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SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024

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BULLY FOR PETER!

How our man Hitchens saw off the criminal pickpockets in prison

’Ard man Hitch in his prison uniform. I told you not to mess with ME!


LET’S not forget to watch our old friend newspaper heavyweight Peter Hitchens OTP, as he gets banged up in Channel 4 TV’s aptly named ‘Banged Up’ series starting on this week (October 31). Writing in the Mail on Sunday, he tells us that he genuinely feared for his safety from the hard men in Shrewsbury Jail.


 “My weak, defensive posture as I walked or stood, distinguished me from the tensed up hard men for whom prison was like a normal life,” he said. “Obscene mockery of me never stopped … others in the shower very deliberately dropped a bar of soap on the floor and urged me to pick it up!”


 He adds: “Viewers will be quickly swept up in a world of anger, filthy language, disgusting hiding places for contraband and sudden explosions of violence in this documentary.”


 Hitch was branded ‘paedo’ or ‘nonce’ by inmates – prison words for convicted child molesters. “People like me… old, podgy, middle class and physically soft (sound familiar?) who arrive in jail are immediately suspected of such crimes,” he said.


 “I knew my la-di-da accent would be a provocation to many people, as it has been late at night on public transport. On arrival, surrounded by yelling mouths and scowling, hostile faces, I felt deft fingers reach into my trouser pocket from behind and remove my reading glasses. My hands were full of the few possessions I'd been allowed to take into jail, and I was too slow to react, so I couldn't stop them in time.”


 “That was too much! I had resolved to let this nasty moment, my entry into prison, wash over me. In my free life, I have been insulted by experts and I went through a pretty spartan boarding school experience when I was small, so I am hard to wound or to surprise. But without the glasses, I could not even read and the only solace I really cared about would be taken from me.


 “So, I turned, faced the mob, and demanded them back. To my amazement, it worked. Someone handed them to me.”


 Actor Tom Rosenthal appears in the first episode. Tom, son of former Oxford Mail journalist Jim Rosenthal, broke the rules by smuggling in tobacco in his colon.


 In what critics described as one of the most shocking things ever to air on TV, he is seen going to the toilet to retrieve the condom filled with tobacco. Messy.


 Hitch by the way, tells us he packed quite a punch in the old days. I wish I'd known that when we rowed nose-to-nose about a vacant office that Nick Lloyd had promised us both at the same time, then leaving us alone at war to sort it out the mess.


 Hitch, a great friend now, will I know, make compulsive viewing - but not sure which of the four episodes he is in.

*****


Say Cheese and smile at the past















PUBS were a daily part of Express life in the village of Fleet Street … the Punch; The Albion and The Poppinjay in particular. But there were others too, not least Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, haunt of such greats as Charles Dickens, who always ordered his favourite dish of Welsh Rarebit there.


 And of course, the DX hacks often chose it for their famed Christmas lunches, when bread rolls were hurled by reporters at subs like cannon balls at the Battle of Balaklava in Crimea. And the odd dollop of Christmas cream was rubbed into the hair of luckless executives when ambushed on the staircase between the two floors hosting the festivities.


 But of course, that was tame stuff compared to the antics of many regulars over the centuries, as some old tiles in an upstairs room had revealed. They were discovered in the Sixties following a fire and showed scenes of hard-core porn.


 None of us had seen them to my knowledge but most of us knew about them. They showed couples having sex in various positions in the 1800s … one shows a woman beating a naked man’s bottom with a rod, another shows a woman being lowered in a basket onto the man below.


 There are women bending over with men doing something or other behind them and general chair athletics with both sexes naked. Nothing is spared. Bits and all. The Cheese, at 145 Fleet St, was known as a chop house in olden times, when the tiles were found it became known as the chopper house.






 





Fleet Street was awash with rumours of an upstairs brothel when the news was announced, which was shocking given the regular visitors to the pub like Mark Twain; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; Alfred Tennyson; G.K. Chesterton and Lord Drone’s iconic book author P.G.Wodehouse. The mind boggles.


