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Sunday, 14 February 2010

The Brimstone Butterfly takes to the air(waves). Part One


It is a rare Saturday indeed that finds me up before the crack of noon, but yesterday was of course very much out of the ordinary. I had set two alarm clocks the night before as a precaution and was awake before either of them rang. By 7.30 am, I sat in a state of some nervous apprehension at my flat, keys in hand and red shoes on feet, ready to dash downstairs the moment the driver from the BBC arrived. From my eyrie, I caught sight of the driver in question, roaming up and down my street before finally parking across the road and sneaking a quick cigarette. I hurried out to meet him, anxious that we should arrive at the broadcasting studios in time. I sent a last text message to friends and then switched off my mobile.

Once I realised we were making good headway, I relaxed and enjoyed the view. We drove along Wimbledon Common, down through Fulham and across Putney Bridge. Close by Putney Bridge is the ancient parish church of St Mary’s. The later played an important role during the English Civil war of the 17th century, being the site of the so-called Putney Debates of 1647. In these debates the ordinary soldiery, who had fought on the Parliamentary side, argued that they should be given extended civic rights as a reward for their services. Amongst other demands, they sought near universal male suffrage, religious toleration by the state, parliamentary constituencies to be based on actual number of inhabitants and Parliament itself to be dissolved every two years. These radical ideas appalled the likes of Oliver Cromwell and his son-in-law Henry Ireton.  They were all for using the ordinary man to fight their wars and overthrow an anointed King. It did not mean that they were prepared to share their new power with the very people who had helped them obtain it. Henry Ireton was of the opinion that only landowners should be entrusted with ruling the country since only they, he argued, had a genuine vested interest in the continued well-being of the state. This early attempt at Putney to introduce radical parliamentary and social reform into England was defeated and the leaders later executed. There is now a permanent exhibition at St Marys commemorating the turbulent events of 1647.Putney Debates Exhibition

If King Charles II had not been restored to his throne in 1660, there is no reason to think that Samuel Pepys would not have proved an equally able administrator under the English Commonwealth. Certainly, if the Republic had still been in place, Samuel Pepys might have been adopted a far less frivolous approach to church attendance, which often seemed to centre on the less than spiritual opportunities it afforded for ogling young women. On the 28th April 1667, twenty years after the Putney Debates had been held there, Pepys decided to pay a visit to the same church of St Mary’s. In his diary he records:
“and then back to Putney Church, where I saw the girls of the schools, few of which pretty.”
It seems the maidens of Putney were somewhat lacking the winsome charms Pepys had been so taken with when he espied the young schoolgirls of Hackney at prayer.Spirit of the age

We passed through Eaton Square, home of the fictitious Bellamy family, whose lives and those of their servants in the opening decades of the 20th century were chronicled in the popular 1970s television drama series: Upstairs Downstairs. Two hundred and fifty years after the Putney Debates, the fictional Lady Elizabeth Bellamy was campaigning for women to be granted the vote alongside men.

The next mansion of note en-route to the studios was Apsley House Once lived in by the first Duke of Wellington, it is now run by English Heritage and contains many items commemorating the Duke’s life, including the huge nude statue of his erstwhile adversary Napoleon Bonaparte, depicted in marble by the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova, as Mars the Peacemaker. Although Napoleon sat for Canova and allowed him to model his head, it is clear that the sculptor had sought inspiration from some other man’s heroic proportions when he carved out the rest of the statue. 

In the 20th century the celebrated 1930s Hollywood actress Mae West quipped “Keep a diary and one day it will keep you.” At the age of 39, when her charms were no longer quite as potent as in her youth, the Regency courtesan Harriette Wilson wrote to her former lovers, advising them of her plans to publish her memoirs. If they did not wish their former dalliances with her to appear in the pages of her memoirs, they would each need to compensate Harriette to the tune of £200, a not inconsiderable sum for the London of the time.  When Harriette targeted the Duke of Wellington he is said to have written back: “Publish and be damned!”

Our car then drove along Regent’s Street, which was completed in the same year as Harriette Wilson proposed publishing her indiscreet memoirs: namely 1825. We then proceeded to Broadcasting House, which was built in 1932. Above the doorway stands a statue of Prospero, Shakespeare’s magician from The Tempest and Ariel, a spirit of the air. At present the frontage is covered with scaffolding, making it hard to see the statues clearly.

As the driver was not sure which entrance I needed, he let me out by the very grand Langham Hotel, which was built as a luxury hotel in 1865. In the 1960s it was bought outright by the BBC, who had first started renting part of the building after the Second World War. The BBC’s plans to demolish the hotel and rebuild offices in its stead were never realised. Subsequent owners re-opened the Langham as a luxury hotel in the 1990s. At 8.20 am precisely, I made my way across the road and, like Shakespeare’s Ariel, took to the air(waves).