The first time I stayed at the London Central Southwark Hotel (LCSH), SE1, was so I could travel up from rural England and enjoy a performance of a Jacobean revenge tragedy at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
I further enhanced my enjoyment of the play by drinking a bottle of whisky beforehand.
‘Where is the actual theatre?’ someone asked me in the confusing maze of corridors just before the performance was due to begin.
‘It’s in here,’ I confided, tapping my head.
And the theatre bar did a lovely herbed lamb shank at a reasonable price. Oh yes, my first night at the LCSH. That evening, when I got back to the room, I mysteriously heard the word ‘angel’ repeating in my mind. A sort of thing I’m not usually given to. And I was transfixed by the fisheye effect of the spyhole in my door. I’d never stayed in a hotel so posh as to have one of those before. At least not one that had been drilled legitimately.
The basics: It is very clean and, for somewhere so close to Waterloo and the rail lines, it is extremely quiet. Do I recommend the breakfast at the LCSH? I don’t know, I’ve never tried one. I prefer to go out and find a cafe. Do I sleep well there? In honesty, no, but I don’t sleep well anywhere and it’s not the LCSH’s fault. The soundest I’ve slept in the past decade was during a general anaesthetic. Except for the bit where I woke up.
I enjoy the locale. The Palestra building standing sentinel at the end of Union Street. I’m hot for the rush of the Blackfriars Road where the traffic charges at you and where the pedestrian crossing counts you down from your allotted segment of demi-safety. I love the modernism of Southwark tube station with the steel and glass, and the uncompromising, harsh right-turns of its escalator chutes.
Anchor and Hope. Lord Nelson. The Kings Arms. All are proximate. Fine pubs in this district have already been well documented on Deserter. All I would add is that if you’re up Roupell Street way, and vintage Citroëns are your thing, then check out the neat little row of them which are often parked up there.
I’ve stopped at the LCSH a fair few times now and I’m losing count. It must have been back in 2008 when a stay coincided with the artist Martin Firrell’s conceptual installation The Question Mark Inside which involved the projection of words and phrases onto the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. A profound and moving work, as challenging and provocative as it was visually enthralling. And shit scary when you’re not expecting it and casually glance out of the window whilst half cut.
‘Excuse me, do you sell The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard?’ I asked the hip sales assistant in the bookshop.
‘Of course we do,’ and she directed me to a pile of ’em, one copy of which I was pleased to buy. One day, when I honour her helpful and friendly attitude by actually reading it, I think it will have something to say about why I love staying in the LCSH. Didn’t J. G. Ballard write about the significance of ‘the angle between two walls’? And I’m not going to apologise for sounding pretentious when I say there is a certain something about the geometry of the rooms and the layout at the LCSH which I find genuinely exhilarating and at the same time calming.
Then there are the lifts. A choice of two. Have I persuaded you to start staying at the LCSH yet? I’m about to. One of the lifts has a plain interior; the other is mirrored. And, O! You Duchesses and Dukes of tentative extravagance, this is no ordinary mirror. It is tinted and transformative. It takes in me in my charity shop black suit and late nineties bed hair and deals back a guest on Artsnight. And in either lift there is just enough of a clunk and a pause before the door opens at my chosen floor to give me a little restorative shot of adrenalin.
I love some urban visual grittiness, I do. Give me Stephen Shore’s large-format photographic studies of parking lots over Caspar David Friedrich’s mountainous sublime any fuck day of the week. And with the views from the windows of the LCSH I am not disappointed. It delivers it in spades with the railway lines, the rooftops and the grafitti. And buddleia.
Late at night the gantry signal lights go into their night-mode of neutral white light, resting from their triaxial obligation of cerise, yellow and emerald. That’s when, and how, the commuters of the psyche travel. Request a room on the correct side and you can project an inverted image of the Shard onto the wall in a camera obscura effect if you leave the right gap in the curtains.
It was probably during my tenth stay at the LCSH that the spirits of the place honoured me with another divulgence. I awoke with the name Clutterbuck unsolicitedly ringing in my ears. I later found an old book which said an esteemed physician of that name operated in Southwark in the eighteenth century.
Yes, I have experienced things there which I cannot explain. I cannot explain why you can get Radio 5 Live (oh dear me) on the television but not Radio 4. I cannot explain why, a few years ago, when you tuned to Channel 4, you got a still from what looked like a 1950s film of a couple kissing. And why it was the same situation when I went back a month later. I could have asked at the Reception Desk, they are helpful and friendly, but that would have lifted the gossamer veil of otherness about the LCSH. Likewise if I had hauled myself to the window at 3am the night I heard a steam train chuff by.
Over the eight years or so I’ve stayed at the LCSH I reckon I’ve been allocated the same room more than once. But I’ve never kept a record of the room numbers I’ve stayed in. For me, that would be as anathematic as paving an indigenous songline. Or putting an X in your diary when you get laid.
And whilst on that subject, some acquaintances have speculated that these trips to London I make might be, how can I put this, ‘Soho related’. But no, whilst I do enjoy a pint or two at the excellent Glasshouse Stores in that district, or however many it takes to make the mind-noise relent and help me forget the time I woke up during the general anaesthetic, my purpose is rather to take in a museum and a gallery, a bar and a vista, and generally enjoy a wander around this fair capital city.
My favourite 24-hour general store on The Cut has unfortunately closed and is now a Costa. But others nearby continue to stock my most esteemed soft drink of all time: Ka Sparkling Black Grape. Not like any grape I know this side of Alpha Centauri. It tastes like how a medicine cabinet smells, with about nineteen spoonfuls of sugar stirred in.
And that’s a fine flava to chug down at the London Central Southwark Hotel.
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Image credit: In-line photos by the author