Episode 1: Taste

Still Life with Apples, Grapes, Melons, Bread, Jug and Bottle (wikipedia)

Can you taste London? This is a bit of an odd question, I admit. I ask it as surely an investigation into the experience of walking – now or in the past – should not and cannot ignore the human senses. Obviously, sight is a big one here. When we walk we look in front of ourselves to make sure that we go in the right direction and don’t bump into anything or anyone. Sound is also crucial. We listen out for danger and take some amount of comfort (or annoyance) at the surrounding hubbub of noise as we transverse the streets. Smell has a certain amount of importance as well, although less obvious. One is less likely to linger on a street with a bad smell than they might on one which smells of something pleasant (for example). Taste is a bit more difficult to codify into the experience of walking through an urban area, which brings us back to my initial question: can you taste London?

In the introduction to Food: The History of Taste (2007) Paul Freedman argues that ‘society’s soul’ is revealed in its cooking habits (p. 8) and he reminds us that certain tastes (and certain foods and drinks) were and often remain associated with status and class (p. 16). This is perhaps truer for the eighteenth-century than it is today in that taste was more codified by etiquette and expectation than the potential for ‘adventurous’ tasting that exists in a global market.

Meanwhile, Mark M. Smith suggests that during Britain’s age of imperial expansion in the eighteenth-century, the discovery of new foods and tastes did not, initially, always lead to a diversification of the diet. Smith argues that:

‘the initial English reaction was to emphasise the Englishness of their national cuisine. In effect, the English wrote nationalism into consumption, foodways, and taste.’

Thus food and taste, according to Smith, was tied into an idea of national identity.

Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat in A History of Food (2009) takes the idea of nationalism further. He argues that traditional recipes or festive rituals ‘may relate to regional, national and religious characteristics’, and that ‘they also arise from a group’s general liking for basic foods or certain aromatics’ (p. 3). This argument must surely also hold sway for non-festive rituals – the eating of food or the drinking of drinks in specific places, with particular people or groups of people, or at certain times of the day.

Without making too much of a comparison between London now, and London of the eighteenth-century, it would be fair to claim that a walk of any length around the urban space brought people into contact with food and drink; with a variety of tastes from the exotic to the plain. We must assume then, that undertaking a walk in London, at the very least, includes pauses in which taste becomes an important part of the experience.

Taste in A Sunday Ramble

Although the companions drink and eat (and witness drinking and eating) often along with their perambulation, A Sunday Ramble rarely refers specifically to how anything tasted. It would appear that drinks and food are there to be noted by the narrator, but not pondered upon. Food and drink rarely even plays an important part in the narrative, beyond its reference as something consumed whilst the companions observe the place and/or characters in the vicinity. Mostly, it is a piece of background activity or window-dressing. Yet, the mere fact that the companions are sampling food and drink in particular locations and with particular classes and groups of people, suggests that taste could be considered an important element of a walk in eighteenth-century London.

As an example of the limited role that taste appears to have in A Sunday Ramble we can look at chapter 5, where, after taking in the views of Highgate Hill, the Captain admits that he is hungry so the companions go in search of refreshment. We are told that dinner was just being served when they arrived and that the meal was ‘hearty’. This is the nearest we get to an opinion on taste. The narrator notes that the companions ‘tolerably well appeased our appetites’ and then goes onto discussing the characters around them. Only after these descriptions are we told that the companions were drinking a bottle whilst they discussed their surroundings. In terms of description in A Sunday Ramble, this little-narrated piece contains more than some on the subject of food and drink, but it offers nothing in terms of the experience of the meal itself.

Water

In chapter 2 the narrator notes that the ‘waters’ served at Bagnigge-Wells were ‘by no means disagreeable to the palate’ (p. 18) and suggests to the reader that the ‘virtues and effects’ are described by ‘Dr Bevis’ in a little pamphlet.

