Today (October 7) in London History – Vulgar, Foul-Mouthed London

Something a little different today. For some inexplicable reason, the great 17th-century diarist was prone to come over all vulgar on this date (October 7th). This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

The great Diana Vreeland, the French-American fashion columnist and editor, once said, “a little bad taste is like a nice splash of paprika. We all need a splash of bad taste – it’s hearty, it’s healthy, it’s physical. I think we could use more of it. No taste is what I’m against.”

The iconic 1960s British fashion designer Mary Quant – she of miniskirts and hotpants and King’s Road fame – she’s now in her 90s, anyway, Mary Quant seconded, more trenchantly, Diana Vreeland’s pronouncement. She said, “Good taste is death. Vulgarity is life.

So, yes, you’ve guessed correctly. You’re going to get a splash of bad taste today. We’re going to show death the door, usher in some life. Welcome to October 7th and vulgarity – aka life – with a capital V. And a capital L. Which is by way of saying, I’m going to read you a couple of very short – and very vulgar, bulging with bad taste, full of life in other words – a couple of very short, gloriously vulgar diary entries. And then for re-entry – the decompression chamber – a letter from a famous foreigner. A letter about London. There’s a lot to be said for seeing a place with new eyes, seeing it for the first time. Foreigners, first-time visitors, are often struck by things that those of us who live here have got so used to we don’t notice them anymore.

Anyway, our diarist is of course Samuel Pepys. So, welcome to the Restoration. Welcome to the 1660s. I’ve picked two entries. Both this day, October 7th. The first one is October 7th, 1660. The second one exactly three years later, October 7th, 1663.

And look, if you’re prim and prissy and proper you need to make your excuses and leave now. Not only are these two entries not fit for mixed company, they’re not fit for company. Which is why Pepys is so special. It’s why I love him. This is Diana Vreeland’s paprika. It’s raw. It’s real. It’s vulgar. It’s life. 

Which brings us to the October 7th, 1660 entry.

The “My Lord” Pepys refers to is Edward Montague, the first Earl of Sandwich. He was the Admiral of the Fleet. He was in command of the flotilla that brought Charles II back from exile. An eminence grise, he was Pepys’s boss and one of the things you immediately sense from the passage is Pepys’s delight at being on such intimate terms with one of the greatest men in the kingdom – being invited to dine with My Lord at his house, 

My Lord not being in the least stand-offish, distancing himself in any way, sharing with Pepys gossip from the highest reaches of Restoration power and society, not holding back in the least about his father’s vulgar bit of worldly wisdom.

Here’s the entry. 

“To my Lord’s and dined with him; he all dinner time talking French to me and telling me the story how the Duke of Yorke hath got my Lord Chancellors daughter with child, and that she doth lay it to him. Discoursing concerning what if the Duke should marry her, my Lord told me that among his father’s many old sayings that he had writ in a book of his, this is one: that he that doth get a wench with child and marries her afterward it is as if a man should shit in his hat and then clap it upon his head.”

And here’s the second entry. The 1663 entry. 

“I did keep my bed; and my pain continued on me mightily, that I keeped within all day in great pain, and could break no wind nor have any stool after my physic had done working. So in the evening I took coach and to Mr Hollyards, but he was not at home; and so home again. And whether the coach did me good or no I know not, but having a good fire in my chamber, I  begun to break six or seven small and great farts; and so to bed and lay in good ease all night, and pissed pretty well in the morning, but no more wind came as it used to do plentifully, after it once begun, nor any inclination to stool.”

Well, wind, Admiral, the fleet – I guess it all sort of hangs together. But seriously, we sure do know – it’s more information than we wanted, as the modern saying puts it – we sure do know what October 7th, 1663 was like for Samuel Pepys. 

And I have to say, I’m enraptured by London’s continuities. The Pepys diary entry always puts me in mind of that now retired walking tour guide who says, I’m quoting, “I had to give them up after an unfortunate incident. All I can say is, if you suddenly need to break wind don’t slip into the royal box of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane without first checking there’s no one else in it.”

And on that helpful note, let’s get to 1896. Mark Twain, the great American author. On October 1st he rented a house in Tedworth Square in Chelsea. It’s still there of course, sporting its blue plaque.

A few days later – it took him that long to recover from the ordeal – he writes about life in London. This is a foreigner’s perspective.

Here’s what he says.

[read Mark Twain passage here]

And a Today in London recommendation. That’d be Brian or Stephanie’s Chelsea Walk. Runs at 1.45 pm every Wednesday afternoon from Sloane Square Tube

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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