The Suburban wits; or, taverns, coffee houses, fleet & grub st (feat. the infernal origins of celebrity)
A Macaroni mashup; or, luxury fashion and the fancy (feat. Prophet Dan and the bubble; or virtual people, virtual money & the search for Eldorado)
Greater expectations: innocence, experience & reform (feat. the new jerusalem digital remix)
to be published in epub and kindle formats
have a great mind to be in Print; but above all, I would fain be an Original,
and that is a true Comical Thought: When all the Learned Men in the World are
but Translators, is it not a Pleasant Jest that you should strive to be an
Original! You should have observed your Time, and have come into the World with
the Ancient Greeks for that purpose; for the Latins themselves are but Copies...
Is it true then that there is such an Embargo laid upon Invention, that no Man
can produce anything that is perfectly New, and entirely his own?” Thomas Brown, Amusements serious and comical (1700)
The Oxford University dropout,
rakehell and Grubb Street hack Thomas Brown proclaimed himself to be “one of
the first of the Suburban class” to make a living entirely from his writing,
without having to seek the patronage of a Great Man.
It had taken a quarter of a millennium
since Gutenberg’s introduction of the printing press into Europe for writers to
subsist solely from the productions of their pens, including women: Brown’s
muse and possible lover the novelist and playwright Aphra Behn can be considered
the first professional woman writer.
The introduction of the presses had
inaugurated the Information Age, printing one of the earliest mechanised
industries to mass produce its wares, its machinery adapted from wine presses.
But with verse and the theatre traditionally the principle media for creative
endeavour, real gentlemen for long believed it beneath their dignity to
publish, let alone be paid for their scribbles, which might be passed around
privately in manuscript form.
Most non gentlemen were forced to
subsidise their literary ambitions by resort to an honest trade such as
teaching. But by 1774, the man of letters
Dr Samuel Johnson had pronounced that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote,
except for money”. Writing had become a profession, although only a
particularly talented and fortunate few would truly prosper from its art and
For most it remained a form of ill-paid drudgery.
Grub Street was an actual place,
running northwards from beneath the London City walls (sub urb: below the
city). Renamed Milton St EC2, it is now a concrete, steel and glass business canyon lying to the east of the Barbican.
In his Dictionary (1755)
Johnson describes the toilers of Grub Street as “writers of small histories,
dictionaries, and temporary poems, whence any mean production is called
grubstreet”. The denizens of the street were a
human machinery, for many of whom grubbing a living from arranging words in a sensible
order was no more than a penance for a pittance, with a pension of poor-health
and poverty, and for some a descent into destitution and madness.
Many of the City’s licensed print
works were to be found on Fleet Street,
the shop and hostelry-lined highway running westwards from the Lud Gate,
the City’s westernmost entrance, and connecting it with the City of Westminster at the Temple Bar. It was on this street that the offices of a
proliferating number of daily, weekly and evening news papers congregated following
the relaxation of censorship laws in 1695.
Near to the Bar, in the Middle
Temple Gate, Nandos coffee house was a popular resort of lawyers and the new
breed of populist writers, journalists and booksellers, having in the 1690s
come into part-ownership of the parish of St Pancras in the Fields.
It was here and in the ‘public
space’ of the many other coffee houses and taverns of Fleet Street (and its
continuation in Westminster as The Strand) that the modern media industry was
born, with also establishments in the nearby theatre districts of Drury Lane,
Haymarket and Lincoln’s Inn Fields playing host to creative industry types of
And it was the increasing
purchasing power of the rising middle classes that enabled writers such as
Brown and Behn to make a living from their quills.
The Suburban Wits of the book’s
title were a motley collection of pens for hire. Some work was to be found in
translations from French, Spanish or Italian, or the Classics, or maybe in the
heartfelt or hack production of a political tract, or something lewd or seditious... the particularly talented, or
opportunist, might strike it lucky with a play which caught the theatre goers’
fancy for a few nights.
