How many Londoners look up, from the level of the street, and survey the rooftops and attic storeys of the city where they will find evidence of accretion and decay from that time when London was rebuilt after the Great Fire?
One or two true city stories might suggest that this is not simply an antiquarian or theoretical pursuit. There is a nightclub in London - let us call it Windstone, for legal reasons - which has a reputation for being a haven of drugs and of various kinds of exotic sexual activities. I remembered Windstone Street, where it is located, very well; it is an utterly nondescript thoroughfare of modern offices and garages. Why should such a club be there, of all places? I did know that it was situated in a very old part of London and so, on instinct, I opened an Elizabethan survey of London and looked up Windstone Street - there it was, and I read that in the 14th and 15th centuries the same street was notorious for 'its Stewes and Brothels'. So there was, after all, a continuity.
There are other London connections.
Clerkenwell, for example, has been the centre of political radicalism ever since Wat Tyler stormed the priory of St John of Jerusalem in the 14th century. John Wilkes, best known for the slogan 'Wilkes and Liberty]', was born in Clerkenwell. The radical London Corresponding Society met in Clerkenwell. The Chartists began their demonstrations from Clerkenwell Green. The first of the Tolpuddle Martyrs to return to this country was greeted on that same Green by a large
crowd. Lenin worked in an office beside the Green. The printers of Clerkenwell were often denounced by the authorities for distributing 'Seditious and Blasphemous Literature'. The Karl Marx Library is there now. It would seem then, that in our city certain streets or areas seem able to sustain or perhaps even create identifiable patterns of life and activity.
One other example will suffice. The streets close to the British Museum, in particular Great Queen Street and Great Russell Street, have for many centuries been the home of occult or radical spiritual groups. The Theosophical Society had its headquarters opposite the museum, while the Order of the Golden Dawn met in Great Queen Street - that is also the street where the headquarters of the Freemasons was first established in the mid-18th century and where it remains, in altered circumstances, until this day. The Swedenborg Society is a few yards away, opposite Bloomsbury Square. You will find perhaps the most famous occult bookshop in England, The Atlantis Bookshop, in Museum Street while a few hundred yards away stands Equinox, the astrological book shop, in Neal Street. Here again are patterns of habitation and activity, in areas to which Henry James's words on Craven Street might be applied - 'packed to blackness with accumulations of suffered experience'.
Such a perception might once have been described as 'Dickensian', just as there are certain London characters who seem to have come 'straight out of Dickens'. Another process is at work, however; Dickens divined the central energies and continuities of the city which haunted - and still haunt - its inhabitants. He was simply giving expression to them. That is why it is possible to walk down a street and glimpse a face, or gesture, which seems to have sprung from some past time. These same gestures and movements, even the very words themselves, have been repeated and revived over many generations in that precise place. I have seen medieval faces, Elizabethan faces, 18th-century faces, and in that act of recognition I realised that in London it is possible to understand everything within the eye of eternity.
In my new novel, Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem, to be published in September, I have tried to bring all of these concerns - or visions - to some kind of conclusion.
I have mingled the life of the mid-19th-century music hall with the lives of certain scholars who used the Reading Room of the British Museum in that same period; I have introduced, too, the inhabitants of 19th-century Limehouse in the effort to discover patterns of activity which may be comic, or tragic, or pantomimic, or all combined. I have attempted to find my own lines of continuity and of activity within certain tightly defined areas of the city.
In the process I have stumbled across a clue which may help to guide us through the mighty labyrinth of London - we should not think of time as some endlessly running current, moving in only one direction; think of it, rather, as a lava flow from some unknown source of fire. Some parts move quicker than others, while other layers are diverted, cool, and eventually harden. That has happened in certain streets of our city - here we will find that time has hardened and come to an end. It is one of the great secrets of London but it is one, in time, that all of us may be able to share.
Peter Ackroyd's new novel, Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem, will be published by Sinclair-Stevenson on 12 September.
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