 The pub was, and still is, a series of rooms of all sizes with one that carries a sign saying, "Gentlemen Only Served in This Bar." Not sure if it is still there, but it can’t be, otherwise the Woke lot would have woken up and thrown it in a tip.


The tiles were a mystery and were believed to be part of a fireplace in the room because of soot found in the cement. The landlord of the Cheese later handed them over to the Museum of London, but not before inviting some of his regular Fleet St drinking mates in to see them, so the rumours go. I wonder how many Editors went at the time.


Experts said the clothing and furniture painted on to the tiles dated them back to the mid-18th century and were made of plaster of Paris. A museum expert said: “The room could have been a gentleman’s private club or even a brothel. It could have been the Hellfire Club or another place for free-thinking libertine gentlemen.”


The seven tiles with artwork remain locked away in the bowels of the museum where they are to this day but did see the light of day at one exhibition sometime later. They were part of an event called Late London, City of Seduction for one night only on a St Valentine’s Day. It started with sexy chocolate tasting at Hampton Court in the day and ended with absinthe tasting and sex viewings at night.


 The bread roll throwing is a far cry from the Hellfire Club, but the results are much the same. One sub, overcome with the excitement and emotion of the Cheshire Cheese lunch, retired to the Gentleman’s toilet on the editorial floor of the Express, where he stayed squeezed against the wall on the floor of Trap 1 for nearly three hours, with his legs sticking out under the door. No names. The paper still came out, you will be relieved to know.

*****

Pretty foul Polly












NO story about Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese would be complete without Polly, the pub parrot, although I am sure the hostelry holds many secrets that we’ll never know.


Polly, believed to be male (although there is some dispute), was the scruffy stuffed parrot in a glass case most of us admired when we supped there. He was more famous than most of us ever knew, I discovered when I looked up his background recently.


 The African Grey would entertain drinkers back in the day with his swearing and bad temper. He became so well known for it; tourists would stop by after hearing about him in their own countries.


 Polly arrived at the hostelry in 1895, and was stuffed, nailed to his perch, and placed on display in a glass case behind the bar after he left his mortal cage. When he died, on October 30, 1926, his obituary made news worldwide with headlines like:


 “Famed Polly, Wicked Bird Passes Out” and “International Expert in Profanity Pegs Out.”


Polly swore like a trooper but would also entertain customers with his realistic imitations of fighting cats outside in Wine Office Court.


 "Rats, Scotch, Puss”, and "hurry up with the pudding!" were other well-known words and phrases that he squawked from his beak. He would bring the house down.


 He could even imitate the popping of a cork, followed by the "glug, glug, glug" of the wine being poured, and once passed out with exhaustion when he did it too many times during the Armistice Day Celebrations in 1918, apparently. Some say he had been drinking.


 By then Polly had become popular with soldiers visiting London on leave and was able to expand his vocabulary. But one day Polly was knocked off his perch by the arrival of another animal celebrity in Fleet St, Jumbo the elephant from the Italian circus.


 The Henley Advertiser reported on the encounter between the two celebrities: "The Cheshire Cheese, Fleet Street, has entertained many celebrities since the days of Doctor Johnson,” a reporter wrote, but for the first time in its history it has just entertained an elephant, called Jumbo Junior, from the Royal Italian Circus.

 “Jumbo arrived at Wine Office Court, with his keeper as a large crowd gathered in Feet Street. He was taken to the dining-room, where he ate a bunch of bananas and was introduced to Polly. A piece of steak, kidney, oyster, lark, and mushroom pudding, which was Johnson’s favourite dish there, was presented to him and he ate it with relish as Polly apparently looked on at him with disdain, silent for once. After lunch Jumbo made his mark in the visitor’s book!”











 The meeting must have proved too much for Polly, who was allowed to fly free in the house. A few days later he took flight and escaped for the first time into the London smog.


 Papers as far away as The Hull Daily Mail, reported the news saying: “There is grief in the Cheshire Cheese tonight. Polly, the parrot, has escaped from the famous Fleet-street hostelry, and lost itself on a roof.”


