You can read the London Palimpsest chapter below:
London Palimpsest: South, East, North and West
Soul as surface
The color red
Cities are living beings. Like all living things they may thrive and enjoy the fullest of lives after which they decay and die. With some cities that might be the end, leaving nothing but traces to be unearthed centuries later. With other cities, despite the appearance of death, something continues; while the matter disintegrates, the soul of such cities persists. London is like this. For thousands of years the River Thames has always wound its course through a valley where human settlements both grew and thrived, and contracted and died. In a similar way, the soul of London is a thread that ensures, despite devastations of plague, bombing, or fire, that London will always be reborn.
But what does it mean to speak of the soul of London? When seeking the soul of a great city, the experience of the city as surface is often where we start – even if it is far from where we end. The surface appearance that impacts on our senses – whether visual, aural or kinesthetically felt on our skin – is not trivial; it reaches us directly, not only as a reminder of where we are but also of what we imagine and what we expect. What we first see of London may be structures like the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge, St Paul’s Cathedral – iconic architecture joined these days by the Gherkin, Canary Wharf, the Millennium Bridge and the Tate Modern. We hear the voice of London in the Cockney dialect with its rhythms, abbreviations and rhyming-slang codes. While London’s fog is largely a thing of the past, we still feel the coolness of its grey, rainy days.
We may see further grey in the stone of great buildings or marble white where they are scrubbed clean, but, above all, we see the persistence of one color: London’s color is red. From red-brick Victorian terraces to the red post-boxes, from the red London bus to the uniforms of soldiers at Buckingham Palace, London is splashed with red. The cabs of the nineteenth century were red, all the Underground trains were once red and most of the public phone boxes still are. “Red” was once the Cockney slang for gold and, long before Communism, the red flag was invented by ‘the London river-workers….in the Spring of 1768….as a token of radical discontent’. (In the sections on North London and East London, below, I will be mentioning how London was an important home to both Marx and Lenin, and how in every century, violence and rebellion has left London’s streets bloodied red.)
Red crosses were painted on the doors of victims of the plague, and the next year, 1666, the sky was red with the Great Fire of London – ‘a fire which, as John Locke noted, created “Sunbeams of a strange red dim light” which covered the whole of the city’. Later I write of how the Great Fire resulted in the re-building of the City along specific mystical and rational lines and thus consolidated London as the financial centre of the world. In London, the color red not only announces where you are, but signals even more: it is the color of danger and emergency, of blood and of fire, destruction and emergence. Against the grey-stone or red-brick solidity of the architecture and the lay-out of the streets, the grey crowds of business suits and the color of the Thames, London is splashed with red. Not only horizontally across the surface of the city we witness in the present, but vertically, down through all its layers – historically, ethnically, and emotionally – London is streaked with red. It is the color of death and of birth; it is the color of change and continuing.
Across and down: exploring the London palimpsest
There is a way of exploring a city which follows the spirit of the aimless wanderer and spectator, the flaneur, which has led to the idea of psychogeography.
This chapter has arisen on the one hand from a vertical exploration, a going downward through historical layers both in library research and via my (re-)wandering London’s streets. Exploring in this way, I simply let myself be led by whatever grabbed my attention: architecture, inscriptions, signs, statues, the names of and lay-out of the streets, people and their languages, their activities, their clothing, their customs and their institutions as they were enacted all around me.
In walking between places both iconic and unknown, listening, looking at (and sometimes photographing) what caught my eye, I was driven by an urge to vertically connect the layers beneath the surface and to realize the palimpsest that is London in that way. But, simultaneously, the other dimension was always involved. I was conscious of the real-time present experience of amplifying and connecting places in the horizontal plane, an inner linkage between who I had been when certain places featured in my life, and what new connections I was making in the present. And doing all this from a subjective position of emotional resonance rather than one that is more rationally, or historically objective. So, in my exploration of the soul of London I have found that addition to our sensory experience of the surface, it is also our own history and the knowledge we bring, and rediscover, as we discover the presence of the past both exposed and disguised through our present perception of the city.
