King Richard III and more

SEEN FROM ACROSS THE THAMES at Battersea Park, it looks like a Tudor palace in immaculate condition on the opposite bank of the river. But do not be fooled because much of Crosby Hall, the edifice you can see from the riverside at Battersea, was built between 1910 and about 1926.  Part of the building is far older, dating back to mediaeval times and it was moved from the heart of the City to its present location in Chelsea in 1910. Let me explain, please.

In 1466, Sir John Crosby, alderman and a sheriff of London, built his mansion, Crosby Place, on land just east of Bishopsgate, leased to him by the Prioress St Helens Bishopsgate, a church nearby.  After Crosby died in 1475/6, Crosby Place was owned by the Duke of Gloucester (1452-1485), who was to become King Richard III, of Shakespearian fame.  John Timbs in his “Curiosities of London” (published in 1855) suggests that in 1598, Shakespeare had lodgings close to Crosby Place. In Act 1, scene 2 of his play, Richard, Duke of Gloucester says:

“And presently repair to Crosby House;

Where (after I have solemnly interr’d

At Chertsey monast’ry this noble king,

And wet his grave with my repentant tears)

I will with all expedient duty see you.

For diverse unknown reasons, I beseech you,

Grant me this boon.”

Writing in 1603 in his “The Survey of London”, John Stow (1524/25-1605) noted:

“Then you have one great house called Crosby place, because the same was built by Sir John Crosby, grocer and Woolman … This house he built of stone and timber, very large and beautiful, and the highest at that time in London … he was buried in St Helen’s, the parish church…”

Stow also recorded that in the late 16th century several ambassadors lived in the house.

The fourth owner of Crosby Place was the senior government official, Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), whose head was removed at the Tower of London after disagreements with his ‘boss’, King Henry VIII. It has been suggested by Timbs that More wrote his books “Utopia” (1516) and “History of Richard the Third” (1512-1519) whilst residing at Crosby Place. In 1523, More sold Crosby Place to his friend, the banker and merchant Antonio Bonvisi (died 1558) from Lucca in Italy. Interestingly, More moved to his house in Chelsea after leaving Crosby Place. His riverside home, the former Beaufort House was a few yards away from the present Crosby Hall.

The ownership of Crosby Place changed several times after More sold it. Sir Walter Raleigh lived there in 1601. Between 1621 and 1638, the Place was home to the East India Company (founded 1600). Soon after 1642, fire struck the property, and it was never again used as a residence. The conflagration spared the great hall, which became known as Crosby Hall. During the Civil War, it was used as a prison for Royalists. In 1672, it was converted into a Presbyterian meeting house, and was used as such until 1769. Next, the hall was used as a packer’s warehouse. The packer’s lease expired in 1831. Following that and public concern about its condition, the hall was restored in about 1836. Timbs noted that it was:

“… the finest example in the metropolis of the domestic mansion Perpendicular work … The glory of the place is, however, the roof which is an elaborate architectural study, and decidedly one of the finest examples of timber-work in existence. It differs from many other examples in being an inner roof…”

From Timbs’s detailed description, it sounds as if it was a spectacular creation.

Following its restoration, Crosby Hall became used for musical performances and as a meeting place for literary societies. In 1868, Crosby Hall became a restaurant. The Hall was sold to the Chartered Bank of India, Australia, and China in 1907. The bank wanted to destroy what was one of the oldest buildings in the City of London, one of the few survivors of the Great Fire of 1666. These plans caused a public outcry. In 1910, the Hall was dismantled and moved stone by stone to its present site in Chelsea, opposite Battersea Park. There, it was reassembled and Tudor-style additions, designed by the architect Walter Godfrey (1881-1961) were constructed.

During WW1, the relocated and enlarged Crosby Hall was used to house refugees from war-torn Belgium. Between 1925 and 1968, the Hall was leased by the British Federation of University Women. Following the anti-Jewish laws passed by the Nazis in 1933, Crosby Hall provided residential fellowships for Jewish women academics who had fled from Hitler’s Germany. After 1988, Crosby Hall became a private residence (www.christophermoran.org/news/crosby-hall-the-most-important-surviving-domestic-medieval-building-in-london/).

