Covid nights: a storm over haunted Camberwell

THE plan had been to walk home from Denmark Hill, a brisk three-mile trot down through Camberwell and Walworth and onwards north towards the Thames.

The skies had cleared to offer some late autumn sun and a gentle breeze sent the dead leaves scuttering in the gutters.

As an invisible raven squawked from the bushes, or was it a wayward gull separated from its scavenging flock along the river, I judged there would still be time to make it home by nightfall.

I had dropped my wife at King’s College Hospital where she was signed up as a Covid vaccine volunteer and where she now faced the reality of having blood extracted and an experimental dose injected.

To calm her understandable nerves, she joked of bloodletting and Dracula and vampires. Her mood became more solemn though as we emerged from the station, opposite the ominous tower of the Salvation Army college.

She found the unfamiliar neighbourhood unsettling, with something indefinably sinister about the jumble of King’s buildings, across from the Edwardian facade of the Maudsley psychiatric hospital and below the crest of the hill.

The Maudsley is the country’s leading institution of its kind but has had its share of controversy over a century of treating the mentally disturbed. Its first superintendent, a former asylum doctor, embraced eugenics and raised concerns by experimenting with hormones extracted from animal organs.

It still hosts the occasional debate on the psychiatry war of the 1960s. That conflict pitted the likes of R.D Laing, who believed we should all be allowed to go mad to reveal our true selves, against those who promoted medicines and electric shocks, once routinely administered at the Maudsley.

As I left alone through the King’s compound, the skies had darkened, the breeze had intensified to piercing gusts. Abandoning the idea of a walk, I turned up the hill and towards the elaborate Victorian pavilion of the local station.

In the 1920s, its waiting room was the unofficial home of the so-called Mystical Church of the Comforter, a cult led by Elizabeth Mary Ann Eagle Skinner, alias The Messenger (today’s picture), who fitted it out like an ancient Egyptian temple.

“Everything is done by symbols, and the badge worn by the members is a dove, standing in a circle with a seven-leafed branch in its beak,” a contemporary wrote.

Maybe my wife was right about the weird psychogeography of this particular corner of Camberwell.

It’s an area with more than its fair share of ghosts, even for haunted London.

I went to school at the bottom of the hill, next to the churchyard at St Giles. Over the years, the spectre of a former priest is said to have startled those who risked cutting through the narrow ill-lit passage to the old vicarage.

Believers in such things speculate it is the grieving phantom of an Edwardian vicar whose daughter, Rose Kelly, married the satanist Aleister Crowley. Her marriage to The Great Beast drove her to insanity and she was committed to an asylum.

As I reached the station, a dark cloud had descended bringing the first spatter of a coming storm. On the platform it turned into a torrent that forced the few waiting passengers to shelter in the stairwell.

We scampered aboard as the first of the thunder burst. The woman behind me was on her phone. “I can’t talk now, Rache. There’s thunder and lightning. I’m really scared!”

If you’re reading this at twilight or alone towards the midnight hour, then sleep tight, pull up the covers, and I wish you a Happy Halloween.

Covid Britain: Discover the real north-south divide

WE were into week two of headlines about the north-south divide before I suddenly realised they weren’t talking about London.

It turns out the papers were referring to the mounting rancour between the south of England, lounging at home in Ottomanesque opulence throughout the Covid crisis, and the north, where the salt of the earth are being forced to scour the slag heaps for scraps to feed their whippets.

My confusion arose because, within the M25, “north-south divide” automatically evokes the no less stark and often just as rancorous cleft between the two halves of modern London.

In a reversal of the national poles, it is the north that sees itself as the epitome of culture, wealth and sophistication, while south of the Thames is viewed as proletarian, dangerous and – worst insult of all – boring.

How to account for this visceral split in a city divided by a river but also linked by no less than 35 bridges, even if half of them are currently said to be falling down? (Today’s picture is of Checkpoint Charlie at Tower Bridge, looking north).

As a cradle-to-dotage south Londoner, I must declare an interest at the outset. But I will nevertheless try to remain objective in my observations about the manifold imperfections of the north.

The dichotomy is deep and long-standing and goes beyond the scam of estate agents intent on bumping up house prices north of the Thames and luring punters south with the promise of more bang for their buck.

Just Google “north south London divide” and up pop 80 million examples of transpontine misunderstanding and invective.

Those north-bankers who occasionally deign to cross the Thames – most complain it makes their noses bleed – have a tendency to damn with faint praise, like the would-be buyer who confided in an online testimonial that she “never considered south London until I discovered East Dulwich.”

East Dulwich, as any south Londoner will tell you, has always been there and didn’t need some woman from godforsaken Brent or wherever to summon it into existence.

Hand on heart, I can attest that south London is intrinsically friendlier and more welcoming than that other London across the river. Even the most urban bits of it have more grass.

