Its name in raised stone lettering, at the end of an alleyway off Fleet Street, is all that is left of Clifford’s Inn. Below the name is a black door which is normally left open during the day, so you can walk through and admire the large office block now occupying the site. The approach along that passageway, and especially the little grille in that black door, definitely remember something, but all they will actually say – or all they say at first – are those two words in block capitals.

It wasn’t bombs or post-war planners. The Inn’s original (fifteenth- century) purpose had been to serve as a preparatory college for lawyers, but this function was taken over by the universities. A switch in wind direction preserved all but one of its buildings from the Great Fire, but this changed less than you might think. Its decline, from the seventeenth century onwards, continued – decline of a kind scarcely conceivable now, most of its long career an ever more protracted exercise in not shutting down.

To this process, like fish to an old wreck, were drawn some highly unusual fauna. Law students might continue to stay away but the Inn’s ever shabbier rooms and run-down courtyards began to attract Fleet Street’s independents and assorted misfits. Think something mid-way between Jarman’s Docklands and a decommissioned Oxbridge College. Clifford’s Inn became a kind of loop-hole or let-out clause in the very system it had been set up to maintain. This could not go on, of course; something had to be done and in due course it was done – hence that office block – but over two centuries the Inn’s survival made for a kind of alternative Fleet Street. It was still home, until its demolition in 1935, to writers, designers and publishers.

It had its eighteenth-century hermit. George Dyer wrote his Complaint of the Poor People of England there at the height of the Terror in Paris. The lesson to draw, he argued, was one about extremes of inequality. Central to his scheme was the question of who frames the laws and in whose interest: what better vantage point from which to observe that monster-question at close quarters than across the road from the Inner Temple? This complex of draughty but affordable rooms seems always to have held a special appeal for writers and artists of a Utopian disposition.

Dickens knew it, and them, well. Garrulous, lonely, half-crazy Jack Bamber, in The Pickwick Papers, holds his audience captive with hair- raising stories about the poverty of its lodgers. In the following century the newly wed Leonard and Virginia Woolf made their first home here. They too came in search of Utopia among the newspapers and the banks, amid ‘the unconcerned business-like look of things’, as Virginia called it, and ‘the vast funeral mass of the Law Courts’. She would recall their lodgings fondly, if eerily, in a later novel: ‘The sitting room window looked out into a courtyard, with its flagged pavement, and its single tree, and across to the flat red-brick fronts of the opposite houses, which would not have surprised Dr. Johnson, if he had come out of his grave for a turn in the moonlight.’

Their Utopia was, significantly, in the past. Clifford’s Inn could no longer support the sort of life earlier marginals had found there and Virginia suffered her first breakdown, necessitating the move to Richmond. Leonard briefly went back after her death to live in the modern block which had been built on the site. He did not stay long.

If the little grille at the end of that passageway permitted communication with the spirits of this place, it is the shade of Samuel Butler I would call, of all this neighbourhood’s unsung utopians and dystopians now departed. He would have known Jack Bamber’s account of his now-vanished home well. Under the heading ‘Mr. Pickwick, Hamlet, Don Quixote’, he once jotted the following in his note book: ‘The great characters of fiction live as truly as the memories of great men. For the life after death it is not necessary that a man or woman should have lived.’ It is, though, quite certain that Butler lived and wrote for almost forty years at Clifford’s Inn. (The place finally closed down as an Inn only the year after his death in 1902.) He painted there as well: his portrait of Don Quixote was among those of his works which were hung at the Royal Academy. It sold but has now disappeared.

Butler identified strongly with these surroundings, even recording the exact spot in nearby Fetter Lane where he was ‘most prone to get ideas’. His present invisibility at the site would neither have troubled nor surprised him. ‘Retirement to me is a condition of being able to work at all,’ he wrote. For us, to whom so few things are more precious than visibility, this might seem puzzling or unlikely at first. ‘In the cold, clarity increases,’ Thomas Bernhard once said. We only believe it when a foreigner says these things.

The Utopia discovered by Butler in his rooms at Clifford’s Inn has had readers arguing ever since. For just as Erewhon, the name of his first novel, is not quite ‘Nowhere’ spelt backwards, so its puzzling customs are not exactly those of a more familiar ‘Somewhere’ inverted, let alone corrected. Erewhon may have been written in a ‘no place’, or one of which almost no trace remains, but it still welcomes visitors.

