Just to the right of the doorway of St Mary’s Church, at the summit of Harrow On The Hill, is a small memorial tablet dedicated to Allegra, daughter of Lord Byron and Claire Clairmont.

The lack of detail on the stone hides one of the most poignant, saddest tales in literary history.

Born in Bath in January 1817, Allegra Byron was the illegitimate daughter of Lord Byron and Claire Clairmont (1798-1879), the teenage stepsister of the writer Mary Shelley.

She had relentlessly pursued Byron, and despite thinking her “foolish”, the combination of her advances and his weakness for women was too much: “I never loved her nor pretended to love her—but a man is a man–& if a girl of eighteen comes prancing to you at all hours of the night—there is but one way.”

Byron in 1822

When the child was born, Byron was in Venice, and showed little interest in ‘the little being’ who had been named Alba in his absence. The child’s birth coincided with a time when Byron was at his most dissolute: a time, according to Edna O’Brien in Byron in Love, he was “bargaining with mothers and father for their daughters, brazenly naming his conquests from contessas to cobblers’ wives and claiming to have ‘tooled’ with two hundred women of one sort or another.”

Considering his lifestyle, his decision to have the child sent to him when she was a year old seems positively bizarre. The penniless Claire believed their daughter would be guaranteed a better future with her famous father, and sent him “my child because I love her too well to keep her.” Although she could not have realised it, she would never see her daughter again.

Claire Clairmont

None of her many heartbroken, pleading letters to Byron would ever be answered and worse, his deep-rooted animosity for Claire was passed on to his child.

Byron had decided to “acknowledge and breed” his daughter, albeit in a conditional way – he gave her the surname Biron to distinguish her from his legitimate daughter and renamed her Allegra (its meaning of ‘cheerful, brisk’ couldn’t be a less accurate premonition of the child’s fate.) The first meeting between father and infant daughter was not promising: “My bastard came three days ago,” he wrote. “Heathy – noisy – & capricious.”

Within months, Byron had tired of Allegra and placed her in the care of the British Consul-General Richard Belgrave Hoppner and his wife, neither of whom were very fond of the child. When they left Venice, Allegra was passed on to their servant Antonio and then to the wife of the Danish Consul, “by which time she showed the remoteness of an abandoned child.”

At the same time, Byron was indulging in any romantic encounter which came his way, contracting myriad sexually transmitted diseases and writing his vast blasphemous and bawdy work Don Juan, published anonymously in 1819.

Byron’s feelings for his banished daughter veered between irritation and repulsion. Sent to a convent for her perceived attitude – at three years old, he said she was “obstinate as a mule and ravenous as a vulture” – Byron received a letter from Allegra.

My dear Papa – it being fair time I should so much like a visit from my Papa as I have many desires to satisfy; will you please your Allegra who loves you so?

The abbess of the convent included her own note inviting Byron to come to see Allegra before he left for Pisa and assuring him “how much she is loved.” On the back of this letter, Byron wrote: “Sincere enough, but not very flattering – for she wants to see me because ‘it is the fair’ to get some paternal Gingerbread – I suppose.”

Byron never responded to Allegra’s letter and never visited the child during the thirteen months she was in the convent.

In 1822, as Claire begged to see her daughter again – “I can no longer resist the internal inexplicable feeling which haunts me that I shall never see her anymore. I entreat you to destroy this feeling by allowing me to see her” – Byron sent Allegra even further away, to the Capuchin convent in distant Bagnacavallo.

Shelley and Byron had become friends after Claire had introduced them (their friendship quickly shattered due to Byron’s debauched behaviour), and the poet visited Allegra (who was effectively his niece) at the convent. Bringing her a gold chain as a present, he found the ‘shy and serious’ child expressing the wish that she would one day be visited by her mother or father. Claire was so desparate to see her daughter that she considered kidnapping her, or forging a letter in Byron’s hand directing her to be returned to England.

Sadly, any plans she was devising came too late. During the summer, Byron received word that Allegra had been “ill, dangerously ill” and as he half-heartedly arranged for her to conveyed to a doctor, she died “of a convulsive catarrhal attack” (most likely either typhus or malaria.)

She was just five years old, and had spent the last four of those effectively alone.

