Secrets of the City with Iain Sinclair

Iain Sinclair walk – Austin Friars to Mile End Road

This was a mystery walk, and a walk of secrets revealed. It seemed to come out of the blue. I thanked the great writer Iain Sinclair for the directions he’d provided for the Austerlitz walk I did with Bob and Roberta Smith and sent him a link to the video. He replied saying that he’d show me the house in Alderney Road where he believed the fictional character in Sebald’s book had lived. In addition, he said, we could add to the Van Gogh walk we’d done at the back end of 2018, and loop in two of Iain’s recent projects – his journey to Peru following the footsteps of his great-grandfather, and a piece he’d written for the Swedenborg Review.

Iain Sinclair John Rogers

John Rogers and Iain Sinclair at Austin Friars

I met Iain outside WH Smith at Liverpool Street Station, once part of the opulent Great Eastern Hotel. Among Iain’s many casual jobs in the past, he’d worked night shifts at the Station (from memory as a baggage handler?) in the days when it was a dark and dingy terminus, as described in Austerlitz. We moved on quickly through the City, heading south down Old Broad Street, breeching London Wall, then diving into Austin Friars Passage off Great Winchester Street. Iain touches the ‘pregnant’ wall in the alleyway, “you actually can put your hand on it, avoiding the chewing gum, and you take the temperature of another era of London,” Iain says. ‘Taking the temperature’ of London is a good description of Iain Sinclair’s work. He’s had an amazing knack of finding the territory that contains the story of London at that particular time, the Thatcher era in Downriver, the mid-90′ end of Tory rule in Lights Out for the Territory, the early bravado Blair years at the turn of the millenium with London Orbital, through to the new city being spun out of the Overground railway with London Overground. Today we’d be slicing across these timelines ending back with one of Iain’s earliest works, Lud Heat, where he accidentally gave birth to a particular Anglo-Celtic variation of psychogeography while working as a gardener in the churchyards of the East End.

 

Iain Sinclair John Rogers

Plantation Lane

The church at Austin Friars was home to London’s Dutch community in the 19th Century and was visited by Vincent Van Gogh. His sketch of Austin Friars Church is one of the few artworks he produced during his time in England. We follow this leg of the Van Gogh trail into Gracechurch Street, where the commercial gallery he worked for had a branch.

A coffee shop triggers the next chain of assocations on our walk, which now diverts its theme to Iain’s recent travels to Peru tracing the journey of his great grandfather, who had been sent there in the late 1800’s by the Peruvian Corporation of London. His mission had been to travel deep into the upper Amazon to see what crops could be grown there. The conclusion that the land would be suitable for the cultivation of coffee has its legacy in coffee shops and supermarket shelves the world over. You pick up references to this notable ancestor in various Sinclair works, particularly in Dining on Stones. This Peru expedition will be the subject of Iain’s next book, and you can read his blog posts of the trip here. There’s  a podcast in post-production and a film, The Gold Machine directed by Grant Gee, is due in the autumn.

Thames Wapping

 

We inevitably find ourside by the Thames, passing through the tourists laying seige to the Tower of London, talking of the legend of Bran the Blessed and the alignments linked by myth laid out in E.O. Gordon’s book, Prehistoric London, its mounds and circles (1904). From the start of this walk I’ve had no idea of the route, just following Iain through the City, knowing only that we will at some point arrive at Alderney Road in Stepney. We retrace some of our steps through Wapping from one of the walks for our London Overground film, passing the Thomas Rainsborough memorial and Turner’s Old Star.

Iain Sinclair walk

Chigwell Hill

We cross The Highway, the spire of St. George in the East lancing the East End sky. Designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and tagged as a nodal point in the psychogeography of London, largely thanks to Iain Sinclair’s early writings, you’d assume that St. George was where we were heading. But it turns out to be a site with possibly more tangible esoteric resonances.

