Archive for the ‘The View from the Cuttings’ category

A Dickensian Landmark in London: The Site of Fagin’s Lair on Saffron Hill

March 14th, 2019

The border between Bloomsbury and Clerkenwell is seamless and invisible but one is instantly aware of passing from a genteel quarter into a raffish one. I ventured in that direction last week on a particular quest: to discover one of London’s great literary landmarks, the site of Fagin’s lair. In Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist, begun in 1837, the squalid apartment of the ‘pleasant old gentleman, and his hopeful pupils’, is located with precision on Saffron Hill.

Oliver, a bemused and exhausted runaway, has joined up with the Artful Dodger on the Great North Road. That highway, known at the London end as ‘Liverpool Road’, is bordered here by market gardens, by open fields and by the cattle lairs that the drovers use on their way to Smithfield Market. The turnpike by which the boys enter London is hard by the Angel at Islington, an old coaching inn that had been entirely rebuilt in 1819. It is approaching midnight as the pair proceed along St John Street into Clerkenwell, then, by way of Exmouth Street and Coppice Row, to the prettily-named Saffron Hill, ‘along which the Dodger scudded at a rapid pace, directing Oliver to follow close at his heels’.

Descending into the pit: Saffron Hill, Clerkenwell

This had once been a country lane through the Bishop of Ely’s estate, where saffron was grown, but since the late seventeenth century it had been developed into an overcrowded and impoverished residential area, a ‘rookery’. Oliver ‘could not help bestowing a few hasty glances on either side of the way as he passed along. A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. the street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours. There were a good many small shops; but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of night, were crawling in and out at the doors, or screaming from the inside. The sole places that seemed to prosper amid the general blight of the place were the public-houses, and in them, the lowest orders of Irish (who are generally the lowest orders of anything) were wrangling with might and main. Covered ways and yards, which here and there diverged from the main street, disclosed little knots of houses where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in the filth; and from several of the doorways, great ill-looking fellows were cautiously emerging, bound, to all appearance, upon no very well-disposed or harmless errands.

‘Oliver was just considering whether he hadn’t better run away, when they reached the bottom of the hill: his conductor, catching him by the arm, pushed open the door of a house near Field-lane, and, drawing him into the passage, closed it behind them.’ [Book I, Chapter 8.]

Field Lane was an alley at the south end of Saffron Hill that connected it to Holborn Hill. The name has since disappeared from the map. Dickens knew it well and hardly exaggerates the wretchedness of the place. Peter Cunningham, author of a Hand-book of London, 1850, describes Saffron Hill as a ‘squalid neighbourhood between HOLBORN and CLERKENWELL densely inhabited by poor people and thieves … The clergymen of St Andrew’s, Holborn, (the parish in which the purlieu lies), have been obliged, when visiting it, to be accompanied by policemen in plain clothes.’ Hepworth Dixon in The London Prisons, also published in 1850, writes that Field Lane ‘is narrow enough for [one] to reach across from house to house, and the buildings so lofty that a very bright sun is required to send light to the surface … The stench is awful. Along the middle of the lane runs a gutter, into which every sort of poisonous liquid is poured.’ A foreign observer, Flora Tristan, describes it in 1842 as ‘a little alley … too narrow for vehicles to use,’ where ‘there is absolutely nothing to be seen but dealers in second-hand silk handkerchiefs.’ Intrepid enough to visit at night, she adds: ‘There is a bustle of activity in the street as prostitutes, children, and rogues of every age and condition come to sell their handkerchiefs’ (London Journal, p.175). These had been stolen, of course, by the likes of Fagin’s crew, and the saleswomen, invariably ‘daughters of Israel’, were ‘fences’. Dixon was incensed by their attempts ‘to seduce you into the purchase of the very handkerchief which you had in your pocket at the entrance’ (The London Prisons, pp.227-8).

There is a palpably villainous and mournful air to Saffron Hill, which is still oppressively enclosed by tall buildings. The street is paved now, the original houses have all gone, and the River Fleet, a filthy open sewer that ran along its east side, is covered over; but there is a paucity here both of smart offices and of trendy warehouse developments, as if it is still a demoralised place, forsaken by the world and left to its ghosts.

