The thing I love most about London’s history is how it often pops up in the most mundane of settings.

Just after Christmas, I set out to close a Co-Op bank account that I’ve not used for years. The nearest branch to me is in Islington, just opposite Angel tube station. Look, I’m aware neither of those are the most dynamic opening sentences, but bear with me. I did say the setting was going to be mundane.

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It’s one of the more perplexing names in the tube network – why did they go for Angel? Why not Islington,or Upper Street, or something a bit more geographically helpful?

The answer is that it’s one of five tube stations named after a pub (the others are Elephant & Castle, Manor House, Royal Oak and Swiss Cottage) and when the Angel tube station opened in 1901, the Angel Inn was still thriving on the corner of the High Street – much as it had done since the fifteenth century.

But within twenty years of the tube station taking its name, the Angel Inn was closed. Today, the tube station is the only reminder that it was ever there.

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According to Henry C. Shelley’s The Inns and Taverns of Old London (1909):

The Angel dates back to before 1665, for in that year of plague in London a citizen broke out of his house in the city and sought refuge here. He was refused admission, but was taken in at another inn and found dead in the morning. In the seventeenth century and later, as old pictures testify, the inn presented the usual features of a large old country hostelry. As such the courtyard is depicted by Hogarth in his print of the Stage Coach. Its career has been uneventful in the main.

Its career may have been largely uneventful, but the inn survived for generations and the galleried interior was immortalised by some of the most celebrated English artists of the day: not just Hogarth in The Stage Coach: Country Inn Yard (1747)…

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…but later by Thomas Rowlandson (in Outside the Angel Inn, Islington)…

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…and Charles Dickens, who called the Angel “the place London begins in earnest” in Oliver Twist.

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Despite an 1819 rebuild as the area rapidly transformed from a rural to an urban one (some of its land was sold off to realise some healthy profits), the Angel Inn was eventually demolished in the dying years of the nineteenth century.

ImageBut the Truman, Hanbury, Buxton and Co brewery had no intention of closing the pub down – instead they were going to make The Angel more popular than ever before.

In 1899, they rebuilt the old pub as an ornate, six-storey, terracotta-brick building which still stands today.

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Renamed the Angel Hotel, the new building was intended to do justice to what the brewers described (with some marketing hyperbole) as “the widest-known hostelry in the world.” The ground floor was faced in polished Norwegian granite; carved stone cherubs look out from the higher eaves; a mahogany and green-marble staircase led from the bar to a smoking room upstairs; and crowning the entire heap sat a grand baroque cupola, which quickly became one of Islington’s landmarks.

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But within twenty years, the Angel Hotel had closed – its grand, high-Victorian design swiftly looked out of date and unfashionable, and the building’s three-hundred year history as an inn came to an end in 1921. The brewery sold the building to the Lyons catering empire, most famous for their vast Corner House restaurants which dominated the West End in the post-war period.

Staffed by waitresses affectionately known as ‘nippies’, the Corner Houses were more like department stores than tearooms, with several restaurants, numerous floors and hundreds of staff. In the 1950s, the company could boast it was serving over a hundred million meals a year to the British public.

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The Angel Cafe Restaurant was opened in February 1922 as a grand, two-storey restaurant – large, but not on the same scale as the massive centrally located Corner Houses. The novelist Arnold Bennett came for lunch in 1924, and wrote that he preferred the “brightness and space” of the Lyons house to “the old Angel’s dark stuffiness.”

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It lasted until 1959, when the Lyons company sold the building to the Council. Road widening schemes had been constantly mooted throughout the century (one estimate claims the corner was subject to seventy individual road-widening schemes from 1890 until the 1970s) and with a compulsory purchase order about to come into effect on the building, Lyons sold the site to the council a few years before they would have had to.

The decision was made easier for the company due to the increasing cost in the upkeep of the now shabby building – a slow and steady decline in Lyon’s trade from the end of the Second World War onwards meant the company were already feeling the downturn in fortunes which would see them go under in the 1970s.

