In which The Author serves up some university leftovers
I don’t remember my dreams in sufficient detail to keep a proper dream diary. A couple of years ago, as you might remember, my friend Josie was doing her PhD on the psychology and neuroendocrinology of dream states. Because of my chronic insomnia and fragmentary recall, I had to decline her invitation to join the study. (On the other hand, maybe some time in a sleep lab would allow the researchers to figure out why I can get by on barely four hours’ kip every night.)
Anyway, the change of season seems to have ushered in a fresh wave of interesting – if fleeting – night-time adventures. With this in mind, I’ve decided to do what Carys and I talked about six years ago, and keep a notebook and pen on the bedside table. Even if I don’t come up with anything which Josie would have found useful, I can at least jot some notes down on first waking.
I always used to carry a small notebook with me, and I’d jot down ideas for song titles, outlines for stories, pithy observations about friends and strangers, bits of overheard conversations, and so on. This raw material gave rise to my early blog entries on MySpace, some of which are preserved in the Archives. I’ve got a number of these little red books, but I haven’t looked at them for ages.
When I went back to university in 2009, I started carrying a notebook again. I was doing a Creative Writing module, and I quickly got back into the habit of recording useful snippets for future reference. Some of them developed into decent ideas (that was how ‘Pit Stop’, my Doctor Who/Torchwood fanfic story, came about). Others fell by the wayside when I was forced to abandon my studies.
On Sunday evening I dug out one of my old notebooks and took it upstairs with me. There were a couple of blank pages which would do for recording any bizarre or interesting dreams I had that night.
I found that it contained several rambling pages of notes for an essay I was writing about Peter Ackroyd’s novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (my second-year assignment). I’d obviously been working on in the pub, and I’d made a couple of attempts to put my ideas on paper as they occurred to me. I’d already been to London to see the area for myself (see Limehouse Blues and Twos), so I can only assume I was writing soon after my expedition.
I read my notes again, and I’d forgotten just how much work I’d put into this piece. There’s even a separate ‘mental map’ of connections between the various elements of the story and my own observations, which I drew to help and tie everything together, headed by the words How the fuck do I structure all this? Considering that we were supposed to submit our drafts as well as the finished piece, I was either on course for a decent mark or a psych assessment. You can decide for yourselves.
I know there’s no structure to it; I know I’ve repeated some parts; I’m well aware that I’ve drifted into a more personal reflection towards the end of the draft. It’s just a rough outline, not a finished assignment. It doesn’t even make sense to me any more; I was just putting ideas down as they came to me.
Where there’s a gap between paragraphs, that reflects my original writing style. As each new avenue became apparent, I separated them out, with the intention of putting them in order later on. I’ve inserted extra material in [brackets], indicating things which might need explaining from an outsider’s point of view.
Where I needed to check things later on, I made a marginal note to myself. I’ve set these marginalia in bold, so you can see where my train of thought stopped at the amber lights here and there. (You’ll also see the exact point where it was derailed entirely, and took a long time to get going again.)
It’s unlikely that I’ll ever get round to finishing this off properly, and even less likely that I’ll have a chance to submit it for assessment. But I thought I’d post it in case I lose my notebook, as I still think it’s worth preserving. (Well, I would think that, wouldn’t I?)
Fiction, History and Psychogeography in Peter Ackroyd’s Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem
Ackroyd quote to start (Dark House Walk)
London’s ‘dark secret life’ lies at the heart of Peter Ackroyd’s novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. Ostensibly a Victorian murder mystery, this complex narrative is as much a meditation on late nineteenth-century morality, and an examination of our obsession with the most hideous aspects of our society. In true Ackroyd tradition, real people are woven into the story so deftly that one almost expects to find the contemporary news reports in the British Library archives.