The One Tun: not recommended by Charles Dickens

Descending the hill, one passes The One Tun (rebuilt in 1875, over the original cellars), which is claimed, not unreasonably, as the model of the ‘low public-house, situate in the filthiest part of Little Saffron-Hill,’ that Bill Sikes frequents with his dog. It is described as ’a dark and gloomy den, where a flaring gas-light burnt all day in the winter-time, and where no ray of sun ever shone in the summer’.

The best editions of Oliver Twist are those accompanied by George Cruikshanks’s original illustrations, where the impoverished, under-nourished boys always appear like old men. Cruikshanks’s illustration of the pub, headed ‘Oliver claimed by his affectionate friends’, shows a doorway festooned with misspelt notices: ‘To be drunk on the premises’; ‘Licensed to sel Beerly Retail’; ‘Fine Ale 3d pr. pot’.

As for Fagin’s dwelling, it was ‘a very dirty place; but the rooms upstairs had great high wooden mantel-pieces and large doors, with panelled walls and cornices to the ceilings, which, although they were black with neglect and dust, were ornamented in various ways; from all of which tokens Oliver concluded that a long time ago, before the old Jew was born, it had belonged to better people, and had perhaps been quite gay and handsome, dismal and dreary as it looked now.’ [Book I, Chapter 18.]

At this end of Saffron Hill, one feels trapped and cornered, as if one has descended into a pit. A steep flight of steps leads up into the street beyond and the relief of sunlight and fresh air, or what passes for it in this part of London. Literary pilgrims  in search of the authentic Dickensian atmosphere will not be disappointed.

Longman's former premises on Saffron Hill: gloomy enough for Fagin

Footnote. Halfway down Saffron Hill were the premises of Longman & Co., the publishers, from 1887 – too late to have inspired Fagin’s lair, but the dirty curtains and the piles of rubbish outside evoke Dickensian squalor.

See also: https://nicklouras.wordpress.com/2018/02/02/see-and-hear-the-river-fleet-at-saffron-hill/

http://atinaitaly.com/charles-dickens-clerkenwell-london/ and http://writingcities.com/2015/02/13/field-lane-and-larceny-then-and-now/

The Statue of Jane Austen in Basingstoke, and its Missing Inscription

July 21st, 2017

Photoshoot for a still-veiled Jane Austen (courtesy of Nicola Turton)

My friend James Arnott, stalwart of the Hampshire Regency Dancers, asks Jane Austen for a dance

In my 2010 monograph, Basingstoke and its Contribution to World Culture, I describe the ‘catastrophe’ that befell Basingstoke in the 1960s, when it was redeveloped, in the most vulgar fashion, as a ‘New Town’ fit for London ‘overspill’.

In ‘Even at Ulubrae’, the final chapter of my work, I ponder how the town might overcome its reputation for ‘rampant philistinism’. My first suggestion is that an elegant portico be built in one of its bleaker quarters, like that erected in his home town by Diogenes of Oinoanda in the second century A.D. Diogenes had his portico inscribed with a 25,000-word statement of the teachings of Epicurus, intending it ‘as a corrective to the greed and consumerism of his neighbours’.

Robert Cottle's view of the Market Place, Basingstoke, dated 1831. Jane Austen would have recognised the scene, although none of the buildings survives today. The elegant Town Hall, built in 1657, was soon to be demolished: it was thought to intrude into the square. The scene of her dancing triumphs, Jane would surely have mourned its loss. The site of her statue, unveiled this week, is in front of the buildings on the right.

My second, more practical suggestion is ‘the raising in appropriate locations in Basingstoke of four dignified statues, based on descriptions and surviving portraits’, to commemorate its most distinguished sons and daughters, namely Walter de Merton, Jane Austen, Thomas Burberry and Margaret Chandler. I even offer appropriate inscriptions for each statue.

