Wednesday, 20 August 2014

London Charm (Collected and Abridged)

London is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. This is not a new thing. It didn't start when black people arrived here from the Caribbean back in the fifties; it has been going on as long as the capital has rested by the Thames. It is, rightly or wrongly, the latter in my opinion, the heart of the UK, of Britain. It is the captial of the financial world and some would even venture is fast becoming the capital of the world. 

That throb of life has left its mark. London is both acerbic and thrilling. It has evolved from having so many variants of humanity tread its ancient streets leaving their mark as they go.

I also think that its history gives rise to all the mythical cities you sometimes see in science fiction. Batman's Gotham for example appears to bear, albeit with a slightly warped, sci-fi twist, a remarkable likeness in flavour with its dens on inequity and its violent crime to London of old.

Whenever you visit "The Smokes" you will find posters attached to every available wall space. This one comes from another time, another age, another era.

The London of then is still here if hidden somewhat behind the ever changing, alarming even, rise of modernity that is constantly trying to supplant it. Many modern buildings carry a weight that will last forever but many others don't. London is forever changing, growing, mutating. The one constant in The Smoke is the smell of brick dust as monuments fall while others rise.

In the middle of the eighteenth century Gin became the tipple favoured by virtually all Londoner’s. It was cheap, being locally distilled, and very easy to come by. As with all things readily available and inexpensive its popularity grew to massive proportions until what had been thought of as nothing but a reasonable way of enjoying oneself became a lurid way of getting blind drunk. The following drawing, as created by William Hogarth, brilliantly illustrates how bad this addiction became. You can see the mother who in the act of breast feeding and so badly inebriated, drops her baby which tumbles to its death on the cobblestones below.

As you enter Silvertown, or even as you wait for the ferry crossing that takes you over the Thames from North Woolwich to its south London counterpart, Woolwich, you can smell the molasses that are being used to manufacture sugar at the Tate and Lyle factory. It is an aroma that is heavy and, as you might think, sweet – a cloying, pervading odour that isn’t as pleasant as you would have first thought.

There has been a ferry at Woolwich since the 14th century. It is a free service taking cars and passengers from the north side to the south. Seagulls flock cawing and wheeling. The sea is forty five miles away but they come in land in search of food.

Tate and Lyle are, it strikes me, as old as the hills. Their name has been part of my life and these islands history for what seems forever. In point of fact they have existed since 1875. Odd to think my paternal Grandfather was born in 1878.

Silvertown is one of the few truly industrial working areas in London. It has changed since the heyday of the docks but still that memory lingers. The homes here are commonplace having been built for the working man. However, just down the road right next to the Sir Steve Redgrave Bridge are the modern apartments for England’s ever growing middle class to gaze over the river. What was once utilitarian is rapidly becoming cosmetic chic.

The music hall played a vital part in entertaining Londoner's. Not only was it a good night spent listening to your favourite bawdy songs but you could get a half decent meal at the same time. Unlike the theatre which primarily existed then, as it does today, over in the West End, the musical hall was a more robust, rounded and working persons venu with halls scattered throughout the East End and beyond. It was a knees up and no mistake but it was much more than just that. It was a form of early variety the pre-dated that particular style long before it was seen on television  
It was a form of entertainment that would find little favour today. The bawdy nature of the songs sung by the likes of Marie Lloyd and the near the knuckle humour of Dan Leno would seem crude and unsophisticated to a modern audience but then again some sheep bleat louder than others. 
One of the extant theatres that presented such promiscuous pastimes was Wilton's Music Hall. It still stands on the same spot it occupied in its glorious halcyon heyday. You can even take a tour around if you have half a mind too.

Below is the outside door entrance to Wilton's Music Hall

Henry Mayhew wrote a book entitled "London Labour and the London Poor" in the 1840's. What he observed was less a city and more a nightmarish megalopolis that chimed with ruin but depicted some depraved futuristic other world. Here, in small part, is what he published...

"The pavement and the road are crowded with purchasers and street-sellers. The housewife in her thick shawl, with the market-basket on her arm, walks slowly on, stopping now to look at the stall of caps, and now to cheapen a bunch of greens. Little boys, holding three or four onions in their hand, creep between the people, wriggling their way through every interstice, and asking for custom in whining tones, as if seeking charity. Then the tumult of the thousand different cries of the eager dealers, all shouting at the top of their voices, at one and the same time, is almost bewildering. “So-old again,” roars one. “Chestnuts all‘ot, a penny a score,” bawls another. “An ‘aypenny a skin, blacking,” squeaks a boy. “Buy, buy, buy, buy, buy-- bu-u-uy!” cries the butcher. “Half-quire of paper for a penny,” bellows the street stationer. “An ‘aypenny a lot ing-uns.” “Twopence a pound grapes.” “Three a penny Yarmouth bloaters.” “Who‘ll buy a bonnet for fourpence?” “Pick ‘em out cheap here! three pair for a halfpenny, bootlaces.” “Now‘s your time! beautiful whelks, a penny a lot.” “Here‘s ha‘p‘orths,” shouts the perambulating confectioner. “Come and look at ‘em! here‘s toasters!” bellows one with a Yarmouth bloater stuck on a toasting-fork. “Penny a lot, fine russets,” calls the apple woman: and so the Babel goes on."

St. Pauls still stands gazing imperious upon Fleet Street and environs. The traffic is less dense, less noisy but still vibrant with a hustle and bustle that all modern cities in the West now have. The only modern comparison for the nineteenth century London I can think of is in India. Bangalore perhaps.

A Banksy Masterpiece from a wall somewhere in London

They come, these wonderful Londoners, in all shapes and sizes, in all shades and colours; an odd mix or races and creeds that nestle next to each other in what is the most cosmopolitan city of them all.

Each face describes a life lived as if the City, with its multi-faceted, global reach has somehow etched its grainy history into each crows foot, each laughter line. These people are the rock steady beat that pulses through the shops and stores, the arcades and alleyways, the factories and parks. London lives its own life with the humans that inhabit it nothing more than passing traffic but like the carts and cars that have gone before they leave their mark
Celts, Romans, Iceni, Anglo-Saxons, Danes, Norsemen, Normans; Jews, Africans, West Indians, Asians: Indians and Bangladeshi’s, Irish, Scot’s, Welsh, Chinese, Japanese, Italians, French. They have arrived on ships that docked at Wapping, on long boats that sailed from the north, from aeroplanes that carried them from far off lands. Some came by invitation, some as invaders and some uninvited but all have added to the rich wealth of culture that pervades the City, our Capital, our London.

And some even come naked...

Londoners bare all in celebration of World Naked Bike Ride

Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.


Faycin A Croud said...

Although he was apparently an awful ass of a person, at least where his wife was concerned, on a literary level Charles Dickens will always be one of my favorite authors. I think he did a wonderful job of telling the truth about Victorian England. Not that I lived at the time, but his work always seemed so brutally authentic, showing both the beauty and the harshness of London.
Congratulations on the publishers' interest in your book, and I hope things continue to progress!

Russell Duffy said...

Dickens was a fool when it came to his lover. He seemed smitten by her to the detriment of his marriage. Yes, he got that awful period nailed as it was. Great clothes (some of them anyway), great manners, fantastic time IF you were rich. Of course Dicken's became rich, a lot of it thanks to you guys, but he started off poor.

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A Utility Fish Shed Blog

A Utility Fish Shed Blog