Whether it was genuine grief, or deep, unassailable guilt regarding the way he’d acted during his daughter’s short life, Byron was devastated by the news about the detested child he’d completely abandoned. When he was first told:

A mortal paleness spread over his face, his strength failed him and he sunk into a seat…He remained immovable in the same attitude for an hour and no consolation seemed to reach his ears, let alone his heart.

It was a “stunning and unexpected” blow, Byron told Shelley, but he refused to publicly admit his feelings or conduct towards Allegra had been anything but perfect.

Three years after Allegra died, however, he told the Countess of Blessington that her death had filled him with retrospective grief:

Let the object of affection be snatched away by death, and how is all the pain ever inflicted upon them avenged! The same imagination that led us to slight or overlook their sufferings, now that they are forever lost to us, magnifies their estimable qualities … How did I feel this when my daughter, Allegra, died! While she lived, her existence never seemed necessary to my happiness; but no sooner did I lose her, than it appeared to me as if I could not live without her.

Having never visited the convent while she was alive, Byron made a pilgrimage to it after her death, and gave what remained of her clothes for a statue to be erected on the grounds.

Allegra’s tiny body was sent back to England – “the body is embarked – in what ship – I know not’ – and a ghoulish rumour circulated that the child was sent back to England in two parts to save money. Whilst untrue, it’s existence hints as just how depraved the people of England believed Byron to be.

In fact, Byron lavished more attention on Allegra’s corpse than he ever had while she was breathing. She was conveyed from the London Wharf in a fine hearse and mourning coach, drawn by horses festooned with feathers and velvet; her destination was St Mary’s Church on Harrow-on-the-Hill.

The church was chosen as Byron spent many boyhood hours in the churchyard while a schoolboy at Harrow between 1801-1805, and it inspired his 1807 poem Lines Written beneath an Elm in the Churchyard of Harrow.

He knew exactly where he wanted her to be laid. “There is,” he wrote in May 1822, “a spot in the church’yard’, near the footpath, on the brow of the hill looking towards Windsor, and a tomb under a large tree (bearing the name of Peachie, or Peachey), where I used to sit for hours and hours when a boy. This was my favourite spot; but as I wish to erect a tablet to her memory, the body had better be deposited in the ‘church’.”

Byron composed a eulogy to be carved on a marble tablet inside the church door, commemorating “the memory of Allegra, daughter of George Gordon Lord Byron” and quoting a verse from Samuel: “I shall go to her but she shall not return to me.”

But the Rector of Harrow, the Revd John William Cunningham, and the churchwardens considered Byron so immoral, they refused the stone, citing Allegra’s illegitimacy which was compounded by the identification of the father’s name (it’s also likely Byron’s imfamous immorality helped sway their decision.) As such, Allegra was buried in an unmarked plot outside the door of the South Porch.

It was only in 1980 that a memorial tablet was erected on the side of the church near to the place she was interred.

Following Byron’s death from a fever in Greece, his remains were returned to England and a squabble broke out as to where he would be buried – his reputation was such that no one wanted him.

Westminster Abbey refused him burial, as did St Mary’s Church, something which Byron acknowledly sadly at the time of Allegra’s death.

The spot he had chosen for her grave, he wrote in a letter to his publisher John Murray, was the very one “where I once hoped to have laid my own.”

Lord Byron on his Death-bed by Joseph Denis Odevaere (c.1826)

Advertisements

From 1768 until it was finally sold in 2002, Britain’s most famous publisher was run by a man by the name of John Murray.

John Murray wasn’t a single man – but seven men from the same family all of whom bore the same name (they are differentiated by a number, I to VII.) All but the first John Murray operated from a building at 50 Albemarle Street, Piccadilly, the outside of which still bears their name a decade after the company was bought and absorbed into Hodder Headline.

Renowned as an uncanny spotter of literary talent, John Murray II (1778-1843) moved the firm his father had started from Edinburgh to Albemarle Street in 1812, a year after he began publishing the works of Lord Byron (1788-1824).

John Murray II

Byron’s epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage had been an instant sensation, selling out in just five days and turning the 24-year-old into a superstar of the age. In Byron’s own words, “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.” For the whole of his life and for many centuries afterwards, he was simply regarded as the greatest poet the world had ever known.

The publisher and the poet met for the first time in the upstairs drawing room of the offices – a room which would later play host to one of the most infamous incidents in the history of lost English literature.