Much to my satisfaction, a statue of Jane Austen has been unveiled this very week, by the Countess of Portsmouth, in the Market Place at Basingstoke. There appears to be no inscription, but the text that I propose in my book is as follows:

Remember Jane Austen (1775 – 1817), who shopped here before you. She spent her early years at Steventon, and came to Basingstoke for all necessary purchases. John Ring of Church Street supplied her bed and the portable writing-desk on which she wrote her great novels. These were intended to amuse her family, but have since delighted the whole world. She describes assemblies like those she attended at Basingstoke, where once she danced twenty dances in an evening without any fatigue. When on her travels, she changed coaches here. Sic parvis magna.

Jane Austen's writing-desk, now preserved in the British Library, was made by John Ring of Church Street, Basingstoke, in 1794. On it, she was to compose every one of her great novels. There's a 'contribution to world culture' if ever there was one!

The position of the new statue is only yards from the site of the old Town Hall where those assemblies took place. The Crown Inn, where she often changed coaches, is only a little further away. Most of her shopping would have taken place within a hundred-yard radius.

I look forward to the raising of the other three statues.

Basingstoke and its Contribution to World Culture: Read the Book, Hear the Lecture!

March 20th, 2016

Basingstoke and its Contribution to World Culture is a whimsical, yet scholarly attempt to explain the phenomenon that is Basingstoke.

When I gave this as my audition piece for NADFAS, success seemed assured when the mere title was greeted with gales of laughter.

Sadly, Basingstoke is one of the most derided towns in England, famous for its pointless roundabouts, vacuous shopping centres and hostile modernist architecture.

Thanks to demented post-War planners, this has been the fate of towns across Britain. I remember explaining this at a previous ADM to representatives of one of the Norfolk societies. ‘The thing is,’ I said, ‘even the nicest places in England seem to have a Basingstoke on their doorstep. I don’t know Norfolk,’ I added nervously, ‘so am not sure where it would be in your case.’ Quick as a flash they replied: ‘Have you never been to Thetford?’

This is easily my most popular talk for NADFAS, accounting for about seventy per cent of my business. I urge you not to miss out on a talk that is funny, sobering and controversial. Its message is more immediate and relevant than you might suppose.

[The text of my one-minute speech to the NADFAS Annual Directory Meeting at the Central Methodist Hall, Westminster, on Monday 14 March. For reviews of my lecture, please refer to my ‘Lectures’ page and scroll down to the bottom. For further information about the book on which the lecture is based, with reviews, please refer to my ‘Books’ page.]


Top Five Jobs for Latinists (apart from teaching)

January 13th, 2016

  1. Public Orator at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. They have to make speeches in Latin on special occasions. (For an example, see http://www.ox.ac.uk/gazette/2009-10/supps/2_4923.htm.)
  2. Her Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador to the Holy See, based in Vatican City. Latin is the main language there.
  3. David Beckham’s tattooist. The footballer’s Latin tattoos include VII (his original team number), Perfectio in spiritu (‘Perfection’, or perhaps ‘completion in spirit’), and Ut amem et foveam (‘that I may love and cherish). He is ‘reliably’ (Daily Mail) reported to have spent £55,000 on his various tattoos. Angelina Jolie, the American actress, could also put some business your way: she has Quod me nutrit me detruit (‘What nourishes me destroys me’) on her belly. (For illustrations, see http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-3185158/A-look-David-Beckham-s-40-tattoos-special-meaning-design.html and http://www.inrebus.com/index.php?entry=entry071111-001717.
  4. One of Her Majesty’s heralds. Part of their job is to design and issue new coats of arms, with mottoes. Nothing gives you class like a Latin motto! (For some up-to-date examples, see http://www.college-of-arms.gov.uk/news-grants?start=50.)
  5. Scriptwriter on ‘The Archers’. The character of Jim Lloyd, a retired History Professor at Stirling University, is always spouting Latin to comic effect. One story-line revealed that even Vicky Tucker was a Latinist, though she wears her erudition lightly. (See http://www.rupertwilloughby.co.uk/cuttings/news-from-ambridge-susan-carter-recognises-the-story-of-sabinus-and-ambiorix-and-reveals-her-classical-education/.)