But there is something else to be said. It is one thing to approach the soul of a city as strangers arriving at a city for the first time, or coming back again after many visits, to a city that is not our own and not our permanent home. Another way to experience the soul of a city is one which arises from living a life in the city: being born, owning a home, loving, working and raising children there. In this way the soul of the individual and the soul of the city create a dialogue. Just as an individual personality becomes shaped by the environment of this or that city, the city itself becomes more psychological through the experience of the indigenous individual. The life of a city and life in that city can speak to each other. This way, not only does the individual know about and carry characteristics of the city, but equally, the city may also be known, and even know itself, through the soul of the individual, through their own self-knowledge and their psychology. A dialogue arises between person and place that affects both. The unconscious and conscious psyche does not respect the boundary of individual mentalities. Psyche is in the world and, as James Hillman has said, in the way the world displays itself, and in our cities we are closer than ever to experiencing the flow between personal and collective human experience, whether we are conscious of it or not.
I have an advantage in that I am a Londoner. Myself, my sons, my father and mother and my maternal grandparents were all born in London – Tooting, Lewisham, Pimlico and Streatham to be exact. In 1919, my paternal grandfather, Theodore Hauke from Brno (now in the Czech republic but then in Moravia), and my grandmother from Nottingham, met at the Hotel Russell in Russell Square WC1, married and set up homes first in Pimlico, SW1, then Willesden, NW2 and finally Balham, SW17. I was born at 99, Nightingale Lane, Tooting, SW12. Between the ages of two and nineteen, I lived thirty miles north of London and returned to attend college in Anna Pavlova’s old house on North End Road near Hampstead Heath and have lived in North and South London for the last thirty-seven years.
My position as a Londoner is not the only place from which to describe the soul of this city, but it is the only one I can offer. It will be biased, selective, and enthusiastic in a very idiosyncratic way. It will be a view derived from my personal experience of life in London over forty years and from everything historical and cultural that fires my imagination.
The view from Greenwich
For seven years during the 1990s my consulting room was a small space at the top of one of the Georgian blocks in the centre of Greenwich on the southern bank of the Thames. Greenwich has a bustling, village atmosphere these days, the tourists now enhanced by the University and its population of students from around the world. The University of Greenwich has taken over the magnificent buildings that were once the Old Royal Naval College. First designed as the Royal Hospital for Seamen by Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor in 1696, the buildings have an elegant frontage on the bank of the river with a gap designed to give uninterrupted views of the Thames from the Queen’s House in Greenwich Royal Park. The Hospital was finished in 1705 and Nelson lay in state in its great Painted Hall in January 1806. The hospital closed in 1869 and the Royal Naval College took over the site from 1873 until 1998.
Command of the seas was a major factor in the success of British imperialism and the establishment of a British Empire lasting until the end of World War II. The port of London has been the point of departure and arrival for British exploration and exploitation of the rest of the world since Roman times. In Shakespeare’s day, one visitor was reported remarking, ‘London is not said to be in England, but rather England to be in London’. Until the closing of the docks in the 1970s London was the world’s premier port for international shipping, and although it is far from the cartographical centre of Britain – that would be further North – London has long been the historical and spiritual, and well as the economic and governing, centre of Britain.
The icon of global centrality granted to London – and Greenwich – is the convention of Greenwich Mean Time which established London as the chronological centre for world time (and global distances). A world system of standard time based on Greenwich Mean Time was developed at the Prime Meridian Conference in Washington D.C. in 1882 and accepted world-wide by 1904.
When I looked towards the Thames out of my tiny office window four floors above the street in Greenwich, two further icons of London’s status – both based around trade and time – came into view. First I would see the masts and rigging of the Cutty Sark, a Tea Clipper standing in dry dock as a tourist attraction in the centre of Greenwich. This was the fastest sea transport in the world, once importing its desirable cargo for the East Indian Company. Beyond the Cutty Sark on the North side of the Thames in Docklands stands the Canary Wharf Tower – at two hundred and forty-four metres the tallest building in Britain. When the docks closed down, the economic spirit of the locality was injected with speculative cash and grants resulting in the rise of London’s highest office blocks which were swiftly occupied by the big names in finance like CitiBank, HSBC, and Credit Suisse. From my window I was gazing upon these two icons of modern capitalism almost superimposed upon each other. The connection was more than symbolic – they were articulated to each other on a traceable time-line of economic and entrepreneurial growth. Far from the past being buried beneath its streets, London past and London present are sometimes side by side – in front of each other – in the here and now.