 The hunt was on. Everyone it seemed was looking for the flyaway parrot who swore, even MPs became involved when they learned that Polly once had a chat with Neville Chamberlain. There were fears that he had been kidnapped … perhaps by a newspaper to invent a story.


 Polly was finally spotted on a nearby roof and crowds gathered as firemen tried to get him down. Watching barmaids had tears in their eyes. Then, he disappeared again. Search parties hunted him throughout the old courts and alleys off Fleet St, but not a trace.


 A poet was even called in to write an epitaph for him to go in his cage. Then, just as everyone thought all was lost, a gentleman out for an evening stroll, noticed a curious kind of pigeon waddling down Farringdon Avenue.


 He was muttering slowly to himself: “Pudding, pudding! Charley, where's my lark pie?"


 It was Polly of course, and he submitted quietly to being captured. Back on his perch, he promptly went to sleep, unaware of all the fuss he had caused.


 But years of fluttering around a smoky pub took their toll on Polly's health and, on Tuesday, August 10, 1926, The Sheffield Independent carried the sad news that Polly was seriously ill.


 It said: "Polly, the 40-years-old parrot at the famous Cheshire Cheese tavern on Fleet Street, developed pneumonia on Saturday, and the specialist who was summoned ordered him into seclusion.”


 Apparently, his room was kept warm, and he was fed a few drops of whisky.


 On Monday, November,1, 1926 The Portsmouth Evening News, was one of many newspapers that carried the news of his demise. Polly was stuffed in more ways than one and the nation mourned.

*****

You don’t buy beer, you rent it












Stopping off point for Gentleman drinkers, 19th century


THE alleys and lanes off Fleet Street are haunted by centuries of stories. But I always wondered what the strange, angled, black strips of metal were for on some walls. Sometimes they would run the length of the footpath. Particularly one in Clifford’s Inn Passage.


In medieval times it was the main entrance to the Inn of the Chancery, a place where barristers trained, a night lawyer on the Express told me. But at night in the 19th century, it was used by drinkers from many of the pubs in the area as a route to stagger home or on to another hostelry. And of course, they would be bursting to pass urine.


 This was a time when sewage still filled the streets, and the Thames was polluted by bodies and human wastage. Urination in alleys and doorways was common. But as time went on, the persistent pummel of piddle began to take a toll, corroding the brick walls of buildings.


 To prevent further damage apparently, the city mayors had urine deflectors installed along the walls in hot spots, or should we say damp spots. The biggest was at Cliffords Inn Passage. They were angled to drain the urine into the gutter – but in fact, mostly drained the offending liquid onto the shoes of those getting rid of it, and many drinkers began to stink of urine when they got home.


 One angry gentleman drinker wrote in the Press in 1809: “In London a man may sometimes walk a mile before he can meet with a suitable corner. Now the owners of doorways, passages, and corners, off Fleet Street have exhausted inventions with ridiculous barricades and shelves, or grooves, one fixed above another, to conduct our stream into the shoes of the luckless gentleman who shall dare to profane the intrenchments!”


Now you know.

*****

Sad but true

One of the saddest things I have heard and seen from the Israeli war against the evil of Hamas, and there are many … is photos and videos of frightened children in Gaza writing their names on their arms and other body parts in felt-tipped pen in case they get blown off. That way, they believe their bodies can be identified or bits stuck back on. What on earth was in the minds of those Hamas killers when they all kicked this off? Children on both sides always suffer in war.

*****

THINGS I LEARNED THIS WEEK

In the last years of his life, John Lennon discovered that his eyesight was so poor that, without his glasses, he was legally blind. He also discovered that he was dyslexic. Imagine that.

*****

QUOTE OF THE WEEK
(Even if he has said it before).

Rolling Stone Keith Richards talking about his use of a five-string guitar on the group’s new album Hackney Diamonds, that gives the iconic super rockers their riff-led sounds: “Ah, the five-string guitar: it's five strings, three notes, two hands and one arsehole!"

*****

“Down the orifice, when you’ve rolled your fag please, Harry!”


30 October 2023