July 26, 2013 6:47 pm

Will Self: Gin Lane revisited

The updrafts and downdrafts created by Centre Point will send sweet wrappers and grit flapping about your ears
Illustration by Martin Rowson of Gin Lane©Martin Rowson

Over the years I’ve undertaken so many long-distance walks in, out and clear across the Great Wen, but of late I’m beginning to find myself as captivated by the psychic charge very short peregrinations deliver as by the spaced-out transcendence I seem to achieve when I’ve slogged for miles through the burbs. In this spirit, I offer you a very short walk – no more than 300 yards – from the fantastic Odeon building on Shaftesbury Avenue to the brutalist arch thrown by Centre Point across Earnshaw Street, at its junction with New Oxford Street.

No specialist kit is required for this – and it would probably be better if you weren’t too well informed before you set out: London is de trop when it comes to history and topography. Besides, I’d like you to concentrate on feeling and sensation – to look, smell and, where possible, touch. So admire the concrete frieze that runs along the curving façade of the red-brick Odeon building, pick out its bas-reliefs of great men and women, historical and mythological, royal players and ordinary walk-on folk – a cavalcade that screams “Interwar!” through a loud hailer. Then take St Giles Passage up to the little green oasis of the Phoenix Garden on New Compton Street.

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IN My London

You are now in the environs of Gin Lane – as memorably depicted by Hogarth – and some Londonophiles (notably Peter Ackroyd) make a case for genius loci transcending period to imbue urban spaces with timeless psychological attributes. It’s true that in the churchyard of St Giles-in-the-Fields you’ll find plenty of homeless people the worse for alcohol and drugs – the bedraggled remains of the infamous rookery – but you’ll also find a trendy coffee stall pitched beside the Quaker mobile library and, if you are able to gain access to the vestry, an oak-panelled Tardis of a room, its walls faintly inscribed with the names of every divine to have held the living since the 17th century.

As you sit in the Phoenix Garden, be attentive to the way the superstructures of the po-mo buildings surrounding you are annulled by the sprays of hyacinth and exploded within the umbels of cow parsley. And as you leave – passing a bench dedicated by Digby Jones, something that makes me feel better about him than anything he’s ever done in public life – note the jolly façade of the Phoenix Theatre, which specialises in comedy and musicals. Ahead of you – much modified – will be a row of ancient warehousing that runs along Flitcroft Street, complete with swing-out hoists at the first, second and third storey, and as you follow its brick haunch to the right you’ll find yourself beside the signature building of the walk: the Elms Lesters Painting Rooms.

At first this will seem simply another bit of umpteenth-century brickwork cluttering up London’s interstices. The Rooms are overshadowed first by the white-stone campanile and stubby spire of Flitcroft’s 1733 St Giles-in-the-Fields (an architectural mash-up that riffs off Hawksmoor’s more famous St George’s, 350 yards north-northeast as the rook flies), and then by the concrete-and-glass plaid of Centre Point itself. However, once you come alongside the gateway to St Giles and turn back, you will see that the Rooms are a most curious shape: a two-storey, thin wooden door opens into a high, narrow chamber; and, through the windows, let into an odd triangular pediment, you can see the skylights in the roof.

I like the way the Painting Rooms introduce the idea of the set-within-the-setting; a motif that is further enhanced as you proceed past Denmark Street – the facades of Hanks, Macari’s and the 12 Bar Club so timeless that they’re like the visual equivalent of a honky-tonk piano riff – and round the reef of York Mansions, the revenant sign Bloomsbury High Street still blocked out between the mortar curlicues on its soot-blackened façade.

You are close to journey’s end here, and the updrafts and downdrafts created by Centre Point will send sweet wrappers and grit flapping and scouring about your ears. Here is the small oxbow of tarmac that contains a tiny Korea Town, marooned as the great urban currents pass by along Oxford Street or are dammed-off by the barriers erected while the digging and delving for the new Crossrail station at Tottenham Court Road is under way.

I can’t help wondering if the sleepy feel of my invented quartier isn’t a function of the way various cross-streets linking it to the Charing Cross Road have been blocked off for the past year or two. Once completed, I expect that the urban millrace will burst upon it with renewed vigour, and this time sweep away much of what I have described, just as the great Beer Flood of 1814 soused the district in 1.5 million litres of beer when the Meux Brewery’s giant casks along Tottenham Court Road burst their hoops. (It’s all true – see, I told you that London history and topography was de trop.)

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Will Self’s novel “Umbrella”, shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker prize, is published by Bloomsbury.

For more in our editorial series on London & The World please visit www.ft.com/reports/london-world-2013

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