Secrets – February/March

1: Mrs A-Z

An A-Z might seem antiquated today but in 1936, when the concept was invented and London’s first one was printed, it was as revolutionary as Google Maps. Instead of a huge Ordnance Survey sheet, it was in book form and had an index of street names. 

The person behind the brainwave was the artist and writer Phyllis Pearsall. She was the daughter of a local cartographer Alexander Gross, who ran a map company on Fleet Street until he emigrated to the US in the Twenties.

The story goes that he asked her to print and market for him in England a map of the world, and it was while she was out tramping the streets on sales pitches that she got lost and had the idea for the A-Z.

She then tramped the streets some more, to say the least, for her new project: she spent 18 hours a day walking 23,000 roads. Publishers weren’t interested in her venture, so she founded the Geographers’ Map Company to self-publish. It was based for some time at 24 Gray’s Inn Road.

“Mrs A-Z”, as Pearsall was known, had a life as intriguing as one of her London layouts. Her mother died in an asylum. Her father went bankrupt. She left school at 14 and ended up in France, living nearly homeless. She left her husband by simply walking out while he was asleep during a trip to Venice.

2: The Fryer’s Delight

Like trying to find the best pizza in New York, sourcing the best fish ’n’ chips in London isn’t easy; every other street there’s a place bragging accolades on an A-board.

But some chippies stand out all the same, and our famous local (“for the Tastiest Fish & Chips in town!”) is one such. It was 55 years ago that The Fryer’s Delight on Theobald’s Road was opened by two Italians, Giovanni and Giuseppe Ferdenzi, – one of whom, it is fabled, never even liked fish.
The Delight is appreciated today for its classic offerings (saveloys) and retro looks (Fixed Formica).

It is also quintessentially British (despite the Italian heritage); the big-lipped cod fish featured in its wonderfully Sixties signage wears a bowler hat, and the menu eschews curry sauce for chop sauce.

Naturally, this has given it cool credentials. The late Joan Rivers used to visit whenever she was over here, apparently, Vogue has used it for fashion shoots, and its facade featured in a PlayStation game called The Getaway. Not many chippies can put that on an A-board.

3: UFO Sighting

Unless you count some of the eclectic shapes hung ethereally in the lighting exhibitions at Clerkenwell Design Week, the local area hasn’t had much to do with UFOs.

That said, Clerkenwell was pivotal in a sighting of 1762: it was where the report of such sighting was printed, in The Gentleman’s Magazine, which had offices in St John’s Gate.

The magazine states: “All England saw, at 8.30pm, a beautiful ball blazing with white light, and which passed from NW to SE. It moved rapidly with a gentle tremulous motion, and noiselessly. The light cast by it was very vivid, and few red sparks detached themselves from it.”

Sounds cool. And so was the magazine. Founded in 1731 by businessman Edward Cave, who went under the pen name Sylvanus Urban, it was the first periodical to call itself a “magazine” (back then, the word typically meant “a portable receptacle for articles of value”). It ran for two centuries and employed Samuel Johnson, in his pre-dictionary days.

Johnson was such a regular contributor, he had a permanent desk in the magazine’s offices. When he was there, he was said to dine behind a screen, as he was considered too inappropriately attired (he was very hard up) to be seen in company.