London

Jul. 8th, 2010 10:05 am
malsperanza: (Default)
[personal profile] malsperanza
Reposting this, hopefully with the effing image links working. If they don't, I'll try again, with apologies to my flist. I give up trying to figure out why LJ sometimes likes embedded images and sometimes hates them. (They all showed up just fine in the preview. *sigh*)

So I was in London for a couple of weeks & it was really fun. The Greenwich and Docklands Festival was on, as was the Festival of Architecture, with great programming and exhibitions. I was going to do more of that stuff, but ended up mostly walking around on my own. And a lot of theater, and friends.

It'is ungodly hot in New York and I'm wondering why I didn't stay for another couple of weeks. Cats look at me resentfully, as we lie about panting. I should water the plants. I should unpack. I should answer mail and pay bills.



Dull would he be of soul who could pass by / A sight so touching in its majesty.

Every time I go to London I like it more. It has changed so much since my first visit, 35 years ago. It has become such a lively place, and multicultural to an almost wacky degree--and I speak as a New Yorker, not unused to urban minestrone. I used to be struck by the range of English accents one hears on the underground--South African, Aussie, Canadian, Usian, Indian: all the Englishes of the Empire-as-was. But now on the tube it's not just accents; it's every imaginable language.

I was staying in Isle of Dogs, down directly on the river, in an apartment lent to me by friends--a former warehouse, like so much of the Docklands. The area is not as trendy as one would think--it's still mostly council housing and few amenities, though the riverfront flats are increasingly posh. This is an area that 25 years ago would have been fish-and-chips to the core. Now the cooking smells seeping from kitchen windows at noon are of garlic and cumin, palm oil and coriander, and the population is a broad mix of white, West African, South Asian, Caribbean, and Chinese. Nary an eel shop in sight, and only two Historic Pubs within spitting distance, but both of those historic indeed, with the soot and sweat of dockers and lightermen, ironmongers and sugar haulers deep in the grain of the wood.

The river was magical. I live right on the Hudson in Manhattan, and I love it, but a park and a highway separate me from the water. In London, the houses run directly down to the water and hang over it. The first thing that struck me was how little river traffic there is--how completely the Port of London has vanished. The Thames commuter boats, and at night the party boats, and occasionally a police boat or pleasure craft are virtually the only shipping left on the river, so that at night it is serene and tranquil, a sweet Thames flowing softly, as if in some rural reach, or about 5 centuries back. Which is especially striking because of the particular importance in literature and history of Thames shipping. Here it is in 1880.

And today.


* * *

Quod non fecerunt barbari fecerunt barberini

What the barbarians did not accomplish, the Barberini did. In the 1600s the cultured and art-loving Pope Urban VIII Barberini stripped the bronze beams from the Pantheon--which had survived 1500 years of violent Roman history--to provide metal for his army's canon and also for Bernini to make his splendid baldacchino for St. Peter's. Tastes change.

But the if the old slums of the East End are long gone--and good riddance to be sure--the new sites of urban poverty of this great capital city are much harder to see, more invisible, even when they are in the same place they always were. Chunks of Hackney and Bethnal Green are lively centers of café society, but the council estates that replaced the dank dark Dickensian East End are a different kind of grim (Stratford, Shadwell). And the postwar approach to ghettos nearly everywhere in Europe has been to relegate them to the peripheries, beyond the ring road, to the bleak tower blocks that were heralded in 1950 as the advance guard of a sparkling postwar modernism.

"Tower blocks were introduced in Britain in the 1960s and were an instant success. People loved the sense of social alienation, entrapment, and the stench of urine in the lifts." (Tom Baker, 2003--I came across this on someone else's blog. I don't know who Tom Baker is, though I assume not the same fellow who wore a 16 ft. scarf as the Fourth Doctor Who.)