Dodging into a small park beside the throbbing road, I find Iain stood looking at a London plane tree on a raised oblong of graveled ground. Swedenborg Gardens marks the spot where the Swedish philosopher and mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg was buried, in a churchyard since destroyed. It links to the Sebald story via Rabbi Chayim Samuel Jacob Falk, who was also said to be a kabbalist and alchemist. Falk, a friend and neighbour of Swedenborg’s in nearby Wellclose Square was buried in the Alderney Road Jewish Cemetery where Jacques Austerlitz lived in an a house overlooking the burial ground. “Both of these celebrated aliens, seekers and scholars, were buried in the ground of the territory: Falk at Alderney Road and Swedenborg beside the Highway,” wrote Iain Sinclair in the Swedenborg Review.

Iain Sinclair walk

Iain Sinclair in Swedenborg Gardens

From Swedenborg Gardens we pass along storied Cable Street and up through Watney Market as the traders are packing away for the day. The dangling lights from the metal stall frames sway like lanterns in the late afternoon darkness. Sidney Street is yet another location on this schlepp with a tale to tell, Seige House feels like an odd tribute to the events of 1911 that took place down here.

Across Mile End Road and we home in on the end of the walk at Alderney Road, still calm and peaceful as described by W.G Sebald in Austerlitz. Iain guides me to the house where he believes the fictional Jacques Austerlitz would have lived given what can be extracted from the book. By now it’s pitch black and I ask Iain to stand under a street light for the camera. He willingly poses in the shower of lamplight, the occasional passing car casting additional illumination – the perfect end to an incredible walk.

Iain Sinclair walk

Walk along the Walbrook – the City of London’s Lost River

I first did a version of this walk along the Walbrook back in November 2011, but was keen to return starting nearer to one of the supposed sources and also visit the recently opened London Mithraeum that sits upon the banks for this ancient stream. The route I followed in early December, drew from two principle sources – Nicholas Barton’s classic book, The Lost Rivers of London, and a sketch map of London Under Henry II by Marjourie B. Honeybourne from Norman London – An Essay by Professor F.M Stenton (pub. 1934). Stenton’s essay and the map is informed by a contemporary Norman description of London by William Fitz Stephen.

London Mithraeum

The route starts at St. Leonard’s Church Shoreditch, and goes past the Shoreditch Holy Well in Bateman’s Row. From here it follows the course of the river down Curtain Road to Blomfield Street where it was partially excavated during Crossrail works. Then we cross London Wall and go through Angel Court where another part of the river was uncovered in the 1970’s. We go behind the Bank of England at Lothbury then follow the buried river down Walbrook to the Temple of Mithras. From here we go down Dowgate Hill to where the Walbrook makes it’s confluence with the Thames near Canon Street Station.

 

Click here to see my video of another walk along one of the ‘Lost rivers of London’ – the Tyburn

 

Picturing Forgotten London at the London Metropolitan Archives

Islington Spa engraving

Met the brilliant Dave Binns the other week for a look at the Picturing Forgotten London exhibition at the London Metropolitan Archives. The mood was perfectly set by the walk up through the winding backstreets of Clerkenwell to the LMA by Spa Green Fields. After signing in at reception, then being directed to deposit our bags in a locker, we were free to go up to the exhibition with the instruction that all notes were to be made solely with a pencil and that our notebooks should be carried in a large transparent plastic bag (which was provided).

The exhibition starts on the staircase to the gallery – an ante-room to the main archive. The first image to grab my attention was an aerial photograph of Caledonian Market on Copenhagen Fields taken in 1930, a site I’ve been interested in for a number of years. It captures the full extent of the market grounds, some of which is now preserved as parkland along with the majestic clocktower.

In the gallery I was drawn to the glass display case dedicated to artist and writer Geoffrey Fletcher, presented as if containing holy relics. There was a photo of Fletcher sat on the ground sketching the Roman Temple of Mithras (recently relocated) along with a fine hardback edition of London Overlooked and a penguin paperback of The London Nobody Knows. A banner printed with a large photo of the Skylon at the 1951 Festival of Britain hangs nearby.

A collection of images show ‘The Devil’s Acre’, an area of poor housing just to the south of Westminster Abbey that was described by Charles Dickens in his magazine Household Words. A section on Housing includes an engraving from 1775 of The Norman Baynard’s Castle on a corner by the confluence of the Fleet and the Thames near a photo of a prefab on the back of a truck in 1962, and wooden cottages in East India Dock Road in 1860.