Close to the relocated Crosby Hall there is a statue of Sir Thomas More, seated and looking across the Thames. This statue is appropriately located between what is left of his old home, which used to be in Bishopsgate, and the land on which his Chelsea mansion used to stand. One day, I hope that I will be able to see the superb hammer beam roof in Crosby Hall. I wonder how it compares with the wonderful example that can be seen in Middle Temple Hall, in which Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” was first performed in 1602.

Philosopher’s stone and UFOs

A SCULPTED STONE stands in a small garden on the north side of All Saints Church in London’s Notting Hill. We have walked past it often during the various ‘lockdowns’ and over many years before these were deemed necessary, always remarking on its satisfying appearance but without questioning its significance. Yesterday, the 8th of March 2021, we entered the garden and examined the abstract stone artwork. It stands on a circular stone base inscribed with the words we had never noticed before:

“JOHN MICHELL 1933 _ 2009 WRITER GEOMETER NATURAL PHILOSOPHER”

By chance, the church was open, and we entered. There, we met one of its clerics and asked him whether the word ‘geometer’ meant anything to him. Like us, he had no idea about that or about Mitchell. My curiosity was aroused. There is plenty about John Michell on the Internet, but to a simple-minded chap like me, it is mostly rather weird, but that will not prevent me having a stab at trying to unravel why he was worth commemorating with a stone in Notting Hill.

Michell’s early life was conventional (www.john-michell-network.org/index.php/about-john-michell): educated at Eton and Trinity College Cambridge, where studied languages but missed examinations by oversleeping; trained as a Russian interpreter for the Royal Navy; painted and exhibited his works; and worked briefly as an estate agent and chartered surveyor.  In 1966, by which time he had moved into one of the properties he managed in Notting Hill, its basement became the London Free School, an alternative community action education project (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_Free_School). Around this time, Michell began publishing works on unidentified flying objects (‘UFOs’) and many other unexplained phenomena. His first book, “The Flying Saucer Vision”, published in 1967, was probably:

“… “the catalyst and helmsman” for the growing interest in UFOs among the hippie sector of the counter-culture.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Michell_(writer)).

This work introduced links between UFOs and ley lines, proposed by Alfred Watkins, (1855-1935), which some believe criss-cross the countryside and act as markers for extra-terrestrial spacecraft crewed by aliens who assisted human society early in the history of mankind. Along with two subsequent books, notably his “The View over Atlantis”, and other publications, Michell became an influential figure who believed in the:

“ “sacred geometry” of the Great Pyramid. Alfred Watkins’s ‘The Old Straight Track’ had come up with the concept of ley lines in 1925. John took it much further, believing that these alignments of traditional sites were a kind of feng shui of the landscape. They made up a sort of Druids’ transport system, he said, which harnessed a mysterious power that whisked large rocks across the countryside.” (www.theguardian.com/books/2009/may/06/john-michell-obituary)

As time went on, Michell delved deeper and deeper into phenomena like these. His knowledge of the hidden forces was used to help design the pyramid stage used at the Glastonbury Festival in 1971. It was because of him that Glastonbury an epicentre of New Age ideas and events (www.nytimes.com/2009/05/03/books/03michell.html).

Unfamiliar as many of his ideas and theories are Michell was a serious thinker:

“His approach uniquely combined the thought of Plato and of Charles Fort. Blending scholarship and deep intuition, John often returned to his favourite subjects: Platonic idealism, sacred geometry, ancient metrology, leys and alignments, megaliths, astro-archaeology, strange phenomena, simulacra, crop circles, UFOs, the Shakespeare authorship controversy, and the nature of human belief.” (www.john-michell-network.org/index.php/about-john-michell)

You have heard of Plato, but Charles Fort (1874-1932) might be less familiar. This self-taught American researcher and writer, a contrarian, specialised in discovering and considering the many examples of phenomena that defied explanation by conventional (accepted) scientific methods and theories. When Michel wrote an introduction to one of Fort’s books, “Lo!”, he remarked:

“Fort, of course, made no attempt at defining a world-view, but the evidence he uncovered gave him an ‘acceptance’ of reality as something far more magical and subtly organized than is considered proper today.” (quoted in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Fort).

Not being inclined to philosophy, it would be unwise for me to attempt to explain how Michell’s ideas display the influences of both Plato and Fort.

