The day Broadcasting House saved JB Priestley
On this week’s virtual ramble, Diary recalls a riches to rags story in Chandos Street, raises a glass to the City of Lushington Club, and sees a lucky escape for a playwright and novelist
21 August, 2020 — By The Xtra Diary
JB Priestley in 1940 – World Service duty at the BBC during the war had its dramas. Photos: The Langham/National Media Museum
WE had lingered on the steps of JMW Turner’s unkempt abode in Queen Anne Street, Marylebone, last Friday on our weekly “walk” around Westminster, so let’s pick up the trail and swagger round the corner into Chandos Street.
It gets its name from The Duke of Chandos, a landowner and politician in the early 1700s.
When he died, his son discovered his father’s estate was in so much debt that he had no choice but to hold a demolition sale of their country pile, with literally everything available: walls, ceilings, as well as the family silver.
It means that today some of Chandos’s expensively good tastes in art and architecture can still be found in other stately homes, even though his home no longer exists.
Right – back to the present day. Chandos Street gets a namecheck on page 417 of Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth – “‘Let’s get going,’ he said, as a huge beer-pregnant Englishman, wet from the fountains, collided into him, out of this bloody madness. It’s on Chandos Street.”
But because the characters are in Trafalgar Square, critics wonder if she might be referring to Chandos Place, which is further south.
While we are ruminating on this minor question, let us consider the story of Joseph Johnson, who lived in either Chandos Street or Place (Diary cannot confirm which) in the 1800s. Originally a merchant seaman, he was unable to return to the life of a sailor because of an injury, and not being liable to relief from any parish, Joseph took to making a living by singing songs of the sea with a small replica of HMS Nelson attached to his hat.
“He can, by a bow of thanks, or a supplicating inclination to a drawing room window, give the appearance of sea motion,” one witness described.
Hats off to you, Joe.
And sitting a stone’s throw east of old Joe’s haunt is the magnificent Langham Hotel.
Designed by John Giles (not the tough-tackling Leeds United midfielder but an architect who also designed hospitals and asylums), it was built in 1863. It cost a whopping £29million in today’s cash to complete. But what a magnificent sight it was! The Langham boasted London’s first hydraulic lifts, 100 loos and 36 bathrooms.
During the Second World War, BBC staff would sleep there due to its ease of getting to Broadcasting House across the road.
One such night, playwright and novelist JB Priestley had headed to get some kip after recording an episode of his morale-boosting series, Postscripts. He was woken by a producer who asked if he’d mind standing in for someone on a World Service broadcast. Dutifully, Priestley got out of his pyjamas and went back to work.
Half an hour later, German bombers scattered their murderous payload over the City – and one scored a direct hit on the bedroom Priestley had been sleeping in, completely demolishing it.
The BBC itself tried to pull the Langham down in 1980 – Norman Foster had designed an office block in its place – but permission was denied. The old girl was sold on again as a “do-er upper”, this time to a hotel group, who splashed out £100m on the job.
We shall now go to Great Portland Street for a pretend pint on the spot of the old Harp Tavern. It was here in the 1750s the City of Lushington Club was formed – a drinking society that, it is said, gives us the word lush to describe someone who likes being in one’s cups.
The City of Lushington was organised along the same lines as the City of London, a place not unknown for huge, boozy, indulgent meals. A Lord Mayor was elected, supported by four aldermen who looked after four wards named Juniper, Poverty, Lunacy and Suicide – a type of Hogarthian progress as the devil drink takes hold.
It spawned a number of sayings: “Voting For The Aldermen” meant being blind drunk, while to be told “Lushington Was Your Master” would be a subtle way of saying calm it down there. In the marvellous Green’s Dictionary of Slang, which traces 500 years of idioms and sayings and general language chit-chat, it says the word may have derived from the Bavarian “Loschen”, meaning a strong beer.
Saying cheerio to the ghosts of the Lushington crew, we shall head a little south to the site of the former Middlesex Hospital in Mortimer Street.
Only a chapel and a façade remain of a building that first opened its doors to the sick in 1755, replaced with a typical modern developer’s flats and offices combo. Its medical school had the quaintly hilarious motto “Miseris Succurrere Disco”, which to the untrained Latin reader might translate as “Misery Is Aided By Disco”, but is actually a highfalutin reference to something Virgil said about Queen Dido rescuing shipwrecked sailors.
The old entrance to this place of healing was graced by a set of murals called The Acts Of Mercy by the Edwardian painter Frederick Cayley Robinson (they are now along Euston Road at the Wellcome Trust).
Cayley Robinson was a painter and decorator as well as an artist, perhaps making him an even dabber hand at getting paint on walls. It’s hardly surprising – he lived for many years in Florence, so was steeped in Renaissance friezes. He got into set design, too, working at the Haymarket Theatre.
Having left you last week on Turner’s steps, let’s depart on another note of high culture. Stay safe, stay well.