* * *

Walking through the vast chunks of the city that were formerly the industrial port, one can see how thoroughly that history too has been erased--first by the Blitz, and later, what was left, by urban renewal and development. I've long wanted to walk through the East End, and I finally had the time on this trip--though scarcely scratching the surface. But now I regret that in 1973, when I was first in London, I didn't walk through Wapping, Docklands, Deptford, Spitalfields. In those days, even Whitechapel and Limehouse were considered unsafe--or so I was told; perhaps it was bollocks, but I had just grown up in a dangerous inner city, and I knew that being a tourist of other people's poverty is not a good thing. So I didn't go, and I missed my chance to see the wharves and warehouses and tenement streets of old London before they were obliterated--really, evaporated--by the juggernaut of 1980s development. I think the Millennium Dome (closely visible from the little balcony of the flat) is possibly the ugliest work of architecture in London, if it can be called architecture at all. But I'm reminded that this is what it replaced. (That website notes that a London smog lasting 4 days in 1952 killed 4,000 people. When Wordsworth wrote "All bright and glittering in the smokeless air," in 1802, he was about to be proved very wrong indeed.) In 1973 industrial London would have been on its uppers--the foundries and docks closed and derelict, the wharves hollow, the tenements miserable and desperate places.

This time, in between work stuff, I took many long walks, mostly from the City eastward, and saw a lot of things that have long been on my List, including the outsides of nearly all the Hawksmoor churches and some others. I'll write more later, but here's a smattering.

In Hackney, on a little alley called Garner Street, stands this small blue house, designed by FAT architects (another view here). It's not so visible in the photos, but among the charms of this very self-conscious work are that the staircase from the ground floor can be seen in outline within the entry doorway, and the cloud on the fence at right matches the cutout shape on the left. The windows on the side have blue LED light panels. It has won all the architecture prizes, and I think deservedly, despite its archness. It fits well in its street context ( which I had wanted to see), and its cleverness is not bombastic--in contrast, say, to another building I finally went to view, Vauxhall Cross, the insanely huge and Orwelllian headquarters of MI6. (Yep, that's the really Sekrit one.) It is as lunatic in reality as the photographs suggest. It is huge. It is Joe Stalin's wet dream. It is everything hateworthy about triumphalist postmodern style.

By the Blue House, at the end of Garner Street is a small graffiti of the stenciled kind popular in London and Paris. It is a little cat, who lurks fortuitously near a metal street plate laveled CATV (cable lines).
* * *
The Mother Goose rhyme "Oranges and Lemons" is creepy, mysterious, gnomic, and violent.

Gay go up and gay go down,
To ring the bells of London Town.

Oranges and lemons
Say the bells of St. Clement's.

Bull's eyes and targets,
Say the bells of St. Margaret's.

Brickbats and tiles,
Say the bells of St. Giles'.

Half-pence and farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin's.

Pancakes and fritters,
Say the bells of St. Peter's.

Two sticks and an apple,
Say the bells of Whitechapel.

Pokers and tongs,
Say the bells of St. John's.

Kettles and pans,
Say the bells of St. Anne's.

Old father baldpate,
Say the slow bells of Aldgate.

You owe me ten shillings,
Say the bells of St. Helen's.

When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey.

When I grow rich,
Say the bells of Shoreditch.

Pray when will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney.

I'm sure I don't know,
Says the great bell of Bow.

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head.

Forget Jack the Ripper; here is the original Death Tour of the East End, far older and stranger than a mere Victorian serial killer. Long before I knew that the song was a mnemonic for the churches of the City and East End, I was fascinated by the imagery. Who is Gay the bell-ringer? Or if gay is an adjective, not a name, what does it mean? Ring gaily the bells of doom and retribution? Why two sticks and an apple? What do they have to do with each other? The oranges and lemons, I would guess, refer to one of the imports that came through the port and its warehouses. But some of the sets of rhyming terms seem no more meaningful than other bits of Cockney slang--apples and pears, or syrup of figs. Still, I used to try to sort out why St. John's had the instruments of an ironmonger (or a torturer of saints), while St. Peter's was a good place for brunch.

My childhood copy of this rhyme had wonderful illustrations, in which the strange symbols were embedded in decorative borders like clues in a Kit Williams book:

Gay Go UpGay Go Down

(From Lavender's Blue, which has happily been reissued.)

When I was little, I didn't know what or where London was, and it was only years later that I realized the churches and bells in the song were real places. Still, the image of church spires speaking to one another across the roofs of the city captivated me--the more because their conversation was an acerbic, wry, ironic one, not about worship, God, or salvation, but rather about the dire anxiety of poverty, unassuaged by the sweet pealing of carillons.

