Speaking of places that have remained “objects of London fear,” Peter Ackroyd tells us, “It is believed the cries of drowned Jews, murdered in the great expulsion of 1290, can still be heard at low tide near Gravesend.” Excuse me. Who “still” believes this? And if they do indeed believe it, in what way does that belief affect them? Do they come staggering back to London, their hair turned white, their whole bodies shaking, and do they grasp our forearms with their bony fingers and say, “I too have heard it, the cries of the drowned Jews at Gravesend! It is without doubt the most horrifying sound in the world, and I shall take that terror with me to the grave!”
Or do they rather, settling into deep leathern armchairs by the fireside, and lighting a sturdy briar pipe from the fire with a spill, in their embroidered smoking jackets and tasseled caps and velvet slippers, and over a glass or two of the finest burgundy, as the flames leap in the grate, and the sweet smell of old sea-coal mingles with the tang of freshly buffed beeswax on fine mahogany furniture, as the peasouper swirls down Wardour Street outside, do they swirl the garnet-rich liquor in their goblets of finest crystal, as the cut glass glistens in the tantalus, and the cook lets herself out, shuddering, into the night, and a lone hansom (“driving as fast as the hansomeer thought consistent with public safety”—OED) comes clopping by—do they, these fatuous old bachelors of the 1890s, yarning and yawning away until the early hours, do they regale each other with tales of drowned Jews, in much the same spirit as they might chat about Flying Dutchmen? Are they, in other words, not entirely serious?
I think the latter, and I think that Ackroyd often has a twinkle in his eye, as when he tells us that “it is almost as if [London] were itself a spectral city, so filled with intimations of its past that it haunts its own inhabitants.” He finds something in one of the hundreds of ropy old books that he has consulted, and it makes him laugh, and he bangs it in: the first wooden idol, he informs us, was carved in Dagenham in 2200 BC. I beg leave to doubt this. “The dust of London was believed to clog the breathing and dull the senses of the omnipresent spiders”—people noticed, he would have us believe, that the London spiders had duller senses than their country cousins, and they attributed this fact to the effects of dust. In Roman London there were of course public baths, “and one lay in North Audley Street…. When workmen of the late nineteenth century discovered it in an underground arched chamber, it was still half-filled with water.” The implication, that they found Roman bathwater still in the bath, evaporates on closer inspection, but it lasts long enough to cause a smile.
The herb “spoonwart” makes an appearance, mingled with gold by some dubious doctor on page 131, and again as a “scurvy quack” remedy on page 199. It is enough to amuse—this herb that looks half like a spoon and half like a wart—but it is of course not a wart but a wort (a plant or herb), the grass Cochlearia officinalis, so the reference to “scurvy quacks” needs explaining. They must have been not scurvy knaves who pretended to be doctors but doctors for the scurvy who dealt in the genuine anti-scorbutic spoonwort, which is indeed rich in vitamin C and was rightly valued by mariners.
Ackroyd likes his facts to have a touch of the uncanny:
In the aftermath of the Great Fire emerged a yellow-flowering plant known as London Rocket and, in 1667 and 1668, “it grew very abundantly on the ruins around St. Paul’s”; it was seen again, in 1945, “just outside the City boundary.” It is the true flower of fire.
A flower that visits the city after a conflagration, and not, by faint implication, in between. But the flower of 1667–1668 turns out to have been different from that of 1945 (they are two different species of Sisymbrium, the first our common native Hedge Mustard and the second a rarer introduction called Eastern Rocket). The factoid vanishes under the merest threat of inspection.
Details…mere details. But the reader is entitled to know how many impossible things he is expected to believe before breakfast. For the book is a collation of details, in support of the thesis that is repeated in almost every chapter. The thesis is that however much London changes, it remains in essence the same. However much it may seem modern, its themes are ancient. The pagan Londoner carving his idol in Dagenham four millennia ago is to be thought of as much the same being as, for instance, the auto worker at Ford’s of Dagenham today. For “it is never wise to underestimate the atavistic elements of London life.”
“The persistent energy of the city,” Ackroyd writes, “has its own momentum which defies rational explication.” “This infinite motion has continued for more than a thousand years; fresh and ever renewed, it still partakes of antiquity…. This is the mystery—how can the endless rush itself be eternal? It is the riddle of London, which is perpetually new and always old.” Thackeray is held to suggest that “there were permanent and atavistic forces at work” in a crowd watching a hanging. John Milton “sat up half the night in his bed-chamber in Bread Street, his candle glimmering at the window, while he dreamed of ancient London and its founders.” On Clerkenwell Green,
the remains of a prehistoric settlement or encampment have been discovered, suggesting that this area of London has been continuously inhabited for many thousands of years. Perhaps the melancholy or ancientness which writers as diverse as George Gissing and Arnold Bennett have intuited, in this location, derives from the weariness of prolonged human settlement with all the cares and woes which it brings.
The deity you must subscribe to, in order to get the full value from this book (which, I ought to emphasize, contains much that is great fun), is the genius loci. You must really believe, or at least be prepared to entertain the belief provisionally, that there is a force in a given geographical area which has caused its inhabitants, over the centuries, to repeat certain patterns of behavior—to be down and out near St. Giles in the Fields, the site of Hogarth’s Gin Lane, or to be disposed toward radicalism in the area of Clerkenwell. Much of what Ackroyd says about either of these areas appears to be true, but if the falseness of the intellectual apparatus distracts you, you may lose patience. Is the author deceiving himself or us in a paragraph such as this?
A true Londoner will tell you that there is no reason to travel when you have the unexplored mysteries of the city all about you; a walk down Farringdon Road, or Leather Lane, will give you as much cause for wonder and surprise as any street in Paris or Rome. “I do not understand my own city,” you might say, “so why travel elsewhere in search of novelty?” There is always a sense of strangeness in London, to be experienced around unexpected corners and in unknown streets. As Arthur Machen said, “It is utterly true that he who cannot find wonder, mystery, awe, the sense of a new world and an undiscovered realm in the places by the Gray’s Inn Road will never find those secrets elsewhere, not in the heart of Africa.”
This recommendation to the Londoner to stay at home, to forgo the rue de Rivoli or the chance to eat out in Trastevere in favor of the undisclosable mysteries of Farringdon Road will no doubt fall on deaf ears. If it came once, one would put it down to bad writing (perverse seduction by the tropes of travel literature). But it is so of a piece with the rest of the book that it counts as bad thinking. It seems to come from writers such as G.K. Chesterton, who is quoted as remarking:
The narrowest street possesses, in every crook and twist of its intention, the soul of the man who built it, perhaps long in his grave. Every brick has as human a hieroglyph as if it were a graven brick of Babylon: every slate of the roof is as educational a document as if it were a slate covered with addition and subtraction sums.
And Chesterton again, “All the forces which have produced the London sky have made something which all Londoners know, and which no one who has never seen London has ever seen.” It was Chesterton too, we learn, who, traveling the Circle Line on the London Underground, “noticed that the names of St. James’s Park, Westminster, Charing Cross, Temple, Blackfriars ‘are really the foundation stones of London: and it is right that they should (as it were) be underground’ since ‘all bear witness to an ancient religion.’” It’s that warmed-up atavism again, that whiff of burgundy and brown leather, that play of firelight on fine bindings, that late-night memo to the late-Victorian self: “Item: to purchase 1 stick moustache wax, 1 tin snuff, and 3 large tubs Ackroyd’s Patent Pomade.”