Dirty Old Town


Fire, that loyal companion to man, for millennia having warmed his bones and baked his bread, was outlawed, and banished in its wake was the ‘London Particular’ which for so long had served English novelists and film makers so well (not to mention the (dis)honest English cutpurse…). It had also stoked the fires of imagination, so to speak, of a certain New Delhi boy, who had followed the romantic trail as if in answer to the Siren’s call. All gone now, despatched to history, it seemed, overnight.

In this dejected state of mind I wandered the streets, seeking some small crutch to support my inspiration. Down through Smithfield and the Inns of Court I would tread, in the long shadows of Pip, Oliver and the rest, casting about for some genuine crumbs of grubbiness. This was the 1970s and the city groaned in economic distress. The coming of the Luftwaffe was still evident in blind-sided vacant lots and the garish intrusion of new builds. But there was no sepia-grained pall to disguise it with, no soporific feathering of coal dust to give it Whistler-like transience.

Dickens’ London was also intensely ugly, but there was a faltering grandness about it too. It was like the King of Tramps who, if he chose to step forwards without his concealing rags, could easily gain employment as a carnival freak. Perhaps in this there was a touch of wistfulness for my own country, an unconscious searching for the familiar in the foreign. Because India is a land full of freaks, from the silent fakir who stands on his head in his mountain cave, to the wandering sadhu, naked apart from a shifting colony of lice, brandishing tortuously curved finger nails three feet long. This modern city I found lame, yes, but was without colour or distinguishing features. London, alas, had become a hopelessly inept beggar.

So the years passed, I came and went, and London slowly grew on me as it must have done on the impressionable official’s son from Chatham. The eighties saw a boom in growth and a lavishness worthy of the old Rajahs of Hyderabad. The city was given a face lift, a tummy tuck, a bottom lift. Poor Old Tramp! Such indignities! As if these and the addition of an Armani suit would fool anyone into believing that it wasn’t just the same Old Tramp.

But the same was happening across Western Europe. The great capitals, one by one, were falling under the surgeon’s knife. Buildings were rinsed, pavements were scraped and the poor and dispossessed were shunted away to make room for the tourists. Paris was the worst. Her dentures and nails now shone with an uncanny brilliance. She was like one of those haughty old women from the Sixteenth Arrondissement, tightly clutching a Dior bag and one of those dreadful little dogs, dressed in a finely tailored suit, red lips pursed, barely able to support herself or to speak to anyone that didn’t hold her views on de Gaulle and the Republic.

In this mad, municipal scramble for cleanliness and uniformity I began to detect older charms in the rent fabric that now girt London. Like a wayward schoolboy’s reluctant approach to the barbers, it shuffled recalcitrantly forward to meet change. There was a resistance there which spoke of the time after the Great Fire in 1666 when Christopher Wren rallied the shopkeepers of the city to propose his new vision of a modern metropolis of wide, gridded boulevards. He was met with almost total opposition. They demanded their shops be exactly as they were before, on the twisting little rat runs that were so familiar to them. Astonished, the great architect of St Paul’s bowed quietly to their will. For London there would be no Baron Haussmann.

I came to realise that the London of Dickens and Hogarth still lurked in the jut of a building or the defiant angle of a street. Mists still rose too on certain heavy, damp days in the colder months, and if I had no cause to grope my way home along the sides of buildings, (as I heard was sometimes the case in the old days) who could complain when the street lamps swam so beguilingly in the ‘Holmsian’ miasma, and the motor vehicles had slowed to the crawl of covered landaus, their carriage lamps burning?

I had heard it said, and saw it demonstrated both in history and contemporaneously, that London was a place of individuals. Was there anything I could do, with my foreign credentials, to help conjure the London that still winked at me from the eye of my childhood?

By this stage I had taken rooms above a little Jewish tailor’s in Islington, North of the City, for my now regular sojourns in the capital. They were gloomy and somewhat dispiriting (the rooms, not the visits), but I stuck with them in the English way of sticking to things you don’t really like. They were cold too; the heating was cantankerous and worked only fitfully. Swathed in blankets, I would peer over the tops of my papers from my collapsing armchair, and gaze sadly across the room to the wall where the fire used to be. There was a vent there now with a crack next to it.