These jobs are not necessarily listed in order of salary. I suspect that Beckham’s tattooist may be the highest earner. Perfection in spirit indeed!

Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars, Uptown Funk – in Latin

March 13th, 2015

I.

hic ictus,

illa frigida

Michaela Pfeiffer,

illud aureum album,

hocce, istis puellis viciniae,

istis bonis,

artificiis ipsis,

speciosis,

exultantibus in urbe,

calceantibus Sancti Laurenti,

‘tam pulchra meum est basiare’.

II.

nimis calidus sum,

denuntiatores vigilesque vocavi,

calidissimus sum (calidus, damna);

draconem abire facio.

calidissimus sum (calidus, damna)

dic nomen, scis qui sum,

calidissimus sum

et malus de illa pecunia.

comminue!

III.

puellae cantate halleluiah!

puellae cantate halleluiah!

puellae cantate halleluiah!

quod urbanum funcum vobis dabit!

quod urbanum funcum vobis dabit!

quod urbanum funcum vobis dabit!

sabatto nocte et sumus in loco.

nolite me credere, spectate.

nolite me credere, spectate.

nolite me credere, spectate.

nolite me credere, spectate.

nolite me credere, spectate.

nolite me credere, spectate.

nolite me credere, spectate.

eio, eio, O!

(urbanus = after the city fashion, refined in manner, elegant; funcum = funk – otherwise untranslatable!)

I.

This hit

That ice cold

Michelle Pfeiffer

That white gold

This one, for them hood girls

Them good girls

Straight masterpieces

Stylin’, while in

Livin’ it up in the city

Got Chucks on with Saint Laurent

Got kiss myself I’m so pretty

II.

I’m too hot (hot damn)

Called a police and a fireman

I’m too hot (hot damn)

Make a dragon wanna retire man

I’m too hot (hot damn)

Say my name you know who I am

I’m too hot (hot damn)

Am I bad ’bout that money

Break it down

III.

Girls hit your hallelujah (whuoo)

Girls hit your hallelujah (whuoo)

Girls hit your hallelujah (whuoo)

‘Cause Uptown Funk gon’ give it to you

‘Cause Uptown Funk gon’ give it to you

‘Cause Uptown Funk gon’ give it to you

Saturday night and we in the spot

Don’t believe me just watch (come on)

Don’t believe me just watch

Don’t believe me just watch

Don’t believe me just watch

Don’t believe me just watch

Don’t believe me just watch

Hey, hey, hey, oh!

Translated by Rupert Willoughby, 12 March 2015

View the original at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPf0YbXqDm0.

Plan B, ‘She Said’ – in Latin

December 7th, 2014

Dixit

Calumnia Stricklandi Bancae

I.

dixit ‘te amo, puer, te amo tantum’.

dixit ‘te amo, parvule, o, o, o, oo, oo’.

dixit ‘te amo magis quam dicere possum’.

dixit ‘te amo parvu-u-u-le …’

II.

Itaque dixi ‘ita non est ut dicis, puella.

quomodo me amare potes?

Hac nocte convenimus.’

sed dixit: ‘verum puer te amavi ab initio.

quando primum audivi de amore aliquid in meo corde incanduit.’

dixi: ‘noli garrire. discede statim et ianuam claude. (dixit)

III.

‘sed te amo puer, te amo tantum.’

dixit ‘te amo parvule, o, o, o, o, oo.’

dixit ‘te amo magis quam dicere possum’.

dixit: ‘te amo parvu-u-u-le.’ (quod ita sit.)

IV.

itaque in basilica sto causem dicens, testem exsistens,

quaesitori iudicibusque referens quod vigilantibus dixi

illo die deprehensus sum, ‘sum innocens’ confirmavi.

