We arrange to meet at the Black Friar, 7.30pm Friday night. Jerry and Dave take a bit of coaxing to get them out of the arts & craft splendour of the pub but me and Pete are chomping at the bit (Pete has also already had a couple of hours after-work boozing). Up Queen Victoria Street and we resist the temptation to visit one of Keiller’s most iconic ‘London’ shots around the back of St. Stephen’s-by-the-Wardrobe. But dead opposite we feel compelled to inspect the odd statue rising up from the platform of the brutalist Baynard House (home to the first System X digital exchange). The sculpture is called ‘Seven Ages of Man’ by Richard Kindersley, inspired by Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’. From most angles it seems lost against the plant room behind, grey cast aluminium against a grey concrete backdrop, at best it calls out to the spire of St. Stephens.
We go through the Kubrick-esque passageways and down onto the Thames Path. Underneath the Wobbly Bridge Jerry relives the recent Social Cinema event that took place there.
It must have been this detour that made us miss the Temple of Mithras because we arrive at Cannon Street without passing it. We quickly find the London Stone, although it’s hard to believe that this is possibly the city’s most important monument, its foundation stone. It’s hiding behind a grill flanked by an array of sportswear adverts – Nike, Adidas, Puma, New Balance. Various stories have been put forward about its origins but I’m settling for the theory that it was the index stone for the stone circle that stood where St. Paul’s now rises.
We duck into Oxford Court to have a look at the Catrin Gwyndwr memorial garden, Dave’s part Welsh so the link to the great Owain Gwyndwr has particular resonance for him. Whilst we’re craning to take photos of the garden through the locked gates Jerry calls us over to look at an enormous empty office block that we later discover is the defunct Barclays Clearing House. Open windowed, darkened it is almost an invitation. Jerry wants to go in. Reclaim this colossal building for the night. We peer over the wall into a deep pit which at first looked like new foundations but Dave spots the signs of an archaeological dig – a partly excavated curved wall and tiers mud and brick beneath ground level. Jerry goes over the wall, it’s about 30 feet down, he balances on an old metal light fitting prepared to jump the rest of the way down. It’s only when we convince him that we’re not going to follow him ( security, CCTV, getting out) that he comes back up – peeved.
In St. Swithin’s Lane a cleaner mops marble steps in the dusk. I wander into the reception of Rothschild’s, the tapestry I’ve been admiring through the window is genuine the security assure me. When I re-emerge Pete, Jerry and Dave have disappeared. Gone. I wait at the end of the lane, do a wide lap of the block down King William Street and back along Canon Street. Dark lanes heading off at all angles. They’ve disappeared into the night, consumed by the London Monster. Then they appear back in St. Swithin’s Lane right at the spot where I’d left them. We move on.
Pete photos a birds nest in Change Alley. Down Bengal Court, the George and Vulture (Est. 1600) Thomas’ Chop House the brass plaque rubbed bare. In St. Michael’s Alley we find the site of London’s first coffee house, conveniently converted into a pub – we pop in for a pint. The Jamaica Wine House sits in the basement, marked by a fantastic art-deco-ish black lantern. We are in a nest of alleys and courtyards, potted Bay trees adorned with red ribbons on the boughs, red & white around the trunks, a lovely garden with tall willowy trees, distant church bells, not those of the Hawksmoor tower of St. Michaels Cornhill that we slide past.
Along Leadenhall Street, through the market which prompts Jerry to talk about Walter Benjamin’s ‘Arcades Project’. There are still a few stray drinkers outside The Lamb Tavern. Benjamin is an appropriate reference as this excursion is certainly more in the spirit of the flaneur than any kind of psychogeography or Sinclair-brew earth mysteries explorations.
At 21 Lime Street the eastern wing of the second Roman Forum is being excavated. Around it business continues as normal in a manner the builders of the Forum would have approved of. We pass under the Lloyds Building. Jerry hates it. I take Pete’s lack of photography as agreement. Over the road St. Andrew Undershaft stands in the shadow of the Gherkin (30 St. Mary Axe doesn’t have quite the same ring).
On Beavis Marks we’re following the line of the London Wall which takes us round to the bus station at the end of The Minories. I’m flooded with memories and associations – this was my first proper view of London, travelling up on the Green Line in 1989 for my first day at City Poly. I recount stories of our occupation of the Polytechnic buildings for 2 weeks in ’91- locking the provost out of his office, he came back fuming with riot vans and the deputy commissioner of the City of London Police who merely said that it appeared that we engaged in a legitimate act of protest and couldn’t do anything. When it ended (after many lentil stews, mass meetings, the national press, sleeping on classroom floors etc.) it was because of the Christmas holidays not the law.
Round by the old student union bar in Fairholt House (where I served in the bar, DJ-ed and performed twice with the legendary Garatholdens) Tubby Isaac’s (1919) is packing away his famous whelk and jellied eels stall. We go round into Commercial Street and into the grounds of Toynbee Hall “the seat of English radicalism” (Jerry), the place where Ghandi made his famous comment when asked what he thought of British civilisation that “it would be a good idea”. It’s after 11pm but Jerry gives us a quick East End tour (that neatly ends in a late licence pub) – the old Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor in Brune Street (“the last remnant of the old Jewish East End”), Tenter Ground where the Jewish weavers hung out their cloths, and most intriguingly The White House in White’s Row where local folklore has it as the place where Tory MP Stephen Milligan actually died of auto-erotic asphyxiation, not a posh flat in South Kensington as reported. It is also the house where notorious London criminal Jack Sheppard grew up. At all points round these dark streets resonating with histories of poverty, crime and struggle we are buzzed by an army of trendily clad twenty-somethings drawn east by the folklore created by the likes of Gilbert & George and Tracy Emin. We bring these worlds together by ending the evening at midnight at the Ten Bells in Spitalfields.
View Pete’s photos on his Flickr page
note: the title of this post is a reference to Harold Clunn’s classic book ‘The Face of London’.
Look out for a future posting probably called ‘Doing a Kent’, confusingly, again in the City, in homage to William Kent’s ‘London for Everyman’ (1931) and ‘Lost Treasures of London’ (1946).