Tag Archives: City

Know London

City-lit London

This is an edited extract of an introduction I wrote for City-Lit London, a superb anthology of London writing, from 2009.

I don’t really know London. This despite having lived and worked within the collar of the M25 for my entire life, something that is simultaneously a source of great pride and creeping shame. I’ve explored it, sure. I’ve gazed down at dawn on drowsy Londoners from atop a thirteenth-century church tower in Hackney. I’ve listened to the hum of traffic passing overhead from deep within the buried Fleet River beneath Holborn Circus. I’ve walked the Thames one Sunday afternoon from St Paul’s to Hampton Court, been to the end of more than half the tube lines, sniffed Billingsgate Market’s early-morning buzz and fed the black-tongued giraffes at London Zoo. I’ve even travelled every bus from 1 to 50 in numerical order, a task that’s taken me to every point of the compass from Debden in the north-east to Fullwell in the south-west (no, I’d never heard of them before I started, either). But I still don’t know London. Not really. There are vast tracts of its urban geography that are a total mystery to me, a no-man’s land, vacant lots, blank space in my internal A-Z.

This is not an unusual condition. Indeed, it might even be a necessity for living a sane, balanced London life because most of the city’s residents seem to suffer from it, some quite contentedly, perfectly happy to stay within the few square miles where they live and the West End where they work. This could be because there is simply too much London to handle ― too many streets, too many people, too much history, too many inconsistencies. The London cabby, scientists say, has developed a larger-than-average hippocampus ― the part of the brain that processes navigation – simply to cope with all the information. One of them, Fred Housego, even won ‘Mastermind’ in 1980.

Most of us don’t even try to deal with all this geographical sludge. In Soft City, Jonathan Raban’s charismatic study of the modern city from 1974, he noted: ‘The Greater London Council is responsible for a sprawl shaped like a rugby ball about twenty-five miles long and twenty miles wide; my London is a concise kidney-shaped patch within that space, in which no point is more than seven miles from any other… I hardly ever trespass beyond those limits, and when I do, I feel I’m in foreign territory, a landscape of hazard and rumour. Like any tribesman hedging himself in behind a stockade of taboos, I mark my boundaries with graveyards, terminal transportation points and wildernesses. Beyond them, nothing is to be trusted and anything might happen.’

This is a common way of behaving, retreating within self-imposed borders and putting up the fences to the darkness on the other side. It’s captured by Tarquin Hall’s passage from Salaam Brick Lane and the stark single-line confession: ‘Most of London, the city of my birth, was as foreign to me as Prague’. The bard of Cricklewood, Alan Coren, explored a related theme in typically whimsical fashion in which he imagined his intended tour of all the London landmarks he has never actually visited – the Tower of London the Monument and the Serpentine — having decided to leave that sort of thing to the tourists.

No wonder and no shame. If you’re born in Harrow, what should you understand of Harlow? If you live near Crystal Palace park, why would you need to know Hampstead Heath? How many Londoners have ever toured the Houses of Parliament or been into the Whispering Gallery of St Paul’s? The greatest area of neglect is the City — if you don’t work within that glorious square mile that contains all history from the Romans to the Credit Crunch why would you ever have a reason to go there? Londoners leave it to tourists and bankers.

And then there are the contradictions. This is the city that features some of the wealthiest real estate within some of the most deprived boroughs in the United Kingdom; the city whose ships helped spread English around the world but is now home to more than 250 different languages and has schools where the native tongue is barely spoken; the city that when called upon to appoint a new mayor, replaced a left-wing, working-class, car-hating socialist with a right-wing, public-school educated, neo-Thatcherite motoring correspondent, two iconoclasts who seemed to have nothing in common bar a quick wit and mutual contempt for orthodoxy. Who can get their head round that?

So, how can you learn to master this metropolis, the first great city of the modern age and still the world leader in art and commerce? Well, you could follow in the footsteps of Phyllis Pearsall, the creator of the single greatest London book – and one that is understandably omitted from this anthology – the A-Z. In the 1930s, Pearsall claimed to have walked every one of London’s 23,000 streets – that’s around 3,000 miles of serious perambulation – in her determination to produce the most comprehensive map of London that is humanly possible. It’s almost certainly an urban myth, but the conceit is admirable.

Alternatively, you could save on leatherwear and consult some of the other classics of London literature, those writers who have made it their business to understand the city, or at least their particular patch of it. After all, will anybody ever show off Soho like Colin McInnes, or capture Camden like David Thomson? Virginia Woolf’s West End is so beautifully developed, so perfectly drawn, so hyper-real, it almost dwarfs the genuine article. And Monica Ali’s Brick Lane places it as firmly on the tourist map as Big Ben and the Wheel, so you can tell yourself that there really isn’t any need to check it out for yourself.