Until I lived there, London was still only thirty minutes away by train and much of my teens were spent on its streets and in its markets such as Camden Lock, Portobello Road, Kensington Market and, on Sundays, Brick Lane. Soon, as a musician, I was playing the pub-rock circuit (alongside bands like The Jam, The Police and The Clash) at the Hope and Anchor Islington, The Rock Garden, Dingwalls, The Nashville, and The Marquee. Now my sons in their late-teens play their own gigs in New Cross and Camden, North and South of the River.
The mods and hippies linked with the London music explosion of the Sixties and Seventies were not the first to make London a city of the young, however. London’s culture of youth goes back hundreds of years with the trade apprentices of the London Guilds system. The Guild names remain a living presence in our London lives today. As well as my analytic practice, I am a senior lecturer at Goldsmiths, a college of the University of London with over three thousand students in New Cross, SE14.
Just down the road, my sons attended the local high school Haberdashers Aske’s Hatcham College where they were taught by two men called Mr. Skinner, and over the years we have all played rugby against boys from Merchant Taylors School. Those names – Goldsmiths, Haberdashers, Skinners and Merchant Taylors – refer to just four of the twelve trades still actively linked to these educational institutions and names that are now part of our modern lives. These four comprise a third of the Guilds and Livery Companies of the City of London which are the earliest business and training communities and key to the city’s growth and wealth. Listed numerically they are:
- Merchant Taylors
- Iron Workers
Not only did these Guilds form the core of the City of London and make it an economic hub of the world from the 16th century on, but they provided a particular local effect which is resonant today. They attracted an immigration of young men and women from the rest of England – a badly needed increase with mortality high and birth rates low. There was a time late in the reign of Elizabeth 1st when a sixth of Englishmen lived in London. Life expectancy in the late 1500s was 20-25 years or 30-35 if you were rich. This resulted in creating a city of the young with a youthful male population – mainly apprentices to trades supported the Guilds. For better or worse, these gangs of young men have re-emerged over the centuries, re-playing their themes although the role of apprentice is now all but gone. In their hey-day the apprentices were known for the trouble they caused in taverns and their riotous, ungoverned football tournaments – precursors for the contemporary mayhem and violence between fans of London football teams like Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur or West Ham, and their loutish behaviour in pubs of the West End and all over London. The London youths’ persecution of foreigners on May 1st – Evil May Day – in 1517 set the pace for racist marches like Moseley’s rallies in the 1930s and the British National Party in the 1970s. The aggressive young London male, setting the tone for all of England, has persisted in film characters like Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer and Bob Hoskins’ in The Long Good Friday and real villains like the Kray twins in the East End and Richardson brothers South of the river.
In 1976 – ten years after the Rolling Stones championed the original anti-social image of bad-boy musicians – the British punk rock scene burst aggressively upon London in the behavior and language of Johnny Rotten. Given a name that could have come from The Beggar’s Opera in the 18th century, it is as if he was press-ganged into the Sex Pistols, a motley crew put together by Malcolm Maclaren in a punk fashion shop called ‘Boy’ in the Kings Road, Chelsea. With the snarling Sid Vicious and self-confessed guitar thief Paul Cook, they were that decade’s London bad-boys. In fact, they were part of a much longer line of fictional criminal heroes like Dicken’s Artful Dodger and John Gay’s MacHeath, factual villains like Jack the Ripper, going back to rebels like Jack Cade and Wat Tyler who, six hundred years earlier, had led groups of revolting young men in the Peasant’s Revolt and the uprising against Henry Vl.
Even the more politically motivated gatherings had their loutish side. Just over two hundred years ago the Gordon Riots (1780), ‘offered an opportunity for semi-articulated discontented malice to have its few nights of destroying, looting, burning, beating. The poor could show what they thought of the rich…..The drunken British oaf could show what he thought of the foreigners…The Gordon Riots were more in the order of a primal scream’. The anti-Vietnam protests in Grosvenor Square in 1968, the Brixton Riots, and the Poll Tax protests in Trafalgar Square which contributed to the downfall of the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, were more recent – perhaps more fruitful – examples of young, rioting London.
