Today (February 15) in London History – a roller skating coffin

London’s always had a sweet tooth for spectacle and diversion. As this February 15 (1891) London occasion eloquently attests to.


It’s just so stimulating, this place. You come right down it that’s the allure of London, the hold she has on us.

It’s certainly not the weather. Though the weather’s not nearly as bad as people are inclined to think. It’s not the setting. We don’t have mountains to look at or the bay of Naples. It’s not the beauty of the city itself. London’s not a looker the way Paris is. Or Sevilla. It’s certainly not the cost of living – for that try Chang Mai in Thailand or Cochabamba in Bolivia or Wichita, Kansas. It’s not high octane. Well, it’s pretty high octane but it’s not white knuckle, white powder high octane the way New York City is.

No, it’s that the place is so stimulating. You never get bored here. One of the great moments in Shakespeare is when Enobarbus explains the hold Cleopatra has on Marc Antony. And makes it clear that he won’t leave her. Ever. That in fact, he can’t leave her. I love that moment in the play and I’ve often thought, ‘ok, he’s describing a flesh and blood woman – Cleopatra – but he could be describing London.

The exchange goes like this. It’s Act II, scene ii. Mark Antony and his friend and aide de camp Enobarbus have come to Rome from Alexandria for a summit with Octavius Caesar. Enobarbus is catching up with a couple of Octavius’s people – Agrippa and Maecenas. He’s bringing them up to date, telling them how things are back in Egypt, what it’s like there. What’s happened to Mark Antony. Maecenas is a strait-laced Roman. He’s horrified. He can hardly believe what he’s hearing. Mark Antony’s gone native. All sense of duty and responsibility – all the Roman virtues – have flown the coop. He’s living a life of indulgence and indolence and sensual pleasure. A complete Sybarite. The exact opposite of what a hard-headed, rigorous, honour-bound Roman should be. And of course Cleopatra’s the reason he’s gone completely off the ranch.

Horrified, Maecenas says, “Antony must leave her utterly.”

Enobarbus gives him one of those looks, a “you don’t have any idea, do you?” looks.

And then he says:

Never. He will not.

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale

Her infinite variety. Other women cloy

The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry

Where most she satisfies, for vilest things

Become themselves in her, that the holy priests

Bless when she is riggish.

Riggish is an old word that means lustful or sexually unrestrained.

We can just do a very quick lesson in the Shakespearean line. As everyone knows the basic Shakespearean line is iambic pentameter, ten syllables, five beats.

duh dum, duh dum, duh dum, duh dum, duh dum

That’s the underpinning. When Shakespeare breaks that form or pattern it has the effect of heightening or accentuating the meaning – bringing it out, thrusting it right in your face.

So the speech opens with that line:

Never. He will not. That’s a half-line. It’s just five syllables. Shakespeare writes the silences. The sound is the meaning and the meaning is the sound in Shakespeare. So that half-line – it’s like a bong of a bell. What your ear and your sensibility is expecting is another five syllables. But they’re not forthcoming. It’s just those four simple words, those five syllables. Never. He will not. It just hangs there. Reverberating. Shakespeare’s emphasised the absoluteness, the totality, and the finality of Antony’s predicament, his being lost to Rome, eternally, by ringing that bell just once: Never. He will not. And then letting it sink in. Borne on the wings of silence of that half-line.

Anyway, so much for a bit of obeisance before Shakespeare’s genius. The point here is that what he says about Cleopatra – age cannot wither nor custom stale her infinite variety – he might have been talking about London. That’s equally true of London.

And that “infinite variety” – that’s surely a key to this place being so stimulating. It chimes with the single most famous utterance about London, Dr Johnson’s pronouncement, “When a man is tired of London he is tired of life.”

It’s worth looking at the full quote. It goes like this:

“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

And this set of remarks – and the Shakespeare and the Johnson – have chauffeured us to today’s anniversary.

It’s February 15th. The obvious one – the one that’s in all the reference books – is February 15th, 1971. That was the day Britain adopted decimal currency.

But I’m not going to go with the obvious one. I’m going to go with one you won’t have heard of. 

It happened on this day in 1891. I baited my research hook, tossed it into the old fishing hole, got a nibble, jerked the rod and reeled the catch in. The old fishing hole in this case was a February 16, 1891 London newspaper. It gave a charming account of something that had happened the night before at Olympia.

The story began: “Roller skating seems to be “catching on” as the Americans say in London, for no less than 25,000 people attended the third skating carnival at Olympia last night, many hundreds being refused admission at the doors.” Discovery number one, I had no idea that the phrase “catching on” was an Americanism.

Anyway, the report goes on – it’s so London, this, in every respect – it goes on: “Despite the fog, which came undisguised and uninvited, the scene was most brilliant, every part of the great hall being filled with spectators, while on the arena itself were to be seen all fashions of fancy dress, including a coffin” – now, let this sink in, it’s a skating carnival that’s a kind of Mardi Gras, the skaters are all in costume – so you’ve got a roller skater dressed up as a coffin. And with him, out there in the arena, there’s – and here I’m quoting the article again – “the Bogie Man, a pawnbroker’s shop [what I wouldn’t give to see a roller skater dressed up as a pawnbroker’s shop], a camel, a duck, and two elephants, Highlanders, pirates, pierrots, jockeys, grotesque guardsmen, soldiers, sailors and nondescripts.

The reporter goes on to say the first prize was won by Mr James Tatem, who impersonated “Electricity”, armed with batteries, telephones, coils and phonographs. 

Coming second was Mr Bruce Smith, who roller skated as “Hymen Up to Date.” He wore a heart on his breast, slippers on his shoulders, a bride’s veil, and a wedding cake on his head. Another contestant was a “flower bell” made of real blossoms. And there was a “Masher King.” I haven’t a clue what a masher king is. Or was. Must make enquiries.

And I think the prize was probably worth Mr James Tatem’s efforts. He won a dogcart, horse and harness, valued at £100.

Now why does this item deserve a place here? Two reasons. One, it taps right into a fundamental truth about London. This is a city that’s always been attracted to diversions and spectacles. 25,000 Londoners flocking to Olympia to watch a roller skating coffin – does that not reinforce the point about London’s sweet tooth for diversion and spectacle.

That’s one of the two reasons. The other reason is that as London marches on you see it become a new kind of city, a city based on consumerism and individualism.

And we really get a strong sense of that in this tale. The 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume in effect said London was life-enhancing. He said people who flock to London – and other cities – experience an increase of humanity, from the habit of conversing  together and contributing to each other’s pleasure and entertainment.”

And that’s certainly the read we get from Olympia on that foggy February night in 1891. That was a good time.  A thoroughly London good time. All the London ingredients were there: diversion, spectacle, consumerism, individualism, pleasure and entertainment.

Good night from London. See you tomorrow. 

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