November 10, 2011
At the top of the Duke of York steps outside number 9 Carlton House Terrace, in a small walled-off enclosure and almost hidden behind the jumble of gardener’s paraphernalia wedged beside it, is the country’s only memorial to a Nazi.
There are mitigating circumstances, however – the most important of which being that this Nazi happened to be a dog.
Shortly after John Nash built Carlton House Terrace between 1827-1832, no.9 became the official residence of the Prussian ambassadors. Prussia House, as it became known, housed diplomats for almost a century before the outbreak of World War 1 forced them all out.
In 1920, however, the ambassadors representing Germany’s new Weimar Republic returned to Prussia House – despite occupation in the intervening years by America and the Swiss, the official history of the German Embassy claims that “everything was found in place as the last Ambassador of Imperial Germany, Prince Lichnowsky, had left it on 6 August 1914, including even the cigarettes in the silver case on the Ambassador’s desk.”
The Weimar Republic’s final chargé d’affaires was 51-year-old Leopold von Hoesch (1881-1936), an old-fashioned diplomat who had become the much-admired German ambassador in Paris after stints in Peking and Madrid.
Von Hoesch did much to improve Anglo-German relations throughout the early 1930s and won the admiration of both of the British foreign secretaries he worked alongside, Sir Anthony Eden and John Simon.
But a year after von Hoesch took up his post in London, the Weimar Republic was no more. In 1933, entirely by proxy rather than choice, von Hoesch became a representative of the Third Reich.
In February 1934, von Hoesch’s beloved terrier Giro died (some reports over the years have claimed he was electrocuted in the garden, but no reliable sources are given) and he was buried in the gardens.
His tombstone bore the inscription:
EIN TREUER BEGLEITER! (A faithful companion!)
LONDON IM FEBRUAR 1934.
Two years later, the Ambassador himself died in the bedroom of the house from a stroke. He was only 55, his life seemingly shortened by the strain of maintaining the Anglo-German relations that were being routinely and savagely tested by the new National Socialist ruling party with whom he was increasingly despairing of.
In his obituary – written in April 1936, at a time when the Nazis were already a worrying spectre in the pages of the newspapers each day – The Times celebrated von Hoesch’s traditional, cultured manner.
He spoke beautiful English in soft, modulated tones, and the theme of all his speeches was the cultivation of better Anglo-German relations…though a bachelor, von Hoesch entertained hospitably at the Embassy, and with his sincerity and personal charm made many friends among English statesmen. He had a distinguished bearing and was always particularly well dressed.
The British Government, in accordance with international diplomatic protocol, effectively gave him a state funeral on his way to the Dover-bound train from Victoria Station. The cortege was led by Grenadier Guards, British government ministers formed part of the funeral procession, and von Hoesch received a 19-gun salute in St. James’s Park bidding him farewell.
Some startling newsreel footage was taken as the funeral procession made its way down the Mall. At the top of the Duke of York steps, German Embassy staff gave the Nazi salute as von Hoesch’s coffin, wrapped in a swastika flag, headed out of Carlton House Terrace towards Buckingham Palace.
The coffin was taken to Germany on the British destroyer HMS Scout. After the triumphant display in London, not a single representative of the Nazi Party attended von Hoesch’s funeral in Berlin. And the next German ambassador couldn’t have been more different from the soft-spoken, charming von Hoesch.
Joachim von Ribbentrop was a key member of the Nazi regime, and while his time in London was short (he was back in Germany within a year), some of the more intriuging stories associated with his stay have proved impossible to confirm or deny.
It is known that Albert Speer oversaw the modernisation of No.9 Carlton House Terrace, but whether he also created a vast swastika mosaic on one of the floors has never been verified (it supposedly remains there to this day, hidden underneath the carpet.) Completely true is that while in London, Von Ribbentrop’s son Rudolf briefly attended Westminster School, where his classmate was Peter Ustinov.
But back to Giro, the unwilling Nazi (if we can entirely forget he was a dog, Giro was more correctly a member of the Weimar Republic.)
None of articles in The Times during von Hoesch’s life or at the time of his death mention either the dog or the gravestone. In fact, the first mention of Giro is to be found in a small news item in December 1966.
At the time, builders were excavating a strip of land in front of no.9 Carlton House Terrace to create a deep underground car park which now cuts between the small patch of ground the gravestone is on and the building. A German man walking down the Duke of York steps noticed the gravestone propped up underneath one of the trees and recalled that von Hoesch was the former ambassador.
It seems likely that the gravestone was picked up from the gardens of the house by a builder as the excavations took place. Not wanting to see the little gravestone destroyed, he placed where it now stands today. At some point in the 1990s, the strange kennel with the misty plexiglass plastic front was fitted over the top to protect it from damage.
But however it got there, one thing is certain; wherever Giro’s mortal remains are now, they’re certainly not underneath that stone.
But I can’t help but feel that’s just as well. It means that little tombstone’s not simply a marker of where a dog is buried, but becomes something much bigger. It’s a memorial not just to a dog that was loved by its master, but to von Hoesch himself – and a testament to how love ultimately endures as hate withers.
