In 1873 the French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine spent a tempestuous few months living together as lovers at No 8 Great College Street (now Royal College Street) in Camden, London. Their cohabitation, fuelled by absinthe, opium and knife fights (with only the points of the blades unwrapped) has become the stuff of literary legend.
Today, Royal College Street is a quiet road, running northwards from St. Pancras churchyard, along the edge of Somers Town to Camden Road station and the fashionable buzz of Camden Lock. The street is dominated by the Royal Veterinary College and by social housing – the area is socially and economically deprived even though it lies within a stone’s throw of central London. It is easy to assume that the Victorian street was similar, but that would be a big mistake.
In 1873 the street was dominated by Chas & Goodall, the most important playing card factory in the world. The imposing Victorian brick building, with its chimneys and vast walls, was close to the poets’ lodging at No 8 – Rimbaud and Verlaine would have seen and heard all of the activity of the factory. The complex was at the heart of the technological and social revolution that was Victorian Britain, a magnet for artists and designers, a centre at the forefront of technology and engineering – a sort of Silicon Roundabout of its time. It was here that modern playing cards were invented and refined, with their laminated surfaces, rounded corners, and symmetrical designs of Kings, Queens and Aces and Jokers. A thousand women went to work in the factory every day, where they hand-painted colour on to the printed cards. It has been estimated that 2 million packs a year were produced in Victorian Britain, and nearly all of them were manufactured in the factory next door to where the poets lived.No wonder, then, that Rimbaud and Verlaine talked about London in almost mystical terms as a futuristic city: evidence of its extraordinary inventiveness and commercial dynamism was right on their doorstep.
But that was not all. In 1873 the street was also home to 14 piano factories, 4 of which were situated on the same block as No 8. The instruments produced were not grand pianos either, but about the upright pianos and pianolas much loved by the newly prosperous Victorian middle class. Suddenly, owning a piano was something within the reach of any averagely wealthy family, leading to an explosion in the instruments’ production. On any given day, the street would have been full of the sounds of piano manufacture and tuning, and the noise of finished pianos being loaded on to wagons for onwards delivery.
The poets therefore found themselves living on a street which was at the centre of manufacture for the two foremost leisure items of the Victorian age, the playing card and the piano. Furthermore, the street was crowded with itinerant workers living in cheap boarding houses and employed on the building of the new St Pancras station (which opened 1873). It is thus understandable that Rimbaud described King’s Cross in his prose poem Promontory as a work equal to the temples and canals of ancient Greece or Carthage, its new hotels palaces of glass flooding their surrounding area with light and music. It would be fair to say that Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine lived at the throbbing heart of the original steam punk era.
This is why, when the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation decided to commission an original Jazz show inspired by the poets and their time in London, the theme of the playing card factory came to mind. As well as recovering an aspect of the poets’ lives in Camden that has since been obscured, the show explores themes of steam punk, technology and social change just as relevant to modern Camden – with its hirsute market traders, digital start-up businesses and design studios. The appointed composer is Sorin Zlat, a young Romanian Jazz star whose fame is growing rapidly around the world. Several of Sorin’s family members now live and work in Britain, so the music both celebrates the dynamism of coming to a mega-city and expresses the dislocation and loss felt by immigrants living and working far from their country of origin. Again, one can imagine the two French poets living on Royal College Street would have felt exactly the same mixture of excitement and alienation coming to live in Victorian London. Like some of the best modern Jazz the piece, this is an immigrant’s tale, characterised by an urban asphalt vibe, and a wistful sense of nostalgia for the homeland.
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Given the poets notoriously flamboyant nature, their relationship was destined to be doomed. The final breach involved the younger Rimbaud screaming abuse at Verlaine out of their flat’s window as the latter returned on foot to the house. It is easy to imagine that the street was full of people, workers, wagon drivers and urchins playing on the cobbles, who would have witnessed the incident. Apparently, Verlaine felt so incensed and humiliated by the abuse that he beat Rimbaud around the head with the fish that he had just purchased from Camden market, and then departed within hours for the continent. When Rimbaud followed him to a hotel room in Brussels, Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the wrist, bringing the relationship to a definitive end, and resulting in Verlaine spending two years in a Belgian prison. Rimbaud went on to become an explorer and arms dealer in the Horn of Africa but that is – as they say – another story.
Jazz from the Playing Card Factory, an original live Jazz show with Sorin Zlat and his Trio is taking place at 8.00pm in Hall 1 at Kings Place on Mon 10 Oct 2016. Tickets cost £13.50-£24.50 (saver tickets £9.50) and are available online at http://www.kingsplace.co.uk/whats-on/music/jazz-from-the-playing-card-factory#.V-U2BssVDIU