Twenty Fitzrovia Incidents

The man in the fluorescent yellow waistcoat drops one of the lengths of piping he’s carrying through the front door of 58 Grafton Way. ‘Careful with those,’ says the foreman. ‘And keep the racket down. Them foreigners are having a meeting upstairs. Organising the liberation of Venezuela, they told me. So they want less noise.’


Their backs leaning against Fitzroy Square’s garden railings, the six workmen sit in a line on the pavement, eating sandwiches and drinking from paper cups. One of them whistles when Virginia Woolf walks past. The others laugh. ‘You’ve got to be joking, mate,’ says the shaven-headed one. ‘Much too skinny. And she don’t look all there, either.’


The Westminster Council lorry waits in the square while one of the recycling team brings three plastic sacks up from the basement of number 29, unaware that one of the sacks contains the discarded drafts for Arms and the Man. Upstairs, George Bernard Shaw strokes his beard, his pen poised.


Sir Charles Eastlake hesitates before he gets into the hansom cab outside number 7 and looks up at the front of the house. He turns to a workman in a yellow safety helmet who’s leaning against the railings and smoking a cigarette. ‘Do you have any idea how much longer this scaffolding is due to stay up?’
The workman turns to him and shrugs. “No idea mate. Best to ring head office.’
Sir Charles sighs. ‘National Gallery,’ he tells the driver as he climbs into the cab.


The Marquess of Salisbury turns to his wife. ‘Do you realise, Georgina, that there’s a group of people down there letting their dogs jump through the railings and tear about in the garden. And look, one of those animals is cocking his leg up against the Barbara Hepworth. I just don’t know what this square is coming to.
‘Really, my dear?’
‘And now there’s a man, in some sort of uniform, standing in front of our car writing something down. He looks like an African. Do you think he’s anything to do with those Mozambique people downstairs?’
‘That must be a traffic warden. I believe they call them Civil Enforcement Officers now. Your driver must have parked on a double yellow line again. I expect you’ll be receiving another fine.’
‘That’s absurd. Don’t they realise I’m the Prime Minister?’


Returning to his lodgings in Cleveland Street, Samuel Morse sees a notice pinned to the front door. He leans forward to examine it more closely, tapping his fingers on the door in annoyance as he reads that Vinyasa yoga classes are to be held every Thursday in the All Souls Clubhouse that occupies the ground floor and basement of the building. When one of the club members appears, he points at the notice. ‘This is disgraceful,’ he tells her furiously. ‘To allow such heathen practices in a Christian house.’


When James Boswell wakes up with a bad hangover, he shouts for his manservant.
‘Francis, is the Horse and Groom open yet?’
‘No sir, it doesn’t open until midday.’
‘Well, are there any whores about in the street?’
‘It’s still rather early for them too sir.’
‘Then go over to Greggs and bring me back one of their breakfast deals. How much are they?’
‘£2.25, sir.’
‘Well then get me two.’


There’s a loud crash and Ed Murrow looks up from his typewriter. ‘Oh God,’ says his wife. ‘Have the Germans finally started bombing?’
He walks over to the window, looks out and shakes his head. ’No, it’s only some truck delivering beer to the Masons Arms next door.’ He lights up another Camel. ‘And anyhow, this building is protected by Cactus Security while the scaffolding is up.’


The car bringing John Reith back from a meeting with the Prime Minister about the abdication crisis stops outside the BBC headquarters. Reith remains for a while in the back seat, looking with disgust at his various employees lounging around outside on Portland Place, some in t-shirts, others wearing jeans and trainers. He sighs angrily at the sight of a young woman in shorts in the arms of an unshaven man. ‘What is that thing he’s wearing on his head?’ he asks his driver.
‘I believe it’s called a baseball cap, sir,’ the driver replies.


From his studio above Domino’s, Henry Fuseli, brush in hand, stares down at the contrasts of light and dark caused by the streetlight shining on the man sitting on the pavement opposite. The man, with matted long blond hair and wearing a dirty black duffle coat, is eating a discarded piece of pizza. He appears to notice Fuseli’s attention and gets to his feet, picks up his bulging orange plastic bags and walks slowly up Hanson Street, still chewing.