When Von Ribbentrop looked out of the windows of 9 Carlton House Terrace in 1936, he may have envisaged a day when memorials to the Nazis covered the whole of London.
Hanged for war crimes a decade later, he probably never imagined that the last vestige of the regime he dedicated his life to would be the gravestone of a terrier that was already sitting in his back garden.
November 9, 2011
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).
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 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.
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.
May 6, 2011
It might be more proper to place a question mark at the end of that headline, but, according to Stephen Knight’s Jack The Ripper: The Final Solution (1985), 74 Brook Street, just two minutes away from Oxford Street and opposite Claridge’s, was once the home of London’s most infamous murderer.
Knight first identified the Victorian surgeon William Withey Gull (1816-1890) as Jack the Ripper in his book, and his hypothesis was later adopted by Alan Moore for the tremendous graphic novel From Hell (which was also a less tremendous film.)
Educated at Guy’s Hospital (where he remained throughout his professional career) Gull’s medical reputation has been entirely outstripped by the clamour of the Ripperologists. He coined the name ‘anorexia nervosa’, advanced understanding of paraplegia and Bright’s disease, argued that women should be encouraged to enter the field of medicine, and was known for his ceaseless work in treating patients at any time of day or night.
Gull’s surprisingly modern medical outlook was summed up in his Published Writings: “Never forget that it is not a pneumonia, but a pneumonic man who is your patient. Not a typhoid fever, but a typhoid man.”
In 1871, Gull became Physician-in-Ordinary to Queen Victoria’s son Albert (then Duke of Wales and later Edward VII) and successfully treated him for typhus. With nary a full-stop in sight, The Times reported on Gull’s work with the Prince in December 1871:
In Dr. Gull were combined energy that never tired, watchfulness that never flagged ; nursing so tender, ministry so minute, that in his functions he seemed to combine the duties of physician, dresser, dispenser, valet, nurse, – now arguing with the sick man in his delirium so softly and pleasantly that the parched lips opened to take the scanty nourishment on which depended the reserves of strength for the deadly fight when all else failed, now lifting the wasted body from bed to bed, now washing the worn frame with vinegar, with ever ready eye and ear and finger to mark any change and phase, to watch face and heart and pulse, and passing at times twelve or fourteen hours at that bedside.
Created a Baronet the following year (he took the title 1st Baronet of Brook Street), Gull was consequently appointed Physician Extraordinary and subsequently Physician-in-Ordinary to Victoria. It is not likely he ever treated the Queen; there were four Physicians-in-Ordinary and for all but one of them it was effectively an honorary position.
Gull died at 74 Brook Street in January 1890 after a series of strokes. The Times reported his death.
We regret to announce that Sir William Gull died at half-past 12 yesterday at his residence, 74, Brook-street, London, from paralysis. Sir William was seized with a severe attack of paralysis just over two years ago while staying at Urrard, Killiecrankie, and never sufficiently recovered to resume his practice.
On Monday morning, after breakfast, he pointed to his mouth as if unable to speak. His valet, who was in the room, did not quite understand what was amiss, but helped him into the sitting-room. Sir William then sat down on a chair and wrote on a piece of paper, “I have no speech.” The family were at once summoned, and Sir William was soon after removed to bed, where he received every attendance from Dr. Hermann Weber, an old friend, Dr. Charles D. Hood, his regular medical attendant, and Dr. Acland, his son-in-law.
The patient, however, soon lost consciousness, and lingered in this state until yesterday morning, when he quietly passed away in the presence of his family. The inquiries as to his state of health during the last two days have been unusually numerous, a constant stream of carriages drawing up at the door.
Gull was buried next to his mother and father’s graves in his childhood hometown of Thorpe-le-Soken in Essex.
If his name was well-known in his lifetime, it was nothing compared to how famous it would become from the 1980s onwards. While a 72-year-old highly-respected baron doesn’t seem the most likely of serial killers, Stephen Knight’s hugely entertaining book argued that Gull was responsible for murdering five women working as prostitutes in the East End in 1888 on the direct orders of the state.
To do justice to the entire murky web of probable presumptions, possibilities and perhapses which make up this conspiracy, there’s nothing as exhaustive and enjoyable as Alan Moore’s From Hell.
The interior of 74 Brook Street even makes an appearance towards the end of Moore’s book, when the medium Robert James Lees leads the police investigator Abbeline to the doctor’s front door. A tired, confused Gull confesses to his crimes. This was just artistic licence on Moore’s part – but considering the entire “William Gull was Jack the Ripper” theory depends almost entirely on artistic licence to keep it afloat, it’s an entirely fitting addition.
Surprisingly there is no plaque commemorating Gull’s time in the house, but there is one the other side of the road, on the house directly opposite 74 Brook Street.
The plaque is not dedicated to Dr Gull or Jack the Ripper, but commemorates some similarly grisly work that, even after all these years, still turns the stomach of all right-thinking people.
