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Historic London: X marks the spot

Casanova and the Rolling Stones

This recording studio in London’s Denmark Street was very run down in the 1960s. It was little bigger than a hotel room, with stained walls and egg boxes on the ceiling to baffle the sound. The studio had no mixers, so that sound could only be recorded in mono. It was used for demo tapes and advertising jingles rather than master recordings.

In January 1964, five scruffy young men crowded into the tiny back room to make their first long-playing album. Cigarettes in hand, the Rolling Stones recorded Not Fade Away on 10 January. Other tracks followed in batches of two or three, for the rest of the month. By 4 February, the Stones had had enough and were barely talking to each other, let alone playing together.

Mick Jagger forgot the words to Can I Get A Witness and had to run to Savile Row and back to get a copy from the publishers. He was out of breath when he returned and sounds it on the recording.


Gene Pitney had arrived by then, bringing a bottle of brandy to lighten the mood. The Stones got stuck into the drink while Jagger and Phil Spector sat on the staircase outside studio reception and wrote the lyrics to Little by Little in ten minutes flat. They recorded it straight away, along with Now I’ve Got  A Witness and a couple of obscene songs for private listening. Pitney played the piano, Spector played a half-dollar coin against the empty brandy music bottle. The album was a huge success.


The recording studio is far left in this picture.  A couple of centuries before the Rolling Stones, the Italian playboy Giacomo Casanova came along this street one evening late in 1763. He was in love with a 17-year-old girl named in his memoirs as La Charpillon. She lived in Denmark Street with her mother. Casanova had written her some incriminating letters which she refused to give back. He therefore called round to her house to insist on their return:

‘I put two pistols in my pocket and proceeded to the wretched woman’s abode… I was furious by the time I arrived, but when I passed by the door I saw a handsome young hairdresser, who did La Charpillon’s hair every Saturday evening, going into the house.

I did not want a stranger to be present at the scene I intended to make, so I waited at the corner of the street for the hairdresser to go… I waited on; eleven struck, and the handsome barber had not yet gone. A little before midnight, a servant came out with a lamp, I suppose to look for something that had fallen out of the window.

I approached noiselessly; stepped in and opened the parlour door, which was close to the street. I saw La Charpillon and the barber stretched out on the sofa making ‘the beast with two backs’, as Shakespeare calls it.

When the slut spotted me, she gave a shriek and unhorsed her gallant, whom I thrashed with my cane until he escaped in the confusion. While this was going on La Charpillon, half-naked, remained crouched behind the sofa, trembling lest the blows should begin to descend on her.’

The hairdresser fled, clutching his trousers. So did La Charpillon, spending the night with a friend near Soho Square. Casanova stayed to smash a mirror and some chairs and a china service that he had given her. Then he too stormed into the night, intending to drown himself in the river without further ado. Italians, eh?







Oscar Wilde, the Theatre Royal, and a blackmailing rent boy

This is the stage door of the Theatre Royal in London’s Haymarket. It was the scene of a glittering first night on 19 April 1893 when Oscar Wilde’s latest comedy A Woman of No Importance was performed for the first time.

The theatre was packed for the occasion. The lead role was played by Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. He was heartily applauded at his curtain call, as was the author, although not everyone approved of him. Sir Herbert’s half-brother Max Beerbohm was in the audience as Oscar came on stage:

‘When little Oscar came on to make his bow there was a slight mingling of boos and hisses, through he looked very sweet in a new white waistcoat and a large bunch of little lilies in his coat.’

The play was a triumph, nevertheless. Wilde was at the height of his success as he left by the stage door that night.

Waiting outside was a young blackmailer named William Allen. He had a letter of Wilde’s in his hand. The letter was addressed to Lord Alfred Douglas. It called him ‘My own boy’ and made it quite clear that the two of them were lovers.

Homosexual activity was a criminal offence then, punishable by imprisonment. Allen offered to sell the letter back to Oscar for £10.

‘Ten pounds!’ Wilde was insulted. ‘You have no appreciation of literature! If you had asked me for £50, I might have given it to you.’

He gave Allen half a sovereign and sent him on his way. He had called the young man’s bluff, but it wasn’t long before his private life caught up with him. Lord Alfred’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, famously called at Wilde’s club one day, intending to have a showdown with him.