A watercolour of Bagnigge Wells by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm (wikipedia)

It is in this citation to John Bevis’ An experimental enquiry concerning the contents, qualities, and medicinal virtues, of the two mineral waters lately discovered at Bagnigge Wells, that the historian of taste will find their evidence. The opening paragraph even mentions walking and sets Bagnigge Wells into its location:

These wells are a little way out of London, in the high road from Coppice Row, or Sir John Oldcastle’s, which, about a quarter of a mile further, at Battle-Bridge turnpike, comes into the great new road from Paddington to Islington, affording an early access to the springs for coaches from all parts: and the foot path from Tottenham Court Road, by Southampton-Row, Red-Lion-street and the Foundling Hospital, to Islington, Clerkenwell, and Old Street, running close by the wells, is no less convenient for such as prefer walking exercise. (Bevis, 1767, pp. 1-2).

John Bevis (1695-1771) was a physician and astronomer with a particular interest in optics (which he used for observing the skies). In 1765 he was elected to the Royal Society and served as its foreign secretary from 1766 to 1771. Before all of this (around 1759), Bevis had undertaken a lengthy chemical investigation of the mineral waters at Bagnigge Wells. The resultant pamphlet came to just under 70 pages, ran to at least three editions (1757, 1760, and 1767) in his lifetime, with more published up to the early nineteenth century, and was split into two parts.

The first type of water that Bevis describes is a ‘purging water’ which is 20ft deep, never turns foul, and ‘discharges more air bubbles at the surface, than most waters do at the spring head’ (p.5). Bevis describes its taste as not disagreeable ‘in the mouth’ and upon ‘being swallowed, leaves a distinguishable brackish bitterness on the palate’ (p. 5). The second water is described as ‘Bagnigge Chalybeat Water’, which is also 20ft deep and emerges from no less than four springs. This water has a ‘sulphury smell’, Bevis tells us, and its taste is ‘highly ferrugineous (meaning rusty), with an agreeable and sprightly sub-acid tartness’ (p. 33).

Alcohol

As A Sunday Ramble is a tale often focused on morality, it would be expected that there is some amount of discussion and sampling of alcoholic beverages. This is indeed the case, but on most occasions, very little of interest is said about the drinks or their effects.

Tavern scene (Wikiwand)

In the earlier editions of A Sunday Ramble in a bar near St Paul’s the companions note that the wine is good and the narrator explains that many of the bars have ‘the worst liquors, and not the best provisions’ claiming that ‘this house, […] is an exception from the general rule’ (ch. 4, p. 40, 1775-1780 editions). In all editions, a gill of Port is enjoyed at the ‘thatched-house’, the Captain declares it to be ‘as good as any he had ever tasted’ (ch. 2, p. 27), which is a recommendation postulated along with a certification by the narrator that the Captain had worked in the Port trade business for many years (a detail added in the 1794 edition). The claim here is that Port is a gentlemanly drink of fine sophistication, unlike gin, which is mentioned in chapter 5, whilst the companions make their way to Highgate. En route they encounter a variety of ‘field mendicant’s who would not let them pass without ‘telling their dismal stories’ and begging for money to ‘preserve them from the sharp attacks of hunger’, which, the Captain notes, was actually often spent on gin (p. 47). The final chapter ends the tale of the ramble with ‘a comfortable glass of cherry brandy’ (ch. 9, p. 111), again, another respectable drink.

Food

Of food, the companions had much during their perambulation. When eating dinner, the companions share a bottle over the conversation and afterwards note that many others were doing the same for 1s each, which provided a ‘genteel dinner, consisting of two or three dishes of very excellent provisions’ (ch. 5, p. 50). Of chocolate (ch. 3, p. 36) the narrator and Captain are joined by an old gentleman who is a friend of the Captain. After complaining that newspapers are less trustworthy now than they were thirty years ago, the gentleman ‘drunk his dish of chocolate’ before leaving.

