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CHAPTER 79

Resurgam

If you were to walk across the Isle of Dogs, where the Canary Wharf tower itself is to be found, past the enamel panels and the jet mist granite, past the silver cladding and the curved glass walls, you might come across other realities. Here and there still stand late Victorian pubs, marking the corners of otherwise shattered roads. There are council blocks from the 1930s, and council-house estates from the 1970s. Occasionally a row of nineteenth-century terraced houses will emerge like an apparition. The Isle of Dogs represents, in other words, the pattern of London. Certain of the new developments are themselves decked out as if they were Victorian warehouses, or Georgian terraces, or twentieth-century suburban dwellings, thus intensifying the sense of heterogeneity and contrast. This, too, is part of London. This is why it has been said that there are in reality hundreds of Londons all mingled.

There are different worlds, and times, within the city; Whitehall and West Ham, White City and Streatham, Haringey and Islington, are all separate and unique. Yet in the last years of the twentieth century they participated in the general brightness of London. If light travels in waves then it may be described as a rippling effect, as the renovation or rejuvenation of the inner core has spread outwards. London has opened up; there seems to be more space and more air. It has grown in lightness. In the City towers are clad in silver-blue reflective glass, so that the difference between the sky and the building is effaced; in Clapton and Shepherd’s Bush, houses are being repaired and repainted.

If London were a living thing, we would say that all of its optimism and confidence have returned. It has again become “the capital of all capitals” in every cultural and social sense. The world flocks to it and once more it has become a youthful city. That is its destiny. Resurgam: “I will arise.” It was the word found upon a piece of stray and broken stone just when Wren began his work upon St. Paul’s Cathedral; he placed it at the centre of his design.

In Exchange Square of the Broadgate Development, in the last autumn of the twentieth century, a calypso band was playing in an open space designed for performance; some City workers, before their journey homewards, were drinking in a public house close by. A man and woman were dancing, to the rhythm of the music, in the shadow of the great arch of Exchange House. In an area below them a shallow cascade of water ran continually, while to one side reclined a statue entitled “The Broadgate Venus.” Below the square I could see the platforms of Liverpool Street Station, with the trains moving inwards and outwards, while on the horizon behind Exchange House the spire of St. Leonard, Shoreditch, could plainly be discerned. It was a matter of conjecture how many different times inhabited this small area; there was a nineteenth-century railway time, but also the time of the music. There was the endless movement of water, but also the rhythm of the dancing. The great statue of the reclining nude seemed almost preternaturally still amid all this activity, enjoining a quietness not unlike that of St. Leonard in the distance. And then there were the office-workers with glasses in their hands who were, at that moment, like their ancestors, wandering out of time. So Broadgate, in the early evening, contained many times, like currents of air invisibly mingling.

On that same evening, I walked perhaps two hundred yards to the east, and I came across another London site. Just beyond the old market of Spitalfields archaeologists have discovered an area where the medieval hospital of St. Mary Spital once stood. On this small spot were found the stone sarcophagus of a fourth-century Roman female; a fourteenth-century charnel house and graveyard; a fifteenth-century gallery from which civic dignitaries listened to the “Spital sermon”; evidence of a sixteenth-century artillery ground; London fortifications of the seventeenth century; eighteenth-century dwellings; and part of a nineteenth-century street. More will emerge in time, although time itself has a thicker and more clouded atmosphere in such a place. The levels of the centuries are all compact, revealing the historical density of London. Yet the ancient city and the modern city literally lie beside each other; one cannot be imagined without the other. That is one of the secrets of the city’s power.

These relics of the past now exist as part of the present. It is in the nature of the city to encompass everything. So when it is asked how London can be a triumphant city when it has so many poor, and so many homeless, it can only be suggested that they, too, have always been a part of its history. Perhaps they are a part of its triumph. If this is a hard saying, then it is only as hard as London itself. London goes beyond any boundary or convention. It contains every wish or word ever spoken, every action or gesture ever made, every harsh or noble statement ever expressed. It is illimitable. It is Infinite London.

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