Se percepit repudiata, eius cor fractum aliquo obsessi,

quippe qui amans mea musica,

quod deditam meis musicis facit.

hac de causa amor eam dementiscet,

non secernens virum ab musicis.

et narro hoc omne in loco

dum mea puella in portico lacrimat.

est magis quam umquam designavi,

consimilis illo cantico a Zutonis, ‘Valeria’,

sed iudices id credere nolunt,

et illud me nervosus facit.

compressis manibus sedentes, vultibus detorquentibus non credentibus,

sanguinarii oculi adfixi mihi,

me concludere volunt et clavem abicere,

me dimittere quamvis eos dicam ut …

V.

dixit ‘te amo, puer, te amo tantum’.

dixit ‘te amo, parvule, o, o, o, o, oo’.

dixit ‘te amo magis quam dicere possum’.

dixit ‘te amo parvule, e, e, e, e …’

VI.

itaque dixi ‘in nomine Tartari cur convivis abjecte?

non scis amorem, si autem hoc scias non facias.’

She Said

I.

She said ‘I love you boy I love you so’.

She said ‘I love you baby oh oh oh o-oh.’

She said ‘I love you more than words could say.’

She said ‘I love you ha-a-a-a-by.’

II.

So I said ‘What you’re saying girl it can’t be right.

How you can you be in love with me?

We only just met tonight.

But she said ‘But boy I loved you from the start.

When I first heard love goes down something started burning in my heart.’

I said ‘Stop this crazy talk, leave right now and close the door.’ (She said…)

III.

‘But I love you boy I love you so.’

She said ‘I love you baby oh oh oh o-oh.’

She said ‘I love you more than words can say.’

She said ‘I love you ba-a-a-a-by’ (…Oh yes she did)

But I love you boy I love you so.’

She said ‘I love you baby oh oh oh ooh’.

She said ‘I love you more than words can say’.

She said ‘I love you ba-a-a-a-by’ (…Oh yes she did).

IV.

So now I’m up in the courts pleading my case from the witness box,

Telling the judge and the jury the same thing that I said to the cops

On the day that I got arrested, ‘I’m innocent’ I protested.

She just feels rejected, had her heart broke by someone she obsessed with,

‘Cos she likes the sound of my music

Which makes her a fan of my music,

That’s why love goes down makes her loose it,

‘Cos she can’t separate the man from the music.

And I’m saying all this in the stand

While my girl cries tears in the gallery.

This has got bigger than I ever could have planned,

Like that song by the Zutons, ‘Valerie’,

But the jury don’t look like they’re buying it,

And this is making me nervous.

Arms crossed, screw faced like I’m trying it,

Their eyes fixed on me like a murderer’s.

They wanna lock me up and throw away the key.

They wanna send me down even though I told em she …

V.

She said ‘I love you boy I love you so’.

She said ‘I love you baby oh oh oh oh.’

(Yes she did.)

She said ‘I love you more than words can say’.

She said ‘I love you ba-a-a-a-by’.

So I said ‘Then why the hell you gotta treat me this way?

You don’t know what love is. You wouldn’t do this if you did.’

Translated by Rupert Willoughby, 3 December 2014

View the original at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rQjh9H-ymK4.


Mikhail Yur’evich Lermontov: A Hero of Our Time – with a Note on his Scottish and Tatar Ancestry

September 13th, 2014

Mikhail Yur'evich Lermontov (1814 - 1841)

The bicentenary next month of Mikhail Yur’evich Lermontov, the great Russian poet, should be marked by a reading or re-reading of his only novel, A Hero of Our Time.

The eponymous hero is the Byronic Pechorin. Cynical, world-weary, bitter and bored, Pechorin represents a literary type known as the ‘superfluous man’, a man, that is, of superior talents, who is yet condemned by the constraints of society and his own lack of purpose to lead a wasted life. The ‘superfluous man’ is a recurrent figure in contemporary Russia literature, the supreme example being Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin.

Lermontov’s Pechorin is not merely bored but destructive. The novel is as gripping for its romantic locations and dramatic pace as for the psychological unravelling of the hero, whom, in the end, it is impossible to like. Pechorin repeatedly turns away those who would willingly love him: ‘I’m incapable of friendship,’ he says. ‘Of two friends one is always the slave of the other, though often neither will admit it. I can never be a slave, and to command in these circumstances is too exacting, for you have to pretend at the same time. Besides, I have money and servants enough’ (trans. Paul Foote, Penguin edition, 1966, p.100).