Saki walks into the offices of the Artemis recruitment agency where a woman at the reception desk is peering into a computer. ‘Good morning,’ he says, smoothing down his brilliantined hair, ‘I’m looking for a personal secretary.’
She looks up. ‘Very well sir. Do you have any specific requirements?’
‘Yes. Must be a man. A youngish, personable-looking man. And not Jewish. The name’s Munro. I work at home, just round the corner in Mortimer Street.’


The barman in The King and Queen looks Bob Dylan up and down and nods at his guitar. ‘You’ve got the wrong night, son. Friday night is the folk club.’ He points at the large TV screen up on the wall. ‘It’s Premier League football tonight. Arsenal v Chelsea, if you’re interested.’ Bob shakes his head and walks out into the freezing evening, past the thumping bass coming from the delivery van parked in the street.


Thumbing his smartphone, the bored driver sits in the black Mercedes parked outside 49 Tottenham Street. Inside, after the talk by Keir Hardie, the mood in the Communist Club is turning unpleasant. ‘This organisation is getting more and more bourgeois,’ shouts one member. ‘One minute we find that a burglar alarm has been installed and now, if you care to look outside, there’s a large expensive car with a chauffeur waiting to collect someone here.’
‘Well comrade, that chauffeur is a worker,’ says Hardie. ‘Would it make you happier if he got a ticket?’


The black guy with the Mohican haircut walks along Goodge Street. He’s wearing a Night of the Living Dead t-shirt, green tracksuit bottoms with green earrings to match and carrying a red shoulder bag. Roger Fry turns his head to stare as he passes and nearly drops the pot he’s carrying.


Because John Constable is strolling along gazing up at the clouds rather than looking where he’s going, he bumps headlong into Robert Smirke, the architect who lives just down the road from him.
‘Why don’t you have a look at the exhibition in that Woolff Gallery opposite you?’ says Smirke, after they make their apologies. ‘You might find it interesting. The artist has made all these pieces using old record labels he’s collected – Tamla, Sex Pistols, Elvis and so on.’
‘It doesn’t sound my sort of thing,’ says Constable.


When the Fifth Congress is adjourned for the day, Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin leave the hall and walk down Charlotte Street, discussing the failings of the Mensheviks and the need to build a revolutionary working class party. They stop outside the Fitzroy Tavern and look at the menu displayed outside.
‘What is Chicken Achari?’ asks Lenin.
Stalin shrugs. ‘I’ve no idea. Shall we try the Mega Sharing Platter?’
‘Very well. And look, they take Visa cards.’


At closing time George Orwell and a fellow Home Guard sergeant leave the Newman Arms. ‘How will you get home?’ asks Orwell.
The sergeant nods towards the cycle docking station. ‘I’ll use one of those Boris bikes.’
Orwell shakes his head. ‘I don’t think you should call them that, nor ride one.’
‘Really? Why not?’
‘Firstly because the original idea was Livingstone’s and secondly because Johnson is a frightful reactionary. So, one has to get one’s facts right and also stick to one’s principles.’


Aleister Crowley and Dylan Thomas stagger out of the Marquis of Granby and Crowley points at the Buca Lounge opposite. ‘Now for shisha.’
Thomas looks puzzled. ‘What?’
‘You know. Hookah pipe… Hubble-bubble. I used them in North Africa.’
They cross the road but the Buca Lounge’s door is locked and its windows are covered in photocopied notices:
‘I think the place is closed,’ says Thomas.


Augustus John studies the Protape shop window. Charles Laughton, whose flat is above the shop, has arranged to meet him there so that they can walk down to the Apollo Theatre together. ‘What are all these things?’ asks John when Laughton appears.
‘They’re external drives. Elsa thinks we should get one to keep copies of our films and publicity photos on.’
John tugs at his moustache. ‘Hm…Could I keep copies of my paintings and drawings on one?’
‘Yes, but you’d have to get a PC first.’


The police emergency response cars, lights flashing, drive into Stephen’s Mews. This is difficult because of the Crossrail construction works in the street. The police, some plain-clothed, pile out of their cars and start to batter down the door and windows of number 7, where a meeting of German anarchists is taking place at the International Club. When the members open the door and see not only police but also a large crowd of angry and excited onlookers, they appeal to the police for protection. ‘We’ll protect you dammed foreigners with the staff,’ a sergeant replies and both police and the crowd pile into the club, wounding some of the members and carrying off jars of beer, papers, books, money and even some of the members’ clothes.

Tony Rickaby