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Cockney Visionaries

A fantastical “tribute to Christopher Wren” outlining the spires and vistas of the great and powerful city which he helped to create. Much of his work has gone but the power and energy remain.

CHAPTER 78

Unreal City

It has always been a city of vision and prophecy. It is supposed to have been founded after a prophetic dream vouchsafed to Brutus, and the vision of a great city in “a strange yet greener country” haunts the imaginations of the classical poets. As Ovid wrote in his Metamorphoses,

Even as I speak I see our destiny

The city of our sons and sons of sons,

Greater than any city we have known,

Or has been known or shall be known to men.

Its visionary or mythic status has rendered it provisional and impalpable. It has become an “Unreal city,” in the phrase of T.S. Eliot, which throughout its history has been populated by the creatures of mythology. Nymphs have been seen along the banks of its rivers, and minotaurs within its labyrinths of brick. It has been aligned with Nineveh and Tyre, Sodom and Babylon, and at times of fire and plague the outlines of those cities have risen among its streets and buildings. The city’s topography is a palimpsest within which all the most magnificent or monstrous cities of the world can be discerned. It has been the home of both angels and devils striving for mastery. It has been the seat of miracles, and the harbour of savage paganism. Who can fathom the depths of London?

Chaucer’s prophetic dream in the House of Fame—“I dreamt I was within a temple made of glass” with “many a pillar of metal”—has been applied to many of London’s edifices but the most formidable prophecies are of revelation and apocalypse. On the north side of Aldersgate were inscribed the words: “Then shall enter into the gates of the city kings and princes sitting upon the throne of David … and the city shall remain forever.” Even to its inhabitants, it was a biblical city; its history, “beyond the memory of man,” verified its sacredness. Yet its inhabitants have also been touched by other forms of vision. Of Chaucer’s pilgrims, on their way to Canterbury along Borough High Street, William Blake said that they “compose all ages and nations.” Every race or tribe or nation, every faith or form of speech, have been comprehended within the city. The whole universe may be found within a grain of London’s life. The “gate of heaven,” in St. Bartholomew the Great, was located beside the shambles of Smithfield. But if it is a sacred city, it is one which includes misery and suffering. The bowels of God have opened, and rained down shit upon London.

The most abject poverty or dereliction can appear beside glowing wealth and prosperity. Yet the city needs its poor. What if the poor must die, or be deprived, in order that the city might live? That would be the strangest contrast of all. Life and death meet and part; misfortune and good fortune shake hands; suffering and happiness inhabit the same house. “Without Contraries,” Blake once wrote, “is no progression.” He reached this truth by steady observation of the city. It is always ancient, and forever new, that disparity or disjunction itself creating a kind of ferment of novelty and inventiveness. It may be that the new protects the old, or the old guards the new, yet in the very fact of their oneness lies the secret of London’s identity shining through time.

Yet wherever you go in the city you are continually being assaulted by difference, and it could be surmised that the city is simply made up of contrasts; it is the sum of its differences. It is in fact the very universality of London that establishes these contrasts and separations, it contains every aspect of human life within itself, and is thus perpetually renewed. Yet do the rich and the poor inhabit the same city? It may be that each citizen has created a London in his or her own head, so that at the same moment there may exist seven million different cities. It has sometimes been observed that even native Londoners experience a kind of fear, or alarm, if they find themselves in a strange part of the city. It is partly the fear of becoming lost, but it is also the fear of difference. And yet is a city so filled with difference, also, therefore filled with fear?

This vision of totality, of fullness of life, may be cast in an optimistic sense. Boswell suggested that “the intellectual man is struck with London as comprehending the whole of human life in all its variety, the contemplation of which is inexhaustible.” It is the vision which was imparted to him as he was driven along the Haymarket in the early days of 1763: “I was full of rich imagination of London … such as I could not explain to most people, but which I strongly feel and am ravished with. My blood glows and my mind is agitated with felicity.” It is the fullness of London which prompts his happiness; the congregation of people, of all races, of all talents, of all fortunes, releases a massive air of expectancy and exhilaration.

London manifests all the possibilities of humankind, and thus becomes a vision of the world itself. Steele was a “great Lover of Mankind”; and by Cornhill “at the sight of a prosperous and happy Multitude … I cannot forbear expressing my Joy with Tears that have stoln down my Cheeks.” A century later Charles Lamb wrote that “I often shed tears in the motley Strand, for fulness of joy at such a multitude of life.” The multitudes induce wonder; they are not an incoherent mass, or a heap of irreconcilable elements, but a flowing and varied multitude.

English drama, and the English novel, spring out of the very conditions of London. In Jonson, and Smollett and Fielding, the poetry of the streets finds its fulfilment. Theirs is a visionary imagination as rich as that of Chaucer or of Blake, but it is a peculiarly London vision filled with images of the theatre and the prison-house, of commerce and of crowds, of fullness and rapacity and forgetfulness.

From a London vision springs a distinctive sensibility. All of these writers—and many more are numbered with them—were preoccupied with light and darkness, in a city that is built in the shadows of money and power. All of them were entranced by the scenic and spectacular, in a city that is continually filled with the energetic display of people and institutions. They understood the energy of London, they understood its variety, and they also understood its darkness. So they tended to favour spectacle and melodrama. As city artists they are more concerned with the external life, with the movement of crowds, with the great general drama of the human spirit. They have a sense of energy and splendour, of ritual and display, which may have very little to do with ethical judgement or the exercise of moral consciousness. In part they share the sublime indifference of London, where the multitudes come and go. However hard and theatrical it may seem, it is a true vision of the world. In the famous phrase, London made me. But then it cannot be altogether hard; it reduced Steele and Lamb to tears.