In Holloway (ch. 6, p. 62) the companions noted that the area was well-known for ‘the consumption of cakes and ales’ and in particular ‘the weekly sale of cheescakes’ which ‘no means equal in goodness those made by the pastry-cooks in town’. Returning to Bagnigge’s Wells the Captain had a bowl of negus ‘which he asserted was very good in this place’ and would be refreshing for their ‘future excursion’ (ch. 6, p. 72). Negus is a hot drink of port, sugar, lemon, and spice, which may have been invented earlier in the century.

Tea

Whilst the companions sample various foods and drinks during their journey (as discussed in our previous post entitled Sunday ramblers travel on their stomach), the only non-alcoholic drink that the narrator comments on is tea, and particularly the vices and scandals that are often blamed on tea. The narrator explains that:

Tea has had its share of blame as promoting scandal, but for what reason I know not; there is certainly nothing in the nature of that much famed Indian weed productive of scandal, any more than wine or other beverages, unless it be asserted that “as almost every person in the kingdom drinks tea, therefore almost every person talks scandal;” a position that is false in every respect. However this may be, it is not my business to defend tea in this place. (ch. 6, p. 71)

The sentence is part of a concluding remark about ‘the unhappy proneness to scandal’ of both sexes and people of various rank with which the two companions had witnessed and described during their perambulation of London on a Sunday.

Historians have become increasingly interested in trying to understand the experience of living in a past world in terms of our senses. How did it feel to live in the eighteenth-century? What were the daily smells that their noses experienced? What did food and drink taste like? How does that change the experience of living in a particular time (and of course what variations were there between classes of people, genders, age, and location)?

A Sunday Ramble contains little in the way of discussion of taste despite the fact that the companions sample a variety of dishes and drinks along their route. What it does do, however, is situate certain types of food and drink with particular places. A Sunday Ramble, therefore, helps us to identify certain tastes with a location and with a certain type of person.

Sources

John Bevis, An experimental enquiry concerning the contents, qualities, and medicinal virtues, of the two mineral waters lately discovered at Bagnigge Wells (London, 1767).

Paul Freedman, Food: The History of Taste (California, 2007)

Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, A History of Food, trans. Anthea Bell (Paris, 2009).

Mark M. Smith, Sensory History (Oxford, 2007)

Episode 1: Graffiti in the garden: Gender, class and morality in Kensington Gardens

(Piixabay)

Any man or woman who walks in an urban landscape will come across graffiti of one kind or another. The buildings surrounding railway lines are covered in spray paint, as are many abandoned buildings, walls, temporary structures and fences. A meander along many urban streets consists of noticing and ignoring such scribbles, mosaics, and cartoonish iconographies.  They are part of the landscape – sometimes obtrusive, often permeable, some of it is considered street art in some quarters, occasionally state-sponsored, often not. Graffiti is, and always has been, part of the landscape in which humans walk.

This video serves as a reminder that modern day walking in London includes graffiti, some of which is still considered vandalism, but some of which is declared as art – often transient, but not always.

For the graffiti artist (or street artist), the activity has many meanings, often subversive, but not always. Graffiti is a form of expression, freed from the restraints of publication – either in print or digital – but intrinsically and uniquely linked to place and to a context, often known only to the artist. The graffiti mark, has a variety of meanings, some only known and understood by an inner circle; a shared sub-culture and community, which itself is a form of subversion of the State and its expectation of cultural norms.

For the observer who has nothing to do with the graffiti, who notices these markings as they walk, there is often something furtive in the perusal. Graffiti, often, is considered by the observer and the State to be a form of vandalism, an act of defacement. Observation of the markings as anything other than vulgar are, to those who consider themselves as law-abiding citizens, internalized as naughty, uncivilized. And yet we often look!

Graffiti in A Sunday Ramble

As the narrator of A Sunday Ramble shows this furtive act of reading and noting words and scribbles of an ‘uncivilized’ nature whilst walking, is nothing new. When the two ramblers visit Kensington Gardens, the narrator considers the perusal of graffiti as a type of voyeurism in which those of a particular class and gender (in particular) should avert their gaze from the vulgar, intrusive, and illegal markings.

