet in 1910 and Harry Houdini among others appeared.

In 1958 in an act of vandalism the original interior was demolished and the London Hippodrome was converted into the cabaret restaurant, “Talk of the Town”, featuring many of the popular artists of the time, including appearances by Judy Garland, Eartha Kitt, Shirley Bassey, the Temptations and the Seekers’ final concert was recorded for the album “The Seekers: Live at The Talk of the Town” in 1968.

The Hippodrome is to undergo an extensive restoration programme taking it back to Matcham’s original 1909 design but unfortunately it will not reopen as a theatre but as a casino. It will also have yet another Gordon Ramsay restaurant, his 15th in London.

Just why do we need yet another casino in London, we are not Monte Carlo? London is the world’s hub for live theatre with over 100 major venues and numerous fringe theatres, so many in fact that you could go to a different production every night of the year.

If you want more information on the history of theatre go to The Music Hall and Theatre Site dedicated to Arthur Lloyd 1839-1904.

Picture Credit: Jacqueline Banerjee at Victorian Web.

Happy Birthday, Gordon

On Monday 15th March Selfridges Department Store at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street celebrated its centenary having opening in 1909.

Here is the story of its founder taken from CabbieBlog’s Hidden London.

Gordon Selfridge the American department store magnet was an interesting fellow who provides a salutary moral lesson for us all.

[G]ordon devoted his productive years to building Selfridges into Europe’s finest shopping emporium. During that time he led a life of stern rectitude, early bedtimes and tireless work. But in 1918 his wife died and the sudden release from marital bounds rather went to his head.

He took up with a pair of Hungarian-American cuties known in music-hall circles as the Dolly Sisters, and he fell into rakish ways. With a Dolly on each arm he dined out every night, invested foolish sums on racehorses, cars, the casinos and even bought a castle in Dorset. In ten years he had spent $8 million, lost control of his department store, his racehorses, Rolls Royces and his castle. He ended up living in a small flat in Putney and travelling everywhere by bus. He died penniless and forgotten in 1947, with a smile on his face thinking of the time he had shagged the twin sisters.

Time Gentlemen, Please!

Quintessentially English as scones, cricket, Marmite or Stephen Fry, pubs like my ‘local’ in Stapleford Tawney, Essex are becoming endangered.

In Ireland or America most bars have mundane names, Murphy’s or Clancy’s, while English pubs have historic and often funny names; Cat and Fiddle, Hare and Hounds, The Red Lion, The Cricketers, The Battle of Trafalgar, The Rose and Crown.

[T]he Royal Oak (commemorating the time Charles II as a boy hid from Cromwellian troops after the Battle of Worcester), The Lamb and Flag or the King’s Head. These names are centuries old, from the time when most of their customers were unable to read and pictorial signs could be readily recognised and even now English pubs have beautifully painted signs above their doors.

Over the centuries, the English Public House has been a place to drink with friends; play dice, cards, backgammon, bagatelle, skittles or darts; magistrates would even hold court in pubs, and people have been hanged in them.

In the eighteenth century the Tyburn Road now named Oxford Street was the route prisoners would be taken to be hanged. At The Mason’s Arms, a pub in Seymour Place, its cellars still have the manacles on the walls, which show that prisoners enjoyed their last pint in very unusual conditions. As they left the pub and were loaded back onto the cart, prisoners would shout to customers “I’ll buy you a pint on the way back!”

The ‘Ye Olde Man and Scythe’ in Bolton, Lancashire is the third oldest pub in England, dating back to the 1200s. In 1651, the Earl of Derby had a last drink and meal inside the pub before being beheaded in the street right outside the pub for his part in the Bolton Massacre. His head supposedly missed the basket and rolled along the street. To this day, the wooden chair which he sat on during his last meal and the axe used to behead him is on display inside the pub. On the chair is an inscription which reads: ‘15th October 1651 In this chair James 7th Earl of Derby sat at the Man and Scythe Inn, Churchgate, Bolton immediately prior to his execution’.

But, unfortunately, the Great English Pub is in danger of becoming a dying breed. Each week in the past six months, an average of 39 of the nation’s 57,000 pubs have closed.

Most pubs have become restaurants or television rooms, after centuries in which they were the social focus of British life. “There is no private house in which people can enjoy themselves as well as at a capital tavern,” said Dr Johnson the great London diarist in the late 18th century; he went on to say, “At a tavern, there is general freedom from anxiety. You are sure you are welcome; and the more noise you make, the more things you call for, the welcomer you are.”

Urban pub numbers are declining even more steeply, because city dwellers enjoy such a choice of restaurants and coffee shops attracting their custom. A survey of 227 out of 936 North London pubs that have closed since 2002 shows that 84 have been turned into flats, while 143 have become  businesses or voluntary projects.

One small group, closed pubs is trying to catalogue this decline, I fear their website’s list will grow and grow.