It is appropriate, then, that there should also have been visions of disaster; of London in ruins or choked to death upon its own smoke and dirt. The French writer Mirbeau invoked a city “of the nightmare, of dream, of mystery, of the conflagration, of the furnace, of chaos, of floating gardens, of the invisible, the unreal … this special nature of the prodigious city.” An image of the furnace often emerges in London visions. In Blake’s Jerusalem “Primrose Hill is the mouth of the Furnace & of the Iron Door,” and in Arthur Machen’s “When I Was Young in London” there was a moment when, “looking back one could see all the fires of London reflected dimly in the sky, as if far away awful furnace doors were opened.” It has been known as “the Oven,” as if that sense of unnatural heat provokes strange images of its inhabitants being cooked and eaten. Yet it has also been called “a temple of Fire-worshippers,” so perhaps the citizens venerate the agents of their destruction.

A nineteenth-century observer of the fog noticed the sun as a “mysterious and distant gleam which seemed to be trying to penetrate to this immobile world.” This is another true vision of the city, when all its noise and bustle have disappeared; when it lies silent and peaceful, all of its energy momentarily suspended, it seems like some natural force that will outlast all the activity of humankind. It is gigantic, monstrous, and, by the very fact of its enormity, somehow primeval. The poet, Tom Moore, had a refrain:

Go where we may, rest where we will,

Eternal London haunts us still.

Eternity may have many aspects. One is that of eternal recurrence, so that the people of the city will say the same things or use the same gestures upon the same streets. Since no one may watch a corner or a stretch of thoroughfare over hundreds of years, the truth of this will never be discovered. Yet perhaps it has become clear that certain activities seem to belong to certain areas, or neighbourhoods, as if time itself were moved or swayed by some unknown source of power. Yet if this seems too fanciful, there may be another aspect of “Eternal London.” It is permanent. It is unceasing. Of its essence, it is unchanged. It is a condition of the universe. As the author of London Nights has put it, “London is every city that ever was and ever will be.” Thus Wordsworth saw by Ludgate Hill

A visionary scene—a length of street

laid open in its morning quietness,

Deep, hollow, unobstructed, vacant, smooth …

The silence is the silence of permanence. When all the passing generations have sung their songs and departed, the city continues its quiet life. To see London without its inhabitants is indeed a “visionary scene,” because another presence then reveals itself. That is why there have been so many visions of London in ruins. In drawings and in engravings—even in images of film—it resembles some lost continent, or a city lately risen from the sea. These are not the ruins of Babylon or Rome, but of Atlantis or some other mythological landscape. They are emblems of some undying need or aspiration.

It is possible, however, to see among them the passing generations. London is “eternal” because it contains them all. When Addison visited the tombs of Westminster Abbey he was moved to reflect that “When I read the several dates of the tombs, of some that died yesterday, and some six hundred years ago, I consider that great day when we shall all of us be contemporaries and make our appearance together.” It may be that London, uniquely among cities, prompts such considerations since the dead seem to be pursuing at the heels of the living. For some this is a hopeful vision; it suggests reconciliation where all the manifest differences of the city, riches and poverty, health and sickness, will find their quietus. One cannot be separated from the other. So Turner saw “the most angelic beings in the whole compass of the London world” in the squalor and filth of the London Docks.

There are those who have been possessed by a different vision. According to Geoffrey Grigson, London “stood for doing, at least, it stood for beginning.” Branwell Brontë, in the parsonage at Haworth, collected all the maps of London he could find depicting “its alleys, and back slums and short cuts”; according to Juliet Barker in The Brontës he “studied them so closely that he knew them all by heart” so that he appeared to be an “old Londoner” who “knew more about the ins and outs of the mighty Babylon than many a man who had passed his life within its walls.” This intense reading of London was, for him, a form of liberation; the maps represented all the hopes for, and aspirations towards, a new life. It was as if he were studying his own destiny. But for others the dream may become feverish, when the whole weight of London presses down. At the end of Bleak House, that threnody among the labyrinths of London, Richard Carstone towards the close of his wretched life asks, “It was all a troubled dream?” For many, that is also a true vision of the city.

The elements of innovation and of change are subtly mingled, together with the sheer exhilaration of being one among a numerous company. One could become anybody. Some of the great stories of London concern those who have taken on new identities, and new personalities; to begin again, to renew oneself, is one of the great advantages of the city. It is part of its endlessly dramatic life. It is possible, after all, to enter if only for a moment the lives and emotions of those who pass by. This collective experience can, in turn, be a source of exhilaration. It was what Francis Thompson perceived in his vision of

the traffic of Jacob’s ladder

Pitched between Heaven and Charing Cross.

It is the enchantment of a million golden souls moving back and forth between heaven and the city, all singular and all blessed. It is the same vision vouchsafed to those who have heard the music of London, a pattern of notes rising and falling in some great melody to which all the streets and avenues move in unison. The city then forms “a geography passing beyond the natural to become metaphysical, only describable in terms of music or abstract physics”: thus writes Michael Moorcock in Mother London. Some inhabitants hear the music—these are the dreamers and the antiquarians—but others perceive it only fitfully and momentarily. It may be in a sudden gesture, in a sentence overheard, in an instant of memory. London is filled with such broken images, laughter which has been heard before, a tearful face which has been seen before, a street which is unknown and yet familiar.

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