The poem predates the Great Fire, and so the illustration is right to picture Gothic spires. But Wren and Hawksmoor did a good job of replacing the old, dark towers with new ones that came with their creepy already built in, readymade. Hawksmoor especially managed to build bell-towers that were topheavy, one-eyed, sometimes grotesquely disproportionate. He took the Palladian principles of an Enlightenment architecture of balance and clarity and mangled them in a peculiarly English way. The churches of St. Anne Limehouse, St. George in the East, Christ Church Spitalfields, and the spire of St. Michael Cornhill all mimic the medieval Gothic and give rise to that strange reinvention of the Gothick for which the Victorians are usually credited (or blamed). There is something heavy, thick, clumsy, and exaggerated about Hawskmoor's architecture, with its oversize Palladian keystones and gaping tower windows, blinded with louvers.

St. Anne Limehouse
St. Anne Limehouse

St. George in the East
St. George in the East

Christ Church Spitalfields
Christ Church Spitalfields

St. Michael Cornhill
St. Michael Cornhill

No wonder Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair latched onto Hawksmoor as a dark satanic Blakian figure. There is something powerful but off-kilter about his work.

St. George in the East has 4 small pepperpot towers that look for all the world like little Daleks:
No doubt they serve an apotropaic function.

But Hawksmoor aside, there are other churches to love, not all of them named in the song. A favorite of Dickens was St. Olave Hart Street, Pepys's church:
St Olave's Church Gate, Hart Street, London

The photo is a detail of the churchyard gate. The skull and crossbones are copied from a Dutch pattern book of 1633. The inscription above the keystone reads: Christus vivere mors mihi lucrum 1658, which translates as “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain" (1 Philippians 21). But since the church is now in the heart of the financial district, I like to think the proper translation, in dog-Latin, would be something like, “Christ, I live and die for lucre.”


Dickens called it St. Ghastly Grim in The Uncommercial Traveller. His description of it carries me back to a time before it was surrounded by the great galleons of finance, the glittering, domineering skyscrapers of the financial district:

“When I think I deserve particularly well of myself, and have earned the right to enjoy a little treat, I stroll from Covent-garden into the City of London, after business-hours there, on a Saturday, or--better yet--on a Sunday, and roam about its deserted nooks and corners. It is necessary to the full enjoyment of these journeys that they should be made in summer-time, for then the retired spots that I love to haunt, are at their idlest and dullest. A gentle fall of rain is not objectionable, and a warm mist sets off my favourite retreats to decided advantage. [...]

One of my best beloved churchyards, I call the churchyard of Saint Ghastly Grim; touching what men in general call it, I have no information. It lies at the heart of the City, and the Blackwall Railway shrieks at it daily. It is a small small churchyard, with a ferocious, strong, spiked iron gate, like a jail. This gate is ornamented with skulls and cross-bones, larger than the life, wrought in stone; but it likewise came into the mind of Saint Ghastly Grim, that to stick iron spikes a-top of the stone skulls, as though they were impaled, would be a pleasant device. Therefore the skulls grin aloft horribly, thrust through and through with iron spears. Hence, there is attraction of repulsion for me in Saint Ghastly Grim, and, having often contemplated it in the daylight and the dark, I once felt drawn towards it in a thunderstorm at midnight. ‘Why not?’ I said, in self-excuse. ‘I have been to see the Colosseum by the light of the moon; is it worse to go to see Saint Ghastly Grim by the light of the lightning?’ I repaired to the Saint in a hackney cab, and found the skulls most effective, having the air of a public execution, and seeming, as the lightning flashed, to wink and grin with the pain of the spikes. Having no other person to whom to impart my satisfaction, I communicated it to the driver. So far from being responsive, he surveyed me - he was naturally a bottled-nosed, red-faced man - with a blanched countenance. And as he drove me back, he ever and again glanced in over his shoulder through the little front window of his carriage, as mistrusting that I was a fare originally from a grave in the churchyard of Saint Ghastly Grim, who might have flitted home again without paying.”


Some of the streets in the general area of this church are named: Crutched Friars, Seething Lane, Savage Gardens, Mincing Lane, Bleeding Heart Yard. (OK, that last one is in Hatton Garden, but still.)