One day, with a mixture of curiosity, boredom and the stinging provocations of the cold, I stepped across to investigate with a butter knife. Unfortunately my exploratory probings saw the handle snap off. And so it remained for several weeks, the silver of the blade protruding several inches into the room like a shy and burnished cockroach. Eventually I was seized by a sort of conviction and set to work on the wall with the blakey on the heel of my shoe. Working with the zeal of an urban Edmond Dantes, I scored the plaster and loosened the bricks. After several days I had excavated the aperture of the old fireplace. My boy servant, who had accompanied from Delhi, looked on with wonderment and a touching blind faith. He was sent out to dispose of the detritus.

There were several things to be done before the fire could yet be coaxed into life. From my scant and extemporary knowledge, the first was to summon a chimney sweep. I stopped short of sending Sabu up there although I knew he would have cheerfully submitted. There was a surprising number of this strange and archaic faction still extant and I picked one at random. He came the following week with a selection of detachable and extendable devices and a large-hinged strong box which he lovingly opened as if it were an assassin’s tool kit. He stuck a telescoped brush up the chimney, shortly followed by the nozzle of what resembled an enormous hoover, and pronounced the flue fit for purpose.

The next thing to be sourced was a suitable grate. I had decided not to replace the cast iron insert as this tended to limit fuel to coal. Rather, I had chosen to opt for the more Medieval looking ‘dog’ or ‘basket’ grate with a back plate of heavy iron. A suitable candidate was found languishing in an antiques shop in Tunbridge Wells and Sabu was despatched with my Grand Father’s old sea chest to bear it back in.

The last thing wanting was something to burn. I considered casting into the flames what passed as furniture in the apartment, such was its abject and suicidal appearance, but a more long-term solution was needed. Soliciting an English friend of a pyromaniacal bent, I learnt that the keenest and longest-lived fires burnt on a combination of coal and seasoned wood. Fortuitously I discovered a coal merchant close by, just off the Essex Road. Like my chimney sweep, his family had been in the same combustible trade for generations. He was a huge, old and friendly man with hands as big as coal buckets. Fittingly and pleasingly, he came from that now nearly extinct breed, the London Cockney. As the sacks were 25 kilograms in weight (new metric), shouldering them home was not really an option. Instead, Sabu was directed thither on my rickety Dutch single speed bicycle and the drooping bag was secured to the rusty pannier by means of numerous pieces of string. He would then return, weaving unsteadily through the London traffic like a drunken country Bobby.

The locating of firewood proved a little more difficult. Back home, wood was collected, naturally, from one’s own property. The idea of buying wood was bizarre and somewhat egregious. It implied that one had insufficient land to support one’s needs. It suggested, how can I put this, that one might be financially indisposed. Now I realised that in a bustling western metropolis like London, this thinking might be a little flawed. Still, I had trouble shaking it. In fact, I couldn’t.

In my local park, I had noticed that felled trees were logged and distributed along the length of one side of rough. After a number of years these rotted down, were grown through with nettles and became food for beetles and slugs. After a year or two, though, this timber was naturally seasoned and ready for the hearth. Once more the faithful Sabu was despatched. The smaller pieces were covered in rough sacking and again affixed to the back of the bike. For the larger trunks he crept back under cover of darkness, and with the aid of axe and saw, made them, in a word, portable.

We had our means and so we had our fire. A rotational system was worked out by which wet logs were dried before the fire and then deposited in the waiting wicker basket. In this way a queuing method developed of wet logs waiting, wet logs drying and dry logs awaiting burning. The suite of rooms swiftly came to resemble a lumber yard and in the night we regularly coughed ourselves awake like consumptives. Yet in the cheerful blaze the place was no longer dreary. I was warm and happy and could in some comfort wield my Mont Blanc again and pluck my sitar; possibly for the first time, Sabu had something to do. London may have been chastened and brought to heel by fat cats and planners, its honest grubbiness surplanted by the invisible and hypocritical fumes from car exhausts and gas flues, but I like to think that in a small corner of that unorthodox capital, I am doing my bit to perpetuate the memory of the right sort of dirt.

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