The Erewhonians also would have approved their creator’s erasure from the scene: ‘They do not put up monuments,’ Butler wrote, ‘nor write epitaphs, for their dead, though in former ages their practice was much as ours.’ By the time of the narrator’s visit, after centuries of controversy, the Erewhonians now let a small inscription into the pavement, notifying passers-by that this is ‘where the public statue would have stood’. Turn down Clifford’s Inn Passage and, black door permitting, you come to where Butler’s statue ‘would have stood’. Such an unassuming destination requires a little imaginative outlay but more than repays this in the short- to medium-term.

The stranger customs and beliefs of his Nowhere-men and -women may need introduction. Misfortune, like illness, is treated as a crime. So, for example, we watch the trial of a man found guilty of suffering from pulmonary consumption. An old lady who has been robbed by her stockbroker is ordered to appear in the Misplaced Confidence Court. What we would call crime, meanwhile, is treated as an illness. The old lady’s stockbroker, once his activities have been uncovered, is visited by a sort of psychotherapist, or ‘straightener’. As a treatment this doctor prescribes a severe flogging ‘once a month for twelve’ and compensation to the state for twice the sum he has stolen. Erewhon’s uncanny knack of digging one generation after another in the ribs is still with us, or I’d say so.

In the ‘Musical Banks’ the Church of England and high finance are combined in perhaps the subtlest satire ever written on conventional religion. There are two currencies in Erewhon. One of them is the currency in everyday use, ‘with which people bought their bread, meat and clothing’; but there is another, which is only issued from special outlets called ‘Musical Banks’. These are visited once a week by the more respectable citizens. The narrator describes the ‘majestic towers’ of the particular bank to which his hosts accompany him, ‘its venerable front … divided into three deep recesses and adorned with all sorts of marbles and many sculptures’. Its windows are ‘filled with stained glass descriptions of the principal commercial incidents of the bank for many ages’.

Haunting music is played and a cheque is written for a little of their currency. The coins, beautifully designed, are quite without value in the weekday world and are usually returned to a verger on the way out. A small quantity of them may be retained. Respectable persons like to be seen carrying them about. In the presence of any of the Banks’ staff, ‘everyone would talk as if all currency save that of the Musical Banks should be abolished’. Nothing, however, can disguise the Banks’ loss of authority with the general public. They have sought to reverse this, unsuccessfully, through programmes of renovation and ever more stained glass windows.

None of this, in 1872, was calculated to make Butler friends. That it remains funny suggests that what is being got at is pious carry-on of all kinds. It is not unknown for liberal humanists to be found in possession of some very gorgeous little coins – on which figures labelled ‘freedom’ or ‘democracy’ often appear. Butler still thought of himself, now and again, as a Christian but his understanding of that term – ‘unflinching opposition to the charlatanisms and Pharisaisms of a man’s own times’ – reassured nobody.

Lest the Darwinians imagine that he was of their camp, he included The Book of the Machines. This tells of how the Erewhonians banned all machinery, as tending to develop intelligence of its own which then enslaves its inventors, turning men into ‘machine-tickling aphids’. This was read by some as a coded send-up of Darwin’s ‘mechanistic’ view of evolution by natural selection. Butler himself was unsure, at first, whether he meant that or not (assuring Darwin that he had not meant it, later boasting to an admirer that he had). In either case, whether or not he knew exactly what he meant or only gradually became aware of its implications, the message he had sent to his contemporaries was plain enough: here is one to avoid. Avoid him they systematically did.

It becomes clear that there was – is – more to Butler’s invisibility than meets the eye. Just ten years into his writing career he made this sober, defiant appraisal of his situation (the tendency to address posterity becomes ever more marked): ‘If my books succeed after my death … let it be understood that they failed during my life for a few very obvious reasons of which I was quite aware, for the effect of which I was prepared before I wrote my books … I attacked people who were at once unscrupulous and powerful and I made no alliances. I did this because I did not want to be bored and have my time wasted and my pleasures curtailed.’

Fighting talk. What had happened was that he had made good money during five years as a sheep farmer in New Zealand between 1859 and 1864 and had expected to live off that on his return. Within a few years, however, Clifford’s Inn was to him the impoverished scene it had been to Jack Bamber. The story of why the money lasted such a short time is the key to where the Musical Banks came from. The story has not, to my knowledge, been told before and it is doubly worth telling at the moment.