Thomas Brown was the most accomplished
of the translators, a classically trained scholar who chose to live on the
margins, rejecting opportunities for lucrative patronage to which his talents
might easily have laid claim while also writing poems, essays and plays. An instictive Tory, he was of the Ancients’ persuasion, all too aware of rapidly
changing social conditions but rejecting the very idea of an ascendant Modernity,
of cultural Progress, in deference to an idealised past as revealed in the
relics of Classical culture.
Jonathan Swift epitomised the controversy in the Battle of the Books (circulated in
manuscript form ca1697, published 1704), giving “a
full and true account of the battle fought last Friday between the ancient and
the modern books in St James’s Library”; ie, the King’s Library, then located
in St James’s Palace, Westminster.
With various royal book
collections gathered together at the palace during the Commonwealth era,
neglected and pilfered the volumes have become jumbled up on the shelves, minor
disputes developing between reluctant neighbours growing unchecked until war is
declared between the two camps:
it must be here understood that Ink is the great missive Weapon in all Battles
of the Learned, which, conveyed thro’ a sort of Engine, call’d a Quill,
infinite Numbers of these are darted at the Enemy, by the Valiant on each side, with equal Skill and Violence, as if it were an Engagement of Porcupines”.
The original library was absorbed
into the British Museum when it was founded in 1753. The King’s Library
currently on display inside a four-storey smoked
glass-walled central tower at the British Library at St Pancras (created
as a separate institution in 1973 and opened at its new premises a quarter of a
century later) is George III’s personal library,
donated in 1823 to the museum by his son George IV, the monarch memorialised a few years later by
the construction of the King’s Cross.
It was Brown’s involvement in a
group effort at the translation into colloquial English of the complete works
of the C1AD Greco-Roman satirist Lucian (translated from Greek into Latin two
centuries earlier by Sir Thomas Moore and Erasmus) that led to his ‘rediscovery’
The city was a simulacrum of the Middlesex suburbs in the
afterlife, ruled by Pluto and for a few decades during the early-C18 the destination
of a popular satirical trope adopted by several other writers: there was gossip
about its immortal inhabitants to relate and celebrate, including recently
deceased friends and enemies.
He was unapologetic about his
retro-speculative approach, writing in the introduction to Letters from the dead to the living (Brown et al, 1702):
“I am not insensible,
Gentlemen, that Homer, Virgil, Dante, Don Quevedo, and many more before me,
have given an Account of these Subterranean Dominions, for which reason it may
look like Affectation or Vanity in me to meddle with a Subject so often
handled; but if new Travels into Italy, Spain, and Germany are daily read with
Approbation, because new Matters of Enquiry and Observation perpetually arise,
I don’t see why the present State of the Plutonian Kingdoms may not be
acceptable, there having been as great Changes and Alterations in these
Infernal Regions, as in any other Part of the Universe whatever”.
Tory wits like Brown drank wine, and
lots of it, best claret when they could afford to. But a more sober Whigish
breed of penman might prefer small beer or coffee and, encouraged by a
royally-inspired campaign to reform manners, produce books and periodicals
designed to instruct their readers in useful and well-tempered knowledge, and
how to conduct themselves with decorum.
Such writing reached its apogee
in the eloquent prose of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s the Spectator and the Tatler, while the High Tory pens of the Scriblerus Club (the Augustans
Swift, Alexander Pope, John Arbuthnot and John Gay) created brilliant and cruel
satires on the emerging modernity.
But just as the early-C17 had
witnessed the first permanent settlement of the New World by Puritan migrants
seeking freedom of worship, accompanied by the adventurous, the dispossessed
and the outlawed seeking new opportunities, less than two decades after the
death of the sceptical Thomas Brown the early-C18 saw the colonisation of a new
‘Continent of the Imagination’.
