W.B. Yeats in London

Wandering along Woburn Walk one might think we have landed in a Regency novel. Perhaps you’re on your way to a haberdasher for pretty ribbons for your bonnet? Built 200 years ago, this alley still looks gorgeous and romantic.

W B Yeats lived here from 1896 – 1917.

Although, when the Irish poet W.B Yeats moved in to No. 5 in 1896, the area was poor and run down. Yeats was also poor but impassioned and eccentric. The locals called him ‘the toff’ as he was the only person who received letters. 

W B Yeats had a complicated love life.

He moved Olivia Shakespear in with him. She was a young novelist to whom he lost his virginity. She loved him but had to listen to Yeats bemoaning his unrequited love for Irish nationalist Maud Gonne. The relationship quickly foundered. 

Olivia Shakespear took Yeats’ virginity

Yeats was a member of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret occult group. He spent many evenings embroiled in magical ritual at its Kensington temple.

On Mondays, he hosted salon evenings. Writers including Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and John Masefield attended. The Irish dramatist Lady Augusta Gregory was a regular. She was a mentor and mother-figure to Yeats. Upon leaving, she often left some money under the teapot.

Love life? It’s complicated.

In 1916, Yeats by now aged 51, proposed again to his great love Maud Gonne. She turned him down. He had already developed a passion for her 21-year-old daughter, Iseult. She also said no to his offer of marriage. A few weeks later, he proposed to his 25-year-old fellow occultist Georgie Hyde-Lees. Third time lucky.

Once married, Yeats insisted she was to be called ‘George’. He confessed to her his enduring love for Iseult. George developed the skill of ‘automatic writing’. This was how she was able to communicate with spirits of the dead. In this way, she kept Yeats spellbound. She harnessed him throughout several of his short-lived love affairs until his death in 1939.

After Yeats left the Woburn Walk lodgings in 1917, the new resident was, of all people, Maud Gonne.

Queen Elizabeth’s Oak in Greenwich Park

Queen Elizabeth’s Oak, Greenwich Park

This is all that’s left of Queen Elizabeth’s Oak that grew here, in Greenwich Park, 900 years ago. 

King Henry VIII danced around it with Anne Boleyn. Later, after Queen Anne’s beheaded corpse lay buried in the chapel of the Tower of London, their daughter used to sit by this tree with a drink.

When the tree grew big with a 6 foot wide cavity inside, it was used as a prison for those who broke the rules of the Park.

This ancient oak perished over 100 years ago; hollow corpse propped up by  ivy. Since 1991 it has lain here, splendid in its deathly pose.

Siemens Brothers in London

Wilhelm Siemens left Germany for London in 1843. Aged 19, he had trained as a mechanical engineer. He had little money but a head full of half-formulated inventions. 

His brothers had got off to a good start. Werner Siemens had set up the first company in Germany to make electrical telegraphs.  Carl Siemens went off to build a telegraph network in Russia.

William Siemens

Wilhelm opened a branch of brother Werner’s company, Siemens & Halske in England. He prospered. By the age of 40, there was no going back. He fell in love with a Scotswoman called Anne Gordon. He married her and became a naturalised Englishman known as William.

In 1863, Wilhelm opened the Siemens Telegraph works in Woolwich, south-east London.  Here they made cables and developed gas engines. Their factory and the number of workers it employed grew and grew. 

They later built a special cable-laying ship called CS Faraday. They named it to honour Michael Faraday, William’s mentor. They laid telegraph lines from Prussia to Tehran. In 1881, they built a new electric generator. This was to power the world’s first electric street lighting. They also demonstrated the first electric indoor lighting in London’s Savoy Theatre.

C.S Faraday – great cable laying ship.

William Siemens died in 1883, just after Queen Victoria honoured him with a knighthood.

The Siemens company continued to flourish. They laid the first telephone cable across the English Channel in 1891 so London and Paris could talk to each other. They built the telephone system for the General Post Office. They set up the cable for the outside radio broadcast of 1937 Coronation of King George VI. 

the war caused problems for german company siemens in london

The onset of war caused problems. The company was still in German ownership, so their power was taken away and held in trust throughout World War One.

