I’ll warn you now: this is going to be another of those entries, like Making One’s Own Luck, where a series of seemingly unconnected events finally come together to make up a strange picture. Stick with it …
A few weeks ago, browsing through Barbara’s ever-growing mountain of books (see Up the Amazon …) I came across Peter Ackroyd’s 1985 novel Hawksmoor. I’d been looking out for it since Radio 4 adapted it as their Classic Serial a couple of years ago. However, my last three visits to Waterstone’s had failed to fill the gap on my shelves, so I’d decided there was no great rush. I had a small pile of books on the bedside table anyway, but when I saw it in the midst of Barbara’s chaos, I decided to grab it before someone else did. I bought it on the spot and added it to the job queue.
I was a relative latecomer to Mr Ackroyd’s books, and (not surprisingly) my first encounter with him was by accident. The book club which I used to belong to offered English Music as their ‘editor’s selection’ one month, and I didn’t send the form back in time. A couple of weeks later, English Music arrived at Dad’s flat I was between books, so I decided to give it a go. I didn’t know what to make of it at first, but it was very intriguing and had me hooked from the first few pages. Even then, I didn’t follow up on it for quite some time.
My next encounter with Mr Ackroyd was when he was interviewed by the Observer, in the course of a very strange article about the London Psychogeographical Association (Hugill, 1994). I’d never heard of psychogeography, but I’d been reading Michael Moorcock’s novels since I was a teenager. Even though I’d never explored the city in depth when I had the perfect opportunity (see In the City), I’d always suspected that London was haunted (in a very real sense) by the spirits of its past. Mr Hugill’s article assured me that I wasn’t the person who felt that way – there was a loose network of Londoners who sought to unearth the past and connect it to the present. This quote from Mr Ackroyd seemed to confirm that we were thinking along similar lines:
I truly believe that there are certain people to whom or through whom the territory, the place, the past speaks … Just as it seems possible to me that a street or dwelling can materially affect the character and behaviour of the people who dwell in them, is it not also possible that within this city (London) and within its culture are patterns of sensibility or patterns of response which have persisted from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and perhaps even beyond? (quoted in Hugill, 1994).
Anyway, when I was back in the book trade I encountered Mr Ackroyd’s biography of William Blake. Blake is a fascinating and frustrating figure, whose work I’d been drawn to after stumbling across Geoffrey Ashe’s 1971 book Camelot and the Vision of Albion in Aberdare Library. (That was a very long time ago, boys and girls. I’ve just checked the online catalogue, and it must have been sold off one day when my back was turned!) Mr Moorcock’s books – particularly Mother London and the Jerry Cornelius novels – had also drawn heavily on Blake’s vision of England, and especially London, as a cosmic battleground between Order and Chaos.
Browsing in the University Bookshop in Cardiff on one of my Saturdays off, I’d chanced upon a handsome US illustrated variorum edition of Blake’s work, edited by David Erdman. I’d decided to treat myself, as I knew that American books were traditionally difficult to come by in those far-off Twentieth Century days. During our group excursion to London (see ‘Down the Tubes’) I bought Peter Marshall’s book William Blake: Visionary Anarchist at the Freedom Bookshop in Whitechapel. Even though I didn’t get deep into Blake’s poetry, I knew that he’d somehow tapped into the soul of London.
When my friend Angharad D. was finishing her degree, she decided to examine Blake’s poetry for her dissertation. I was able to lend her Mr Ackroyd’s book, Mr Marshall’s book, and the enormous illustrated book from the embryonic Cosmic Tigger Lending Library. I didn’t get them back for ages, but now they’re in their rightful places once more.
In 2003 Mr Ackroyd reared his head again. One of the few perks of the book trade was that publishers would send out bound proofs to large shops (in other words, their biggest customers), and they’d find their way into the staff room. The idea was that we’d be able to read forthcoming books ahead of publication, and be in a better position to recommend them (or not) when the finished copies hit the shelves a few months later. One of these proofs was The Clerkenwell Tales. I decided that it was time I reacquainted myself with Mr Ackroyd’s work, and took it home.
