Genever conventions

London Architecture Biennale, 16-25 June 2006

Somewhere in the cultural wastelands of south London, a furtive figure slips down a secluded backstreet. Glancing round to ensure he is unobserved, he sidles up to an unassuming wooden door. With a knock and a muttered password, he feeds a glistening coin into the door’s special drawer. Moments later, he takes a powerful intoxicant from it, and steals away to consume it in the alleyways of Southwark.

Who is this louche character? Why, dear reader, it could be you – at least if you visit this year’s London Architecture Biennale. For the door in question is not part of a crack den; it is a re-creation of an 18th-century device known as a “Puss and Mew”, dreamt up (in this case) by multimedia artists Luis Carvajal and Annie Davey. “The original Puss and Mew was allegedly a painting of a cat placed in a window or doorway,” explains Carvajal. “A hole was cut where the mouth was – for depositing coins – and a copper pipe protruded from the tail, from which gin was dispensed.”

As fans of Hogarth will know all too well, gin was the narcotic of choice in early 18th-century London. The spirit they drank then – and the variety dispensed from Carvajal and Davey’s Puss and Mew – was a Dutch concoction known as genever, much sweeter and maltier than the later London dry gin. It had been brought over from the Low Countries by William of Orange, who promoted its consumption in preference to dastardly Catholic imports such as brandy. Of course, before too long this state backing dissolved as the English population descended into a morass of what would now be called binge-drinking. Hence the Gin Acts, between 1729 and 1751, which sought to restrict the consumption of the previously state-approved narcotic, and the spirited response of London’s drinkers, driven underground.

“London’s poor lived in close-knit communities that allowed the Puss and Mew to exist,” says Carvajal. “The unpopular – and ultimately unsuccessful – Gin Acts could not suppress the powerful new social forces that had led to the huge consumption of gin.” An entire illegal subculture grew up, much like the speakeasies of Prohibition-era America, or the drug dens of modern times. To re-create the illicit frisson of the 1730s bootleg trade, Carvajal and Davey have minted special trade tokens for the project, similar to the parallel currencies of the genever shadow-world. The head of the token depicts a coin dropping onto a cat’s tongue; on the reverse, a shot of gin is shown squirting from the mog’s tail. These tokens are the only currency that will be accepted at the Puss and Mew. You can obtain yours from a modern vending machine (installed at the Ragged School on Union Street) and then take it along to the door to obtain your dram of genever.

And where, you may be wondering, is the Puss and Mew itself? That’s not a question that should be posed in polite society. You might as well ask a justice of the peace if he knows where to score a rock of crack.

First published in World of Interiors issue 285. Reproduced with permission.

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