It is such links between the past and the present, and between the individual and the collective culture of the City, that provide one of London’s abiding qualities. The layering of the past and present is contained not only in the architecture, the street names and use of buildings, but it is also in the pattern of populations, their immigrations and departures, their activities from place to place and group to group, and the ebb and flow of all these as interests wax and wane, money comes and goes and people live and die.
Recently the City became a new strand in my London life. I had been filming a documentary about an artist, Ray Bowler, in Cornwall on the themes of money and the loss of the ‘feminine’ in our lives. This led to us filming Ray as he paid a visit to The European Bank of Reconstruction and Development in the heart of the City of London. Together with Dave Williams, an archeologist friend, we met on a cold April day at The George Inn opposite my office on Borough High Street. This pub was for many centuries one of the major coaching inns between London and the port of Dover, and the only one now left with its large courtyard and galleries like an Elizabethan theatre. From there we stepped out towards the City, filming our conversations on money and spirit as we bought pies in Borough Market, ate them leaning against the walls of Southwark Cathedral, then walked across London Bridge, stopping next at The Monument on the North side. Two hundred and two feet (62m) tall, Christopher Wren’s monument to the Great Fire of London of 1666 is the tallest isolated stone column in the world and also stands exactly two hundred and two feet (62m) from where the Fire started in a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane. Various conspiracy theories claim the fire was started deliberately so that the City could be reconstructed on mystical Masonic lines for the benefit of the financier’s control of the system. It is indeed remarkable how the City sprang into importance and success (after being such a ramshackle mediaeval mess) once it was redesigned after the Fire, its mixture of secular towers and church spires celebrating, then as now, the winking agreement between God and Mammon.
Walking up Bishopsgate, the only Coffee House we happened to pass was Costa Coffee but back in the 17th and 18th centuries the Coffee Houses in the alleys between Cornhill and Lombard Street had been home to the beginnings of financial trading as we know it. The origin of the London Stock Exchange seems to have been in Jonathan’s Coffee House, in Change Alley, in 1698 where the first recorded trading in marketable stocks took place. In 1720, the same Coffee House was at the centre of the first major stock market crash: that of the South Sea Bubble Company.
As soon as we turned into Broadgate Square we recognized the striking visual element that had first drawn us to the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development. Reclining a full ten metres in front of the Bank is a huge, dark bronze statue of Venus – voluptuous in her metallic, heavy naked beauty. The bank had been well known for decorating its premises with expensive art. Such ostentatious purchases seemed at odds with the Bank’s raison d’etre to provide funding for the reconstruction and development of poor communities. The sublimely feminine image of Venus outside the Bank’s own doors suggests an unconscious connection between pure finance and the deeper, human needs of all communities. It says something about London and the City too. It’s not just about money. It is what the money is about. This is what London is about.
The London Stone
As in many cities, we are used to finding statues of the great and the good which help us keep track of those who made London over the last seven hundred years. As with the Broadgate Venus, many of these also celebrate the wealthy donors that made their erection possible. Behind all this, however, there are hidden sites which stem from more ancient times. These sites and monuments have, by contrast, been vital to the ‘ordinary people’ and form part of the ongoing, sacred interweaving of population and place from ancient London to the present day. The sites are often linked to the ancient concept of identity between the health of the King and the health of the land and its people. This idea is widespread, appearing in the legends of Parsifal and the Fisher King in Europe and implied in the ‘sickness’ of the City State in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. The mound on Ludgate Hill where St Paul’s Cathedral is built, Tower Hill, and Whitfield’s Mount (the only round barrow left on Blackheath) are all ‘places of free speech, and this usually means it was a place of ancient sanctity.’
On Hampstead Heath, the Bronze Age mound now called Parliament Hill may well have had a had a stone circle on its summit. It was once called Llandin and a corruption of this is thought to be one source of the name London. The present Houses of Parliament are in the Palace of Westminster, right by Westminster Abbey on a site known as Tothill on Thorney Island where a further stone circle is thought to have been located. The post-Roman Christianization of London and Britain has masked the ancient sacred sites that once linked the ruler to a divine order – but they remain embedded deep in the earth and in the psyche of London.
