It’s a perk of the job – skipping around London between meeting guests and dashing back to onefinestay’s HQ in Clerkenwell. We know central London in that special sort of way, street by street, home by home. And all these places have rich, inscrutable histories – where vanished lives have played out upon the pavement. Now London remembers its celebrated inhabitants with blue plaques, like iceberg tips, marking the residences where they lived. In this series of blog posts on Literary Londoners I’m going to dive into some of the works they left behind, and show how the streets can come alive with significant stories of things past.
Soho is close to our heart at the unhotel – one of our very first London homes sits above Brewer Street, riskily close to where several infamous team nights out have finally wound up in the small hours. But long before Soho became a fashionable place in which to indulge the pleasures of the flesh, it was a squalid, sordid place in which to indulge the pleasures of the flesh.
That was how Thomas De Quincey found Soho when he arrived, himself destitute and emaciated, in 1802. Inspired with the spirit of the age, (and an intoxicating dose of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads), the young De Quincey had absconded from Manchester Grammar School aged 16 and set out tramping through Wales. On these wanderings he managed to lose touch with his family and forfeited his guinea-a-week lifeline. When he arrived at the capital, having failed to borrow more money, and wishing to avoid his aristocratic family at all costs, he was dangerously near starvation. But De Quincey struck lucky, and met a generous moneylender who offered him a roof to sleep under on Greek Street in Soho. He described the threadbare place as ‘a large one; it stands in a conspicuous situation and in a well-known part of London. Many of my readers will have passed it, I doubt not, within a few hours of reading this.’ With little to occupy him besides his ailments, by day De Quincey became ‘a walker of the streets’ and ‘naturally fell in more frequently with those female peripatetics who are technically called street-walkers.’ A 15 year-old prostitute named Ann became his main companion (though not, he was at pains to explain, his concubine), and for weeks he ‘walked at nights with this poor friendless girl up and down Oxford Street, or [had] rested with her on steps and under the shelter of porticoes.’
De Quincey’s accounts of these well-known places are from his most famous work, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, published in two parts in the London Magazine of September and October 1821. His accounts of the city are tinged by the opiate lenses through which much of his adult life was experienced, coupling awe and admiration with trepidation, and often horror:
No man ever was left to himself for the first time in the streets, as yet unknown, of London, but he must have been saddened and mortified, perhaps terrified, by the sense of desertion and utter loneliness which belong to his situation… the great length of the streets in many quarters of London; the continual opening of transient glimpses into other vistas equally far stretching, going off at right angles to the one which you are traversing; and the murky atmosphere which, settling upon the remoter end of every long avenue, wraps its termination in gloom and uncertainty, -all these are circumstances aiding that sense of vastness and illimitable proportions which forever brood over the aspect of London in its interior.
De Quincey returned to London, that ‘colossal emporium of men, wealth, arts, and intellectual power’, after enrolling and abandoning study at Worcester College, Oxford. It was then that he became more acquainted with opium, exploring the city and his imagination under the influence of the drug, which was ‘available at all good druggists’. His writings describe narcotic ventures to markets and theatres and operas in central London, places that can still be travelled today. On Saturday nights De Quincey’s favourite pastime took him on vast voyages through the city streets:
Some of these rambles led me to great distances, for an opium-eater is too happy to observe the motion of time; and sometimes in my attempts to steer homewards, upon nautical principles, by fixing my eye on the pole-star, and seeking ambitiously for a north-west passage, instead of circumnavigating all the capes and head-lands I had doubled in my outward voyage, I came suddenly upon such knotty problems of alleys, such enigmatical entries, and such sphynx’s riddles of streets without thoroughfares, as must, I conceive, baffle the audacity of porters and confound the intellects of hackney-coachmen. I could almost have believed at times that I must be the first discoverer of some of these terræ incognitæ, and doubted whether they had yet been laid down in the modern charts of London
De Quincey’s vivid, dizzying portrayals of the city-by-night make fascinating reading, as well as his accounts of friendships with Wordsworth and Coleridge, the latter being probably the most famous victim of opium of the Romantic era. So why not, (one starry Saturday night), turn south off Oxford Street – cross Soho Square, down Greek Street, and see where the night takes you. Opium, of course, is optional.Google+