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’.

 

Slow Movement at the Barbican

If I hadn’t committed to doing a daily vlog then I probably would have ducked home out of the rain after my morning coffee. I sat in The Sunflower Café pondering on how my vlogs are a form of ‘Slow Vlogging’ – embracing and celebrating the familiar, local, the extraordinary lurking beneath the seemingly mundane. But how do you actual film a walking vlog in the driving rain.

I jumped on the Central Line to St. Paul’s and headed for the Highwalks of the City of London – covered walkways that in parts follow the line of the old Roman Wall. The Postern by the Museum of London is the best place to see how the remains of a Medieval Bastion were built into the wall, lining up with the remains of the Roman wall in Noble Street.

I followed the painted yellow line on the ground – a thread that leads into the Barbican – truly one of the wonders of London. Walking the raised walkways through the Barbican is best done in the middle of the night – but then I’ve only done that by accident when looking for a shortcut home when I lived just off Penton Mound. The soles of my trainers have been worn slippery smooth and I skated over the wet brick paving slaloming around the concrete pillars.

Day of the Triffids
Soon I slid all the way inside the Barbican itself  – the Brutalist mothership, a Le Corbusierian wet dream. Floating along the glass roofed corridors linking sections of the buildings, heavy brass doors hissing open ten yards before your arrival – it felt like being in a Space Station (well what I imagine it feels like from watching films) orbiting the City of London. The huge Conservatory with its towering palms and balconies dripping in tropical plants compound the feeling. It’s a glimpse of a future London after the collapse of civilization when nature has reclaimed the concrete wilderness – images garnered from the 1980’s TV adaptation of John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids.

My feet led me to The Curve Gallery currently housing a sculptural installation by Swiss Artist Roman Signer. A bright Ferrari red kayak is gently skimming over the bare wooden floor dragged by a cable attached to a motorized pulley running along a rail on the ceiling. The only other thing in the gallery are two screens showing the kayak moving in other spaces – being pulled from the back of a jeep along a country lane – and spinning around on a spit. The installation is called ‘Slow Movement’. I filmed the kayak from floor level moving in and out of frame – it was the perfect footage to accompany what I had been pondering that morning – of my daily videos as a kind of ‘slow vlog’. I’d honestly chosen to head for the Barbican so I could walk and film away from the rain – but here was a message inspiring me to stay ‘slow’.

City Drift

The City of London at the weekend is one of the most peaceful places in the metropolis. Taking the back door out of Liverpool Street and follow the breeze – over the rising ground of Primrose Street, past empty white tablecloth restaurants where a waitress chews her fingernails, the lonely humming substation in Snowden Street, skirting the London Borough of Hackney and street signs recalling when Shoreditch was a Borough rather than a punchline or a boast.

The Flying Horse - Wilson Street

The alleyways, College Lane, nowhere open to get tea and it’s only 6pm. Laurence Pountney Hill, Botolph Alley, St. Dunstan’s Hill, Lovatt Lane and Petticoat Lane, then down the Minories for the DLR from Tower Gateway.

 

Some byways of the City of London #1

There are so many byways winding through the City of London – this is just a sampler. I sometimes imagine disappearing into one of these dark passageways one night to emerge sometime in the 17th Century before returning to a pea-souper circa 1947.