London, with its eternal agitations, the ceaseless ebb and flow of its “mighty heart” – De Quincey (1823).
After one of the most hectic days of the year so far, I had some hours to kill in London before meeting a friend for an exhibition at the Royal Academy. The day had been frantic, with large amounts of strangely powerful coffees being downed around New Cross and then West Kensington, so the shakes had started to come on quickly. I was reading a compendium at the time of Thomas De Quincey’s opium writing and, with around two hours to spare, I decided to wander the streets where his supposed lowest moments occurred whilst in the ravages of that particular drug. After all, as Rebecca Solnit has suggested, it was in this dark period where he produced his most astute writing, “De Quincey’s best writing about walking was about prowling the streets of London as a destitute youth, a very different kind of walking – and writing.” (2001). Unlike other writers whose work I’ve walked so far this year, De Quincey is perhaps less detailed and accurate about his specific wanderings; the odd street name and place appearing amongst the deluge of melancholy, addiction and tragedy. Yet his writing and relationship with London was of a psychogeographical kind even when at his lowest: “Even with my limited opportunities for observing what went on, I saw many scenes of London intrigues, and complex chicanery, “cycle and epicycle, orb in orb,” at which I sometimes smile to this day and ah which I smiled then, in spite of my misery.” (1821). Soho was the chief place of interest and I quickly but jitterily worked out a few check points and jumped onto the tube at rush hour. Whatever the mixture of the substances was doing to my vision (alcohol and caffeine), I was not quite sure, but the rush-hour service to Covent Garden was the first in a number of disorientating experiences I would not recommend to be taken when in a questionable state of lucidity.
Of course, transport played a vital part in De Quincey’s writing, the third of his opium essays, The English Mail-Coach (1849), recalling a sadly final display of a still-quiet longing for the substance. As he writes of the feeling of travelling on such vehicles:
…they first revealed the glory of motion: suggesting, at the same time, an under-sense, not unpleasurable, of possible though indefinite danger; secondly, through grand effects for the eye between lamp-light and the darkness upon solitary roads… (1849)
The crush of people ebbed and flowed through the various lines, reaching a high point as it came to the stop that I needed. Fighting through armpits and badly positioned suitcases, the escape was made though not before succumbing to that feeling of imprisonment handily dealt out by the Covent Garden tube station being lift dominated rather than escalator-based. I wanted to start the walk at an official place of De Quincey heritage, at least to officiate that this wasn’t some random, intoxicated meander. The pace was to be fast as in keeping with De Quincey’s own walking, of which he writes that “Thence I went, by the very shortest road (i.e., through Moor Street, Soho – for I am learned in many quarters of London), towards a point which necessarily led me through Tottenham Court Road: I stopped nowhere, and walked fast…” (1823). Perhaps a quieter, sadder walk would have been more fitting but, in any case, I made my way along Long Acre, taking a right down the endless Bow Street and heading left towards Tavistock Street. Bow Street is fantastic to look up at, a temporal shift of roughly 150 to 300 years almost occurring if you angle your vision to the right degree. It is also ill-advised, at least if not in an entirely perceptible state; London cabbies may be used to dawdling pedestrians but their patience has yet to reach the same level of consistency.
At number 36 Tavistock Street, according to the heritage website, De Quincey lived whilst writing the first of his opium essays, Confessions Of An English Opium Eater (1821). The blue plaque is above the Murano Restaurant and the Double Shot coffee shop which seems an ironically apt name considering what De Quincey was writing about in the rooms above, of the place’s harshness and cruelness: “But the stream of London charity flows in a channel which, though deep and mighty, is yet noiseless and underground; not obvious or readily accessible to poor houseless wanderers…” (1821). It’s difficult to get a grip on the location through the writer’s eyes compared to how it stands today, not least because the area is far from the working class character that it undoubtedly was when Covent Garden was a bustling market place. But the pubs still carry an older air upon their frontages; even Double Shot has the hint of the traditional function of the coffee shop, that of being a place of talk and writing. The same perhaps goes without saying for the coffee shop at other end of the road, the Charles Dickens Coffee House, situated where the magazine, All The Year Round, was published in the 1860s. Whether any prospective modern day De Quincey or Dickens could afford to spend hours working and writing in these establishments is debatable, but at least the essence is still there; the history of the places potentially forcing the occupants into a compulsion of hopeful, creative repetition.