As the 1820s advanced, so too did the fortunes of Murray’s firm. He published Jane Austen – Emma, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion – along with Washington Irving and Sir Walter Scott. His regular afternoon teas at the house – known as “Four O’Clock Friends” – ensured the house became a meeting point for the biggest and brightest names in literary London.

For Byron, however, the passing years had not been so profitable. His name had become associated with whispered allegations throughout society of sexual promiscuity, affairs with married women, siring illegitimate children, homosexuality, sodomy and even incest – and the whispers were getting louder. In 1816, Byron left England for good, spending the last eight years of his short life in exile abroad.

Byron in Albanian dress, 1813

Byron died in Greece in 1824, struck down with a fever while leading a troop of soldiers against the Ottoman Empire in the War of Greek Independence. In death, the formerly scandalised Byron became a hero, celebrated for his passion, untamed nature, arrogance, wilfulness, tortured soul, tangled love-life and untimely death. Not just the template for the Romantic hero, Byron’s very name became a by-word for the noble virtues and tragic flaws he encapsulated.

Once his body was shipped back to England (with rumours rife that his heart had been removed and buried in Greece), he was refused burial at Westminster Abbey, who cited his “questionable morality.” One of the greatest of all English poets, Byron wasn’t even awarded a memorial in the Abbey until 1969.

With the doors of the Abbey closed to him, a long funeral procession was organised to take his body from London to Hucknall in Nottinghamshire (close to his ancestral home, Newstead Abbey.) As Byron’s body passed through Highgate, the cortege was witnessed by his elderly contemporary Coleridge, who was standing alongside the young pharmacist’s assistant from whom he made his regular, surreptitious purchases of opium.

On 17th May 1824, a month after Byron’s death, John Murray would participate in one of the most notorious acts in the annals of literature in the upstairs drawing room of 50 Albemarle Street.

During his exile in 1822, Byron named the Irish poet Thomas Moore (1779-1852) as his literary executor and handed him a manuscript of his personal memoirs which he wanted to be published at a later date.

Thomas Moore

But with Byron dead, and the public clamouring for anything bearing his name, Murray made a decision. Having been presented with the two volumes of Byron’s memoirs by Moore, he decided he had to act.

Byron’s memoirs had to be destroyed.

With the agreement of five of Byron’s friends and executors of his will (and with the only opposition coming from Moore), the men set about pulling apart the pages and burning the pages in the fireplace of the drawing room.

Whatever Byron had written, Murray believed the memoirs were so scandalous they would forever damage Byron’s reputation, and possibly his own should he ever publish them. Even Moore, who in 1832 wrote a biography of Byron and was heavily criticised for allowing the memoirs to be destroyed, never divulged their contents.

Of what Byron wrote, which shocked Murray so deeply, we know only one thing; it left the house at Albemarle Street via the chimney.

In destruction, Byron’s memoirs gained infamy; they became the most celebrated work of literature that no-one would ever read.

For centuries afterwards, a massive portrait of Byron has been hanging above the very fireplace which rendered his final words into silent spots of ash and soot.

John Murray VI in front of the Byron portrait…and fireplace

As a long-time comics fan, there’s nothing I enjoy more than conjuring up mental images of how comic shops used to be. When I was nine-years-old, the original Forbidden Planet comic shop at 23 Denmark Street was simply the most magical place on earth.

I only have to see a glimpse of the Brian Bolland artwork which used to adorn the plastic bags (and the associated t-shirt my dad bought me on one trip) and I’m straight back to the uneven wooden floor, the smell of pulp paper, the shafts of light streaming through the dust which hung in the air, and the vague unease of my mum as the till rang through each 75p I’d spent on the recent releases.

A price sticker from the original Forbidden Planet

The store first opened in 1978, the third of the dedicated comics shops in London following Dark They Were And Golden Eyed in Soho and Weird Fantasy in New Cross.

The original Forbidden Planet was owned by Nick Laundau, a former sub-editor of 1970s British comics 2000AD and the war title Battle. He went on to establish Titan Entertainment, a company distributing imported the US comics which were previously only sporadically available at  British newsagents.

