London’s Forgotten Streets
‘Riceyman Steps’ by Arnold Bennett (1923) is a tough read, being relentlessly downbeat until a faint ray of light at the close. It concerns the final year in the life of Henry, who keeps a second-hand bookshop in Clerkenwell area (the steps are still there although most of the houses have gone – they used to be known as the ‘Plum Pudding Steps’ – no-one seems to know why). Henry marries Violet, a widow who keeps a neighbouring shop, and who sees in Henry a financially safe future. Henry’s miserliness drives them into an increasingly wretched existence while their maid servant Elsie looks forward to life and a happier future.
It’s one of many books that use real London locations for settings. I was mooching in the drizzly November dusk and crossed the steeply angled and perversely circular Percy Circus, one of those backstreets which we would once have considered to be nicely nondescript, but where the houses are now worth a fortune and have become portfolio properties for Russian investors (a bit of a cruel joke seeing as Lenin once lived here). On the far side of the circus is Great Percy Street, crossing an area that has hardly changed in a century and a half. The wide roads and electrified former gas lamps are reminiscent of the streets around Primrose Hill.
Best of all is Amwell Street, which is filled with quirky independent shops. Sadly Filthy McNasty’s, the wonderful pub full of perpetually pissed writers, has now been brasseriefied and made horribly respectable, but here you can find Quill, a lovely paper shop filled with stationery, and classy little homewares stores – like an upmarket version of Upper Street, Islington.
Call me a snob but I don’t want to live in a street with a McDonalds; they’re magnets for litter and late-night trouble. I like the fact that Douglas Adams, Lenin and Sir Walter Raleigh lived nearby. Perhaps because these streets don’t really lead anywhere, they’ve bypassed the vicissitudes of time and still match up to old photographs. The size of the ground floors makes them best suited to independent shops. In many so-called urban areas (like mine) the front gardens of residential houses were leased out as shop space in the late 19th century and remain, blighting many streets.
It still amazes me after all these years that two streets can sit side by side and be so different. Kensington, Chelsea and Hampstead are the only areas I can think of that have been ethnically cleansed. In nearly every other area the old and the new, the scruffy and the sparkling sit comfortably side by side. Amwell Street and its likes survived the decades but ultimately lost the battle – not to developers, but to estate agents seeking homes for offshore corporations.