This happened again in World War Two. Siemens Brothers, which employed 9000 workers in the Woolwich factories, was put in trust.  They supplied cables and equipment to develop radar. Several factory buildings in were bombed.

Although Associated Electrical Industries bought the British company of Siemens Brothers and Co. Ltd in 1955, Siemens still operates today as a multinational conglomerate.

The Woolwich business closed in 1968. Many of the factories and warehouses still exist. The buildings have been let out for various industrial purposes. But now plans are afoot to redevelop the whole site. There will be apartment blocks, studios and workshops for start-up companies. 

Spooky Tulips (nothing is what it seems)

Spooky tulips image
Can you feel a chill in the air?

When Rev R.W. Hardy from Canada turned up at the Queen’s House in Greenwich he was not looking for ghosts. He was here for the Tulip Stairs – the first supported spiral staircase in the country. It was 1966 and he’d read in his guidebook that Inigo Jones had built this architectural marvel in 1635.

We must take a photograph to show the folks back home, he said to his wife. We’ll wait until no-one’s around. And did you know that they named it wrongly? Those wrought iron flowers in the railings are actually fleur-de-lys.  The Rev liked to know something that others didn’t.

Back in Canada, he eagerly collected the developed photos, only to reel back in shock. The photo had two weird ghostly figures that he didn’t see at the time.

Queen's House Greenwich
Queen’s House, Greenwich

He sent a copy of the photo by airmail to the Queen’s House. Astonished, they arranged for investigators from the Ghost Club to hunt down any roaming spirits. Alas, they found none, and the spooky photo has been lost.

But some visitors to the house report a definite chill in the air when they climb those Tulip Stairs.

On this day a ship was born…

MV Royal Iris – Sad Old Lady of the River Thames. Happy 70th Birthday, anyway!

Many people, especially men, get very emotional about their ships. They refer to them as women, and perform a birthing ceremony to mark their arrival in this world.

When the MV Royal Iris was launched in Dumbarton, Scotland on 8 December 1950 they knew she was special. The first diesel-electric ferry boat they’d made. 

They would have wet their baby’s head. I doubt if these frugal Scots smashed a bottle of champers on the bow. But surely they sacrificed a bottle of Ballantine’s Finest Scotch whiskey from the local distillery? Or at least a wee bottle of Irn-Bru?

The Royal Iris had two jobs

MV Royal Iris on the River Mersey with the Liver Building in the background.

The Royal Iris soon made its way to Liverpool. Her job was to ferry over 2000 passengers at a time across the River Mersey. She also moonlighted as a cruise ship. Her passengers could play snooker, eat fish and chips and drink in the bar.

The drinking bit was very popular. In those days, you couldn’t buy an alcoholic drink in the middle of the afternoon or after 11pm. But the bar on the Royal Iris stayed open. One day, some police officers joined the beer-swilling passengers. Chief Inspector Jones marched to the Captain’s cabin. He accused him of allowing illegal drinking on board. In fact, the licensee was the Chief Steward. The Captain wasn’t taking any nonsense; he was the master of his own ship. He arrested the police inspector in his cabin until arriving on shore. 

MV Royal Iris in early splendour.

A court case ensued. The Mersey Ferries were now permitted to serve alcohol while the boat was afloat.

There was live music to entertain the cruise passengers. Between 1961 and 1962 the Beatles played four times. In 1965, Mersey beat  group, Gerry & The Pacemakers made a film called Ferry Cross the Mersey. Although this wasn’t actually filmed on the Royal Iris. The title song was a hit in the UK and US. Watch the film trailer here.

In 1971, the Royal Iris had a style makeover. Tarted up in her new blue and white livery, she offered her passengers steak instead of fish with their chips. In 1977, still looking classy, she  hosted Queen Elizabeth during her Silver Jubilee.

In 1985 they sent her on a grand tour around the south coast of England to promote Merseyside business. Arriving in London, she motored under Tower Bridge and docked next to HMS Belfast. All decked out in her red, blue and white livery, shining and proud.