Lermontov aged about 7

While recognising his hero’s ‘malady’, Lermontov is sympathetic to a character who is so clearly modelled on himself. Like Byron, he had been deeply affected by the circumstances of his childhood. His father, Yury Petrovich Lermontov, the head of a minor gentry family, had served in an unfashionable regiment and had retired as a captain. He is said to have been a violent drunk and a womaniser. Lermontov’s mother, Maria, died when he was three and he was brought up by his adoring maternal grandmother, an aristocratic Stolypina. Her late husband, Mikhail Vasil’evich Arseniev, had also served as a captain, but in the Preobrazhensky, the foremost Guards Regiment. Madame Arsenieva considered her son-in-law to be far beneath them and he was kept at a distance.

The Arsenievs were, indeed, a distinguished military family. A distant cousin, Nikolay Dmitrievich Arseniev (1754 – 96), had commanded a column under Suvorov in the assault of Izmail in 1790, for which he is commemorated by Byron in Don Juan (Canto the Eighth, Verse IX) – ‘The columns … though led by Arseniev, that great son of slaughter/As brave as ever faced both bomb and ball’ – lines which young Lermontov was proud to be able to quote in the original. Grandfather Arseniev had, however, bequeathed him his melancholy streak – he had died in 1810 by his own hand, having poisoned himself. The atmosphere was hardly happy, and Lermontov had grown up to be isolated, indulged and introspective.

Commissioned in 1834 into the Guards Hussars Regiment, he had been thrust into St Petersburg society, of which he was sincerely disdainful, as is evident from poems like ‘The First of January’:

‘When the hands of town beauties

Which have long ceased to tremble,

Touch my cold hands with loveless audacity …’

The Siege of Izmail in 1790: Arseniev commanded a column

His failures with women, in contrast to his heroes, Pushkin and Byron, fuelled his pessimism whilst spurring his creativity. Personally somewhat unprepossessing, he was described as bow-legged, with a scowling face and droopy moustache. The conquests of both Pushkin and Byron were legion – Pushkin could even boast that he had slept with a woman, Calypso Polichroni, who had been a mistress of Byron – but Lermontov had only one great love affair, with Varya Lopukhina, the model for Vera in Hero of Our Time. Like Vera, she had ended the relationship in order to marry an older man. Lermontov ‘nursed a bitter grievance and frustration forever thereafter. As a result, it could be argued that his feelings and perceptions about love became more intense than those Byron experienced’ (Laurence Kelly, Lermontov, p.192).

Lermontov clearly felt more at home in the Caucasus, the Russian Empire’s ‘Wild West’, to which, in 1837, he was effectively exiled, having denounced the death of Pushkin as a conspiracy. The impression in Hero of Our Time is of bored officers manning remote outposts, drinking and gambling late into the night, hunting furiously during the day and hoping that they will not be picked off by savage Circassians. Lermontov, however, was enchanted by the mountain scenery and relished the solitude. Perhaps, like Pechorin, he enjoyed dressing up in the splendid local costume and going out for long, lonely rides:

‘I fancy the Cossacks gazing idly from their watch-towers must have puzzled long over the sight of me galloping without cause or purpose, for from my clothes they must have taken me for a Circassian. Actually, I’ve been told that on horseback and in Circassian dress I look more like a Kabardian than many Kabardians themselves. Indeed, when it comes to this noble warrior’s dress, I’m quite a dandy: just the right amount of braid, expensive weapons with a plain finish, the fur on my cap neither too long note too short, close-fitting leggings and boots, a white beshmet and a dark maroon top-coat. I’ve made a long study of how the hillmen sit a horse, and nothing flatters my vanity more than to be admired for my mastery of the Caucasian riding style’ (trans. Foote, p.113).

