Weird & Wonderful London 6
This grim-looking shot is not a corpse but something that used to be such a common sight around Hyde Park that a friend and I once made a short film about them – the escape artists of London would be put in sacks, hung from poles in chains and set fire to, then wriggle free, right until the mid-1980s. Some had swords shoved into them. They appeared on Tower Hill, in Charing Cross and Trafalgar Square as well. The US escapologist David Blaine tried to go without food for weeks in a glass box hanging over the Thames, in a kind of misplaced homage to the escape artists of London, but Londoners didn’t take kindly to his arrogant attitude and flew hamburgers past him hanging from drones.
This isn’t a rioting prison mob but visitors waiting to get into St Bart’s hospital in Smithfield (right by the meat market – handy), which only allowed visitors on Wednesday afternoons. Vendors set themselves up to sell fruit and drinks to the crowd. The hospital was founded in 1123, and has never closed. It’s still there and will doubtless be around for its thousand-year anniversary. The early Scottish Nationalist Sir William Wallace, ‘Braveheart’, was executed near the gate in 1305.
What’s this, a fairground? A pleasure steamer? No, it’s the Bank of England all lit up to celebrate King George V’s and Queen Mary’s coronation. Not possible, you say? That means you’ve figured out it was 1911, and this was one of the first times ‘the new electric light’ had been used to decorate a building. Loyal readers will know that the plot of ‘Seventy Seven Clocks’ hinges on such a moment.
In the early 1920s people were still recognisably ‘types’ – you could draw them in a cartoon and they would be instantly categorised as ‘jolly farmer’ or ‘cheeky milkman’. Now this would be regarded as stereotyping, which is why we have to call fat people ‘body-positive’. These two plods in City of London helmets (with the ridge) are seeing across the road an archetypal old lady who appears to have stepped from a ‘Punch’ cartoon. Perhaps we could have modern archetypes now; ‘The cheery coked-up hedge fund manager’ or ‘The zero-hours contract delivery driver’.
Here’s an even earlier archetype: Parcelforce, circa 1883. Three immaculately dressed postmen in fashionable frock-coats and peaked hats, making careful deliveries. There were eight posts a day in London, at a time when you could also hire a private train whenever you needed to get somewhere fast. The one on the left looks like Ben Wishaw in ‘Mary Poppins Returns’. I’m still waiting for the moustache to make a comeback.