A trio of lesser-known stories
1. London Spy
Guidebooks to London are aplenty – but how many of them tell you how to navigate all the city’s “vanities and vices”?
One such guide was published in 1703 by Ned Ward, a publican at the then King’s Head Tavern near Gray’s Inn, who went on to open an alehouse near Clerkenwell Green. He has been described as a man of little education – and one of the most popular satirists of his time. Originally issued in periodical form between 1698 and 1700, The London Spy is a first-person account of a county gentleman’s exploits in the city – he encounters “strolling strumpets”, a sixtysomething “grave fornicator” and an abandoned baby. The “Spy” takes in the streets of a less-than-genteel Clerkenwell: in Salisbury Court he encounters “theft, whoredom, homicide and blasphemy”.
On Fleet Street (where the noise of coaches is compared to a mob at a bull-baiting), he seeks refuge with a pipe in the “smoky premisses [sic] of the famous fumigator”. After leaving the “stinking mist” of the tobacconist, he checks out a coffee house in Aldersgate Street. On the Fleet Bridge (between Fleet Street and Ludgate Hill) he finds carts with nuts and oranges for sale – but is put off by the “ill-looking fellows, some with but one eye, and others without noses”. The accounts may be embellished somewhat but it’s a unique and brilliantly bawdy guide to London, and still worth dipping into (it’s easily found online).
2. Simon Raven
There can’t be many people who had spells in both Charterhouses: the public school in Surrey and the almshouse in Clerkenwell. Author Simon Raven did. After a dissolute existence, he ended his days, in 2001, as a pensioner Brother in residence at the Charterhouse and apparently had no regrets about his impoverished state. Raven wasn’t the kind of man to worry about money. He always lived the life of an upper-class gentleman, although his family’s wealth actually came from socks. When his dough ran out, he just got others to pick up his hefty restaurant bills. He was a gambler, cricketer and boozer – but also a prolific writer. His two sequences of novels, Alms for Oblivion and The First-Born of Egypt, run to 17 volumes collectively.
He was a gifted prose stylist but never a bestseller. When his desperate wife requested he pay the bills, he sent the notorious telegram: “Sorry no money, suggest eat baby.” Raven seemed to revel in his bad behaviour. He narrowly avoided a court martial for “conduct unbecoming” after running up gambling debts during his National Service. He had already been expelled from school for “homosexual activities”. After his death at 73, it was said that “by rights he should have died of shame at 30 and drink at 50,” wrote Christopher Fowler in The Book of Forgotten Authors. He was a bit of a snob and definitely a cad – that said, he probably deserves a literary revival.
3. Peter Pan
You may not believe in fairy dust but Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) certainly does. Its management refers to being sprinkled with it in 1929, when author JM Barrie (it’s James Matthew, by the way) donated all the rights to Peter Pan to the hospital, which has been benefiting financially ever since. The rights are in perpetuity, so it’s “Ever Ever” rather than “Never Never”.
Barrie lived in Grenville Street – the street that links the back of the hospital and the Brunswick Centre – when he moved to London from the family home in Scotland as a young man. It is this house that is thought to have provided the inspiration for the Darlings’ home. Peter Pan, of which you may have seen the statue outside the hospital, first appeared as a character in Barrie’s 1902 novel The Little White Bird. In it, Peter is a baby and in Kensington Gardens he learns to fly. Barrie then made him the protagonist of a stage play Peter Pan, first performed in 1904.
Following its success, Barrie wrote the novel Peter Pan, in 1911. Barrie, who never had children, made it a condition that the hospital never reveal how much money the rights raised. He said: “At one time, Peter Pan was an invalid in the hospital… and it was he who put me up to the little thing I did.”