I spent some of the best Friday evenings of my life walking home from London Bridge where I worked back to my flat in Pimlico in the 1980s. The route took me past St Paul’s, down Fleet Street, around Trafalgar Square and along Whitehall and Victoria Street, stopping at just about every pub on the way to whet my whistle and reflect on the woes of the world which, as Poe says, are manifold and multiform.
Fleet Street is named after the River Fleet, whose course now runs entirely underground. There are many underground rivers in London, actually, and movements are afoot to liberate at least a few of them from their subterranean prisons. It has been worked out that if all the water-pipes in London were laid out end-to-end they’d stretch for 90,000 miles, give or take a mile.
There’s a man-hole cover every 280 feet along London’s streets, for servicing and maintaining a pipe system that has to cope with over 400 million gallons of liquid each day. Despite this, the bigger chambers are still vulnerable to flash floods. ‘Flushers’, whose unenviable job it is to clean out the channels, usually leave a ‘ganger’ up top to keep a check on the weather. If a sudden storm brews up he’ll drop the man-hole cover heavily onto the pavement and its ringing tone will echo through all the tunnels and warn the men underground to get out as fast as possible.
The Fleet Street pavement was laid in 1766 and there’s an interesting story associated with it. Two English pavers made a bet that they could do more paving work in one day than four Scotsmen could manage. By three o’ clock they were indeed so far ahead that they took a break and went into a pub nearby for some refreshment. Now you’re thinking of the Tortoise and the Hare fable, but you’d be wrong because after their break they went back to work and duly won the bet anyway, thereby adding insult to injury.
On the north side of Fleet Street, the church of St Dunstan’s-in-the-West commemorates a skilled goldsmith who was also the Archbishop of Canterbury. This character is usually shown holding up a pair of tongs. Apparently, one day he was at his work when the Devil walked in and St Dunstan was so upset at the turn of conversation that he pincered the Devil’s nose with a pair of forge-tongs.
Why don’t things like that happen anymore? Maybe because the Devil has long since won the argument and no longer has any need to engage in debate. His disciples after all now run the whole country from the Heart of Darkness just along the road, in Threadneedle Street.