Inhabited by mythical, legendary
and fabulous natives, and previously visited only by European explorers from
the traditions of folktales, myth, religion, the drama, romance and novella,
Daniel Defoe’s castaway Robinson Crusoe
(1719) is the first recognizably modern Englishman to settle on its shore,
followed by a growing population comprising all the passengers shipping out as
colonists on the good ships Defoe, Haywood, Swift, Sterne, Richardson, Fielding, Goldsmith, Austen, The Brontes Dickens, Elliot
Accounts of these novel characters and
their descendants’ adventures have become so much a part of everyday private
and cosmopolitan life, their production and reproduction so prolific, 300-years
on the Empire of Fiction (and its various dependencies, its genres and new
media, with also its dominions of PR and celebrity) has long since become
Imaginary heroes and antiheroes,
villains and victims, the blessed, the lost and the damned, now inhabit the
landscape of our minds and hearts as realistically as, if not more so
than our own kith and kin; although the vessels upon which they have
traditionally sailed, including the most recent high tech vehicles, are now
rapidly transforming as the modern world rejected by Thomas Brown all those
years ago itself transforms, from print, analogue and the metaphorical to
digital and virtual delivery systems…
macaroni mash up
ago, tea, coffee and chocolate were never tasted, except in great or rich
families. But now the articles of tea and sugar are in common use. We send to
the East and West Indies to furnish our poor with their breakfasts. The wives
of day labourers and the very almshouse women drink tea twice a day. In some
counties the gleaners have their tea at stated hours, in the open fields”. The Universal Magazine of
Knowledge & Pleasure (1772)
But just as this pioneering
colonisation of the imagination by virtual autonomous individuals commenced, a newly designed finance capitalism
met its first great crisis with the bursting of the South Sea Bubble.
Daniel Defoe had celebrated the
entrepreneurial spirit of his fellow Englishmen, his Essay Upon Projects of 1697 describing a 'projecting monster' stalking the land written in the same decade as the launch of joint
stock banking with the Bank of England, and in which the practices of
modern insurance and stock brokering became firmly established in the coffee
houses and alleyways around the Royal Exchange.
He remained a close critic of
mercantile and early financial practices, his passionate belief in a moral
capitalism encouraged by the example of a reputable few, but disappointed by
what he saw as a far too general greed and corruption.
An account of these early days
of modern capitalism is related in Prophet
Dan and the bubble; or virtual people, virtual money & the search for
Eldorado, featured in a broader account of the global trade in high value
luxury commodities and the foundations of consumer society in the ebook A Macaroni mashup; or, luxury, fashion &
The production/ trade in spices,
silks and satins, furs, tobacco, African slaves, sugar, tea, coffee and
chocolate were the original motors of economic relations and global migrations
that have since entirely transformed the world, the very basis of modernity and
whatever it is that now follows; a modernity that has constantly regenerated
through the creation (and the always only partial satisfaction) of ever new
Among the relatives of
Cheshire-born St Pancras preacher/ vicar Randolph Yearwood (incumbent from 1655
until his death in 1687) were sugar planters and slave owners, early settlers
of the first great English Caribbean colony of Barbados. Indeed, had he not
secured his St Pancras living, as a young man the controversial Yearwood might
very well himself have been forced to migrate.
As it was, his family line would
soon disappear, while the family name spread across the New World, with during
the C20 some of its bearers returning to the UK as part of the continuing flows
of global migration.
Sugar production and trade had
been the first great capitalist industry, its profits and those acquired from control of trade with the highly advance civilisations of the East financing an English
fashion industry that would initiate the first, if tentative, mass consumer
culture. Following on from the colourful but diffident Harlequin style, alluded
to if not fully adopted by youthful apprentices with attitude in the early-C18,
a more generally popular fashion debuted a half century later with the
over-exuberant Macaroni style.
Its originators were first
spotted by Horace Walpole about St James’s and Hyde Park in the winter of 1764,
comprising “all the travelled young men who wear curls and spying glasses”
(some of whom wore two pocket watches, “one to show what o’clock it is, and one
to show what o’clock it isn’t”). The aim of their absurd behaviour and dress
was to scandalise their staid and worthy fathers.
