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The House by the Thames And the people who lived there By Gillian Tindall

This is a book about a tiny slither of London life that which is occupied by number 49 Bankside. Number 49, the House by the Thames', looks across the Thames at St Pauls cathedral and backs onto the Globe theatre. It is a conspicuous and defiantly domestic landmark that has miraculously survived both the Blitz and the greater perils of post war reconstruction to become a living token of the old medieval quarter of Bankside, always part, yet apart from London. It is loved by all of us who regularly like floating down the river and also appreciated in a quieter way by the thousands who pass its door on their way to the Globe and the Tate Modern.

I was drawn to this book like a magnet. For quite aside from the house's own fascination and my respect for Gillian Tindall's talents as a historian, I knew a man who once lived here and who was a magician of sorts. His work there has been publicly derided, though it yet allowed the precious time capsule of number 49 Bankside to survive.

Gillian Tindall has an extraordinary empathy for recovering and discovering our lost past. In half a dozen books she has already proved herself a brilliant chronicler of the epics of everyday life, testifying to that great, vast, labouring mass of mankind who lie forever forgotten and unrecorded. Her diligence amongst old vestry ledgers, census returns and record books is such that she can briefly summon up for us the most tantalising visions from this lost past, like a series of flickering phantoms. So that we can once again briefly stand witness to the loves, labours, desires and sufferings of our humble predecessors without for so much as an instant in letting the supposed Œgreat' figures of taught history, that self-serving cast of politicians, generals, writers and magnates from once again hogging all the light and our attention. So instead of wiffling after the footprints of Shakespeare and Cardinal Wolsey through the alleys of South London, we follow Gillian Tindall and observe the Flemish whores, the shit houses perched over the drainage canals, the ponds dug out of the marshy Bankside meadows where pike were farmed and poor old crippled Marion Elliot, keeping vigil beside a stove for 25 years in number 49 where she prepared sweets for sale on the street. We watch the hidden life of Skinner's market behind no 49, where dog shit is known as Œpuer' and is a vital commodity of the tanneries, where for centuries children pluck the fur from rabbit skins and where the bowler hat would be invented. Nor is the epic presence of the great Elizabethan playhouses, the Globe and the Rose, allowed to dominate our horizons. We are reminded that the reign of the theatres in South London was brief enough and ended forever by Cromwell. They would afterwards settle in the West End during the Restoration where they still remain. She reminds us that the theatre was in any case superseded by the greater numbers drawn to watch bulls, bears and blind horses being mauled by dogs which seems to have survived as a popular South London public entertainment well into the 1760's.

When we do brush past the great and the good, it is in an exclusively Bankside context, so that we find that marvellously humane man, Dr Johnson, labouring away at the brewery accounts on the behalf of the widowed Mrs Thrale, or Betjeman lovingly recording the catalogue of trading names of a Bankside coal merchant in a poem and ponder whether it was the burned out ruins of the steam-powered Abbey Flour mill that inspired Blake with one of his most memorable lines.

The purest stretch of documented local history is from 1711 to 1911 when the old cellars and brick chimney of a medieval Thameside Inn that occupied the site of number 49 are transformed into a neat London terraced house. This is also the period in which we observe the slow rise to prosperity of a dynasty of lightermen, the Sells family, who over the centuries turn prosperous and professional on the back of London's coal trade. And it is the location of the old established coal merchants of this stretch of the river such as the Sells, that naturally lead to the siting of the first power stations here and in due course to that brick built cathedral to turbine-power that is now our beloved Tate Modern, daily humming with thousands of art lovers.

The dark years in between 1911, and the recent revival of Bankside as a cultural centre, take a twist that would be incredible in any mere fiction. First this run down dockside terrace house is transformed into a glamorous white-washed trophy home of a 1930's film star (Anne Lee on her way to Hollywood) before passing into the hands of a quirky diplomat and then in 1945 to my friend, Malcolm Munthe.

It was Munthe who was responsible for the untrue but undeniably romantic claims about number 49 being the house used by both Sir Christopher Wren and as a lodging for the young Catherine of Aragon. These bold assertions, reinforced by a pair of historical plaques (one Œborrowed'from a demolished neighbouring house, one totally invented) and some artful internal improvements in the way of a royal bedchamber and a Œrenaissance' painted ceiling, have been vigorously denounced by local historians for some sixty years now. Despite this, Munthe's fictions took firm root and were soon echoed by the commentaries of the tourist guides and package boats. They were even respected by local councillors who would otherwise have swept the old house at number 49 into oblivion during the post-war developments. It is clear that the author, though grateful for Munthe's central role in the survival of the house, is otherwise not at all in sympathy with Major Malcolm Munthe. In The House by the Thames he is exposed as an inventor of sham tales, and though both he and Gillian Tindall undoubtedly share an inordinate love of history and anecdote, they are othewise polar opposites. For while Gillian Tindall is concerned with the forgotten underclass, Munthe was obsessed by the mythology of royalty and the refining nobility of court-life. He delighted in street raconteurs, historical novels and oral family legends, while Tindall bases most of her work on public records. Munthe put no trust in documents or any form of bureaucratic procedures (indeed he delighted in muddling them, much helped by his fluency in half a dozen languages) but conducted his life negotiations over the teapot and sherry glass. He would move on from number 49 to preserve half a dozen endangered houses across Europe; in Herefordshire, Sweden, Rome and Wimbeldon; creating museum-palaces of total enchantment which have inspired and delighted thousands of guests (and supported penniless poets, artists and other assorted lost souls) though you can be sure that in each of these there were plenty of royal bedchambers and tales of secret agents, mysterious mendicants, hidden identities and exiled princes. But it was not all invention, for I knew him well enough to know it was transmutation, for he was burdened with secrets that he, through his own code of honour, knew that he could never ever tell. Both from the court of Sweden (where his father Axel Munthe, the best-selling novelist, doctor and courtier, had a Rasputin-like reputation), from his experiences in the Second World War where he had ran a branch of the resistance in Scandinavia, not to mention his parents dysfunctional marriage and the hidden history of his English mother's aristocratic family.

That the misguided efforts of this warped but brilliant man should have yet allowed (and in her search for "the real story" perhaps have helped inspire) Gillian Tindall to create such a vivid page of demotic London history is a delightful twist of fate. An example of the curious wheels that interconnect us quite beyond the range of any ledger and account book. For my part I must send Gillian Tindall some Bankside tribute: a copy of Bunty Boys, Malcolm Munthe's account of trying to run a boys club for his poor neighbours in Bankside. For as well as being a great partisan of the Princesses of this world, Munthe was also possessed by an abiding fascination for tramps and street musicians. And in my youthful travels in his company through the streets of London, Stockholm, Zurich and Rome I was delighted to observe that he was often acknowledged as "one of the children of the streets". Perhaps they could see something in his face that told them that he too had nearly died on the road and had been saved by the chance concern of someone who was otherwise an enemy.

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