So whence the overweening sense of superiority and entitlement so evident in the north? Most south Londoners would agree with their provincial brethren about the attitudes of London’s insufferable and cosseted elites, while reminding them that such people tend to live in north London’s Hampstead and Islington, not in south London’s Peckham!

Perhaps they believe that living on the same bank as the relatively neutral territory of the City and West End makes them somehow more authentically London.

While we in the south may choose to cross the river for work or a night out, they seem to make it almost a point of pride never to head in the opposite direction.

I’ve known grown men baulk at the idea of a pub meet-up south of the river on the grounds “we’ve heard it isn’t safe”. Even these days, taxi drivers will turn down a fare to the Elephant and Castle on the unlikely grounds they’ve “never ‘eard of it”.

The reality is that the social and economic differences between north and south have probably never been narrower. Yet the old mutual prejudices persist, usually to the detriment of south London.

As a typical estate agent blurb would have it: “With Central London extending further geographically in the north than in the south, those looking for a truly urban environment – particularly young professionals angling for a city lifestyle – will no doubt opt to live in North London, with the more suburban south attracting families and established professionals looking for more tranquil surroundings.”

Where are they thinking of? Truly urban Wood Green? Tranqil, suburban Brixton?

I’ve set myself off now, so I’d better close before I end up alienating my north London friends.

In response to those who claim south London doesn’t really exist, I would just conclude with the words of one south Londoner: “London does indeed end at the river. Everything north of it is The North.”

Boozers and bruisers: Fancy a pint down the Bucket of Blood?

APOLOGIES for the paucity of pubs.

A rough review of my Covid-era ramblings indicates they have dwelt longer on London’s graveyards than on its boozers.

For, even after the pub closure order was eased in July, the latter had lost much of their charm.

I don’t know about you but I never quite adapted to the new order – card payments and table service. What other continental aberrations await us? Tipping the bar staff?

In better times, we Londoners all have our favourites. Mine would include the Lamb and Flag, wedged up an alleyway in Covent Garden. Blink and you’d miss it. I contemplated an early pint there this morning. Tough luck. It was shut.

The listed building is these days officially “historic”, meriting TripAdviser ratings and snaps on Instagram.

It wasn’t always like that. The surrounding Garden used to be what a modern Londoner would regard as “well rough”. It was where the 18th century graphic satirist William Hogarth located his Gin Lane.

The previous century wasn’t much better. A plaque over the Lamb commemorates the day in 1679 on which the poet John Dryden was roughed up by a bunch of heavies hired by his tearway poetic rival John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester. Wilmot was upset about a Dryden poem that took the piss out of one of Charles II’s mistresses.

By the 19th century, the pub’s association with ultra-violence was formalised with the addition of a bare-knuckle prize-fighting ring. That earned it its contemporary nickname: The Bucket of Blood.

London has a long-standing boxing-boozer tradition. The Ring, a converted chapel in Blackfriars Road, was the home of British boxing from 1910 until the Luftwaffe bombed it. The pub of the same name is all that survives.

Not far away in the Old Kent Road, the gym over the Thomas a Becket pub trained generations of boxers, including London’s heavyweight champion ‘Enry Cooper – the man who once floored Muhammad Ali.

The connection between pubs and pugilism wasn’t always so formal.

I grew up dead opposite the Five Bells at New Cross Gate, down the road from the Becket and run for a time by Joe Lucy, a retired British lightweight champion. Joe trained at the Becket where he claimed to have several times encountered three ghostly nuns. Go easy on the sauce, Joe!

Anyway, the point of the story is that, during Joe’s time at the Bells, the street outside was a regular venue for Saturday night brawls between the patrons. Deptford police could set their watches by it. Maybe the customers were trying to emulate the landlord. Or maybe they were just pissed.

Lucy was succeeded by Stan Blake, an imposing figure who was also handy with his fists. He’d been an amateur boxing champion in the army. He was the archetype of a cockney mine host, from his military mustache to his yellow waistcoat to his gold-edged cigar holder. Under his tutelage, the brawlers calmed down and the Bells became a venue for weekend family sing-songs.

But where were we? Ah, yes, the Lamb and Flag.

It’s an intimate if anonymous West End pub. You don’t go there expecting to bump into your mates. But the staff are friendly and there’s a shelf outside where you can park your pint if you want to have a fag.

Dryden’s alley is as dark and narrow as it was in 1679 but you’re less likely to be cornered there by agents of a belligerent aristocracy than you would have been in his day.

The Lamb has venerable literary connections. Not just Dryden himself but also Charles Dickens, who was a regular. Richard Sheridan the playwright and the poet Samuel Butler were locals.

I saw Graham Greene in there one day, propping up the bar and trying not to look like a man waiting for a tryst with one of his spook contacts. In the spirit of the place, I should have said: “Oy! Greene. Who do you think you’re looking at? Wanna take this outside?”

But naturally, dear reader, I didn’t.