John Walsh: Tales of the City

At the Cross Bones graveyard you can almost hear the outcast dead squeaking and gibbering
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Do you believe in the spirit of place? Do some areas and buildings seem to hum with menace when you walk near them, while other ones convey nothing except a neutral presence of bricks and mortar? Can it be true that the history of a house, a street or district can hang about in the air, like molecules of time, to be glimpsed or tasted or seen by visitors a century or two later?

The concept of "psycho-geography" has been kicked around a lot in the past decade - by such groovy believers and commentators as Peter Ackroyd, Iain Sinclair and Will Self - but I never thought it very believable until recent months, when I've found myself being haunted by London Bridge.

Not the bridge itself, of course - it was only built in 1972, and has scarcely had time to acquire any ghost-atoms - but the area around the station on the south side. I used to feel a bit freaked out when walking down Tooley Street because of the ancient doors of the London Dungeon, whose wax exhibits under great vaulted arches I could never quite stomach; but alarming sights have always assailed me south of the bridge. I've been to poetry readings in the Old Operating Theatre Museum beside Guy's Hospital, where unfortunate women had their limbs amputated without anaesthetic (many died of shock while it was being done). When I used to shop at Borough Market, before it became the foodie Mecca (and the location of Bridget Jones's flat in her first movie), the only hot food you could buy was a writhing fistful of pork chitterlings or pig guts, briskly fried. It reminded you of the days when people were hanged, drawn and quartered, and watched, presumably with interest, as their large intestine was fried in front of their eyes. I used to find Southwark Cathedral unsettling too - the way it's embedded in the old bank of the Thames, lurking under the approach road to the bridge like a gigantic troll in a fairy story.

Then, the other day, I was walking down Red Cross Street when I was stopped in my tracks, like thousands of passers-by before, at the spectacle before me. It's a great iron gate, about 30 feet long, in front of a concrete wasteland that extends over an acre. What's amazing, however, is the display of cards, papers, messages, ribbons, flower displays and votive lights attached to the iron railings, hundreds of little memorials, each carrying a name and date. The pathos of the gesture is clear when you discover that this is the Cross Bones, the largest prostitutes' graveyard in London, the final, unconsecrated resting-place of umpteen thousand London hookers over three centuries. They buried paupers here too, before the councils realised that being poor shouldn't mean that you're consigned to hell. They stopped incarcerating ladies of the night in here in the 1850s, and local authorities have since fought off attempts to build on it by developers. Moves are now afoot to put up a blue plaque and install a memorial garden there - but no hindsight compensation could eliminate the whiff of terminal gloom and desolation that hangs over the Red Cross Street morgue. You can practically hear the outcast dead squeaking and gibbering under the concrete, wondering why they're spending eternity bumping bony shoulders with 30,000 strangers. As I watched, I thought I felt a hand as cold as iron touch my face. I couldn't get out of there fast enough. Sometimes, to paraphrase Wordsworth, the past is too much with us.

I was back at London Bridge last weekend, to attend Amato Saltone, that avant-garde theatrical venture that's become a hot talking-point among London bohemians. Have you checked it out? This weird extravaganza begins at a modest entrance door just inside London Bridge Station, hard by the inoffensive Cornish Pasty franchise. Soon, you've left the modern world behind, and are walking down a dark passage with dank brick arches overhead, to emerge, 100 yards later, in a vast underground cavern with mirrors, pool tables and a bar. From here you're given a new identity and ushered into a room full of waiters, medics and a pregnant cabaret singer, where an alarming S&M party is in progress and you're told not to worry about where your clothes fall, because members of staff will clear them away. Then, as supplies of Vaseline and rubber sheeting are ferried ever-more-urgently through the crowd of apprehensive punters, a voice announces that, during an imminent power-cut, an act of unspeakable violence is about to happen...

The show is, in fact, an 80-minute tease, a mix-and-match selection of images and tropes from David Lynch, Hitchcock, Jean Genet, film noir and Buster Keaton, and its intention is to do hardly more than make your flesh creep. But that effect has already been comprehensively achieved in that first walk down the passage leading to the bar. The old Victorian train vaults - 70,000 square feet of them - are so huge, so scary, so blackened with fires, smoke and the patina of dirty history, they hover above your head like an evil canopy - the opposite of a cathedral's vaulted ceiling - and seem to assure you that, however much you imagine the passage of time will make the world a better place, the reality is this spooky, threatening dungeon, where time has congealed and turned septic. Of all the sights that conjure up the ancient metropolis - the Tower, St Paul's, the Law Courts, Tilbury - nothing does it so chillingly effectively as these bits of suspended history around London Bridge. For heaven's sake go and see them before the whole thing becomes a scrubbed-up theme park, and the Cross Bones is full of buxom actresses selling nosegays of lavender.

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