I cannot but remark, that though this practice is too well known, many apparently virtuous females were poring over the lines; who, I must be charitable enough to suppose, were not capable of reading them; for they could not, if they comprehended their meaning, have perused them without blushing.

As such the narrator gives voice to the idea that perusal legitimizes something that should be considered illegitimate, especially by people of specific class and more specifically women. The mere act of reading degrades the individual and puts question to their morality. In the case of A Sunday Ramble the degradation of morals is specifically urban in its nature, and this is interesting in itself. The narrator denounces the graffiti as giving ‘great offence of all those who are not lost to all sense of shame’ but he also argues that the more ‘literate’ countrywomen were more than capable of informing them ‘of their error’.

I would, however, advise my more literate countrywomen to inform them of their error; and likewise let them know, (what some of them have probably found by experience) that as well as the laughter such imprudent conduct creates among the other sex, they may frequently meet with hieroglyphicks, sufficiently resembling nature to explain their intended meaning, without the least necessity of the spectators being able to name even the different letters of the alphabet.

As a whole, A Sunday Ramble is concerned with revealing the immoral in everyone from the lowest of prostitutes, to the man or woman engaged in illicit affairs, through to the seemingly virtuous, religious and high status. Although rarely acknowledged by the author, the immorality described and the satire provided is very much that of urban immorality. London, it is insinuated, has a corrupting affect. Emphasizing that point, the author, in chapter 6, describes a ‘countryman’ visiting London who stared in ‘great seeming astonishment at the multitude of people’ and is made to declare that London ‘was the largest beehive he had ever beheld’. The ramblers observe this man and overhear another reply to him:

“Ay, friend, so it is; and though it contains little else but drones, you will find, if you trust them too far, that many of them are not without stings.”

There is a strong reflection of this comment in the story told of Kensington Gardens. This is a beehive of a place filled on the one hand with poets and romantics, and on the other with thieves and criminals. The ‘moralist’, the narrator explains, might wish ‘to indulge his mediations in private’ and can therefore:

…plunge into the recesses of a thick grove, and enjoy his own reflections, undisturbed, but by the plaintive notes of the blackbird, or the more melodious voice of the sweet-warbling thrush.

Whilst the beau (a Dandy):

…may visit the enchanting walks behind the Palace and Greenhouse; where he will find those who equal him in dress, if they do not exceed him in vanity and affectation – or seeks the rejected lover to forget the frowns of a capricious mistress.

The narrator mocks the beau, noting their tendency to levity and overzealousness in crowds, but also hits upon their futility:

…from the levity of the females he will there behold, learn to despise the artful part of the sex, and cease to love where it is in vain to expect a return.

Those who are successful will find quiet ‘less frequented walks’ where he can ‘melt her fond soul with softest tales of love’. Although it is not directly stated, the narrator would seem to point the finger to some of these beau’s as the creators of graffiti.

Graffiti in the Garden

In the eighteenth-century, Kensington Gardens was, as it is now, intended as an escape from the urban setting; a place to walk and stroll, and to enjoy the benefits of nature. The intention in creating gardens such as this, was to provide a place for those ‘well-to-do’ to enjoy, but in reality people of all social statuses used the spaces and each London garden became a mosaic of societal contrasts.

Kensington_Palace,_London_03
Kensington Palace Gardens

Judging by the newspapers of late eighteenth-century England, Kensington Gardens had a reputation for graffiti as well as offering a home for illicit affairs, murders of passion, and thievery. In the 16 May 1788 edition of The Times, it was reported that admission would now only be possible via ticket due to vandalism. In the same paragraph it was reported that graffiti was a common sight:

The offence that is offered to the eye of Majesty, and which so disgraces some of his subjects, who have transferred the filth of their polluted minds to his seats and alcoves, deserves a most severe castigation; and it is highly probable some of these scribbling fools will be caught in the fact; and by a few well drawn lines on their backs, be taught that he who offends the eye of delicacy, merits punishment as much as the man who offends the ear.