The building was leased to the University of London’s Geology department until 1968, and then spent a number of years empty until the council finally abandoned their road widening schemes. Having escaped demolition by the skin of its teeth, it is now listed and has been fitted for bank use since 1979.

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And that’s where we come in, with me popping in to close a bank account in the Co-Op, who occupy it today.

And that’s when I noticed this inside the front entrance.

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The huge gold plaque commemorates the day in 1925 when the building was still the Angel Cafe Restaurant, and Victor Watson stopped by for lunch.

Watson was the managing director of Waddingtons, a firm of printers from Leeds who in the 1930s had started to branch out into card and board games. In 1935, the company sent a game they’d devised called Lexicon to the Parker Brothers in America, hoping they might agree to produce it in the States. In return, the Parker Brothers sent them one of their board games that had not yet gone into production: Monopoly.

Following a weekend of play, Victor’s son Norman urged his father to quickly snap up the rights, and three days after Victor had received the game, Waddingtons obtained the licence to produce and market Monopoly outside of the United States.

Watson felt that for the game to be a success in the United Kingdom, the American locations on the board needed to be replaced, so he and his secretary, Marjory Phillips, travelled to London for a day to work out which street names they would put on the board.

By all accounts, Victor and Marjory’s single day in London was a hectic one – Victor later admitted he’d slipped up by putting ‘Marlborough Street’ on the board when it should have been Great Marlborough Street – but in a short period of time, they managed to pick a broadly accurate selection of roads to represent the varying values across the board.

One of the only known facts about their day out (which would turn out to be a very lucrative one for the Waddington’s company) was that Victor and Marjory sat in the Angel Cafe Restaurant in the afternoon and reviewed their work.

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And whether it was to celebrate completing their job, or just because he liked the name, Victor decided to include ‘The Angel, Islington’ on the board. Unlike all the other property squares, it’s the only one which isn’t a street, but a specific building.

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You can find this plaque, unveiled in 2003 by Victor’s grandson (who is also called Victor and is also the managing director of Waddingtons), just as you walk into the Co-Op bank at 1 High Street, Islington.

A couple of doors away, there’s a Wetherspoon’s which has taken the name The Angel, but don’t be fooled. This Angel can only trace its history back to 1998.

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In May 2012, a new Banksy wall painting in Turnpike Lane was excitedly reported by the world’s media. Depicting a child making Jubilee bunting, the trail of flags were removed after less than 24 hours.

Now that the debate as to whether graffiti is art is long over, a new problem has arisen with street art: it’s easy to ruin it.

While many of Banksy’s pieces have been covered with plexiglass by the owners of the buildings they appear on, countless works have been destroyed.

There’s all manners of ways in which London is deprived of these pieces of public art.

In September 2011, the work above appeared on the side of Luti Fagbenle’s post-production company, Portobello Post, in Portobello Road – Banksy painted it on a Sunday morning, having erected scaffolding so he could work unseen while the Portobello Market was in full swing. After protecting it with plexiglass, Fagbenle put the piece up for auction on eBay, saying “‘I could never justify owning a piece of art worth that much.”

With a Buy It Now price of £1,000,000, it attracted a high bid of £208,100 (and an additional £5000 to remove it from the wall, and consequently repair the hole left behind.)

Less professional attempts have also been made to remove pieces for sale: Lily Evans wrote an article for Vice Magazine about her disastrous attempt to retrieve a famous rat which ended in the complete destruction of the piece.

Similarly, some pieces have been removed not for profit, but by local councils, keen not to have their workplaces despoiled.

In October 2008, Westminister City Council demanded the removal of a huge mural painted on a building part-occupied by the Royal Mail sorting office on Newman Street.

While the Council said the owner of the building was free to do what he liked with the three-storey high-image – sell it or exhibit it elsewhere – they demanded it be removed from the site.

Deputy leader of the council Robert Davis said keeping the mural would mean “condoning” graffiti. “I take the view that this is graffiti and if you condone this then what is the difference between this and all the other graffiti you see scrawled across the city? If you condone this then you condone graffiti all over London.”

