London’s Last Lamplighter

London

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The collecting of London books is an art in itself. On one side you have densely factual volumes such as Richardson’s ‘London & Its People’, photographic essays like Grant’s ‘Village London’ and Christopher Booker’s devastating ‘Goodbye London’, which catalogues the treachery of developers in the seventies.

There are wonderfully mad endeavours like Hessenberg’s attempt to photograph every doorknob in the city in ‘London In Detail’, and plenty of noble memoirs featuring grand statesmen at the turning points of history, then finally you reach the anecdotal sketches. These uncover street-level riches, (memorably examined in Dickens’ ‘Sketches by Boz’) and potter on in the company of authors like Colin MacInnes and Jeffrey Bernard, through all the decades of the twentieth century, usually listing alcohol-sodden meetings with remarkable people, and serving to place their narrators in the fabric of the times. We get bombs raining on the Cafe Royal and sex in the blackouts, philosophical tarts, venerable boozers, and Francis Bacon waxing lyrical on a barstool, half-cut and adrift between the French, the Mandrake and the Colony Club.

Old Soho, London (28)

‘The Last Lamplighter’ by Stephen Fothergill is differently presented. Its narrator is extraordinary for being ordinary; his memory is so hopelessly faulty that many of the names and details of his narrative blur back into the past, and his own qualities seem to exist only in the negative. He is certainly not heroic – a conscientious objector at a time when refusing to fight was cause enough to start one. He is not a great wit – many of his stories tail away into anticlimactic stand-offs. He doesn’t display much skill in any particular profession – abandoning a job as a dresser at the Cambridge Theatre after wedging a dancer into a tropical bird costume the wrong way around, reluctantly paid off for another stage job after turning up drunk. He’s certainly not an eloquent voice – the pages are filled with apologies for not having exact information available. Nor is he much of an artist, judging by his scrappy little pencil drawings.

Yet there’s something intriguing about the narrator. If you were seated next to him in a pub on a rainy afternoon and started chatting to pass the time, at first what you would see is an unprepossessing, virtually invisible man, but gradually the surrounding events of his life accrue to fill the empty frame. Fothergill is interested in ideas and he’ll listen to anyone, brilliant or barking, who’s at the bar. He hops into jobs and out of them, working on a pig farm, firewatching, acting as a film extra, then up in a theatre gallery, spotlighting Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, flogging bric-a-brac, sorting at the Post Office, distributing leaflets, washing dishes, removing furniture, learning the trumpet and eventually, in the pea-soupers of the 50s, becoming the last lighter of Soho’s gaslamps.

His friends are only discernable at the edges of the London scene, like the penurious, pungent poet Paul Potts who not only steals from friends but asks them for money after being discovered, and Tambimuttu, a plate-hurling Tamil with an aversion to shoe shops. Fothergill attracted an endless parade of shabby abstract artists, cirrhosis-riddled musicians, annoyingly opinionated poets and clap-addled good-time girls. Nobody is ordinary, they’re a ‘celebrated literary failure’. Nobody has any money, but everyone regularly turns up in the clubs and pubs of Fitzrovia and Soho to complain about their lot in life. One half-expects Patrick Hamilton’s characters from ‘Hangover Square’ to pop by.

Travel, London, Businesses, pic: circa 1955, The corner of Frith Street, London, showing the continental fruit market, Italian coffee shop, Italian valet service and Italian restaurant  (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Soho had a satisfying fug of hops and hemp, with a backdrop of colourful extras including Bopping Betty, Iron-Foot Jack and Brian the Burglar. Fothergill marries and can’t recall his best man’s name, but produces a vivid description of a bohemian room in Paddington, complete with Primus stove, wax records and trumpet. Nearly everyone comes to a sticky end; they succumb to drug and alcohol-related illnesses, they fall down and break bones, their minds go, they are ‘put away’. The women fare badly, drifting into prostitution, becoming lost in the booze.

At one point the author finds himself locked in with a poet and a painter as they decide to kill themselves. ‘We’ve all had enough, I think, of this hell known as living,’ declares the poet as he turns on the gas tap. Fothergill tries the gas as well, but only to light the Soho streets. He listens to more tall tales, meets more borderline Baudelaires and is eventually immortalised with a statue in his lifetime, which can’t be bad. He produced a small diamond of a book, best read in a single sitting, and a pleasing addition to the canon of city history that now barely exists in tangible form.

7 comments on “London’s Last Lamplighter”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    Thanks for the tip Mr Fowler. I’ve just sent off for a cheap 2nd hand copy from Amazon. Even if it turns out to be a Curates Egg, it sounds like a must for those interested in “everyday” British social history.

    I’ve just finished “Murder, Mayhem and Music Hall-The Dark Side of Victorian London” The title is a bit misleading as it is all about the Strand in its disreputable days. Each chapter covers a different aspect, some more interesting than others. You probably have it, but if not it’s well worth a go.

  2. admin says:

    Ordered, sir!

  3. Brian Evans says:

    Whoops-I forgot to name the author of the book I mentioned-it’s by Barry Anthony-before I’m banished from here!

    For those interested in the “London’s Last Lamplighter” book, there are some cheap 2nd hand copies still available
    on Amazon.

  4. I have a signed copy that I bought from the author at the French House some years ago – he was a regular. I haven’t been there for some time and would imagine he is no longer with us, he seemed very old even then. I remember it being an entertaining read for anyone with an interest in Soho/Fitzrovia, easily digested, as you say, in a single go, with some amusing typos (laboratory for lavatory in one instance).

    It’s good that you’ve highlighted it.

  5. Chris Webb says:

    My pennyworth – The Story of Soho – The Windmill Years 1932-1964 by Mike Hutton. Think I got it in Stanfords.

    The last photo is the corner of Frith St & Compton St looking NE. I wonder what that small car on the right is? The buildings are still there, looking rather smarter though.

    Recently watched The Small World of Sammy Lee. I particularly liked the cinematography by the excellent Wolfgang Suschitzky.

  6. davem says:

    Has anyone tried: Beautiful Idiots and Brilliant Lunatics: A Sideways Look at Twentieth-Century London.

    Looks interesting but not yet convinced.

  7. admin says:

    ‘Beautiful Idiots’ is from the wonderful ‘Put Another Nickel In The Machine’ website, and is a terrific read. ‘The Small World of Sammy Lee’ somehow makes the earlier, seedier Soho look more glamorous than the Japanese Bubble Tea Bar-beset streets of today!

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