London books allow you to travel in time as well as space. McInnes’s Soho is the good one, the one we’ve all heard about from the 1950s, when it was still raw, neon-lit, jazz-fuelled and edgy rather than a shallow cluster of over-priced restaurants and drunken daytrippers wondering where all the loucheness has gone (it’s still there, just, in secret drinking clubs and members’ bars hidden behind nameless Georgian façades). And Thomson’s Camden is one on the verge of massive change, a working-class district of pubs and markets that is about to experience the first invasion by the middle-classes that will recondition the area beyond all recognition, setting off a chain reaction of gentrification around London’s inner suburbs from Notting Hill to Islington. For those of us who only know these places in their current incarnation, this stuff has an extraordinary archaeological value that their authors could never have intended, like the background of family photographs that show furniture and fittings everybody forgot about long ago because they never bothered to record them.

But that’s not to say things were so much better in the old says. Indeed, one of the most important things about this volume is that it emphasises the current prodigious strength of London writing. Yes, there’s Dickens and Woolf and Conrad and Wilde and Conan Doyle – as there should be – but there’s also Ackroyd and Sinclair and Self, the titanic trinity of contemporary London writing. Since the 1980s they have done more to resurrect the concept of London writing as a standalone genre than anybody since the Victorians, when London, the New Jerusalem, was seen to embody the contradictory values of Empire and became a rich source of fiction and journalism. They have encouraged the rediscovery of some of the lost classics of London literature and fostered the climate in which anthologies like this one can flourish. In their wake, modern classics have followed, from Justin Cartwright’s snappy satirical novel Look At It This Way to Sukhdev Sandhu’s invaluable nocturnal jaunts into the belly of sleeping London in Night Haunts. This regained respect for London writing also allows the voice of the new Londoner to be heard — the 27.1 per cent of the population that the 2001 census considered to be non-native-born ― through authors such as Xiaolu Guo, with her faux-naïve extracts from A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. In Rebecca Taylor’s ‘London Lives’ we even meet one of these recent arrivals in the form of a young brother and sister who travel to London from Poland to begin their new lives, part of the huge wave of Eastern European immigration that has transformed the city in recent years.

It is authors from this final category who could provide some of the finest and boldest London writing of the twenty-first century, because they will come to the city with a fresh mind and open eye, prepared to live and work in those parts of London that are closed by personal choice to most natives. None of them, of course, will ever really get on top of London, even if they choose to stay here for the rest of their lives — but every little bit helps. And if you put all the fragments together, you may one day get something close to the full picture, the London that we all love, even if it’s not the one we know.

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Mudlarking

Last winter, I went mudlarking on the Thames shore. This is an edited version of the article I subsequently wrote for Eurostar (image below from Knowledge Of London).

You’ll see them at low tide, wandering alone with bent necks along the damp and desolate mudflats of the Thames. These are the mudlarks: amateur archaeologists, beachcombers and scavengers who delight in rediscovering lost detritus from London’s past. Although they are wearing waders and carrying metal detectors, they look much like giant birds, storks or herons, as they walk with heads bowed and eyes fixed on the floor, scrutinising the mud and pebbles for hidden treasure. They’ll occasionally scratch at the surface with an extended toe if they see something they fancy. And then they’ll pounce, darting down to peck something from the ooze, before deciding whether to add it to the day’s hoard.

The tidal Thames has been described as ‘London’s largest and richest archaeology site’ and it’s certainly the longest in the country, stretching from the Thames Barrier to Teddington Lock. For centuries, the river in central London was used by boats bringing cargo from all over the world. Thousands of people worked in these docks and warehouses, and items that have fallen from boats or pockets or been casually discarded by Tudor dockers are still lodged in the London mud, waiting to be revealed whenever the tidal river withdraws.

Mudlarks have been prowling here for centuries. In Georgian and Victorian times, they were the desperately poor searching for things to eat or sell. By the 1960s, the term referred to unofficial archaeologists who formed the Society Of Thames Mudlarks in 1980. A few years later the Port of London Authority (PLA) – the body in charge of the river – offered the mudlarks licences to dig on the foreshore in return for having their finds officially recorded by the Museum of London. The mudlarks have thus helped build an unparalleled record of everyday life on a medieval river.

Ian Smith is one of them. His patch is the north bank of the Thames between London and Southwark Bridges, outside Customs House, where pre-Victorian cargo ships would have been checked for contraband. This was once the Pool of London, the main unloading point for boats that could not fit between the pillars of old London Bridge, and a place rich in treasures. ‘I started in 1973 as a schoolboy,’ says Smith on a bracing winter morning. ‘I grew up in Battersea and saw a TV show about a man who found these old clay pipes in the Bristol Channel. So I came down to see what I could find. I spent about a year working down the river bit-by-bit until I got to Blackfriars where I saw this group of people, a little cluster of them, and I went over with my collection of pipes. And where they’d been poking about there were pipes everywhere, loads of them, they were just ignoring them and looking for other stuff. So I started chatting and that’s how I got started.’