Some are still just-about visible. Obscured behind a grating in the wall of the Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation opposite Cannon Street station is the London Stone, perhaps the most ancient and historically revered stone monument in London. This fragment is all that remains of a huge menhir the rest of which probably lies buried under Cannon Street. In 1598 John Stow reported, ‘standing in Walbrook, on the south side of this High Street….a great stone called London Stone, fixed in the ground very deep, fastened with bars of iron’. Reduced now to the size of a television, the original stone may have been over eight feet tall; it is over three thousand years old and of oolite limestone from Dorset. Some say it is the geomantic centre of the city of London and has long been associated with the preservation and well-being of the capital, while others have regarded it as merely a Roman milliaria for measuring distance. It has been suggested the London stone was once part of a stone circle on top of Ludgate Hill where St Pauls now stands.
The Lonenstane or Londenstane was a landmark and referred to on maps from as early as 1198 and the connection of the London Stone with conferring legitimacy and power re-emerged with the first mayor London (appointed 1189-1193) who resided near the stone and hence was known as Henry Fitz-Ailwin de Londonestone. The stone became the traditional place to swear oaths or make a position known to the authorities – a famous case being that of John Mortimer (a.k.a. Jack Cade) who rebelled against Henry Vl, leading over 30,000 followers up from Kent. He stopped at the London Stone and struck it with his sword as Shakespeare dramatically chronicles.
Queen Elizabeth l’s occult advisor Dr John Dee who lived close by and believed in the powers of the London Stone is known to have removed a sample for use in his alchemical experiments. By 1671 what remained of the London stone was commandeered for the more ignomious function of ritually smashing sub-standard spectacles upon its hard surface. In 1742 the London Stone was moved from the road and was embedded in the wall of St Swithun’s church until that was bombed in 1941. The stone was undamaged at the time, but the previous thousands of years had already diminished it in scale if not in importance for the soul of London.
King Lud, Diana and Apollo.
Up until Elizabethan times, London was assumed to have been founded by Brutus the Trojan, grandson of Aeneas, who fled his homeland and eventually landed on the shores of Britain at Totnes, after dreaming the goddess Diana was telling him ‘to seek a land beyond Gaul in the country of the setting sun’.
King Lud, a descendant of Brutus, lived in the city around 73BC and it became known as Caer-Ludd (Lud’s Town). He is buried at Ludgate and the statues of Lud and his two sons that once stood on the mediaeval Ludgate were brought to the porch of St Dunstan–in-the-West on Fleet St. when Ludgate was demolished in 1760. Holinshed’s Chronicles relate how King Lud:
“…himself caused buildings to be made between London Stone and Ludgate, and builded for himself not far from the said gate a fair palace, which is the Bishop of London’s palace beside (St.) Paul’s at this day, as some think…he also builded a fairer temple near to this said palace, which temple (as some take it) was after turned into a church, and at this day called Paul’s”
On the summit of Ludgate Hill, where St Paul’s now stands, excavations revealed the Romans had a temple to Apollo. But the legend goes that this was built upon the site of a far earlier temple to Diana erected by Brutus, London’s mythical Trojan founder, in 1240 BC. The historian Camden, writing in 1600, notes as evidence for this how ‘the neighbouring buildings are called in the church records Camera Dianae, and in the reign of Edward 1st were dug up in the churchyard …an incredible number of ox heads…the remains of heathen sacrifices: and it is well known to the learned that Taurobolia were celebrated in honour of Diana’.
Chesca Potter details how,
‘Diana was Artemis, the sister of Apollo. Although originally an ancient solar woodland Goddess, Artemis ceded her solar aspect to Apollo, becoming a lunar Goddess of the Hunt. This may perhaps account for the rededication of the site to St Paul, who was renowned for his vehement suppression of the cult of Artemis at Ephesus……However the survival of a peculiar pagan ceremony called the ‘Blowing of the Stag’
which continued to be enacted until recently suggests that earlier associations with Artemis had not been forgotten. The head of a stag was brought into the church by clergymen and laid on the altar, and at this point huntsmen from the forests surrounding London blew their horns at the four quarters. This was followed by great feasting and celebrations’.