Americans tend to think that writers like Dickens and Shakespeare got their inventive, playful sense of language straight from the gods, but if you walk around any city with medieval roots, you will find that macabre humor and dark wit embedded in the stones. Not for nothing is there a church in Venice consecrated to St. John-with-his-head-cut-off, one to St. Nicholas of the Lettuce, several churches dedicated to Jews (St. Moses, St. Samuel, St. Job), a Big Eye Alley, and an Alley of the Love of Friends; no one really knows the origin of Milan's Bright Flowers Street and Dark Flowers Street. Rome has Big Marble Foot Street, a Baboon Street, and a church of Santo Stefano del Cacco. (Cacco can be translated variously as referring to a monkey, the Egyptian god Thoth, the Greek mythological figure Caccus, or a turd.)

London can compete with any city when it comes to funny and bizarre toponyms:

Churches:

St. Mary Overie (now Southwark Cathedral, and yes, there is a perfectly mundane and uninteresting explanation for this name, which I choose to ignore)
St. Andrew Undershaft (doesn't this sound remarkably Shakespearean?)
St. Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe
St. James Garlickhythe
St. Lawrence Jewry
St. Benet Fink
St. Nicholas Shambles
Allhallows Barking-by-the-Tower
St. Faith under St. Paul

and of course St. Mary Axe (properly pronounced Simmery Axe, and now replaced by that other temple of divine worship, the Gherkin)

And a few that are merely evocative:

St. James in the Wall
St. John Friday Street
St. Giles Cripplegate

* * *

On another day I went farther east, to the Who Store in Barking Road to buy miniature Tardises and Daleks (don't ask; it's an art project, k?)

This took me to deepest East Ham (or Newham, or West Ham; well, there is definitely ham in it). Queen's Market on Green Street is smaller than Brixton market, but nearly as good. It sells cassava, moth beans and gunga peas, and halal meat and Indian sauces and Caribbean spices and sparkly nylon sari fabric in every garish color, and chadours in all shades of plain black, and hair extensions, and fresh eggs. Across the street from this minestrone is a real eel house, Duncan's, offering proper jellied and stewed eels or pie, mash, and eel, with liquor.

Jellied eels

I'm told that Manze's in Southwark is even more authentic. Eating eel pie is easy once you've dined on those great Florentine classics, cibreo and Lampredotto.

Enjoy Green Road's raffish beauty now, while you can; the 2012 Olympics will be blasting through this area soon, and lord knows what will remain.

* * *

Of course I kept tripping over Jack-the-Ripper tour groups as I went on my walks: in Mitre Street, as I was trying to find a way to see the hidden back end and churchyard of St. Katharine Cree (because it has a nice rose window); in Whitechapel Road, as I was leaving the Whitechapel Art Gallery; and again by Altab Ali Park (the former churchyard of the original St. Mary's Whitechapel, destroyed in the Blitz), where for some reason the ghouls were clustered round a 18th century tomb of the Mattock family. At a certain point near Brick Lane, the Jack-the-Ripper tourists cross the Monica Ali/Zadie White tourists. It strikes me that to go on a Ripper tour by daylight is kind of wimpy. Dickens had the right idea.

So, along Whitechapel Road is a place I'd heard of but never seen, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. One can take a tour, but I hadn't made an appointment, and was mainly doing outside things in any case. But there it is, and has been, since 1570. I first learned of this foundry via one of my favorite Snopes urban legends: Procrastinators Club of America vs. Whitechapel Bell Foundry.

Nearby is a building that used to be a pub (well, there are many, but one I especially like). Judging from the clusters of Jack-the-Ripper tour groups it must be associated with him, but what I like about it is the handsome terracotta work on the facade, with the name and the two heraldic frying pans. This is the former Frying Pan public house.

I like the name. It reminds me of the rhyme in Oranges and Lemons: kettles and pans say the bells of St. Anne's. St. Anne's sounds like a tinkers' hangout.

Plus, it is at the corner of Thrawl Street. There's a legend that this was the original site of the castle of the Belle Dame Sans Merci, but it's untrue.

Some things that will come up in the next installment:

Ibex House, Portsoken Street, 1937
Green Bridge, Mile End Road
Grasshopper! Grasshopper!

and

This insane thing

And moar!

N.b.: I don't usually carry a camera when I walk. The photos here are all from various places on the Web.
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