Westminster Council couldn’t have taken a more opposing view to Camden, who had long spoken of their admiration for Banksy’s maid, which had been stencilled on a wall belonging to the Roundhouse close to Chalk Farm Road.

But on the night the Hawley Arms and Lock Market caught fire in February 2008, the Camden New Journal reported “another Camden icon was being destroyed.”

The maid was obliterated with white paint.

The whitewash attack in Regent’s Park Road was made under cover of darkness, with a sarcastic calling card wishing “All the Best – Vida” left spray-painted at the scene.

The actions of the mysterious “Vida” fly in the face of an unspoken law practised by council officials, which has seen Banksy’s street art preserved, even retouched, while all other artistic offerings on the same wall – the most recent a life-sized wooden mantelpiece – are swiftly removed.

Beyind saving, the council commissioned a large mural from the Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra to replace it.

The needless defacing of Banksy’s works has never been more apparent than in Archway, where one of his most famous stencils of Charles Manson hitching a ride to ‘Anywhere’ had stood opposite the McDonalds on Junction Road since 2005.

One of the oldest of Banksy’s large-scale works, by the time I took these photos in 2009, the image was weather-worn and some additional graffiti had appeared.

But in 2010, Banksy was accused of altering a twenty-five-year-old tag by Robbo (described by the Guardian as “one of the founding fathers of the London graffiti scene) on the Regents Canal.

By now hugely successful, Banksy eliminated much of the original with the addition of a workman pasting the tag up like wallpaper.

Insulted by Banksy’s actions, Robbo (now dubbed King Robbo) returned to re-alter the altered tag. In an interview with the Sabotage Times, Robbo said he did it himself, scooting across the canal in a wetsuit on an inflatable lilo.

He broke a graff code of conduct and for a lawless community we have a lot of laws, so I had to come back. What people don’t realise is that he’d already gone over loads of my stuff before and I hadn’t bothered retaliating but this time it was just so deliberate, so cowardly. If you’ve got the hump about something, you send a message and discuss it like gentlemen, you don’t wipe out a piece of graffiti history.

As the war of words on walls started to grow, Team Robbo set about altering many of Banksy’s works in North London.  Following alterations to works in Camden Town, the Archway hitchhiker’s sign was changed from ‘Anywhere’ to ‘Going Nowhere.’

The alteration to the sign was quickly buffed out (presumably by the Council) and the original figure was left holding a blank sign for a couple of months.

But in November 2011, supposedly irritated by the respect accorded to Banksy by the authorities while their own efforts had been cleaned away, someone from Team Robbo decided to entirely obliterate the Hitchhiker with white paint.

A ‘spokesman’ told the Islington Times:

Regarding the Archway piece, Team Robbo and Team Banksy are still ‘at war’ and, unfortunately, there is sometimes collateral damage to innocent artworks. It has become increasingly hard for us to verify whether or not a specific artwork has been attacked or damaged in crossfire. Furthermore, many writers outside the Team Robbo crew in London are involved in covert actions.

After six months, the decision was taken to clean the work off the wall entirely.

All that remains after five years is a pale, ghostly outline of the Banksy.

Team Robbo have occassionally tagged the Archway area – here’s their hesitant contribution from a nearby building site next to the Whittington and Cat pub which appeared in the last couple of months.

I first came across David Thomson’s In Camden Town  a couple of years ago as bite-sized entries in a London anthology book. Thomson’s tightly wrought street reportage stood out like a beacon amidst the other more florid and familiar entries, so I kept an eye out for the book whenever I popped into a second-hand book shop. After a fruitless year of searching, I turned to Abebooks, where I picked up a battered second-hand copy for a couple of quid.

Put simply, it’s an enthralling work about London by a largely forgotten, hugely talented writer.

Born in 1914, Thomson worked as a writer, researcher and BBC radio producer, writing three novels, a book about animal folklore, and a number of children’s books for Puffin, such as Danny Fox, Danny Fox Meets A Stranger and Danny Fox At The Palace. In 1955, he and his wife moved to Regents Park Terrace in Camden to bring their three sons up.