 – Times [London, England] 16 May 1788: p. 3

In eighteenth-century London graffiti appeared regularly along streets, on the seats of inns, and at toilets amongst other locations. Often it was written into glass using diamond pens, and this is the case in A Sunday Ramble. The narrator observes and remarks that:

…the unpardonable folly of scribbling obscene verses on the glass of the green house to the great offence of all…

The time and effort spent in etching graffiti into glass demands more than just an opportunistic and momentary thought but instead requires serious consideration by the graffitist. Christina Lupton describes the purpose of this graffiti as a form of expression for Britain’s poorest and semi-literate writers and offered an opportunity to immortalise oneself in a specific place and in particular ways.  Not all graffiti was lurid or infantile, much of it offered poetry of at least a rough form and, as argued by David Stuart Rodes, included amongst their creators many educated men and women.

In 1731, Samuel Johnson published a four volume miscellany containing a variety of graffiti marks that he had discovered around London. The Merry Thought or, the Glass-Window and Bog-House Miscellany provides us with an indication of the type of markings that the women in Kensington Gardens might have been reading. Here are a few examples:

I become all things to all men, to gain some, or I must have starved. Moll. Friskey.

– In pencil upon a wall in a Tavern near Covent-Garden

 

If virtue rules the minds of women,

They’ll never let you touch their Linnen;

But if they are not virtue proof,

Then you may kiss them oft enough.

– Bull and Mouth Street

 

No hero looks so fierce to fight,

As does the man who strains to sh-te.

– From the Temple Bog-House

The graffiti on the greenhouses in Kensington Gardens were more likely to talk of romance or ‘dilly-dallying’ than the humour found in the city’s toilets. The context of location and moment is crucial.

Tea Gardens as microcosm of urban life

There is plenty that can be unpacked from the narrators account of graffiti in Kensington Gardens. Firstly, the narrative plays on popular expectations of class and gender. The London tea gardens are used in A Sunday Ramble as a microcosm of larger urban society. As such there is the good and the bad; the moral and the immoral; the beauty and the ugly of urban life, all contained in a small area. It is, indeed, a beehive, although it is a controlled one. The narrator notes – with glee – that servants ‘prevent persons meanly clad from going into the garden’ by standing at the entrances, but – with frustration – that ‘notwithstanding the great care that is taken to preserve decency and decorum in this place, there is generally complained of nuisance prevails’. The newspaper reports of the time confirm that the servants are not always successful in their duty, but it also seems to suggest that the ‘nuisance’ is often caused by those seemingly well-dressed.

For our interests here, the gardens are also a location for walking, for moving through the minutia of city life in microcosm. At one point the narrator describes Kensington Gardens as ‘the most agreeable I ever beheld’ with ‘a vast number of the most beautiful walks’, whilst also berating it for its lurid graffiti and the immorality of the people. The existence of graffiti in Kensington Gardens is – if we recall the discussion in the video – a feature of interest even if it is officially discouraged and disliked. Someone has walked through the garden and spent time etching into the greenhouses the thoughts that occurred to them during that walk.  Furthermore, others have paused in their walks to peer at the scribbling. The thoughts of one walker are transferred to others. What does this mean for our understanding of thought-processes whilst walking? The consumption of another walkers thoughts related to place but perhaps distanced from its original context, is difficult to analyse.

Essentially, the author of A Sunday Ramble, shows us in this passage that the act of walking can also be one of observation and that such observations can reveal the immorality barely hidden under the surface of London society. It also tells us that a reading of walking is filled with hidden details, complex associations, and negotiations between the acceptable and unacceptable.

Sources

Christina Lupton, Knowing Books: The Consciousness of Mediation in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Philadelphia, 2012). 

“This evening, Lady ARCHER will have a very numerous route, having sent cards of invitation.” Times [London, England] 16 May 1788: 3. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 23 Mar. 2016. Website

Images: Graffiti Street Art Urban – pixibay