Cockney Visionaries

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Dan Leno, the great pantomime dame, comic and music hall star, known as 'the funniest man on earth', died in London on the last day of October 1904. On the occasion of his funeral, many thousands of Londoners lined the streets of the city. They were mourning a man who had represented for them their lives and their condition; in his role as a chop-house waiter, a grass widow, a lady of the old school, or simply One Of The Unemployed, he came to symbolise all the life and energy and variety of the city itself. I like to think of him as being buried beneath one of the great halls where he performed - the Old Mo in Drury Lane, the Panorama in Shoreditch, the Cambridge in Bishopsgate - while above him roars for ever what Thomas De Quincey called 'the uproar of unresting London'. Now, of course, Dan Leno is quite forgotten. His name and reputation have been swallowed up by the silence of the grave.

So why now, at the end of the 20th century, should I wish to resurrect him? Why should I want to call him back to a city - his city - which seems to have changed beyond all recognition? I do so precisely because it has not changed. He would recognise it well enough. He would recognise the faces of Londoners, always so familiar to him. He would understand their expressions, their gestures, their moods. Of course there have been and will always be modifications. I have lived here all my life, and I have witnessed the developments, the rebuilding, the violence, the riots, the whole continual process of urban existence. I want to define that process, and to describe those London luminaries and Cockney visionaries who in their art have expressed the true nature and spirit of the place.

This is not an easy matter, because the cultural traditions of London have largely gone unrecognised or unacknowledged. When I studied literature as a young man, I was told, for example, that there was no real theatre in 19th-century London, except for a few rather grotesque Shakespearean revivals. But if someone had just scratched the surface they would have found penny-gaffs, music halls, patent theatres, blood tubs, Gothic dramas, pantomimes, the routines in the song-and-supper rooms and in the free-and-easies. Instead we were invited to read the dramatic monologues of the poet Robert Browning as the next best thing to real drama. But at this late date something has become very clear to me: the theatrical monologues of Dan Leno are as interesting, and certainly more comic, than anything you will find in Browning.

Let me take another example. For many centuries there has been a tradition in London of what were called monopolylinguists: in other words, comedians or actors who play a number of quick-change parts in the course of one performance. In the 18th century, Samuel Foote had a comic routine, Tea at the Haymarket, in which he satirised a variety of London types. His act affected writers as diverse as Samuel Johnson and William Blake. His successor in the early 19th century was Charles Mathews, who so impressed and influenced Charles Dickens that the novelist discussed him endlessly. But you will find nothing of this particular and native London art form in any of the standard reference books, even though it is one that has carried on into our own time in the routines of impersonators and stand-up comics.

You may think I have been talking about the past, but all the time I am talking about the present. I am describing what is all around us, if we cared to see it.

Let me mention one last example of the London spirit that goes unrecognised. In my university days we were encouraged to read the poets of the late 19th century - Johnson, Dowson, the early Yeats, and so on. They were the strange fruit in that hothouse known as the fin de siecle. But, for real pathos and diversity, the scholar or critic should turn to the tunes of the London halls. These are songs that still retain enormous power and feeling. Who could fail to be moved by songs like 'My Shadow is My Only Pal', or 'When These Old Clothes Were New'? Who could fail to be amused by 'Why Don't We Have the Sea in London' or 'I Don't Suppose He'll do it Again for Months and Months and Months'? If London could be turned into an allegorical personage in some neoclassical extravaganza, it would be heard singing these songs. These are the true melodies of London.

I call them true melodies because they come very close to the kind of theatricality that I believe to be an intrinsic and necessary aspect of the London genius. They possess that spirit of place. When I talk about theatricality, however, I am not necessarily talking only about the theatre, I am talking about a particular London sensibility that derives its energy from variety, from spectacle, and from display. I am talking about a sensibility in which pathos and comedy, high tragedy and low farce, are effortlessly combined. The two greatest London novelists Henry Fielding and Charles Dickens were steeped in that sense of life. Of course they were both practising playwrights as well as novelists, but, what is more important, their fiction is saturated with the conventions of the theatre. Then there is another great Cockney visionary, the painter Turner. He was born just off Covent Garden, and many critics have analysed his debt to theatrical scenery as well as to the great London dioramas. He said himself that he got his inspiration for one of his greatest paintings, Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus, from a pantomime song in a little piece of stage business called Melodrame Mad. The influence of the music hall, you see, is everywhere.

Of course there is that other Cockney visionary, William Blake. He was born in Broad Street, and left London only once in his life. He really had no need to go anywhere else: he saw, literally saw, the universe here. Perhaps we all can, if we look hard enough. Now I have already mentioned Blake's debt to the stand-up comedians of his period, but I have also been struck by the extent to which his great Prophetic Books reflect the Gothic dramas that were played at the London patent theatres in his lifetime.

I have called them Cockney visionaries - Dickens, Blake, Turner. I could have chosen others, but I wanted to give you the benefit of a novelist, a poet and a painter to suggest to you a particular London spirit that entered them and a particular London presence that surrounded them.