In 1980, at the age of 66, he was attempting to complete a vast, sprawling history of Camden Town. Struck with writer’s block at the sheer immensity of the project, he started to keep a diary.

He thought that forcing himself to write short entries each day would help break the deadlock, as well as “bypass for a time my dread of opening the manuscript at the page where I left off.”  About halfway through his diary, he attempted to restart the book, but found himself in tears after just six lines. Returning to his new manuscript later in the day, he found the page he had been working on had been torn out – only he couldn’t remember having done so, nor could he remember what he’d written.

The book he ended up publishing instead was the diary – a wide-ranging vivid often beautiful, often bad-tempered account of life in Camden Town, as he writes, drinks and struggles with work.

He spends days roaming through Camden, describing the horrors and the dirt that he passes – “Canal black, with plastic cups floating on it, potato-crisp bags, Kentucky chicken and, I think, a dead cat” – popping into the pubs along the way, and passing hours chatting to the tramps, drunks and chancers who he runs into on a regular basis.

Thomson frequently writes about a Scottish alcoholic named Davy and his on-off partner Mary. He’d known them both for twenty years,

but only been on speaking terms with him since Christmas Eve in 1975…Davy came up to me and said that the off-licence was shut and would I go into the pub and get some cider. He had some little coins in his hand to encourage me. They are not allowed in anywhere and only into one cafe that I know of. I got the cider and some Guinness for myself and we went to drink it on a bench near the Buck’s Head where in those days they liked to sit in the sun facing the end of Inverness Street market. No market that day. Beautiful sun, but weak. Mary and Davy were surprised that I felt cold. They spend their lives in such places.

Elsewhere, Thomson talks with passion on the conditions that navvies worked under on the railways into Euston (a topic that he would have covered in his never-completed history) – in the course of his research, he discovered a record of a woman who’s lost twenty-nine of her partners in six years, and only one of them to natural causes.

Thomson starts to despise the fact he’s getting old, tells how he once smelled what he thinks were “ghost horses” at some traffic lights at Henley’s Corner, talks about how the smell of bonfires rouse old memories, and decides that the Punk fashion (this being 1980) he sees outside The Music Machine venue is akin to Puritanism – “it is startling to see such a look of severity, especially on the girl’s faces in the evening outside a pleasure dome, but this I guess is fashion too.”

He attends a sparse funeral in East Finchley for a pauper (“I felt I was in a desolate housing estate among minature houses for the dead”) and relates how even as an elderly man, he still always sat near attractive women on buses.

If it’s a girl with long hair down her back…I clasp the hand rail on the back of her seat. That’s what it’s meant for I suppose, but I’ve never seen anyone else clasp it. And as she moves her head her hair touches my hands….I just haven’t changed since I was fifteen. I learn from autobiographies that people do change.

Published by Hutchinson, and later in paperback by Penguin, the book was reviewed favourably at the time by The Guardian and The TLS, so it seems quite surprising that David Thomson is almost totally obscure today. His memoir Woodbrook (concerning a period in the 1930s where he tutored two girls in a rural Irish country house and ended up staying for ten years) is better known, but Thomson’s work has largely fallen out of the public eye.

Seamus Heaney wrote an introduction for a reissue of Thomson’s collection of seal folktales The People Of The Sea in 2001, and much of what he says about that ‘luminous’ book could equally apply to In Camden Town .

He refers to “the sweetness and intimacy of David Thomson’s imagination,” saying the book follows “his own creative, truth-telling bent with characteristic unpredictability and sprightliness.” Oddly, it sounds all very high-falutin’ until you’ve read In Camden Town, and the spikiness, the strangeness and the vividness that Heaney talks of can be spotted immediately.

The fact Heany’s comment applies equally to a book about living in a run-down North London district, as it does to a book about ancient Celtic seal fables, is purely down to the sheer brilliance of Thomson’s writing.

It’s a shame that this book has been totally forgotten, and it’s a shame that David Thomson seems to have been totally forgotten too. It’s something neither of them deserve.