Wilde wasn’t there, so Queensberry left his card with the club porter instead. A dreadful speller, he addressed it to ‘Oscar Wilde posing somdomite’. Ten days later, Wilde called in at the club (still there at 37 Dover Street, although no longer a club), and was given the card.

He clattered down those steps at once, intending to flee to Paris. Unfortunately, the manager of his hotel had impounded his luggage until he paid his bill, so he decided to sue the Marquess for libel instead. The rest is history.

I have rather a soft spot for Oscar Wilde. We had rooms on adjacent staircases at Trinity College, Dublin (some years apart, I hasten to add). I have also been to parties at his parents’ house at the bottom end of the college, so I feel a vague affinity.

Jane Austen in Henrietta Street

Poor Jane Austen. The new £10 note goes into circulation today, with her face on it. Jane is a British icon, a national treasure, one of the most revered novelists in the world. And she never knew a thing about it.

Her success didn’t come until many years after her death. She was always poor, obscure and anonymous in her own day. Her books didn’t even have her own name on the spine. They were written by ‘A Lady’ instead.

Here’s a picture of 10 Henrietta Street in London’s Covent Garden. Jane’s favourite brother Henry lived there in 1813. Jane and her niece came up from the country to stay with him in September. As the author of Pride and Prejudice, which had just been published, Jane wanted Henry to negotiate a price with publishers for her follow up book, Mansfield Park. Sitting at the first floor window just above the shop sign, she told her sister all about it, soon after she arrived:

‘Here I am, my dearest Cassandra, seated in the Breakfast, Dining, sitting room… Fanny will join me as soon as she is dressed & begin her Letter… We arrived at a quarter past 4 & were kindly welcomed by the Coachman, & then by his Master, and then by William, & then by Mrs Perigord, who all met us before we reached the foot of the Stairs.

‘Mme de Bigeon was below dressing us a most comfortable dinner of Soup, Fish, Bouillee, Partridge & an apple Tart, which we sat down to soon after 5, after cleaning & dressing ourselves & feeling that we were most commodiously disposed of. The little adjoining Dressing-room to our apartment makes Fanny & myself very well off indeed, & as we have poor Eliza’s bed our space is ample in every way.’

Henry took them all to the theatre that night:

‘At 7 we set off in a Coach for the Lyceum – were at home again about 4 hours and 1/2 – had Soup & wine & water, & then went to our Holes… Of our three evenings in Town one was spent at the Lyceum & another at Covent Garden; – the Clandestine Marriage was the most respectable of the performances, the rest were Sing-song & trumpery.’

The Lyceum theatre has been rebuilt since then, but it’s still there, just around the corner from Henry Austen’s house in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden.




Boswell’s first meeting with Dr Johnson

This is 8 Russell Street, leading to London’s Covent Garden. It was a bookshop in 1763. On Monday, 16 May of that year, Dr Samuel Johnson dropped in to see the bookseller, who was a friend of his. He didn’t know it, but he was about to meet James Boswell for the first time, his lifelong friend and biographer.

Newly arrived in London, Boswell had been hanging around for weeks, hoping to catch a glimpse of the great man. He got his chance at last:

‘On Monday, the  16th of May, when I was sitting in Mr Davies’s back-parlour, after having drunk tea with him and Mrs Davies, Johnson unexpectedly came into the shop; and Mr Davies having perceived him through the glass-door in the room in which we were sitting, advancing towards us, he announced his awful approach to me, somewhat in the manner of an actor in the part of Horatio, when he addresses Hamlet on the appearance of his father’s ghost, ‘Look, my Lord, it comes.’

I found that I had a very perfect idea of Johnson’s figure, from the portrait of him painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds soon after he had published his Dictionary, in the attitude of sitting in his easy chair in deep meditation…

Mr Davies mentioned my name, and respectfully introduced me to him. I was much agitated; and recollecting his prejudice against the Scotch, of which I had heard much, I said to Davies, ‘Don’t tell where I come from.’ – ‘From Scotland,’ cried Davies roguishly.

‘Mr Johnson, (said I) I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.’ I am willing to flatter myself that I meant this as light pleasantry to soothe and conciliate him… but this speech was somewhat unlucky; for with that quickness of wit for which he was so remarkable, he seized the expression ‘come from Scotland’… and retorted, ‘That, Sir, I find is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.’

Thus was born a lifelong literary friendship.