Fiction facts

Friday, 18th December 2020 — By The Xtra Diary

Cecil Court

WE stopped in Charing Cross Road last week, with the aim of continuing an unhurried wander along its stretch.
Let us resume our virtual stroll, which we have been conducting since mid-March, at Number 111 Charing Cross Road.

Home in the mid-1500s to a popular wayfarers’ hostelry called the Plough Inn, by the 1870s the pub had long gone with just its derelict stable yard remaining. Champion pickle makers Crosse & Blackwell bought the site and used it for their expanding central London condiment empire.

C’n’B were a wildly successful catering story in the Victorian years, and became synonymous with this patch. Edmund C and Thomas B had been apprentices at salted fish makers West & Wyatt, and bought the firm in 1830. By 1857 they were flogging 17,000 gallons of mushroom ketchup and shifting 120,000 tins of sardines annually from their West End base. By the time they took on 111, they had sauce mixologists beavering away in Soho Square, Sutton Place, George Yard, Denmark Street, Dean Street and Earl Street.

The firm, London’s largest single employer in the 1850s, needed stabling for their horses, so at 111 they built a Romanesque multi-storey “car park”. The ground floor had space for 18 vans and four nags, while ramps up to other floors provided more stables. Sadly, by the 1920s, the creators of many a vinegar-based meal-livener had sold up and the intriguing building was pulled down.

Along the road, the Astoria utilised the shell of a C’n’B jam jar warehouse for a cinema and dance hall. Now lost due to Crossrail work, let us remember the good times. It opened as a picture house in 1927 and was converted into a theatre by the 1970s. The 1980s saw it reborn as a gig venue that hosted all the names.

The Astoria played a key moment in London’s Acid House scene, too. In 1988 DJ Nicky Holloway put on a night called The Trip, and musicologists refer to it in hushed tones as a seminal happening in UK dance music history. The night would end with ravers piling out into the dawn to carry on dancing in the Modernist fountains at the foot of Centre Point, to the amusement of the Fuzz.

Now, on to books. The street has so many outlets worthy of mention, but let us not forget those now lost: Murder One, which specialised in crime and romance; the fabulously eclectic Quinto Books; art purveyors Zwemmer, and of course the famous 84 Charing Cross Road outlet Marks & Co, immortalised in the book based on the letters between Helene Hanff and Frank Doel. Where its bookshelves once stood is a chain pub.

Still thriving is the biggie – Foyles, set up in 1903 by William F to sell surplus textbooks from a college course he had failed to complete. His daughter Christina inherited the firm and developed a reputation: an obituary called her rule “paternalistic and autocratic,” paying low wages while buttering up bright young employees by inviting them to happenings at the country abbey she called home.

Christina was behind the famous Foyles Literary Lunches. Hosted at the Dorchester, it was silver service stuff with amiable chat by a notable.

Christina hoped George Bernard Shaw would be her first guest but he turned her down, replying it was “currently pointless to start anything new in England”. She would not be shaken off, and as the lunches picked up, she tried to entice him to chair an event in honour of HG Wells, who had also previously declined an invitation, stating: “The letters I receive from my readers leave me no desire to meet them in the flesh.”

Shaw was equally caustic, he told Christina never to book two celebrities for one event. “If you can get Shaw and Wells, get a lecture apiece out of them with a couple of tongue-tied nobodies thrown in as chairmen,” he said.

“What you propose is criminal extravagance to which I will not be a party.”

He later wriggled out of another invitation after being sent a menu that was vegetarian, saying he couldn’t bear the idea of hearing a room full of people eating celery.

From Foyles, we walk past the old St Martin’s School of Art. How many tales of British popular imagination start with someone finding their voice here? We could revel in name dropping, from hosting the Sex Pistols’ first gig to post-war lectures by tutors Eduardo Paolozzi and Anthony Caro. The likes of Katharine Hamnett, Frank Auerbach, Jeff Banks, Billy Childish, Antony Gormley, John Hurt and Carole Steyn all graduated from the CCR base, while Jarvis Cocker wrote the song Common People after meeting a St Martin’s student in its foyer… But Diary’s interest is piqued by the following story. Designer Gareth Pugh, who has dressed the likes of Lady Gaga, hosted a student fashion show at a strip club in Greek Street, called Moonlighting.

He was surprised to find a corridor back stage that led directly into the college’s library. One hopes this is true.

Our final stop is the marvellous Cecil Court, a shaded cut-through off CCR that looks like a cliché of Old London and boasts a deep history.

We could pause outside the tailor that supplied army uniforms to the poet Rupert Brooke, window shop at the smattering of antiquarian book and curios sellers, or dive into a bar frequented by Dylan Thomas and Auberon Waugh… But instead, let us go back to 1735, when Elizabeth Calloway ran a brandy shop here. She attracted rough custom and was not shy of a bit of criminality herself.

One fateful night she decided to over-insure her premises and burn the place down. Old Bailey transcripts reveal witnesses dived in to rescue barrels of brandy – all of which they found were empty – and noted the huge stash of kindling she had bought two weeks previously. Despite the evidence, she was found not guilty.

The Daily Journal reported it took two hours for water to be sourced to douse the fire, which was long enough for the Prince of Wales to appear to see the incident.

Tragically the sole victim from this insurance job was the mother of William Hogarth, whose biographer Ronald Paulson described her death in the following way: “she passed, of a Fright, occasion’d by the Fire. She was in perfect Health when the unhappy Accident broke out, and died before it was Extinguish’d”.

On that grim note, stay safe, stay well.

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