The old FP makes a cameo in 2000AD…

And Marvel’s The New Mutants Annual 2 with art by Alan Davis

There’s no better example of how American comic books were distributed in the UK prior to the 1970s than with the knowledge that most arrived in the country as ballast inside American ships. It’s a commonly told tale that when the ships docked in Manchester during the 1940s, the ballast was purchased by two brothers who wanted the American newspapers inside to sell on to fish and chip shops as wrappers. Any comic books they found would be diverted to a market stall and sold from there (the two Mancunian brothers later went on to found World Publishing, a successful children’s book imprint which finally closed in 2003.)

Today, Laundau is no longer the owner of the Forbidden Planet chain, but remains with Titan Books, now a vast publishing company specialising in TV tie-in books and magazines.

23 Denmark Street, formerly Forbidden Planet 1, today

Just round the corner from the original shop on St Giles High Street was FP2, which, despite it’s claim in the poster above to be “the cinema and television shop”, I recall being stuffed full to bursting with sci-fi novels.

The two shops combined and moved round the corner to New Oxford Street in the early 1990s, forming the country’s first Comics and Sci-Fi Megastore.

Forbidden Planet ad from Deadline issue 18 (May 1990)

It was a boom time for the comics shop – a new generation’s rediscovery of the Star Wars films and the announcement of an upcoming prequel, a mania for TV hits like the X-Files, and a runaway speculator’s market of limited edition comics and cover variants, meant that comics and pop culture had never been more mainstream.

X-Files-era boom for the Megastore, c.1995

Blinded by the record profits that the mania for collecting generated, the comic companies made a terrible mistake; they forgot to make their comics any good. While they would happily produce six different front cover designs for every single issue, they completely forgot to deliver the goods inside the covers.

As the writing and artwork inside the comics plummeted, so too did the numbers of readers. Copies which were once highly prized collectables became impossible to shift from the shelves. The speculators and collectors all retreated, and many of the smaller comic companies who’d been riding those waves folded almost instantly. It’s no surprise that, of the dozen or so mainstream comic shops operating in London at this time, all but the Forbidden Planet have since shut up shop.

Site of the former Forbidden Planet Megastore, 71 New Oxford Street

Now pretty much the sole vendor in town, Forbidden Planet moved to its present, even larger location at 179 Shaftesbury Avenue in 2003.

I like the shop, but I can’t imagine it excites the minds of ten-year-olds like the original did mine. It’s very white, clean and tidy – a far cry from the sense I used to get of hunting for buried treasure in the scruffy old shop located down a rather insalubrious side street.

In fact, with all the silent men in their forties flipping morosely through leaflets, it looks a little bit like a private medical facility where all the health information pamphlets star Spiderman.

There’s still a shop in London that conjures up the wonder of the early 1980s comic shops, however; the Comic and Book Exchange in Notting Hill.

Everything about it is as perfect a relic of 1980s comic shops as you could ever imagine. The floor is dirty, the strip lighting flickers, and most importantly, it smells of cheap paper.

The racks are full to bursting with stuff you’ve never heard of, you can find amazing bargains, the signs are all handwritten, and the vast majority of their stock harks back to a time when comics had lurid, over-the-top covers created solely to encourage kids to pick them up.

It’s odd that the last place to go when you get nostalgic for Forbidden Planet would be Forbidden Planet. While FP might be the last of the London comic book stores to survive, the Notting Hill Book and Comic Exchange is the only one in London that feels like stepping back to the modern industry’s very earliest days.

Widely regarded as one of the truly essential London films, the  1968 documentary The London Nobody Knows was based on a bestselling gazetteer-cum-memoir written by Geoffrey Fletcher, an illustrator and Daily Telegraph journalist.

Directed by Norman Cohen (best known for later helming the long-running 1970s Confessions Of…sex comedy series), the 46-minute film features a melancholy James Mason leading an hour-long tour through the seamier streets of Swinging London, eschewing tourist sites for meths drinkers, shoeless children and bleak Victorian tenements.

Forty years after it was made, and after a decade of being the BFI’s single most requested title, The London Nobody Knows was finally released on DVD in 2008.

While Fletcher was billed as the film’s writer, the documentary was actually scripted by Brian Comport, who was only given a credit for “additional material” on commercial grounds. Now in his seventies and living in “sunny Brixton”, the dapper Comport is the only person involved in the film who has lived to see it acknowledged as a classic.

This is an interview I conducted with him, first broadcast on my old film show on Xfm.

How did The London Nobody Knows come to be made?