Much more recently on 29th July 1981, St Paul’s was the chosen religious site for the marriage of the British heir to the throne, Prince Charles, to his bride Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales. Just over sixteen years later, Diana was dead, hunted down in Paris by paparazzi on motorbikes the tale goes, and her funeral held in Westminster Abbey. St Paul’s Cathedral was also known as the East Minster, the Eastern counterpart to Westminster Abbey – previously noted as an ancient sacred site. The fifteenth century monk historian John Flete referring to the partial return to paganism in the fifth century writes “Then were restored the whole abominations…London worships Diana, and the suburbs of Thorney offer incense to Apollo”.
And Paul Devereux suggests ‘if Flete’s inference is correct, we can look upon Westminster as marking a pre-Christian solar (Apollo) site, and St Paul’s as commemorating a lunar (Diana) location’. It might seem a mere coincidence of name, but the connection between this and modern events is uncanny.
Crossing the river: the lines through London
Just across the River from St Paul’s Cathedral, my present consulting room is on Borough High Street, about four hundred meters from London Bridge which for hundreds of years was the sole crossing over the Thames.
The River Thames appears to be the one line that clearly divides North and South London down the middle but even that is not reliable. At Greenwich, for example, the river makes a dramatic loop South then quickly back North. This means that looking straight across from Greenwich to the other bank, instead of looking North as would be true elsewhere in London, at one point you are looking West and at another point, East.
There is no convenient grid system to most of the streets of London, but an aerial view of the City as it was re-built after the Great Fire of 1666 shows how the planners rationalized many streets along straight lines. Christopher Wren and his associates turned first to the Jewish Kabbalah and its Tree of Life and then the Old Testament Book of Numbers to determine distances and proportions in the City. 2,000 cubits (about two-thirds of a mile) formed a key length being ‘the distance from Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives and the furthest a Jew is allowed to travel on the Sabbath…..It was a distance London’s ancient builders had already set for the western boundary of the city, Temple Bar, which is 2,000 cubits from the western end of St. Paul’s, and for the eastern boundary of the city, St Dunstan’s in the East, which is 2,000 cubits from the eastern end of the cathedral…..Wren’s team positioned the apex of their Kabbalah-inspired London a further 2,000 cubits to the east, beyond the Tower of London, on the site of an ancient well….which was believed to possess healing powers and which stood on the sacred territory east of the city the Romans had left vacant.’
Since the 1920s, researchers inspired by Alfred Watkins study of Ley Lines have found straight lines of connection between many of the religious buildings and ancient sites of Central London and the City. One runs from the London Stone and links the mounds at the Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral on Ludgate Hill and St Martin’s Ludgate. Another ley-line runs through St Dunstan’s Stepney and the Temple Church ending at St Clement Danes. Whatever one thinks about the significance of ley-lines, it is curious how after fires, bombings and demolition, new buildings and institutions in London arise on the sites of the old – despite the utilitarian changes enforced on the infrastructure. Something draws Londoners’ interests, emotional attachments and needs back to the same sites time and again. London builds upon its dead: not just refusing to forget them, but actively honoring them in ever new forms.
The flow of people
There is another line that forms an invisible arc, a crescent curving North West from Stepney and Bethnal Green in the East End, up through the streets of North London, West to Finchley and onward to the edge of the countryside in Edgware and High Barnet. This route marks the progression of successive waves of immigrants who entered London up the Thames, established businesses in the East End, went on to improved housing in North London and consolidated their lives after one or two generations in expensive homes in the northern suburbs of Finchley and Hampstead Gardens.
In the 16th century, displaced Protestants from Northern Europe, the Huguenots, arrived, followed by several waves of Jewish immigrants also fleeing persecution. More recently, Asians from Kenya, Uganda and Bangla Desh, Vietnamese, Somalis, Bosnians, Serbs and many others have followed since. It was immigrant enterprise than ran the food and garment markets of Brick Lane and Middlesex Street in the East End, foreigners, alternatingly welcomed and abused, who brought their food and customs to perfume and colour otherwise grey streets of London for the last five hundred years.
A rare example of one of the Protestant churches built by the Huguenots on the corner of Brick Lane and Fournier Street was converted into a synagogue in the nineteenth century and in the twentieth it became a mosque. As a place of worship it is probably unique in having continuously served three contrasting religions in one and the same building. It still has the original Huguenot sundial on the wall inscribed with the motto – umbra sumus – ‘We are shadows’. It conveys a sense of both standing out and being ignored – a motto for many an immigrant who arrived on London’s streets.
