Writing the Great Necropolis

I cross the border into deepest darkest Hackney, a journey worthy of Conrad, taken aboard a 394 all the way from Angel to Homerton High Street. This journey should have its own blue plaque, a magical mystery tour through the fringe of the old City, through its plaque pits, burial grounds and hunting fields. White Conduit House, The Eagle, Shoreditch, London Fields. It’s a moving expo of public housing schemes from the best of the LCC 4-storey blocks built but idealists to seventies efforts fit only for crack-dens.
The purpose of my pilgrimage back to my post-Poly stomping grounds is to listen to London’s seer, Iain Sinclair sharing a platform with two other writers who use the city as their muse, Maureen Duffy and Ferdinand Dennis. The venue is a treasure, Sutton House that boasts to be the oldest dwelling in East London and I’m guessing that it’s C16/C17th. I remember it as the place I could never get into, kept impossible hours and my days back then were divided between the Job Centre, the library and Mare Street pubs.
Sinclair reads for perhaps 15 minutes but it’s long enough to deliver a few choice lines on how working in freight yards and parks he created a kind of “mythic geography” of the area; that his London is defined by invisibility and secrecy, and Mike Moorcock turned back at the river unable to cross the Thames heading south.
Duffy and Dennis offer slightly different visions of our great necropolis. Duffy has memories of the blitz and Dennis delivers fruity slices of the post-war immigrant experience. But as Duffy reminds us we’re all immigrants in London (in England I’d say).
It triggers off various thoughts. For me London is a city that dis-locates you rather than gives you a sense of location. So much is buried beneath our feet and behind the brickwork that echoes of past lives pulse up through the pavement and seep through the plaster.
When I walk to work I cross the River Fleet, “River of Wells”. Despite being beneath Kings Cross Road/ Farringdon Road there is a tangible divide when the river is crossed. Again when I emerge from Fetter Lane into Fleet Street the atmosphere alters as I enter the realm of Sweeney Todd and Samuel Johnson.
I came home from Hackney via the more prosaic No.38, one of the last surviving Routemasters and alight at the end of Essex Road. Homerton feels a million miles away, down below us on boggy ground while we swan around on the sacred Penton Mound.

The Historic Symmetry of Caledonian Park

clocktower, Caledonian Park

In the days of the Friday pedlars market, the Clock Tower bell tolled at 10am and let the traders in. In its day the Caledonian Market was one of the wonders of London right up till 1939. Stories abounded of punters picking up priceless treasure for a few shillings amongst the old eggcups, odd shoes, false teeth and pieces of rusty iron. A famous racing tipster called Ras Prince Monolulu dished out winners for a price. HV Morton describes the scene in ‘The Heart of London’ and tells of a friend who picks up an Egyptian Mummy for 10 shillings.

The painter Walter Sickert, who lived nearby, haunted the market and proclaimed that it was his idea of heaven.

Metropolitan Cattle Market

Metropolitan Cattle Market

Sex Workers use the park and accost people on Market Road”, warns the bulletin put out by The Friends of Caledonian Park. The working girls have been pushed north by the development of Kings Cross. It’s a different kind of meat market now. Pimps, prostitutes, kerb crawlers, undercover police surveillance twitching in the bushes, men reading their papers on the park benches get approached for business. The girls have the faces of ghosts, the spirit having departed the body for protection. The Gazette carries the gruesome story of a prostitute picked up in Market Road then pushed out of the seven and a half tonne lorry after rowing about the cost of oral sex and crushed to death under its back wheels.

When HV Morton visited the market in 1926 he was offered a skeleton for sale. Down the road a woman’s mutilated body was fished out of the Regent’s Canal by a group of kids. “Ripper Killing Horror” screams the Islington Gazette. She was a prostitute, probably from the Market Road meat-rack, chopped up in a crack den round the corner on Conistone Way, an area that once housed abattoirs and horse slaughterers. Some believe that Walter Sickert was the real Jack The Ripper, his paintings depicting his victims’ anguished faces. The girls I see working the park gates have something of the Victorian about them. Dr Crippin murdered his wife not far away in Hilldrop Crescent and was hung in Pentonville Prison down the road. Is this another case of historic symmetry.

The Clock Tower, Market Estate

clocktower from market estate
Originally uploaded by soapbox.

The clocktower is framed by the notorious Market Estate, “hell” to its residents. Collapsed ceilings, exposed wires, boarded-up windows, doors off their hinges. One such heavily reinforced door fell on a 12 year-old boy and killed him. Hands have been washed of the affair at the Town Hall. The housing association has handed it back to the council and now they’re knocking the lot down.

The arches of the Clock Tower cast shadows that create a scene like a De Chirico painting. It’s deathly quiet and I have the odd sensation of being in an Italian piazza del duomo at lunchtime. The burnt out post box, CCTV and sudden burst of violent language pull me back to the reality of a condemned GLC Housing Scheme. Groups of teens in sportswear with a gangsta rap blaring ghetto blaster stand on a white petal-strewn path. It brings out the romantic in me, the one that ignores the smashed in windows of the Islington Scouts blue minibus.

Market Estate Mural

mural, Market Estate Islington

The Metropolitan Cattle Market was moved here from Smithfield in 1855. There were also twelve banking houses that serviced the livestock deals carried out in cash. An Indoor Tennis Centre and Astroturf football pitch are on the site of the old animal lairs. The only remnants I can find are a sundial topped with small metal cows and the rusting metal posts of the cattle shed against a crumbling brick wall in an overgrown ditch that runs up the back of the tennis courts and the football pitch. The only thing agricultural round here now are some of the tackles in the Islington Midweek League.

The historic symmetry of this spot projects throughout the area. Barnsbury Estate has a Copenhagen House which sits on Copenhagen Street not far from the King of Denmark pub. All in honour of the Danish ambassador who took up his plague-time residence on Copenhagen Fields or it may have been some other noble Dane, nobody’s quite sure. There’s the Pleasure Garden 24 Hour Sauna and Spa on Caledonian Road maintaining the reputation for “questionable houses of entertainment”. In Edward Square just off ‘the Cally’ a poem by the poet laureate Andrew Motion which is carved in concrete talks of Romans facing Boadicea (allegedly at Battle Bridge/Kings Cross), Chartists and freedom. A huge mural adorns the wall next to the Mitre Pub in Copenhagen Street showing the Tollpuddle Martyrs demonstration (painted by Dave) and Islington Police Station sits ironically on Tollpuddle Street. Tony Blair would have had a view of the clock tower from his pre-No.10 home in Richmond Crescent.

White Conduit House

penny farthing/ white conduit house

White Conduit House, C18th Century Pleasure Garden and once home to the cricket club that became the famous MCC. It’s now closed apparently to become a Greek restaurant. The last days as a pub were troubled by brawling. One Monday night I was the solitary punter as the landlady yelled at the Polish barmaid “turn up the music and let’s have some fun”.
Oliver Goldsmith came here for the hot buttered buns and wrote about it in ‘The Citizen of the World’. Peter Ackroyd says there was a maze in the garden and possibly marks the spot of Druidic rituals.