Layers upon layers of London are hanging on the walls at the Metropolitan Archives, whole other worlds within worlds. The exhibition runs until 31st October 2018 and is highly recommended.

The abandoned City of London

The streets of the City of London seem more abandoned than usual on the Sunday between Christmas and New Year. Walking between Liverpool Street and Holborn out-of-hours is my favourite place ‘to get away from it all’ any time of year – on balmy summer evenings it has the feel of Madrid in August, empty streets, closed bars. But life does continue to lurk on odd corners mopping up the tourist trade and servicing the small but growing resident population of the Square Mile.

Bow Lane office

But when I went wandering early evening on Sunday there was barely a sole around save for in the vicinity of the transport hubs. Once I had breached the London Wall at Moorgate I had the City to myself (under the watchful gaze of CCTV). It threw up Daniel Defoe’s descriptions of London during the plague years when people fled the City, and the post-apocalyptic images in The Day of the Triffids and 28 Days Later. You sense the buildings starting to breathe once more free of the insect hoards.

Watling Street

Watling Street

The ancient Watling Street lit a path in Christmas lights to the dome of St. Paul’s where folk scuttled around. Cross the road to Carter Lane and the people disappeared, whatever traffic there was inaudible, the bells of a distant church chimed.

Carter Lane

Carter Lane

It was only when Fleet Street conjoined with Aldwych did I move among the herd – up Southampton Row, the traffic lanes of Gower Street, popcorn munchers at Odeon Tottenham Court Road – but here a sense of loneliness gripped me – I missed the quietude of the hills and valleys of the Walbrook and the Fleet.

Myths and Legends of London

There was something in Iain Sinclair’s White Chapel Scarlet Tracings that made me push through morning fatigue and head out for a wander. All I knew was that I needed to head east from Holborn. I resist the temptation to visit the Celts exhibition at the British Museum, the pull of the walk was too great, there was something out there for me.

Down through Lincoln’s Inn Fields and onto Fleet Street. At St Dunstan-in-the-West I go and stand by the statues of King Lud and his sons Androgeus (who is possibly Mandubracius king of the Trinovantes in modern day Essex and East London) and Tenvantius (who was king of the Catuvellauni in today’s Herts/Cambs/Beds).

According to a legend set down in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, Lud is credited with building, or at least expanding, a grand citadel on the hill where St. Paul’s Cathedral now stands, a hill that bears his name – Ludgate Hill in the period just preceding Ceasar’s first expeditions to Britain in 54BC. He was buried at the foot of the hill where the Lud Gate stood and the 14th Century statues at St. Dunstan’s used to adorn the gate until it was demolished in 1780. Some legends say that London is named after Lud, one of the many competing foundation myths.

Another can be found high up on the face of the church where the statues of Gog and Magog toll out the half-hour and hour standing camply one hand on the hip the other on their vicious looking clubs. According to myth they were the ancient British giants defeated by Brutus the Trojan who then established the first city of London in 1180BC.

‘In the year 1108 B.C., Brutus, a descendant of Aeneas, who was the son of Venus, came to England with his companions, after the taking of Troy, and founded the City of Troynovant, which is now called London. After a thousand years, during which the city grew and flourished exceedingly, one Lud became its king. He built walls and towers, and, among other things, the famous gate whose name still survives in the street called Ludgate’. This is how Walter Besant recounts Geoffrey’s myth in his History of London published in 1893 before stating that it is if not an invention it’s a mangling together and miss-copying of prior sources to construct a grander yarn.

All-said-and-done it’s a good story and one that should be known by every school child in London even if it doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. We need our communal myths.
I wonder what it is about this church that makes it such a magnet for mythology.

I wind around the lanes running off Fleet Street into the Thames and come up beneath St. Brides Church. I often find myself seeking sanctuary here. In the crypt I look at the fragments of Roman pottery excavated onsite and a section of stone walling from the original Saxon Church.

Look Mum No Hands Old Street
Up Farringdon Street and into Smithfield passing CrossRail carnage, then St. John Street takes me onto Old Street via Clerkenwell Road.