These immensely wealthy young men
reached their “ne plus ultra” within a decade, restyling themselves the Scavoir
Vivre, forming an exclusive club at the Star and Garter tavern in Pall Mall and
acquiring a new uniform of scarlet cloth with a velvet collar and sleeves of
bleu celeste. This now left the field open to the lower classes to boldly
go where no fashion had gone before, their having taken to spending whatever
surplus pennies they could afford (or not!) to indulge in what would remain for
some several years the first really popular fashion craze.
As well as the more famous pleasure
gardens at Vauxhall and Ranelagh, the chosen venues for the non-Ton to display
their new found finery were Bagnigge Wells (off what is presently Kings Cross
Road) and the White Conduit Gardens on Pentonville Hill, with also a brief
flourish at the New Pantheon on the site of the Italian basilica-style church
of Our Most Holy Redeemer on Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell and frequent resort to
nearby and still flourishing Sadler's Wells Theatre.
While the hacks of popular
literature in Alexander Pope’s Dunciad
(1728-42) had dived for prizes in the filth and stench of the Fleet Ditch
(little more than an open sewer), growing opportunities meant that writers
might now aim higher... but not always too high.
The Rev Charles Churchill, for
example, (a penniless parish priest who had subsidised his rural living running an alehouse) secured his finances with his satirist’s quill, moving to the capital after publishing
The Rosciad in 1761 and over the
following years coming to know far too many of the intimate secrets of the
beaux and belles of Baggnige Wells than might be considered proper for a man of
In that same period, the
altogether more saintly Oliver Goldsmith chose the less depraved pleasures of
the tea room and skittle alley at White Conduit House on the hill overlooking
Battle Bridge, mixing with a literary and theatrical crowd who might be
considered (or at least might have consider themselves) a newly rising populist
Both venues, in fact, had
similarly questionable reputations. But because the Wells had the larger premises,
as the day wore on and its rival venue became overcrowded the more racy
elements from the hilltop house and grounds gravitated down to the more extensive
and well-tended gardens on the valley floor.
Here they supplanted the citizen
families who, having finished their treats of a pot of tea, fresh bread and
butter and maybe cream buns, were departing for home. The new arrivals now joined
the company of any remaining rakes and prostitutes, the occasional flamboyant highwayman,
the thrill-seeking servants and apprentices, the ‘particulars’ and the more
extreme of the newly empowered popular fashionistas.
The male of this species had
adopted and adapted the Macaroni’s
earliest attire of a tight, wide-lapelled high-wasted coat with vast buttons
and deep pockets, long waistcoat and satin breeches, scarlet stockings,
high-heeled and extravagantly buckled shoes and a reticule (handbag) hung over
This vision of absurd loveliness had
clutched a lengthy walking-stick with long tassels and was topped with a large club
wig (a sort of heavily powdered, horse hair dreadlock) upon which perched a
little hat. The female of the species distinguished herself with ever more
ornately constructed hairdos and voluminous bustles.
A generational rebellion had
become a cultural and social revolution; a celebration of prosperity and
individualism, but one of limited individual opportunities, for as the country
industrialised this was also becoming a time of poverty and hunger for many and
of strikes, riots and the first mass political protests.
“Jack ass race
to be run for on Monday next at the White Hart at Battle Bridge at Pancras, for
a laced hat and band; no ass to enter that has run a King’s plate this season.
Also a smock to be run for by women, to start at 3, all to enter free. Eggs and
potatoes on the table at 2, with plenty of Wilkes’s eye water. It is expected
that there will be numerous appearances of Friends of Liberty and the Lumber
Troop. Several hundred pound bets are depending upon Alexander Dunplin and
Wilkes”. Lloyd’s Evening Post, 13-15
The individual who perhaps best
represented the gathering populist spirit of the times was the Middlesex MP and Lord Mayor of London (and also libertine, duellist and pornographer)
John Wilkes. Supported by the improving associations and the mob alike, his
‘patriotic’ demagogy was celebrated by the ratepayers of Battle Bridge in the
name of the main street of their new village, Britannia Street, laid out in the
Battle Bridge East Field in 1767 at the height of the ‘Wilkes and Liberty’
Wilkes stood for the little man
against a corrupt client administration in which, he maintained, the North
Britons (Scots) held too much influence. Or at least he claimed to represent
them, with public affairs for many very much a zero game of naked
self-interest, the hero of the day making up his political platform and his
sartorial sensibilities as he proceeded.
