Monday, 19 July 2010

The London That Nobody Knows Except Dan Cruickshank

There were two lovely radio programmes broadcast during the recent London week on Radio 4 (which can be found here for a while) in which the inimitable Dan Cruickshank summoned up his usual breathy collection of superlatives ('wonderful', 'remarkable', 'astonishing') for a look at some of the hidden sites and stories of the capital the likes of which author and artist Geoffrey Fletcher explored in his classic book The London Nobody Knows and other writings on the city. These spanned the years from 1960 through to 1990, an era of momentous change in the capital which witnessed the sweeping away of huge swathes of its past. Cruickshank approaches everything with a charming air of slightly bewildered amazement. Of course, he's an extremely learned man and far from bewildered, but he manages to convey a sense of breathy enthusiasm and a continued delight in the joy of discovery. His exclamatory ‘Good Lord’ upon entering the old bomb shelters of St Mary’s tube station in Whitechapel is priceless, and reminds me of John Pertwee’s similarly English expression of restrained astonishment, ‘good grief!’, uttered upon entering a cavern full of writhing giant maggots glowing with green luminescence. Fortunately, Dan doesn’t have to confront any such horrors, although I’m sure he’d deal with them in an adroit manner, murmuring ‘quite fascinating’ to himself all the while. No, he meets Stephen Smith, the author of Underground London, to discuss the use of the underground system as a place of shelter during the war. St Mary’s still bears the signs of this occupation, as you can see in the video above. Smith mentions the initial attempts at discouraging the use of the tube tunnels for protection on the part of London Transport and the government. The authorities seemed to view working people as if they were already half way to becoming Morlocks, who would take to the underground as if it were their natural environment and never emerge again. Those who did shelter in the tubes were denigrated as being ‘tube Cuthberts’ (why Cuthbert should be a name to inspire shame is a mystery locked in the cultural nuances of the age) and it was strongly implied that they were of ‘alien races’. This openly bigoted designation presumably encompassed the Jews of the Whitechapel district (Cruickshank reveals that various surveys conducted around 1900 reckoned the area to have had an almost 99% Jewish population - although this sounds a rather implausible statistic). They might also have sheltered in the new tunnel of the nearby Liverpool Street station, which a London Transport latterly more accommodating to the heavily blitzed populace had surfaced over for that purpose. Smith reveals in his book that it was here in particular that Henry Moore came to take notes which would later guide him in producing his haunting pictures of huddled human forms as spectral emanations in darkness. There's an evocative sequence in Humphrey Jennings' 1944-5 documentary A Diary For Timothy which shows Londoners sleeping on bunks in the underground, hair and clothing ruffled by the breeze created by passing trains. The underground has always been a place which stimulates writers and film-makers to imagine alternate worlds branching off from its tunnels and passageways. It features in Langdon Jones' story The Eye of the Lens, Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, China Mieville's King Rat, the Doctor Who episodes Web of Fear and Invasion of the Dinosaurs (Yetis and triceratops on the down platform), Quatermass and the Pit, and Gary Sherman's 1972 film Death Line, based around Russell Square station and building an urban myth around the abandoned British Museum station. The least said about the more recent tube-based horror, Creep, the better.

Dan meets other London writers. Iain Sinclair, whose collection Lights Out For the Territory charts his own idiosyncratic path through London as he knows it, was there on his home territory in Hackney, lamenting the probable demise of its market, one of the last of a breed which Fletcher saw as providing the pulse of the city’s streets. His stand in for the 1968 film, James Mason, is seen wandering through Petticoat Lane market, which provides a movable stage for the hawking performers at their stalls. Sinclair Fletcher as a chronicler of that which is about to pass into history, and refers to him as a ‘poet of entropy’, which sounds very New Worlds and Ballardian. There is also a rendezvous (‘ah, there he is’) with Peter Ackroyd, author of the entertainingly anecdotal London: The Biography, who gives a guide to the history of radicalism associated with the Clerkenwell area, and Clerkenwell Green in particular (an open space in which protesters have gathered ever since Wat Tyler gathered the forces of the Peasant’s Revolt here in 1381). Ackroyd points out that it was in this area that Lenin gained much inspiration for the Russian Revolution, observing the terrible working conditions and pay of the watchmakers in the area and seeing them as a specific example of the exploitative nature of capitalism. And it was in Clerkenwell that the revolutionary paper Iskra, or The Spark, was published during Lenin’s stay in 1902-3.

The entrance to Wilton's Music Hall
Other places which Dan visits include an eighteenth century tavern in Gerrard Street, north of Leicester Square, now covered (and therefore probably preserved by) the fixtures of a Chinese supermarket. This was the place where Dr Johnson and Joshua Reynolds established ‘The Club’, where intellectuals and artists would come to discuss the burning issues of the day (or possibly just to have a drink and a pie). Just over the road in Leicester Place, a different sort of club opened in 1965. This was the Ad Lib, and as Dominic Sandbrook points out in his history of Britain in the swinging sixties, it was for a brief moment the hub of the extremely elitist swinging London scene, frequented by the likes of The Beatles and The Stones, Jean Shrimpton and David Bailey. As Peter Ackroyd points out in the context of Clerkenwell’s persistence of radicalism, certain areas seem configured (physically or otherwise) to generate certain types of activity. Dan also visits Wilton’s Music Hall in the East End, a wonderful place which I first visited on one of the London Open House weekends (renamed Open City from this year on) before seeing Marc Almond perform there a couple of years ago (you can get a good view of Wilton’s in his Bluegate Fields concert video). It’s a unique and treasurable relic of the music hall era, and someone should really direct some funding its way to prevent its further decline. Although not to tart it up too much since, as Dan points out, its aura of decay is one of its particular charms. As they come to an end, these two programmes seem too brief to do justice to an updated exploration of London’s hidden nooks and buried histories in the spirit of Geoffrey Fletcher. Surely there’s a TV series crying out to emerge from such material. Meanwhile, Dan Cruickshank ends with a summation from the heart of an urban romanticist, hoping that this London will remain one that nobody other than the observant seeker knows, since ‘while secrets remain secrets, they remain eternal’.

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