The Old Curiosity Shop

On attending a seminar at the L.S.E. (London School of Economics) at Lincoln’s Inn Fields (12th February 2015), Jan (my wife) and I got to the venue 30 minutes before we were due to register, so, as you do, we set out to find a local pub. On the corner of Portugal Street and Portsmouth Street sure enough we found what seemed to be from the outside, an old Victorian building which clearly in its younger days was a pub. On waiting to get served I noticed a large placard proudly displaying the words “L.S.E Students Bar”. Now it has been some years since I was a student at the Northern Polytechnic in Holloway Road but the student noisy babble was as bad then as it had been when I was a student. The only difference being that over the years my hearing has deteriorated significantly and of course I was no longer inclined to shout across the room to other students as they entered.

A couple of pints later Jan said “come on, its time to go” . As we left, I noticed a little way along the road an old-looking building and pointed it out to Jan. “Come on,” I said “let’s take another couple of minutes to check it out”. Somewhere in the back of my brain I had heard of “The Old Curiosity Shop” but had never actually known where it was.

Later I Googled the name and learned that; at one time it functioned as a dairy on an estate given by King Charles 11 to one of his many mistresses. Made from the wood of old ships it was built-in 1567 and miraculously survived the great fire of London as well as the second world war bombing. Given the English weather I think it is remarkable that a building four hundred and forty-eight years old is not only still standing but still functioning as a shop, albeit now a high-class men’s and ladies shoe shop.

That somewhere in the back of my brain may have had roots in being told the Dickens’ story of little Nell and her Grandfather. Again searching back via Google I learned that in the eighteen hundreds Charles Dickens penned an apocryphal but immensely popular “penny dreadful novel” – where Little Nell and her Grandfather occupied the shop selling, what I would guess today would be called ‘bric-a-brac’ and novelty items. In the story little Nell was a comely, gentle beautiful, young woman who sadly was irrevocably tied into her relationship with her Grandfather who had borrowed money against gambling debts from a Daniel Quilp. However unable to pay off the loan both Nelly and her Grandfather set out on a plan to evade the debt by wandering through the countryside north of London. As the story unfurls episode after episode Dickens (The Master of heart-rending drama) has little Nell getting weaker and weaker from their life on the road. Starvation and hardship along with the fruitless begging brings Nell to deaths door. Meanwhile, the old Curiosity Shop is forfeited and asset stripped to pay back the loan.

I do seem to remember it was an intriguing and emotional tale – especially towards the end, when the reader was kept in suspense as to the question “Will Little Nell Live”?

If Nell and Grandfather ever did exist is debatable but what is not questionable is the fact that ‘The oldest shop’ in London still stands in Portsmouth Street and anyone may stand in front of its shop windows and with enough imagination wonder about the thousands and thousands of individuals and their circumstances who stared through those windows of that shop of curiosities.

(Mike)

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