Friday, 6 December 2013

Retail Therapy: Navigating Uncharted Oxford Street with Opium Eaters.

So rarely these days do I visit London, or travel on the Tube, that I am unable to admit to the hypersensitive alienation effect said to be experienced by the mimosa-like sentient plant forms that invariably populate the dramatis personae of Iris Murdoch’s novels. 

(As has been asserted by any number of her devotees, many of London’s tube stations become, for Murdoch, distinct characters in her novels, ‘… each unique, the sinister brightness of Charing Cross, the mysterious gloom of Regent’s Park, the dereliction of Mornington Crescent, the futuristic melancholy of Moorgate, the monumental ironwork of Liverpool Street …’ not forgetting the art nouveau and the Baroque features that distinguish Gloucester Road and the Barbican.)


The psychological distancing of the alienated ‘Undergrounder’, described by Iris Murdoch in her fiction, does not trouble me, though I do truly empathise with the now fashionable notion of literary psychogeography of which she is a more than proficient practitioner.

No. My proficiency is not of such a high order, because any psychogeographical musings that may consume me on my infrequent visits to the linen department of Selfridges in London’s Oxford Street are solely coloured by my memory of Thomas De Quincey’s recollections of the months he spent from 1802 to 1803 roaming that great thoroughfare as a homeless runaway … specifically, the following psychogeographical passage in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater that concerns his teenage friend, the prostitute Ann. 

The Great Mediterranean of Oxford Street.

Yes. The tearful parting at Great Titchfield Street of seventeen-year-old Thomas from Ann (friendless, homeless, and about fifteen years of age) succeeds in warping my consciousness as soon as I emerge from the tube at Oxford Circus:
‘… when I kissed her at our final farewell, she put her arms about my neck, and wept, without speaking a word. I hoped to return in a week at furthest, and I agreed with her that on the fifth night from that, and every night afterwards, she should wait for me, at six o'clock, near the bottom of Great Titchfield Street, which had been our customary haven, as it were, of rendezvous, to prevent our missing each other in the great Mediterranean of Oxford Street.
So there you have it … the great Mediterranean of Oxford Street … the dream region that I simply cannot resist navigating according to my own private homing instinct with, as you can see, Bond Street located in the hinterland of Tunisia, Selfridges somewhere between the Gibralta of Marble Arch and the Marseilles of Portman Square, while Fitzrovia occupies the Balkans ... and my favourite watering hole, the Red Bar at the Grosvenor House Hotel in Park Lane, is refuge from the Atlantic swells of Hyde Park as it extends a welcome from Tangiers through Casablanca to Marrakesh.

Needless to add, the omphalos – the navel of Oxford Street, Oxford Circus – must be Crete.

The Ghost of Orphan Ann.

Of course, we can estimate the cost of a prostitute in 1803 because De Quincey gave Ann about twenty-one shillings to tide her over for a week … so two or three shillings may well have been her rate.

This sum may be compared with the two English pounds that made the regular payment to a prostitute in post-WW2 London. I know this fact because a literary acquaintance of mine (he died in 1990) was ordered by his commanding officer during his military service to run a brothel for the ranks.

‘What about the officers?’ he asked.
‘Don’t be impertinent,’ his superior rasped, ‘the officers must fend for themselves.’

To warm his basement seraglio my amateur hustler bought Valor oil stoves at Berwick Market in Soho. And he was successful in this enterprise, he told me, until Soho’s Sicilian mob shut the joint down. The mob threatened a young woman. ‘The poor kid drew a finger like a flick-knife down her cheek,’ he told me, ‘the threat was very real. In those days the mob had sewn up the prostitution racket.’

His account quickened my curiosity. When I last examined the statistics I found that between 50 percent and 75 percent of the 5,000 women in prostitution in London are illegal immigrants, most of whom are from eastern Europe.

In my informant’s day in the desperate aftermath of a world war there were, amazingly, 20,000 women of the streets. How many of them, I wonder, resembled De Quincey’s Ann, one of ‘many women in that unfortunate condition’ for whom prostitution was the only way to earn a wage.

We should not, however, impute to De Quincey any motive other than that of brotherly charity and friendship in his relations with Ann. That De Quincey suffered in near penury as a vagabond in London is a matter of record and we must believe him when he states ‘…that in the existing state of my purse, my connection with such women could not have been an impure one.’

His loyalty to the orphan Ann is beyond question:

I sought her daily, and waited for her every night, so long as I stayed in London, at the corner of Titchfield Street.  I inquired for her of every one who was likely to know her, and during the last hours of my stay in London I put into activity every means of tracing her that my knowledge of London suggested and the limited extent of my power made possible … But to this hour I have never heard a syllable about her.
Maybe, late one night soon, my dear Psychogeographer,  as you pass along the northern shores of the Great Mediterranean of Oxford Street, you’ll glimpse a pale visitant keeping vigil at the corner of Great Titchfield Street, waiting, waiting … she waits in vain.

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