Knowing full well what I’d find in the intervening streets between here and my next stop in the heart of Soho, I wandered quickly through Russell Street to the remains of what was once the market. De Quincey may have come here on meanders looking for food but there’s little doubt this type of Wordsworth-obsessed, skint vagabond would not have lasted long among the Apple and Bobbie Brown shops of today. Even then, walking in such a way meant largely socialising with prostitutes as city walking was still deemed to be for only those who really had to. He writes that “Being myself at that time of necessity a peripatetic, or a walker of the streets, I naturally fell in more frequently with those female peripatetics who are technically called Street-walkers…” (1821).
Perhaps it is my own naivety but there’s such a clash between the glass-fronted hyper capitalism of the shops here and the actual architecture in which they sit within. Bustling marketplaces are far from the mind’s eye when walking its cobbles, careful to avoid accidently wandering into one of these places and being shocked into paralysis by the price of some gadget or sweat-shop made item. The change from this square to Soho happens quite quickly and it’s relatively easy to spot; the streets become that bit louder and grubbier. As Ian Nairn writes of Soho:
Inside this square, you can get the best and worst of almost anything. It is the free port that every city must have… Whatever you want of it will be there. If you want the wickedest place in Britain, you can find it; if you want a cosmopolitan village in the city, with village shops and pubs, it is there also. (1966)
It’s a place that says “Go on, piss off to the M&M’s shop if you must, we’ll be in the Coach and Horses”. I found myself on Litchfield Street whose restaurant, The Ivy, has stunning windows. In fact, the whole street feels like a time-warp, enhanced by the Welsh Presbyterian Church that lies at its end on Charing Cross Road, designed by James Cubitt. Eventually Charing Cross Road lead to my favourite of Soho haunts behind the Palace Theatre on Shaftsbury. For here lies Greek Street, the place where De Quincey lived in the direst of his deprivations and where Ruth from Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming is eventually sent out to work; “Why don’t I take her up to Greek Street with me?” (1965). Solnit writes of De Quincey’s time here, suggesting that “He fell into a spectral existence shared with a few other children, and he wandered the streets restlessly. Streets were already a place for those who had no place, a site to measure sorrow and loneliness in the length of walks.” (2001). Spectral suggests a calmness to what was probably quite traumatic. De Quincey, writing of his time at this point, hints at that pain of such living: “Soon after this, I contrived, by means which I must omit for want of room, to transfer myself to London. And now began the latter and fiercer stage of my long-sufferings; without using a disproportionate expression I might say, of my agony.” (1821).
Greek Street is an odd place at the moment. Though it has Maison Bertaux’s patisserie, perhaps the most wonderful place to write and work in on the whole planet, on this particular night the crowds had gathered for something else. As seen in the picture, the opining for the milk of the poppy had been substituted for a more sugary milk delicacy, supplied by the pop-up Cream Egg store adjacent to Bertaux’s. There is clearly a new opium for the centre. As De Quincey suggests: “But I took it: – and in an hour, oh! Heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of the inner spirit! what an apocalypse of the world within me!” (1821). The caffeine was beginning to wear off now and it was apt to be more somber, for Greek Street is at the heart of De Quincey’s tragedy; the place that he wrote about as a cathartic release whilst living at Tavistock. He lived at the further end, nearer Soho Square, my guesstimate being on the land now dominated by the Barclays Bank building.