Second breakfast is taken at a curious trendy coffee shop, Look Mum No Hands, where they repair bikes at one end of the counter. I drink my over-priced flat white watching a man replace the spokes in a wheel. There is something very seductive about cycling culture, even the socks in here look great, the caps, the colours of the racing jerseys that should never been stretched over a beer-gut. It makes me want to buy a bike. But one look at the traffic thundering past outside renders that idea insane. I shall stick to being a pedestrian. Urban walking seems to be utterly resistant to this form of image makeover.

Duck down Helmet Row behind St Luke’s, a scene I’d read in White Chapel this morning took place in this narrow street. That was before gentrification – dodgy book collectors wouldn’t get a look in now. The receptionist at Modern Art jumps out of her skin as a lope past, heaven forbid that someone should want to look at paintings.

Memory draws me up City Road before I detour round a sequence of Victorian streets – Haverstock – Remmington – Quick – and The Charles Lamb pub not far from his house. Over the canal and one final stop on the Sinclair trail to visit Camden Passage where the second-hand book dealers just about still ply their trades. I wander into an antique print shop where there are numerous 19th Century engravings of The White Conduit House on Penton Street where we used to live, and for a while I was obsessed with White Conduit House. There’s a good bit about it in my book.

Whilst the lovely fella behind the counter looks for old pictures of Leytonstone my eyes travel to the tiny stack of Bucks prints. I pick them up and the first image I see is of Wooburn Church, the village where I was raised and where generations of my family were christened, married, and buried. Perhaps that was what was calling me all along.

Save the Aldgate Bauhaus

My old alma mater is under threat. London Metropolitan University (formed from a merger between City of London Polytechnic and the Polytechnic of North London) is proposing to close all the sites of the old City Poly campus around Aldgate and relocate all courses to the Holloway Road campus (the old North London Poly).

For me this is basically shutting down my beloved City Poly – where I learnt so much more than Politics. It’s where I formed a (terrible) band and made my first film (ironically about saving Central House – featured in my video above). It’s where my student mates included a 45-year old ex-armed robber, a gay indie pop star, and a retired trade union shop steward. As an 18-year old fresh out of A-Levels I was in the minority with the bulk of the student body made up of ‘non-traditional’ students. The handful of public school kids formed a protective posse before they learnt that the great unwashed were actually quite civilised.

Being in the East End at such a tender age was an education in itself. At night I used to sit and share a can of Tenants Super with the men outside the Salvation Army Hostel. We learnt about the Battle of Cable Street not in the classroom but on Cable Street itself. We munched salt beef bagels and Lamb Balti – all new tastes for my provincial palette.

But this protest isn’t about my memories – it’s about the destruction of a precious historic educational institution in the heart of London’s East End – a University that has strong ties to one of the most under-privileged Boroughs in the country. It will mean the closure of totally unique courses such as the BSc Musical Instrument Making, shown in the video, the only course of its kind in Europe and possibly the world. This will have a profound effect on musical instrument production in Britain.

The Arts subjects taught at The Cass School of Art and Architecture will be crammed into smaller spaces – the unique fusion of Arts disciplines that happens at the Aldgate Building will be lost. It seems crazy to close an Art School in the East End of London – a globally recognised centre of contemporary art – even if you calculate the value of education in purely commercial terms you’d have to recognise what a fantastic asset that is.

Cranes crowd the skyline all around the university. These buildings are prime real estate – they’ll be demolished and tower blocks raised in their place. Where there was an art school will become a block of luxury apartments, where there was the Dept. of Humanities at Calcutta House will become some other form of monstrosity. It is part of the hollowing out of London – the gutting of its life and culture for the sake of a quick return.

Please watch the video and also sign the petition to Save the Cass.

“No recession of the imagination” – March Against Austerity

The atmosphere at March Against Austerity was positive and enthusiastic – laughing into the gaping jaws of Tory Austerity. I went along with Bob and Roberta Smith with his brilliant ‘Art For All’ painted placard. We soon wound through the crowds assembled outside the Bank of England to find the Arts Emergency bloc where comedian Josie Long supported one end of a banner. Actor Samuel West came over to say a few words, and Green Party Councillor and potential Mayoral candidate Caroline Russell gave a great interview, declaring that “Austerity is economically illiterate’.