Much has been made of Lermontov’s distant Scottish ancestry, his descent from a certain George Learmont, a mercenary who had been captured at Mozhaisk in 1618, subsequently transferring his allegiance from the Polish to the Muscovite service. Less has been said of his exotic Asiatic ancestry on his mother’s side. The Arseniev ancestor, Aslan-murza Chelebi, was a Tatar prince of the Golden Horde, an undoubted descendant of Chingis Khan, who had in 1389 also transferred to the Russian service and had accepted baptism, the Grand Prince Dmitry Donskoy himself standing as godfather. The family surname derives from Aslan’s son, Arseny Issup Prokof’evich. It is perhaps no wonder that Lermontov felt at home in the wilds! (Nicolas Ikonnikov, La Noblesse de Russie, Tome A.1 (Paris, 1957) and I.1 (Paris, 1959), Arseniev and Lermontov pedigrees.)

Skirmish in Dagestan, by Lermontov

Men in Spats – or Johnny Depp and his Gay Diablerie

June 21st, 2014

Tommy Agar-Robartes's dressing table at Lanhydrock, complete with spats

Leafing through a recent edition of Hello Magazine (19 May 2014), I was struck by a picture of Johnny Depp, the distinguished tragedian, attending the ‘Met Ball’ in New York in white tie and tails, with white gloves, watch-chain, a silver-topped cane and spats. It was the spats that most intrigued me, as they are so seldom worn these days.

The other day, I went into a shop in Bloomsbury that specialised in vintage-style clothing. It was crammed with three-piece Harris Tweed suits, boaters and panamas, woollen ties and braces. There was a Penny Farthing parked outside. Yet the nattily-dressed assistant had never heard of spats.

Allow me to put him straight. Spats, short for ‘spatterdashes’, originated as military garments, and are still worn by pipers in the British army. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, however, they were much in vogue, both in America and Europe, as stylish civilian wear for gentlemen:

Have you seen the well-to-do

Up and down Park Avenue

On that famous thoroughfare

With their noses in the air

High hats and arrowed collars

Wide spats and lots of dollars

Spending every dime

For a wonderful time

[Irving Berlin, Puttin’ on the Ritz, 1930]

Spats were made of white cloth or brown felt that buttoned round the ankle, their ostensible purpose being to keep the mud off one’s shoes and socks. A notable spat-wearer was Tommy Agar-Robartes, reputedly the ‘best-dressed man in the House of Commons’, whose pre-Great War spats are laid out in his former bedroom at Lanhydrock, Cornwall. The prevalance of spats in that period is apparent from Sir Leslie Ward’s ‘Spy’ cartoons for Vanity Fair, such as his portrait of the magazine’s proprietor, ‘Tommy’ Bowles. I also find them mentioned in Ezra Pound’s bitter masterpiece, Hugh Selwyn Mauberly: Ode pour l’élection de son sépulchre (1920):

The sky-like limpid eyes,

The circular infant’s face,

The stiffness from spats to collar

Never relaxing into grace …

The description, apparently, is of Sir Max Beerbohm, whom Pound mistook for a Jew.

Portrait of Tommy Agar-Robartes at Lanhydrock

In the preface to Joy in the Morning, P.G. Wodehouse laments the passing of the spat. ‘In the brave old days spats were the hallmark of the young-feller-me-lad-about-town, the foundation stone on which his whole policy was based, and it is sad to reflect that a generation has arisen which does not know what spats were. I once wrote a book called Young Men in Spats. I could not use that title today.’

Their principal purpose, he continues, was not to ‘protect the socks from getting dashed with spatter’, but to lend ‘a sort of gay diablerie to the wearer’s appearance. The monocle might or might not be worn according to taste, but spats, like the tightly-rolled umbrella, were obligatory.’ Despite an inhibiting ‘anaemia of the exchequer’, Wodehouse had his own pair, ‘white and gleaming, fascinating the passers-by and causing seedy strangers who hoped for largesse to address me as “Captain” and sometimes even as “M’lord”. Many a butler at the turn of the century, opening the door to me and wincing visibly at the sight of my topper, would lower his eyes, see the spats and give a little sigh of relief, as much as to say, “Not quite what we are accustomed to at the northern end, perhaps, but unexceptionable to the south”.’

My grandparents at their wedding at All Souls', Langham Place, in 1930, spats to the fore

In Right Ho, Jeeves (Chapter 4), it is not necessary to be ‘some terrific nib’ to give away the prizes at Market Snodsbury Grammar School; ’anybody in spats’ will do, as Bertie Wooster discovers to his cost.

