Len Deighton's London Dossier, Chapter 7: Mood

By Kevin Mills Last edited 18 months ago
Len Deighton's London Dossier, Chapter 7: Mood

A rough guide to London, circa 1967: a weekly look at Len Deighton’s London Dossier, a guide to modern London published during the height of the allegedly swinging 60s.

Deighton suggests giving Billingsgate Market a whirl of a Sunday. This is where it was in the 1960s. Photo by robfincher in the Londonist Flickr pool

Getting us in the mood for Mood, Len Deighton pens a short piece on spending Sundays in London. This was a London before Sunday brunch had been invented and when the pubs were closed for five long hours between 2pm and 7pm. Almost all the shops were shut for the whole day, although you might have caught some action in a Wimpy bar or the local launderette.

So, understandably, Len's idea of a perfect Sunday in 1967 is to stay in bed with the papers. Recognising that this is not in keeping with the spirit of the book he offers alternatives, such as London's bustling markets. Try Billingsgate, he suggests, as it offers winkles, whelks, cockles and shrimps 'and all the things the Londoner likes for tea'. The seafood seller, Len says, is one of the few London street criers still heard in 1967 ("winkles and shrimps!"). Then he goes on to list some of the others, including the coalman, the milkman, the knife-grinder, the chair-mender, the rag and bone man. What a noisy place.

We particularly like the idea of the door-to-door chair-mender: "Mend your chairs, guvner?"
"But I don’t have any broken ones."
"Shaky legs? Arms hanging off? Not just a bit broken?"
"Sorry, no. I think I've got some rags and a collection of bones, if that's any good…".

Centre Point: admired by the chapter's writer, although it's unclear what this place has to do with mood. Photo by Neil Duggan in the Londonist Flickr pool

Len enjoys other markets, too, but certainly not the animal market that used to be at Sclater Street ("like visiting an Auschwitz for animals"). He gets all wistful about the already-changing Jewish area around Old Montague Street (known locally as Old Montague Strasse), recommends a few churches then wonders if you might be hungry.

As luck would have it, two restaurants are open in Soho and yet another one in Chelsea! Such choice. After lunch he advises a visit to Speakers' Corner where "anyone with the gab, guts or gumption can hold forth on any subject short of treason, blasphemy or the advisability of riot". Much like they can today, of course.*

So, Austin John Marshall. Tell us about the moods of London.

Marshall was at the time married to hippy songstress Shirley Collins and his contribution to the London Dossier is one of the more lyrical, if at one point shockingly inappropriate from a PC perspective. He loves the London of "a million twittering starlings", cherishes memories of "running with a girl across Waterloo Bridge still shaking with laughter from Jour De Fête at the NFT" and — we did warn you — experiences a thrill at "seeing Spades for the first time, just lolling about in vivid shirts and pork-pie hats, all relaxed and still".

As they say, the past is another country.

The writer has fond/pretentious memories of Waterloo Bridge. Photo by Khedara ආරියරත්න 蒋龙 in the Londonist Flickr pool

Marshall recommends taking in London from the roof terrace atop New Zealand House, which must have been all new and landmarky back then. To reach it "you must exercise some bare-faced cheek and just walk in as if on business." Then he uses the vantage point of this tower block to decry all the other tower blocks that "stick up like sore thumbs". "Even employees call the new Shell building Sing-Sing", he avers. "Stag Place at Victoria is as cheerless an enclosure as ever looked impressive on an architect's perspective drawing — you know the kind, the kind where all the people have pointed spikes for legs." We dimly remember, Austin.

He prefers London's 19th century buildings, such as the Law Courts ("like a bloody great bat in the Strand") and the St Pancras Hotel ("see it soon, it might be demolished"). But then he surprises us by professing a regard for Centre Point, "London’s newest and nicest tower block". "Its forty-odd storeys had to be hauled up in pre-fabricated bits and dictated its rather jolly kit-built look. It has been called the first 'pop' building and, sitting as it does at one end of Denmark Street, nerve centre of the pop music business, this is as it should be. A hit".

There were no tall buildings in the City back then. In fact there wasn't much of anything to tempt Austin. "The City of London pays a lot of lip service to regalia, livery, guilds and all that jazz", he grooves, "but it’s a gloomy, forbidding place to me. Few people love it enough to live there (the Barbican development may change that) and the place is so empty on a Sunday that it seems to have been done over with nerve gas." Those were the days.

About now it becomes apparent that Marshall seems to have misunderstood the requirements of the brief. When commissioned by Len Deighton to write a chapter on London's moods, Austin thought he heard Len say "do me a thousand words on your favourite buildings, would you Austin?"

There was a time in London when there was no such thing as an all-day Sunday brunch. Photo by psyxjaw in the Londonist Flickr pool

So we get stuff like this: "let the sophisticated modern asymmetry of Denis Lasdun's design for the Royal College of Physicians act as an antidote to the classicism of Nash's elegant façades". But there's not a great deal on how the South Bank, then as now, can be the most romantic place on earth. How a noisy, crowded and vibrant Piccadilly Circus can, conversely, give you a sense of total loneliness. How you get a vague sense of committing trespass when walking in unfamiliar areas. Or how a trip on the top deck of the number 15 bus can make you feel you're part of something big and important and, to use the vernacular of the 60s, happening.

A missed opportunity.

Next time, Drusilla Beyfus looks at Children. (A sentence that would have passed without comment back in '67, we feel.)

*Author's note: At Speakers’'Corner, Len tells his readers to ‘watch out for the Tattooed Man’. This must be the guy I saw on my first visit to Speakers’ Corner in around 1973. He was like the Illustrated Man in that Ray Bradbury novel; completed covered in tattoos. I talked to him and he said that he used to be Al Capone’s driver. I must have looked doubtful - Capone was ancient history even then - but he opened a scrap album full of yellowing news articles and photographs and proved it.

Other instalments

Introduction
Chapter 1: Teenagers
Chapter 2: Food
Chapter 3: Drink
Chapter 4: River
Chapter 5: Music
Chapter 6: Self Indulgence

Last Updated 18 May 2016

Kai

The City still seems very 28 Days Later on a spring Sunday afternoon, with pale yellow sunlight glinting off the glass facades of skyscrapers far above you. You may see a lonely cab careen down at the intersection ahead, but other than that not a soul.

Gill

In about 1973/4 I was at Speakers Corner, Hyde Park. A tattooed man who's whole body was covered with them showed me a scrapbook of his life. He had been a driver for Al Capone in America and had obviousIy been involved in many crimes but felt agreeved as he had served many years in prison for something he had not done and wanted his name cleared before he died.I  am trying to remember of he had a speech impediment or similar as bizarrely he asked me to tell the public his story. I stood on a soapbox and spoke to a crowd of about 5 people swelling to about 30 people and hope I told his story well for him.I remember slipping away with my husband and child frightened to become too involved leaving the crowd of people looking at his scrapebook.
I was hoping to see the bit of film you advertised on your site but it has been taken down. Has anyone any further information please.

Bravenewmalden

I have a distant memory that his speech impediment might have been the result of his tongue being removed by one of Capone's henchmen. That's the sort of thing they do, these henchmen.