Once I’d finished that (which didn’t take long), I had a quick browse in the fiction section, which had only his novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. (See, Waterstone’s was on the slide even then.) It turned out to be one of Matt H.’s favourites as well, and I think he was the only other person I knew who’d even heard of it.
A few years ago, when Barbara was still based in Aberdare Market, I called into the stall with Sam B. one afternoon. I came across a book by the Cardiff-born writer and film-maker Iain Sinclair.
I’d never read any of his books, but I knew that he was also loosely connected with the psychogeography ‘movement.’ It was called Lud Heat/Suicide Bridge, a bind-up of two earlier books. The mention of ‘Lud’ in the title told me straight away that there would be a London connection. I bought it, put it on the shelf at home, and more or less forgot about it.
During my second year at university, we had to write a critical essay about a modern novel, and I was spoilt for choice. Eventually, after toying with the Jerry Cornelius books, Ian Watson’s early novels (see Mere Coincidence …?), and even David Nobbs’ Reginald Perrin books, I decided to look into Mr Ackroyd’s murder mystery again. In fact, the working title of my essay was ‘Fiction, history and psychogeography in Peter Ackroyd’s Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem.’ (Snappy, eh?)
As further background reading, I bought Mr Ackroyd’s magisterial London: The Biography and the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Thomas De Quincey’s 1827 essay Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts. There was a good reason for this: the murder suspect in Mr Ackroyd’s book takes his inspiration from De Quincey’s work, after reading about the notorious Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811.
The Marr family, who lived above their draper’s shop on the Ratcliffe Highway in London’s East End, were savagely killed by an unknown assailant. There seems to have been a ritualistic element to the slayings, which prefigured the much more well-known Whitechapel Murders of 1888. Shortly afterwards, another multiple killing occurred nearby, and it is thought that the same person committed all these shocking crimes.
By chance or design, P. D. James and T. A Critchley’s book about the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, The Maul and the Pear Tree, had just been reissued in paperback. It seemed like another sign pointing me in the direction which I’d already (pretty much) decided to take. All three books arrived in a nice parcel from Amazon, just in time for me to give them to myself as a Xmas present. Everything was coming together nicely. After marshalling some more sources from my ever-expanding collection at home, I had the fiction, and I had the history. I was almost ready to start work on my essay.
This is where the psychogeography part came in: I decided to visit East London and explore the area around the former Ratcliffe Highway for myself. That trip took place on a Saturday, 15 January 2010, a tiny Rizla-thin smidgeon over three years ago. I’d like to share some of the photographs with you, and give you a bit more pieces for the jigsaw.
My first port of call after hitting the Underground was Monument Station, where there was weekend engineering work in progress. I could hardly believe that I’d travelled over two hundred miles only to encounter a bloody replacement bus service! I decided to make the best of the situation and headed for the surface. I’d never seen the Monument for myself, and found it more or less by accident when I was walking through the heart of the City of London:
[A digression: The City of London isn’t the same as ‘the city of London.’ The City (aka the Square Mile) is a self-contained entity, with its own by-laws, its own police force, its own quasi-mediaeval system of governance, and its own intriguing history. When I was proofreading the University of Glamorgan SU newsletter TAG a couple of years ago, I had to point this distinction out at some length to Jasper, the editor; one of the contributors had got his knickers in a twist over the nomenclature when he was writing about the demonstration against increased tuition fees. The City of London bears much the same relationship to the rest of the country as the Vatican City does to Italy, or the District of Columbia does to the United States. It’s where the bankers and the power-brokers hang out, and there are ghosts everywhere.]