At the heart of the story are Elizabeth Cree, a gender-bending music hall performer who learns her craft from Dan Leno, and her husband John, a journalist and (if his diary is to be believed) serial killer. Elizabeth’s account of her dysfunctional childhood and her reinvention as a succession of stage personae, is interwoven with extracts from John’s diaries. These describe in graphic detail the brutal murders which he has perpetrated in an attempt to emulate the Ratcliffe Highway murders.
In December 1811 the Marr family, who kept a draper’s shop on the Ratcliffe Highway, were slaughtered by an unknown assailant. This, and another multiple slaying a few weeks later, were arguably the most notorious crimes in an area infamous for poverty, vice and cruelty. Indeed, [T. A.] Critchley and [P. D.] James contend [in their 1971 book The Maul and the Pear Tree] that they were eclipsed only by the Whitechapel murders of 1888.
Thomas De Quincey’s essay ‘On Murder considered as one of the Fine Arts’ was a satirical celebration of these most sublime of crimes – and it is this essay which apparently inspires John Cree’s killing spree. Cree is seeking his place in history, and it seems that by emulating (and surpassing) the sadism of the 1811 murders, his posterity will be assured.
That, on the surface, is the plot. But, as Ackroyd’s readers should expect, there is far more than this cursory examination reveals. Like a forensic pathologist, the reader needs to dig under the skin and gently peel away the layers of tissue beneath in order to observe the structure and determine the true cause of death.
Moving in various orbits around the Crees are the historical personalities who play minor roles in the story.
There is the ageing scholar and revolutionary Karl Marx (now pursuing his first love: poetry). There is the struggling young writer George Gissing. These two gentleman sit daily in the British Library, at neighbouring desks to John Cree, each unaware of the other’s existence.
There is the spectre of Charles Babbage, whose ‘Analytical Engine’ stands in a Limehouse workshop, a mighty mechanical consciousness capable of reducing even human fears and desires to mere numbers.
And there is Dan Leno, the shape-shifting genius of the London stage, who takes Elizabeth under his wing and (by the flimsiest of evidence) finds himself implicated in one of the murders.
In 1888, twenty years after the events of Ackroyd’s fiction, an American actor named Richard Mansfield was appearing in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. His transformation was acclaimed as one of the most remarkable performances ever seen on the London stage. Within a matter of weeks the first murder attributed to ‘Jack the Ripper’ took place in Whitechapel. Some popular newspapers called for Mansfield to be investigated. Surely, they reasoned, anyone who could so completely reshape his physical form must necessarily reconfigure his mind at the same time.
The folklore of the Jewish emigrés who have settled in the area informs the public fears which erupt as a result of the first murder. The ‘golem’ – a clay statue supposedly animated by some malevolent spirit – becomes the prime suspect. As with the Whitechapel murders, the Londoner’s deep mistrust of the ‘outsider’ (ironic in this most diverse and cosmopolitan of cities) is never far from the surface. When an elderly scholar of the Talmud is murdered (by mistake – Marx himself is the intended victim), the message is clear: nobody is safe. The city itself is responsible for the killings.
The Qabalistic tradition of Adam Kadmon – the so-called ‘Universal Man’ embodying both male and female characteristics – is also invoked. Leno frequently assumes female roles on stage. Elizabeth has a habit of wearing a man’s ‘duds’ and prowling the streets at night, at a time when a young woman alone would have been greatly at risk of attack.
Ackroyd himself has refuted any associations with the psychogeography movement. (Insert [Barry] Hugill [Observer] interview quote here) Even so, his lifelong study of London leaves the reader with little doubt that he has at least a passing acquaintance with the notion of ‘place memory’. John Cree’s psychosis, he suggests, is fuelled by his proximity to the Ratcliffe Highway.
The area today bears only a passing resemblance to the Victorian warren of slums, doss-houses and low taverns, home to an ever-changing population of seafarers and the associated trades necessary to support London’s role as the heart of the Empire.
Even the streets have been renamed. The road east from the Tower to Limehouse is simply the Highway, a dual carriageway Red Route to the millionaires’ playground of Docklands. Number 29 is no more – just one of a dozen or so house numbers subsumed into a modern block of luxury flats.