On your right as you pass from Fleet Street along Clifford’s Inn Passage stands the church of St. Dunstan’s-in-the-West. John Donne was the vicar here once but that is not all it remembers. Two large wooden panels fill one wall of the porch with a list of benefactors: ‘FOR NEARLY THREE CENTURIES,’ it declares, ‘the Banking Houses of Hoare, of Child and of Gosling and Co. have regularly supported this church.’ Its Elizabethan silver plate is still stored just across the road in the vaults of Hoare’s Bank, where George Osborne is a customer.

Henry Hoare, a son of the banking dynasty, was a friend of Butler’s at St. John’s, Cambridge. Henry’s devout father, alumnus of the same college, had endowed it with money to build a new chapel. Butler opened an account at his friend’s family bank on his return from New Zealand. In fact the money with which he paid for the publication of Erewhon was borrowed from Henry, who was influenced by the daring ideas with which his cleverer friend had returned.

Butler then started taking his friend’s advice on investments. It is here that the Musical Banks joke turned around and gave its inventor a nasty bite. Even as Butler was writing the book, taking care to single out Victorian church-building for satirical treatment, the new chapel at St. John’s College was rising, thanks to his friend’s father. Butler’s own father was a vicar and the extensive alterations he made to his church at Langar would also have been on the writer’s mind.

When his family claimed to be mortally offended by the novel they meant this in a literal sense. They had managed to persuade themselves, and even tried to persuade its author, that Erewhon’s publication was responsible for his mother’s early death. The doctor’s best guess was a tumour but this combination of emotional blackmail and hysterics was one Butler knew well. It certainly explains his need to spend five years as far from England as he could possibly get. But his friend’s eagerness to bankroll this satire at the Church’s expense suggests another possible origin for the Musical Banks.

Henry Hoare was also, during these years, engaged in financial speculation which would have merited a very severe flogging indeed had he been a citizen of his friend’s Utopia. In the middle of a serious economic recession, already on an income of fifty thousand pounds a year, Henry conceived the aim of trebling it. His writer friend was duly offered advice about where to invest his hard-earned money. Butler, for all his cleverness, was only one of Henry’s many dupes. Financing his speculations with unauthorised withdrawals from the family business, Henry soon ran up secret debts of almost two hundred thousand pounds – a staggering sum at the time. Two years after Erewhon’s publication the scandal broke.

Henry Hoare was as close as the company ever came to a Nick Leeson. His half-share in the bank was sold to the Partners and the Sinking Fund was almost wiped out in paying off the rest. Arraigned now, as he must have been, before his own inner Court of Misplaced Confidence, Butler was both shaken and humbled, as well as broke. Did he judge the book accordingly?

Erewhon was never one of Butler’s own favourites – ‘a millstone around his neck’ he would call it; it had been ‘made too much of’ or was ‘all very well for a beginning’. What money he made on it seems to have served mainly as an unwelcome reminder of how much he lost on all the others. But perhaps what made him uneasy is best judged by the changes he made to a later edition. The jokes of his youth are all left in but tempered now by reflections on the value of the Musical Bank system. The modesty of its claims is now seen as a redeeming feature: ‘while it bore witness to the existence of a kingdom which is not of this world, it made no attempt to pierce the veil that hides it from human eyes. It is here that almost all religions go wrong. Their priests try to make us believe that they know more about the unseen world than those whose eyes are still blinded by the seen can ever know – forgetting that while to deny the existence of an unseen kingdom is bad, to pretend that we know more about it than its bare existence is no better.’

The Musical Banks are so memorable because for a moment things seem relatively straightforward. Target institution: the Church of England. Satirised as: a kind of bank. Mischief is so omnipresent in this book it is often hard to know exactly what he is driving at. Is it Darwin or machines or fathers or Cambridge or God or the Victorians or their Empire or something or someone else? Possibly the funniest response to this experience is Kingley Amis’s claim to have identified five distinct levels of meaning on which the satire operates. Presented with that uneasy Erewhon-induced feeling, the hardest-boiled of English anti-intellectuals suddenly comes over all star pupil and brilliant theories.

Butler’s first book is about an innocent’s arrival in a profoundly puzzling society. It is the record of a conflict which is not yet conscious. The maelstrom of cross-currents and undertows within its voice were what was released when the world of his own archaic symbols collided with The Origin of Species and the mores of the world’s wealthiest city. It was from the psychological debris of this collision that the Musical Banks were pieced together. Only with growing self-awareness did he begin to grasp this. Erewhon is a first draft of the young writer’s unconscious bewilderment at what had happened – perhaps that is where his dismissive ‘all very well for a beginning’ came from.