Things started to go wrong

By 1991, things started to wrong. There were plans to make use of this now rather doddery old dear. A floating nightclub was a popular idea. They shunted her from river to river. She said her last goodbye to the River Mersey in August 1993 and showed her displeasure by smashing into the dock wall. 

In 2002 she arrived on the River Thames, next to the Thames Barrier. She’s been abandoned and lies here, rotting and sinking.

A sad old lady indeed.

Shocking Mr. Gill

Eric Gill 1882-1940

Eric Gill, who died 80 years ago today, was a highly successful English artist. Famous for carving stone sculptures and designing typefaces. 

He was a socialist, a pacifist, a devout Roman Catholic and a prolific artist.

In 1914 he carved the Stations of the Cross for Westminster Cathedral. These are depictions of the 14 stops that Jesus made on the way to his crucifixion. Westminster Cathedral is the main Roman Catholic Church in England. 

On the wall of the building 55 Broadway, near St. James’s Park Station. Until recently this was the head office of London Transport. Carved in 1929 it depicts the North Wind.

North Wind on 55 Broadway.

In 1932 he  produced a number of carvings for Broadcasting House, the headquarters of the BBC, close to Oxford Circus Station.  Above the entrance a sculpture depicts the sorcerer Prospero and the spirit Ariel from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Prospero holds on to the free spirit Ariel.

In 1928 Gill designed this typeface, known as Gill Sans which is still used today.

After Eric Gill’s death, his diaries revealed some shocking information about his private life. He confessed that he had sex with his sisters, his two teenage daughters and his dog. 

Looking at these images, we see that in spite of all this he carved like an angel.

Would you let your daughter – or your servants – read this book?

pic of LCL book cover
Could this book corrupt the nation?

My dad used to have a trunk in the shed where he hid his collection of risqué books. Naturally, aged 12, my best friend and I spent hours in that shed, seeking out ‘the dirty bits’ of each book to read aloud to each other.

The orange and white cover of Lady Chatterley’s Lover wasn’t promising but the title seduced us. It told the story of an affair between Lady Chatterley and her gamekeeper. Romantic and passionate it was brimming with dirty bits. The f-word arose 30 times; the c-word cropped up 14 times and a glorious selection of other filthy words and sexual suggestions danced before our eyes.

D H Lawrence
D.H Lawrence (1885-1930)

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was written by D. H. Lawrence in 1928. Immediately declared obscene, it was published abroad, in small private editions, and often with the lewdest sections cut out.

In 1935, London publisher Allen Lane had a revolutionary idea. He wanted to sell serious and affordable literature to the working class. He founded Penguin Books, publishing high quality paperbacks for sixpence each.

After the War, people started to challenge the British Establishment. We’d seen Elvis gyrating; our playwrights had become ‘Angry Young Men’ and the seeds of later rebellion were sown. 

In 1960 Penguin Books published the full version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover as a paperback costing 3/6d. 

A public prosecution ensued accusing Penguin of publishing obscenity. The trial was held at the Central Criminal Court known as the Old Bailey.

pic of Old Bailey
The Old Bailey London’s Central Criminal Court

This was not a clear cut case. The Obscene Publications Bill of 1959 had included a let-out clause for certain publications with serious ‘literary merit’ that justified their ‘obscene’ content. Penguin Books had to prove that this was the case here.

The main prosecutor, Mervyn Griffith-Jones accepted that D.H. Lawrence who had died 30 years previously, was a writer of merit. But he was disturbed by the flagrant adultery described. What made it beyond redemption was the affair between an upper class lady and a common gamekeeper. 

He asked the court: “Would you approve of your young sons, young daughters—because girls can read as well as boys—reading this book? Is it a book you would have lying around your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”

The British public read this quote and fell about laughing. Your servants

The defence brought out a string of witnesses that included academics, women, and a bishop who argued coherently that the book should be published.

On 2 November 1960, the Judge ruled that Penguin books were not guilty.

In Britain we said: Goodbye old order. Hello Permissive Society.

By the end of the day, 200,000 copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover were sold  to men, women, girls, boys, servants – and my dad. 

How not to miss Buckingham Palace

Pic of Buckingham Palace
Her Majesty’s weekday home

Buck House (as Londoners sometimes call it) features on almost every tourist’s hit list. 