In keeping with the mysterious nature of this autonomous city state, fans of conspiracy theories (myself included) will find Masonic/Illimunati/occult symbols everywhere – like this torch at the top of the Monument:
The Monument is 202 feet high, and reflects the fact that 202 feet away is Pudding Lane, where the Great Fire of 1666 broke out. The base of the Monument can be seen in the background here. I didn’t know, until Professor Lisa Jardine mentioned it in her Radio 4 series Seven Ages of Science, that the top conceals one end of a powerful telescope. How cool is that?
I walked on through these historic streets for a while, and was rather disappointed to find that it was quite busy for a Saturday morning. When I was first in London, in the mid-1980s, there was no sign of life in the City at all on a weekend. The financial services closed down on a Friday afternoon. Not even the pubs would open at weekends. Now, there are coffee shops, express supermarkets, gastropubs and chain stores scattered around the main thoroughfares. I think I preferred it the way it was, personally.
I didn’t linger there for very long as I wanted to head out east. I followed my nose through some narrow streets and somehow found my way to the Thames Path. While reading London, I’d found a mention of a place called Dark House Walk. I didn’t expect to find it so easily. Directly opposite it, the Shard (currently Europe’s tallest building) was approaching completion. There was a grand view along the river as well …
I followed the Thames Path to the east and eventually emerged near Tower Hill. (That was when I discovered that an adult ticket to this most notorious of tourist traps cost a whopping £18.70! It’s probably even more expensive now.) I still have no idea why there’s a statue of the Roman emperor Trajan nearby, but there is:
I was only a short walk from Tower Hill Station, where the Docklands Light Railway has one of its termini. That would be the quickest way to where I needed to be, so (armed with my One-Day Travelcard and A-Z Atlas) I made my way to the station and boarded the train.
If you’ve never been on the DLR, it’s well worth making a detour for. It’s an extraordinary experience as the driverless cars make their way along elevated tracks through the shiny new city-within-a-city to the east of the City (see, it gets confusing, doesn’t it?) It’s like a gentle roller coaster ride through the old docks, taking in centuries-old warehouses and brand new skyscrapers by turn. It’s not easy to take photos from a moving vehicle, but you soon get a flavour of how the old Port of London must have looked in bygone days. I wondered how much one of these flats would cost:
I left the train at Westferry Station and immediately the ghosts of East London were all around me. I’ve never claimed to have any sort of ESP, but I could definitely feel the rich and varied history of the area in the very fabric of the buildings. My first port of call was St Anne’s Church, which features in Dan Leno (I can’t be bothered to type the whole thing again!) as the place where the murderer leaves part of the remains of one of his victims. I wandered around these old streets for a few minutes before I spotted the church tower behind a line of trees.
I was approaching from the north, and it took me a minute or so to find my way into the grounds. The main entrance is opposite the east wall, and there were some people leaving the building as I got to the gate. I didn’t want to disturb them, so I took a few pictures of the surrounding buildings in the meantime:
Once the churchgoers had left, I made my way into the grounds and took a few photos.
Isn’t it beautiful? I’d done a bit of background reading before making the trip, so I knew that this was one of the London churches which Nicholas Hawksmoor designed during the building frenzy which followed the Great Fire. However, Dan Leno mentioned one particular feature of the architecture, which I wasn’t sure was fictional or not. I was amazed to find that it really existed.
That would be an ecumenical matter, I suppose …
I had a look at the gravestones (some of which date back to the eighteenth century) before leaving the churchyard and heading back onto the main road. Not far from the church, I crossed the road and took this photo of the former Limehouse Town Hall:
and, a little further west, this enormous seamen’s mission:
While I’d been exploring the side streets, I’d found a little public garden in the shadow of the DLR. I used to read Dr David Widgery’s columns in The Guardian, where he fulminated against government policies and exposed the tribulations of the people whom he used to see in his medical practice. I was cheered to see this plaque, and heartened to see that it was completely untouched by vandals. It’s obviously a measure of the high esteem in which Dr Widgery’s memory is still held by the community he served:
I decided to veer off the main road and found myself in a narrow warren of old warehouses, reflecting the area’s maritime history. By now, Gaz and I were texting each other, as he loves this area of London. As soon as I mentioned Ratcliffe Highway, he responded with, ‘Oh, the old murder capital of Britain.’