A sequel, Erewhon Revisited, is science fiction but its imagery again draws on Butler’s immediate environment. Anyone who enjoyed Monty

Python’s Life of Brian and is ready for a work with a similar premise, only a bit more substantial in its criticisms of organised religion, should read it. Returning after twenty years, the narrator, now named as Higgs, finds that his departure in an air-balloon at the end of the previous book has been reinvented as the central revelation of a new faith, Sunchildism, in which Higgs himself has been cast as the divine messenger. He must decide whether or not to risk death by exposing this fraud. As always with this writer, the ending, without spoiling it, is unexpected.

Another bank which had ‘regularly supported’ the church of St. Dunstan’s- in-the-West was called ‘Child’s Bank’. The old street-sign now hangs inside the building, right next to a security camera, so anyone who wants to go and look at it may rest secure in the knowledge that they will be closely observed while doing so. The emblem of Child’s Bank is the sun, towards which source of all life a large yellow flower is growing. Child’s motto is ‘Ainsi Mon Âme’ – ‘Thus My Soul’. Banking and God, a casual visitor might reflect, have been on intimate terms in Fleet Street for several centuries, long before Butler put two and two together. There is, as yet, no form of surveillance which can record the visitings of such a suspicion, which is probably just as well for many of us.

The ideal writing style, Butler once claimed, ‘should attract as little attention as possible’. In death as in life this remained his ideal. Cremation, a well-established practice in Erewhon thirty years earlier, was slow to find acceptance in England, because a Bishop of Rochester opposed it. Little wonder then that Butler chose the first licensed crematorium in the country, at Woking. There, with three people in attendance, a hole was dug ‘under the bushes’ and the ashes poured in. By now there is some pride in having been the first such facility: A History of Woking Crematorium is even available at reception. From the list of its illustrious combustees the name of a certain wide-ranging author is absent.

Back at Clifford’s Inn, from an office on the same staircase as the Woolfs’ flat, the anarchist publisher Arthur Fifield brought out a first edition of The Note Books in 1912. Its appearance would further consolidate Butler’s reputation among the new generation of writers. He remained a powerful presence to Virginia: ‘He is one of those rare spirits among the dead whom we like, or it may be dislike, as we do the living, so strong is their individuality …’ Aldous Huxley championed him as an antidote to the zealotry for technological progress. E. M. Forster was ‘woken up’ and ‘saved from loneliness’ by his writings.

This was not simply an affair of the West End coteries. A monsoon-sodden copy of The Note Books went everywhere with George Orwell in Burma when he served there as a policeman during the 1920s and he repeatedly acknowledged Butler’s influence. Of Winston Smith’s diary-keeping Orwell would one day write: ‘He was a lonely ghost uttering a truth that nobody would ever hear. But so long as he uttered it, in some obscure way the continuity was not broken. It was not by making yourself heard but by staying sane that you carried on the human heritage.’ This is a fine summary of the spirit in which Butler kept his notebooks. Here is Winston finally breaking: ‘He wrote first in large clumsy capitals: FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. Then almost without a pause he wrote beneath it: TWO AND TWO MAKE FIVE.’ Compare this from The Note Books, on the inhabitants of an imaginary future world where ‘if, for any reason, they want to kill a civilisation, stuff it and put it in a museum … they merely introduce a little poisonous microbe of thought … some such trifle as that two and two make seven’.

Better than anyone Butler speaks for that hairline fracture in the order of things which Clifford’s Inn Passage once offered – just wide enough for the more agile to escape through. His legacy is, by now, to be looked for nowhere in particular. It is there in the writings of anyone who still attempts, wherever they are, that ‘unflinching opposition’. In the large office block, ‘tiled white like a public lavatory’, which now occupies the site, we have the very image of Butler’s reception. Maybe that is just what we should have. It was, after all, the quality of his prose and his persistence in the face of that reception which counted most for the young men and women who read him so eagerly in the decades after his death.

Once Butler’s reputation got going it was not only writers who read him. There was even, briefly, a sort of Butler craze. So-called ‘Erewhon Dinners’ were held every year from 1908 to 1914 at Pagani’s – a fashionable restaurant on Great Portland Street. The management was Swiss-Italian. One of the chefs there invented Peach Melba. The building was hit by an incendiary bomb in 1940 and later demolished.

This is an adapted extract from a novel in progress.

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.