Norman Cohen, who produced and directed The London That Nobody Knows, had done four shorts for the Boulting Brothers and, as part of the deal he was on, had been offered a fifteen minute documentary. In 1966, he’d worked with James Mason on a film called The Blue Max as sound editor, had mentioned that he was thinking of doing this book as a documentary and Mason said “I’d love to do it.” That promptly raised money for another half hour. So Norman called me in. I was living on Bankside and I took him around, and he said “Right, go for it. Write me all this material.” So I did. He said “Look, the book on which it’s based is basically a point of departure, but the title The London Nobody Knows has got great marquee value, we’re sticking with that title because legally we have to, and as such, I’m going to have to acknowledge the author of the book, Geoffrey Fletcher.”

How much was Geoffrey Fletcher involved with the film?

Well, he wrote the book. He was a graphic artist, very good one, for the Daily Telegraph and exhibitions, and a bit of a history buff about London, a bit like Peter Ackroyd. He would have been, I suppose, a bit erudite for Norman when it came to the film. So I took it from there.

What was Fletcher like?

I never met the man. I read the book but I never met the man at all. He certainly knew his stuff as an artist and historian, though.

What was the reaction when the film was first released?

There was a very strange reaction to it. People didn’t know what to expect, frankly. Some people described it as ‘quirky’; some people described it as ‘quaint.’ Recently, someone called it an early fly-on-the-wall documentary, imitated since by television. At the time though, it was a very “Comme Ci, Comme Ça” reception – although we thought it might be a bit of a sleeper, and so it’s proved to be.

What’s do you put its enduring appeal down to?

I would say it was the humanity. Norman was a lovely man, had a great sense of mischief and he looked for characters – we filmed the kids, we filmed the olds and we filmed the down-and-outs. We took our lives in our hands in the really itchy part, where we had this evil-minded absolute raving animal of an alcoholic – poor devil – and we had a camera either side of him, knowing we’d have to be ready to drop them and just run if necessary.

Was the writing done during the filming process?

No, no, I’d written the material but when you get someone like James Mason, obviously if he wants to extemporise, that’s entirely down to him! Norman would have been a fool to have it any other way. So, no, the script was written before.

So there’s no treasure trove of unused material that one day will come to light?

I doubt it. There’s an out-cut that I don’t think will ever see the light of day, as I don’t think it was printed off. We were on Tower Hill with the escapologist.

Mason was talking on a prompt from my script, and he happened to mention in passing about being a Cockney, which I am – born in the sound of Bow Bells, in Cheapside. And this bloke breezed in, camera running, “’Ere, Mr. Mason, now, let me correct yew on that small matter. The Bow in question is ver Bow down in Poplar, right? It’s not anywhere else.” Mason was flummoxed – he was so urbane, gentlemanly, and polite – and Norman leant over to the cameraman and just whispered “Let it run! Just let it run!” But then he had cold feet and we canned it, so I don’t think it saw the light of day in any physical sense, and it’s not likely to ever turn up.

It’s astonishing watching someone the stature of James Mason walking through the rough streets of London and the commotion it causes.

Oh, it did! He had a driver and I would share the car occasionally, and he was standing with my partner at the time, when a little girl came up to her and said “’Ere, if that’s Mr. Mason, are you Mia Farrow?” They assumed anyone near him was famous too.

Considering the muted critical reception, I presume there were no plans for a follow-up, despite Fletcher writing more London titles.

Well, Norman went on to do ‘Til Death Us Do Part and Dad’s Army, and I did two or three more movies, and so that was it. It was an early point in his career and in mine. I was very fond of all the films I later made, but I was always particularly fond of London. Norman was a great mate, and it’s very moving, a lot of it.

Are you surprised by the level of acclaim it’s enjoying after forty years?

I must say I am, but I think it a thoroughly decent picture, and I’m sorry that Norman isn’t here to enjoy the accolades. I feel like a broom in a broom cupboard, that someone’s wondered what it’s doing in there, has brought it out and finally put it to good use. When I saw the film again the other day, I was very pleased with it. And that’s a very nice feeling.

The London Nobody Knows is available as an Optimum Classic DVD as part of a double-bill with Les Bicyclettes de Belsize, and is available here and here (I’m only making life easier if you want a copy – I don’t have any association with these vendors.)

The documentary is also up on YouTube, but it probably shouldn’t be for sorts of copyright issues. The quality isn’t a patch on the DVD.