Michell felt it necessary to question orthodoxy. His book on the identity of the true author(s) of Shakespeare’s plays, “Who Wrote Shakespeare?” examined this question thoroughly but received mixed reviews. Several of his other publications questioned the commonly accepted archaeologists’ interpretations of their findings, suggesting that their refusal to take ideas about ley lines seriously was a grave error. In the 1980s, two academic archaeologists investigated his ideas and found that he had erroneously included natural rocks and monuments that were created far later than during the prehistoric era as markers for his supposed ley lines. When the replacement of feet and inches by the Metric metre was introduced, Michell objected strongly to the abandonment of a measurement that he believed dated back to earliest times and established an Anti-Metrication Board to oppose the change.

Michell had one son, Jason Goodwin, born in 1964. His mother was the writer Jocasta Innes (1934-2013), who was married twice to Richard B Goodwin. Jason, a Byzantine scholar, is a well-known, prize-winning author, whose books my wife has enjoyed greatly.

Michell became a cult figure in Notting Hill, associated with the ‘local vibe’ and The Rolling Stones. He took members of the group to Stonehenge to scan the heavens for saucers (https://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/03/books/03michell.html). He smoked marijuana regularly, publicly encouraged the use of mind-altering drugs, and, surprisingly, his favourite newspaper was the right-wing oriented “The Telegraph”. At Notting Hill, he lived at number 11 Powis Gardens, within easy reach of All Saints Church, where the stone monument to his memory can be found. It was sculpted by John de Pauley, who explained (www.constructingtheuniverse.com/JM%20Memorial%20Sculpture.html):

“’The idea for the sculpture comes from Neolithic stone spheres. Their purpose remains a mystery. The geometrical construction is of a Platonic solid, 12 projecting tumescence making an icosahedron.”

Knowing this and a little about Michell, it seems an entirely suitable memorial to a bold and original thinker.

Finally, that word ‘geometer’: it is simply the name given to a mathematician, who studies geometry. One of Michell’s may paintings has the title “The Geometer’s Breakfast”.

Shakespeare in the forest

BIG WOOD SEEMED large to me when I was a child. Although it does not live up to its name, it feels like a big wood once you enter it. Located in the heart of Hampstead Garden Suburb (‘HGS’), this woodland and the much smaller nearby Little Wood are quite ancient. They were part of a forest that was at least 1000 years old, part of land given to Wealdhere, who became Bishop of London late in the 7th century. The woods and surrounding land remained church possessions until 1911, when they were leased to the HGS Trust by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. According to the londongardenstrust.org website:
“When Hampstead Garden Suburb was being planned in 1907, its instigator, Dame Henrietta Barnett, was committed to providing green spaces within the housing, planting trees and preserving those that existed. When additional land was acquired to extend the Suburb in 1911, Big Wood was leased from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and preserved as woodland. In 1933 Finchley UDC took on the freehold.”

BIG 12

Stage and auditorium of Little Wood Theatre

There is a report that circus elephants used to be kept in a field that existed between Big and Little Woods before the construction of houses in this location (now Denman Drive North and South). Colin Gregory wrote (www.hgs.org.uk):

“Before leaving this story, we should pay our respects to one of the last occupiers of Park Farm: the circus proprietor Lord’ George Sanger … His descendants continued the circus in operation until the 1960s. It is said that when he owned Park Farm he allowed the circus animals to winter on his land. An elderly resident of Denman Drive – constructed in 1908 on what was once Westminster Abbey’s land – used to recall ‘elephants grazing’ in the field between Big Wood and Little Wood, before Denman Drive North and Denman Drive South – constructed in 1912 on what was once the Bishop’s land – were completed.”

We re-visited the woods recently on a hot sunny afternoon. We entered Big Wood from the end of Temple Fortune Hill. At this entrance to the tiny forest there is a wooden gate that was put up to commemorate the 29 residents of HGS who died during WW2.  I do not remember seeing this gate when I was a child in the 1960s. Often in those days, my friends and I used to play in the woods, which I recall as being dark and dingy.

Lopa and I walked leisurely from one end of Big Wood to the other along good paths in about five minutes. This made the wood seem far smaller than its name suggests. However, when we wandered off the main tarred paths onto the numerous dirt tracks, made uneven by semi-exposed roots, threading their way amongst the trees, tree stumps, broken branches, and clumps of stinging nettles, the wood seemed dense and dank despite the fine blue sky above the tree tops. Calls of hidden birds punctuated the silence.  On these small paths, we lost all sense of direction and managed to get lost within the tiny area of woodland.

