Sunday, May 18, 2014

KopiSusu2 has moved!

I got tired of's shenanigans, so I've set up camp at Check out new posts about London there!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Do not climb

 Please do not climb the London Eye.

London-y things

The turnip delivery bicycle.

Signs advertising Sunday roast.

Subway stops called things like Tooting Bec.

Crosswalks that tell you which way to look. (So thoughtful! So useful for us confused tourists!)

Places named for Dickens characters.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Worst Two Years: "A woman might pisse it out"

London in the 1600s was a jumble of wooden houses. The streets were so narrow, the overhanging gables of the houses often touched. Fires were not unusual, but they usually burned out after claiming a few streets. Firefighting pumps had just been invented and weren't very effective, but bigger blazes could be stopped by pulling down houses to create firebreaks.

So nobody was unduly worried when a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane went up in flames in the early morning hours on September 2, 1666. Mayor Bludworth, awakened from a drunken sleep at 3 AM, looked at the flames and said, “Pish. A woman might pisse it out.” But nobody called a woman to do so, and before long the fire, pushed by a strong wind, was raging out of control.

Several unfortunate happenings converged to make this fire special. In the first place there was that howling wind, which drove the fire across the city. Second, people in the path of the flames began pulling their belongings out of their houses in a panic. The streets were soon clogged with carts, piles of furniture, people carrying all their worldly goods on their backs, and refugees trying desperately to flee. That made it hard for responders to reach the fire.

London in the mid-1600s was packed with wooden houses on narrow streets
Third, it had been a dry and hot summer, so the houses were primed to burn. And fourth, warehouses along the Thames were packed with pitch, oil, brandy and tar; in the wake of the Great Plague, merchants were stockpiling stuff to sell to residents moving back into the city.

The blaze moved so fast that when people pulled houses down to try to create firebreaks, the flames caught the ruins before they could be cleared away, and the fire roared on.

The aforementioned drunken mayor wasn’t much help. During the crucial early stages of the fire, diarist, naval administrator and man-about-town Samuel Pepys rode to the King and secured the help of soldiers to pull down houses. He rode back to transmit the order to the mayor, only to find him standing in the street, staring at the fire in a daze. “I am spent: people will not obey me,” Bludworth raved. So nothing was done.
London Fire Brigade monument. A fire brigade would have been useful,
but alas, it wasn't founded for another two centuries.
The fire turned London into a different sort of Hell: while the Plague had left it eerily empty, it was now packed with half-crazed crowds and mountains of possessions. Some people threw their furniture into the river with the slim hope of recovering it after the fire; others went out on boats, which rammed each other in the smoke and even caught on fire when sparks blew over the water.

On the fourth day, the wind died down. At the same time, a response had finally coalesced, and men blowing whole streets up with gunpowder had succeeded in creating firebreaks. But 90 percent of the city’s housing had gone up in smoke.

The fire led to many improvements, including wider streets and more graceful houses of brick and stone. It may even have helped clear out the vestiges of the Plague. But after the year they'd just had, Londoners had to wonder what they'd done to bring another disaster down on their heads.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Worst Two Years: “London’s Dreadful Visitation”

The plague hit London in 1664, but its great death machine did not get fully ramped up until 1665. It was a repeat engagement: London had suffered nearly 40 outbreaks of plague since 1348. But this was the most vicious bout yet, and it turned the city into a credible vision of Hell on earth.

The disease started by claiming a trickle of victims, but the toll from the “Dreadful Visitation,” as the official weekly death report called it, soon soared into the hundreds and even thousands per week. Early efforts to fight the disease may have made it worse. The moment a house was found to have a plague victim, the city sealed it up with all its occupants inside. Nobody was allowed out for forty days, during which time the illness often killed off every member of the family, one by one, and wiped out their servants for good measure.

This policy not only guaranteed prolonged close contact with the disease – it gave people a powerful incentive to hide signs of the plague. Deaths were recorded by indigent old women hired by the parishes as a form of welfare, so it was easy for a family to bribe its way out of a plague diagnosis. While some Londoners were locked up with their dying family members, others who were secretly infected were going about their business and spreading the disease around the city.

Leasor’s The Plague and The Fire argues that many victims could have been saved with proper medical care, but most of the doctors fled the city when the epidemic began, while others were more interested in peddling quack cures than treating fevers and cleaning sores.

“Plague nurses” sent to people’s homes sometimes provided elementary care. On the other hand, they sometimes decided to suffocate you and steal your belongings instead. They were a crapshoot, those plague nurses.

Image: Wellcome Museum, London, on Flickr
In the end, the sheer number of dead brought the city to its knees. There were hardly enough living people left to bury them all. Many were tipped into mass graves with no record taken of their passing. Victims in the last stages of delirium wandered the mostly-deserted streets, sometimes attacking a healthy passerby out of spite. Only the arrival of winter stopped the disease.

Thus ended Year One.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Museum of London

It was totally random that we ended up here on our first day – really, we were just wandering around looking for anything that would keep our eyes open until a reasonable bedtime. But visiting the museum early in your trip is a great idea and I highly recommend going there directly after the Indian YMCA.

London’s history is so vast, it’s hard to figure out where to begin. But here I found what became my obsession over much of the trip: the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666.

The Great Fire: detail from an anonymous painting. (Image: Wikipedia)
The plague killed at least one out of every six London residents – James Leasor’s highly entertaining book The Plague and the Fire, from which I cribbed much of the detail I'll be sharing in future posts, argues convincingly that it was more like one in four. The fire that roared through a year later wiped out 90 percent of the city’s housing.

It was like a neutron bomb followed by firebombs and I think, short of war, it was about the worst two years any city could have. By reading up on them, and going out to see the associated sites, you get a stereoscopic view of life in London in days gone by.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

How to Go to London

Depending where you’re starting from, take a plane or a train or whatever. On arrival, get on the tube, go directly to the Warren St. station, walk to the Indian YMCA, and get one of every dish at the canteen.

Devour everything, from the tender chapati to the symphonically spiced mutton curry to the controlled-incendiary chickpeas.

Have a nice chat with the super-friendly staff and tell them the food is sublime. Become a member of the clean plate club.

That is all.

(For historical accuracy, I should note that we didn't do it this way on this trip. But I plan to from now on.)