The thick black mud of the Thames conceals rich treats, everything from prehistoric flints to Victorian toys. The mud is anaerobic – without oxygen – so preserves just about anything. Kate Sumnall works for the Museum of London and the Portable Antiquities Scheme as a Finds Liaison Officer; it is her job to manage the licence scheme and register everything the mudlarks find. She says, ‘London is different to most places in terms of the preservation and the proportion. You wouldn’t get iron daggers in a field, it would be eroded, but Thames mud is anaerobic so things don’t decay. And you also don’t have aggressive chemicals and ploughs, which damage items in the ground. You can still find medieval leather in the Thames.’

Smith believes the Thames has three other benefits. ‘London is almost unique,’ says Smith. ‘Most rivers aren’t tidal, so that’s one thing, but you’ve also got the river going through the centre of town rather than round the outside. And the third thing is that in the Victorian era all the docks got moved over to the Isle of Dogs, so that means the early stuff has been left in the ground rather than dredged away centuries ago.’

This is what makes the Thames such a popular and lucrative haunt for the mudlarks. There are around 50 with official permits, granted by the PLA after an individual has spent at least two years on the foreshore getting experience and demonstrating a history of recording their finds. ‘The mudlarks have huge value,’ says Sumnall. ‘They have sold us entire collections in the past and these have gone on to form a crucial part of the museum. But they are also immensely helpful in recording where things are discovered over time, which helps build up a bigger picture of London history.’

When Sumnall is contacted by somebody who wants to be a mudlark, she’ll often put them in touch with Smith, who has an unrivalled knowledge of the river and its secrets, knowing where to look and when. At low tide, he clambers down the steps on to the foreshore carrying the tools of his trade – a bucket and spade and a battered metal detector wrapped in waterproof plastic – to begin his hunt. After just a few minutes he returns with a 13th-century arrowhead, 16th century pipes, medieval buttons and a shard of Tudor pottery. But this is bric-a-brac to an experienced mudlark. Smith, an antiques dealer by trade, specialises in medieval pewter pilgrims badges which were sold at points of pilgrimage, but has found all sorts of things. ‘I found a hoard of forged coins from 1470,’ he says. ‘People would clip a bit of silver off the edges of coins and these forgers must have been chased so they flung the bag of coins into the river to get rid of it and I found it centuries later.’

London’s history as a world port dates back to the Roman era, which can make for interesting finds. Sumnall tells the story of a bone harpoon that they originally thought came from the Stone Age, but after carbon dating turned out to be from around 1650. ‘That really threw us, but we realised it came from a part of the foreshore where the whaling docks were located and it’s possible it came from an Arctic civilisation and arrived in London on a whaling ship. But obviously we can’t be sure.’

Another recent discovery was a 400-year-old lead toy coach, found by a London decorator, Albert Johanessen, who says his most important equipment is not a metal detector but ‘his eyes and a stout pair of wellies’. Smith possesses these, but after 40 years of mudlarking is realistic about what he’s going to find. ‘You’re never going to find treasure like the Staffordshire Hoard because nobody is going to bury gold in a river, but you find ordinary everyday stuff that people chuck away: tools, rings, badges, glass and pottery.’

You certainly find a lot of clay pipes. These carpet the foreshore in London, thousands of them dating back to the sixteenth century when tobacco was first introduced to the capital. The pipes were sold pre-filled and although they were reusable were often discarded, thrown into the river by those who worked in the docks. These 400-year-old fragments are fascinating to newcomers but to the trained eye are more like Tudor cigarette ends and rarely get taken to the museum to be registered.

But there is one Londoner who is interested. Jane Parker is a designer who last year began to collect pipes to make into necklaces and bracelets. She currently sells them on her website but hopes to get a stall at a London market soon. ‘I went to the Museum of London Docklands (in Canary Wharf) and afterwards walked to the river,’ explains Parker. ‘The tide was out so I went down on to the beach. I saw these clay pipe stems and decided I’d make something from them and started making them for friends who had left London as a momento.’

Parker doesn’t have a PLA licence, which means she can’t dig but is allowed to collect anything from the surface. With pipes that’s all she needs. At the right spot, Parker reckons she can pick up 400-500 usable pipe stems in an hour. ‘I want stems that have been pummelled by the tide, and are soft and worn at the ends. The smaller and finer, the newer they are. Some of them have a line down the middle that show they’ve been cast in a mould, while the bigger, chunkier ones are hand-made, the holes aren’t centred and they aren’t smooth.’

You can also see the fruits of the foreshore in a special display at the Museum of London devoted to items found in the river, covering everything from prehistoric axes to medieval skulls. The museum takes in around 1,000 items a year from the mudlarks and despite Smith’s belief that ‘the best times are over, so much has already been found’, Sumnell thinks there’s still plenty to discover. ‘We’re definitely finding different things,’ she says. ‘They heyday of the pilgrim badges may have passed but we’re seeing more Roman stuff than I can keep up with, especially in areas of heavy erosion. There’s still a lot of interest in mudlarks, and we’re always getting new ones.’ A new generation itching to uncover the secrets of the Thames.