In the 1950s, first in Notting Hill, West London, then in Brixton in the South, generations of workers who had immigrated from the islands of the West Indies have brought new varieties of foods, cuisine, accents and music to the drab Victorian terraces. Further West, Southall, adjacent to Heathrow airport, has become the stopping place for newer Asian immigration.
London, especially in the North and East End boroughs, is a city that has been energized by sustaining tensions and contradictions, between the immigrant and the indigenous people, between the rich and the poor, and between the owners and the laboring classes. I have already mentioned London’s protests and marches in the cause of anti-taxation, anti-war, anti-policing or anti-racism, but – to top it all – London can also be regarded as the birthplace of revolutionary Communism and hence the Communist State. It is extraordinary to contemplate how, in 1903, London, the centre of world capitalism, was host to the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Party which took place on Tottenham Court Road. It was organized by Lenin and as the meeting resulted in the separation of the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks it could be said that Bolshevism was founded in the Tottenham Court Road. The founder of Communism, Karl Marx, lived with his wife and six children in a tiny property in Soho among the poorest of the poor, and wrote Das Kapital sitting hour after hour in the reading room of the British Library in Bloomsbury. One daughter, Eleanor, bought a house in Jews Walk Sydenham SE23 – a mile or so from where I now write – which in 2008 has just been honoured with a blue plaque commemorating her residence. Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto may have urged workers to revolt with a cry of “all you have to lose is your chains” but nowadays the centre of London has very few homes for such workers and no space for factories. Most of the workforce cannot afford to live within twenty miles of the centre and, after commuting in on their crowded trains, they service the retail, financial and tourism ‘industries’ that now generate London’s wealth.
City synchronicities in the West End
Karl Marx is buried in the cemetery in Highgate one of the highest points in North London. Many years before, around 1350, it was on Highgate Hill that Richard Whittington heard the bells of Bow Church telling him to turn and walk back down into the City to fulfill his destiny as the Lord Mayor of London – a role he occupied three times. Had he walked a little further to the West he would have arrived in what is now Trafalgar Square and still wouldn’t have left the countryside; the church on the East side of Trafalgar Square was named St Martins-in–the-Fields for that reason. This was the edge of town as far as the City of London went in the 1300s, but as the City expanded, the area developed to form what we now know as the West End of London. In the Northern hemisphere, prevailing winds blow from the West, moving the stale, smoky, polluted air to the Eastern side of cities. Consequently, as industry grew, the West End became a more desirable place to live. Nowadays, Trafalgar Square, or more strictly the Charing Cross monument in the station forecourt a hundred yards away, is regarded as the centre of London.
London’s West End is synonymous with entertainment, theatres, music and media companies. I received my first actor’s Equity contract and was cast in my first play in the Arts Theatre, Great Newport Street on the same stage where Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot had its English premiere in 1955. A few years later I worked nearby playing bass in Elvis The Musical at the Astoria Theatre at the top of Charing Cross Road. I would not forget Elvis Presley’s death in August 1977 two years before I joined the show because, at that time, I had just come out of two weeks in hospital and I was laid up at home in Archway recovering from a motorcycle accident.
I had been driving back from Fulham and had banged my head after slipping on a wet road near Lambeth Bridge. I was wearing a helmet and felt OK so I rode on. I recall getting as far as the top of Trafalgar Square heading North, with the National Portrait Gallery on my left and the statue of a famous woman on my right. This was the last I remembered before heading up Charing Cross Road. Next thing I knew I was waking up on the road over a mile further North, with blood pouring from my face and a policeman asking me my name before I lost consciousness again. It seems that ten minutes after Trafalgar Square, I had lost consciousness (maybe through delayed concussion) on the Hampstead Road above Euston and hit the back of a van which was stopped at the lights.
I had always thought the statue by the National Portrait Gallery (the last thing I remembered before the crash) was that of Marie Curie, the heroic scientist who developed radio therapy treatment for cancer. The statue is, in fact, a monument to Edith Cavell, a First World War heroine. There is no Marie Curie statue or monument, but my mother had died of cancer almost one year to the day I had my crash. For the next three years my memory went uncorrected – and its source un-interpreted – until someone made the correction and the connection for me. All monuments, like Nelson on his column in Trafalgar Square, like Edith Cavell (and somewhere, I expect, one to Marie Curie) act as remembrance; it seems to me now that my motor-bike crash was my own monument to my mother, my remembrance for her death.