Perhaps I may be allowed a brief passage of autobiography. I was brought up on a council house estate in west London. It was the very best start in life I could possibly have had because somehow, from an early age, the city became the landscape of my imagination. You don't have to be brought up in a grand house to have a sense of the past, and I truly believe that there are certain people to whom or through whom the territory - the place, the past - speaks. I often wondered where my novels came from - or, rather, I knew where they came from - but I never understood why they took the form they did. I am always being accused of mixing the comic with the serious, of creating theatrical caricatures, of treating fiction as if it were some kind of intellectual or cultural pantomime. This puzzled me because I really couldn't help myself. It just happened. Now, at last, I know why it happened. I was coming into my inheritance.

And what could it be but the inheritance of these Cockney visionaries, Blake, Turner and Dickens? All of them were preoccupied with light and darkness, in a city that is built in the shadows of money and power; all of them were entranced by the scenic and the spectacular, in a city that is continually filled with the energetic display of people and institutions. They understood the energy of London, they understood its variety, and they also understood its darkness. But they are visionaries because they represented the symbolic dimensions of existence in what Blake called 'Infinite London' - in this vast concourse of people they understood the pity and mystery of existence just as surely as they understood its noise and its bustle. They were all, by the way, dismissed by contemporary reviewers as being out of touch with reality - can you imagine it? Turner and Blake were derided as madmen, while Dickens was condemned as a feeble remnant of his younger self. I am sure that the judgement of contemporary reviewers is very much higher, although sometimes just the tiniest shadow of a doubt crosses one's mind.

It has often struck me, for example, how for centuries there has been one sure distinction within London culture. There has always been a journalistic and intellectual establishment which likes to think of itself as being fashionable or even enlightened. It forms an informal circle of what might be called bien pensants, or, in the cliche of our day, the politically correct. These are the people who parrot whatever the conventional wisdom might be, and support the shallow-minded artists who reflect it in their work. But in London there has always been a stronger and more significant tradition - it is that of the energetic, individualistic and unfashionable artists who, more often than not, turn out to be native Londoners. They may be right-wing reactionaries or apolitical anarchists, but they so unceremoniously reject the values of the standard intellectual culture that they are discounted, attacked, or marginalised. It happened to Blake, it happened to Turner, it happened to Dickens in the last half of his literary career. The newspaper critics disliked precisely those qualities of the Cockney visionaries which were essential to their vision of the city. They disliked their energetic display. They disliked the variety they provided. They deplored Turner's 'visionary absurdities' and 'crude theatrical blotches', just as they condemned Dickens's theatrical caricatures. They also condemned Dickens for mixing the tragic with the comic, just as they despised Blake for mixing the spiritual with the material. They detested what is an essentially Cockney vision. Dickens called it the 'streaky bacon' effect, and revelled in it.

I believe I am describing London in almost a religious sense, although I cannot be sure what particular religion it is. Someone once said that cities are always pagan places, and there is a great truth in that. When we contemplate Dan Leno dressed up as Mother Goose, we may be considering something very pagan indeed.

And there is another point here, too. The London visionaries I have been discussing are not necessarily ethical or moral artists. They are not necessarily concerned with the minutiae of the human psyche, or with debates about values and beliefs. They tend to favour spectacle and melodrama and the energetic exploitation of whatever medium they are employing. As city writers and artists, they are more concerned with the external life, with the movement of crowds, with the great general drama of the human spirit. They have a sense of energy and splendour, of ritual and display, which may have little to do with ethical judgement or the exercise of moral consciousness. That is why the more intellectual critics, for example, hated Dickens so much. These Cockney visionaries have a powerful sense of the sacred, but in the darkness in Dickens's novels or in the light of Turner's paintings there may be something as pagan as Mother Goose. You remember that when Turner died, in Chelsea, his last words are supposed to have been 'The sun is God'.

There is an irrepressible energy and exuberance here that seems characteristic of great London artists, as if they knew they were part of something much larger than their own selves. When Blake lay on his deathbed, in a small courtyard off the Strand, he died singing. But these are not fashionable notions now. There is a problem in talking about truly religious artists - of being a religious artist - in a predominantly secular world.

I have, I suppose, been considering the possibility of something we might call chronological resonance within the city itself. Just as it seems possible to me that a street or dwelling can materially affect the character and behaviour of the people who dwell in them, is it not also possible that within this city and within its culture are patterns of sensibility or patterns of response which have persisted from the 13th and 14th centuries and perhaps even beyond? Does the passage of the city through time create its own energies that exert a pressure upon our perceptions and our understandings, which is all the more powerful for being normally overlooked?

Some might think of it as constricting, but for me it is liberating - as liberating as the return home after a long period in another country. There is such a thing as homesickness, after all; it is the need for belonging, for continuity. And what greater or more enduring home can we have than the culture which has created us? The truth is that if we lose sight of our city - if we lose sight of our inheritance - then we lose sight of our own selves as well.

This is an edited extract from LWT's London Lecture 1993, to be broadcast tomorrow on LWT at 11.20pm. Peter Ackroyd's latest book is 'The House of Dr Dee'.

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