His political resolve and
passionate support for individual
liberties did, nevertheless, influence rising dissatisfaction here and on the
other side of the Atlantic and the English Channel, securing an unprecedented and until
now safely guarded pre-Leveson freedom of the press while heavily influencing
the framing of the First Amendment to the American Constitution. He also introduced the very first Bill for parliamentary reform to the House of Commons.
Continuing local support for their radical MP is
reflected in a somewhat cryptic announcement in Lloyd’s Evening Post in October 1773, of a public gathering that
appears to have been intended as a political meeting (see prologue, above). It was promoted by George Mills, the landlord of
the White Hart
tavern standing at the crossroads in the fork of the New Road and Bagnigge Wash
(the site of the ‘Lighthouse Building’).
Indeed, the following edition of the
same newspaper reports that “yesterday the High Constable and several other
constables attended at Battle Bridge to put a stop to the intended ass race,
which they executed without any disturbance”.
Besides its own dynamics, English
political radicalism was feeding into and gathering momentum from both the
American and French Revolutions, with vast public meetings in the fields on the
skirts of the capital taking place over the following decades. And this was
also the period when London’s public and popular cultures became properly established as an
integral part of the industrial and social revolutions that were turning “all
that is solid into air”.
By the end of the century a radical avante garde was associated with Somers Town, meeting at the home
of the philosophical anarchist and atheist writer William Godwin who lived in
the Polygon, a 16-sided development of terraced houses on the edge of the
In 1797, Godwin married the ur-feminist writer Mary
Wollstonecroft, who just five years earlier had published her masterpiece the Vindication of the Rights of Women. She
moved in with him but died shortly afterwards, giving birth to their daughter
Mary, the future teenage bride of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
The first inklings of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus will
have formed when visiting her mother’s grave in St Pancras churchyard, not 300
metres across the fields from her intellectual hot house childhood home. Later,
the family having moved to Snow Hill on the edge of the butchers shambles
serving Smithfield live meat market, and neighbouring the Newgate Prison where
vast crowds attended the secluded executions of criminals behind its forbidding
walls, she regularly attended her mother’s grave with her husband to be, the
couple having fallen in love at the graveside.
A time of accelerating development of the fields for
housing, the new suburbs accommodated a rapidly expanding population of
variously skilled workers, including many servicing the growing print and
entertainment industries on whose products the new suburban classes might spend
a good portion of their wages. And in and around Battle Bridge a number of
‘nuisance manufactories’ such as knackers and bone yards, dye, blue and soap factories,
and sweatshops prospered, with also often women-run laundry businesses.
The larger story is to be told in
Greater expectations: innocence,
experience & reform (feat. the
New Jerusalem digital remix), but for a taster of the cultural forces at
work around rural Battle Bridge as it transformed into suburban Kings Cross, we
might look at the premises of a globally popular burger chain on the corner of
York Way and Pentonville Road, to the east of Kings Cross station and
immediately north of the site of the original Kings Cross monument.
The American corporation’s ‘golden
arches’ logo has a weird, if not visionary and mystical resonance in the
possible and imaginary histories of Kings Cross St Pancras.
Anciently named Maiden Lane (and long neglected, before the C19 it was little more than a drovers track), York
Way runs north from the Battle Bridge cross-roads, for nearly a century
directly opposite a great dust heap where before its clearance sometime before
1830 (to make way for the original Kings Cross development, although there is some confusion about the exact date)
parochially-appointed scavengers had contracted to deposit the wastes of London,
from which local brick-makers salvaged hearth cinders (‘spanish’) for
strengthening their bricks.
A small army of scavengers (human and porcine) salvaged whatever they
might form the rest of the wastes, the heap featured in Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), among
others of his works.