And indeed it was – the Marr family killings were just the most shocking and infamous of a string of brutal crimes in that part of the city during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. BBC Four showed an interesting documentary about the area a few years ago, but it doesn’t seem to have turned up again since.
I wandered around these ghostly lanes for a good while, taking photos here and there. I especially liked this pair of doors – is this the best house number anywhere in the world?
At one point I came to a block of luxury apartments. There was a gate at one side, and to my surprise it opened easily. I decided to walk down the narrow footpath behind it, and suddenly found myself overlooking the Thames:
I made my way back to the main road and carried on to the west, following my nose again. It didn’t take me long to spot something interesting – something which looked like a level crossing, but with no railway anywhere nearby. Then it occurred to me that I was still in Limehouse, and I realised where I was:
On the other side of the road, I found this:
That’s the entrance to Limehouse Cut, an inland waterway leading to the staggering leisure complex I mentioned in In the City. A little further inland, I found this:
I followed my nose once again and eventually emerged on the main road, a short distance from the entrance to the Limehouse Tunnel:
Now called simply the Highway, this arterial road runs west into London, emerging near Tower Hill. (Presumably, the ‘Ratcliffe’ bit was dropped because of its historic associations.)
I passed a little recreation ground at one point, and the name struck me immediately. I knew that William Blake had been a follower of the philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, so when I came across this sign I wondered about the name straight away:
It turns out that Swedenborg was buried in Shadwell, until his body was exhumed and taken to Sweden just before the First World War. When I got back home, I scrolled through Facebook, only to find that my Creative Writing colleague Danielle P. had posted a status complaining about her assignment on Blake’s spiritual visions. It must have been one of them coincidences …
In many people’s minds Limehouse is probably most readily associated with London’s Chinese community. There’s a 1940s jazz tune called Limehouse Blues, from which I adapted the title of this post. It features in the soundtrack of The Singing Detective (the BBC version, not the film) and has a groovy pentatonic (i.e. Oriental) feel to it. I already knew that there was a blog coming on long before the traffic stopped to make way for two police squad cars and a paramedic, lights flashing and sirens blaring, which tore up the tarmac on their way to the tunnel entrance. That was the exact moment when I came up with the title.
Considering the area’s close associations with the Chinese community, I wasn’t particularly surprised when I came across this fantastic piece of street art perched on a post above a busy traffic intersection:
From here, too, you can see the single London landmark which (by law) must be included in every panoramic city shot in every London-based TV show made since 2005:
I carried on walking for a couple of minutes until I decided to get something to drink. There was a Spar on the corner, so I picked up a can of Coke. Outside the shop I spotted a newspaper placard, and it seemed that the area hadn’t quite outgrown its blood-drenched reputation:
After quenching my thirst, I decided to explore the side streets around the shop. I was really glad, because a few yards further on I found this:
I’d somehow found my way to the old Tobacco Dock, where a couple of tall ships have been beautifully preserved for posterity.
In In the City I mentioned the fact that I hadn’t invested in a decent camera when the old London docks were coming to the end of their lives. This is one remnant of what I’d missed.
Back on track, I headed west along the Highway until I found another church. This was a bit of an awkward one to photograph, until I came up with the idea of holding the camera sideways and taking two shots in ‘panoramic’ mode. To my amazement, when I stitched them together it really worked:
There’s some interesting history behind this church too, as the board outside made clear:
I’d started to become conscious of the time by this stage. It was already early afternoon and I hadn’t found the grave of the Marr family. I’d managed to convince myself that they were buried at St Anne’s, but I hadn’t found the headstone. I wanted to try and cram in a visit to Camden Market before I returned home, so I legged it back along the Highway before stopping short outside this building:
The name rang a bell, but I’d read so much about the Ratcliffe Highway killings (both fictional and factual) that I’d managed to confuse myself. I could have kicked myself when I got home and found out that it was here, and not St Anne’s, where the Marrs were interred. Their grave can be seen against the south wall of the churchyard, apparently. So it goes …
Furthermore, it’s another of Hawksmoor’s churches. At least I had the good sense to photograph the information boards outside all three churches. When I make my next visit to that part of the world, I can email the vicars beforehand and (I hope) arrange to take some detailed photographs of the interiors as well.
