Saturday, 5 January 2013

On This Day in London History January 5

January 5

Two burials today. Two burials that bookend an extraordinary period in London life. Bookend it in more ways than one.

On January 5, 1716 the Restoration playwright William Wycherley is buried in the vault of St. Paul's Covent Garden, the "actors' church". He'd died on January 1, in Bow Street.

Now about those "bookends". Wycherley's greatest play, The Country Wife, is a crystallisation of Restoration A-Listers' life and times. Let alone their "morality". Brilliant, brittle, brazen, breathtakingly hedonistic, cynical...well, you get the idea. This isn't the place to school you in any of these matters but if you'd like a hint just think about the name of the play itself: The Country Wife. And that of the main male character: Jack Horner. Say 'em a couple of times. Your ear will "get it".

The other January 5 burial comes a generation and change earlier: in 1676. Praisegod Barbon – I"m not making that name up – is buried in the parish of St. Andrew Holborn. Buried near the artillery ground. Praisegod "Barebones" (as his detractors called him; one can readily imagine Wycherley's circle sneering at him in precisely that vein) was a lay preacher, a politician, and a leather seller. That he was severe, devout, probably slightly mad – in every essence a Puritan – almost goes without saying.

What really interests me, though, is the location of Barbon's "premises", the Lock and Key. It was at the far end of Fleet Street, near Fetter Lane. It was, in other words, well outside the wall, right on the edge of London. As far away as you could get from London's big shots and still be in the same city. In short, half-a-mile away from the London "establishment" – the comfortable, cosseted, prosperous-in-the-extreme merchants in the centre of town. A half-a-mile away that was also a world away.

But there, on the western edge of the City also meant it was on the eastern edge (and change) of Westminster. As far away as you could get from the court (and the London of Wycherley's world) and still be in the same "urban space".

Not only does that geographical position underline the sense of alienation – let alone biblical rage – that Praisegod Barbon and his ilk must have felt, it will have fed it.

The Fetter Lane-Fleet Street "nexus" is one of those extraordinary London "nodes" that seems to give rise to "meaning." You can sense that it's there, almost like a kernel in a nut. It gives rise to "meaning" because of its "associations". It's there on the western edge of London. It was an execution site. It was from there that Gulliver set out on his travels. Indeed, in a sense it's "from there" that English Literature's star-crossed 20th century couple, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, set out on their "travels", let alone their travails.

We walked across London to Fetter Lane
And your hotel. Opposite the entrance
On a bombsite becoming a building site
We clutched each other giddily
For safety and went in a barrel together
Over some Niagara. Falling
In the roar of soul your scar told me -
Like its secret name or its password -
How you had tried to kill yourself. And I heard
Without ceasing for a moment to kiss you
As if a sober star had whispered it
Above the revolving, rumbling city: stay clear.

A poltroon of a star. I cannot remember
How I smuggled myself, wrapped in you,
Into the hotel. There we were
You were slim and lithe and smooth as a fish.
You were a new world. My new world.
So this is America. I marvelled.
Beautiful, beautiful America!

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