On the corner with Pentonville
Hill there stood an old inn, the Maidenhead, which a couple of years previous
to the removal of the hog-inhabited, man-made hillock had been taken over by
William Walborne, a retired actor. His most famous role was the dancing dustman
‘Dusty Bob’ in the 1821 smash hit stage adaption of Pierce Egan’s Tom and Jerry, or Life in London at the
Adelphi Theatre on the Strand.
Egan had first come to notice as
a sports journalist, known for his reporting on ‘The Fancy’, the ‘bucks and
bruisers’ whose chief delights included pugilism, cock-fighting and
horse-racing; and, of course, flash dress, drink, gambling and a rude and ready
His novel Tom
and Jerry (first issued in monthly parts from September 1820) brought
him real fame, portraying a Regency lowlife uniting idle aristocrats with
uncultured but street-wise hustlers (‘swells’ with ‘coves’) in their “Rambles
and Sprees through the Metropolis”: viz Ned
Ward’s London Spy over a century
The tale was a popular sensation,
a phenomenon, celebrated in the branding of everything from song, pottery and
games to beverages, fans and tea-trays. Theatrical adaptions became ubiquitous, in
the UK and on the American stage. Performed first at Astley’s and then the
Surrey, a highly successful version at Sadler’s Wells in 1822 ran for well
over a hundred shows, featuring live pony races and over thirty scenes designed
by Robert Cruishank, who with his brother George (both of whom would at times
reside locally) had illustrated the original monthly parts.
George also painted the sign for
Walborne’s Maidenhead pub, showing him in his most famous role. Previously an
unremarkable house, the new sign attracted the custom of the hundreds of men
and women employed on the dust heap opposite. But when shortly afterwards the
mound was removed (it was said it was sold for the rebuilding of Moscow)
Walbourne was soon bankrupted, his house later rebuilt and renamed the Victoria
Hotel and for several decades now a MacDonalds.
In Egan’s original novel, ‘Dusty
Bob’ was a coal-heaver, transformed for the stage into one of the most popular
London stereotypes, the dustman, whose filthy and ubiquitous trade touched on
the profoundest realities and mythologies of life in the newly industrialised
And though the mound of dust had gone, a King’s Cross dustman would
soon after come to represent the cultural aspirations of the newly created
Some folks may talk of sense,
Vot holds a lofty station,
But, though a dustman, I have had
A liberal hedication.
And though I never went to
Like many of my betters
A turnpike man, vot ain’t no
He larnt me all my letters.
(Chorus) They calls me Adam Bell,
As Adam was the first man,
And by a co-in-side-ance queer
Vy, I’m the fust of Dustmen.
“My dawning genus fust did peep,
Near Battle Bridge ‘tis plain,
You recollect the cinder heap,
Vot stood in Gray’s-Inn-Lane,
‘Twas there I studied
Vhile I my bread vos yearnin’;
And there inhalin’ the fresh
I sifted out my larnin! (Chorus)…
Literary Dustman, anon (1832)
The Greater expectations ebook goes on to sketch the development of
Battle Bridge, Somers Town and Pentonville following the erection of the King’s
Cross monument to the mid-century construction of the two great rail terminals
that still dominate the district today.
It was a time of progress and poverty,
of great hopes and great disappointments. Situated on a fault line between two
Londons (the East and the West Ends) the district’s fate was for long sealed by
the building of the stations. But it is the broadness of association through
the centuries that provides the bedrock on which Kings Cross St Pancras is now regenerating:
“The fields from Islington to
To Primrose Hill and Saint John’s
Were builded over with pillars of
And there Jerusalem’s pillars
Her Little Ones ran on the
The Lamb of God among them seen,
And fair Jerusalem, His Bride,
Among the little meadows green.
Pancras and Kentish Town repose
Among her golden pillars
Among her golden arches which
Shine upon the starry sky”.
chap 1 plate 27,
William Blake (1804-20)
For in the microcosm of King’s
Cross St Pancras, in the story of the kin, kith and strangers and of the pleasures, crime and death in what were once
the fields of London, can be found much of the origins of the ever expanding multiverses
of our contemporary existence, and of future worlds beyond.