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From Tin Pan Alley, and into the Holmes stretch

Diary’s locked-down ramblings take in the original home of London’s live music scene, and the fictional home of Baker Street's sleuth

03 April, 2020 — By The Xtra Diary

Patrick Hamilton was among several authors who were regulars in Fitzrovia pubs

DIARY left you last week nursing a pint in The Angel in St Giles High Street as we came to a handy resting place on our stay-at-home stroll through the centre of town.

Let us resume our locked-down ramblings, and walk off a couple of lunchtime beers.

Our first stop is Denmark Street, aka Tin Pan Alley, where your correspondent, aged 13, bought his first axe from Andy’s Guitar Shop on the corner.

It is the original home of London’s live music scene and is the place musicians would gather to be hired for jobs, where recording studios churned out hits, where music publishers and composers plotted ear worms for all, where instruments were bought, sold and traded and Melody Maker and NME started their lives.

The stretch was known in 1930s and 40s as a meeting point for big bands, the skiffle boom of the 50s, the British blues explosion of the 60s, 70s punk and onwards – but today the browser can go even further back in time by stepping through the doors of the Early Music Shop.

This wonderful establishment has a collection of traditional instruments, including the UKs biggest collection of recorders. Among the harps and harpsichords, the Tabor drums and Baroque oboes, you can find hurdy-gurdies and the brilliantly bizarre sounding “long-scale Medieval drum”, a cross between a finger piano, lute and tambourine.

A long-scale medieval drum

Musically refreshed, let’s keep going westwards, across Oxford Street and into Fitzrovia.

The historic streets of this patch were only given the name Fitzrovia in the late 1930s, inspired, it is said, by the Fitzroy Tavern in Charlotte Street, the drinking den to all manner of bohemian authors and artists including Dylan Thomas, George Bernard Shaw and George Orwell.

It was also the stomping ground of the writer Patrick Hamilton (he based his novel 20,000 Streets Under The Sky on the patch).

He haunted the pubs of the locality, drinking himself into stupors as he pined for a prostitute he had met in Fitzrovia’s back streets and fallen passionately in love with. She gave him the inspiration for the love rat character of Nettie, in the brilliant tragedy Hangover Square.

From here, we’re promenading along Euston Road, that thoroughfare that until two weeks ago was a busy fume-choked highway and now lies silent and its fresh-tasting air feels mournful for a bustling world temporarily lost.

When Ken Livingstone was Mayor of London, he commissioned architect Sir Terry Farrell to look at how Euston Road could be improved. He employed architectural students to monitor traffic flow. They could not understand why some sets of lights caused tailbacks, while at others the cars flowed freely. The lights timings were all the same – until Sir Terry realised each set where traffic built up happened to be opposite one of the road’s listed buildings, such as the St Pancras Hotel – and drivers were each pausing a little longer to gaze out at them.

And as we head west down Euston Road, we soon find ourselves at Baker Street. Let us pause outside 221b, the fictional home of Sherlock Holmes.

The statue of Sherlock Holmes in Marylebone. Photos: Lonpicman, Early Music Shop

And while the tourists who gather outside can sometimes mistake Holmes for a real person and the address as genuinely where he mused upon the great mysteries of the human psyche, it is true his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, was partial to a bit of sleuthing himself.

As Holmes’ fame grew, Doyle found himself asked to consider interesting cases – and where he saw the heavy hand of injustice, he threw himself in.

Such a case was one of a mutilated pit pony found in a field in a Midlands mining village in 1903. It was the latest of a spate of nasty such happenings, going back a good few years.

The police pointed the finger at a chap called George Edalji, an Anglo-Indian considered as something of an outsider.

The police, egged on by others, thought the fact he was “a bit odd” meant he was guilty – and after raiding his house and finding what looked like blood and horsehair on a coat, and muddy boots, they banged him up.

After Doyle read about the case, he was convinced poor George was innocent, and threw himself into proving so.

Doyle met George and his first impression was pure Holmes. He met a young man reading a newspaper – and struggling to do so as he was staring at the newsprint through extremely thick glasses. It was clear he was partially blind – making the idea that he could sneak into a field in the dead of night, overpower a large animal and make the extremely precise, deadly incisions was impossible.

Doyle investigated further and eventually found the real culprit – a man called Rodney Sharp who worked in a butchers’ shop and on a cattle boat, and had a long-standing grudge against George and his family.

Eventually, after Doyle’s investigations caused a national outcry, George was released after three years of porridge.

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