London With Its Pants Down
There are a number of terrific books about London’s underbelly, but the two I’ve enjoyed most in a very long time are these, ‘Beautiful Idiots and Brilliant Lunatics’ and ‘High Buildings, Low Morals’ by Rob Baker. The former title comes from a quote by Oscar Wilde, the latter from Noel Coward.
Rob is a fellow blogger who runs the ‘Another Nickel in the Machine’ website, which unearths wonderful stories about London elite and lowlife from the past. For a site with an American title it’s probably the most delightfully obscure London-centric site in the world. It’s been a couple of years since Rob’s last compendium. This time around he’s looking at, among other things, ‘those’ headless Polaroids of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll (there was a modern opera based on that scandal called ‘Powder Her Face’ by Thomas Adès), the bizarre Oz magazine trial, the Eton schoolboys scandal, Cynthia Payne and her luncheon voucher brothel (I sat next to her at dinner once and there was something eerily dead behind that perpetual smile), Lord Boothby and Ronnie Kray, Jessie Matthews in Soho and the Nazi wreath left at the Cenotaph.
One of the brilliant things Rob does is allow his nose for a good story to lead him laterally across the city’s history, so that we make connections that fill in missing bits of our knowledge. Considering London is probably the richest anecdotal city in the world, it’s shocking that quite so much of the past is being dismissed as something that belongs exclusively to the world of books. But all London life is here within these covers, and in reading these tales we see very quickly how past mistakes are endless repeated, especially on the side of a biased press who now exactly what they’re doing and will continue to bit as their power wanes.
I hope Ron creates many more such volumes because he’s proof that people do care enough to write intelligently about London history, and the detailed stories here will make your jaw drop. This is pretty ‘Deep English’ stuff but that only makes the telling more enjoyable. Of course, it does help if you know who Dickie Henderson is. You can find his photo behind the bar in the Cross Keys, Covent Garden. The crooner also used to be at the deranged Windsor Castle pub off the Edgware Road, but they’ve shamefully closed that amazing boozer. Photo below;