My own grandfather wore spats at his London wedding in 1930. (As he was about to set off on the train to his honeymoon in Eastbourne, his thoughtful batman brought the evening paper to his carriage.) The same morning suit was still in service when he gave away his daughter in 1964, and now is occasionally worn by my brother. Regrettably, the spats have been discarded and have fallen into general desuetude since the Second World War. I myself have been to a single wedding at which they were worn – that of A.A. Gill in 1989, who sported a fine pair, the best-man commenting on his ‘lifelong addiction to the “dressing-up box’.

Giving away his daughter in 1964 - the same suit, but no spats

Heaven-Sent Brightness

May 4th, 2014

παμεροι· τι δε τις; τι δ`οὐ τις; σκιας ὀναρ

ἀνθρωπος. ἀλλ` ὁταν αἰγλα διοσδοτος ἐλθῃ,

λαμπρον φεγγος ἐπεστιν ἀνδρων και μειλιχος αἰων.

Creatures of a day! What is a man? What is he not? A dream of a shadow is man. But whenever Zeus-given brightness comes, a shining light rests upon men, and a gentle life.

(Pindar, Pythian Odes 8, lines 95-7, 446 B.C.)

Peddling One’s Wares at the NADFAS Annual Directory Meeting (24 March 2014)

April 23rd, 2014

The Central Methodist Hall, Westminster

Every second year, I am given a precious opportunity to address the NADFAS Annual Directory Meeting at the sumptuous Central Methodist Hall, Westminster. Established lecturers are allotted a mere minute in which to peddle their wares. The aim is to introduce new talks and to persuade the secretaries of the regional societies, by their charm, eloquence and originality, to book them.

Rupert Willoughby in conversation with John Wesley

The new lectures that I am offering this year are ‘The Normans – Conquest and Legacy’, and ‘Knight Errant: The Life and Adventures of William the Marshal’, which I have already delivered many times on the provincial circuit. It is almost a cruelty to have to compress one’s enthusiasm into a mere minute. If only I been allowed to speak for two minutes, I would have said the following:

Ladies and gentlemen, in 2016, it will be 950 years since the Normans invaded England. The roughest of company, they came to this country not to civilise, but to seize. A mere eleven men in Duke William’s inner circle enjoyed an unprecedented bonanza, receiving almost half the land of the conquered kingdom. There followed an orgy of building in what was described as ‘a new manner’ – castles, churches, monasteries and cathedrals – that all but effaced the physical traces of Anglo-Saxon England. It was their way of showing us who was in charge.

These fabulously rich Norman patrons, many of them crusaders who had witnessed the marvels of the East, enabled a great flowering of indigenous craftsmanship. The ebullience of ornament that characterised this period is termed ‘Norman’. It was, in fact, peculiarly English.

My account of the mass of post-Conquest masonry, from landmarks like Dover Castle to humble parish churches, is made personal by reference to individual invaders – men like the deeply unpleasant Baldwin de Redvers, lord of the Isle of Wight. Baldwin’s coterie of Norman knights have left a considerable physical and cultural legacy on the Island, as well as actual descendants. I can offer you an insight into the lives of these men – as well as the disgusting details of William the Conqueror’s funeral.

Not for the faint-hearted

Continuing the Norman theme, my lecture on William the Marshal thrillingly evokes a gorgeous world in which the knights were dominant. In their coats of mail like silk shirts and their golden spurs, these were ‘the angels men complain of, who kill whatever they come upon’. William has a key role in the story of Magna Carta. He is a national figure of the stature of Drake or Nelson, and deserves to be better known.

By the way, if the diet of medieval stuff is too heavy for you, rest assured that ‘Basingstoke and its Contribution to World Culture’ is still available.

For the text of my address in 2012, outlining my other NADFAS lectures, see the earlier blog ‘Wooing NADFAS: Setting Out One’s Stall at the Annual Directory Meeting’, at http://www.rupertwilloughby.co.uk/archives/912.

Westminster Abbey from the Central Methodist Hall