You’ve heard of The Old Curiosity Shop and Shakespeare’s Globe, but what about the statue of Dr Samuel Johnson’s cat or the inspiration behind Orwell’s Ministry of Truth? Author of London: A Travel Guide Through Time, Dr Matthew Green takes us on a tour of some of the capital’s less well known literary destinations.
Statue of Hodge, Gough Square
Every writer needs a muse and this black cat was Dr Johnson’s. Hodge can be found perched atop his master’s dictionary, oyster by his side, in a hidden court off Fleet Street overlooked by Dr Johnson’s exquisitely preserved Georgian townhouse at number 17, now a museum. Johnson only lived here for thirteen years and it’s possible Hodge never did. But we can still imagine him brushing against Johnson’s shins, purring, as his master scribbled out copy furiously.
‘I shall never forget the indulgence with which Johnson treated Hodge’, recalled James Boswell (a touch bitterly, as he was allergic to cats) – noting how he personally collected Hodge’s oysters, not trusting his servants to do so; a sad day it must have been when the grimalkin died, a loss commemorated by Dr Johnson’s neighbour Percival Stockdale in 1778 celebrating ‘his garb when first he drew his breath…his dress through life, his shroud in death’. He was, in the words of Johnson, ‘a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed’.
Senate House, Russell Square
‘It was too strong, it could not be stormed. A thousand rocket bombs would not batter it down.’ So wrote George Orwell of the sinister, history-effacing Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four. His inspiration was Senate House, nerve centre of the University of London, and London’s first first proper skyscraper. It rises, sheer and stark, from the end of a narrow street off Russell Square, London’s second largest public square, with rows of slit-like windows ‘as grim as the loopholes of a fortress’. Its architect, Charles Holden, was under strict instructions to design a modern not monkish building for the global, resolutely secular university, unencumbered by traditional architectural forms. He delivered, and though its overbearing, megalomaniacal quality struck some critics like Evelyn Waugh as absurd for an establishment devoted to learning, it perfectly suited its wartime appropriation as Churchill’s Ministry of Information, full of telephones, typewriters and hacks drip-feeding stories to Fleet Street, not to mention its mythical appropriation the headquarters of Nazi dominion in Britain, as coveted by Hitler. Here, during the War, worked Orwell’s first wife Eileen, who no doubt drip-fed him a story or two for his dystopian masterpiece.
Starbucks, 10 Russell Street, Covent Garden
This Starbucks, a stone’s throw from the Covent Garden piazza, sits upon the memory of one of the most celebrated coffeehouses in 18th-century London (and there were thousands of them): Button’s. Opened in 1712 by Daniel Button, it soon evolved into an emporium of wit thanks to the influence of its star patron, Joseph Addison. Here, each afternoon, the leading lights of literary London would sink a dish of ‘bitter Muhammedan gruel’ and gather around long wooden tables drinking, thinking, writing, piping and discussing literature late into the night, making and breaking literary reputations in the process. As part of his self-declared mission to bring knowledge and learning ‘out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges’ Addison nailed a grotesque lion-wizard’s head with wide-open jaws to the wall, inviting the public to feed it with letters, limericks and stories. The very best of these were then ‘roared out’ in a weekly ‘lion’s digest’ in his Guardian newspaper. After Addison’s death in 1719, Button’s went into sharp decline; today, not even a blue plaque marks the spot and the lion has been replaced by a Starbucks community notice board.
Holywell Street, Strand
You’d never know it, but if you walk west from the Church of St Clement Danes to the northern side of St Mary’s-le-Strand on a snarling traffic island, you’ve just taken in a street that has been erased from the public memory, variously described by Victorians as ‘a foul sink of iniquity’ and ‘the most vile street in the civilized world’. This was Holywell Street, the pornography hub of Victorian London, its very existence challenging our preconceptions of that age’s prudery. In its ‘sin-crammed shop windows’, all manner of filth was displayed, including the obscenely illustrated The Story of a Dildoe! (1880) and Randiana; or the Experiences of an Erotic Philosopher (1884). Since rampant pornography made a mockery of Victorian teachings on continence and moderation, inviting ‘spermatorrhoea’ (which led to heart disease, blindness and death), erotic publications were outlawed in 1857, and chief pornographers driven to death in hard labour camps. But Holywell Street proved resilient and in the end, only bulldozers could tame it. The only hint of it today is a bronze statue of Gladstone in front of St Clement Danes’ Church, all clenched fists and frowns. He’s staring right down what was once Holywell Street.
Though much repaired over the centuries, Westminster Hall – the only surviving part of the Norman Palace of Westminster – can still be visited today, replete with its stupendous hammerbeam roof, added in the twilight of Richard II’s reign, an architectural wonder. It evolved, in the medieval period, into the nerve-centre of English law, housing the three central law courts. It was to these ‘where truth should surely be found’ that the weary narrator of the early 15th-century poem London Lickpenny ventures from Kent, in an effort to redress some grievance. But, without the means of bribing the judges, he has no joy. Each verse ends with some variation upon ‘but for lack of money I might not speed’ (speed here meaning succeed) – the dreary, chant-like repetition conveying that this has how the system is destined to be forever: grasping and corrupt. Outside the hall, overeager salesmen try to flog him fine felt hats, spectacles and ‘ribs of beef both fat and fine’ just as the judges had tried to sell him justice. Crestfallen, he ventures east, into the City, and captures some of the street cries of medieval London – ‘hot sheep’s feet!’, ‘strawberry ripe! And cherries on the rise!’, ‘ribs of beef and many a pie!’ But all is Tartarean – ‘but for lack of money I might not speed’. Then, as now, London drains visitors of their money.
London: A Travel Guide Through Time by Dr Matthew Green (Michael Joseph) is out now.