Take a snapshot

If you simply want to stand outside it and have your image captured and sent globally to all your Facebook or Instagram followers, please feel free to do so. 

If you want your photo to suggest that you were standing alone at the gates, as if about to enter with a special queenly invitation, avoid going there between the hours of 10-12 during the Guard Change. You won’t get anywhere near the gates. This usually takes place on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday and more frequently in the summer. 

You actually want to go inside?

You don’t have an invitation but still want to go inside the Palace? You’ll have to wait until ‘Her Maj’ is away.

From late July until the end of September, she spends the hunting season in her cold and draughty Balmoral Castle in Scotland. While she’s battling with rain, midges and duty visits from Prime Ministers she allows the hoi polloi to trail through her 19 State Rooms. 

10 things to see and know about Buckingham Palace.

1 Still counting…

It’s bigger than it looks with 775 rooms in total. The Queen lives in a dozen private rooms on the first (upper) floor overlooking The Green Park.

2 We are not amused…

Queen Victoria was the first monarch to move in, aged 18, in 1837. You can see her statue on the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace. Not the breast feeding young mother that faces the palace, but the grumpy looking matron around the back.

Keep smiling.

See the balcony in the middle where, on special days,  the royal A-list line up to wave and occasionally kiss.

3 Regal gestures.

A flag always flies above Buckingham Palace. If you recognise our national flag, you’ll know that the Queen is away. If it’s the flag full of lions and a harp merged with a winged, topless girl, you’ll know that the Queen is at home. 

5 Eerie nights.

Buckingham Palace is haunted

On Christmas Day, a chain-rattling brown-hooded monk wanders, moaning, at night. He was imprisoned and died in a punishment cell that once existed many years before this Palace was built.

Palace staff also talk about strange auras in one particular office where a private secretary to King Edward VII allegedly shot himself after a scandalous divorce.

6 We’re still standing.

The Palace was bombed nine times in World War 2. On one occasion, the Queen (later to become the Queen Mother) stated, while inspecting the bomb damage: “I’m glad we have been bombed. Now I can look the East End in the face.” 

London’s East End was a poor, run-down area where the docks were situated and where people spoke with Cockney accents. (Think Eliza Doolittle.) This location (not the accents) made it a perfect target for the German bombers. The newly made homeless sheltered in deplorable conditions in London’s underground stations.

The Queen Mother’s sentiments ensured her East Enders’ devotion for the rest of her life. (Her predilection for a glass of gin and a flutter on the horses didn’t harm her popularity either.)

7 Sorry, you’re not on the list.

Some people simply can’t wait for an invitation to the Palace. 

In 1982 a man called Michael Fagan managed to scale the palace garden walls, break into the palace and enter the Queen’s bedroom. He woke her up, sat on her bed and asked her for a cigarette. Her footman had taken her little corgi dogs for a walk in the garden, and she was left unprotected.

Eventually, the police were called and the intruder was taken away. Is he still languishing in jail today? Not a bit of it.  He was released without charge. In those days it was not a criminal offence to break into the Queen’s bedroom. I can assure you it is now.

In 2004 Batman climbed on to a ledge next to the palace balcony and refused to come down for five hours. He was campaigning for greater rights for fathers.

8 One does not feel at home here.

The Palace may be Her Majesty’s official residence but she doesn’t particularly like it. Treating it as her office, she generally stays here on weekdays only. Most Fridays afternoons she heads home to the much older and grander Windsor Castle.

9 We all stayed for tea.

Each year, over 20,000 people do get invited to have tea at Buckingham Palace in the garden. The Queen hosts three garden parties during the summer for people usually in public service whom she wishes to reward. 

At each event, these 8000 people devour 27,000 cups of tea, 20,000 sandwiches, and 20,000 slices of cake between. 

The men wear smart suits and the women wear hats and fascinators and uncomfortable shoes. They can often be seen leaving the Palace carrying their stilettos in their hands.

10 How to get there.

The prettiest route to the Palace is from Green Park tube station, 10 minutes walk across The Green Park. Other nearby tube stops are Victoria and St. James’s Park.