Yet, in a quirk of fate which Ackroyd cannot fail to have noticed, almost directly opposite is a small open space named Swedenborg Gardens. [William] Blake, who first investigated the psychogeography of London, was a follower of Swedenborg. (Coincidence? Maybe.)
As I write this, the news bulletin leads with the ongoing investigation into the murder of Jo Yeates. The tabloids have been full of surmise, half-truths, rumours and speculations since her body was found on Xmas Day. De Quincey’s phrase ‘the crimes that delight us’ seems as relevant now as when he wrote it, some 150 years ago. Maybe Ackroyd was right: between the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811 and the Whitechapel murders of 1888, London itself was hungry for victims. His fictional account fills that gap.
It is interesting to note that neither 29 the Highway, nor John Christie’s former home at 10 Rillington Place, Notting Hill, nor 25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester (where the bodies of the Wests’ first victims were found) still exist. The Wests’ house was demolished; the official line was that it was attracting ghoulish sightseers. Yet it is possible to meet ghoulish sightseers at Whitechapel tube station on a Friday evening and (for a small fee) retrace the last known movements of Jack the Ripper’s victims. The Whitechapel killer was never caught.
John Williams was executed for the Ratcliffe Highway murders. Christie was executed. Fred West took his own life in prison. Their former abodes no longer exist. It is as if the murderous impulses which drove them would return to earth if their familiar stamping grounds still existed. On the other hand, Jack’s old ‘manor’ is still fertile territory for historians, tourists, conspiracy theorists … Maybe Jack the Ripper is just another golem, waiting to be reanimated.
BEING BORED SHITLESS BY A PISSED OLD TWAT WHO REALLY CAN’T UNDERSTAND THAT ‘I’M BUSY’ MEANS JUST THAT!
The Reading-born songwriter and musician Karl Blake hit the tabloid mentality on the head in a song called ‘Bad Samaritans’:
Smut park rumouring ankle-socked dead
Discarded bike and satchel
A wet-lipped expectant fear.
We are gravel pit lovers
Fed them as a treat
Over cornflakes, toast and jam
We are gravel pit lovers
All day, every day
In our sexy Vietnam
(Reproduced by kind permission of the composer)
I still have my copy of the Autumn 1984 Time Out Guide to London, which was given out free at the Brunel Uni Freshers’ Fair. While I was working on my long-abandoned novel I referred to it regularly, to make sure I wasn’t name-checking closed pubs or tube stations which didn’t open at weekends. I’ve always been a bugger for accuracy. Ackroyd’s ability to reconstruct Victorian London is a testament to the volume of research he’s undertaken throughout his career. He’s the foremost historico-fictional chronicler of that city. He leaves me breathless at times.
The Analytical Engine was never built ([Douglas R.] Hofstadter). Babbage’s Difference Engine was much easier to finish; the A.E. proved impossible for the mechanical engineers of the time. Yet in Ackroyd’s vision it stands like some pagan idol in Limehouse, ready to exert its power over the citizenry. In the grounds of St Ann’s Church, there is a stone pyramid engraved with the words ‘The Wisdom of Solomon.’ An odd thing to find in a Christian burial ground: London’s half-buried pagan past leaking through fault-lines in Time.
Psychogeography. Derek Beackon [a former BNP councillor in Tower Hamlets] (Hugill’s article). Far-fetched but relevant. East End.
(Josef Fritzl’s house is also scheduled for demolition, 22/1)
If evil manifests itself in a particular space and/or a particular body, does society seek to eradicate it by physical extermination? Without a physical body to which ‘evil’ can be attributed, do the buildings remain as a conduit to the underworld?
[This is the point where I completely changed mental gears and started addressing my tutor directly.]
What was intended as a critical essay on Peter Ackroyd’s novel has become something darker and more introspective. It’s your fault. You told us we could use the authorial ‘I’ to reflect on our own creative processes.
