Into Obscurity | A Pint And A Prostitute
Sex and satire meet in this issue’s set of lesser-known local stories…
A PINT AND A PROSTITUTE
Mostly, the label “ye olde” stands for phoney history, as well as a whole dollop of naffness. In the case of the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street, however, it does neither. This pub is genuinely old (1500s), and its plentiful nooks, crannies, bowed steps and narrow passageways are all very real. It comes complete with sawdust on the floor and gloomy lighting – everything you’d want from a ye olde experience. Adding to its charms is the fact that it was apparently the haunt of many literary greats, including Arthur Conan Doyle, the focus of this issue of the Post, Charles Dickens (where didn’t he go, around here?) and Samuel Johnson, who lived a matter of streets away.
Johnson, of course, is famed for his dictionary, and perhaps it was at the Cheese that he was reminded to include those “rude words” we all like to look up as a rite of dictionary passage. For in an upstairs room were found fireplace tiles depicting saucy scenes. It is almost certain the pub doubled up as a brothel in the mid-18th century. These literal fragments of the pub’s past are now held at the Museum of London, which has had the uneasy task of describing them with archiving earnestness. In one, a man is standing behind a woman, who is bent over. Say no more… In another, a man (trousers around his knees) is having his bottom whipped by one woman, while another “kneels in front of him”.
Admittedly, some of the tiles are so chipped, scratched and soot-covered that it’s hard to tell what’s going on – there’s simply a foot on a cushion or a pair of legs in the air. But, then, that makes looking at them more fun in a way.
A STICKY END
With its restaurants, cafes, flats and offices, St John Street is a sophisticated thoroughfare. It’s sometimes hard to remember its seedier past, not that long ago, back in the Nineties. There was once a porn cinema, near the Smithfield end, called Dream City. Ever been to a porn cinema? One (female) journalist describes a visit once to Fantasy Videos on City Road: “The basement, where the cinema itself is housed, smells of urine. There are odd corners where members can relieve themselves in a bit of privacy while watching the films from the doorway. Lines of graffiti adorning the walls demand more hard-core movies.”
One day in February 1994, Dream City suffered a tragic incident. A deaf homeless man called David Lauwers had a spat with the doorman, who wanted to charge him for re-admission. There was an altercation and Lauwers was thrown out. He was so infuriated, he returned armed with a can of petrol and some matches. He made his arson attack and ran off. Later that day, he happened to see a television news report on the fire. It turned out that eight men had died at the scene, one of whom had jumped from a high window. Three more men then died in hospital, and at least 10 more suffered injuries.
Lauwers was so horrified by what he’d done, he immediately turned himself in. The courts gave him a life sentence for his crime. It was, however, because of the incident that Islington became the first London borough to licence adult cinemas. Up until that point, the cinemas operated illegally and without fire regulation.
You’re generally considered lucky if you live on the Barbican Estate. If you have a flat in its Cromwell Tower, there’s an added privilege: Alan Budgen’s cartoons. These can be found adorning the walls near the lift and show humorous takes on Barbi life. Budgen, himself a Cromwell Tower resident, makes fun in this, his Barbicanarama series, of all the Estate’s signature quirks.
There’s Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, flanked by, of course, the Lion, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man, staring down at the Barbican’s painted yellow line on the paving (it directs punters from the Barbican Tube station through the complex to the Barbican Centre). She says in the caption: “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.”
The Garchey, the Barbican’s centralised rubbish-flushing system, is also hit upon, as are the many pools and fountains. Perhaps the most poignantly tongue-in-cheek illustration depicts a couple moving into their new des-res – one of the ventilation shafts.
Michael Barrett, a Barbican resident and aficionado, says most people in his block entertain themselves during their wait for a lift by “idly digging out bits of the surrounding plasterwork with their flat keys”. He says he would very much welcome cartoons in the lift lobby of his block… Besides, “there are a lot of gouged holes to cover up.”
See Alan’s work at www.budgefunk.com
Thanks to Michael Barrett www.barbicanliving.co.uk