Apart from the churches, there’s nothing much left of the old Ratcliffe Highway. I found a pub which (like so many others) was abandoned and boarded up:
I took a long shot of a stone set into the upper storey of one old building, which dates the area pretty accurately:
The rest of the Highway is the now-familiar out-of-town sprawl of garages, tool hire shops, car dealerships and new-build apartments, like this block at Number 29. The Pear Tree (another of the old pubs, which lends its name to James’ and Critchley’s book), and all the old houses around the area where the Marrs’ home once stood, are long gone:
I walked for another ten minutes or so and emerged where I’d started, a stone’s throw from the Tower of London. I jumped onto the tube and headed for Camden Town. The ghosts had vanished into the diesel fumes and tourist throng of a normal Saturday afternoon.
Last week I finally got around to reading Hawksmoor. It’s a very dark supernatural tale of mysticism and murder in early 18th-century London, intersecting with a detective story set in the city of the mid-1980s. St Anne’s Limehouse and St George in the East are discussed in detail, and as I read through it I realised that I’d (accidentally) visited two of Hawksmoor’s churches on my travels.
It’s apparent to me that Mr Ackroyd, like Christopher Priest, is another of those writers who doesn’t let anything go to waste. The research he did for Hawksmoor obviously came in useful when he was writing Dan Leno. However, the circle was only really completed when I read Mr Ackroyd’s note at the beginning of the book; he acknowledges Iain Sinclair’s observations about ‘the stranger characteristics of the London churches’ in Lud Heat as a source of inspiration.
I took Mr Sinclair’s book off the shelf a couple of nights ago and flicked through it. I’ve never been a huge fan of poetry, and that’s probably the reason why it’s stayed on my shelf for so long. (I knew I’d get around to reading it eventually, but not just yet …) Only a few pages in, there’s a foreword by Michael Moorcock, which looped me back around to my teenage years. That was weird enough, believe me!
However, in the first part of Lud Heat, there’s a map showing the locations of Hawksmoor’s churches, some obelisks which I’ve never seen, the sites of other London landmarks (the British Museum, Cleopatra’s Needle, ‘Bedlam’ Hospital), and the ‘lines of force’ connecting them. One of these ‘lines of force’ passes straight through the Isle of Dogs, which is marked on the map with the head of the Egyptian god Anubis. As I told you in Feeling Like a Kid Again, Anubis has frequently haunted my sleeping and waking dreams since I was six years old.
The weirdest part of all this convoluted story, though, is the photograph on the front cover of Mr Sinclair’s book. It’s the west front of St Anne’s Church, Limehouse, complete with pyramid …
ACKROYD, P. (1986)Hawksmoor. (London: Abacus.)
ACKROYD, P. (1992)English Music. (London: Hamish Hamilton.)
ACKROYD, P. (1995)Blake. (London: Vintage.)
ACKROYD, P. (1995)Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. (London: Minerva.)
ACKROYD, P. (2001)London: a biography (London: Vintage.)
ACKROYD, P. (2003)The Clerkenwell Tales. (London: Chatto.)
BLAKE, W. (1982)The Complete Poetry and Prose. Edited by Erdman, D.V. (New York: Anchor.)
HUGILL, B. (1994) “Cultists go round in circles”, Observer, 28 Aug 1994
JAMES, P.D and CRITCHLEY, T.A. (2010)The Maul and the Pear Tree. (London: Faber.)
MARSHALL, P. (1988)William Blake: visionary anarchist (London: Freedom Press.)
SINCLAIR, I. (1998)Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge. (London: Granta.)