May 4, 2011
There’s a strange synchronicity with second-hand books. Two days ago, I’d finished all the books I had on the go, so randomly picked out one I’ve owned for years and not read for ages: WH Davies’ 1908 The Autobiography of a Super Tramp. While I know he’s not using the word in the modern way, I love the idea he thought of himself as a “super tramp”, as opposed to just an adequate one.
Davies was a Welshman born in 1871. Regarded as a delinquent, with expulsions from school and trouble keeping jobs, he spent much of his early life living rough in America. While there, he lost a leg while riding the trains with a fellow tramp (in a foreshadowing of the loss of limbs, the other tramp’s name was Three-Fingered Jack) and for the rest of his life sported a wooden one.
Destitute, he returned to England, where he lived in large doss houses in south-east London (including Southwark’s infamous Salvation Army hostel, known as The Ark) and sold shoe laces, saving his money with one single purpose: to self-publish his poetry.
In 1905, he sent his book of poems, entitled The Soul’s Destroyer, to George Bernard Shaw. “I get a gift of minor poetry once a week or so,” Shaw grumbled, but “before I had read three lines I perceived the author was a real poet.” Shaw was puzzled by what sort of man Davies was.
There were no author’s compliments, no publisher’s compliments, indeed no publisher in the ordinary channel of the trade in minor poetry. The author, as far as I could guess, had walked into a printer’s or stationer’s shop; handed in his manuscript; and ordered his book as he might have ordered a pair of boots. It was marked “price half a crown.” An accompanying letter asked me very civilly if I required a half-crown book of verses; and if so, would I please send the author the half-crown; if not, would I return the book. This was attractively simple and sensible.
Shaw bought eight copies, and when they were reviewed in a London newspaper, he discovered Davies was a tramp. Noting the review mentioned Davies had a manuscript of an autobiography, Shaw wrote back and offered to read it through. He was amazed by it.
All I have to say by way of recommendation of the book is that I have read it through from beginning to end, and would have read more of it had there been more to read…another effect of this book on me is to make me realise what a slave to convention I have been all my life. When I think of the way I worked tamely for my living during all of those years when Mr. Davies, a free knight of the highway, lived like a pet bird on titbits, I feel that I have been duped out of my natural liberty.
Having read the introduction to the autobiography two days ago, I’d started wondering what Davies’ poems were actually like. Today, browsing a small pile of old books in one of Finchley Central’s junk shops, I found a 1946 hardback of his collected work. That’s 48 hours between my wondering about them and subsequently having them in my hand. There’s a strange providence with second-hand books – somehow they start to find their way to you.
In all, Davies self-published fifty volumes of poetry, and this book collects all 636 of his poems.
He’s largely forgotten today – but his work’s not at all bad. Befitting his preoccupations as a tramp, Davies writes about outside spaces, his nights spent sleeping rough in the woods, his desire to have a house, about rogues who “come this day to borrow / A sum that’s promised but not paid tomorrow”, and portrays scenes of life from the lodging houses he frequented. One poem concerns a sailor in a doss-house shouting at his parrot for it’s foul language.
With his autobiography a success, Davies was immediately accepted by London’s literary and artistic circles (albeit more for his unusual life story than his work.) He was painted by Augustus John and in 1916 had a bronze made of his head by Jacob Epstein.
In 1911, he was awarded a civil list pension of £50, which later increased to £100, and then £150. It meant he could live comfortably for the rest of his life and concentrate on his literary work. The same year, he coined his most recognisable (although often misquoted and rarely attributed) couplet in the poem Leisure:
What is this life if, full of care
We have no time to stand and stare…
In 1916, having lived for short periods in houses across London, Davies settled into a flat at 12 Great Russell Street (directly opposite the YMCA) with his pet toad, Jim.
He stayed at the flat until 1921 when he moved to 13 Avery Row, off Brook Street, in the smarter neighbour of Mayfair.
During his time in London, Davies occupied himself by writing a second volume of autobiography entitled Later Days and giving readings of his work; fourteen of his readings for the BBC reside in their archives.
Marrying in 1925, Davies and his wife left London for Gloucester. He died in 1940, the doctors telling him that his heart was showing alarming signs of weakness, which they attributed to his dragging the extra weight of his wooden leg about.
In his introduction to the collected poems, his friend Osbert Sitwell called Davies an
extraordinary and memorable being, who, for all his humility, bore about him something of the primitive splendour and directness of the Elizabethan age: in which, as his appearance testified, he would have been equally at home. No one who knew him will, or ever could, forget him, even had he never written so many lovely poems, fresh and exquisite as flowers to keep his memory alive; and no one who knew him will ever be able to recall him without a smile of pleasure and regret.
Sir John Squire summed up his poetry with a lovely turn of phrase:
Mr. Davies is astonished at everything the rest of us take for granted. What to the rest of us is the first primrose of spring is to him the first primrose in all the world. In other words, he is pure poet.
Open editions of Davies’ The Autobiography Of A Supertramp can be read in full here.