We had asked some locals how we could reach Little Wood from Big Wood and they had told us to follow a certain path, which they pointed out. We set off along it, but it kept bifurcating every few yards and we were clueless as to which of the two branching paths was the one to follow to arrive at Little Wood. Eventually after going around in circles, we gave up and left Big Wood via Oakwood Road, which is appropriately named as many of the trees in the two woods are oaks. We entered Little Wood from Denman Drive North, the continuation of Denman Drive South. These differently named sections of the same stretch of road link the two woods and must pass close to the field where circus elephants once grazed.

Little Wood, whose history is the same as that of Big Wood, contains one of London’s lesser-known performance spaces, a small open-air theatre.  This was created in 1920 by the Play and Pageant Union, one of two drama groups that later merged to form the Garden Suburb Theatre. It was restored in 1997, and now looks like it would benefit from some more restoration. The stage is a clearing in the woods surrounded by trees and bushes. The audience sits on a circular stepped auditorium consisting of three layers of paving stones set in a curve around the stage.

The theatre in Little Wood occupies an important place in my memories of childhood. It was here when I was about ten years old, back in the early 1960s, that I first saw a performance of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. It must have been on a summer evening when I watched this with a sense of wonder that still lives with me. Apart from the odd logs, there were no other props. The actors and actresses appeared on, and disappeared from, the simple stage almost magically, popping through gaps between the trees and bushes surrounding the theatre.

I cannot begin to imagine what The Bard was thinking when he created The Dream, but I feel sure that he would have approved of its being acted out in on the sylvan stage in Little Wood. Furthermore, I think that he would have appreciated a play that contains six amateur actors in its plot being performed by a troupe of amateur actors such as we were watching that far-off evening. Since watching that play in Little Wood so many years ago, I have seen several other performances of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and only one has given me as much pleasure as that. It was a recent staging of the play directed by Nicholas Hytner at the relatively new Bridge Theatre near London’s Tower Bridge. In that recent show, as the theatre’s publicity said:

“The theatre becomes the forest – a dream world of flying fairies, contagious fogs and moonlight revels.”

And, the result at the Bridge was more than wonderful, although seeing the play in a real forest (Little Wood, in my case) is hard to beat.

Returning to the little theatre in Little Wood the other day, though it was out of use during the Covid-19 pandemic, it kindled many happy memories. Although I had not visited that theatre for many decades, it looked just as I remembered it.

A Dream

 

The first time I saw a performance of Shakespeare’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHTS DREAM was in the 1960s in north London (Big Wood in Hampstead Garden Suburb). It was performed by an amateur dramatic group in a clearing in a small wood. There were barely any props. The actors appeared and disappeared in and out of the trees growing around the clearing. It might not have been the very best of renderings of the play, but I found it highly enjoyable and magical. Whenever I think of the Dream, I remember that show in the woods, so long ago, with much fondness. 

Since that magical summer evening in the wood, I have seen several more performances of the play, but none of them managed to recapture for me the magical experience  that was created for me by my first viewing of the work.

A few days ago, I watched yet another performance of the Dream. This time it was at the lovely new Bridge Theatre next to the southern end of London’s Tower Bridge. The staging and acting was brilliant. The Director, Nicholas Hytner, had ‘tweaked’ the play slightly but successfully to make it more accessble to contemporary audiences. I hope that Shakespeare would have approved of this latest version. I feel that he might well have done. The ‘show’ was livened up with acrobats, who were not only superbly skilful but also great actors with clear diction, and much music. Despite these additions, the Bard’s original words were not sacrificed or edited in any noticeable way. It was not merely a play, but  a spectacular extravaganza.

There was one aspect of the performance that I did not like. The play was performed ‘in the round’ on an arena where there would normally be stalls seating. Many people had bought tickets to stand on the stage in order to take part in an immersive performance. The actors mingled with the crowd of spectators standing on the ‘stage’. Assistants and the actors themselves shifted the crowds around to make spaces for props and passages through which the actors could move. It was a case of, to use the Bard’s words, “All the world’s a stage…”. This seemed to be very popular with both the audience members immersed in the drama as well as the rest of us sitting in seats. I was not keen on watching a play where the actors are surrounded by swarms of spectators. I felt that the latter diluted the action and were a bit of a distraction. The immersive theatre technique disturbed me, but most of the rest of the audience approved of it.

