After the last note of a symphony is sounded, the entire work lingers and we look anew at the world. We turn away from La Gioconda and her lips move as she speaks to us. Close a book, the words rest in the mind and we frame the image.
Such is the human propensity to give and to receive.
But the story of London is incomplete.
Peter Ackroyd’s scholarly and vivid work is full to the brim with fascination, long history and variety.
From the pride in antiquity so understated that its founding symbol, the London Stone – linked maybe with Brutus or Troy – is found sunk obscurely into a wall in Cannon Street, to the degradation, crime and corruption of a city which means so much to me, I sought the personality of this living monster, this killer of grandmothers, this seducer of fathers, this national identifier and international enigma.
Ugliness and beauty, wealth and poverty in the extremes, justice and arbitrariness, fairness and corruption, cruelty and compassion all react in one volatile, explosive mass. Horror combines with assurance, risk with security, destitution with pioneering spirit, disease or desperation with promise, rebellion and acceptance, eternity with finality and dejected resignation, loss with discovery. The noise, the noise.
Take the bland office buildings and sandwich bars in Fetter Lane, for instance, and discover the hidden suffering and courage, the persecution of protestant and catholic alike, the gallows at both ends, the first Inn of Chancery and its origins, all now disappeared below. Or ponder upon the Abbey founded by Edward the Confessor at Westminster, where the Thames was forded, and where pagan religion and mystery still infuse the soul of the nation.
Choose between the outward beauties or the ravages and filth of the millenia now concealed. Consider how fires and pestilence, war and neglect were not enough to quell its spirit, how the sum is a never-ending theatricality in reality – hear the stunned silence in the crowd after a public execution as the pickpockets operate, how business resumes and the corpse is fought over. Know that Pudding Lane, site of the baker’s shop where the Great Fire of 1666 began, is named after the excrement carried down in leaky carts to the dung barges moored in the Thames. Then you may see how the native is obsessed in a love-hate for his home and how it is a template for the gamut of human experience, ignorance and knowledge, a dark nightmare of insanity, a fantasy dreamland of colour and extremes, a sanctuary of calm, modest courage and reason. Its ancient inheritances bubble up here, there and everywhere but never expectedly, like the ancient artefacts forever being unearthed from its disinterred bowels, disturbed for unceasing growth and expansion. A blank face to an unknowing world, a world drawn by its magnetic influences, evil and benign. Order shields life and chaos, for passivity is the toll of death.
Unceasing in international trade since the Thames was spanned in the first century AD – though its Celtic and bronze age relics disclose origins long before – its markets for mammon and stomach evolved into markets of money itself, secured by the great bullion hoards of the Bank of England. The spread of wealth to the north, south and west and the hegemony of global finance colonised and all but obliterated the massive river port, dense with sea traffic and cargo to the east.
An independence derives from the power of its commerce, relied upon, to this day, by the country at large, the constitutional monarchy and the national government even, such that it retains the character, say, of an Italian city state. Seafaring begat navigation, navigation begat astronomy, astronomy begat scientific discovery. spurred by Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum. See for yourself at Greenwich.
And wealth led to the cleansing and lighting of streets, great building projects, magnificent public and institutional buildings, churches greater in number than any city in Europe – a city viewed by Canaletto from Westminster Bridge as Italianate, masking a wretchedness and poverty on every street corner – devastated by German bombs. The centre of international trade, London became the centre of empire, but also a dream of democracy, freedom, justice, mercy and equality before the law, standards marred by human trafficking and the bloodthirsty spectacle of those public hangings all over the city as well as at the ancient site of Tyburn.
A city that rose again many times from the ashes. Moscow, did you know, was rebuilt, after Napoleon burned it, on London ash, ash gathered from a rubbish dump at King’s Cross and, inevitably, sold for profit.
Food stalls with excrement stored beneath, ubiquitous, scruffy coffee houses requisitioned for business, the city guilds, the fairs, festivals and street musicians, all with echoes to the present day.
So the story must continue, and I must continue to read.
[Images reproduced from the book]