Of course, the street is still as vibrant as ever; bars and pubs wrestling away, huddles of fashion students strutting out of the Condé Nast Academy building, black doors still hiding lucrative jazz nights at a hefty price. Even the St. James’ and Soho Club still has its frontage here, whose members included Evelyn Waugh. It is now the Soho Revue, a gallery and publishing space. De Quincey may have meandered past these luxurious places when in the depths of his opium melancholy, pale eyes glinting in at the warmth on a winter’s night as the lamplighters started their business of bringing vision to the foggy streets. As he recounts of revisiting the house he squatted in, “Marvellous contrast in my eyes to the darkness – cold – silence – and desolation of that same house eighteen years ago, when its nightly occupants were one famishing scholar, and a neglected child.” (1821).
One full account of detailed place in his writing occurs at the end of this road and is perhaps his saddest recorded on paper. Soho Square excites me as I know it’s where the rooms are for the majority of the film screenings for the press. De Quincey, on the other hand, recounts being at death’s door here, in need of medicine and food, and collapsed in a doorway in the square. His friend Ann, a known prostitute of equal tragedy, is said to have spent her last few pence on him to buy him the amenities needed to save his life:
One night, when we were pacing slowly along Oxford Street, and after a day when I had felt more than usually ill and faint, I requested her to turn off with me into Soho Square; thither we went; and we sate down on the steps of a house, which, to this hour, I never pass without a pang of grief, and an inner act of homage to the spirit of that unhappy girl, in memory of the noble action which she there performed. Suddenly, as we sate, I grew much worse: I had been leaning my head against her bosom; and all at once I sank from her arms and fell backwards on the steps.
Then it was, at this crisis of my fate, that my poor orphan companion – who had herself met with little but injuries in this world – stretched out a saving hand to me. Uttering a cry of terror, but without a moment’s delay, she ran off into Oxford Street, and in less time than could be imagined, returned to me with a glass of port wine and spices, that acted upon my empty stomach (which at that time would have rejected all solid food) with an instantaneous power of restoration: and for this glass the generous girl without a murmur paid out of her own humble purse at a time – be it remembered! (1821)
He spent the rest of his life haunted by memories of her in this square, of his inability to find her again to repay her. It’s a hindsight that brings an overall melancholy to what is still a vibrant space. After a quick rest bite on a bench, I headed further up to my final stop, Oxford Street. I knew it too well to want to spend more time there than necessary; its high-street endemic plasticity being created by the usual brands and cheap, souvenir shops. But De Quincey also had a strong relationship with this road and it would be wrong to avoid it merely because of my own prejudice. He writes of it reminding him of the incident with Ann:
Yet some feelings, though not deeper or more passionate, are more tender than others: and often, when I walk at this time in Oxford Street by dreamy lamp-light, and hear those airs played on a barrel-organ which years ago solaced me and my dear companion (as I must always call her) I shed tears, and muse with myself at the mysterious dispensation which so suddenly and so critically separated us forever. (1821)
I was glad that I didn’t avoid the road. On coming up through Soho Street, the people multiplied into big groups; haversacks, Diesel jeans, formation blockages of the pavement. It was far from the road that De Quincey had walked down many times with Ann, writing of the shelter it gave: “For many weeks I had 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 porticos.” (1821). I only wanted a photo of the road sign, as proof of a final moment of the De Quincey connection, but two things stuck out. The first was that Soho Street lead directly to Holland & Barrett’s; proof, if ever it was needed, that we are still a self-medicating society even if through placebos. But the other connection took a little time to figure. I took a photo of the Zara shop on the corner between Soho Street and Oxford Street. It’s an ugly building, more conceptual than actual; invitingly open with translucence but also quietly reflective of its own fallacy. The word “Zara” had clicked with something I had been told and so I wanted to research further. Before heading to the Royal Academy, I found some internet and checked up on the name. It can have a number of meanings, including “princess” in Hebrew and “light” in France as a name, but it was the Arabic meaning that twigged. For it is said to refer appropriately to an “Eastern splendour”. If ever a phrase sounded like a De Quincey nickname for opium, then it was this. An “eastern splendour” now doing business on the place where the writer was driven into his darkest of moments. As De Quincey opines, “Opium! dread agent of unimaginable pleasure and pain!” (1821).
Thanks to Drew Mulholland.