 

My picture shows the actors and audience mingling together at the end of the play

Two bookshops: Scotland and Paris

Many years ago, in the 1970s, I accompanied ‘M’ on a trip, my first, to Scotland. We spent a few hours in St Andrews, which is famed for its golf course and its university, at which Prince William first met his future wife Kate. Both M and I were keen on second-hand book buying.

On arrival at St Andrews, we made enquiries about second-hand bookshops. Both of us felt the urge to visit one. We told that there was probably one somewhere in the suburbs of the small town. We drove along a tree-lined road and nearly missed the small sign outside what looked like a normal residence. The doors of its attached garage were open, and it could be seen that its walls were lined with bookshelves filled with books. We got out of the car and approached the garage. As we entered, and just before beginning to browse, a late middle-aged man approached us, saying:

“Do come indoors, I’ll be serving coffee soon.”

We followed him into the house and sat in the large living room with several his other customers. After we had been served with coffee and biscuits, the man, who owned the building and the business, told us that we were free to wander around the house, his home, selecting the books that we wished to buy. He told us that we could select volumes from any room except his office, which was on the first floor at the top of the stairs. Every room in the house was filled with books, even the bedrooms. We were told that he lent rooms to students from the university providing that they did not mind his customers wandering through them when his bookshop was open.

 

books on bookshelves

Photo by Mikes Photos on Pexels.com

A few years later, I visited some friends of a friend in Paris. They were from the USA. One of them, Duncan, was a dealer in oriental carpets. It was a Sunday, and they served me lunch in their flat, which was on the edge of central Paris. After we had eaten, they invited me to join them for tea in the heart of the city. We headed for one of the quais that faced the Ile de La Cité, and entered a second-hand bookshop called ‘Shakespeare & Co.’ I believe that I had come across this shop before, but this time when we entered it, it was not to purchase books.

Shakespeare & Co. occupied larger premises than the shop in St Andrews and was spread over more floors. Both of the two shops (or maybe the correct term should be ‘establishments’) allowed, or maybe encouraged, young people to take residence amongst the books. Duncan had been one of these when he first arrived in Paris from America. As we climbed the stairs to the top of the building, he told me that we would be attending one of the owner’s famed Sunday tea parties at which anyone who had lived in the shop was always made to feel welcome.

When we reached the crowded apartment at the top of the house, I was introduced to the elderly-looking owner of the shop. Many years later, I discovered that his name was George Whitman. I cannot remember much about him except that a tiny child, who must have been less than 2 years old, was crawling around his feet. Her mother was close by. She was far younger than Mr Whitman and, if I recall correctly, looked as if she was of Far Eastern extraction. I remember being impressed that someone who looked as venerable as Mr Whitman had been capable of producing a child. He was, I have recently discovered, only 68 years old.  Recently, one of my cousins, who was then aged 69, produced a daughter. So, maybe I should not have been so surprised, but in the early 1980s, when I met Mr Whitman, I was less well experienced in the ways of the world! After tea, we left the shop and went our own ways. However, the memory of attending that tea party sticks in my mind.

After M and I had spent nearly two hours exploring the stock in the shop in St Andrews, we heard the owner summoning everyone to the living room. He told us to make ourselves comfortable as he was about to serve tea and cakes. Both M and I staggered into the living room bearing huge piles of books that we had chosen. Tea and cakes were served, and whilst we were enjoying these, we chatted with the book seller. It turned out that he was a graduate of University College London (‘UCL’), where he had studied either English or English Literature, M had studied chemistry, and I had completed my PhD. I do not remember when he was at UCL. He and M did not know anyone in common from the college. I have recently discovered that the present owner of Shakespeare & Co., Sylvia Beach Whitman – that small child who I saw at that Parisian tea party back in the early 1980s – was also an alumnus of UCL, but long after my time there!

When tea was over, we thanked the owner and asked if we could pay for the books we had selected. He added the prices in our books and announced the total. However, before we could pay, he discounted the totals considerably; he would accept no more than the ridiculously low amounts that he mentioned. We loaded the books in the car and set off for our next destination, Aberdeen.

Years later in the early part of this century while I was investigating the ramifications of my mother’s family tree, I discovered that I had many French cousins. I keep in touch with some of them. One of them, who is related to the famous Captain Dreyfus of the Dreyfus Affair, speaks and writes excellent English. On one occasion not too long ago, we met him in Paris outside Shakespeare & Co, where he is well-known. It turns out that he attends a creative writing class organised by the bookshop. It is a small world, as so many people say!