Working in the West End as a theatre musician, playing the same show night after night, soon lost its glamour. Rising late in the day we would have brunch when others had tea, roll into the theatre, go to work, and wake up once the show was over. Our nights often consisted of drinking and listening to music in the late-night clubs and restaurants that stayed open for us and reserved for the theatre workers and friends. Our favourite haunt was in St Giles High Street, one of an odd tangle of streets tucked away behind Charing Cross Road which forms one side of a triangle bounded by Shaftesbury Avenue and New Oxford Street on the other two sides. So it did not surprise me to find out that St Giles Parish had been of the most notorious dives in London for hundreds of years. Known for drinking and vagrancy, this is the neighbourhood depicted in Wiiliam Hogarth’s horrific scenes of the poor in ‘Gin Lane’. Before she became a famous courtesan, Nell Gwynne lived here aged fourteen and in 1664 St Giles was where the Plague started. Not surprising really when you consider St Giles was the intercessionary saint for beggars and cripples and, as the patron saint of lepers, gave his name to this site for a chapel and hospital for lepers ‘among the fields and marshes, their contagion kept apart from the city’.
The area focused on St Giles-in-the-fields was a gateway to the City, hovering between town and country with taverns and hostels for the travelers. When proclamations in 1585 ejected all foreigners from the City, they settled in this parish on the boundary where they were soon joined by other vagrants and the generally impoverished. ‘It functioned, then, as both an entrance and an exit; it greeted arrivals and harboured those who had been expelled from the city’. Beneath St Giles Circus the Northern and Central lines of the Underground cross, there was a gallows at the cross-roads of Tottenham Court Road and New Oxford Street and when that was moved and the condemned were taken to ‘Tyburn tree’ (what is now ‘Marble Arch’ at the far end of Oxford Street), the prisoners still stopped for a final ale at the ‘Resurrection Gate’ of St Giles-in-the-fields. The parish was ‘celebrated or condemned, according to taste, for the number of taverns and the incidences of drunkenness’. Where the Dominion Theatre now stands, the Horseshoe Brewery exploded a vat in 1818 releasing ten thousand gallons of beer, flooding the streets and cellars and drowning eight people.
My bass-playing years are over but I have continued to meet friends for drinks in the area. We tend towards Norman’s (a.k.a. The Coach and Horses but always named after its famous landlord) on Greek Street or The French House in Soho where they will only serve half-pints and charge pre-decimal currency prices (like the Kings Head in Islington did). But I am just as happy in The Cambridge or The Marquis of Granby, or the Porcupine back in Great Newport Street where I began.
Further West through London are South Kensington and Gloucester Road where I first landed in London in 1972 before heading North to my first bed-sit in Crouch End. I remember these localities for the evenings singing in a restaurant before walking five miles home when I was twenty, or the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum when I was forty, where my young sons would scamper about looking at dinosaurs and occasionally sharing activities with the children of a famous T.V. personality, another tired dad on a Sunday morning, minding his brood from a corner.
London and Britain have always looked West to the Americas. The daughter of Henry Vlll, the ‘virgin queen’ Elizabeth I founded the State of Virginia with her money and her name, and as a ten-year-old boy I vividly remember meeting my first American on a boat on the Thames heading upstream to Hampton Court Palace on a school trip. She was from Maine. Beyond Hampton Court and Richmond Royal Park is Heathrow Airport – its runways looking like a pentangle from the air and built beside a Neolithic track or cursus as if the site has always been marked as a Western portal for the metropolis. Before air flight was common, in 1912, my Czech grandfather Theodor Hauke arrived in London by rail from Vienna on the same Trans-European Express where he worked as a wine waiter. After several visits to the city he had decided to stay. I often wonder how life would have been if he had carried on West. If he had touched down not in London but had decided to sail on and had arrived at Ellis Island, New York. Had that happened, I would have been living in – and writing about – another city entirely. This life I was born in this palimpsest of a city: the living, reborn, changing soul of the city that is London.