Please see the preceding pages. They were written under the influence of various painkillers and pints in between buses to and from the surgery. I didn’t have the source books to hand, so I’ve had to vamp it for the most part.
Psychogeography. I’ve got the original Guy Debord definition at home. It’s to do with the way your surroundings affect your psychological condition. I’ve enclosed a photocopy of part of my Great Unpublishable Novel so you can see where I’m coming from.
Fiction. That’s what we’re supposed to be studying this year. I’ve only done one full-blown completed work of fiction ever – ’47 Minutes’ – and I worked long and hard over that. I downloaded computer software and consulted textbooks and journals to make sure my historical info was spot-on. Not many novels come complete with a Reference List.
Peter Ackroyd’s novels probably should. Who else would have the audacity to weave a Victorian murder mystery around the Ratcliffe Highway murders of December 1811, while Karl Marx, George Gissing and Dan Leno float freely through the slums, doss-houses, taverns and chop-houses of London? Using Thomas De Quincey’s satirical masterpiece ‘On Murder’ as a springboard, Ackroyd’s psychopath fills the vacuum between John Williams (convicted, executed – some doubt remaining over his guilt!) and John Christie (convicted, executed).
The problem is that London always wants its sacrificial victims. Between Ratcliffe Highway (1811) and Whitechapel (1888) there is nothing to satisfy the blood-lust of the teeming mass at the heart of Empire – the voracious deity for whom everyone is a potential victim. Ackroyd’s fictional murders fill the gap. No more. It’s a bone in the gaping maw of the city of Man.
A month ago, the body of landscape architect Jo Yeates was discovered by walkers near her home in Bristol. My brother railed at the TV coverage today: ‘Why is she always a landscape architect?’
A professional person has contacts. Her parents are no doubt well-connected, wealthy, respectable. If the body found in a snow-filled ditch had been that of a prostitute or a junkie, she’d have merited a couple of paras in the local paper and then been shoved aside in favour of the next cat up a tree or smiling golden anniversary couple.
And that’s the nature of the media. Peter Ackroyd’s fabricated news reports are so authentic that I feel tempted to seek them out in the archives of the British Library. But it’s the psychogeography – the spirit of place – that permeates his novel. The fact that Karl Marx and George Gissing and John Cree (who may or not be the killer) cross paths regularly without even knowing it is irrelevant. The fact that they meet under the great dome of the British Library is the key. The pyramid in the grounds of St Ann’s Church, Limehouse, (a most odd monument to find in a Christian churchyard); the non-existent pagan idol of Babbage’s Analytical Engine (never constructed according to Hofstadter); the avenues and alleyways of Limehouse – these are the focal points which Ackroyd’s characters orbit. The city itself, in its two-thousand-year evolution, exerts its malevolent influence over the hearts and minds of its inhabitants, with hideous results.
And that’s where it ends, abruptly, with no resolution. I think I made some progress towards typing up my notes, but it made no difference. My long-standing back injury took its toll about a week later, and my university career reached an even more abrupt end than this notebook entry does. I don’t know how the hell I was going to try and make sense of the whole thing, but I was definitely making progress.
There’s an intriguing postscript, though.
At this stage I hadn’t encountered Ben Aaronovitch’s books. Therefore, I had no idea that his first Peter Grant novel Rivers of London would explore vaguely similar ground. The spirit of riot and rebellion rises up in London and possesses unfortunate passers-by, who then commit awful crimes which they can’t remember.
While I was in London doing my own psychogeographical investigation of Limehouse, I realised that the spirit of riot and rebellion is still alive and well; that the city still needs its human sacrifices. Look at this newspaper placard I found on the day, barely an empty wine bottle’s throw from the dossers’ shelter behind St Ann’s Church.
The greedy ghosts of London, it seems, are always with us.
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-medieval 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.)
Being a Non-Linear Account of the Life and Opinions of The Author, Cross-referenced and Illustrated, with Occasional Hesitations, Repetitions and Deviations.
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